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Hiking Spain's Cinque Terre

Siqui Sánchez

Photos by Siqui Sánchez

A view from the GR 92 hiking trail between Calella de Palafrugell and Palamós in Spain's Costa Brava region.

My husband, Adri, has turned his backpack inside out in our room at Hotel El Pati. “I left all my other T-shirts at home,” he says sheepishly. He wears shorts and a gray Star Wars tee featuring Chewbacca. One T-shirt, six days of hiking, five historical villages: This should be interesting.

We’re in the trailhead village of Peratallada, Spain, population 400—about an hour and a half north of Barcelona. Charming with its medieval castle and cobblestone streets, but not exactly the mall. We decide he’ll wash out his one shirt each night until he can buy something. Our plan is to walk about three hours each morning, getting to the next village and inn by lunch. The rest of the day will be dedicated to eating Catalan foods, exploring, swimming and taking siestas. We have backpacks, sturdy boots, sunscreen and some rough maps.

We’re about to hike a section of the GR 92, a 360-mile-long trail stretching from the French border to the southernmost point of Catalonia. The GR 92 was inaugurated in 1992, but it often follows the much older Camins de Ronda. “Pirates,” says local guide Laura Guerrero, “the Camins de Ronda was built during the Middle Ages to protect towns against them.” Later, during the Spanish civil war, it was an escape route to France and then a hiding place for smugglers. We dubbed our six-day trek on the GR 92 the “Cinque Terre Spain” because we only focused on a small stretch of the trail that connects five iconic villages in Catalonia’s Costa Brava region. This particular section is called Baix Empordà and is widely regarded as the prettiest bit.

Wandering in the village of Peratallada.        

Our route starts inland and moves east toward the Mediterranean Sea. Peratallada sits about 10 miles from the coast and its name translates into “carved stone.” One look at the deep moat surrounding the 11th-century castle and the moniker is clear. A sandstone hillside was chopped away over the centuries to create homes, a palace and defense towers. On the town plaza we lunch on traditional inland fare at Bonay Restaurant. Roasted rabbit with mushrooms, pigs feet with snails and the house specialty, goose with turnips, are on the menu. “This may be the only time we hike for a week and actually gain weight,” Adri observes, filling his wine glass.

The next morning we linger over coffee in a courtyard hung with chandeliers of jasmine. At the edge of town, a signpost reads “Pals 2hr 40 min” and just below it appears the white and red stripes of the GR 92. These stripes are the trail markers along the route: two stripes mean keep going, a red and white X means you’re off track. From Peratallada to Pals, the stripes adorn asphalt, stop signs and tree trunks.

We enter Pals under the midday sun and celebrate our first day of successful hiking with a beer on the bustling Plaça Major. The vistas from Pals’ medieval walls extend over marshy rice fields. Pals rice is used in thick risottos and the village’s signature dish, arròs de Pals a la cassola. Like a paella, this surf and turf meal combines meat from inland areas (rabbit, chicken, pork) and Mediterranean seafood (squid, clams, prawns). Pals has been lovingly restored, though not much is left of its ninth-century castle. Defense walls, moats and four watchtowers still stand, however, left over from pirate raids in the 1400s. All the sun, beer and heavy arròs have made us drowsy, so we make our way to Mas Salvi, a 1700s farmhouse-turned-hotel right on the trail. “A terrace!” Adri exclaims upon entering our room. “Perfect for drying my shirt.” He sets about doing laundry in the sink.

I awake the next morning excited for the day’s trek, which will end on the Mediterranean. We set out through a deliciously shady pine and cork tree forest and huff and puff uphill where the dirt path turns squishy. Sand leaks into my boots and with every step I sink into soft powder.

“We’re on the dunes,” Adri says, and then suddenly we aren’t.

“When was the last time you saw the stripes?” I ask.

“Not for a while, but I’m sure this is the way.”

“It’s not! You’re taking us off track!”

He remains unconvinced.

We tromp on. No stripes. Farmhouses, wheat fields, olive and sugar-smelling fig trees, but no stripes. I stop.

“We need to backtrack,” I say, sitting down on a boulder in protest. As I unload a half-pound of sand from my boots, my husband does reconnaissance. I check my phone but am not able to get a signal, and then I start to worry—are we lost? Sometime later, Adri returns confirming that we’d left the path on the dunes. Despite getting off trail, it’s impossible to get lost on this portion of the GR 92. The rule of thumb is simple: If you go for over a quarter-mile without seeing the stripes, you turn around.

The breeze carries the scent of the sea as we enter Begur, a hilltop village once famous for its pirates and Indians. The pirates were the same North African variety who plagued Pals, and Begur’s 16th-century watchtowers speak to the bygone threat. The Indians are Indianos, local men who made their fortunes in the Americas in the 1800s and returned to build lavish mansions.

We check into Cluc Hotel Begur, an Indiano home with original tile work and molded-plaster ceilings. Settled and showered, we stroll to Restaurante Sa Caleta for an arròs negre, a traditional rice dish made from black squid ink and served in a cast-iron pan. The sun is setting as we climb to the craggy base of Begur’s ninth-century castle, the highest and oldest point in town. On a clear day, the 180-degree panorama extends up the coastline to the Pyrenees Mountains, and to the south we can glimpse the villages we’d hike through the next day. We hold hands and watch the daylight fade in peaceful silence.

From Begur, we begin the coastal trail section, which is more complex and physically strenuous, but also the most scenic. The cliffside path is lined with lavender and rosemary, and each dusty step startles a confetti of yellow butterflies that dance around my ankles. The footpath plunges into inviting inlets where we tiptoe between sunbathers. We stop to swim at Aiguablava, one of Costa Brava’s best coves, complete with eateries and a satiny shoreline. Adri peels off his pungent Chewbacca tee and lays it over a chair while I sit drinking a Coke.

Whitewashed Tamariu, village number four, is my favorite of the five. It’s the smallest and has the most pristine beaches, albeit little else. “Looks like we won’t be T-shirt shopping here,” says Adri, “but two more days is nothing.” We tuck into tapas—calamari, shrimp-stuffed croquettes and anchovies in vinegar—at an unpretentious bar on the promenade and then fall into a deep siesta at Hotel Hostalillo. A faint lullaby of waves and people laughing comes through the open windows.

Picturesque beach coves in Calella de Palafrugell.        

The track between Tamariu and Calella de Palafrugell is the toughest. Lots of uphills and diverse terrain, including boulder fields, meadows and woodlands. Here the mountains step into the sea and older beach accesses are closed off because of crumbling cliffsides. After a series of switchbacks, we swim off Cala Pedrosa, a pebble cove we shared with two ancient fishermen’s huts. A sailboat bobs a few hundred feet out. Farther uphill are ruins from the sixth century BC. “Those Iberians sure had good taste in real estate,” Adri says, as we take in the sweeping sea views. From their settlement, we descend into the fishing village of Calella de Palafrugell, our fifth stop.

“A fish just nibbled my big toe,” my husband exclaims. We’re wading around La Platgeta, one of Calella’s 10 beaches, where fingerlings the color of butter knives cast their shadows over a silky sea bottom. Bright shoreline bungalows along Port Pelegrí Beach and the Sa Perola Museum, a former net-dying workshop, speak to Calella’s seafaring past. The village teems in August, but off-season we have it to ourselves. Our hotel, Sant Roc, is perched atop a bluff on the south end of town. From the geranium-swathed terrace, we sip glasses of cava, a sparkling Catalan wine, and watch the village lights twinkle on.

Technically, Calella is the fifth village, and our journey could have ended here, but we hike on for six more miles because it’s arguably the most beautiful stretch of Cinque Terre Spain. Iberian ruins crown Platja de Castell, a stunning arc of undeveloped beach where we strip to swim. From here, rocky coves are packed with fishermen’s huts-turned-vacation cabanas, painted in bright mustard, cobalt and grass green. One last double-crescent beach, La Fosca, must be traversed before descending into Palamós, the end of the line.

We stand on our balcony at Hotel Trias and look out over Palamós’ mile of coast, a garden of sun-umbrellas sprouting from its golden sands.

“We did it,” I say to my husband.

“And I’d get up and do it all again tomorrow. Want to?”

“Deal,” I respond. “But not with the same T-shirt.”

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

This hike is now on my list! I will bring lots of tee shirts, eat great food, and drink Spanish wine. Thanks for the tips on where to stay.
9/23/2014 7:19:55 AM

eddy ancinas
great article. Hope our 78-year-old legs can handle it in April, 2016
4/6/2015 12:26:28 PM

I just finished this trip! Wow -- it was absolutely amazing. Thank you for the great insights on places to stay and your journey. An incredible trip to never be forgotten.
5/3/2015 11:44:37 AM

Jennifer Hudak
This is lovely! We saw this article on a flight and are now planning to hike it with family in Sept 2016...thanks for sharing!!
8/6/2015 8:02:53 PM

Lisa Williamson
Just got home from this hike with 12 ladies. What a fantastic time! All of our accomadations were lovely and the hikes more than beautiful!
10/17/2015 11:58:04 AM

Liz King
A friend saw this article and we planned it and we did it! Hiked from Sept 26- Oct 4 2016...and pretty much copied the route except we gave ourselves more lay over days. One of the BEST vacations ever...so scenic, so active...am ready to plan more hiking vacations.
10/27/2015 1:05:34 PM

Gladys Russell
we are doing this same hike in May 2016. Thanks for the inspiration. any tips are appreciated
3/10/2016 7:31:54 PM

I was inspired by this article on Delta and we are booked and ready to leave end of May! Following same path but hope to get a bit further down the coast. Thank you for sharing this!!!
4/27/2016 3:46:29 PM

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