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.
Brief historyThe 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 centuryOn 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 dayIn 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.
CatalàYour 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)..
February/March/AprilLent: 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).
May/JuneThroughout 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.
July/AugustEarly 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.
September8: 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.
November1: Sant Ermengol Celebrations in La Seu d’Urgell.
DecemberEarly Dec: Mercat Medieval de Vic Re-creation of a medieval market in Vic.
Cuina Catalana"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.
Catalan chefsContemporary 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 flagMany 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.
La GarrotxaThe fertile landscape of La Garrotxa, which unfolds west of Girona and Figueres, is anchored by the historic capital of Olot. To the east lies lovely, quiet Besalú; to the north, mountain peaks march along the French border; and to the south extends the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica, a verdant, hilly terrain punctuated by volcanic cones and craters.
Parc Natural de la Zona VolcànicaThe sprawling Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica makes up much of the Baixa Garrotxa region. You won’t see lava flows and smoke-snorting volcanoes, though – the last eruption was almost 11,000 years ago, and the park in fact largely green and verdant, with a remarkably fertile soil. The volcanic landscape comes in the shape of the park’s forty cones, which vary widely in size, the bigger ones topping 170m.
There are numerous trails through the park – if you’re short on time, you can opt to take shorter trails to several of the volcanoes that start at car parks around Olot. Posted signs point out those that lead to the two easiest cones to access from town: Volcà del Croscat, the youngest cone in the park, and Volcà de Santa Margarida.
Santa PauMedieval Santa Pau, 9km southwest of Olot, sits right in the middle of the volcanic region, and is a great jumping-off point for exploration. The beautifully preserved village features stone houses, narrow lanes, ancient archways and the thirteenth-century Plaça Mayor, once the Firal dels Bous (Cattle Market). Santa Pau is also known for its fesols (haricot beans), which figure prominently in the local cuisine. The village celebrates its beloved bean in the Fira de Sant Antonic, also known as the Fira de Fesol (Fesol Festival) in mid- or late January.
VicThe Serra del Montseny, a towering granite mountain range with lushly forested slopes, looms southwest of Girona. On the west of the range, 34km southwest of Olot and easily accessible as a day-trip from Barcelona, is the amiable, well-preserved town of Vic. Vic is considered one of the more quintessential Catalan centres, both because the locals have especially strong Catalan pride, and also because it’s near the Ripoll area, cradle of Catalan history. Vic was once the capital of an Iberian tribe, and in the second century became a Roman settlement – you’ll spy various Roman remains, including parts of a temple, scattered around town.
Vic also hosted a prosperous medieval market, and the town has a yearly Mercat Medieval de Vic (vicfires.cat) in its old quarter in early December, celebrating its medieval past. Vic is defined by its elegant, enormous Plaça Mayor, ringed by historic, porticoed buildings, which features a colourful food market twice a week (Tues & Sat) – and if there’s one thing to buy, it’s Vic’s famous sausages (llonganissa or fuet), which are heralded throughout Catalunya and perfect for tossing into the suitcase to bring home.
Música in VicRaucous rumba tunes, melancholy classics by string quartets, quirky improvisational jazz bands, and a Catalan songstress singing in her native tongue … you’ll see it all at the superb festival Mercat de Música Viva, or Live Music Market (wmmvv.net), in mid-September, which showcases international groups in venues around town. Equally entertaining is the Festival de Jazz (wjazzcava.com), generally in May and June, which draws local and global jazz bands.
The Catalan PyreneesLooming gracefully over northern Catalunya, the snow-tipped Pyrenees form a mighty barrier between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. You can ski and hike throughout these mountains, making use of a range of ski centres and vast stretches of natural parkland. Imposing peaks reach more than 3400m, while fierce rivers cleave the green valleys; tucked away in the valleys and clinging to the mountains are centuries-old alpine villages, each with its own Romanesque church, collectively forming an open-air rural museum of early medieval architecture, particularly in the beautiful Vall de Boí.
The Pyrenees are easy to reach from Barcelona – Ripoll, a gateway town to the mountains, is accessible in less than three hours. The ski scene dominates the mountains northwest of Ripoll, while summer draws hikers and trekkers. North of Ripoll is the village of Ribes de Freser, where you can board the famous cremallera railway which snakes its way up to the small ski town and pilgrimage site of Núria – one of the most magnificent journeys in the Pyrenees.
West of here unfolds the formidable Serra del Cadí, which offers superb hiking and trekking around one of Catalunya’s most recognizable peaks, the Pedraforca. To the north, along the French border, is La Cerdanya, a lush, sunny Pyrenean valley that’s especially popular in the summer with outdoor enthusiasts. Cerdanya’s capital is the lively town of Puigcerdà, while just across the border sits the geographical oddity of Llívia, a Spanish town fully enclosed by France. In winter, skiers flock to La Molina and Masella, the two big ski resorts in the area.
The mountainous terrain around La Seu d’Urgell, still further west, offers some of the best trekking in the Pyrenees. White-water aficionados get their adrenalin rush in the Noguera Pallaresa valley, where churning rivers offer the best rafting in the region. Finally, in the far northwest unfolds the rugged Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, and lush Val d’Aran, one of Spain’s most chic and finest ski resorts.
Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant MauriciOne of nine in Spain, Catalunya’s largest national park, the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, encompasses soaring peaks topping 3000m and lush meadows irrigated by more than four hundred lakes, streams, waterfalls and impressive glacial valleys. Established in 1955, the park is comprised of valleys blanketed in pine and fir forests, while wild animals like the isard, a small antelope also known as the chamois, roam the terrain. You might even spot a golden eagle or black woodpecker, both common here.
Hiking and trekking opportunities abound, from easy walks around sparkling lakes to serious treks up the mountain. The Sant Nicolas valley in the west features numerous glacial lakes, as well as the meanders of Aigüestortes (Twisted Waters). In the east lies the massive Estany de Sant Maurici (Sant Maurici Lake), at the head of the Escrita valley. In the winter, you can also cross-country ski through the park, though there are no marked trails.
The park’s western sector is best reached from the Vall de Boí – to explore Aigüestortes, the approach is generally from Boí via El Pont de Suert; the eastern portion, including Lake Sant Maurici, is accessed via Espot, which lies just beyond the eastern border of the park. The easiest starting point for the higher mountains is Capdella, south of the park. If you’ll be hiking for several days at a time between June and September, you can stay at any of the refuges throughout the park. Either visitor centre can give you a list.
Vall de FoscaThe verdant Vall de Fosca, which extends just south of the park, received its name Fosca (“dark”) because it’s surrounded by steep slopes that obscure the sun. Tiny Capdella is perched at its northernmost point, and at 1420m, is the highest of the fifteen or so tiny villages and settlements that are sprinkled south through the valley, including Espui and La Torre de Capdella, which has the valley’s tourist office. Capdella makes for a good jumping-off point into the park, and is the village closest to the teleférico (cable car).
Espot, Espot Esquí and aroundEspot is a cosy mountain town hemmed in by a lovely green valley, which has increasingly been built up as a tourist centre. In the winter, skiers pass through on their way to Espot Esquí (wgranpallars.com), just south of town, with nearly thirty alpine trails.
You can access the park from Espot, which lies about 7km from the Estany de Sant Maurici. Upon arrival at the estany (lake), you’ll want to get your camera out: it’s a beautiful scene, the lake fringed by wilderness and dominated by the spires of Els Encants (“The Enchanted Ones”; 2700m).
El Pont de SuertEL PONT DE SUERT, 41km northwest of La Pobla de Segur, features a pleasant old town, a handsome main plaça, an arcaded c/Mayor and the elegant fifteenth-century Palau Abadial, a former residence of abbots. The town also receives fairly regular buses, so you’ll pass through if you’re arriving at the park from the west.
Vall de BoíExtending just west of the national park is the lush Vall de Boí, anchored by the mountain village of Boí. The highlights of the valley are its lovely Romanesque churches, the most remarkable of their kind in Catalunya. In 2000, the churches were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, who described them as “an especially pure and consistent example of Romanesque art in a virtually untouched rural setting”. And it is this setting that leaves the lasting impression – the beautiful simplicity of the early Romanesque architecture is magnified by the utter alpine stillness surrounding them. The churches, all built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, were constructed of local materials, like stone, slate and wood – and their most striking features are their elegant belfries which, in the case of Taüll, rises an impressive six storeys. Note that many of the church frescoes are reproductions – though excellent ones, to be sure – because the originals have been moved to MNAC in Barcelona. In addition to the valley’s two finest churches in Taüll, other Romanesque beauties worth a visit are Sant Feliu in Barruera, Nativitat in Durro and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall.
The GR11 and the HRPRunning roughly parallel to the GR10, which runs on the French side, the GR11 is a network of long-distance hiking trails which traverses the Spanish Pyrenees from one end to the other. Estimated to be about 850–900km in length, it runs from the Golfo de Vizcaya (Bay of Biscay) in the Basque region to the west to Cap de Creus, near Cadaqués in the east. For seasoned trekkers, there is also the HRP (Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne), which follows a higher and wilder course in the Pyrenees, crisscrossing the Spanish–French border along the way. It runs largely through the Parc National des Pyrenées in France but also takes in parts of the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. In Spain, you can get more general information about the GR routes from the Federación Española de Deportes de Montaña y Escalada (FEDME; Spanish Mountain Sports Federation; wfedme.es), though the website is mostly in Spanish only. Tourist offices, refuges, and many hotels in the Pyrenees can also supply maps, info on accommodation along the route and more.
The CremalleraThe journey of the Cremallera de Vall de Núria, most often just known as the cremallera railway (“zipper” in Catalan), built in 1931, is spectacular: the little train follows the rushing Ríu Freser and then, quite suddenly, begins to scale steep mountainsides along stomach-churning switchbacks, from where you’re rewarded with beautiful views of the river and valley far below. Trains depart from the Ribes-Enllaç station, in the southern part of Ribes, daily year-round except November, when it’s closed. In high season (July to mid-Sept, plus winter hols), trains run 10–13 times a day; in low season, it’s around 6–7 times. One-way journey time is 35 minutes; tickets are €21.25 round-trip in high season, €17.75 in low season. For the latest information, visit wvalldenuria.cat or call t972 732 020.
Dragons and devilsPleasant BERGA, 30km west of Ripoll, is the main town in the comarca of Berguedà. Berga has the usual historical draws – an old town, the remains of a castle – but the reason that it’s on the map, so to speak, is as host of one of Catalunya’s most famous festivals, the Festa del Patum, during Corpus Christi week. During the festival, Berga’s otherwise staid streets fill with parade floats of pagans and fantasy creatures – the famous gegants, devils, dragons spewing fireworks and dragon-slayers – while revellers dance on the sidelines and behind the floats. The festival is said to be named after the sound of the drum, and you’ll hear the crowd chanting “pa-tum, pa-tum!” throughout. If you can’t make it to the festival, you can catch a glimpse of the festival at the simple La Casa de Patum (summer Thurs–Sun 11am–2pm & 6–8pm; winter only open on weekend, same hours; free), which features a video of the festival and various costumes. During Patum, you must book accommodation at least a month in advance.
Skiing the Catalan PyreneesThere’s a good reason the Spanish royal family and other luminaries choose to ski in the Catalan Pyrenees – it’s home to some of the best resorts in Spain. As with most ski regions, often the best way to save is through the package deals offered by many hotels, which include discounts on lift tickets. General prices are €14–24 a day for ski gear (skis, boots, poles), and €26–48 daily for lift passes, with prices varying with the length of time you buy passes for, whether it’s a weekday or the weekend and the quality of the resort. Note, also, that it’s well worth checking ahead to find out the level of snow, especially in the spring.
The Catalan Pyrenees offer a surprising variety of resorts, catering both to first-timers and advanced skiers. Intermediate skiers will find plenty of thrilling terrain at La Masella in La Cerdanya; Boí-Taüll on the western boundary of Aigüestortes; and Baqueira-Beret in the Val d’Aran. The best resorts for newbies and families are Espot Esquí on the eastern boundary of the Parc Nacional de Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici; and La Molina near La Masella.
Whitewater adrenaline rushThe Noguera Pallaresa’s mighty flow is legendary, and draws thrill-seekers from around Spain and further afield. The original rafts were primitive – logs lashed together – but could withstand the frothy waters, and were ridden by raiers (rafters) to the sawmills of La Pobla de Segur. These days, the rafts are of the inflatable variety, and exciting whitewater trips are offered by operators throughout the region.
The most popular section of the river is between Llavorsí and Rialp, but tour companies offer a range of trips, each more rugged and scenic than the last. The rafting season is from April to early September; some outfitters also offer rafting programmes in March and October. In season, trips are run daily, usually in the late morning and lasting 1–2 hours on the water. Two-hour trips start at €35, and go up to €70–80 for longer rides, including lunch. The tourist office has a list of recommended rafting operators, including those listed here. Most offer other activities as well:
SortRubber River Diputación 14 t973 620 220, wrubber-river.com. Sort is filled with rafting and adventure shops, including this reputable outfitter, which offers everything from rafting, kayaking (€70 for a 3hr class) and canoeing to bungee-jumping (€25 per jump) and horseriding. Offices open daily 9am–1pm & 5–9pm; closed mid-Oct to April.
LlavorsíRafting Llavorsí Camí de Riberies t973 622 158, wraftingllavorsi.cat. This established operator offers rafting, kayaking (€80 for 2 days of instruction; 2hr per day) and multiple other aquatic adventures; in the winter, they can arrange snowshoe treks. Daily 9am–8pm.
Roc Roi Pl. Nostra Senyora de Biuse t973 622 035, wrocroi.com. This friendly operator runs a multitude of river sports plus trekking and horseriding. Mid-Oct to Easter daily 9am–9pm.
Yeti Emotions Pl. Nostra Senyora de Biuse t973 622 201, wyetiemotions.com. This longtime outfitter, which shares the same office and is under the same management as Roc Roi, offers a wide range of river and land sports, both summer and winter. Snowshoe treks from €80. Mid-Oct to Easter daily 9am–9pm.
South CatalunyaThe great triangle of land south of Barcelona may be one of the lesser-visited wedges of Catalunya – but it shouldn’t be. This wonderfully varied area encompasses a sun-speckled coast, a trinity of medieval monasteries and the historically rich provincial capitals of Tarragona and Lleida.
West of Barcelona lies cava country, where you can tour Catalunya’s best-known cava producers, especially around Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. On the coast, just south of Barcelona, sits vibrant Sitges, a major gay summer destination that’s also home to some fine modernista architecture. Beyond this is the Costa Daurada – the coastline that stretches from just north of Tarragona to the Delta de l’Ebre – which suffered less exploitation than the Costa Brava. It’s easy enough to see why it was so neglected – the shoreline can be drab, with beaches that are narrow and characterless, backed by sparse villages – but there are exceptions, and if all you want to do is relax by a beach for a while, there are several down-to-earth and perfectly functional possibilities, including Cambrils.
The Costa Daurada really begins to pay dividends, however, if you can forget about the beaches temporarily and spend a couple of days in Tarragona. It’s a city with a solid Roman past – reflected in an array of impressive ruins and monuments – and makes a handy springboard for trips inland into Lleida province. South of Tarragona, Catalunya peters out in the lagoons and marshes of the Delta de l’Ebre, a riverine wetland rich in bird life – perfect for slow boat trips, fishing and sampling the local seafood.
Inland attractions are fewer, and many travelling this way are inclined to head on out of Catalunya altogether, not stopping until they reach Zaragoza. It’s true that much of the region is flat, rural and dull, but nonetheless it would be a mistake to miss the outstanding monastery at Poblet, only an hour or so inland from Tarragona. A couple of other nearby towns and monasteries – notably medieval Montblanc and Santes Creus – add a bit more interest to the region, while by the time you’ve rattled across the huge plain that encircles the provincial capital of Lleida you’ll have earned a night’s rest. Pretty much off the tourist trail, Lleida is the start of the dramatic road and train routes into the western foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees, and is only two and a half hours from Zaragoza.