Barcelona may make the biggest splash with visitors, but it’s the rest of Catalunya that defines the region’s distinct – and proud – identity. Out of the city – and especially in rural areas – you’ll hear Catalan spoken more often and find better Catalan food. Towns and villages are surprisingly prosperous, a relic of the early industrial era when Catalunya developed more rapidly than most of Spain. There’s a confidence in being Catalan that dates back to the fourteenth-century Golden Age, when it was a kingdom that ruled the Balearics, Valencia, the French border regions, and even Sardinia. Today, Catalunya is officially a semi-autonomous comunidad, but it can still feel like a separate country – cross the borders into Valencia or Aragón and you soon sense the difference.
Catalunya (Cataluña in Castilian Spanish, Catalonia in English) is a spectacular study in contrasts, from the soaring peaks of the Pyrenees to the sparkling blue water of the Mediterranean’s shallow coves. The showy swagger of Costa Brava’s mega-resorts, meanwhile, mixes alluringly with the stillness of ancient parish churches hidden deep in the heartland. Despite this diversity, however, Catalunya is relatively compact, so it’s possible – as many a local will proudly point out – to ski in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon.
On the whole everything is easily reached from Barcelona; the city is linked to most main centres by excellent bus and train services. The obvious targets are the coasts north and south of the city, and the various provincial capitals (Girona, Tarragona and Lleida), destinations that make a series of comfortable day-trips. Even on a short trip, you can take in the medieval city of Girona and the surrounding area, which includes the extraordinary volcanic Garrotxa region, as well as the best of the beach towns on the Costa Brava, which runs up to the French border. This was one of the first stretches of Spanish coast to be developed for mass tourism, and though that’s no great recommendation, the large, brash resorts are tempered by some more isolated beaches and lower-key holiday and fishing villages, such as Cadaqués. Just inland from the coast, Figueres contains the Teatre-Museu Dalí, Catalunya’s biggest tourist attraction.
With more time, you can head for the Catalan Pyrenees, which offer magnificent and relatively isolated hiking territory, particularly in and around the Parc Nacional de Aigüestortes, and good skiing in winter. South of Barcelona, the Costa Daurada features a fine beach at Sitges and the attractive coastal town of Tarragona; inland, the appealing cava vineyards around Sant Sadurní d’Anoia or the romantic monastery of Poblet figure as approaches to the enjoyable provincial capital of Lleida.
The Catalan people have an individual and deeply felt historical and cultural identity, seen most clearly in the language, which takes precedence over Castilian on street names and signs. Despite being banned for over thirty years during the Franco dictatorship, Catalan survived behind closed doors and has staged a dramatic comeback since the Generalísimo’s death. As in the Basque Country, though, regionalism goes back much farther than this.
Early origins to the twentieth century
On the expulsion of the Moors in 874, Guifré el Pelós (Wilfred the Hairy) established himself as the first independent Count of Barcelona; his kingdom flourished and the region became famous for its seafaring, mercantile and commercial skills, characteristics that to some extent still set the region apart. In the twelfth century came union with Aragón, though the Catalans kept many of their traditional, hard-won rights (usatges). From then until the fourteenth century marked Catalunya’s Golden Age, and in 1359 the Catalan Generalitat – Europe’s first parliamentary government – was established.
In 1469, through the marriage of Fernando V (of Aragón) to Isabel I (of Castile), the region was added on to the rest of the emergent Spanish state. Throughout the following centuries the Catalans made various attempts to secede from the stifling grasp of central bureaucracy, which saw the Catalan enterprise as merely another means of filling the state coffers. Early industrialization, which was centred here and in the Basque Country, only intensified political disaffection, and in the 1920s and 1930s anarchist, communist and socialist parties all established major power bases in Catalunya.
The Civil War to the present day
In 1931, after the fall of the dictator General Primo de Rivera, a Catalan Republic was proclaimed and its autonomous powers guaranteed by the new Republican government. Any incipient separatism collapsed, however, with the outbreak of the Civil War, during which Catalunya was a bastion of the Republican cause, Barcelona holding out until January 1939. In revenge, Franco pursued a policy of harsh suppression, attempting to wipe out all evidence of Catalan cultural and economic primacy. Among his more subtle methods was the encouragement of immigration from other parts of Spain in order to dilute regional identity. Even so, Catalunya remained obstinate, the scene of protests and demonstrations throughout the dictatorship, and after Franco’s death a Catalan government was formally reinstated in 1979. This, the semi-autonomous Generalitat, enjoys a high profile and is gradually extending its power, and the local police, or Mossos d’Esquadra, continue to replace the national forces.
Your main problem throughout Catalunya is likely to be the language – Català (Catalan). Català has more or less taken over from Castilian, a phenomenon known as the venganza (revenge), though few visitors realize how ingrained and widespread the language is and sometimes commit the error of calling it a dialect. On paper, Català looks like a cross between French and Spanish and is generally easy to understand if you know those two but, spoken, it has a distinct, rounded sound and is far harder to come to grips with, especially away from Barcelona, where accents are stronger.
When Franco came to power, publishing houses, bookshops and libraries were raided and Català books destroyed. While this was followed by a let-up in the mid-1940s, the language was still banned from the radio, TV, daily press and, most importantly, schools, which is why many older people today cannot necessarily write Català (even if they speak it all the time). As for Castilian, in Barcelona virtually everyone can speak it, while in country areas, many people can sometimes only understand, not speak, it.
Català is spoken in Catalunya proper, part of Aragón, much of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Principality of Andorra and in parts of the French Pyrenees, albeit with variations of dialect (it is thus much more widely spoken than several better-known languages such as Danish, Finnish and Norwegian). It is a Romance language, stemming from Latin and, more directly, from medieval Provençal and lemosi, the literary French of Occitania. Spaniards in the rest of the country tend to belittle it by saying that to get a Català word you just cut a Castilian one in half. In fact, the grammar is much more complicated than Castilian, and the language has eight vowel sounds (including three diphthongs). In the text we’ve tried to keep to Català names (with Castilian in parentheses where necessary) – not least because street signs and turisme maps are in Català. Either way, you’re unlikely to get confused as the difference is usually only slight: ie Girona (Gerona) and Lleida (Lérida)..
Lent: Carnaval Sitges has Catalunya’s best celebrations.
Easter: Semana Santa (Holy Week) Celebrations at Besalú, Girona and La Pobla de Segur.
April 23: Semana Medieval de Sant Jordi St George is celebrated throughout Catalunya, with a week of exhibitions, dances and medieval music in Montblanc, among other places (wsetmanamedieval.org).
Throughout May and June: Festival de Jazz In Vic.
First fortnight: Festa de la Lana Annual wool fair in Ripoll.
Third week of May: Fires i Festes de la Santa Creu Processions and music in Figueres.
Corpus Christi (variable): Festa de Corpus Christi Big processions in Sitges, plus the massive Patum festival in Berga.
June 21–23: Festa de Sant Patllari In Camprodon.
June 24: Dia de Sant Joan Celebrated everywhere; watch out for things shutting down for a day on either side.
Early July to late August: Ripoll International Music Festival Classical music in Ripoll.
Third week: Festa de Santa Cristina At Lloret de Mar.
19: Festa de Sant Magi In Tarragona.
July/early Aug: Festival Internacional de Música In Torroella de Montgrí.
Mid-July to late Aug: Festival Jardins de Cap Roig In Calella de Palafrugell.
Late July to late Aug: Festival de Música de Begur In Begur.
8: The Virgin’s Birth celebrated in Cadaqués, Núria and L’Escala, among other towns.
22: Sant Maurici At his ermita in the national park above Espot.
Nearest weekend to 24: Festa de Sant Primuns and Felician At Besalú.
Third week: Mercat de Música Viva festival in Vic.
Third week: Festa de Santa Tecla Human castles (castells) and processions of gegants (giant puppets) in Tarragona.
8: Feria de Vielha Annual fair.
Last week: Fires i Festes de Sant Narcis In Girona.
1: Sant Ermengol Celebrations in La Seu d’Urgell.
Early Dec: Mercat Medieval de Vic Re-creation of a medieval market in Vic.
“Catalunya has a fantastic climate, a rich plurality of products and diverse geography – the sea, the mountains, and the plains. There are few parts of the world this fertile.” Ferran Adrià
That’s how the famous Catalan chef describes his home region’s geographical bounty, source of its rich cuina Catalana. Culled from “mar i muntanya” (sea and mountain), Catalunya’s cuisine matches fresh seafood on the coast with hearty meats (particularly sausages) inland, while fragrant fruits and vegetables provide ballast to every meal.
The seafood variety is impressive, and includes plump shrimp and langoustine; eel from the Ebro delta; trout from Pyrenean rivers; and the ever-present bacallà (cod). Sausages, most using pork as a base, include botifarra, fuet (a thin, dried sausage) and llonganissa (cured sausage). Catalunya has taken mushrooms to a high art, not least aromatic bolets (wild mushrooms), which are picked and prepared in autumn. In late winter and early spring, calçots (large, tender, sweet spring onions) are roasted over coals and dipped in a romesco sauce, which is made with tomatoes, peppers, onions, almonds, garlic and olive oil.
Perhaps Catalunya’s best-loved export is pa amb tomàquet, bread rubbed with tomato and drizzled in olive oil, which is not only ubiquitous throughout the region, but in the rest of Spain. As for dessert: Catalunya’s answer to crème brûlée is the custard-style crema Catalana. And when it comes time to celebrate, do so with cava, a sparkling wine that rivals champagne, but is significantly cheaper.
Contemporary Catalan cuisine has become synonymous with Ferran Adrià, who transformed (and transfixed) the culinary world with his famous scented espumas (foams) and “molecular gastronomy” (or, as Ferran prefers to describe it, cocina de vanguardia). The effects have gone far beyond the dazzling laboratory of a kitchen in his former restaurant El Bulli on the Costa Brava. (Ferran closed El Bulli in July 2011 to launch a nonprofit culinary foundation; ). Chefs across the region have been inspired by Ferran, each adding their own spin, including (in Barcelona) Carles Abellán, as well as Albert Adrià who, with older brother Ferran, opened the excellent tapas bar Tickets in 2011. The region is also home to two legendary restaurants: El Celler de Can Roca and El Motel.
The legend of the bloody flag
The legend of the bloody flag
Many legends swirl around the colourful Guifré el Pélos (“Wilfred the Hairy”), who established himself as the first count of Barcelona in the ninth century. One such story is the bloody creation of the Catalan flag. As the legend goes: Guifré el Pélos was mortally wounded in a battle against the Normans (some say the battle was against the Moors). The Frankish king Charles the Bald wanted to pay tribute to the dying Guifré’s bravery by awarding him a coat of arms on the battlefield. The king is said to have dipped Guifré’s hands in his own freshly drawn blood, and then ran his fingers across the golden shield; hence the four bands of red on a yellow background.