Accessible Tour of Catalonia14 July 2016
The Enable Holidays team is extremely proud of the fact that we have personally experienced and audited the majority of our holidays, our tours and our accommodation.
Recently, team members Warren and Jonathan visited the beautiful Spanish holiday destination of Catalonia, trying out a full range of accessible experiences as well as ensuring that the accommodation we provide in the region meets our extremely high standards.
So, what accessible pleasures can Catalonia offer? You may be surprised...
Hot air balloon ride above Olot, capital of Girona
We set off at 6:30am, sleepy but excited for our trip’s first accessible experience. This morning activity would take place 1,200m above ground, drifting serenely over Girona’s stunning volcanic landscape.
After a bus ride into the picturesque Garrotxa Natural Park, our group stood bathed in the warm early sunlight, sipping rich Spanish coffee and drinking in the sight of two enormous balloons being inflated by blasts of fiery air. Once they were filled and towered high above us, we boarded the 8-person basket (other sizes available) and began to rise gently towards the clouds.
What surprised me most about the hot air balloon ride was its serenity. At over a kilometre in the air, I had anticipated wind or at least a slight breeze, but floating above Girona was one of the most silent, tranquil experiences I have ever known. We glided over vast expanses of forest, passed towns and villages that appeared the size of Lego sets, and gazed in awe at the region’s majestic, craggy mountains. At the peak of the flight, our guide offered us glass flutes of rosé cava and traditional Spanish cake, with which we toasted a perfect morning.
Once back on the ground, we tucked into a late-morning breakfast of dried Spanish meats, delicious freshly-baked bread and the finest olive oil, before a digestif of ratafia, a locally-made herbal liquor.
Accessible bike ride on Greenways
Later on, with the sun riding high above us, we visited and rode some of Girona’s greenways: 125 kilometres of largely accessible disused railway lines that had once connected the region’s many towns. They have now been restored to offer walkers, cyclists and wheelchair users the opportunity to enjoy the diverse scenery and landscapes of the Pyrenees, as well as to visit picturesque and little-known sites throughout five of Girona’s eight beautiful counties.
The Pyrenees rose on all sides as we cycled one stretch of sun-kissed path, beside which natural spaces merged with halcyon villages standing relatively unchanged and remaining imbued with the spirit of medieval Catalonia. I used a bicycle for most of the route, but tried an adapted handcycle for 4 kilometres too. While fun, it was exhausting!
After the ride we took refuge from the heat in one of these settlements, feeling tired but reclining in the shade with welcome snacks and an ice-cold drink.
It is important to note that the greenways are predominantly flat, but despite the slopes generally rising to gradients of no more than 3%, the journey can be a little hard-going.
Guided visit to Besalú
Most guests in Catalonia will absorb their first views of Besalú with astonishment. Few sights compare to this medieval settlement, which appears from the fortified entry bridge to be a collection of traditional buildings untouched since the 11th century.
The town was an important landmark in the early Middle Ages, and has become a popular and impressive visiting place for people wishing to explore more of Catalonia’s rich history. Besalú was once a county of its own, but lost its independence to Barcelona in the year 1111.
Cafés, bars, shops, and ice cream parlours are housed within well-preserved medieval structures, and the tourist office is homed within the impressive 13th century Casa de la Vila. Despite these additions, efforts have been made to preserve Besalú’s appearance. The grounds are pleasingly level for the most part, making them accessible for wheelchair users, and there have also been efforts made to welcome visually- and hearing-impaired visitors.
A video gave us a brief overview of Besalú’s thousand-year history, before we continued to tour the rest of this enchanting town.
Trip to Montserrat
The sights of Montserrat were perhaps the most arresting of the tour – an impressive feat, considering the previous day’s hot air balloon ride!
Montserrat – meaning “Saw Mountain” in Catalan, which refers to the serrated appearance of the range – is a many-peaked mountain that should form part of the itinerary of any visit to Catalonia. Visitors can reach the cluster of stunning buildings by following a winding road that climbs the ridges of Montserrat, or by taking the accessible Aeri de Montserrat cable car or Montserrat Rack Railway.
The majestic Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat could be the highlight of the area, and stands at the height of a courtyard bordered by the rolling rock formations of the cliff walls. Here, one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe continues to learn and receive high standards of musical training; a tradition that has existed from as far back as the 14th century. Every weekday, bar Saturdays, visitors can bathe in the angelic strains of the boys’ divine unbroken voices that fill the cathedral.
The museum offers an array of artistic masterpieces for visitors to gaze at in wonder, including work by Picasso and Dali, and the nearby restaurant provides high quality traditional Spanish food.
Visit to Colonia, including Gaudi’s crypt
The placid streets of Colonia Güell secrete an important historical monument: the prelude to Antoni Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.
During our visit to this small, peaceful town, our guide Juan offered us an animated history of his home. After describing the colourful background of Colonia Güell, which began as a set of homes for those working for a local textile factory, Juan led us to the famous Cripta Güell. To design and build this beautiful church, Gaudi tested out a variety of baffling architectural techniques that would one day form part of some of his most glorious successes.
The building itself is a geometry-defying, modernist joy. Columns lean and curve at seemingly impossible angles, while stained glass windows can be opened and contorted, and a wide range of sculpted curiosities protrude from the walls at every turn.
Before seeing this building, I thought that I had little interest in architecture; however, having seen this bizarre yet beautiful structure, I have discovered a fresh new appreciation for the practice.
Tour around Barcelona
Barcelona is a cosmopolitan city that feels spacious and cultured, exciting and contemporary, edgy and stylish. Sleek new architecture stands beside centuries-old monuments to religion and times past, while narrow alleyways lined with shops open up into picturesque courtyards offering choice Catalonian cuisine and welcome beverages.
We took a long, roundabout pavement tour of the city, sampling the foods, exploring the sights and enjoying the sun. During our walk we saw the 6-metre-long shortest street in the city, the places to eat and those to avoid, the jaw-dropping intricacy of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, and also sampled what our guide described as the “real Barcelona”, which included sitting outside sipping locally-produced “Vermut” and eating plump, oily olives as the world went by.
Show Cooking at Born to Cook restaurant
Our day ended with a special show-cooking experience at an accessible restaurant. A friendly chef invited our group to take part in the preparation of dishes such as a typically delicious patatas bravas, a deliciously rich mushroom-coated veal, and crispy noodles with cuttlefish. I got particularly “hands-on” with this last dish, filleting the strange-looking creatures and stripping away the inedible parts in order to find the most delicious. The cooks and the staff were welcoming and helpful from beginning to end, helping the conclusion of our trip to leave a particularly good taste in our mouths.