It’s been one year already. One year since I packed up and moved away from gloomy Brussels and into sunny Barcelona.
One year that flew by, as I purposefully neglected Spain’s gems and instead fell in love with South Africa, Indonesia, and soon New Zealand.
But as the end of the year draws near, so will my travels. And I guarantee you this much: Spain will shine in the spotlight of the year to come, in colors you’ve never seen it wear before!
I figured gorgeous Besalú with its matching, picture perfect neighboring friends will make for a wonderful start or that journey – and an easy day trip from Barcelona.
Prepare to be taken by surprise by a Spain few people know:
Medieval Gems: Besalú
One of the best preserved medieval villages in Catalunya and across Spain, Besalú is a beautiful métis child of Romanesque, Gothic and Medieval influences.
This is an area brimming with history: from Roman ruins, to Middle Age churches and rich Jewish history, to tumultuous fights between Catalan nobles.
The Viejo bridge is the emblem of Besalu.
Destroyed and rebuilt several times, what’s most interesting about this bridge – and the first thing you’ll notice – is its shape: not running straight, its arcs uneven, and resting foundation on big, natural rocks nestled in the riverbed.
Early birds that we were, we caught the village as it was waking up, with no tourists in sight. The walk was as peaceful as it would’ve been on a Sunday morning in the 1400s, villagers enjoying their rest day or devotedly attending the mass.
If it weren’t for my camera, we might have just passed for locals!
Our guide had lived in Besalu for a while, so she happily went off script, regaling us with a lot of funny stories while we strolled the cobbled streets; like that of the villager who had a wolf for a pet. (Don’t worry, the 90% wolf was well taken care of, with daily half-day walks in the wild.)
Besalu is more than its bridge and medieval legacy. You’ll also find modern artwork on its history clad streets.
Part of an international art exhibition, these chairs are unusually placed on the stone wall, as if climbing towards the sky. Hard to reach, speaking volumes about the struggles we have to overcome every day.
An Unexpected MicroUniverse
Who would have thought that a quaint medieval village in Catalunya would be home to such a peculiar museum: Micromundi
Similar to the Miniature Museum in Prague, Besalu’s Micromundi is possibly the smallest museum you’ll set foot in. It has a permanent exhibition spread into 3 rooms:
- the first is home to 2000 objects, made 12 times smaller than the real size.
- the 2nd room goes smaller, with objects made in 100 to 500 times smaller than the real size. Among others, you’ll see a miniature elephant balancing on the tip of a needle!
- it’s door nr. 3 that takes you further down the rabbit hole & into the world of incredible microminiature, with creations up to 100.000 times smaller than reality.
You’ll want to take your time studying the intricacies of these miniatures, some of which will make you shake your head in disbelief!
Artistic value aside, you cannot not admire the level of skill, patience, and devotion involved in this level of craftsmanship. The only thing missing is the story of each micro-object.
Turns out this particular Spanish gem has been treacherously revealed to the outside world, so it’s not so hidden anymore.
On our way out of the bridge that morning, it was as if the Gates of Tourism Hell had broken open: there were buses and buses with people, coming in for a visit of the medieval village: tourists from France, organized trips from Barcelona, locals.. an overwhelming sight.
Visit this medieval village now, before it turns into Disneyland…
A good time to visit Besalú is during the first weekend of September, when the city dresses up to celebrate its annual medieval festival. During the festivities, locals change into clothes from a forgotten era and prepare to enjoy the troubadours and knights.
Keep in mind though: It will get packed.
Living on the Edge
Resuming our exploration we headed to Castellfollit de la Roca, where we were regaled with this view:
Part of the Garrotxa Volcanic Area Nature reserve, Castellfollit de la Roca stands perched on a fifty-meter tall basaltic cliff, in between two riverbeds and its only cul de sac street is one kilometer long.
Many thousands of years ago, flowing lava from volcanic eruptions, together with the erosive action of the two rivers formed a basalt crag – where the village lies today.
Most of the buildings in the area have been built with volcanic black rock. And if you ask me, that’s the real culprit of the villages’ photogenic charm.
For museum aficionados, you will find two in Castellfollit de la Roca – the Sausage Museum. And if that wasn’t strange enough, you also have the Museum of Vietnam.
Besides that, there’s not much to see or do in the village itself, so tourists often snap a pano photo and are on their way. Which is precisely why you should stop here for a walk.
The peace & calm of this gem hidden in plain sight will be enough to put you in a great medieval mood.
Chilling in Santa Pau
With not more than 1500 inhabitants, Santa Pau was the third village we visited, and my personal favorite.
You’ll find the same checkered stone buildings, along with a stupendous medieval castle, sadly left to ruins because it’s private property.
The emblem of this village is a small, white bean called fesols in Catalan. Then I realized: I actually knew its eastern cousin, the Romanian fasole!
Santa Pau is a great outpost for some great treks and nature walks, so make sure to get your comfy shoes on, if you’re planning to spend a few days in the area.
Walking in a Volcano’s Caldera
Part of a now-dormant chain, the Santa Margarida volcano now dressed as a green hill raises to almost 700 meters and, seen from above, is quite a view.
If hiking is not your thing, there are hot air balloon rides in the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, where you can sip on a flute of cava while you enjoy the green silence – perfecting the art of stillness that the volcanoes have practiced for the last 10000 years.
Nestled in the heart of the caldera, a small and modest Romanesque chapel marks the center of the once active volcano.
The hike up is popular amongst locals, who will often have family picnics in the crater. In fact, the volcano seemed particularly vivacious that day. The small Romanesque style chapel lays abandoned, but still looking pretty in pictures.
The small Romanesque style chapel lays abandoned, still looking pretty in pictures.
Susanna told us how, in search of a house to buy, she once stumbled upon an old property which came with half a volcano as your private stretch of land! Your own little piece of paradise… yes, I could see that work.
Banyoles lake was our last stop before heading back to Girona. Another destination favored by locals, who were lazily hanging around the lake with family and kids.
On the way to Banyoles, we learned that because the lake was the largest and deepest in the area, it made for a good diving spot to practice becoming rescue divers. We were also told that water visibility is very poor.
So imagine our surprise when we got there with a murky lake in mind, and were met by this view:
Convinced Yet? Logistics
Driving to Besalu and surrounding area is easy, 1h30 from Barcelona and only 30 minutes away from Girona.
If you can’t drive your way in, consider taking the AVE train from Barcelona (Sants station) which takes 40 minutes to get to Girona. You’ll find local buses there, although the options are pretty limited. The other option is to hop on local tour like we did.
I recommend Girona Experience for their excellent small group tours.
Go out of bustling Barcelona & packed Costa Brava.
Visit Spain in a Medieval mood.
You’ll enjoy it immensely.