bacchus travel


Bacchus Travel Cap de Creus

Hiker’s Heaven in Northeastern Catalonia

Hiker’s Heaven in Northeastern Catalonia 3434 2037 Bacchus

Sally Paterson, our hiking host in Catalonia and Mallorca, puts pen to parchment and tells us about her women-only hiking adventure in Alt & Baix Empordà.

Our group of girls met at Barcelona airport, friends and soon to be friends coming together from across Europe. From here we drove northwards arriving in the late evening to the small Alt Empordàn town of Cantallops.

Morning dawned showing us the beauty of the Albera Reserve, with views from our hotel across the rolling hills and olive groves. But, with no time to delay, we were soon off on our first adventure.



Alt Empordà and the Albera Reserve

The path we took led us past ancient cork trees with blackened trunks, along tracks rootled by the nocturnal, resident wild boar searching for acorns and up onto the high ridge from where we could see across the wooded foothills of the Pyrenees to the imposing Castle of Requesens. The rain that had dripped on us through the leafy canopy had lifted, opening up the view across to France.

This first morning of our hiking and cellar tour of this North East corner of Spain known as the Empordà was along the GR11 – a grand route that can take you from one coast of Spain to the other. It led us, to the small hamlet of Els Vilars, where we chanced upon a bucolic scene – a gently simmering, al fresco fideua de marisco, prepared for us by our local guide and historian Josep Maria. A chilled glass of white wine to accompany it to share the morning’s surprises and ease the aching legs. Delicious.



From the foothills of the Pyrenees to the Costa Brava coastline

Our five day hiking trip was the inaugural outing for Bacchus in Boots – sister to the already established Bacchus on Bikes – allowing us to explore this fascinating area of Spain at a more leisurely pace. Taking us from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the rocky paths and sandy coves of the Costa Brava and onto the sandy, scented eucalyptus forest of the Ardenya Massif, we had time to breathe in the scented wild rosemary and thyme, watch the circling sea birds over the rocky Cap de Creus and dive into the rolling waves.

Of course, the other advantage of a full days hiking is the guilt free enjoyment of the spectacular food and wine from this abundant region. Together we drank chilled glasses of fresh white wine and feasted on buttered skate wing, delicately spiced mackerel and burst in your mouth bubbles of black and green olive at Cadaques. We chanced upon Rice Thursday in the ancient medieval town of Peratallada and a local dish called ‘Arroz a cassola’, brimming with seafood. We tasted fresh green olive oil and tapenades flavoured with honey with producer and bon viveur Marti Clos. And we ate a picnic on the rocky outcrop at the Cap de Creus as the wind and the seagulls threatened to steal the food from our plates.

The hikes are planned so as to not over face, especially on the first day when boots and legs need to be stretched, but on each of the routes there is an option of an afternoon extension. There is also the comfort of knowing that Josep Maria is there in the Bacchus vehicle if it all gets too much. The weather wasn’t as kind to us as it might have been but it didn’t matter knowing that we were returning to the warmth and comfort of the charming hotels we stayed in along the way.



Kindred Spirits

These adventures are about so much more than just hiking. As well as discovering the culture and scenery of this very special part of Catalonia, the girls (chicas guapas) made new friendships, supported each other, laughed a lot and strengthened our minds and bodies. There is lots more to return for.

Learn more about our hiking trips in Catalonia and Mallorca

Bacchus Travel Catalonia Cycling Pirinexus

A High Altitude Cycling Challenge in Catalonia

A High Altitude Cycling Challenge in Catalonia 3065 2298 Bacchus

As seen in FT How To Spend It by Charlie Norton

Alt Empordà’s off-road terrain and winding mountain trails provide an extraordinary playground for touring cyclists. Charlie Norton gets in the saddle – and is rewarded by the region’s world-class cuisine along the way.


As I pedal down the easternmost promontory of the Iberian peninsula towards the towering white lighthouse at Cap de Creus, I’m suspended on a tramuntana crosswind that would blow a professional peloton apart. The peninsula is part of a natural park that inspired Salvador Dalí, whence, he liked to claim, he was the first in Spain to see the sun rise, from his elegant bedroom in nearby Portlligat. And as the red sun tips over the Mediterranean, even the hardy goat-head thorn and juniper, which stretch down and loom over choppy, azure waters, look lush.

I’m facing a few punishing days in the saddle, culminating in an iconic 8km climb of the Serra de Rodes to a monastery that overlooks ancient vineyards planted by the Greeks; but fears of my oncoming agony are counterbalanced by this inspiring vista – and by daydreams of the fine wine and gastronomy that will await at the end of the day. I am on a pioneering trip, curated by luxury adventure travel outfitters Bacchus on Bikes, to the sensational area of Baix and Alt Empordà, near Girona. Classic Catalonian Dalí country, and coined the “nirvana of two wheels” by The New York Times, the region combines peerless road and mountain-biking routes with wine-tasting and haute-cuisine opportunities.



For cyclists, this region has languished in the shadow of the Alps and the Pyrénées. Hard to know why, given Alt Empordà’s stunning coastal vistas, peaceful roads and remote climbs used in the Vuelta a España Grand Tour – not to mention its not-really-secret “secret” status as a training ground for some of the top professional teams, including Garmin (and, in the past, Lance Armstrong and US Postal Service). For mountain bikers, there are some gnarly off-road climbs near Roses as well as the Pirinexus region, arterial trails through vineyards and the Pyrénées stretching all the way to France. The area is, as everyone by now knows, a world gastronomy capital, cemented by the elBulli Foundation (Ferran Adrià’s new think-tank for culinary creativity, due to open next March), the continued excellence of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and the soaring reputation of Compartir, where we have a table booked as one of the highlights of the trip.

The Bacchus entourage pick me up at Girona airport with road and mountain bikes on the roof, fitted to my exact specifications. Founders Tony Wallington OBE and Gareth Davies are on hand, as well as our local Catalan guide and mechanic Josep María Codina Casulleras and experienced sports physio Richard Luddington. Tony, a former bobsleigh Olympian, talks me through the itinerary on the way to Can Xiquet, a rustically refined boutique hotel with terraced views of the Alt Empordà plains. “We want guests to experience the true beauty and diverse nature of this extraordinary corner of Catalonia – the road cycling is second to none but at times taking a mountain bike means you can really get off the beaten track, exploring medieval monasteries, weaving through vineyards, and arriving to wild picnic spots with a view.”

We quickly hop onto the mountain bikes for a leg-loosening few kilometres to Celler Masia Serra, the vineyard of Jaume Serra, one of the outstanding oenologists in the region, trained at Château Pétrus – though it’s a spectacular gin and tonic served with lavender, lemon, vine leaves and chilled granite that we enjoy as an aperitif. We later head back to Hotel Can Xiquet’s restaurant for cod carpaccio with rosemary oil and grilled squid, washed down with the Ctonia 2013, a flowery white Grenache from Masia Serra.



Next morning we break our legs in gently on the Pirinexus route from Cantallops south to Capmany, wild flowers drooping in the summer heat between stands of cypress trees (partly responsible for the area’s reputation as the Spanish Tuscany). The trails are gentle, and it’s a pleasure to see the respect the Catalans afford cyclists on the road; clearly, it’s much deeper within the culture here. From Capmany our route takes us across the plains of Alt Empordà, where we meet olive-oil magnate Martí Clos to view his centennial olive groves; we then cycle on to Rabos for a tasting of his award-winning virgin Clos de la Torre in the atmospheric vaulted tasting room.

Clos (currently being wooed by Harrods to sell his oils exclusively in the UK) says, “In the old days we waited for the tramuntana winds to blow the olives to the ground, but they were always too ripe.” Now the elaboration of Andalusian picual, Tuscan frantoio and Alt Empordà argudell olives make an exceptional blend that has taken Prestige gold four years running at the Terra Olivio awards in Jerusalem. The oil is poured into blue glasses so you can’t see the variations of green in the hue. “It’s all about aroma and taste,” says Clos. We’re looking for hints of vegetable, fruit, spice and bitterness. The Clos de la Torre is exquisite, a soft, peppery explosion; I buy the largest vessel I can physically take back to the UK.

After a transfer to Hotel Sol Ixent, in Cadaques, and an agony-relieving back massage from Richard, we travel down to Compartir, which is in a refurbished old stone house, a relaxed setting for informal and unpretentious haute cuisine. Three former elBulli chefs – Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruc – have struck progressive gold here; they deploy dazzling techniques using top-quality local ingredients. We feast on zingy red tuna cannelloni, razor clams with salty Ibérico ham, firm, juicy monkfish and an explosive liquid chocolate bombe with blackcurrant, which is utterly delicious.



Next morning we rise in the pre-dawn cold to cycle to Cap de Creus, pedalling hard to unstiffen our legs and heads. It’s the long road-biking day I have been waiting for, around 140km, and the tramuntana has just started to blow. At the lighthouse we ambitiously attempt an Iberian breakfast picnic of squidgy tomatoes and garlic on hunks of fresh bread, with Spanish coffee from a flask, though we are wildly grabbing anything that might blow away. And indeed, it feels like a morning for the slightly absurd and surreal as the wind nearly knocks us off our bikes several times, and later we tour Dalí’s refracted curio of a house, now open as a museum, in our tight Lycra and helmets, cleats clanking on floors.

We cycle on to Celler Martín Faixó, an ambitious family project to reclaim the vines in the Cap de Creus Natural Park. “The Greeks brought vines here in 3,000BC, because they realised they could grow lighter, fruitier grapes in the tramuntana,” Faixó explains. “The first vines were planted here, and stretched all the way to Bordeaux.” In 1870, an infestation of phylloxera decimated them, however, and with very little work available the local population was reduced from 7,000 to 500 as they sought jobs elsewhere. But now that disease-resistant vines from America have been planted, truly high-quality wines are produced in the Cap’s slate-y soil. “We’re awakening a sleeping giant,” says Faixó.

From here we head down the mountain to El Port de la Selva for a light lunch, over which we contemplate our next leg-burning climb. Hours later, we’re on it – up the 8km Serra de Rodes, just over 500m of ascent. There’s a steep early ramp, reminiscent of Alpe d’Huez, then meandering hairpins, where I quickly find a rhythm. On every cresting turn the staggering views of Alt Empordà distract me from the lactic acid searing through my legs. When my chain comes off, the support vehicle is immediately on hand; Josep María leaping out to get me back on my way for the last long, glorious switchbacks. He pops up again at the summit, next to the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery, a treasure trove of Catalan Romanesque art, to hand me a glass of Crémant. We descend through the Espelt vineyards to the village of Sant Martí d’Empúries on the coast. Ancient Greco-Roman ruins and a long sandy beach form the backdrop to Hotel Empúries, in whose Villa Teresita restaurant, manned by renowned chef Rafa Peña, we enjoy mackerel, crayfish and prawns.



On day four it’s on to the treacherously stunning mountain-bike tracks of Serra de l’Albera, through the high-altitude vineyards of Celler Hugas de Batlle. There are some near-impassable sections – so steep our feet won’t go down on the pedals, and we walk breathless and sweating as we take in the views over the Med. We switch to road bikes to head up to Selva de Mar, then back onto mountain bikes for the trail up to Celler Mas Estela, which is known for its biodynamic production: wines are aged in French oak barrels in a restored 12th-century pigeon coop that is ventilated by the tramuntana. This vineyard perfectly manifests the new passion for Alt Empordà wines and offers a definitive tasting. The Vinya Selva de Mar 2006 (a black Grenache-Syrah-Carignan blend) is full of dark-fruit personality – and a star on the wine list at El Celler de Can Roca. Next up is a deep, smooth Garnatxa Dolça de l’Empordà Solero 1990, perfect with chocolate or rich cheeses – or, apparently, cigars, which is what it was supposedly served at elBulli.

There is a huge contrast between Celler Mas Estela and Celler Bell-lloc at Finca Bell-lloc, where a Swiss-German family has built an avant-garde subterranean cellar with Russian cargo metal, reminiscent of a Bond villain hideaway. There’s no shortage of hype surrounding the place, but the 2013 Garnatxa more than lives up to it. And the accommodation is lovely, in a converted farmhouse with views of the mountains and a family chapel.



On the final day, we mountain-bike through the quaint town square in Calonge to reach Celler Mas Gil for a spectacular tasting (Clos d’Agon 2008, one of Spain’s finest white wines) with Miguel Coronado. Then we’re back on the road bikes on a soft climb into the Gavarra mountains on bounteous tarmac to Celler Sota els Angels, where Guy Jones and María Jesús de Polanco produce classy organic wines – their no-frills white earned the ultimate kudos from Josep Roca, head sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca, who said it is “the most honest wine” he has ever tasted.

I choose to forgo the lung-busting final 10km climb to Monastery Sota els Angels in favour of a long lunch of traditional black pals rice with cuttlefish at L’Antic Casino in Pals. I’m happily spent, battered by wind and mountains but sated by the fruits of the land. “The food and wine are the soul of the place,” says Josep María on the transfer back to Girona, “but come and experience it while it’s still a secret haven for cycling in extraordinary terrain.” He’s right – in this corner of Catalonia, somehow at once rustic and exquisitely refined, it’s impossible not to be, as the Spaniards say, touched by the tramuntana.


We hope you can join for one of our upcoming tours in Catalonia in 2019