Artist Salvadore Dali chose to live in the Girona region of Spain for good reason, says Liz Dunphy.
Our good-looking pilot popped a cava cork as we rose together above the morning mist that snuggled into the green, tree-lined centres of sleeping volcanoes as they shrank below.
If you require a good reason to get up at 6am on holiday, then a balloon ride over Garoxta National Park in the Girona region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain is it.
Garoxta is a topographical smorgasbord of volcanos, towering mountains, forests, rivers and waterfalls with the Mediterranean beckoning coyly on the Costa Brava in the distance.
And an aerial view throws this region’s diversity into spectacular relief; over 40 volcanoes linked by undulating lava flows that sprout into vivid green life on their fertile banks; while north of the river Fluviá vertiginous cliffs and narrow gorges mark the entrance to the higher Alta Garoxta region.
The balloon ride even makes a little church visible as it clings with the absolute faith of a believer to the inside rim of a large, steep volcano mouth.
The region’s diversity has cultivated a renowned and unique cuisine, where local produce grows with extra vigour and flavourful complexity from fertile volcanic soil (look out for fesols - small white beans - and region-specific onions; game and wild mushrooms provide seasonal specialities).
And perhaps most importantly of all for Irish holiday-makers Catalonia offers sun.
The climate is pretty perfect by any standards, reaching an average of 28 degrees in its hottest month, August.
Summer months see temperatures averaging mid to late 20s, and off peak months can be perfect for those keen to explore the region or pursue a more active holiday, promising sunshine without the soaring temperatures and significantly less crowds.
Average temperatures in April range from 13 -17 degrees, and in September and October temperatures still reach the 20s.
Adventure Holidays are an Irish travel company who specialise in active and gastronomy holidays in the region, and they can tailor itineraries on request.
They offer family-friendly bike and hiking holidays, that can be as easy or challenging as you chose, and they also offer multi-sport holidays, which can include everything from watersports to balloon rides for individuals and groups.
Adventure Holidays organise transfers, luggage and equipment hire, so all your time can be spent enjoying your holiday and exploring the region, without stressing about logistics.
But back to the balloon trip, our pilot, Xavi works in the family business, the Vol de Coloms balloon centre ( www.voldecoloms.cat ) which serves up a delicious lunch and awards certificates to each person after the flight.
The hospitable Colom family share their name with that of a local bird in their Catalan language, which seemed very apt for an often air-bound family.
At €170 per person, including breakfast, extensive lunch, and more booze than most could manage, the trip seemed good value.
But Garoxta is equally beautiful from the ground, which can be explored on foot, by bike or by car.
Hotel Rural Can Blanc near Olot ( www.canblanc.es ) provides very comfortable accommodation, and delicious hearty breakfasts, which can be followed by a dip in an outdoor pool or wanderings through the woodland that surrounds it.
The nearby medieval town of Santa Pau is worth a stop, where cobbled streets wrap around a castle in the town centre, and a beautiful porticoed market square could provide great selfie opportunities for the social media obsessed traveller looking for unique holiday backdrops.
Largely unchanged for centuries, the town quickly transports modern day princes and princesses back to feudal times.
The Cal Sastre restaurant and hotel is popular with both locals and visitors in Santa Pau, and for good reason, the food is delicious.
Barcelona FC players and pop princess Shakira are repeat customers, and their snapshots smile down from the walls, sandwiched between old and new pictures of the family who run the restaurant.
The main square in Santa Pau remains largely unchanged since the 14th century, providing one of the best preserved examples of these squares in Catalonia.
Ask the locals to fill you in on stories of the various barons who lived in the castle before their expulsions while sipping café or cava in the square.
A criss-cross of waterfalls, roman roads, mountain walks, shaded forest pathways, natural springs, streams, Romanesque and gothic churches, and medieval to art nouveau architecture make the region a pleasant and diverse one to walk in.
Walking routes include old Roman roads through the mountains, and guided walking tours and trail runs can be provided by tour company Trescalia ( www.trescalia.com/en/ ).
The Pirinexus cycling route, which links the regions at both sides of the Pyrenees mountain range, makes it a particularly good region to cycle in too.
The main route is 353km, with an additional 175km of off-routes to explore.
Almost half of the entire route runs along greenways and the rest uses rural tracks or roads with low traffic density.
A pleasant afternoon cycle downhill from Olot to Amer on the Via Verde cycle lane can be completed in a few relaxing hours which still leaves you wanting more.
The cycling is flat and easy so you can concentrate on the views, sounds and smells of the Spanish countryside away from cars, and the routes are peppered with little towns and villages for a lunch or coffee break when you need refuelling.
Leaving Garoxta, there are a string of stunningly beautiful and historically significant towns leading you down to the Mediterranean.
Surrealist artist Salvadore Dali chose to live in this area for good reason, and the turreted castle which he renovated for his muse and wife Gala is now open to the public and worth a stop.
A walk from Pertallada to Pals passes through easy, flat terrain but takes in stunning medieval towns, where walls are festooned with vines and bright flowers.
Keep an eye out for ancient Roman olive presses, and grooves in the stone pavements from carts constantly wheeling through, while tempting restaurants, cafés and shops provide opportunities for more contemporary treasure spotting.
Giroguies ( www.giroguies.com ) provide guided walking tours in the region.
And after wandering through ancient and more recent history you reach the beaches on the Costa Brava.
Named the ‘Wild Coast’, due to high seasonal winds that have helped to carve a beautiful rugged coastline, miles of verdant cliff paths will tempt you to explore hidden inlets and bays beyond.
Palafrugell is a good all-round resort option, with a beach, watersport rentals, a diving board and coastal cliff walks.
Hotel Tamariu ( www.hoteltamariu.com ) is right on the waterfront, where balconies allow guests to relax outside without ever leaving the hotel.
Request a room with a sea view if possible.
Prices range from €202 in high season for a penthouse with terrace overlooking the sea, to €79 for a single room in low season.
Take a short wander through the dappled shade offered by trees and vegetation along the cliffs, as the glinting Mediterranean beckons you along to find small, secluded coves where you can dip your toes in her welcoming water.
Cala Pedrosa, a short coastal walk from Palafrugell is one such little cove.
Covered in large, smooth stones it has a pretty café and restaurant.
The cove is a great spot for snorkelling and kayaking, and is a favourite with locals.
Follow the coastal path up winding cliff tops, past Cala Pedrosa through a vertiginous, verdant gorge that transports you back to pre-historic times, where tall trees, weaving vines and exotic flowers may only have had dinosaurs, rather than industrialisation and humans, to battle with for supremacy.
Continue up the path over occasional tree roots, and follow any signs to St Sebastiá Lighhouse.
Rising from the cliff the lighthouse casts its eye over the dazzling Mediterranean.
Preserved signs of a pre-Roman, Iberian settlement from the early 7th century sit next to the lighthouse.
Pop next door to the luxurious El Far Hotel Restaurant on the Muntanya de Sant Sebastiá for a well-deserved café, and some delicious carquinyoli — Catalan almond biscuits.
The views from this hotel are exceptional, and the entrance lobby is breath-taking, with its cavernous, cathedral-like space, divided by a sweeping stone staircase leading to large windows which seem to bring the sea inside.
Double rooms range from €160 to €290 per night.
Flights to this region are most direct through Girona, and the Pyrenees mountains rise up above you as your plane lands in the airport there.
The city has been a popular place for centuries, with Iberian, Roman, Moor and Jewish communities all drawn there, and the city was besieged many times.
But despite centuries of battles it does not seem to bear the psychological scars of that history.
The city remains popular today and the Gironese are proud, welcoming and they know how to eat well and fiesta.
The Flower Festival from May 7 – 15 is one of city’s most unique and famous, where flower displays and exhibitions festoon the already pretty city.
And there’s plenty of great Spanish wine to get the party started, whether it’s fiesta time or not, and if you are feeling very adventurous, try the local rastafia, a potent 15 herb liquor.
Bistrot Restaurant ( www.lebistrot.cat ) on Pujada de Sant Doménec in Girona town is worth a stop for a delicious meal that well-illustrates Girona’s foodie reputation.
And for the history buff, the town provides layers of history to peel back, by either exploring the old quarter solo or with a guide ( www.girona.cat/turisme/eng/index.php ).
Ryanair offers year-round Dublin–Girona flights; Girona Airport is marked as Barcelona (GRO) on the Ryanair website. And from Cork and Knock airports, Ryanair flies June to August twice weekly.
Girona Airport is 50km from La Garoxta, and a shuttle bus runs from the airport to Girona bus station where you can get a TEISA bus to La Garoxta.
La Garoxta can be accessed by coaches, run by the company TEISA ( www.teisa-bus.com ) from Barcelona, Girona, Figueres and smaller towns. The local Bus Transversal connects towns within the Garoxta region.
Adventure Holidays ( www.adventure-holidays.ie ) is an Irish-owned company who will organise your stay, including varied itineraries to cater for families and those after more extreme adventures, or gastronomic tours of the region.
Aer Lingus offers flights from Dublin and Cork to Barcelona, which is situated 99km from the city of Girona.
A coach service operates from Barcelona Airport to Girona city, see www.sagales.com/en for details.
Or take the Barcelona Airport Train C2 to Estacio Sants, where you change trains to Girona. If you are arriving into Terminal 1 (T1) you need to take a shuttle bus from outside the terminal to the train.
There are numerous trains travelling from Estacio Sants to Girona — approximately three every hour. On average the journey lasts about one hour 20 minutes.
Check the RENFE website for the train times. Regional trains, with names such as Catalunya Express and Regional rather than Costa Brava and Talgo, tend to be cheaper.
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