It's gothic, it's 14th-century and it lifts spirits as a perfectly timed luxury stay on a walk through Catalonia.
Our first glimpse of Castell d'Emporda tantalises. We spy the 14th-century Gothic castle through a mini-bus window while zooming towards the Costa Brava. Even though it crowns a distant hilltop, we can tell, even from here, that it's luxe. Eight of us shriek with delight. That castle will be our roost for two nights – once we conquer a 24-kilometre trek the next day.
Adventure World's self-guided, six-night Catalan Classic Walk begins and ends at the Hotel Garbi, perched above the Calella de Palafrugell seafront. The village sits on Spain's Costa Brava, a stretch of serpentine Mediterranean coastline that pulls holidaymakers to it like a magnet. Kids dangle inflatable rings from their necks, women from colder corners of the continent shuck their bikini tops and stand around soaking up the sun, as old guys ask their wives, "What does she think she's doing?", which is an oblique way of acknowledging the view.
In the hotel's shady terraced gardens we gather around Mick. He fetched us from Flaca train station and will ferry our luggage between hotels. His basic message is that only idiots could get lost on this walk. "Just follow the instructions," he says. "If there's any point where they don't make sense, backtrack until they do." A set of highlighted maps and highlighter pens await at reception: two of us trace the trail onto our maps in pink neon before heading to dinner at the beachfront Taverna Can Batlle. After loading up with oil-drenched anchovies, tomato-rubbed bread and deep-fried artichokes, we feel ready for anything.
The next day dawns bright before gloom sweeps in. On second thoughts, we weren't ready for this. Sure enough, fat raindrops plip-plop onto the windscreen as Mick drives us to the drop-off point. Only two of us have wet-weather gear; none of us wants this drive to end. We tumble out at Mont-Ras, trying to focus on the castle as a motivator. Soon we're tramping into the Gavarres hills past forests of cork trees. The cork industry once shaped this region's fortunes: traders brought back trends from far-flung places and a "cork bourgeoisie" dominated from the 19th to the mid-20th century.
At a junction we huddle, dripping, under the eaves of Senor Botey's place, also home to a cork museum. We knock, hoping the senor is at home and that he'll show us his corks. No-one answers. After to-ing and fro-ing as only eight people can do, we turn right instead of left, allowing discreet yellow and white painted waymarks to override our printed instructions. No-one thinks to pull out the highlighted maps.
The mistake means we miss a series of dolmen – stone structures that mark megalithic tombs. On the plus side, our unexpected detour takes us past Fitor's striking Romanesque stone church. Nibbling lunch baguettes on the go, we inch ever closer to the castle near La Bisbal, the commercial centre of the Lower Emporda (or Baix Emporda in Catalan). We traverse fields, rock-hop over a stream, splash mud, squelch a little and finally arrive at its door, wondering if they'll even let us in looking like this.
Bon dia! I use the Catalan greeting whenever I can. Castle receptionists don't even blink at the prospect of so much dirt coming in through the front door: Adventure World hikers (and cyclists) are regulars here. Before long, I'm soaking in my room's deep tub. Rooms in the modern wing, built in 2004, have balconies offering views over the Emporda plain and its geometric fields. When I peek into someone's castle room however, I develop room envy: these spaces are seriously sexy with their cushioned window seats, billowing chocolate curtains, exposed stone walls, patchwork cowhide rugs and rough-hewn decorative timber panels. Even the curtain rods have character: tiny dragons perch at each end.
Half of us spend our rest day in nearby Pubol and Figueres – two corners of the so-called Dali Triangle - soaking up as many surreal moments as we can before returning for dinner and an aperitif with the castle's Dutch owner Albert Diks. Dali, he says, wanted to buy this place in the 1970s in exchange for artwork but the then owner preferred cold, hard cash. Diks snapped it up in 2000, splashing 8 million euros on the pile and its renovations. Diks' great-great-grandfather spent time in Napoleon's army, which explains why an entire room is devoted to Diks' re-creation of the Battle of Waterloo. The 18-square-metre model features 2000 tiny hand-painted soldiers and 500 horses.
After a final breakfast mimosa – cava splashed with fresh OJ – we reluctantly take our leave, strolling out of the grounds past ancient olive trees. I wish I wasn't still so full when we arrive at Peratallada – one of Spain's best preserved walled villages that clings to a nub of solid rock. Cosy bougainvillea-draped restaurants are just setting up for lunch and I could while away hours here. Pushing on we lunch at Pals, another medieval village. Perhaps it's our timing but it's heaving with tourists and lacks the ambience of our earlier stop.
Cyclists tracing the same route lazily pedal by as we track to Begur via a mountaintop detour that reveals the coastline – so tantalisingly close yet so far when you're travelling on foot. The last few kilometres into Begur are over the soft-sand floor of a pine forest. My feet protest that they've walked further than the official 17 kilometres as we hobble into town but we have no clue if and how we went wrong.
Begur's Hotel Rosa is nothing spectacular but its restaurant is seriously good. The unassuming Fonda Caner sits across the alleyway. Chef Narcis Caner's dinners feature the likes of duck with green fig sauce, fish stew and steamed mussels. The breakfast is a gourmet spread of cheeses, butifarra (Catalan sausage), fresh pastries and pots of luscious milk curd known as cuajada.
Buoyed by this brilliant breakfast, sunshine (at last) and the prospect of an ocean swim, we almost bounce out of Begur. At Tamariu, we shed our sensible walking outfits and throw ourselves in the water. All too soon, we have to tear ourselves away to trace the rugged cliffs and coves south.
The coastal path – a spectacular amble that easily rivals Italy's Cinque Terre – offers a bird's-eye view of boats bobbing on waters so clear they cast a shadow on the ocean floor. Holidaymakers splayed on their decks seem to be living the life. But hey, so are we. By the time we hit the Sant Sebastia lighthouse and descend into Llafranc, we feel we've earned the right to order up big at one of the pretty seafront restaurants. We go the whole Spanish cliché: pans of paella washed down with jugs of sangria.
We almost roll back to Calella de Palafrugell where our adventure all started. The person with the most energy runs off to fetch a bottle of something bubbly while the rest of us flop onto beach towels. With a pop of a cork we toast: here's to slurping cava on the Costa Brava. And just like that, the hard yards of our soft adventure melt away.
The writer travelled as a guest of Adventure World and Accor.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Barcelona via Singapore see singaporeair.com. To reach Flaca, catch a train from Barcelona or Girona.
In Barcelona, the 80-room Ibis Barcelona Centro (Sagrada Familia) is two blocks from Antoni Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece. Rooms start from 110 euros a night. ibis.com
In Girona, the quirky, art-filled Bellmirall Pensio B&B is one block from the cathedral (take earplugs – its bells toll each quarter-hour through the night). Double rooms start from 75 euros during high season (April 11 to November 2, December 19 to January 6). See bellmirall.eu
SEE + DO
Adventure World's six-night Classic Catalan Walk departs every two days until October 20. The season reopens in April. The self-guided tour starts from $1814 a person twin share and includes two nights at Castell d'Emporda (hotelcastellemporda.com). Pick-up is from Flaca train station, north-east of Girona.
The Gala Dali Castle is in Pubol, a 15-minute taxi ride from Castell d'Emporda. Make arrangements with your driver to return after 90 minutes. salvador-dali.org.
The Dali Theatre-Museum is in Figueres. From Pubol, take a taxi to Flaca and catch the train to Figueres. From Figueres, bus back to La Bisbal and walk to Castell d'Emporda.