El Maresme, the Catalan super-commuter belt. Crowded trains hugging the seafront. Exclusive casas pareadas, yummy-mummy SUVs and all those signs of well-heeled and somehow out-of-bounds suburbia. Yes, it's a bit pijo - check out Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, the self-styled 'Super-Maresme with all its 24-hour surveillance golf-course gardens and periscope mansions).
But, the Maresme has some delicious corners; milennial vineyards, good rambling routes, precious scenery and handsome towns.
None more delicious than Alella. Springing from the umbrella pines and vineyards, it's an alluring town. Among the modernista palaces and exclusive urbanizaciones, the old town, centred on the church of Sant Feliu and Plaça del Ajuntament, is one of the finest sights on the Barcelona coast.
Location: Just half an hour's ride north from Barcelona. Like many of the best bits of the Maresme, Alella sits rather aloofly above the coast, removed from the traffic and trains oozing aloing the C-32 and N-11, but well-placed to launch seaside capers onto the beaches of Masnou and Ocata.
Local Walks: Alella is also well-placed for walkers, sitting at the gateway to the Parc de la Serralada Litoral, with its hilly woodland, masias and dolmens. This huge nature park connects the Vallès Oriental and the Maresme, a topography of smooth ridges dipping gently to the fishing towns and ports on the seafront. An easy ramble takes one up to the ancient dolmens of Can Gurri and Castellruf. The first is a Megalithic burial ground; the latter one of a chain of Iron Age settlements across the coastal mountain chain, whose ruins date back to the 7th Century BC .
Vining and Dining: Another of Alella's draws is its viniculture. Alella is one of Spain’s smallest DO wine-producing regions and one of its most venerable; even in antiquity writers such as Piny the Elder and Martial made written mention of what they called its ‘vins laietans' (Laietian wines). A good introduction to the world of Alella wine is at Bouquet d’Alella, one of the younger companies, which offers tasting tours at its fine 14th Century masia. Prices start at 15 € per person for a tour plus a sample of two wines. (www.bouquetdalella.com)
Get friendly with locals: A popular local is La Taberna de la Companyia d’Alella. Try the Patates frites, adorned with a special local sauce called salsalella. It's close to the town centre on Carrer Fosca,
Renting: Renting a pad in Alella is not cheap and there's not much around either. Chalets begin at about 2500€/mes. For flats it's still well over 1000€/mes. But then you'll find they're far more spacious than anything you'll get in Barcelona.
Buying: Significantly more options avail themselves if you're looking to buy. Flats, of which there aren't a huge number, begin at around 180,000€. However most people move to the Maresme because they want a house with some outdoor space, and in this respect Alella is well-stocked. You can get an impressive chalet or semi for around 350,000-400,000€. Expensive, you cry? Well, it's still a way cheaper to be close (but not in) Barcelona than Sant Cugat or Castelldefels.
Can you work locally: Not unless you work from home. Or if you're a gardener; there's lots of lawns to tend.
Pros: 1 Greenery and sea-nery. 2 No turistas up here. 3 Hundreds of new-build semis
Cons: Not much in the way of rustic options. Tolls on on th C-32 and wearying public transport to and from Barcelona. The R1 train goes direct from Plaza Cataluña to Masnou and takes 27 mins. Then from Masnou’s Port Esportiu, take the 690 bus the rest of the way to Alella centre. It’s a 10 ride. So, all in all; a bit of a ball-ache.
But still worth it? If your aim is to to be close to Barcelona as possible without hearing or smelling it, then yes.