The yellow train is a tourist institution celebrating its centenary in 2010 and is the highest train ride in France going through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent to Latour de Carol. You might well ask what does this have to do with being based in Girona for a holiday, well it is less than an hours drive to Perpignan from where you can get an ordinary train and in 45 min arrive in Villefranche where the "Train Jaune" begins.
The whole trip from one end to the other takes over three hours winding through the mountains from 400m altitude to 1,600m with spectacular scenery all the way.
The train itself is special as it is built for sightseeing all year round and taking skiers up to famous ski resorts like Font Romeu and Les Angles. The fun part is choosing a town along the route to get off and explore a bit more on foot. Mont-Louis is one option where you can discover the fortress building skills of Vauban, the foremost military engineer of the 17th century. He worked consolidating France's borders from a defensive perspective and was duly rewarded by his patron, Louis XIV, making him a Marquis.
Villefranche also has an impressive Vauban fort to walk around and these as well as 6 others have been made UNESCO world heritage sights in 2008.
Le Train Jaune is a great excursion for all the family; there is something for everybody from the train ride and scenery to all the different villages, fortresses and ski resorts to explore.
The very best way to see the spectacular scenery of the Costa Brava, without spending hours fighting the crowds at this time of the year, is to do it from the air.
Microlight sightseeing trips are offered in various places but the one I took is based outside l'Estartit (www.ultraligeros.net) and Javier was a perfect pilot and guide. The 15 min flight takes in a remarkable variety of scenery; from the River Ter estuary discharging into the sea; the wide beaches to Pals, and then the rocky coves of Begur, Aiguafreda (great views of the Parador) to the tiny Sa Tuna beach; back to the amazing Isles Medes (underwater national park); Estartit harbour and along to the Castle at Montgri and below the town of Torroella and finally down the river Ter and the vivid green rice fields of Pals back to land at the tiny airstrip.
On a clear day there is no better way to get a feel for the splendour of the coastline and seeing it from a very different perspective, as a seagull would, was a real treat, thank you Javier, I will be back for more!
About 30 people of all ages got together last sunday morning to follow Montse around cycle paths to Sant Gregori while she stopped and explained all the wonderful plants we were seeing and their medicinal properties.
First stop was the elderberry/elderflower with large white flowers which makes a cordial or cava which we tried later on and was delicious.
From the most common plants like dandelions, poppies and nettles to flax, bindweed and borage we learnt to identify them, which parts of the plant were of interest and how to prepare an infusion or compress and what ailments it helped.
We all felt very inadequate and the common lament was how we were losing contact with our surroundings and an important part of our heritage that our grandparents took for granted.
Thank you to Montse and Mou te en Bici for organising such an interesting ride and I hope it becomes a regular event.
Hostalric is a town built on a basalt outcrop in the 12th century above the river Fogars because of its important position on the France-Barcelona trade route.
This intersection has proved both good and bad for the local residents over the centuries, encouraging investment in the form of castles and defensive structures but also attracting more than its share of sieges and sackings.
Hostalric is now on the main road and train lines with trips in under an hour to the centre of Barcelona so its strategic position has evolved somewhat to one of a dormitory town but there are plenty of local industries based here too.
It boasts easy access to the Costa Brava and also the Montseny mountains which is a protected UNESCO scenic area. The river Fogars it is the dividing line between Barcelona and Girona provinces.
It is the perfect place to stop for a walk around following the easy routes that are marked and finish up sitting in the mulberry shaded main square sipping a cool drink and looking up at the massive fortress which still dominates the skyline above town and which now houses a restaurant.
La Gola is where the river Ter flows into the Mediterranean Sea, having started in the Pyrenees mountains around the ski resort of Vallter 2000 some 220 kms away.
The fields on either side of the Ter are very flat, fertile land where cultivation of fruit, wheat, corn and rice takes place. There are also wetlands which although cultivated, are also part of the Aiguamolls Nature Reserve, famous for a wide range of migratory birds.
There are many paths signposted telling you where to go and being flat the area is perfect for cycling and walking.
Of course no exercise is possible if at the end there is not a meal contemplated and in this case the local specialities involve rice and seafood which is one type of “arroz” and in other parts of Spain would be called a “paella“.
A delicacy called “angulas” are found where eels breed in fresh water rivers producing millions of tiny eels which are caught at night in nets and currently retail for 500? to1,300? a kilo depending on season, if you can find them.
The small restaurants around La Gola are some of the few places you will be able to taste this amazing dish cooked in olive oil and garlic and hot peppers, once tried never forgotten!
Both Celra and Bordils are not most people's idea of scenic villages as they pass through in their cars along the main road to the Costa Brava from Girona. However, get a little out of the town of Celra and a remarkable transformation takes place, with fertile land planted with different seasonal crops as well as a tree and shrub nursery which covers many hectares.
It is like cycling in Holland as the roads are paved and the area is flat but you see all sorts of interesting trees and plants being grown in straight rows with irrigation and space for tractor access.
There are plenty of other sights too, the church in Bordils is one of my favourites and there are many large farmhouses and chapels worth admiring.
The main purpose of our meandering along these paths once we reach the river Ter is to look for mushrooms in between the rows of poplars, hidden by the cover of fallen leaves. We spot a particularly tasty variety which needs to be consumed quickly as once picked they tend to deteriorate. When they are a few days old they are inedible as they slowly melt into an inky black mess which is how they got their name, the "ink" mushroom.
September can be a fabulous month to visit the Costa Brava and Castell beach near Palamós is one of the nicest spots. It is part nature reserve with dunes and marshland, a great sandy beach and overlooked on one side by ancient Iberian fort remains which you can stroll through.
The coastal path leads along some of the most rugged coves and bays of the whole 220 km Costa Brava with thick cover of Mediterranean pines and wild herbs which give the air a wonderful perfumed aroma. The path is steep in places but the views along the coast are worth every bit of effort, especially after a recent storm when the waves are crashing into the rocks below.
It has recently been included as a protected area which means the handful of houses will never be added to and nature will reclaim most of mans excesses.
This walk is only about an hour and a half and you can take the windy coastal path one way and come back on the GR92 which is a forest track that is more direct but all inland, sacrificing the views. Cap Roig is worth visiting as it is one of the best botanical gardens in this area and the colours of the plants and flowers as well as the paths and seats placed to look out to sea are a must.
From here you have the choice of continuing into Calella de Palafrugell and Llafranc, both charming fishing villages or heading back to Castell beach for a swim.
From Amer (211m), which has an interesting church and old town, it is a short run to the river Ter below where it emerges from the Susqueda dam, a major hydroelectric plant. It also means that the bulk of the downhill is over and from here on it is flat with hazelnut and walnut plantations or sunflowers and corn fields on either side of the path which meanders through the fertile river valley.
El Pasteral (179m) with its old station building still intact and along to La Cellera de Ter and finally to the outskirts of Angles.
Angles has an interesting old town (a few minutes detour) and was famous for the textile factories which were established at the end of the 19th century but have almost all been closed in the last few years as the competition from China destroyed their business.
Now the path follows the river Ter or the parallel canal which was established to serve the small sub- hydroelectric stations and factories that needed water and electricity along the route.
There is an interesting restored ice-house around km 10 which explains how ice was preserved in the era before electricity. We now take ice and refrigeration for granted but it used to be a luxury item.
Girona looms large and there is no way to avoid crossing it from the Devesa park (tallest trees in a public park) and then follow the other river, the Onyar out of town to the south-east towards Quart. You pass the new Science Park of the University of Girona with some impressive modern buildings.
The next part takes you to Cassa de la Selva and Llagostera which are both famous for the cork processing factories which have been there for over a century, using the cork collected in the Gavarres hills nearby.
From Llagostera the path drops fairly sharply to the coastal plain around Castell d'Aro and it is a short haul into S'Agaro and then finally Sant Feliu de Guixols where all the dust from the path can be washed off with a cool dip in the Mediterranean!
Only the foolish or very strong should consider cycling back to Girona (36 kms) as there are a good 8kms of climbing, much easier to have lunch on a terrace and then put the bike on a bus which leave every hour from the bus station and arrive in Girona fresh and happy!
The Sant Feliu to Girona and on to Olot bike path or “carril bici” or just “carrilet” is an old railway line which has been converted into a great bike path. More suitable for mountain bikes or hybrids than road bikes because it is made mostly of compacted gravel and sand.
From Girona it is 58km but starting in Sant Feliu on the Costa Brava adds another 36kms to the trip. One crucial point to remember is that going from the coast toGirona only involves climbing about 50m from sea level but from Amer for the next 20kms it is a solid climb to nearly 700m before the descent to the valley of Olot.
So it is recommended to actually start from Olot as this way there is only some 5-7 kms of hard climbing before enjoying a long, steady downhill. The best way to get toOlot from Girona is by bus from the bus station (in front of the train station) and they take up to 5 bikes in the hold for a cost of 7.25? per person one way. Just as easy is to get a bus from Girona to Sant Feliu de Guixols or to catch one from there if you want to cycle to the coast and end up with a cool swim which is highly recommended in the hot summer months.
Bikes can be rented in Girona, ask at the tourist information offices or send me an email to arrange it: email@example.com
This guide will give you the main sights and places to visit along the way.