Grand Tour of Catalonia

I'm going to test a new concept, from Barcelona to the Pyrenees. An electric car! Traveling to well-known places as well as taking the roads less traveled.

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The Grand Tour dates back to the 17th century. In that era, wealthy young men toured through Europe to complete their education. They had a guide, learnt several languages and learnt about the different cultures, met local people and enjoyed the lifestyle a lot. This is something we now call a holiday.

I'm going to do a Grand Tour in Catalonia. Despite the fact that I do not meet any of the traditional requirements. Or, in fact, not at all. Still, I'm going to give it a go.

The differences from past to present are huge. Times have certainly changed. Once upon a time these men made the journey by horse and carriage. But today, I travel this part of Spain with an electric car. Both modes of transport have few similarities, although they are both very eco-friendly.

The electric BMW of my trip. ©Corno van den Berg

Of course, there was no no internet at the time, so Google couldn't help you determine the route. And no previewing photos of the area, the church, waterfall or anything of the sort was available. Everything was based on stories and tips from locals and other travellers. Which I still think is a wonderful way to travel. 

Everything was told colourfully, and sometimes with some exaggeration, over a drink. It's something I still do today, including on my website Although exaggeration is usually not necessary, the trips are often that interesting enough.

On the website of Catalonia's new Grand Tour, you can see several example itineraries, but you can also create your own. I chose the route from Barcelona to the Pyrenees in Spain. With some good stops, I believe, as the men of that period did. The contemporary Grand Tour is designed to be enjoyable. Having fun is something I'm good at.

1st Stop: Lleida

The city of Lleida is beautifully situated on a hill. And towers over the city. It is best known for the cathedral La Seu Vella, which dates back to the 15th century.

The cathedral La Seu Vella in Lleida in the last sunlight. ©Corno van den Berg

I park at the front door. It's the end of the day, and the sunshine gives the cathedral a lovely golden hue. The contrast between the blue sky and La Seu Vella is striking. The hustle and bustle of the city is gone.

It's time to get back to my favourite hobby: photography. That is almost easy during this part of the day, especially with the sunshine that comes in. But the outside of this majestic building is also perfect. This is one of those spots where you should take your time and enjoy the moment.

My guide in La Seu Vella. ©Corno van den Berg

The local guide shows me around the cathedral, the tower and the various buildings. This is my second visit. Five years ago I had the lead role in a television program: The Catalunya Experience. You can read the article: A travel journalist on television. But the second time around, I'm just as impressed as the rich young men who once traveled here.

Wandering through La Seu Vella. ©Corno van den Berg

2nd Stop: Vall de Boí

I arrive in the world-famous valley Vall de Boí in the twilight. This means that tomorrow I will wake up in a new world. Which is usually a pleasant surprise.

Small streets and a local dog in Vall de Boí. ©Corno van den Berg

I spend the night in Taüll, one of the villages in the mountains. The others are Castelló de Tor, Llesp, Cóll, Cardet, Boí, Barruera, Durro and Erill la Vall. I wake up early to walk through the narrow streets.

In the distance I see Boí-Taüll, the highest ski resort in the Pyrenees. Yes, that is an option for me to consider next time. The mountains around me belittle me, on the highest peaks there is already snow. Winter is coming and it's a nice feeling.

Famous frescos in the town of Taüll. ©Corno van den Berg

The church bell tolls. Furthermore, the centre is tranquil. very now and then, I am greeted by a local. A sheepdog comes up to me, wagging his tail. In the autumn, visitors to the village are few and far between. And this mountain village has rarely changed throughout the years. It's easy to see why this region is listed on the World Heritage List of UNESCO.

The church in Taüll from the outside. ©Corno van den Berg

3rd Stop: Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park 

The name of this massive natural reserve is difficult to pronounce. I ask a local, like I would in the 17th century, to gain some further facts and suggestions about this tough terrain. He loves to talk about the beauty, diversity and wildlife.

One of the lakes in Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. ©Corno van den Berg

It's time for me to go out on my own. This is a great place to go for a hike. It briefly rains, but the sun quickly shines through. That is exactly as it should be in the highlands. Four seasons in one day. It makes me want to go on a week-long trip or longer.

The first waterfall is stunning, as are the numerous vistas. Although I observe a bunch of hikers on a mountain route, it is unusually calm. I'm curious what it looked like when those young men went on their Grand Tour centuries ago. Was it also that quiet?

A tourist takes a photo in Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. ©Corno van den Berg

A group of cows look at me. I know, the park is theirs. I'll walk around them. There is a wooden decking path, but also countless long-distance paths, where you can spend the night in mountain huts. It's time for a picnic, so I stop at one of the waterfalls in the park. I can't think of a better place for lunch.

One of the waterfalls I saw on the hike. ©Corno van den Berg

4th Stop: Rafting in Sort

The town of Sort is pretty much the Mecca of rafting in the Pyrenees. So should I do it? Adrenaline and water is always a good combination.

Rafting in Sort, Catalonia.

In other words, actively navigate the most difficult rapids in a boat. Just for fun indeed. I get a wetsuit since the water is really chilly. Which is always a challenge because it appears to be at least two sizes too small. Or am I just too big?

In town, I observe a number of companys that offer the excursion. I'm ready for a Grand Tour on the lake. Would they have gone down the river in a boat for enjoyment hundreds of years ago?

Smiles during the whitewater rafting trip.

The guide's instructions are straightforward. If you fall into the water, put your feet forward and float. The guide will then pull you back into the boat, I have no choice but to believe him on that.

I'm going to sit in the front. But then I realise I’ll be splashed the most. And I'll probably be the first to fall overboard. The kick is also a lot bigger. In the raft, he gives quick instructions: Paddle forward! Paddle hard backwards! Or he gives no tips at all when we hit a rapid. All my senses are working overtime.

And, of course, we turn left and right, go around, and into the deepest rapids in a variety of ways. He deliberately engages in these pranks. I'm sitting on the boat with a big smile on my face.

The smile stays, even when I end up splashing in the water. Yes, it’s nice to experience falling into the freezing water. The wetsuit needs to be tested, right? Is it the wetsuit that keeps me warm, or the adrenaline?

5th Stop: Barcelona

I have visited Barcelona several times. The city is wonderful in many ways. You can eat and drink well, there are countless fun festivals and various sights.

The lovely beach of Barcelona.

I explore the lesser-known places more and more. This is where the authentic local atmosphere can still be felt. Daily life is usually spent outside. The climate is slightly more pleasant than where I come from. I can even enjoy the beach in September.

I take the electric bicycle, the city is getting more and more cycle paths. So I can move more and more easily. Even in the hills of Montjuïc, but also near Tibidabo.

Tibidabo is the highest point at 512 meters. This viewpoint to round off my trip looking out over the Catalonia countryside. The Grand Tour leaves you yearning for more. A feeling that the young men would have had centuries ago. I'm sure of it.