At the southernmost tip of France and the far east of Spain, there exists a place where the hills are covered in wild rosemary and thyme, where bunches of asparagus grow between the flat slate rocks. As you might have guessed, I’m talking about Catalonia—the mostly Spanish region, also the lesser-known area of the Eastern Pyrenees over the frontier in France, also known as Northern Catalonia. As I discovered a few years back, this often-forgotten slice of southern Europe is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, perfect for the naturally curious traveler in search of an experience among the trees and wildlife.
Just as important—especially for me personally—is that this region makes it easy to travel sustainably. Efficient and affordable trains link every little town along the coast. Organic farms and community gardens dot the region. Sustainable lodgings, including camping sites, are easy to find. Most of all, in my experience the people of this region care about their environment and nature, and they will welcome anyone who treats it with affection and respect. Here is my story about exploring the region with nature and sustainability as my polestars.
My experience began when I stepped off the train one sunny morning at the little seaside village of Banyuls-sur-Mer. From the train station, located just a few minutes above the village, I walked to my homestay lodgings. To me, a homestay was ideal. It was the responsible choice since the hosts aim to welcome eco-travelers and have outfitted their home with solar panels. But it also gave me the inside scoop about how best to reach nature. My hosts lent me a hiking map and drew my attention to a Roman ruin high up in the hills. They also gave me their secret place to find pinecones with the most delicious nuts.
Once I had unpacked a little, I slipped on my hiking boots and strode toward the hills. In Banyuls, a dozen trails start and end right in the village. There’s no need for a car or bike. As I began to climb, the village began to fade into the distance, and the smell of rosemary, which carpeted the slate rocks along the trail, grew fragrant and intense. About an hour into my hike, I reached a little stream with water so clear I bent down and splashed some of it on my face. It was cold and smelled fresh like the little stones it ran over. By then, I was ready for my lunch. What’s better than a picnic with nothing but your thoughts and the sound of the breeze rustling the pine trees? Seeing those trees reminded me of what my hosts had said: break open the pinecones to find something special. Sure enough, when I opened a few, I found nestled deep inside the little white nuts that give so many local dishes their signature flavor. On the way back to the village after an afternoon of trekking, I found a beautiful bunch of wild asparagus. Before I left that morning, my homestay mother encouraged me to taste the asparagus raw. Following her advice, I bit off the top of the spear. The flavor and texture were remarkable. It was soft, tender, and there was a spicy quality to it, akin to black pepper. It was the best asparagus I’d ever tried—raw or cooked!
After my Banyuls adventure, I decided once again to board the train. This time, I crossed the frontier and entered the Spanish part of the region, specifically a little village outside of Girona called Espolla. Before coming to the region, I stumbled upon an organic farm that hosts visitors for free in exchange for work on the land. To me, eco-farming has always been a great interest, both because of the quality of the food it produces, but also because it aims to reduce the human impact on the environment. And what better way to learn about it than in the beautiful rural nature of Catalonia! Over the course of two days, I helped to make bread using wheat from the area. I fed the sourdough starter, kneaded dough, and watched with what I’m sure was glee in my eyes as the loaves rose in the heat of the wood-burning oven. Another unforgettable experience was watching the olive harvest. The region is teeming with olive trees that become some of the best oil I’ve ever tasted. To spill a small secret, I had never seen an olive tree before! In Catalonia, I saw them by the hundreds, their branches heavy with the green fruit that has fueled cuisine in the region for centuries. As the olive press squeezed the oil from the fruit, I got to taste the fresh product, something I’ll never forget.
You may be wondering, what about the beach? Yes, I did not eschew the gorgeous waters of the Mediterranean. Over the course of three days, I visited as many beaches as possible along the E12 route of small towns on the coast. The deep clear waters along the rocky coast of Cala Bramant were stunning. The sandy beach of Platja de Garbet could rival anything in the tropics. Back on the French side, the deep blue waters at Collioure (and the presence of the old fortress) were food for the soul.
Over the course of my travels in Catalonia, I drew up a list of tips that I think might help you explore the region too. Rely on the trains! They are an environmentally friendly way to travel, aside from being affordable, and efficient. There’s also a bus system that connects all the villages on the French side (when I was there, it only cost 1 euro per trip). Look for homestays, organic farms, eco-lodges, or other sustainable lodgings. Planning a picnic? Don’t forget to gather any rubbish when you’re done—and even better, leave the place cleaner than you found it. I also brought reusable containers to hold my food, so as to avoid disposal ones. Last, camping is a great way to immerse yourself in nature and minimize your environmental footprint. Happy exploring!