Unexpected Enchantment in the Spanish Pyrenees!

In 1691 General Baron de Preu began
construction of the spectacular 
fortification we see today.

We discovered El Castell de Ciutat (Castle of the City) by chance. An unplanned stop while traveling in Spain, this superb Relais & Chateaux hotel and spa became one of our fondest Iberian memories. The hotel is perched just over 2,100 feet on a hilltop dominating the most strategic point of the high Segre Valley in La Seu d’Urgell, a small village established during the Bronze Age. Here all major travel ways of the Pyrenees meet in a town that straddles the western edge of Catalonia and the mountains just below the tiny principality of Andorra.

We had completed a second leg of our journey from Barcelona and two-days of touring small towns and villages laden with historic Moorish and Catalonian monasteries and museums. Prior to that, we spent several days on the Costa Brava in the Mediterranean white-washed village of Cadaquez, home to artist Salvador Dali. We were intent on seeing more of the Catalonian interior before turning north and crossing over the Pyrenees to visit our friends, Brooke and Andre, at their home in the south of France. Our days in this region would culminate with a day long push over the mountains to arrive in St. Ferreal in time for a weekend of hiking.

Follow the steps to the
centuries old castle,
restored for dining, concerts
and private functions.

We loosely followed a letter from our friends describing their trip through this same Spanish territory five years earlier. Experienced travelers, we trusted their take on historical and cultural sites and their mini-reviews of hotels along the route. In general, we agreed with their choices and found the insider’s view advantageous. They in turn gave credit to the Lonely Planet Guide for some unusual elements of their itinerary. (See Driving the A2 from Barcelona to Lleida, below.) Brooke and Andre tended to select 2- and 3-star hotels based on charm and ambiance which we also found to be clean, efficient and priced right for the short over-nights we would spend on the road.

Enjoy the intimate setting of the castle's
concert room made for pianists and
chamber music players..

Visit the library in the main hotel set
aside as a quiet place to take tea.

On this day we had traveled northeast from Lleida on the undivided Highway C1313 climbing steadily from the interior plateau through the lower reaches of the Pyrenees to arrive mid-day in La Seu d’Urgell. We decided to wind down for the afternoon and get a good night’s rest before setting out in the morning to drive the steep, narrow switchbacks up and over the mountains to France.

Through some form of serendipity our friends had not stopped in La Seu d’Urgell and their letter gave us no clues about where to stay. So we began to pour over our maps and guides looking for nothing more than a modest hotel and a pool. Suddenly, we spotted it high up on the craggy hill peaking through the dappled sunlight and looking something like an old castle or fortress which, in fact, it was. Abandoned for years, the castle was purchased by the Tapies family in 1970 and transformed into the current resort consisting of the old castle (spied from below the ridge) with new meeting facilities and concert room and a new hotel, “El Castell de Ciutat.”

In-room hydro-massage includes
impressive views of La Seu d'Urgell.

An elegant, contemporary hotel with awe-inspiring views of the mountain landscape we were, only minutes later, checked into our spacious room with doors flung open to a private terrace and a commanding view of the valley below. Tomorrow we would bask in the morning sunlight and enjoy an exquisite breakfast on this terrace, but first we would have the day and evening to unwind and take in the magnificence for which Relais & Chateaux is renowned. We had enjoyed the functional 2- and 3-star hotels of the previous days, but now we were unmistakably settled into the lap of luxury.

For over fifty years the globally recognized Relais & Chateaux has set rigorous standards of excellence for its member hotels and restaurants. Travelers worldwide are assured that at any one of its 440 properties which include chateaus, villas, city and country hotels, inns, and gourmand restaurants guests will experience the “Five Cs” that are the mantra for the organization: courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine.

Relax at the indoor pool after a workout on the
latest gym machines in the Wellness Center.

El Castell de Ciutat is no exception. On site there are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, beauty and fitness centers, exceptional spa services, and a restaurant celebrated for its cuisine, inspired by the finest produce from the local rivers and huertas and enhanced by a wine list with over 650 vintages. Nearby, is all manner of outdoor activities, including golf, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, fishing, skiing — even polo.

One of five suites in the main hotel. 
Ask about the magnificent duplex suite.

Alas, we were staying only one night so our itinerary was centered on the hotel itself. Our guestroom was artfully decorated in a subtle-Spanish style with rich, earth-toned, floral-patterned bed covers, oversized, plush pillows, sitting and writing areas with a bath lavishly outfitted in Spanish tile, brass and glass and lots of fresh, plush, white-cotton towels. We dug out our bathing suits and headed for the outdoor pool and a few hours of late afternoon sun with frequent dips that soothed our travel-weary bodies. We drifted in and out of a sleeping state and viewed mountain peaks from heads resting sideways on chaise lounges.

The lovingly restored castle 
presents a dramatic
setting for a private dining experience.

Breakfast on the terrace includes a
stunning view of the Spanish Pyrenees.

The renowned wine cellar f
eatures over 650 vintages. 

Refreshed, we ambled back to our room for some additional lying about with books propped on chests and doors open to the terrace for another couple hours of on and off dozing.  At eight o’clock we dressed for dinner in the small, but elegant hotel restaurant where views of the Pyrenees through large picture windows were the only competition to an astounding cuisine of locally-caught fish, fresh vegetables, and Spanish wine that pleased our palates well beyond the summer’s late evening sunset. 

In the morning we would ascend from these foothills through the Col de Puymorens and one of the longest tunnels on the Continent reaching the French side of the Pyrenees to rendezvous with our friends. But for this night we would savor the surrounding beauty — both natural and man-made — determined only to make every moment last until we could trust each was seared into the place in our minds we ascribe the planet’s most magical spots.

El Castell de Ciutat is open all year, 32 rooms range from US $200 to US $275 per night. Six suites range from US$345 to US$475.

Hotel El Castell
Spain + 34 973 35 00 00
Fax: + 34 973 35 15 7


Driving the A2 from Barcelona to Lleida —

Ancient Moorish and Catalonian sites are all along the route.

From Barcelona drive west on Highway A2 through Vilafranca toward the city of Lleida . First stop, Exit 11 off the A2, is the tiny village of Santes Creus, home to the prettiest of the “Cistercian Triangle” monasteries, Monestir de Santes Creus. The other two, Vallbona de les Monges and Poblet are nearby.  Founded in 1150 by Ramon Berenguer IV during his re-conquest of Catalonia , the Gothic cloisters are decorated with figurative sculptures, a style first permitted by Jaime II, who ruled from 1291 to 1327. His finely carved tomb is in the 12th century church where a beautiful rose window provides relief to the austere interior.

Trekking in the Pyrenees, 3rd: France & Spain Trekking Guides

Trekking in the Pyrenees, 3rd: France & Spain Trekking Guides

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Two stops farther down A2 at Exit 9, and just 5 km from the highway, is the Monestir de Poblet, the first and most important of the three sister monasteries that helped to consolidate power in Catalonia after it was taken back from the Moors by the aforementioned Berenguer IV. The monastery is a resting place of monarchs — its royal tombs in the pantheon of kings was begun in 1359. The abbey, its buildings enclosed by fortified walls that have barely changed since the Middle Ages, is in an isolated valley near the source of the Francoli River . Of particular interest is the chapterhouse, a perfectly square room with slender columns and tiers of benches for the monks. It is paved with the tombstones of 11 abbots who died between 1393 and 1693.

The Gothic scriptorium where monks still toil today was converted to a library in the 17th century, when the Duke of Cardona donated his book collection. The abbey church with its high stone altar supported by Romanesque columns is an impressive alabaster centerpiece dating to 1527. During the 1835 Carlist Revolution, the abbey was plundered and seriously damaged by fire. Restoration, now largely complete, began in 1930 and monks returned in 1940.

In the nearby town of L’Espluga de Francoli visit the small, informative Museu de La Vida Rural where on several floors there are mannequins in period costume complet with tools and machinery of the times in vivid tableaux that depict Catalonian rural life from centuries past.

Back on the A2 head west to Lleida, the capital of Catalonia ’s only landlocked province to visit La Suda, a large, ruined fort taken from the Moors in 1149. The old cathedral, La Seu Vella, founded in 1203, is situated within the walls of the fort on a hill high above the town. It was transformed into barracks by Felipe V in 1707, but today is desolate, only the haunt of pigeons. It is still an imposing structure with magnificent Gothic windows in the cloister.

At the foot of the hill is the Placa de Sant Joan, a square at the mid-point of the shopping street that sweepsRelais Chateaux Blog from Jetsettersblog.com around the hill. The new cathedral is here as well as the reconstructed 13th century town hall. Drive northeast from Lleida taking the undivided Highway C1313 to climb from the Catalonian plateau and reach La Seu d’Urgell and El Castell de Ciutat.

Feature by Jim Hollister, Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Editor.