THE BEST PLACES YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
Hush-Hush Europe: La Cerdanya
Straddling France and Spain, the region of La Cerdanya is where Europeans go when they want peace and quiet and really good jam.
A puff of smoke fills the pizzeria, some American exchange students yell, "Stop, drop, and roll," and time hiccups into slow motion. My friend McCrizz and I don't stop or drop--instead, we run straight for the restaurant's door with our napkins still tucked into our shirt collars.
The chef, Fabián Martín, soon appears outside Pizzería-Taller with a sideways grin, offers apologies, and then, in a theatrical gesture, lifts two balls of pizza dough above his head. Under a streetlight in the small Pyrenean town of Llívia, in front of a dazed crowd, he spins, arm rolls, and kicks the balls into 12-inch rounds. Whoops erupt, and we all file back inside for the main event.
Martín is not only one of the world's top pizza-dough acrobats--an official designation--he also makes some of the world's wildest riffs on pizza: sushi pizza, pizza soup, even bite-size pockets of dough filled with a Coca-Cola reduction. As McCrizz and I nibble slices topped with wildflowers, Martín stops by to tell us that he's close to finalizing a formula for something totally new: see-through pizza.
A fertile 420-square-mile valley-plateau, La Cerdanya lies like a green carpet overlapping the Spanish and French sides of the Pyrenees. I first learned of the region from an article that mentioned a woman from Toulouse who had chucked it all to open Cal Pai, a modest inn for hikers and skiers in Eyne, a village surrounded by snowcapped peaks. She picked blueberries, plums, rose hips, and edible meadow blossoms; cooked and jarred them; and came to be known locally as the "poetess of preserves." Sometimes we all have to indulge a caprice, and at the time I felt perfectly justified in flying to Barcelona and driving two hours to taste manna: Françoise Massot's wild-raspberry jam.
When the opportunity arose to explore La Cerdanya again, I jumped. I'd be alone for the majority of the trip, but I managed to persuade my friend Mike (also known as McCrizz), who has lived in Barcelona for 18 years now, to join me for the first day and a half.
After dinner at the pizzeria, we walk to our hotel through the back streets of Llívia, an enclave that stuck with Spain in the creation of a 1659 peace treaty, when 33 surrounding towns were ceded to France. Fashioned from a 16th-century stable at a farmhouse estate, the 21-room Hotel Bernat de So, with its contemporary decor, designer lighting, and chic lobby lounge, seems an appropriately cutting-edge place to digest our sushi pizza.
La Cerdanya (the Catalan spelling is used most widely; the French spell it La Cerdagne) is still something of a secret from American tourists, but the valley's history stretches as far back as the 6th century B.C. The list of invaders reads like a Who's Who of European domination: Carthaginians, Moors, Franks, and kings of Aragon. In the early part of the 20th century, the ski resort Le Grand Hôtel opened in Font-Romeu, helping to establish the area as a popular winter destination among sportif Europeans.
Today, visitors come year-round to breathe the intoxicating air, soak in the hot springs, and hike some 250 miles of trails. Beyond outdoorsy pursuits and natural beauty, sunny Cerdanya has a mélange of cultures--a place where you could easily crisscross the border between Spain and France six times a day, and pricey tapas are rare as rain.
After a breakfast of Spanish melon and local mató cheese with honey, McCrizz and I set out for our own dose of fresh air. The receptionist at Bernat de So suggests we go to the village of Dorres and climb to Nuestra Señora de Bell-Lloc, a mountaintop chapel. When we get to Ur, a neighboring town, and ask an elderly gentleman how to get to the chapel, he points up and says, "Está cerca de Dios." There, atop a seemingly vertical peak, is a speck of a building that is indeed close to God. Not up for the climb, we hop in my rental car and scoot 15 minutes away to Eyne in search of the gentle path that leads from the entrance of Cal Pai, Françoise's inn, into the wooded hills.
In no time, McCrizz and I are running through a butterfly-filled alpine meadow, each enjoying our own Sound of Music moment. We wend our way under soaring falcons into the sun-dappled beech and black-pine forest. A gurgling stream leads us over mossy ridges to a small waterfall. We marvel that we're actually stopping to smell the wildflowers--thistles, Madonna lilies, and scented poppies.
We treat ourselves to a post-hike lunch of pea bisque and truffle-dusted beef carpaccio at Can Ventura, a restaurant in Llívia with centuries-old stone walls decorated with antique snowshoes. Afterward, I drop McCrizz off at the train station and immediately take a wrong turn. Flustered, I double back to the traffic circle and go around it about a dozen times before shooting out onto the main road that runs along the spine of the valley. I'm on my way to La Seu d'Urgell in search of Hotel El Castell de Ciutat.