Sandwiched splendidly between the Pyrenees peaks and the Costa Brava’s cliffs and coves, mediaeval Castell d’Empordà is a Catalan ruin that has been transformed into a luxury boutique hotel. East of Girona, in the Catalan countryside, this romantic retreat includes rooms in the castle – once home to an explorer who sailed with Christopher Columbus – and is fittingly strewn with exotic treasures from across the globe.
Double rooms from £156.34 (€182), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €1.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include buffet breakfast.
Ask staff to point you in the direction of Begur, a Historic municipality comprising a 17th-century castle, the pretty village Esclanyà and half a dozen of the area's best beaches. The Romanesque centre is worth wandering around too.
The hotel closes for the winter from November to March each year.
At the hotel
Gardens, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD player and minibar.
Our favourite rooms
If, like Forster, you’re after a room with a view, book a bijou boudoir in the Tower (no bath, though). The Castle rooms are the exposed-stonework real deal, with hand-made floor tiles from Marrakech, patchwork-hide rugs and dramatic views, to be enjoyed from cushioned window seats in some rooms. Stained glass windows draped in Indian silk, a Victorian bathtub and antique Tibetan rugs lend opulence to the palatial Suite Pere Margarit by Dutch designer Menno Kroon. Look out for the fabulous whale-tail shelf.
There’s a turquoise-tiled outdoor pool in the gardens, overlooking the green-gold scenery; it's heated year round except for July and August.
Bring a pair of comfortable shoes for treks to medieaval villages such as Peratallada, 5km away, or hopping on the hotel's fleet of bikes. Relic hunters should pack their most elastic plastic to flex, in anticipation of the area’s pottery and collectibles. Remember a jumper for cooler nights.
Rooms and suites are no smoking, but guests can light up on their balcony or terrace. Common areas and one Garden Suite are wheelchair accessible.
Little Smiths are welcome, with cots provided free, extra beds for €50 a night.
Sit out on the terrace – enjoy a lazy lunch in the shade by day and admire the twinkling lights from distant towns by night.
Channel flamenco-glam for evening, light and layered during daylight hours.
The hotel has two restaurants. In Drac, a dramatic bull’s-head sculpture on the wall keeps watch over proceedings in the sensual gothic dining room. Black silk drapes lie sleekly against the rough, nougat-coloured stone walls, glossy jet chandeliers drip from the ceilings and tabletop candles flicker amid the dark expanse. Offerings are Spanish with global influences – be sure to try the signature tuna sashimi dish. Tres Magarit is set on the hotel's terrace and thus has sigh-worthy views of the Emporda valley and the 14th-century castle. Here, you'll dine on tapas, sizzling seafood and Josper-grilled meats.
The Cava Del Drac, housed in the old wine cellar, is – while more of a lounge than bar – a suitably historic and dramatic drinking den. Sit among the vaulted stone ceilings on low, slouchy sofas in neutral shades and admire the decor, inspired by a ’50s Parisian jazz bar. Small, curved tables sparkle with tea lights and a relaxed soundtrack of laid-back lounge music will fill any gaps in conversation. Leave no alcove unturned; there is a bounty of books on art, wine, history and so forth to enjoy with a glass of tempranillo.
10.30pm for dinner; the bar is open noon until midnight. Grab breakfast between 8am to 10.30am; lunch from 1pm to 3.30pm and dinner from 3.30pm to 8pm in Tres Magarit; or dinner from 8pm to 10.30pm in Drac.
There’s no room service but the restaurant is sure to cater to your culinary needs.
Ryanair flies from 11 UK airports to Girona-Costa Brava Airport, 40 minutes from La Bisbal by taxi (www.ryanair.com).
Take the Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) from London to Paris mid-afternoon; then take the evening Barcelona-bound train from Gare d’Austerlitz and wake up in Girona (www.raileurope.co.uk).
Exits 5 to 9 of the A-7 motorway access the region from Barcelona to the south, Perpignan to the north.
Worth getting out of bed for
Climb the hotel’s narrow staircase to the watchtower and soak up the magnificent 360-degree views; on a clear day, you’ll be able to admire the glittering sea below. History buffs should explore the hotel’s Napoleon Hall, where owner Albert has painstakingly recreated the battle of Waterloo, based on a map drawn by his great-great-grandfather and featuring more than 2,000 miniature antique figurines. Wander into the property’s olive orchard and stray on to the paths threading through the surrounding countryside. The streets of La Bisbal are lined with shops selling pottery and antiques. If you like the ceramics dotted around the hotel, buy your own to take home from Vila Clara. The shop is family-run and has been perfecting its trade over the last 50 years. Bargain-hunters will love the vibrant markets, held every Friday in La Bisbal and on Sundays in nearby Palafrugell. For culture vultures, Catalonia has the Dalí Triangle to explore: this trio of sights includes the Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the House-Museum in Portlligat and the Castle Museum in Púbol.
Feast on traditional Catalan cuisine at Mas Pouin Palau-Sator. Once a family home, this restaurant is full of local character (and characters) and snails – they serve up to 26,000 a week. If you want to sample stylish Catalan cuisine in a romantic setting, eat at Hotel Restaurant El Fort on the lantern-lit terrace, in the village of Ullastret. El Pati in Peratallada serves up delicious Catalan specialities (the traditional Spanish breakfast is also worth rising early for) and has a pretty courtyard area, surrounded by natural stone, walnut trees and shrubs. La Plaça in Madremanya is built inside an old country house with vaulted stone ceilings and terracotta-tiled floors, and has a tranquil vine-covered, jasmine-scented terrace, where you can enjoy nouvelle cuisine-style Catalan dishes. Hostal La Llagosta’s unassuming restaurant, La Llagostain Llafranc serves sophisticated little dishes – look out for gazpacho with a tomato sorbet and tart tatin with cinnamon ice-cream. Feast on succulent seafood at Es Furio’s beachside restaurant at Foraió in Tamariu. Originally a fisherman’s house, Es Furio has been a family-owned hotel since the 1930s.
Patisseria Sans in La Bisbal is a family-owned bakery, famous for its luscious cakes and pastries. Be sure to try the Bisbalenc, a sweet treat made from puff pastry, vermicelli, sugar and pine nuts.
For beers in bohemia, head to Mas Sorrer, set in an open field, just outside Gualta (00 34 677 458854). This unique drinking-hole hosts regular DJ sessions and has a stage set for live music, plus yoga sessions and alfresco film screenings come summer. Inside is a pretty candle-lit restaurant and the bar stays open until around 6am in summer.
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.