It’s a straight shot out of Barcelona heading north towards France along the AP-7, through the heart of northern Catalonia, one of the oldest and most beautiful sections of Europe. To the west and north, the Pyrenees rise, deep and green; to the east, the beaches and coves of Costa Brava look out to the Mediterranean.
Once off the motorway, well-paved roads lead to roundabouts where clearly-marked signposts point the way from one medieval village to another, and driving is the simple and scenic pleasure dreamed of but rarely encountered. Despite the many tourist attractions of the region: historic cathedrals, renowned museums, archaeological sites, and a multitude of recreational options ranging from paragliding to hiking, cycling, motorcycling, horseback riding and every imaginable watersport, there is no evidence of mass development. Girona, the single major metropolis of the area, gracefully holds on to its past in the way Florence – to which it is often compared – does.
East of the motorway, Alt (Upper) and Baix (Lower) Empordà spread out through rolling countryside. We were headed to Baix Empordà. Our destination was in a village just past La Bisbal called Torrent.
A long cobblestone driveway bordered with cypress and olive trees ends at a grassy expanse. Beyond stands a three-story structure of yellow stone with the number “1751” carved into the lintel. Huge windows behind arched alcoves line the ground floor, and balconies fronting smaller windows the two floors above. This is Mas de Torrent, an 18th century Catalan farmhouse re-imagined, restored, and re-born as an exquisite, intimate 21st century resort.
Although outfitted with state of the art comforts and amenities, the building retains the look and feel of the “Masia” (Catalan for farmhouse) it once was. There is the rough stone façade and pitched red-tiled roofs without, the arched alcoves, massive carved wooden doors outlined with friezes, and stone-block floors within. You can sip your martini and imagine a cow peeking through the doorway and looking over your shoulder as you study the backgammon board.
The spacious, light-filled reception room with a big mantled fireplace built into one wall was once the Masia’s stable, although the aroma of vanilla candles and apples and pine cones piled in ceramic urns belies the historical fact. To the left, an equally spacious and light-filled sitting room is decorated with period country furniture, book-lined shelves, ceramic plates. Deep downy sofas look out through the large windows to the surrounding countryside.
“This room is typical from here,” says Nuria Curós, the resort’s effervescent deputy manager. “Most of the objects are antique. Some were found in the farmhouse possibly dating back to when it was built in 1751.”
The original entrance to the Masia is today a billiards room where a winding stone stairway set into an alcove leads to the two upper floors. Each of them has a large common room with tall arched windows on either end, antique armoires and tables, baskets filled with fresh flowers, and five suites whose doors open with oversized keys. No two are alike. One is done in shades of yellow with a romantic canopied bed. Another has an elaborately carved wooden bed. Yet all, despite marble and granite bathrooms with luxurious, modern fixtures, reflect the spirit of the Masia. Balconies provide lovely vistas; from some, the church steeple of Pals, a perfectly restored gothic village just down the road, can be seen.
“When the present owner bought the house in the mid 1980s, it had been closed for quite a while,” Nuria told us over glasses of cava in the sitting room as we watched the afternoon sun cast dappled shadows through the trees creating the beautiful light that draws artists to Costa Brava. “At first he thought to convert it into a home for his family. But after visiting Tuscany and Provence, he got the idea of turning it into a resort. It was a big process of restoration and discovery. In addition to furniture and ceramics, they found old bills previous owners had stored away. They discovered the top floor had been a granary. It was like a living history, and they have tried to preserve it so guests can have a glimpse into the kind of life people led here in the 18th century.”
A more contemporary ambience characterizes the resort’s 29 garden suites on a lower level of the property where in the center of a wide stone pathway, we saw orange trees blooming in boxed enclosures. Like little attached houses, each of the suites has its own dooryard. Seven have Jacuzzis and individual patios with heated pools. “Americans like this type of accommodation,” Nuria told us. Why not, we thought, although this pair of Americans was content to have settled in the Masia where it was possible to indulge in the illusion of being transported back to an earlier age.
It was early spring; fruit trees bore delicate blossoms on the verge of opening. An herb garden was already in blooms; cabbages in a vegetable garden had sprouted pink and purple lupine-like flowers.
A patio shaded by palms and studded with clay pots brimming with bougainvillea embraces the swimming pool which is overlooked by a large and open tent-like dining room, the site of elaborate breakfasts and outdoor barbeques in the summer. The mood is cool and contemporary with white marble and glass surfaces, gleaming wood floors, and soaring rafters.
But the resort’s major restaurant, a well-known Costa Brava destination, reflects the combined rusticity and elegance of the Masia. Although added onto the farmhouse during the process of restoration, it is of a piece with the original property and even has an entrance from the reception room into an arched cocktail area that opens up to three rooms with windowed walls that look out onto the stone dining terrace and countryside beyond. They are decorated with a collection of 72 paintings on lace placemats, each a tribute to Picasso, executed by a celebrated artist or writer.
The dining experience at Mas de Torrent is exceptional. Service is warm and attentive; Catalonian cuisine, sublime. A young server/sommelier who, we later discovered, is the son of a famous Bordeaux sommelier, recommended the white Grenache to start, quite wonderful, and an excellent local Cabernet Sauvignon to follow.
“We are near the mountains, near the sea. We visit an excellent market every day that has all kinds of produce from farms in the region,” said Pere Palmada, the formal looking but actually down-to-earth maitre d’. “This is a very good house, a serious house.”
So it is – with a menu that features an abundance of local products: olives, anchovies served with tomatoes, scallops with early spring morels, cockles (clams) with lime mousse, smoked eggplant in a vinaigrette, the traditional Catalonian black sausage with small onions and a bit of garlic, fresh turbot from local waters, goat in a picada, the irresistible Provençal sauce of dried fruits, almonds, hazelnuts, fried onions, a little tomato, a mélange of herbs. And for dessert — an old fashioned soufflé made with hazelnuts and caramel sauce, and a traditional dessert wine of Pedro Ximenez grapes from Andalusia.
“Everything is made on premises and of the best quality products of the season,” chef Hector Costa told us. “In these days, when restaurants import daily as a matter of course, we make every effort to work with local purveyors and use local products. Living here, that is possible. The fishermen go out in the morning and come back in the afternoon. They bring the fish here every day; they know what we like.”
The “we” refers to Hector and his co-chef Blai Florensa. Hector comes from Barcelona, Blai from Lleida, the northwest province of Catalonia. Working together, they infuse the spirit of their native Catalan cuisine with its Provençal and Spanish flavors into outstanding culinary creations. In a profession where ego is often paramount, they are an amazing pair.
Although one could be content to spend days without ever leaving the Mas de Torrent property, we did take our Catalan friend’s advice and visited the little towns she suggested. At nearby Llafranc, we parked the car and walked down a narrow path that ended at a cove sheltered by cypress-covered hills. The scene was tantalizingly familiar, yet – for the moment — impossible to place.
A few days later, Vikki Benito, the blonde and dynamic sales manager for Mas de Torrent, invited us for lunch at another property under the same ownership. El Far is a blue and white nine-room hotel in Llafranc that also dates back to the 18th century. Then it was a hostel. Today it is famous for a restaurant that specializes in local seafood and a spectacular hilltop setting which overlooks the Mediterranean.
It was not until we drove down the hill from El Far and passed the cove that had given us such a jolt of déjà vu when we came upon it a few days before, that suddenly the memory returned. Some nine years earlier, during our first trip to Catalonia, we had briefly stopped here on the way to Alt Empordà. Back then, we were headed then to Figueres, birthplace of the surrealist Salvador Dali, home to museums devoted to his life and work. Somehow returning to this little site unplanned and unawares seemed to invest this second trip to northern Catalonia with additional meaning. It prompted a promise to return once again to this enchanting region, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Mas de Torrent
Photographs by Harvey Frommer