Pals: A Magnificent Medieval Village

🕔 8 mins (total)
The medieval village of Pals overlooking the Catalan countryside
The medieval village of Pals overlooking the Catalan countryside

The Costa Brava is famed for its many beautiful beaches but if you ever feel the urge to experience something a bit more cultural and historic, this region is also dotted with numerous medieval villages just waiting to be explored.

The villages of Peratallada and Palau-Sator tend to be visited together due to their proximity to each other, and they are also included in multiple day trips and excursions. A little less well-known but equally worthy of a day’s exploration are a handful of smaller medieval villages within a stone’s throw of the local capital, La Bisbal d’Empordà. There’s also Ullastret, another medieval town which also has the impressive ruins of an ancient Iberian settlement as a bonus feature.

Having said all that, one of the loveliest of them all, and one of the most visited, has to be the incredibly picturesque and photogenic town of Pals.

Coastal town – well, almost!

Situated just a few kilometres inland from the sea, Pals is a well-preserved medieval village that traces its origins back to at least the 7th century. In fact, its name suggests possible ancient Roman origins as “Pals” derives from “Palus” which meant ‘swampy place’ or ‘marshland’ in Latin. The earliest recorded documentary evidence relating to a castle with a tower dates back to the year 889, so we know that the town is at least 1130 years old.

A castle was built on the highest point of the town on a rocky hill called Mont Aspre and so commanded views of the surrounding countryside. In 1293 the town was granted a market – a very big deal in those days – and walls were built around the town around the same period to improve its defences during some local conflicts.

About a century later, the walls were further fortified – as they were in many coastal towns – for fear of the dreaded Pirates of the Mediterranean, especially those from North Africa. To this end, Pals was given a pretty hefty loan of 40,000 solidus by King Martín of Aragón in 1401 to enlarge its walls and moats. It is worth noting that Pals was quite a bit closer to the coast then than it is now.

The town is still in the same place, obviously, but the sea has gradually retreated over 2km since about 1300, and so the pirate threat was very real back then. It used to have six towers when the castle was at its largest, and four of those towers are still standing today.

Medieval architecture in Pals
Medieval architecture in Pals
The beautiful medieval streets of Pals and the “Tower of the Hours”
The beautiful medieval streets of Pals and the “Tower of the Hours”

The castle, the clock, and the church

In 1478, a few years after the Catalan Civil War (1462-72), the castle was dismantled on the orders of King Joan II of Aragón, although he did expressly decree that the original tower be spared. That tower today is the Torre de les Hores (Tower of the Hours), so called because it has had a clock since time immemorial. A 16th-century bell rings on every quarter of the hour, while a larger bell from exactly 1701 rings on the hour. You can climb a spiral staircase to the top of the tower, and, although it costs €3, the views far into the distance in every direction from up there are pretty impressive!

There was an Església de Sant Pere (St. Peter’s Church) also recorded back in the 9th century but this was badly damaged in the aforementioned Catalan Civil War. When the king ordered that the castle be dismantled, the stones were used to rebuild the church that we see today.

An aerial view of the Church of St. Peter in Pals
An aerial view of the Church of St. Peter in Pals

Pals today

Although the medieval part of the town had fallen into some neglect with the passing centuries, in 1973 it was declared a “Site of Historic Interest” and was beautifully restored to the condition you see it in today. It makes for a very interesting hour or two strolling around and reading the history in greater depth than is possible to go into here. You can read the story of each important building in Catalan, Spanish, French and English, and when you’re done, there is a very pleasant Main Square where one can sit and take in the atmosphere while enjoying a beer, coffee or ice cream. If you’re hungrier, there are several good restaurants in the town as well.

Panoramic view towards L’Estartit and the Medes Islands, where pirates used to hang out
Panoramic view towards L’Estartit and the Medes Islands, where pirates used to hang out
A view of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance
A view of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance
Pals as seen from the surrounding countryside
Pals as seen from the surrounding countryside

Arròs de Pals

Pals is also famous for its rice, or “Arròs de Pals”, which is renowned for its exceptionally high quality. Originally introduced by Arabs from Valencia, it is documented as having been cultivated since the 15th century – 1452 to be precise – with the exception of a period in the 19th century during which cultivation was curtailed in order to eradicate diseases such as malaria, believed to be associated with the crop. The stagnant water of the rice fields attracted mosquitos which transmitted the disease, with 1835 being an especially bad year with a very high death rate.

The rice is sown from the end of April to the beginning of May, and the paddy fields are flooded in preparation for the transplanting of the rice, which takes place in June. It is then harvested between the end of September and early October. There are activities to mark both occasions, known as Pals i la Cuina de l’Arròs (Pals and its Rice Cuisine) organized between the Ajuntament de Pals, the restaurants of the town, and the rice mills. There are guided tours of the rice fields, cookery courses and tastings, and visits to Moli de Pals, which dates from 1452, making it one of the oldest rice mills in Europe.

The dates vary slightly every year according to the sowing and harvesting, naturally, but always include a series of activities such as cookery courses, local produce markets, conferences, craft workshops, and guided visits centred on the history and traditions of the culture of rice. Participating restaurants in the town offer a menu featuring a rice stew made with local rice as its main course, of course.

UPDATE: The XXV Traditional Rice Planting event at Mas Carles, originally scheduled for Saturday 17 June 2023, has been cancelled due to the severe drought conditions and the consequent difficulties being suffered by Pals rice farmers.

Arròs de Pals falls under the umbrella brand of Productes de l’Empordà, guaranteeing that the rice is produced, processed, quality controlled, and packaged in the region. There are a few local Pals rice producers, and the best-known varieties of rice grown here are Bahia and Bomba, the most traditional, as well as Carnaroli and Nembo, which have been grown in more recent times.

If you fancy going for a meal featuring one of the local specialty rice dishes of the area, we recommend trying the family-run Restaurant La Vila, right on the edge of the old town. They have a regular menú del día as well as a special rice menu, or you can, of course, just order à la carte. Whatever you choose, the food and service are always good, and they speak quite a few languages too – but it’s best to make a reservation in advance as it’s very popular indeed.

Rice being harvested in the traditional manner in Pals
Rice being harvested in the traditional manner in Pals
Sheafs of rice ready to be gathered
Sheafs of rice ready for gathering
Arròs de Pals is a quality-guaranteed locally-produced brand
Arròs de Pals is a quality-guaranteed locally-produced brand

El Xiulet de Pals

If you fancy taking in more than just one medieval village in the same day, check out the Xiulet de Pals, a tourist train that starts in Pals and takes you to the smaller but equally pretty medieval towns of Peratallada and Palau-sator and then back to Pals again. There are also two other routes available too: the Rice Route and Gothic Pals, and a Combined Tour, which takes in the best of the three other tours. The tours are available in Catalan, Spanish, French and English, but booking ahead is advisable, especially for French or English tours.

El Xiulet de Pals brings you from Pals to the rice fields, the rice mill and some charming Empordà villages
El Xiulet de Pals brings you from Pals to the rice fields, the rice mill and some charming Empordà villages
One of the routes of El Xiulet de Pals
One of the routes of El Xiulet de Pals

Virtual Tour of Pals

If you can’t visit Pals in person right now, you can always take a virtual tour to get a taste of what you can expect when you do eventually make it here. The Tourist Office has put together a website where you can “wander” around the village from the comfort of your own home, using arrows to navigate around the streets and clicking on points of interest as you go to get more detailed information. It’s not quite as cool as a real visit, but it is pretty cool!

Festa Major de Pals

Apart from the events relating to rice, Pals also holds its Festa major during the summer. It usually takes place in early August, and this year, 2023, it takes place on 1-6 August in the town itself, with the festivities heading down to the beach for a beach party on 9-10 August. You can check out the programme of events on the town’s official website.

Beach time

If you’ve had your fill of culture and fancy a bit of beach time, you don’t have to go far, as the beautifully long and unspoilt Platja de Pals is only a 10-minute drive away. When you arrive, you’ll find a cluster of bar-restaurants and a few shops right next to the parking lot, but once you step onto the strand, there isn’t much in the way of development, and the beach itself is fairly pristine. In fact, it’s located within a conservation area, so while snorkelling and scuba diving are allowed, the noisier water sports and activities are not permitted.

A view of the beautiful natural beach of Pals, with the Medes Islands in the distance
A view of the beautiful natural beach of Pals, with the Medes Islands in the distance

A round of golf, anyone?

If you’re a golfer and want to make a full day of it, you could arrange to play around on the Golf de Pals course situated literally right alongside the sea! If you’ve already played there and would like a new challenge, there are plenty of other quality golf courses in the Empordà for you to check out as well.

The perfect day out

All in all, Pals and its surrounding area have plenty to offer and really shouldn’t be missed. Even if you don’t have a car, it’s still easily reachable by public transport. There are more buses in the peak season, but even in the quieter months, with a little planning, it’s still an easy journey on the Sarfa bus from towns such as Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Platja d’Aro, Sant Antoni de Calonge, Palamós and Palafrugell amongst others.

The same bus also serves the beautiful town of Begur, which has a whole different type of charm with its colonial rather than medieval architecture, and as it’s only a short distance away, you could easily visit both towns on the same excursion.

Time to get medieval!

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