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Off The Olympic Track In Catalonia


Personal Business: Spain

OFF THE OLYMPIC TRACK IN CATALONIA

If you're planning to go to the Olympics in Barcelona this July and want to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, some of Spain's loveliest vistas--and one of the world's tiniest countries--are within a few hours' drive. So are the Dali Museum, an excellent collection of Romanesque architecture, and an assortment of medieval monasteries--some of which take overnight guests.

You can rent a car for these excursions, of course. But if you prefer to let someone else do the driving, there is hardly a village, however remote, that's not reachable by bus. Information and schedules are available at the Catalan Tourist Office, Gran Via de las Corts Catalanas 658, Barcelona (3-301-7443).

The Dali Museum at Figueras, 86 miles northeast of Barcelona, contains the most complete collection of works by the late master of surrealism. An upended Cadillac on a column forms the centerpiece of the entrance patio of this bizarre-looking structure, which includes Dali's final residence--the pink-stucco Torre Galatea. Figueras is also famous for regional dishes such as stuffed apples and Ampurdn cheese, and fresh fish is available from the nearby Costa Brava. The abundant menu at the Ampurdn, a local shrine of gastronomy, will set you back about $40.

MIDDAY MUSIC. As you wander through the Pyrenees, you will--in village after village--come upon beautiful churches and monasteries, generally more than 1,000 years eld. Several outstanding ones are in and around Ripoll: the 9th century Santa Maria monastery with its 12th century doorway showing Biblical scenes carved in stone; San Pedro Church, with its collection of ancient arms; San Juan de las Abadesas, where a 12th century sculpture depicts Christ's descent from the cross; and Queralbs, a classic Romanesque church near Nuria.

If you want to stay overnight, you could hardly find a more scenic location than the Sanctuary of the Mother of God at Nuria, 112 hours north of Barcelona by way of Ripoll. The monastery, on the slopes of the 9,555-foot Puigmal mountain, is a base for skiers and hikers. It has a bar, a reasonably priced restaurant and, of course, a chapel. A comfortable room for two costs about $75.

The spiritual heart of Catalonia is a small black statue of the Virgin enshrined at the 11th century monastery of Montserrat, near the crest of a row of saw-toothed mountains three-quarters of an hour northwest of Barcelona. The renowned Escolana boys' choir sings daily at midday.

SMUGGLERS' DEN. Another worthwhile side trip is to the principality of Andorra, an independent nation for more than 700 years--with an area half as big as the five boroughs of New York and a population of 60,000. Its capital, Andorra la Vella, is two hours northwest of Barcelona by way of the town of Seo de Urgel. Formerly a duty-free shoppers' paradise, a skiers' mecca, and a smugglers' den, Andorra is trying to regain its status as a tax haven--since the European Community has wiped out customs barriers between France and Spain. It is still a good place to buy gourmet items such as cheese from the Pyrenees, pat, honey, and French wine.

Collectors of geographical curiosities might enjoy Llivia, a Spanish town that has been surrounded by France since the 17th century. It can be reached from Andorra through the Envalira Pass or from Barcelona via Puigcerd. This enclave of 828 inhabitants, with pre-Roman ruins, claims to have the oldest pharmacy--now a museum--in Europe, founded in 1415. The three-star Hotel Llivia, open only in summer, runs about $71 for a double. Good local cuisine at Llivia's Can Ventura costs about $35 per person.

If you appreciate wildlife, Espot is the spot for you. This town three hours from Barcelona overlooks the lovely, wooded Espot Valley, with its many brooks and lakes, and is close to the 54,000-acre Aiguas Tortes National Park. The game includes chamois, wild boars, and the rare snow partridge. The Pension Sant Maurici offers $55 rooms with bath and a view.

Even closer to Barcelona is the Peneds wine-growing district, which produces most of the grapes for Cava, Spain's answer to champagne. Many wineries offer guided tours of their cellars. One of them is Segura Viudas in the town of San Sadurn de Noya.

After touring the vineyards, you can learn about the history of wine-making at the Wine Museum in Villafranca del Peneds, a half hour west of Barcelona. And when the lesson is over, museumgoers get a chance to sip some vino.Harry Debelius EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN


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