Castle hopping in Catalonia, Spain

The day I landed in Barcelona, Spain, I was robbed, that too by a man driving a BMW SUV (in hindsight, was that stolen as well!?) in the guise of helping me out with a flat tyre. The next day was even more painful as I tried to explain my predicament to a police officer who spoke no English so I could lodge a report. Of course there was a translator, but he had blissfully extended his siesta and was nowhere around. I had had enough of the city and decided to ditch the urban attractions for the countryside charm.

Like any other girl while growing up, I had always been fascinated with stories of princes and princesses living in beautiful old castles, so I decided to look up the castle scene in the province. Much to my surprise I discovered that the region is dotted with medieval castles all quite accessible by car from Barcelona.

I have listed them below:
● Castell de Santa Pau – located near Girona in a natural reserve
● Cadaques – located near Costa Brava right along the coast
● Siurana – located near Tarragon, this one overlooks the river Ciurana
● Castell de Torre Bore – not really a castle, this is more like an unfinished manor
● Castell del Papiol – located close to the city, this is known for its historical importance
● Castell de Montsoriu – located in Arbucies with gothic architectural touches
● Cardona Castell – very well preserved it is now converted to a hotel and restaurant
● Castell d’en Plaja – close to Lloret de mar it is a house-castle with people still inhabiting it

Since I had only a day, I had to carefully choose the ones I would visit. I looked at the distance from Barcelona and carefully picked two I could manage with limited time.

First up on my itinerary was the Castell de Montsoriu as it was off the tourist track, and honestly exactly what I needed after my earlier ordeal. One of the oldest landmarks of the region, it dates back to 1002 and is renowned to be the ‘greatest Gothic castle in Catalonia’. The fortress is situated atop a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding valleys. It takes a little more than an hour from Barcelona, although there are a few tolls to be paid on the way. Below the hill there is free parking for cars and a toilet facility. After that there is a winding pedestrian road which takes you up to the castle in about 30 minutes. If you are up for an adventure and want to cut down on the time, you could digress and take a steep hike through the dense forests along the hill slope. There are guiding marks which indicate the way but are in Spanish, hence keep google translate ready. Proper shoes are a must, don’t dare this if you are in heels – it ain’t a regular stroll in the park! However, once you reach the top, the breathtaking views of the forests and the sweeping valleys beyond are totally worth the ordeal. Inside the castle there are three enclosures of medieval Montsoriu: the lower enclosure, the upper enclosure and the bailey. A guided tour is available or you can explore on your own by purchasing the tickets at the entrance. Details are available here : I met a Spanish couple outside sharing a sandwich and enjoying the scenery. As we got chatting the man exclaimed “how did you find this place?” and shared his story of discovering a hidden gem in the Himalayas – the time when he had spent an unplanned week in a little known hamlet near Rishikesh immersing in the spartan and simple lifestyle of the locals. This time it was my turn to be surprised. I had never imagined to meet a man in remote Spain who would tell me something about my country which I didn’t know. He also told me of the interesting legends attached to castle: that of a lady in a red gown with a burning lamp awaiting her prince who is visible every night just outside the entrance gates, or that of snakes with diamonds in their mouths guarding the castle during historic times.

With all the hiking I was famished and decided to break for lunch before heading to the next castle. On the way was the small town of Breda where I found a café run by a couple who, bored of the fast city life and had moved from Barcelona to Breda a few years back and opened this café. A plate of Butifarra sausages (a local specialty) and a ‘tortilla de patatas’ (or the Spanish omelet for the uninitiated) washed down by a couple of glasses of sangria was all I needed to get ready for the next adventure. The thing with Sangria is that with all the fruit pieces and sweet taste, you keep drinking it like juice, never realizing when you are high and since I was driving I had to be very careful. The town of Breda is also known for its pottery. I dropped by at a beautiful old house which is now converted to a store selling terracotta pottery. The owner was very friendly and took me around showing me the kitchen with the preserved old cooking wares, the kiln where the pottery was burned at the center of the house and the attic which is now used for storage. I ended up buying a miniature chest which now sits on my dresser.

After the hills, I wanted to check out a castle along the sea cliffs and the Castell d’en Plaja in Lloret de mar nicely fit the bill. It rises alongside the sea at the end of the Sa Caleta beach. The beach has convenient parking facilities for your car. The castle is actually a private residence built by the industrialist Girona Narcís Plaja as a summer cottage, but the outer walkway encircling the castle is open to the public. With arches, steps, and narrow passages the walkway climbs up and down with astounding views of the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea alongside. There are veranda style viewpoints constructed at regular intervals to catch your breath and stare at the horizon where the sky meets the sea in clashing shades of blue. If it is low tide you can also climb down to sit on the rocks interspersed in the clear waters. This place was a lot more popular than the previous spot – possibly people like me trying to escape the harsh cold weathers of northern Europe in winter. A vendor selling hand made jewelry had even set up shop in a clearing of the walkway. The pedlar from whom I bought an ice cream bar told me in summers the place is known for water sports like scuba diving (images of Hritik Roshan swimming amongst colorful fishes from the movie Ziindagi Na Milegi Dobara flashed through my mind!) The municipality has even set up a mock ‘photo frame’ on the beach to leverage the fact that the castle is one of the most photographed structures of the town. In the evenings the castle is lit up, giving it a quite dramatic look reflecting against the sea below.

On the drive back to Barcelona I reflected on my earlier mishap and realized that it is a typical challenge of any tourist place in the world, and it is I who is to blame. As a tourist you need to be always cautious whichever place on earth you are. On the positive side had I not had that tragic experience I wouldn’t have ventured out of the city to explore the castles, wouldn’t have met this man who told me of a place which is now on my bucketlist, wouldn’t have seen pottery work which reminded me of the Bishnupur terracotta temples. Its one of those moments when you suddenly realize what you always knew – “whatever happens, happens for good!”. Barcelona is still one of the most beautiful cities I have been to and will definitely go back again. For now, however, another trip needs to be planned to explore the other castles of Catalunya.

To Reach:
All major European airlines, Etihad, Turkish Airlines offer a one stop flight to Barcelona from Mumbai. From there the best way to get around is to rent a car. There are quite a few options in Europe for car rental. Booking ahead saves money. The best way is to pick up from the airport where you land and drop it back on the day you leave. Of course this is true if you are arriving and leaving from the same airport. Usually all car companies provide flexibility if you want to drop at a location other than the airport you picked it up from, however there are additional costs.

The last one is a platform to find you the cheapest car option given your requirements and preferences from various car rental companies

To Stay:
While Barcelona has many hotel chains with luxurious accommodations, if one wants to explore options in a more exclusive setting the following can assist:

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