La Garrotxa: a rough but welcome land

The tourist slogan for the north-eastern Catalan county of La Garrotxa is “Rough land” because of the touch of the area’s volcanic clay. Aside from that unappealing logo, La Garrotxa is one of the most interesting tourist zones not only in Catalonia but also in Spain. This volcanic area, the widest in the Iberian Peninsula, has numerous natural, cultural and gastronomic interests. Its privileged location, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees, makes the zone a perfect place for tourism in the heart of the countryside, allowing the visitor to forget about stress and discover unique landscapes, gastronomy, history and folklore.

The village of Castellfollit de la Roca is built on a volcanic rock with a 50-metre-high cliff (by G. Cengiarotti)
The village of Castellfollit de la Roca is built on a volcanic rock with a 50-metre-high cliff (by G. Cengiarotti) / Guido Cengiarotti

Guido Cengiarotti

July 19, 2013 12:20 PM

Olot (CNA).- The north-eastern Catalan County of La Garrotxa may go unnoticed on the map when looking for a place to visit in Catalonia. It is not located by the Mediterranean coast and it does not have the snowy peaks of the highest mountains in the Pyrenees. Indeed, its best quality is that it lies between these two geographical features. The tourist slogan for the north-eastern Catalan county of La Garrotxa is “Rough land” because of the touch of the area’s volcanic clay. Aside from that unappealing logo, La Garrotxa is one of the most appealing tourist zones not only in Catalonia but also in Spain due to its natural, cultural and gastronomic interests.

La Garrotxa is the biggest volcanic zone in the Iberian Peninsula, which is a protected natural area, called Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. Its surface area is 15,000 hectares located around the capital city of the county, Olot. La Garrotxa and is home to about 40 volcanoes, aged from 100,000 to 700,000 years old. The appeals of La Garrotxa are the great conservation of the natural areas, as well as the respectful coexistence and life between nature and people. Olot and its surrounding villages have a population of more than 30,000 people and this doesn’t affect the natural area.

Due to the last eruptions, some 14,000 years ago, the lands of the zone are mainly composed of volcanic soil. This unusual ground condition has allowed nature to develop unusual landscapes. In addition, another characteristic in La Garrotxa is its rainy climate in the spring and autumn, which allows for the growth of a unique and beautiful beech wood forest called La Fageda d’en Jordà.

These and other factors make La Garrotxa a zone of enormous natural, ecological and, of course, tourist interest. Tourists are able  to learn about an unusual Catalan landscape that has a large number of old volcanoes, as well as to find a quiet place to relax during holidays.

A route through La Garrotxa

The best way to get introduced to the volcanic zone is probably Santa Pau and its surrounding area. Santa Pau is a small medieval and rustic village, with a castle at its peak. Despite its size, the town has some restaurants and places to stay, and it’s a peaceful and quiet zone surrounded by nature, far away from city life.

Volcanoes in Santa Pau

Close to Santa Pau we can find three of the main highlights in La Garrotxa, which are two volcanoes, El Croscat and Santa Margarida, and La Fageda d’en Jordà forest.

El Croscat is the youngest volcano in La Garrotxa. Its last eruption was nearly 14,000 years ago, a devastating explosion which might have affected humans living in the surrounding area. Its lava created the zone where La Fageda d’en Jordà is located and the geography of the county was significantly modified by this eruption. Nowadays, the most attractive fact about this volcano is the strip mining and extraction of volcanic clay that left a very visible mark, which allows visitors to see the composition of the volcano from the inside.

Santa Margarida is, along with Montsacopa, the perfect volcanic cone in La Garrotxa. This old volcano is located in the middle of countryside, just like El Croscat, and after ascension by foot to the peak of the volcano, the vision of a perfect crater with the little church of Santa Magdalena at the middle makes an impact on the visitor.

Very close to Santa Margarida, La Fageda d’En Jordà is one of the main attractions in La Garrotxa. This beautiful beech wood forest has been the inspiration for many Catalan artists, well-known for how they painted the landscapes of La Garrotxa.

Olot: the county’s capital

Olot is the capital city of La Garrotxa and has more than 30,000 inhabitants. The city centre has many points of gastronomic, architectural, folkloric and historical interest. The volcanic area has motivated chefs to create a form of gastronomy known as ‘volcanic cuisine’ with dishes elaborated with typical products of the county. They can be tried in many restaurants in the city. Architecturally the main interest is the route through Art-Nouveau buildings, some designed by famous Catalan architects such as Lluís Domènech i Montaner. In the field of folklore, the local holidays, Festes del Tura, which take place in the second week of September is the main festive date for children and adults alike due to the concerts and the folkloric activities in the city. Historically, the town’s bullfighting arena is the oldest in Catalonia, and many buildings date from the 17th and 18th century and contain different Art Museums.

However, the city coexists perfectly with nature. The city is built on four volcanoes: Bisaroques, Montolivet, La Garrinada and Montsacopa. The last one, also known as Sant Francesc because of the church dedicated to St Francis at its peak is formed by a perfect volcanic cone, with a sizeable crater. The walk to its top is a great excursion due to the fantastic views of Olot and to the possibility to walk into the crater and around its edges. 

Lava flows

The most recent eruptions caused the presence of the volcanic cones nowadays around the county. In lower towns going down the river Fluvià valley, straight to the Mediterranean, there are a couple of small towns built on lava flows made during the last eruptions. Sant Joan les Fonts is one of them. The other is Castellfollit de la Roca, built on a huge volcanic rock, created by two lava flows located between two rivers and at the edge of a 50-meter-high cliff, which form one of the most astonishing landscapes of La Garrotxa.

The view point

Now the route is nearly completed. Once we’ve stopped at the most remarkable and beautiful places view of the whole area can be finally made. And the best place to do so is at Xenacs. This is a view point to spend a day with the family. There are barbecue areas to cater for families, especially during weekends. In Xenacs, there’s the possibility to see all the places named before from a high point, and in a 20-minute walk to Puig Rodó, a higher mountain, the landscape and view range increases to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees.

L’Alta Garrotxa and Besalú

And what about the non-volcanic part of La Garrotxa? To mountain lovers, the northern zone of the county is composed by higher mountains, perfect for hikes and for discovering deserted unknown mountainous zones with unspoilt forests and river pools perfect to enjoy silence and nature, even more so than in the volcanic zone.

Close to L’Alta Garrotxa there are located some small but precious towns: Argelaguer, Tortellà, Beuda... and especially Besalú. This town is located near the eastern County of l’Alt Empordà, but still belongs to La Garrotxa. Besalú is a medieval village, where you can walk and believe you have gone back in time to the middle age. This fact combined with occasional medieval fairs make the visit to the town absolutely unavoidable.

La Garrotxa is a land of rough geographical features but is also a unique zone thanks to this. Human civilisation has learned to live with nature, and has profited from this learning by developing its own cuisine, culture, art, folklore, history, etc. All these are prolific in this region, making this small north-eastern Catalan county unique among all others.