Having never quite recovered from the disappointment of not actually being born a princess, this Mrs Smith is hugely and perhaps rather childishly excited at the prospect of a weekend in a real mediaeval castle in Northern Spain. Driving through the huge stone gateposts towards Castell d’Empordà, this luxury stay looks so much more like a fairytale residence rather than a hotel that I half wish I’d donned a long dress and pointy hat with veil for the occasion. Mr Smith expresses great relief that I haven’t.
Leaving the lush, water-featured grounds and groves to explore until later, we admire the outdoor turquoise-tiled pool, built into a timber deck near the edge of the cliff before depositing our bags in our Castle room. Here we find everything a wannabe royal might expect from their quarters – vaulted ceiling, exposed stone walls and a window seat with a silk-tasselled cushion and a view overlooking endless trees and fields. Thick, Indian silk curtains and an animal-skin rug on Moroccan-tiled floor inject a little exoticism to the story.
Restored from a near-ruin only a decade ago, our bedroom also has plenty of extras unrecognisable to my inner centuries-ago heroine. But maybe in today’s Disney version, a minibar, air-conditioning, TV and DVD player and discs to borrow from reception is standard regulation. A brief look at the hotel literature tells me that the dark wood furniture throughout Castell d’Empordà has been sourced from Italy, Morocco and China, and wherever I look, tasteful castle-type objêts – stone busts, headless torsos, antique chairs and the like – are discreetly dotted about.
Mr Smith takes a peak around a half-screen and discovers a large white bath and shower, and an array of white, fluffy towels and orange-blossom toiletries. But our regal plans haven’t yet stretched to ablutions, and having never visited this area before I dispatch Mr Smith to ask the friendly reception staff for maps and suggestions of places to visit around Girona. Dutifully listening to directions while HRH Smith sits on velvet cushions in a copper-leafed alcove, Mr Smith raises an eyebrow at me leafing through glossy magazines. Well? Princesses don’t really do driving instructions.
We head off for Spanish-style late lunch of fresh, garlicky squid and icy rosé wine at Hostal La Llagosta overlooking Llfranc Beach, around 20 minutes’ drive from the hotel and then head for the beach, whiling away our afternoon lazing around on loungers, gazing out over the calm and sparkling sea. Sunbathing somehow seems a suitable way to work up an appetite for dinner in Castell d’Empordà’s Mediterranean restaurant. With chunky black chandeliers, crisp white tablecloths, exquisitely upholstered seats and a giant fireplace with a bull’s head poised above, it manages to feel romantic, intimate and relaxed all at once.
Choosing delicate beef carpaccio, fresh fish and marinated strawberries with basil and yoghurt ice-cream from the Market Menu proves wise. And Mr Smith’s declares of that delicious basil ice-cream that it is likely to become the stuff of legends, proclaiming it the best dessert he’s ever had. ‘All other ice-creams are now nothing to me,’ he sighs as we reluctantly call it a night.
Darkness-ensuring shutters, decadent drapes and pin-drop peacefulness mean that we sleep so late we almost miss breakfast. Croissants are buttery, juice is freshly-squeezed and scrambled eggs and bacon are perfectly cooked. We eat at a white-linen covered table on the hotel’s shady terrace among the heady-scented flowers looking over hills of every shade of green and in the distance, brooding mountains. It was definitely worth dragging ourselves out of bed for.
With a previous day spent mostly eating and drinking, we take advantage of mountain bikes on offer and go for a cycle before lunch. This seems an excellent idea as we freewheel down the hill, me with skirt tucked into knickers as I have brought nothing remotely pedal-able in. Past fields of poppies we glide, through a verdant valley with tumble-down stone huts in fields, and finally into the near-silent village of Canapost with an ancient church. You know where this is going, right? Of course what goes down must also go up and our glide back through the valley segues into an uphill walk.
The nearby mediaeval villages of Pais and Begur explored and we settle down for lunch of more grilled squid and chilled rosé (somehow it seems so suited to this sunshine) at waterside restaurant Es Furió. So cute is this bay of Sa Tuna that it appears something from a children’s story, surrounded by rocks and icing-sugar white houses. There is a fishing boat resting on the sand, a narrow shop selling toy wooden boats and even an artist capturing the scene in watercolour. ‘It’s like Cornwall, only with good weather and better food’, Mt Smith observes.
Huge mattressed day beds pull us back to the hotel, where, supine, we order ice-cold Estrella beer. Castell d’Empordà regularly hosts live music in its cellar bar and this weekend is its jazz festival. Sadly, despite calls and email from the hotel before our arrival, we didn’t get around to booking tickets and it’s sold out. We head instead to another nearby mediaeval town, Peratallada, for dinner. Here, thick, hearty soup with anchovy toast and velvety Rioja at the bizarrely named Les Coques del Pss provides decent consolation.
After supper, a stroll round the Peratallada, where the uneven, cobbled streets makes me regret high heels; but at least in appropriate Mr & Mrs Smith style, my footwear has me clinging to my beloved like a drunken starlet. Returning to our castle-for-now for coffee on the candlelit terrace, looking out over the sea while the smooth-as-chocolate voice of the jazz singer drifts up from the antique cellar bar is as charming a nightcap as I’ve known.
Castell d’Empordà is a seductive mix of contradictions. Opulent yet relaxed, and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but in fact within easy reach of all the ceramic and antique shops your heart could desire, cosy tapas bars, terraces overlooking the sea serving any-fresher-it-would-be-twitching seafood and sandy bays, some of which are so postcard-perfect they look like they have been Photoshopped. Little wonder, back in the Seventies, Salvador Dali hoped to buy the castle for his muse, Gala. It’s just a shame the artist isn’t around today to visit Castell d’Empordà – it’s hard to imagine a setting more inspiring. Even Christopher Columbus’ cohot Captain Margaris decided to up-ship and settle here. So, if it can court world-famous painters and their muses, and tempt a reluctant landlubber into domesticity, no wonder it’s been a fairytale spot for this Mr & Mrs Smith to enjoy their own love affair.