Baix Empordà: Top 10 Highlights

🕔 10 mins (total)

El Baix Empordà is the middle of the three comarcas (“counties”) that make up the Costa Brava. In Castellano-Spanish it’s called “El Bajo Ampurdán”, but you’ll rarely see this form anywhere around here, if ever.

El Baix Empordà and l’Alt Empordà to the north are collectively referred to as L’Empordà (which makes sense really!). The northernmost of these three counties, running from the border with France south to the town of L’Escala, is the Alt Empordà, or “Upper Empordà” – so no prizes for guessing that the Baix Empordà is the “Lower Empordà”!

South of El Baix Empordà, the comarca of Gironès almost makes it to the sea but is cut off just before it reaches the coast by the comarca of La Selva, which runs down to Blanes where La Costa Brava ends and Barcelona’s La Costa del Maresme begins. All fall into the territory of the Province of Girona, one of four provinces that make up Catalunya… but we’re sure you knew that already, so we’ll move on!

The three largest towns of El Baix Empordà by population are Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Palafrugell, both roughly around the 24,000 mark, and Palamós (18k), but the comarca capital is La Bisbal d’Empordà with a population of only 11,000. The total full-time population of the county has remained pretty stable at around 132,000 for the last decade or so but of course that figure multiplies during the summer months.

El Baix Empordà is such a truly wonderful comarca that it’s hard to pick out just 10 highlights, but we tried anyway. Here, in no particular order, our picks and we hope that you get to enjoy as many of them as possible!

Medieval Villages

We thought it’d make sense to start with some of the oldest stuff! Like the rest of Catalunya, the Baix Empordà has some beautiful medieval towns and villages scattered all across its territory. And we’re not talking about ruins here but rather these are still-inhabited hamlets that have hardly changed over the centuries and, apart from the odd parked car here and there, you could easily imagine that you had travelled back in time to the middle ages.

Some are more well-known than others and consequently more visited, such as Pals, and Peratallada and Paula-sator for example, but if you want to avoid tourists there are plenty of villages that are just as impressive but with far fewer people, like Corça, Ullastret and Cruïlles, Monells & Sant Sadurní. There’s also Ullastret, which has beside it, as an added bonus, the ruins of an ancient Iberian city, one of the best-preserved examples in the country.

We have to admit though that, despite its popularity with tourists, Pals is one of our favourites. Apart from the beauty of the village itself, it is perched on a small hill overlooking the green and lush surrounding countryside with its rice fields and views all the way to the sea.

It also has the advantage of having fairly decent public transport links if you feel like leaving the car at home and there is even a little tourist train called the Xiulet de Pals that offers three different guided tours around the local area, taking in the village of Pals itself, the surrounding traditional rice fields, or other medieval villages close by, including Sant Feliu de Boada, Fontclara, Peratallada and Palau-sator.

A panoramic view from the medieval village of Pals.
A panoramic view from the medieval village of Pals.

Púbol and the Dalí Triangle (well, part of it…!)

One medieval village we didn’t yet mention is Púbol which marks the southern tip of what is known as the Dalí Triangle. The other two points of the triangle are located to the north in our sister county of the Alt Empordà, but Púbol is definitely in the Lower, so we’re using it! In 1968/9 the world-famous Catalan artist, Salvador Dalí, purchased and restored a mostly dilapidated castle in the medieval village of Púbol for his wife Gala and over a number of years the couple carried out restorative work very much according to their own very particular taste.

Gala died in 1982 and was buried in the castle, at which point Dalí himself moved in. Since 1996 the castle in Púbol has been open to the public as the Castell Gala-Dalí de Púbol and is well worth a visit as the couple certainly left their very unique mark! You can read in a bit more detail about Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala in our blog called Salvador Dalí and the Museum Triangle.

Field of sunflowers and the Museum “Castell Gala-Dalí” in Púbol
Field of sunflowers and the Museum “Castell Gala-Dalí” in Púbol

Natural Baix Empordà

Seeing as we’re already deep in the Baix Empordà countryside, let’s have a look at what other beautiful natural sights there are to see. Probably the best way to enjoy the beautiful countryside of the Baix Empordà, or anywhere else for that matter, is by cycling or hiking, and around these parts there are plenty of routes to choose from.

One such route, mainly geared for cycling but also ideal for walking, is the Pirinexus circuit that runs from the French Pyrenees over to the Spanish side and then all the way down to Sant Feliu de Guíxols through Girona province and then back up to Catalunya Nord (France) along or near the coast.

The Baix Empordà section of the Pirinexus runs from Bellcaire d’Empordà to Sant Feliu, taking in along its route the Vie Verde, or greenway from Palafrugell to Palamós, known as the Ruta del Tren Petit (Little Train Route). If you like the idea of enjoying the countryside by bike but maybe aren’t feeling all that energetic, there even exists the option of renting an e-bike to do most of the work for you!

While you’re down near Sant Feliu de Guíxols you also might like to check out some of the walking trails in the hills of Les Gavarres, a massif rich in oak trees that has been classified as an “Area of Natural Interest” since 1992, with a total of 28,548 hectares. Along the way, you’ll find medieval houses, churches and cultural remnants scattered throughout this area. It has well-marked trails and is also the mountain bike centre of the Baix Emporda.

Situated just to the north of the town of Torroella de Montgrí, the Massís del Montgrí is another small mountain range that offers great hiking and panoramic vistas of the sea in the distance, as well as of what remains of ancient vineyards that were abandoned as a result of the phylloxera plagues in the 19th century.

Beautiful Baix Empordà countryside. Ideal for walking, cycling or hiking.
Beautiful Baix Empordà countryside. Ideal for walking, cycling or hiking.

Golfing Empordà style

If golf is your thing, then you’ve come to the right place! There are numerous golf courses of all levels in the area. Rather than go into too much detail here, why not have a read of our blog about Golfing in the Girona-Empordà Region. Even though few of the golf courses listed fall just outside the Empordà region proper, the majority are within very easy reach of the Baix Empordà. There’s everything from a full PGA course to some top-quality pitch and put courses and plenty in between. There’s a course to suit every level.

Golf resort PGA Catalunya near Caldes de Malavella
Golf resort PGA Catalunya near Caldes de Malavella

Gastronomy

Girona province is famous for its gastronomy, being the home of some of the world’s greatest chefs, such as Ferran Adria, whose restaurant El Bulli near Roses won the Restaurant Magazine Top 50 best restaurant in the world a record 5 times, and was runner-up 3 times before it closed its doors in 2011. Also in Girona is El Cellar de Can Roca run by the Roca brothers, Joan, Jordi, and Jose, which won the same award twice and was runner-up three times. This fabulous cuisine can also be found just down the road in the Baix Empordà where the best flavours of mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) are combined.

This region offers some of the best seafood you will find anywhere as well as excellent fresh produce from its fertile land, both meat and vegetables. Just a few local seafood specialties include Gambas de Palamós, rockfish from Begur, and sea urchins from the fishing towns of Palafrugell. For where best to sample the delicious local cuisine we’ll leave it up to the experts to guide you in your restaurant search: the Michelin Guide!

World renowned Catalan cuisine on a plate
World-renowned Catalan cuisine on a plate

Empordà wines

Of course, every top-class meal should be accompanied by a top-class bottle of vino or two, and here in the Empordà you are spoilt for choice! In 1972 the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) Empordà-Costa Brava was established and was known as such until 2006 when it was shortened to simply D.O. Empordà.

We may sometimes get fed up with the Tramuntana wind here, but it does help reduce vine diseases and keep frost to a minimum and has even given rise to Empordà wines being called “Wines of the Wind”. The more well-known wines tend to be from close to the French border in the Alt Empordà, there are plenty of top quality wines here in the Baix Empordà too.

We have visited and written about a few ourselves, such as El Cellar d’en Marc just outside Palamós and Clos d’Agon Cellar of Calonge, in the foothills of Les Gavarres. There are a number of other Calonge wineries and if you’d like to experience the wines of Empordà first hand there are wine tours, tastings, events, wine bars, museums and even wine therapy treatments all within easy reach!

You might also be interested to read our Wines of Catalunya blog which looks at a little of the history of Spanish wine in general and Catalan wine a little more specifically.

The Empordà (D.O.) has a great variety of top quality wines
The Empordà (D.O.) has a great variety of top quality wines

Water sports and activities

When it comes to having some aquatic fun, we’re once again spoilt for choice here in the Baix Empordà. Be it scuba diving or snorkelling, canoeing and kayaking, renting a boat or maybe a jetski, a half-day excursion on a glass-bottomed boat or even chartering a yacht with a captain, we have it all right here on our doorstep, both on the sea or on the many rivers in our comarca. Check with your local tourist office to find out what is available in your area, or just run a quick Google search.

Kayaking on the River Ter
Kayaking on the River Ter

Coastal towns

Because of the constant threat from the Pirates of the Mediterranean in medieval times, and indeed right through until the 1800s, most Catalan and Spanish towns were located a few kilometres inland rather than on the coast itself, and many of the seaside towns we see today, such as L’Estartit, Sant Antoni de Calonge and Llafranc were really little more than a collection of huts belonging to fishermen from the inland towns of Torroella de Montgrí, Calonge and Palafrugell respectively, to give just a few examples.

But of course, every region needs its ports, pirates or no pirates, and so towns such as Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Palamós and L’Escala developed right on the coast with their own industries and nowadays have permanent populations and are not dependent solely on seasonal tourism and, naturally, are full of local history. Unlike most of the smaller towns, these are year-round towns and don’t go into “hibernation” during the winter months.

L’Escala is technically in the Alt Empordà, but as it sits right on the border with the lower Empordà we’re including it here! The town we see today was founded in the 16th century but settlement goes back to ancient times. The first “civilized” settlers were the ancient Greeks and these were followed later by Romans. The remains of the ancient Greco-Roman city can still be visited today and are found just outside the town. If history isn’t your thing L’Escala is still a beautiful place to just stroll around, especially along the seafront, and there are lots of good quality places to eat and drink.

Further south, the area around Palamós, like L’Escala, had been settled since ancient times but it was when King Pedro III el Grande decreed that a port be built, to replace another further north that had silted up, that the port of Palamós began to be built in the mid-13th century. Over the centuries it was attacked by Barbary pirates under the notorious Redbeard, ravaged by the plague, and again attacked, this time by the French – twice, amongst others, and also bombed a number of times during the Spanish Civil War.

Today Palamós is the third port of Catalunya, after Barcelona and Tarragona, and receives 50-60 cruise ships every year, but it still very much has that small-town feel to it. It also has a number of beautiful little coves as well as a 3.5km beach stretching the whole length of the Bay of Palamós all the way to Torre Valentina in Sant Antoni de Calonge.

With its 10th-century Benedictine monastery as one of its main attractions, Sant Feliu de Guíxols is another seaside town with lots of history and has seen its fair share of wars, destruction, plague, famine and drought. It survived, however, and from the 18th century began to grow and prosper, largely thanks to fishing and especially the local cork industry, to become the largest town in the region, complete with a railway line and a port. It also suffered bombing by Francoist forces during the Civil War but again survived and today it is an important, but yet picturesque, seaside town that nowadays lives mostly from tourism and fishing.

Aerial view of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Costa Brava.
Aerial view of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Costa Brava.

Coastal walking trails

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Baix Empordà are the walking trails. We have written a blog for your perusal covering what are known as the Camins de Ronda in Catalan (Caminos de Ronda in Castellano), the gorgeous trails which run mostly along the coast from Cadaqués all the way south to Sant Feliu de Guíxols. Some parts are quite challenging, and some couldn’t really be any easier. Feel free to browse through the blog to see which part of the Camino would suit you – and there’s something for everyone!

View from Aiguablava, Begur, on the camí de ronda (coastal trail)
View from Aiguablava, Begur, on the Camí de Ronda (coastal trail)

Beaches

Probably the top attraction for most people coming to Costa Brava is its stunning beaches and coves all along the coast. Once again, we can keep it short here as one of our previous blogs covers just that very subject! From long sandy beaches to secluded coves, from naturist beaches to family-oriented ones, we chose our Best Costa Brava Beaches of the Baix Empordà to help you choose where to head for a day of sea, sand, sunbathing, snorkelling, and maybe a cervesa or two at a xiringuito (beach bar)!

The “Red Island” that gives Platja de l’Illa Roja its name
The “Red Island” that gives Platja de l’Illa Roja its name

And there you have it: our Top 10 Highlights of the Baix Empordà. Now it’s up to you!

Get out there and NjOY!

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