I was standing in the nave of a 12th-century church in a pasture-filled valley near the Catalan Pyrenees when I heard the heavy wooden door close behind me. Everything went dark. A few minutes later, to the sound of church bells and amplified footsteps, red swirls appeared on the walls, followed by blocks of bright blue, yellow, red and green.
Gradually, the bearded, haloed figure of Christ emerged – all powerful in blue robes with one hand raised, and the church’s dome was covered in vividly colored frescos. Then, almost as quickly as the images had arrived, they were gone, and I was back in the 21st century.
I have seen quite a few audiovisual experiences in my time, but this was one of the most powerful, magically recreating how the church of Sant Climent’s frescos (now preserved at MNAC – the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona) would have looked at the 12th century.
I had come to the village of Taüllin in the Vall de Boí as part of the Catalan Grand Tour, a series of five routes recently launched by the Catalan Tourist Board, spanning more than 2,000km across the region.
The idea is to responsible tourism, taking visitors beyond the tourist hubs of Barcelona and the Costa Brava and introducing them to the equally impressive landscapes and culture elsewhere in the region, from mountain villages to vineyards and volcanoes, national parks and Gothic cathedrals.
The five routes can be visited together in a fortnight, or you can choose, as I did, to explore one section, spending three or four days picking from the recommended stops along the way.
Vall de Boí is part of Section 3, which covers the west of Catalonia and takes in the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – a spectacular expanse of mountain peaks, rivers, ravines, waterfalls and woods, as well as golden eagles and antelopes.
Wandering through the woods, the scent of red and black pines filled the clean mountain air. Alongside the path were purple crocuses and juniper bushes, as well as bright red- and white-speckled mushrooms, which my knowledgeable local guide Moyses explained were fly agaric – Alice in Wonderland’s favourite.
I had started the Grand Tour the previous day, driving 160km north-west of Barcelona to the city of Lleida, home to the vast La Seu Vella cathedral, sitting high above the city on a hilltop. The scale of the cathedral alone is impressive, but the real showstopper is its magnificent 14th-century Gothic cloister – one of the largest in Europe, with its ornately filigreed stonework arches and wonderful views to the surrounding countryside.
From Lleida, I set off north to the town of Les in the Val d’Aran – another valley in the shadow of the Pyrenees, where I stopped at the family-run Hotel Talabat for a delicious lunch of salty, unctuous paella made with five types of local mushrooms.
Wandering around the town, through streets full of neat, chalet-style houses, I came across a 12m-high wooden pole, topped with a makeshift crucifix, standing alone on a small square.
From chatting with Nuria, the owner of a nearby newsagent, I discovered that the pole was left over from the annual local fire festival – Crema deth Haro, held on 23 June, when the trunk of a fir tree is set alight while villagers perform traditional Aranese dances around it. Once the pole is burnt, couples hang hearts and flowers on to specially made rungs as a fertility rite. “It’s totally pagan,” Nuria pointed out.
On my final leg of the tour, I headed further north-east and closer to the Pyrenees, to the small town of Sort in the Pallars Sobirà region – another mountain area with its own idiosyncratic customs and culture.
The town is known for river-rafting but for me, the most fascinating find was the Museu de la Memoria. Hidden away on a small plaza within the winding streets of the Old Town, what was originally a prison is now a tiny museum commemorating the town’s history as an escape route from Spain during the Civil War.
There is only one main room, with a few artefacts, but there are also powerful stories of those who made the treacherous journey on foot across the Pyrenees to freedom in France. It felt emblematic of the Catalan Grand Tour: unearthing the smaller, quieter, but unsung heroes of this extraordinary region.
Five sections of the grand tour
Section 1: “Vineyards with a Taste of the Sea”
Heading south of Barcelona, this route takes in the Unesco heritage sites of Roman Tarragona, the cava and wine-growing vineyards of the Penedes, Barcelona and the spectacular mountain of Montserrat.
Section 2: “In Search of History”
Continuing southwest, highlights include the biosphere reserve of the Terres de l’Ebre, the Els Ports Natural Park and a village made famous by Picasso.
Section 3: “Very Close to the Heavens” – this is the section I explored.
Section 4: “Ode to Nature”
This northern section has everything from Alpine ski resorts and the volcano-filled Natural Park of La Garrotxa to medieval villages.
Section 5: “From Surrealism to Modernism”
This stretch covers Catalonia’s north-east, taking in museums devoted to surrealist maestro Salvador Dalí and the lunar landscape of the Cap de Creus Natural Park, as well as florid Art Nouveau architecture along the way.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Talabat in Val d’Aran has doubles from €80 (£67), hoteltalabart.cat
WHAT TO SEE
Road to Freedom Museum, Sort, camidelallibertat.sort.cat