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.

By Adrien Glover, Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007, 12:00 AM

La Cerdanya has more than 250 miles of hiking trails—including this one cut into the mountainside at Gorges de la Carança

(Ana Nance)

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.

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.

The next day, while driving back over the mountains to Eyne, I ignore the number one rule of hiking and decide to go for a solo jaunt at the Gorges de la Carança. While I do encounter a few serious-looking hikers with backpacks (which explains all those rust-kissed VW buses and Peugeots at the entrance), mostly I'm by myself on the flat path that at one point is carved spectacularly into a sheer cliff.

The jamstress's inn, Cal Pai, is just as I remember it. Under the stone-archway entrance is a chalkboard scribbled with still-friendly rates, and the canvas chairs scattered around the lawn are where I left them three years before. I'm greeted by the lingering scent of a wood fire, along with a hodgepodge of guitars, terra-cotta pots, hiking maps, and checkerboards. The nine guest rooms, most of which are accessed by rickety stairs, sport similar flea market decor.

The attitude at Cal Pai is très laissez-faire--at least until dinner, which is at 8 P.M. sharp. Most diners are inn guests, but it's possible to call ahead for a table d'hôte dinner to taste the results of Françoise's foraging, which might include asparagus and chanterelles, along with sheep's milk cheese from a farm down the road.

I take a seat at the 25-foot farmhouse table and introduce myself to pink-cheeked 40-somethings from Toulouse filing in from a hike. Françoise and her sous-chef can often be counted on for hearty local dishes like trinxat, which is made from bacon, cabbage, and potatoes, but tonight there's a more exotic menu of cumin-scented beet salad, white nettles and goat cheese in flaky phyllo dough, a crock of lemon-tinged crema catalana, and a platter of stinky French cheeses. Carafes of young red wine from Roussillon are emptied and refilled, and the conversation turns to politics. As the only American in the house, and possibly for miles around, I take one for the country as I get gently ribbed about French-fry boycotts.

The next morning, after a steaming café au lait, a warm baguette, and a taste test of more than a dozen preserves, I begin the drive to Barcelona. I take a shortcut back through Saillagouse and wave as I pass the sausage guy and the kindly gentleman who pointed me toward God. When I spot my British friends as they're entering Le Crapahuteur, I make a mental note to e-mail them and ask what exactly is on the menu. Then again, maybe I'll come back--yet again--and find out for myself.

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