|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 with a list of enchanting little villages our Catalan-born friend
insisted we must not miss: Parafrugel, Pals, Llafranc, Madremanya, and the
larger town La Bisbal with its ceramic shops and museum. We got to see
them all except for the museum which was closed during our stay. But our
destination was in a village just past La Bisbal called Torrent and a
place we are not likely ever to forget.
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. There is even a well
from which families of an earlier day drew their water. Accessed through a
recess in the wall of what once was the farmhouse kitchen, it is today a
curious centerpiece of the hotel’s bar and game room. Just beyond is a
small lounge where farm animals used to be housed. 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, and pretty ceramic plates. Deep
downy sofas upholstered in a red, gold and white floral print 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.”
Deputy Manager Nuria Curós
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. Still another is
furnished in a more rustic local style. 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
“When the present owner bought the house in the mid
1980’s, 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
|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.
Mas de Torrent stretches out
across picturesque fields and rolling hills. 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 on to 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 poet Pablo Neruda is one of them, the
artists: Miró, Tàpies, Basualdo, Alberti are among others.
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, a wine we never
experienced had before but found 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.”
Maitre d’ Pere Palmada
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
Provencal 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 Provencal and Spanish flavors into outstanding
culinary creations. In a profession where ego is often paramount, they are
an amazing pair.
Chef Hector Costa
Chef Blai Florensa
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.
Manager Vikki Benito
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
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights