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La Garrotxa: The Spanish region containing 40 volcanic cones – and there’s a lone church in one

Spain’s Costa Brava is rightly coveted for its superb beaches and stunning coastline.

But visitors to the region should take time off from the sand and sangria and add a diversion a short distance inland to their itinerary – to the stunning La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park.

It lies an hour or so by car from the Gulf of Roses, north of Girona, and contains 40 volcanic cones – including one that is home to a mysterious lone hermitage.

Pictured is the Santa Margarida volcano - complete with a church in its crater - in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park

Pictured is the Santa Margarida volcano – complete with a church in its crater – in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park 

The church is said to date back to the 12th century. It was destroyed by the 1428 Catalonia earthquake and rebuilt in the 19th century

The church is said to date back to the 12th century. It was destroyed by the 1428 Catalonia earthquake and rebuilt in the 19th century

It has been an estimated 11,000 years since the extinct Santa Margarida volcano (foreground) erupted

It has been an estimated 11,000 years since the extinct Santa Margarida volcano (foreground) erupted

The small church is said to date back to the 12th century and lies inside the crater of the Santa Margarida volcano.

Not much is known about the unusual religious dwelling, but we do know it was ravaged by the 1428 Catalonia earthquake and rebuilt in the 19th century.

It has been an estimated 11,000 years since the now-extinct volcano erupted.

Santa Margarida is 766m (2,513 ft) at its highest point, and the hermitage sits at 682m (2,238 ft) above ground level

Santa Margarida is 766m (2,513 ft) at its highest point, and the hermitage sits at 682m (2,238 ft) above ground level

One Tripadvisor reviewer writes that the mysterious church 'gives the feeling of ephemeral existence between all this magnificent glory of mother nature'

One Tripadvisor reviewer writes that the mysterious church ‘gives the feeling of ephemeral existence between all this magnificent glory of mother nature’

Holidaymakers can park their cars in a car park beside the volcano and ascend a steep trail that leads into the crater

Holidaymakers can park their cars in a car park beside the volcano and ascend a steep trail that leads into the crater

Inside the hermitage are rows of chairs and a small altar. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons licensing

Inside the hermitage are rows of chairs and a small altar. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons licensing 

Santa Margarida – which is dense with forest – is 766m (2,513 ft) at its highest point, and the hermitage sits at 682m (2,238 ft) above ground level, in a clearing in the crater. 

Holidaymakers can park their cars in a car park beside the volcano and ascend a steep trail that leads inside the crater. 

Another route, the Mas el Cros path, guides hikers around a different part of the volcano, where they’ll see volcanic rocks that accumulated after the eruptions. 

It seems the hermitage is rarely open to the public, but if visitors do get a peek inside they will find rows of chairs and a small altar. 

After hiking to the mysterious building in the crater, one Tripadvisor reviewer wrote: ‘We had our picnic there and rested under the trees. It is a place we wish we could visit every day. There is a nice little church right on the centre of the crater, which as a human-made thing gives the feeling of ephemeral existence between all this magnificent glory of mother nature.’

Discussing the trail, which takes around 30 minutes to complete from base to crater, another said: ‘Watch your step! You might see (and spare) some rare plant life, such as the orchid we found blooming in the middle of the trail.’

The Santa Margarida volcano trail takes around 30 minutes to complete from base to crater

The Santa Margarida volcano trail takes around 30 minutes to complete from base to crater

La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park lies an hour or so by car from the Gulf of Roses

La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park lies an hour or so by car from the Gulf of Roses

The intriguing hermitage isn’t the only delight that awaits in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, which has more than 20 basaltic lava flows [solidified molten rock].

On a four-and-a-half hour’s hike from Santa Margarida volcano, make your first stop at Fageda d’en Jordà, a verdant beech forest where the trees have flourished thanks to the volcanic matter in the soil.

The hike then ventures forth to the Croscat volcano, which is the largest on the Iberian Peninsula at 786m (2,579ft)‎ in height. On one side, part of the volcano’s flank has been cut away – these ridges were created when the volcano was used as a quarry.

Pictured is the Fageda d'en Jordà beech forest, where trees have flourished thanks to the volcanic matter in the soil

Pictured is the Fageda d’en Jordà beech forest, where trees have flourished thanks to the volcanic matter in the soil

The Croscat volcano, pictured above, boasts the title of the largest volcano on the Iberian Peninsula

The Croscat volcano, pictured above, boasts the title of the largest volcano on the Iberian Peninsula

Croscat still bears the scars from when it was used as a quarry

Croscat still bears the scars from when it was used as a quarry

Many spend the night in nearby Olot, Garroxca’s capital city. It is filled with baroque and art deco architecture, and visitors can while away time in the Casal des Volcans, a museum about the region’s volcanoes.

The following morning, it’s worth visiting the waterfall of Sant Joan Les Fonts, also known as the Moli Fondo, which is just a 15-minute drive from Olot.

Next, travel to spectacular Castellfollit de la Roca. The town is built on an enormous basalt cliff – over 50m (164ft) high – which was formed by the layering of two lava flows.

Make Olot, pictured above, your base while exploring the delights of La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park

Make Olot, pictured above, your base while exploring the delights of La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park 

Olot is filled with baroque and Art Deco architecture. Pictured is the city's Casa Sola Moral, which was built in 1781

Olot is filled with baroque and Art Deco architecture. Pictured is the city’s Casa Sola Moral, which was built in 1781

It’s worth visiting the waterfall of Sant Joan Les Fonts, pictured, which is also known as the Moli Fondo

It’s worth visiting the waterfall of Sant Joan Les Fonts, pictured, which is also known as the Moli Fondo

Spectacular Castellfollit de la Roca (pictured above) is built on an enormous basalt cliff, formed by the layering of two lava flows

Spectacular Castellfollit de la Roca (pictured above) is built on an enormous basalt cliff, formed by the layering of two lava flows

The volcanic rock was also used in building the town – you’ll find basalt in the footpaths and in the decorative features on the buildings. The town’s church of Sant Salvador is perched right on the cliff edge.

While there, pop in to Museu de l’Embotit – a museum dedicated to charcuterie. If that whets your appetite, amble to the nearby Poch’s Microbrewery for a craft beer. 

A final worthwhile stop on the tour of the stunning volcanic region is a visit to Santa Pau, a walled medieval village with narrow cobbled streets, cloisters and a wonderfully ornate Gothic church.

The park's Santa Pau, pictured, is a walled medieval village with narrow cobbled streets and a Gothic church

The park’s Santa Pau, pictured, is a walled medieval village with narrow cobbled streets and a Gothic church

If you time your trip right, you could arrive just in time for the annual Santa Pau gastronomical festival that celebrates the ‘fesol’ – a variety of bean grown in the town’s volcanic soil. Known as the ‘Fira de Sant Antoni’, it takes place each January. 

To access La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, the ideal mode of transport is a car. 

However, Tiesa buses also ferry visitors to and from the park from cities like Figueres, Girona, Ripoll, Vic, or Barcelona.

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