It’s no accident Catalonia was appointed the European Region for Gastronomy for 2016: it’s renowned for its fabulous food scene. Combine this with the dramatic mountainous terrain of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean magic of the Costa Brava beaches, and you have some impressive ingredients for a trip – not to mention plenty of gourmet stops for blissful refuelling.
While Barcelona is the most-visited part of Catalonia, there is so much more to explore just a little further north. A week would be ideal to explore the broad variety of landscapes, some of which are well away from the tourist trail. Having your own vehicle would be handy – but however you get around and wherever you end up, you're bound to come across mouthwatering cuisine.
Tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa, which boasts over 35 extinct volcanoes, mostly covered with vegetation. The most impressive is Volcá del Croscat (786m), which is the youngest volcano in the Iberian peninsula and has an exposed area down one side that was quarried until the 1990s. After a steep ascent of nearby Volcá de Santa Margarida (682m), you can stand in its grassy crater and admire the chapel at the base, Ermita de Santa Margarida.
Where to eat
This region of Catalonia, known as La Garrotxa, is famed for its unique cuina volcànica (specialities from the fertile volcanic soil, including beans, potatoes, buckwheat, snails and truffles). Restaurants with this specific designation (founded in 1994) are guaranteed to have traditional ingredients that are sourced locally and used in dishes with a modern twist.
Les Cols is housed in a masia (Catalan farmhouse) on the outskirts of Olot, with twice Michelin-starred Fina Pulgdevall at the helm. Her culinary interpretations of the beauty of the region, such as the slow-cooked lamb shoulder with peach and fennel, are all the more special for being served in a futuristic, shimmering gold dining room.
La Deu is just a stroll from Hotel Can Blanc (see below) and dates back to the 19th century. If you’re lucky, the (limited edition) volcanic beer may be on the drinks menu, but your cuina volcànica experience will be sublime either way. Try a perfectly cooked slab of cod with crispy bacon (meat and seafood are frequent partners in Catalan cuisine), followed by a fajol (buckwheat) cake with ratafia (herbal liqueur made from macerated green nuts) ice cream.
Where to stay
Hotel Can Blanc in Olot has adorable medieval-style rooms (some with spiral staircases leading to attic bedrooms), a traditional buffet breakfast (do rub raw garlic on your toast, mush on some tomatoes, add a sprinkle of salt, and drizzle the excellent olive oil over the top) and also offers bicycle hire.
Hotel La Perla D’Olot has simple but spacious rooms and very friendly, English-speaking staff. The restaurant offers great-value meals and there are also self-catering apartments.
Santa Pau and Besalú
You’re still in cuina volcànica territory in these medieval villages, with Santa Pau particularly famous for its fesols (white beans). If you want to work off a big meal, you can hike between the two, following the relatively straightforward path along the Gran Recorrido-2 (GR-2) route down through the peaceful Ser River valley. The tranquillity of the rolling hills punctuated by the occasional farm or horse stables en route has its own charm.
Where to eat
Can Xel (canxel.com) in Santa Pau is one of the founding members of the cuina volcànica group. Try a hearty dish of Catalan sausage with fesols, followed by truffle ice cream with mascarpone.
Curia Reial in Besalú is in a picturesque spot for more magnificent cuina volcànica. Enjoy views of Pont Fortificat from the flower-lined terrace of a historic building while devouring delicately presented dishes.
Gelatiamo (gelatiamo.eu) is an artisanal ice cream chain in Spain. Pick up a scoop or two of the crema catalana from the Besalú branch while strolling the village’s maze of romantic cobbled streets.
Where to stay
Apartments Can Xel (part of Can Xel restaurant) in Santa Pau has four self-contained apartments and also offers free guided walks of the Garrotxa region to guests.
Casa Marcial in Besalú is an upmarket, stylishly designed hotel in a central location. The nearby Church of Sant Vicenç’s bells can ring all night, so take ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper.
Essential foodie excursions
El Celler de Can Roca in Girona has been voted the World’s Best Restaurant more than once. Book many, many months in advance. Aside from the legacy of Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame, it’s El Celler’s Roca brothers who have put Catalonia on the global gastronomic map.
Rocambolesc (rocambolesc.com), a dessert emporium created by Jordi Roca, is a must-stop for ice cream lovers, and an easier way to access a little of that Roca magic just a seven-minute drive southeast of El Celler de Can Roca.
Mas Marcè (masmarce.com) is a family-run cheese farm located in Siurana d'Empordà. Here you can not only taste and buy the best cheese in the region (it also supplies those famous Roca brothers), but enjoy a tour of the farm, cuddle some lambs, visit the cheese factory and try your hand at a wool workshop. It is also the only organic producer of kefir in Catalonia; a new version of this healthy drink infused with dates, figs and lemons, launched in June 2016, is a refreshing choice after all that eating.
Karyn travelled to Catalonia with support from the Catalan Tourist Board (catalunya.com) and Explore (explore.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.