Travel diary // World-class driving and living is just outside Barcelona
Words and photography by Andrew Coles, story shot on 35mm film
You may find it difficult to leave Barcelona. What with its vibrant restaurant scene, the wacky La Sagrada Família dominating the skyline, evening strolls around Park Güell waiting and the pent-up Catalan desire for independence giving the city a sense of community and solidarity that feels totally unique, we’d not blame you for staying.
But just outside the city limits in the countryside of Catalunya is a driver’s paradise. Hundreds of miles of endlessly twisting, deliciously smooth roads are mostly empty, and will deliver you to historic monuments, crumbling stone villages that looks as if they’ve come from the set of a movie, and restaurants serving local Catalan cuisine and wine for astonishingly reasonable prices.
We first set course for the famous monastery, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which was established in the 11th Century and is still home to over 70 practising monks. In order to clear suburbia we take the A2 highway out of Barcelona for just under 50km, but it’s the climb through the mountains to Montserrat that gets exciting. There are two main routes in, and both are spectacularly good. We park on the road and hike past the traffic jams to the monastery, catching the Funicular de Sant Joan up the rack railway to the walking trails and viewpoints further up the mountain. At just over 500m in length and with a gradient that tops 65%, the ride itself is worth the price of admission.
But we’re here to drive, so we return to the car and set course for a stay in the historic village of Calafel, near the coast South-West of Barcelona. Of course, we don’t take the most direct route, tracing an unrepeatable route through the backroads. Almost without fail the roads are smooth and exceptionally well built with good camber, easy sight lines and little traffic allowing you to find your rhythm. In this part of the world you set your Google Maps to your destination avoiding highways and tolls, and get fully absorbed in driving the roads the app sends you down. Every time we stop for a photo we have a quick look on the map, just to check if there are some even twistier roads in our vicinity, and occasionally we strike gold.
Speaking of striking gold, we’re staying for the two nights at Hotel Antiga and as we walk through the doors, we can’t quite believe our luck. Located in the heart of the old town and with Calafell’s Castell de la Santa Creu visible from the entrance, the traditionally styled hotel features an expansive outdoor restaurant and garden to the rear, complete with large pool and poolside bar. It has confounded our wildest hopes, especially given its very reasonable rates.
We hopped down to the beach at Playa de Calafell, a five-minute drive away. We are less than impressed with the overtly touristic nature of the new town and the endless blocks of faceless high-rise holiday accommodation, so we quickly retreat back to Hotel Antiga and drink Estrella by and in the pool until dinnertime, which is another surprise. Fish was on the set menu that night, cooked over hot coals by the family matriarch, and served by local boys trying to help us as best they could with their broken English. I’d have willingly paid London prices for the three-course meal and the wine that accompanied it, but the tariff ended up about a third of what I thought the meal was worth.
The next day delivered some truly amazing driving. Acting on a tip-off from Insta-friend @lemans_1989, we set course for Siurana, the final Muslim stronghold in Catalunya to fall to the Christians in 1153. But first, we set course for a morning coffee and stroll around the walled city of Montblanc. This is one of the rare occasions when taking the main Autovia is the desired option – the N-240 between Masmolets and Lilla is one of the finest roads of my life. Three lanes wide and smooth as a highway should be, it snakes up, across and down the other side of the Tossal Gros de Miramar mountain range, and I’m 100% committed in the rental car, the howling tyres rolling over to the sidewall and we’re still not even close to running out of road. With wide lanes in both directions you never get stuck behind slower traffic, and I surmise that this road with similar commitment in a modern supercar would be nothing short of breathtaking.
Montblanc is the ideal city to bring our pulses back to normal, and we park close to the city walls and stroll inside. This area is old, properly old, and there is evidence to suggest that the region has been inhabited since paleolithic times. The city, which dates to Roman ages, is remarkably well preserved, and we wander its narrow cobbled streets and step quietly inside the Romanesque-Gothic convent of Sant Francesc which offers cool respite from the growing heat of the day. We head to the town square and sit sipping espresso, watching local children play. A tiny coffee, hire car keys and a film camera resting on the table of an outdoor café. This is travel.
If we thought the N-240 was good, we had no idea what was in store for us on the route to Siruana. Turning off at Vimbodí I Poblet, we’re in the sticks, on proper rural roads now. But here’s the surprise – for a region not especially known for its wealth, almost every road we drive is brand new. The TV-7004 begins as open and flowing but gradually tightens and past Vilanova de Prades it becomes miles and miles of S-bends. Left, right, left, left, right, left, one after the other. We reach the junction with the C-242 and pause to take stock. The brake pedal is going soft, the tires have overheated and they too are cooked. My passenger is feeling rather carsick and if I’m honest, I’m heading that way too. What a road! It would be a brutal experience in something with proper grip, like a Lotus Elise.
But there’s no respite in sight, and even though I want to slow down, I need to slow down for both my passenger and the car’s sake, I’m finding it almost impossible to resist the urge to keep pushing. You dream of roads like this, and of days like this. It’d be a crime to waste it?
The tiny village of Siurana sits exposed on a rock escarpment in the Prades Mountains, with 320deg views and a sheer cliff drop for three-quarters of its circumference. The village sits as an easily defendable island, and its snaking access road is exciting but incredibly narrow, especially given the drops in places. It’s not one to drive quickly, but you don’t want to. Instead you marvel as this trail gradually carves itself up the rockface and to the carpark at the end. The road was only paved about a decade ago, and the immediate thought of descending a gravel road like that is simultaneously exciting and scary.
Siurana seems untouched by the mixed blessings of tourism. The pedestrianised village is too small and narrow for cars. There are only two restaurants, no other shops and no phone reception. Before the advent of cars and a made road, this place must have been the very definition of inaccessible. We wander the ruins of the church and muse the remoteness over lunch. The food isn’t memorable and it’s a little pricey, but what do you expect when you’re quite literally dining on the edge of a cliff?
Our escape is over as quickly as it began, and at 5am the next morning we’re pounding the highway miles back to Barcelona’s El Prat airport. We speed past endless miles of faceless beachside condos, struggling to accept that all of what we’ve seen is within a two-hour radius of the city. Roads that are right up there with the best in the world, cheap hotels that suffer nothing for their price, and authentic, family-made food enjoyed around the table with local wines.
Barcelona is good, but it’s just another European city. Rural Catalunya, now that’s something else.