I wish we were back in the Vall de Boí. But we’re not – we’re back in the swing of things at work and I’ll just have to make do with photos and memories. This somewhat epic post is where my blog treads the line between food blog and travel blog as, in addition to all the food we ate, I’ll also give details of hotels, public transport and sights for the region. We don’t drive and depended on public transport, taxis, and our two feet to get us around and we did brilliantly. I highly recommend it.
But where do I begin? The idea of our spending some time walking in the Pyrenees had been in our heads for a few years and as we weren’t particularly organised this summer (no long train trip this year), we decided to just fly into Barcelona and then go from there to the Pyrenees. But where in the Pyrenees? The Vall de Boí! This is a beautiful valley (vall) on the edges of the Pyrenees and is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its being the home of a significant number of beautifully decorated Romanesque churches. There are 9 in total and on our short trip, we managed to visit six and see one from a distance. It also borders Catalonia’s only national park – Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – and we spent one of our days there too.
On Tuesday morning, we caught a 09:00 bus (ALSA, tickets bought in advance online) from Barcelona Nord bus station to El Pont de Suert, the largest town closest to the Vall de Boí. The ride was 4 hours long, inclusive of a 30 minute break in the pretty town of Balaguer, close to Lleida.
We reached El Pont de Suert at 13:00 and spent the time before lunch looking around its mediaeval buildings. The bridge for which it was named disappeared about 50 years ago but there’s still enough to see in a short amount of time.
For lunch, we happened upon the Restaurant Cotori, connected to the hotel of the same name. €18 would get us the usual menu of two dishes, bread, wine, water and dessert. This lunch included our first taste of the fresh river trout that we’d encounter all through the region – the rivers must be full of these delicate and delicious fishes; here our trout was panfried and topped with bacon and vinegared onions. The ugly dessert below was a fantastic slice of fresh pineapple topped with crema catalana!
From El Pont de Suert, we went to the tiny taxi rank next to the bus station (equally tiny) and grabbed a taxi to Barruera, our first destination in the Vall de Boí. We got our first good look (exterior only) at one of the famous Romanesque churches; this was Sant Feliu de Barruera.
This is where we discovered that the walking/hiking trails in the region are extremely well marked and we found our first route just behind the church, by the river. We were walking from Barruera to Durro, where our first booked hotel was located.
See that bridge above? We crossed that…and then it was straight uphill the whole way. Oof. After that sweaty endeavour, we arrived in Durro, one of the prettiest villages I’d seen in a while. We checked in at Casa Xanet, one of only a scattering of hotels in Durro. The village is very quiet and there are also only a couple of bars and restaurants. We felt like the only tourists staying in the village that evening; most come for the church and then stay elsewhere.
We had a little walk around the village and visited La Nativitat de la Mare de Déu de Durro, the first Romanesque church we entered. Of all the churches we visited, this was probably the least impressive on the inside – most of the interior decorations were Baroque and not many of the original Romanesque sculptures or paintings remain.
Ah well, at least the village did turn out to be the prettiest! And the view of the village was indeed very pretty from the top of the bell tower.
From a distance, we spotted L’Ermita de Sant Quirc de Durro, another of the churches, but we never got a chance to walk up to it.
That evening, we ate dinner at our hotel (really more like a bed and breakfast) and we had a wonderful homecooked meal of escalivada, grilled lamb ribs, and another brilliant truita de riu. Here’s the only photo I got that night – a slice of homemade flam de cafè, one of the best flams I’ve ever eaten! It’s flavour was gorgeous and it was so utterly smooth.
After a great night, we woke up to an equally fabulous breakfast – perfectly fried eggs (with crispy frilly whites, just the way I like them) and very flavourful bacon. We were set for the day!
I highly recommend staying at Casa Xanet if you’re visiting the Vall de Boí, especially if you have a car. The owners made us feel utterly at home, the rooms are clean and comfortable, and the food is wonderful.
In Durro, we headed to the parking lot/playground and found the path to Boí. It’s a bit uphill at first but then you walk along a natural ledge on the mountain and you get glorious views of the entire valley. We probably took twice as long as one would normally take to walk this route since we spent lots of time stopping to take in the view.
Into Boí we went and it was here where we discovered all the tourists. The majority come to this village as there are special taxis that go to the national park from there (more on that later). We were there that day to see Sant Joan de Boí, another of the Romanesque churches.
There are beautiful replicas of the original paintings inside – and do look out for the original carved graffiti on the outside!
For lunch, we grabbed some baked goods from a bakery/supermarket (things cost approx twice as much as in Barcelona – this being the middle of nowhere) and found a little picnic area to dine. After we regained our energy, it was onto Taüll, which we discovered was a couple hundred metres in elevation above Boí. While the road winds up the mountain, the walking path cuts through in a straight line – up we went!
When we got to the top of the hill, we went straight up even further to first see Santa Maria de Taüll, one of the Romanesque churches of the town but located higher in what appeared to previously be a separate small village.
The church had been lovingly restored and replicas of the paintings lined the walls (many of the originals are currently in Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona). Beautiful!
After this, it was down to the main centre of Taüll where we checked into our hotel for the next two nights – Hotel el Rantiner. It’s a larger hotel, one of a few in the town; there’s much more accommodation here than in any other village in the Vall de Boí as it’s also closest to the nearby Boí-Taüll ski resort. After a bit of a rest there, we walked down to see Sant Climent de Taüll, probably the most famous of all the churches in the region.
It’s the largest of church of the region and its painting of the Pantocrator one of the best preserved. Of course, the original painting is now in MNAC in Barcelona but there are remnants of the original paint still on the walls. There’s also a bit of a light projection to show you what the original looked like. However, I would highly recommend (as it was highly recommended to us by one of the women working there) timing your visit to coincide with one of the ‘video mappings’ they show. Get in about 10-15 minutes prior to one to secure a seat and then a beautifully created show formed of multiple projections will take place for about 10 minutes; they show how the paintings would have originally looked when they were created almost 1000 years ago. It’s really worth the wait.
Dinner was at the nearby Hostal Sant Climent – they just managed to squeeze us into a table in the corner. The entire big restaurant had been fully booked! (Book your restaurants in advance – this is our main take home message and I repeat this at the end of this post.) The food was exactly what we needed on this trip – hot and plentiful. While the starters were nothing to write home about, the main courses were excellent – grilled beef cheeks and roasted pork ribs. Desserts too were absolutely massive, with Blai’s mel i mató twice as large as anything you’d find in a Barcelonan restaurant.
We started the day at the breakfast buffet at the hotel. This was a proper spread: bread, proper tomatoes for rubbing, hams, cheeses, cereals, jams, yogurt, fruit, juices, coffees, teas, chocolates, sweets, etc, etc. One could also order fried eggs and bacon or eggs any way. We filled up as we were expecting to do a lot of walking that Thursday.
After breakfast, it was back to Boí this morning to queue for one of the 4×4 taxis that would take us deep within the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes. Regular cars are allowed only up to a certain point; to go further, only these taxis have the permission and the ability to drive up one narrow road. You end up in the middle of the park and there are many walking paths from there.
We had packed sandwiches from a bakery in Taüll as well as packets of nuts we’d brought from Barcelona and we tucked into them when we reached the Estany Llong, a long lake where everyone seems to stop. We were planning to go further but a hiking boot emergency put a stop to that.
After some general wandering around and taking a slightly different route back…
…it was near 17:30 by the time we caught a taxi back to Boí. We then booked another taxi back to the hotel. We were shattered!
We did manage to call and get a table for dinner at Restaurant El Caliu though. Like all the restaurants we encountered in the Vall de Boí, this one offered a set menu both at lunch and dinner time (the latter is uncommon in Barcelona) and this was always the best deal with, yup, two dishes plus dessert, bread, wine and water. The food here was fine but nothing special; perhaps the best thing was the crema de llimona we had for dessert. Particularly unique to me was a stew made with horse meat!
Goodbye, Taüll and Hotel el Rantiner! The hotel was clean and the daily breakfast was excellent but I will never miss the noisy chickens directly under our room’s windows. Gosh, they’re noisy! I remember lying in bed in the very early morning while it was still dark and wishing that I could cock-a-doodle-kill them all.
We were going to be walking today. Back down to Boí we went and then crossed the village to continue on, crossing the river, to Erill la Vall, a very pretty village just a little elevated above the riverbed. It’s quiet, perhaps not as quiet as Durro but certainly more peaceful than Boí or Taüll. There appear to be a few hotels/rental apartments and quite a few good looking restaurants.
Our final Romanesque church on this trip was Santa Eulàlia d’Erill la Vall, the only church in the valley with an exterior arched porch region (portico?) and the most beautiful wooden sculptures above the altar (replicas of course – the originals are partly in MNAC and partly in the Museu Episcopal de Vic).
Erill la Vall is also home to the Centre del Romànic de la Vall de Boí, where you can learn a bit about the history of the region. There’s a very good short video that should be viewed if you’re there – and they have it in English too.
We were hoping for an early lunch but the restaurant we wanted to dine at, Hostal La Plaça, only opened at 13:30. No matter, they reserved us a table and it turned out to be a good thing – almost all the other tables in that very big restaurant were reserved! Again, book all your meals in advance in the Vall de Boí!
We started with a shared first dish of faves (broad beans) with botifarra negre (black sausage) – delicious! There was yet another truita de riu, here served with the very Catalan combination of pinenuts and raisins, and another fabulous coffee flam. Overall, there was some excellent cooking going on here.
This was one of our favourite restaurants on this trip – highly recommended! What a good one to end on.
After lunch (no lingering as there was a bus to catch later that day), we left Erill la Vall to follow the river to Barruera. It was a very pleasant walk, very flat all the way as we were down in the bottom of the valley.
From Barruera, we called for a taxi to take us back to Pont de Suert for a rest and a drink. And then it was back to the bus station at Pont de Suert to wait for our evening bus back to Barcelona. Turn the bus around – I want to go back!
Tips for the Vall de Boí:
- It is possible to get to all the churches by car. Actually, most tourists drive up there; we seemed to be the only people getting around primarily by foot.
- Make all hotel bookings in advance.
- Make reservations for lunches and dinners, even if they’re only 10 minutes prior to opening.
- The best ticket deal for the Romanesque churches is the one for all the churches, the Romanesque visitor centre, and a ticket for MNAC in Barcelona (to see many of the original paintings and sculptures). The MNAC ticket doesn’t have any use-by date. If you’re there for the churches, you’ll easily see most of them.
- There are no facilities for food/toilet/etc available at the national park. There are some water fountains but they are few and far between. Pack sensibly.
- To book a taxi ride within the Vall de Boí, call the Asociació de Taxis de la Vall de Boí.
- Finally, look out for truita de riu (river trout) on menus – they are truly fantastic. Also amazing are the potatoes, the eggs and bacon, and the flams.
It was a fantastic, though short, trip. All my photos from our trip to the Vall de Boí can be found in this Flickr album.
By the way, if you’re reading from Catalonia today – bona diada!