The Catalans say that when the Tramuntana wind blows down from the Pyrenees ‘you do crazy things,’ and at times during my golf trip to Catalonia, this did appear true...
Playing Barcelona’s El Prat Course with its 104 bunkers, teeing off at the first in the Spanish Open Pro-Am at PGA Catalunya, and most crazy of all, playing a ‘Links’ course at Emporda which after nine holes turns into a parkland course with pine trees and lakes. It may all have been a little crazy, but it was certainly enjoyable.
Catalonia is one of the 17 regions of Spain famous for being fiercely proud of its identity, culture and language. Its capital is the colourful city of Barcelona and to the north of the city lies the Costa Brava which stretches along the ragged coastline of the Mediterranean to its border with France and the Pyrenees.
It is an area with much to offer the golfer and the discerning visitor. Forget past images of the Costa Brava and cheap 1970’s package holidays to Lloret de Mar. This area is blessed with striking medieval towns, pretty seaside resorts and a rich agricultural hinterland which has helped give rise to its excellent cuisine and many Michelin star restaurants including El Celler de Can Roca near Girona – voted best restaurant in the world in 2013 by The Restaurant magazine.
VISITORS WELCOME. Golf is everywhere and visitors are made to feel very welcome, even at the members’ only clubs such as Real Club de Golf El Prat located 25 minutes north of Barcelona.
This Club has hosted the Spanish Open nine times and will do so again in 2015. It has the look and feel of an exclusive country club with its extensive practice areas, swimming pools and terraced restaurants. Designed by Greg Norman, its 45 holes offer challenging golf for every level.
We played the Open Course with its 104 bunkers which I would describe more of an inconvenience rather than a penalty. The greens on the other hand were huge and fast and proved to be very costly in shots when landing on the front edge. After seven holes the course changes and becomes more parkland bringing trees into play, demanding concentration off the tee to keep your ball in play.
With the green fees rising from €60 on a Monday to €220 at the weekend, playing early in the week is a good call. Just a 5 minute ride by buggy brought us back to our DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, La Mola. A very comfortable four star hotel with delightful staff, a welcoming spa and pools to enjoy, both indoor and outdoor.
MEDIEVAL TOWN. Moving north the following day towards the medieval town of Girona we encountered the majestic PGA Catalunya, home to this year’s Spanish Open and reported to be the second best course in Spain, third in Europe and ninety-eighth in the world.
Two courses can be played here. The Stadium Course specifically designed for major competitions with elevated tees, very long dog-leg fairways and perfect greens, while the Tour Course offers a challenging round but is much more forgiving for the wayward shot. Straight driving on both these courses is a must. The rough is punishing and as the pro kindly pointed out, ‘commit or you’ll leave the ball behind!’ and he was so right.
The four star Meliá Golf Vichy Catalán is located near the first tees of both courses and offers excellent resort facilities. However, the ultra modern golf villas on the edge of the course would be a delight to rent. They come with a concierge service which claims it can organise anything from babysitting to dinner in one of the many Michelin star restaurants in the nearby beautiful walled city of Girona.
ROMAN TIMES. Girona is well worth visiting as there are more than 2000 years of history to discover through fortified walls, the Força Vella and the Medieval Quarter. The Força Vella dates back to the Roman times while the medieval extension of the city walls was carried out during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The city's artistic heritage has been preserved in the numerous monuments that have survived until today. The highlights of Girona are rounded off by the impressive old Jewish Quarter or Call, with its beautiful streets and squares, and by the exuberant baroque spaces and Noucentisme-style buildings by architect Rafael Masó.
In Girona, you will find all kinds of shops, ranging from traditional stores to designer boutiques, delicatessens and of course restaurants and old fashioned ice cream parlours. While I was there the 10-day Flower Festival was taking place and every building and wall and even the River Fer was festooned with flowers.
Throughout the year there is a calendar of events including craft fairs, food fayres and painting fairs. To me, Girona is a true gem to discover, reminiscent of Florence but without the crowds.
CLOSE TO FRANCE. Travelling further into the Costa Brava area, the countryside showed signs that France was very close. Apple orchards, small vineyards, and most surprisingly rice fields appeared and thoughts of Provence came to mind.
The Empordà Golf Resort is located near the medieval village of Pals and just a few miles from the sparkling clear waters of the Mediterranean. There are 36 holes to choose from at the Empordà Golf Course which was designed by American architect, Robert Von Hagge, mixing links with forest.
Along with many Scottish and Irish links golfers, I did initially query ‘links’ but with the numerous sand bunkers, dunes and the Tramuntana wind blowing, ‘links’ golf shots such as a ‘running six iron’ came into play and saved the day. The back nine of the links turns into the forest course with its tall pine trees, water and, thankfully, shelter from the wind which made these holes much more enjoyable and interesting to play.
SPA AND POOLS. The courses are located around the DoubleTree by Hilton Empordà Hotel, (designed to look like an apple box) and the attractive terrace makes a perfect place to stop after 9 holes, have a bbq lunch and chat about holes played and those still to play.
The hotel itself was very comfortable with spa and pools to enjoy after golf. Nearby are many smaller boutique hotels including Hotel Moli del Mig, a beautifully converted old flour mill and Castell d'Empordà with its wonderful terrace for sun bathing, luxurious bedrooms and renowned restaurant.
The pretty coastal villages of Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell are a short drive away. Known for their white-washed villas, family run hotels perched on cliffs and crystal clear waters, these small seaside resorts offer true relaxation and feeling of being away from it all. It is said the ‘Wilt’ author, Tom Sharpe came to stay for a week and never left!
Walking along the cliff paths, the heady scent of orange blossom and jasmine is everywhere and conjures up a sense of truly being on holiday. Hiking and water sports are also very popular here. Just inland is the medieval village of Pals, very understated but a delight to explore with fantastic views over the countryside and the snow capped Pyrenees.
LOCAL CUISINE. It was at Pals, at the Viscus Restaurant, where we had the chance to experience the local gastronomic cuisine of the area. Our menu included a white anchovy and baked pepper salad; escabeche of bonito (pickled tuna) with spicy mashed potato; rice mar i muntanya (fish and meat) with king prawns; cottage cheese panna cotta with raisins and honey – delicious!
This area boasts 16 restaurants with 20 Michelin Stars between them, including Feran Adria’s El Bulli in Roses, La Botic in Corca and of course the three Michelin star Roco brothers’ restaurant near Girona, which has a waiting list of over a year.
The revival of wine and cava production has led to the development of many wine and food trails and the official DO Empordà Wine Route tells all the secrets of red, white and rosé Empordà wines.
BARCELONA. Reluctant to leave the tranquillity of this area, we headed back to Barcelona for flights home. This city is a great tourist city. Its true tourism potential came to the fore with the hosting of the Olympic Games in 1992 and the city is now very well prepared and offers a great experience for the tourist.
As usual, I took the tried and trusted ‘hop on- hop off’ city bus tour which allowed me to get a quick insight into the city’s main attractions. These included its Gothic Quarter, the iconic architecture of Gaudi, Monjuic and the Olympic Park, Las Ramblas and of course the city’s famous shopping line which runs for 3 miles from the top of Las Ramblas and its market to the expensive designer shops along the tree lined Avenue Via Diagonal.
RUN THE CITY. If you have discovered the world of running, the 360 Running Barcelona is a great way to ‘run’ the city. This can be booked online and can be in a group or as an individual and anything from 5 – 12 kms. Run early morning or early evening when the streets are less crowded this is a fun and healthy way to do the sights.
The ‘must-do’ sight in Barcelona is, of course, to see and discover the work of its most famous son - Antoni Gaudi. His world renowned architectural gems include the giant Basilica Church, Sagrada Família which has been under construction since 1882, (yes, not a misprint – 1882), the Casa Ballo with its ‘skull and bones’ balconies and the magical Parc Guell, with its dragon fountains and walkways supported by twisted rock pillars.
All of these may seem a little crazy, but as I mentioned at the beginning, when the Tramuntana wind blows - crazy things happen.
Good to know
A number of airlines fly from the UK and Ireland to Barcelona with a regular bus service to and from the airport. Several airlines including Ryanair also operate flights from UK and Ireland into Girona.
Packages including rounds of golf can be booked through tour operators that work with Golf Costa Brava
Alternatively book direct with Golf Clubs mentioned in article
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Hotels and restaurants mentioned in article
THINGS TO DO AND SEE