THE BEST PLACES YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
Hush-Hush Europe: La Cerdanya
Straddling France and Spain, the region of La Cerdanya is where Europeans go when they want peace and quiet and really good jam.
The next day, while driving back over the mountains to Eyne, I ignore the number one rule of hiking and decide to go for a solo jaunt at the Gorges de la Carança. While I do encounter a few serious-looking hikers with backpacks (which explains all those rust-kissed VW buses and Peugeots at the entrance), mostly I'm by myself on the flat path that at one point is carved spectacularly into a sheer cliff.
The jamstress's inn, Cal Pai, is just as I remember it. Under the stone-archway entrance is a chalkboard scribbled with still-friendly rates, and the canvas chairs scattered around the lawn are where I left them three years before. I'm greeted by the lingering scent of a wood fire, along with a hodgepodge of guitars, terra-cotta pots, hiking maps, and checkerboards. The nine guest rooms, most of which are accessed by rickety stairs, sport similar flea market decor.
The attitude at Cal Pai is très laissez-faire--at least until dinner, which is at 8 P.M. sharp. Most diners are inn guests, but it's possible to call ahead for a table d'hôte dinner to taste the results of Françoise's foraging, which might include asparagus and chanterelles, along with sheep's milk cheese from a farm down the road.
I take a seat at the 25-foot farmhouse table and introduce myself to pink-cheeked 40-somethings from Toulouse filing in from a hike. Françoise and her sous-chef can often be counted on for hearty local dishes like trinxat, which is made from bacon, cabbage, and potatoes, but tonight there's a more exotic menu of cumin-scented beet salad, white nettles and goat cheese in flaky phyllo dough, a crock of lemon-tinged crema catalana, and a platter of stinky French cheeses. Carafes of young red wine from Roussillon are emptied and refilled, and the conversation turns to politics. As the only American in the house, and possibly for miles around, I take one for the country as I get gently ribbed about French-fry boycotts.
The next morning, after a steaming café au lait, a warm baguette, and a taste test of more than a dozen preserves, I begin the drive to Barcelona. I take a shortcut back through Saillagouse and wave as I pass the sausage guy and the kindly gentleman who pointed me toward God. When I spot my British friends as they're entering Le Crapahuteur, I make a mental note to e-mail them and ask what exactly is on the menu. Then again, maybe I'll come back--yet again--and find out for myself.
- Le Train Jaune Runs between Latour-de-Carol and Villefranche-de-Conflent, France, trainstouristiques-ter.com, $23
- Cal Pai 1 Carrer del Ventador, Eyne, France, 011-33/4-68-04-06-96, gite-calpai.com, rooms from $52 with breakfast and dinner, $27 dinner only
- Bernat de So Cereja 5, Llívia, Spain, 011-34/972-146-206, hotelbernatdeso.com, from $137
- Hotel El Castell de Ciutat Carretera N-260, La Seu d'Urgell, Spain, 011-34/973-350-000, hotelelcastelldeciutat.com, from $248
- L'Atalaya Hôtel-Restaurant Llo, France, 011-33/4-68-04-70-04, atalaya66.com, from $129
- Casa Penalolen 3 Domaine de Ste. Eulalie, Villefranche-de-Conflent, France, 011-33/4-68-96-52-35, penalolen.fr, from $87, with breakfast
- Pizzería-Taller Calle Frederic Bernade 7, Llívia, 011-34/972-146-219, fabian-martin.com
- Can Ventura Plaça Major 1, Llívia, 011-34/972-896-178, canventura.com, entrées from $24
- La Vieille Maison Cerdane Hôtel Planes, 6 Place de Cerdagne, Saillagouse, France, 011-33/4-68-04-72-08, planotel.fr, lunch from $30
- La Casa de la Nine 31 Rue St. Jean, Villefranche-de-Conflent, 011-33/4-68-96-35-62, lacasadelanine.com, dinner from $36
- Catedral de Santa Maria Plaça dels Oms, La Seu d'Urgell, museudiocesaurgell.org, $4
- Musée de Cerdagne Ferme Cal Mateu, Ste. Léocadie, France, 011-33/4-68-04-08-05, open mid-July to mid-Sept., $5
- Bains de Llo Llo, 011-33/4-68-04-74-55, lesbainsdello.com, $10