You may have noticed one region of Spain has certainly been making the headlines right now! With the debate surrounding Catalan independence heating up, this beautiful region has been thrust into the spotlight now more than ever. So, that’s all the more reason to see what awaits you in this beautiful, diverse and proud region!
Spanning an area of over 32,000km², the autonomous community of Catalonia boasts diverse geography, rich culture and some of the most beautiful towns, cities and coastlines in all of Spain. If the referendum’s piqued your interested – or you’re curious to see what lies beyond the bustling streets of Barcelona – then you’re in the right place! Join me on a little adventure around the region with my Catalonia Travel Guide and see what this remarkable region has to offer despite the current political issues that are going on at the moment…
A city that needs absolutely no introduction! Barcelona is easily one of the top city break destinations in Europe, boasting a rich wealth of sights, trendy neighbourhoods and fantastic city beaches. If you stick to the touristy hot spots it can certainly feel pretty crowded, but believe me when I say it’s a city that is worth getting off the beaten track. You’ll come across all sorts of lovely squares and streets away from the prying eyes of mass tourism. Despite the typical big-city feel, it’s a place where you can still take things slow, enjoy life and simply watch the world go on by.
The mix of architectural styles all represent just how rich the city is in character. The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) is the city’s historic heart, featuring a winding maze of streets filled with bars, restaurants and intricate Gothic architecture. The Eixample is an incredible example of city planning with its sprawling, grid-like layout and symmetrical format. And in between you’ll catch glimpses of Gaudí’s surreal Modernista masterpieces that look otherworldly.
When you add to the mix amazing opportunities for day trips such as the Montserrat Monastery, the Poble Espanyol and even the coastal towns along Costa Maresme and Costa Brava, it’s quite easy to see why this city is a firm favourite for many travellers around the world.
To the north-west of Barcelona is the Costa Brava, a beautiful stretch of coastline that reaches all the way up to the French border. For those of you looking to soak up a bit of sun, it’s easily one of the best regions in Spain to go to for those classic sun holidays. There’s a mix of typical resorts that feature vibrant nightlife and busy beaches as well as historic fishing villages and sleepy coastal retreats. Head inland and you’ll come across beautiful, traditional villages that have remained unchanged for years. Cobblestone streets, historic cottages and peaceful squares – it really is like taking a step back in time.
…finest coastal landscapes oozing with Mediterranean charm…
The towns aren’t the only reason that visitors are attracted to the region. The Costa Brava also boasts some of the finest coastal landscapes. They just ooze with that typical Mediterranean charm we so readily associate with a week away in warmer climates. Imagine mountains fringed with pines, sweeping cliffs rising up from the ocean and sandy beaches lapped by crystal clear waters. It’s the epitome of a sun holiday, one that promises plenty of relaxation (and sun bathing!).
It’s not just a feast for the eyes either. Costa Brava is a bit of a heaven for foodies too, with excellent Catalan fare and fresh seafood just waiting for you to try. Sure, you might come across the bog-standard English pub grub in the cheaper hotels and touristy areas, but as soon as you start heading to quieter, more local areas you’ll soon be dining like kings.
This city may well be overshadowed by the might of Barcelona, but it’s a place that’s worth checking out nonetheless, especially if you’re looking for a city break without the hustle and bustle of big cities! Girona is an absolute treasure trove of medieval architecture and fantastic museums. Its winding streets offering glimpses into the city’s rich history that spans thousands of years, and you can even walk along the top of the old defensive walls which offer you amazing views of rooftops, spires and even the Catalan Pyrenees in the distance.
Another jewel in Girona’s crown is its medieval Jewish Quarter. Despite the expulsion or conversion of Spain’s Jewish population in the 14th and 15th Centuries, the city has managed to preserve its Jewish heritage very well and in fact boasts one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in all of Europe. For history and culture lovers, it’s a great place to spend the afternoon exploring – you can brush up on the local knowledge at the excellent Museum of Jewish History (Meseu d’Història dels Jueus).
Whatever you do, try and see if you can time a visit to Girona to coincide with the Temps de Flors festival. It takes place in spring, usually at around May when the spring weather is at its best. This wonderful flower festival sees the town decked in countless floral arrangements, bouquets and compositions. The grand stairs leading up to the imposing cathedral turn into a colourful canvas, and you’ll definitely notice the wonderful scents and fragrances all around.
Sure, the first thing we might associate with the Mediterranean are sandy beaches and heavenly climates, but for those of you who would rather spend their time getting out and about in the great outdoors, you’re well catered for in the north of Catalonia!
Spanning the border between Spain and France (with Andorra nestled inbetween), the Pyrenees offer countless opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking and even skiing. Catalonia’s only national park, the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, is situated in this mountain range – its craggy mountain peaks, lush pine forests and wonderful waterways are such a contrast to the typically Mediterranean scenes down on the coast. The lakes of Lago de San Mauricio and Estany Negre are two popular excurions.
Driving around in the area, you’ll no doubt come across lots of charming Medieval villages that almost look as if they’re frozen in time. Besalù is perhaps one of the most well-known, featuring a picturesque bridge leading in the centre, and Santa Pau features a wonderful main square – it’s worth stopping off at either of these villages for a traditional lunch. But perhaps my favourite mountain village is Beget. With a population of roughly 30 people, it’s as traditional as it gets. The only road is the asphalt track leading up to the village, and it’s not exactly the easiest drive to get up there. But it’s so, so worth it!
Catalonia’s Prettiest Villages
Just a few little extra tips from me. These villages are all known as some of the prettiest in the region. With their cobblestone streets, traditional houses and peaceful squares, these villages are perfect for a little afternoon excursion, or even as a great place to stop off for little walk around during a road trip.
Besalù: mentioned in the last section, this village’s Medieval defences and narrow streets will whisk you away to times long past.
Pals: Just a few kilometre inland from the beaches of Costa Brava, this town is the perfect place to escape the heaving crowds for the day.
Cadaqués: A fishing village-turned-Bohemian retreat. many artists and writers have stayed here, including Dalí and Pablo Picasso.
Siurana: One of the most breathtaking by far – hike up to the Santa Maria Church to be greeted with panoramic views of the hills all around.
Rupit: The lush nature all around only adds to the beauty of the village, which features traditional Romanesque architecture.
Peratallada: The name of this lovely village translates to “carved stone”, a reference to the stone used to build the village. It features a castle in the centre.
If you’ve travelled to Spain a lot, you’ll know that each region has its own character. This is especially true of Catalonia – not only is their regional identity and pride very strong, they also celebrate all sorts of colourful festivals throughout the year. While cities and towns may have their own festivals (such as Festa de Sant Medir in Gràcia, Barcelona), the three here are some of the more famous features of Catalan culture that you can find across the region.
The first are correfocs, where there’ll be fireworks and fire-breathers going off all over the place. While it looks like nothing short of a riot, there’s actually a bit of deeper meaning to it. Some people in the crowd are dressed up as devils or monsters, while others might be parading around effigies of a demon. It’s because this fiery street performance is actually representing the struggle between good and evil, having evolved from traditional ball de diables – the Devils’ Dance – which date back to Medieval times. Don’t worry though – people dress to protect themselves from any accidents and it’s up to you how close you want to stand by the flames. ;)
The next one is a dance known as the sardana. In this dance, one rule applies: the more the merrier! What often starts as a small circle can often grow to include dozens of dancers and several circles all within each other. It brings not just local neighbourhoods together, but also Catalonia as a whole – it’s recognised as a part of their cultural heritage. Pay special attention to the steps and see if you can learn a few moves along the way. Here’s a tip: Plaça de Sant Jaume is a great place to go in Barcelona if you want to watch some.
This is probably my most famous one of all: the castells! These are human towers that are built at festivals. You’ll find them in all shapes and sizes, and there’s also a complicated naming system for them which tells people how big the base is, how many people there are in each level… and so on! Towns have their own dedicated human-tower-building teams (colles castelleres) who can be distinguished by the colours of their jackets. Sashes worn around the waist provide footholds for people climbing up and down. Once a tower is built, a person known as a enxaneta climbs to the top and raises a hand to show that the tower is complete. But what goes up must come down of course! Construction is just half of the show, as a castell is only successful if a team can ‘dismantle’ it without falling as well…
Sights and good weather aren’t the only thing that makes a holiday fun. In fact there’s one thing that turns a good holiday into a great one: food. When you know that you’re exploring a beautiful part of the world where every dish is a proper treat is such a great feeling!
While it’s true that we are quite familiar with Spanish cuisine already, Catalan cuisine does feature some fantastic dishes of its own that sets it apart from its national counterpart. One of the most famous ones is mar i muntanya. Meaning “sea and mountain” in English, this tasty dish has many iterations. But the fundamental concept of the dish sees meat and seafood served together in the same dish – and let me tell you, this stuff really is incredible!
Some other savory treats you should try out are:
pa amb tomàquet: slices of toasted bread served with tomato, salt and olive oil (a very popular snack!)
fideuà: very similar to paella, except made with short pasta noodles instead of rice
esqueixada: salad made with cod that’s been salt-cured and marinated (popular during the summer)
ollada and escudella: two stews typical of Catalonia (the first made with vegetables, the second made with pasta and meat)
coca: Catalan pizza which can be all shapes and sizes!
For desert, you’ve got all sorts of amazing treats to look forward to. How about crema catalana, the Catalan answer to crème brûlée, bunyol (or buñuelo), sweet deep-fried dough balls, or – and this is probably my person fave – xuixo. Pastry stuffed with crema catalana, deep-fried and then dusted with sugar… As you can imagine these things are so moreish!
And let’s not forget about the fact that over 10 wine-growing regions in Catalonia, and it’s also the home of sparkling cava wine too. You’ll be sure to find the perfect accompaniment to any meal!
You’ll be glad to know that the region of Catalonia is well connected to Ireland by the way of international flights. The busiest airports are Barcelona El Prat Airport, Reus Airport and Girona-Costa Brava Airport. All three of them are served by direct flights from Ireland and their convenient locations means that you can easily explore pretty much all the region without too much hassle. To get deep into the Catalan Pyrenees you might also consider flying to Andorra (two countries for the price of one! ;) ).
If travelling by land, there are good train connections from Madrid, along the coast from Valencia and across the French border to Perpignan. And when landscapes look this good, I can only recommend hiring a car too, even if it’s just for a day or two. With great roads all around, driving gives you the opportunity to hop along the coast from town to town and make a detour to beautiful villages overlooked by most tourists.