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.
The hotel's low-slung roof and stone façade disappear in the shadow of the 17th-century fort that dominates the promontory above town. Once inside, however, there's no mistaking the family-run property for anything but what it is--a modern, luxurious retreat (with rates to match). After checking in and settling into my room--under a mansard roof, with views of the Sierra de Cadí--I linger at the pool area. One Turkish bath, two Oranginas, and a copy of Hola! later, the unnerving drive is a distant memory.
Before dinner I chitchat with a handsome waiter working the hotel's spectacular terrace. I'm not sure if it's the glass of Banyuls--a local fortified wine--or the waiter's coal-black eyes, but I listen intently as he proclaims his deep love of siestas and how, at dusk, the high rounded peaks in the distance remind him of the Loch Ness monster. I too like to nap, and there is indeed a Nessie-ness to the scene. We agree on so much! I decide to forego my reservation in the hotel's elegant restaurant, and dine alfresco on a green salad, a plate of goat cheeses, and a bottle of red wine.
The next morning, I explore La Seu d'Urgell's 12th-century Catedral de Santa Maria, then nose around the French town of Saillagouse, stopping to inspect a vendor's garlicky pork butifarra, a kind of sausage. Hunger quickly sets in. I skip the first restaurant I see, a place with the dubious name of Le Crapahuteur, opting instead for a lunch surrounded by taxidermy at La Vieille Maison Cerdane. Despite being stared at by a snaggle-toothed red fox, I enjoy every bite, especially the potato-and-cod brandade.
A languorous afternoon unfolds as I meander along the back roads that intertwine around Saillagouse. I get lost, again, but the urge to freak out is quelled by the warm lavender-scented breeze. I drive into the hamlet of Ste. Léocadie to ask directions, and have the happy accident of discovering the Musée de Cerdagne and meeting its hospitable director, Dominique Pilato. She treats me to a private tour of innovative historical exhibits scattered throughout the old barns and outbuildings of the 17th-century farm Cal Mateu (also the home of Europe's highest-altitude wine-producing estate).
Curious about La Cerdanya's hot springs, I slip over for a soak in the Bains de Llo. Ninety-five-degree mineral waters bubble in the gorges of the Sègre river, and entrepreneurs have set up a simple bathhouse and pools. Post-soak, I jump in my car and make my way to L'Atalaya Hôtel-Restaurant in upper Llo.
I enter through a rose-filled stone garden and am greeted by the hotel's effusive owner, a patrician woman in vintage magenta espadrilles.
Madame Toussaint gives me the grand tour, proudly showing me the piano and a leafy terrace. Over dinner, I start up a conversation with a young couple from Bath, England, and before I can say the words duck à l'orange, they invite me to dine with them.
Life is less good the next day, when I have plans to take Le Train Jaune, the "yellow train," over the mountain and into the Roussillon region's Vallée de la Têt. Apparently it's not just TGV workers who go on strike, but the ones who operate cute tourist trains, too. I'll have to drive, navigating the sheer drops and switchbacks on my own. I can't say I enjoy it. Ten minutes in, I stop at the 1679 garrison town of Mont-Louis for a palm-drying walk and a croque monsieur (it helps!) before completing the 30-mile descent to the medieval fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent.
It takes no more than an hour to get your bearings in Villefranche, and I'm soon walking circles around the two main streets and alleys, which are lined with pink-marble homes dating from the 13th century. At first I'm put off by the whiff of tourism, but amid the souvenir shops are little stores offering free tastes of Grand Cru Banyuls or selling perfume, handmade soap, or artisanal ice cream.
On a dirt road just outside the walls of Fort Liberia--built in the 17th century to protect Villefranche--is a chalet-style B&B, Casa Penalolen. The owners, Mireille and Esteban Pena-Faïn, hand me towels at check-in; they know where I'm headed. For a while I have the pool to myself, but I'm soon joined by three generations of Parisian women. They explain that they are spending the summer in the Pyrenees for the fresh air, and I can't help but think that I've tumbled into a Henry James novel.
Later, Mireille insists I take a flashlight on my walk to dinner in town, and points me toward La Casa de la Nine, run by a Brit named Rick Hurley and his wife, Heather, a talented chef. In their sunflower-filled dining room, I have a wonderful meal that begins with a foie gras pastry served with gingerbread ice cream and ends with a pavlova adorned with gooseberries.