[Get to know MEDUSA's territories] The Alt Empordà, Catalonia
This article forms part of a series of publications under MEDUSA project to promote less-known natural and cultural touristic assets in our partner territories Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Puglia (Italy) and Catalonia (Spain). Enjoy reading and hope to welcome you soon at one of the wonderful places you will get to know here.
The Alt Empordà – a place where nature reveals its immensity. Sea or mountains? – a question most people ask themselves before planning their next vacation. Beach, cliffs, a salty breeze and a seafood meal? Or rather lonely hikes, stunning views, pure air and a hearty picnic? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to choose anymore because in Alt Empordà you can have all of it. It’s a landscape of great natural beauty and rich in contrast with the Pyrenees to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea with its famous Costa Brava to the south. Asking Inma Ballbé, resident to the area and a tourism consultant closely involved in the local development of the area for many years, about the main attractive of the area for adventure tourism, she did not think long for an answer: “It’s the variety in its landscapes, natural ones and those fashioned by man likewise”. This, she further explains, makes it a perfect setting for outdoor activity on land and in the sea. Along the same coastline, the activity offers range from nautical sports, most of them calm and well recognized by visitors from all over the world, to stand-up paddle and kayak tours as well as their somewhat more demanding relatives kite and windsurfing. The latter are mostly carried out in the area of Castelló d’Empuries and Sant Pere Pescador, where in past years the windsurf world championship took place. Guided kayak tours operated by small businesses lead you to secluded coves along the rugged coast and the best spots for snorkelling. In waters so rich in biodiversity as the Costa Brava, you can be almost sure however to find endless life, no matter where you plunge below the surface. This is also due to the fact that the seabed in the area is protected since many years, finally gaining the status of a Nature Park covering the Montgrí Massif, its marine geological extension the Medes-Islands and the Baix Ter marshlands in 2010. The Medes-Islands, protected already since 1983, are the diving destination par excellence in the occidental part of the Mediterranean being the habitat of several rare and protected species. Further north the coast, the Nature Park Cap de Creus is another first class diving spot known for its extensive populations of gorgonian coral (red coral used for jewellery), for the possibility to dive into wrecks, and for the very geomorphology of its seabed, which give continuity to the cliffs that characterize the cape.
“On land, the ‘crown jewel’ of the area in terms of outdoor activity surely is the long-distance hiking trail GR-92. One of the most demanded offer, as reported by local hiking tour operators, is a 6-nights itinerary in between the two emblematic towns of Colliure (in France) and the mythical village of the world famous painter Salvador Dalí, Cadaqués”, explains Inma Balbé further.
Towards the interior, the GR-92, which connects the villages along the coastline, intersects with countless paths and itineraries that reach charming, often fortified medieval villages that preserve their rural character and bear witness of the territory’s past. They are embedded in hilly scenery scattered with olive trees and vineyards, whereas more to the south, the landscape is flatter and dominated the typical patchwork pattern of agricultural cultivation. Next to the sweet onion of Figueres, and the cherries from Llers, the territory also stands out for its world-class wine production under the designation of origin (DO) Empordà. Cellars in the area offer routes and tastings and sell their local produce right on the spot. As a curiosity, the so-called ‘Albera’, a protected area bordering France in the north, is also home to the very rare cork oak tree whose bark once pealed of is used to make wine corks. From the important fishery ports of Llançà, Port de la Selva and Roses local catches are brought freshly to fish markets and restaurants. A speciality of the zone are Escala salted anchovies, a centuries-old tradition and well worth trying.
One of the best ways to discover the territory surely is on wheels along the vast network of cycling greenways. Especially the great agricultural plains and the wetland of the Nature Park of Aiguamolls offer perfect cycling conditions. And, recommends Inma, “if you catch a day when the characteristic north wind Tramontana blows, you can always opt for an electric bike for some support on the pedalling in one of the bike renting stations. It’s not cheating, just some backing”, she adds smiling. For those who want to make a serious sport out of it, there are asphalted routes with considerable unevenness and MTB downhill routes, if that is what you are looking for.
Next to water and ashore activities, there is another medium for adventure lovers, which the Alt Empordà is famous for – the air. In a hot air balloon peacefully gliding over the area you can enjoy awe-inspiring views over vineyards, medieval villages, the Cape of Creus, and finally observe the waves running out onto the beaches of the Gulf of Roses from above. For a more adrenalin-provoking option of in-air activity, skydives operated from the Empuriabrava Aerodrome might be your choice for a unique shot of emotion during your vacation. Dare you try?
Having said all that, it almost appears obvious that the Alt Empordà district offers a perfect setting and a huge potential for a further development of adventure tourism. Nevertheless, despite its very varied offer and beautiful interior landscape, in past years, beach tourism centred along the coastline during high season was predominant. “Visitors’ demands are changing however and tourist increasingly ask for a diversified set of activities. They want to learn about, taste, feel, experience their destination, enjoy sustainably produced local food and rely on certified operators or activities” assures Inma in a very optimistic manner. In this sense, the fact that in this same district 3 Natural Parks and one protected area coincide represents an opportunity for small businesses to develop, in collaboration with the park management authorities, touristic products based on sustainability, security and professionalism. Or as Inma puts it: “to anticipate the expectations of the type of tourists that the region is keen to attract and offer corresponding products”. And in precisely this attempt Medusa project plays an important role.
Medusa provides local tourism businesses and stakeholders with training and helps them reaffirm or improve their approaches and products so to position themselves strategically in an ever more global market. Through MEDUSA they have the possibility to collaborate and build a local and cross-border network with other operators to increases their visibility. Last and most importantly they have the chance to apply for financial support under the project’s sub-granting mechanism. “Tourism SMEs in the area are willing to work towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and surely won’t let slip the opportunity Medusa offers them to find adequate support and financing to address this.” concludes Inma on the question of how MEDUSA project can support the local attempts to develop a more sustainable tourism.