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Espana Verde and Catalonia – Autumnal Road Trip

After a ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, and a fairly bleak drive through France with a stop in Tranche la Sur Mer, we headed down to San Sebastian, where we stayed at Congress Arulli Hotel near old town, and we headed into the Old Town – famous for its Pintxos – to see why the area is so well-known for its food. We love this way of eating! The first bar we went into we picked up a few samples of piled up bread and the waitress’s recommendation of the sea urchin served in its shell with cheese, along with dry Spanish white wine. We wandered around popping in whenever a place looked appealing. Another amazing experience was in a bar where we also ordered squid ink and squid rice, and calamari.

With an unexpected second day in San Sebastian due to car trouble, the next day we sat in a beach side café drinking cappuccinos and watching people swim in the rough waves, and then walked around the headland by Old Town and soaked ourselves watching the waves crash against the sea walls. Then for lunch and a bottle of red wine at Txuleta to dry off, checking into our hotel, and going back out for pintxos again.

After sprinting to breakfast in a hipster café we were back on the bus again to pick up the van and head to El Caracol – the house swap we were staying in near Lledo in the mountains towards the East coast of Spain. It was a long 4 and a half hour journey but parts of the drive were so beautiful – taking us through mountain sides coated with mossy ever green trees, spattered with the occasional burnt oranges and vibrant yellows signalling the autumn season. As we got closer to the house, the mountains were separated by olive groves and vineyards – lines of soft greens with the intermittent rubies of vines transitioning into their darker months.

The house is tucked away on a mountain side, deliberately camouflaged the rusty colour of the sandy Spanish soil – a curved ball shape replicating the shell of its name “El Caracol” (The Snail). The chimney was sending puffs of smoke into the cool evening air, giving hope that it might be warmer inside which wasn’t met. The house, however, is amazing – concrete both polished and raw forms the walls of the “shell”, downstairs floor and work tops, while heavy steel work provides structure to the mezzanine floor and the vast window looking out over the teardrop sky-reflecting infinity pool, spilling into the mountainous view. We snuggled up next to the fire with a bottle of local vino blanco until the family arrived to welcome us in, when we fielded questions from the children going to the boat about whether their lives were particularly at risk from shark bite induced ship wrecking. We advised it’s unlikely in London.

The next day we headed to Santuari de Font Calda, a monastery built with local stone and blending into the Spainish soil, alongside a gorge with a “hot spring” which turned out to be a tiny turquoise pool filled with fish, alongside much cooler, deeper ivy-leaf green pools throughout the gorge. We walked up along the grey rocks through thick foliage and autumn trees, taking a brief paddle in some icy water.

We tried to find somewhere to eat but the local towns were clearly reduced in atmosphere for the low season, so a quick sandwich in a bar with a mountain view in the town of Arnes was enough for us. Autumn trips are a trade off between avoiding the crowds but getting the most out of a place. We spent the rest of the evening drinking local wines and eating squid and tuna steak – seafood in Spain is muy bien.

We drove two and a half hours into Barcelona to stay at Hotel Ohla – a stylish central place with unusual art on the walls and a pool on its roof over-looking the city. The harbour reflected a beautiful silver blue in the water between the huge yachts as we wandered around, before going to meet a friend in her local area (San Antoni?) for a mini food tour as local bars and restaurants were putting on a variety of tapas dishes with a little beer for 2.50 EUR. Later in the evening we went to the roof top bar of our hotel for a glass of fizz over-looking the city at night.

The next day started with a brief dip in the icy roof pool, followed by a sauna and lazy buffet breakfast. We then walked to the Segrada Familia and took an audio tour of the building – an incredible work of architecture covered with carvings of biblical stories. The interior is designed to resemble a forest with columns branching out to support the ceiling. Stained glass windows are coloured to resemble the lighting of sunrise on the East side and sunset on the West, so the white-grey of the stone structure is filled with coloured light. We walked on to the main market and ate grilled squid and patatas bravas in a little restaurant by the bar.

Back at El Caracol, we visited Les Olles – a trail of beautiful pools flowing into one another, jewel shades from vibrant turquoise to darkest emerald, with maiden hair ferns lining the edges of natural ledges shading caves. We jumped into deep sun lit pools naked in the empty silence of a deserted valley. The water was crystal and icy, enlivening every nerve of your surface and leaving you fizzing with life as you emerged from the water. Few things make you feel so energised.

Feeling quite lazy from the holiday so far, we drove an hour or so to the peak of Mount Caro and walked a 10k loop around its fellow peak. The birdlife here is incredible, with wakes of vultures swirling hurricane-like and unnervingly morbid over the forests. The path of the hike starts out clearly weaving steeply downwards through depths of greenery, but we immediately met an issue in following the written description of the walk as we reached a clearly snapped off finger post which should have marked the first turning we should take. The mountainside forests are incredible with tall grey barked pines topped mossy green, set in huge grey rock valleys. The paths are almost completely invisible most of the time, and the route is marked vaguely by occasional red paint, leading us to repeatedly lose our way as we went. We ended up on a ledge looking out across the valley over an atmospheric stark skeleton of a tree leading the eye to the life of the forest below it.

The route leads on to another mountain peak, only accessed through rock climbing 10 metres or so on to it’s flat top. It’s not a difficult climb, but the view of the drop to your side is enough to send shocks through to your fingers as you focus on the hand holds infront of you. The view is incredible – with the Mediterranean sea in the far distance and agricultural landscape below the mountains. An eagle was gliding solo over the mountain top, and suddenly as we were watching the view quietly, an ibex sprinted forwards with its kid – the curves of its horns silhouetted darkly against the hazy blues and greens of the view. They paused at the edge of the flat mountain top, before descending out of sight.

Another adrenalin-spike climbing back down and we continued on into more misty routes, faintly anxious about the invisible route and impending end of the day light, but feeling exhilarated.

The next couple of days here we spent sunbathing, reading, swimming at Toll de Vidre, and eating at El Convent – a hotel restaurant in a 17thcentury convent. Beautiful food and very good service.

We decided to move on from the house – it had been an amazing but quite lazy stay which isn’t our usual holiday. Back to the north coast of Spain for some surfing in the Noja area for Robin, and running along the coastline and swimming for me. We went into Bilbao on the evening of the 24th and went to the Guggenheim museum – an amazing silver fish building on the edge of a river. The building was designed on the concept of the atrium representing its “heart” with artery paths leading out into exhibition spaces. The first of which held colossal rusted steel structures echoing with people’s voices. We watched a bizarre film Tremble Tremble by Jesse Jones where a woman with white hair and seemingly imprisoned in the medieval times ranted poetically at the camera. On the higher floors were more traditional pieces including works of Picasso and Van Gogh, as well as post-war photography, and my favourite Anselm Kiefer’s post-war art, paintings onto collaged or otherwise textured surfaces. I particularly liked Sunflowers – a collage painted over with huge black drooping sunflowers with the heads looking down at the body of a man. We had dinner at Olla – more beautiful pintxos and wine.

The rest of our trip was spent exploring the breaks around Bilbao – really interesting coast line and powerful waves. We had a great trip exploring, walking, relaxing, surfing, eating and drinking. Autumn gives you quiet swimming spots and beautiful tree views, but of course the weather is much more hit and miss! Perhaps earlier autumn or spring for our next one, but an amazing trip all round.


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