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Curious Catalonia

Much has been written about Catalonia and its myriad attractions. Perhaps one of the world’s A-list destinations, it boasts such gems as the Park Güell, the Sagrada Familia and the Dali Theatre-Museum, not to mention Valencia’s incredible Science Museum and dozens of theme parks, castles, vibrant cities and galleries.

Well, here we’re trying to think outside the box and suggest places to visit, which are not the typical highlights that appear in every blog post, guidebook, and insta. Places that are frankly niche, a bit esoteric perhaps, oddities even, but always fascinating. The bonus is that if there are any, the queues are tiny; the costs are lower than the big-name attractions, and you’ll come home with less of a tick-box feel to your holiday itinerary.

So here’s the Alan Rogers dozen: places that are more off-piste, off the beaten track and often well into the long grass. Visit a few of these, and you’ll feel far more informed about this fabulous region and have some experiences that will trump any of the "Big Name" attractions.

Congost de Mont-rebei

Congost de Mont-rebei
Congost de Mont-rebei

This gorge slices through a huge rocky outcrop of the Montsec mountain range, lying between Aragon and Catalonia. It’s a protected area and is a designated wildlife refuge the gorge is home to otters and majestic birds of prey circle overhead, searching for prey.
The walking is magnificent here, and several waymarked itineraries lead you through different sections that might otherwise be ignored.

The Alsamora Route weaves through a little-known section of the Montsec d’Ares, shaded by woods and plunging into deep ravines with amazing views over the Pyrenees. The Altimiris route leads to a ruined village, once a bustling medieval settlement, and offers panoramic views of the Pyrenees. The Camí nou del Congost is an itinerary carved from the cliff face that follows the gorge's length along the left bank. Finally, the Obaga Gran Route showcases wooded slopes and jagged ravines and ends with an epic view over the Plana de Mont-rebei.

Artigas Gardens

Artigas Gardens
Artigas Gardens

About 170 km from Barcelona, the Jardins de Can Artigas lie in the village of La Pobla de Lillet. They were the brainchild of the famous architect Gaudi, famous for his major works in Barcelona and elsewhere. The gardens took shape during the early 20th century following a visit by Gaudi to his wealthy patron Eusebi Güell and were designed as a thank-you for his hospitality.

At the time Gaudi’s iconic Park Güell was taking shape in Barcelona, and he sent bricklayers from that project to ensure stylistic similarities. Highlights include La Glorieta, providing wonderful views, La Cova with its dramatic arches, the stone fountain of La Cascada and the arched bridge of El Berenador.

Almost forgotten and falling into disrepair, the gardens were rescued and restored in the 1970s, complete with Gaudi’s hallmark stonework, grottoes, Catholic symbols and wooden arches and are now open to the public.

Sant Romà de Sau

Sant Romà de Sau
Sant Romà de Sau

The ancient village of Sant Romà de Sau was once a sleepy little community tucked away in Catalonia’s Sau Valley. Towering cliffs soared up on either side of the valley. In the 1960s the authorities decided to construct a dam on the River Ter. This would provide a reservoir and ensure water supplies for most of Catalonia, but the dam would submerge Sant Romà.

As completion approached, the inhabitants left for a new town, Vilanova de Sau, built nearby. They took everything with them, even their dead, leaving the old town to be slowly submerged as the waters rose.

When the waters are high, the top of the bell tower of the 11th-century church remains visible: a sombre, watchful gravestone jutting out of the placid waters of the reservoir. In summer, during exceptional periods without rainfall, more and more comes into view. Occasionally the entire church is visible, not to mention an old bridge and several old houses. It’s a moving, slightly eerie spectacle.

The Gala Dalí Castle

The Gala Dalí Castle
The Gala Dalí Castle

Sometimes known as the Castle of Púbol, this museum is where the extraordinary surrealist artist Salvador Dalí focused his creative energies to provide his wife Gala with a fitting resting place.

Dalí had always promised to buy her a castle, finally securing the dilapidated 11th-century Castle of Púbol in 1969. He revamped it, and she spent much of each summer there for the next decade until her death in 1982. Dalí himself even undertook not to visit the property without her express written permission.

It was opened to the public in 1996 as the Casa-Museu Castell Gala Dalí. Here visitors can discover the Piano Hall, the Gala Room, the library, the guest room and more, and admire the artworks that Dalí gave his wife: haute couture dresses, exquisite furniture and Gala’s mausoleum itself. Outside, the gardens are decorated with sculptures of long-legged elephants, a recurring motif in Dalí’s work.

Castell de Santa Florentina

Castell de Santa Florentina
Castell de Santa Florentina

Built on the foundations of an ancient Roman villa, this 11th-century castle is set in Canet de Mar, about 50 km from Barcelona. It’s a real gem, privately owned and often ignored by tourists looking for the big-name attractions who are unaware this was once cited as one of the world’s most beautiful castles by Architectural Digest. Though not far from the coast, it’s tucked away amongst dense woods and the interior courtyard is beautiful, with a lush lawn, intricately carved stone windows and mellow honey-coloured stonework.

The Castle of Santa Florentina is familiar as a setting from ‘Game of Thrones’, as well as a popular choice for weddings and events. There’s a Catalan art collection, a museum, guided tours available (check timings online), and an annual classical music festival.

Manresana Tower

Manresana Tower
Manresana Tower

Back in the 10th-century, this region was dotted with sturdy watchtowers – ideal for spotting advancing hordes. This one, in Els Prats de Rei, around 50 km or so inland from Barcelona, is perhaps the best preserved. Dating from the 12th-century, this watchtower rises up 21 metres with a viewing terrace on the top where a fire could be lit, and smoke used to signal to other towers across the region.

It was once part of a much larger castle believed to have been visited by the king on several occasions. Nothing much remains of the castle but the tower was also a last bastion of defence, a final refuge should the castle fall into enemy hands. For this reason, it is solidly built with just a single door halfway up that could only be accessed by a ladder. This would be pulled up as the defenders retreated into the tower. Today the tower is freely accessible on the exterior, with advanced booing required to see inside.

Temple dels Homes

Temple dels Homes
Temple dels Homes - Detail

In Piera, lying just to the west of Barcelona, local artist Julio Merino has created something unique. Is it a temple? Is it an art installation? Is it a pagoda? It’s probably a little of all of those. With Baroque elements, colourful tiles with vibrant blues, yellow and reds, and irregular spires that jut up into the suburban surroundings, it’s clearly inspired by Gaudi, whose work is an iconic part of the Barcelona landscape.

The point here is this is a different scale and approach. It’s one man's passion project, which has evolved over time. It’s a whimsical project that has taken shape in someone’s garden adjacent to a busy road. And it’s not just the ‘temple’ (the undoubted centrepiece). The whole garden is filled with Gaudi-style embellishments, from colourful tiled planters to ornate walls and intricate fencing. There’s even a grotto with water cascading down, frogs, naïve human figures, fish and nautical motifs, flowers and birds. This may not be classical art, but it’s brilliant.

Pont del Diable

Pont del Diable
Pont del Diable

The so-called Devil’s Bridge spans the River Llobregat, linking Martorell to Castellbisbal. Originally there was a Roman bridge here – fragments still remain and can be seen on either side, including the remains of a triumphal arch. In 1283 another was built which served well but was eventually destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in 1939, only rebuilt in 1965, using much of the original stone.

The bridge has earned the Devil’s Bridge nickname due to its slight otherworldly appearance. The massive bulwarks on either side are immense and solid-looking but taper to a delicate point in the middle. Oddly a small building is perched on this fragile-looking intersection. It’s shaped like a garden shed or a chapel, and is no accident of history: this small structure may once have been a toll booth, where payment was collected from travellers and is actually keeping the bridge stable.

Estàtua d'Anís del Mono

Estàtua d'Anís del Mono
Estàtua d'Anís del Mono

Anis del Mono is a traditional aniseed liqueur created in 1868 by the Bosch brothers in Badalona. It’s a popular brand, shipped worldwide, featuring a bottle inspired by cut glass perfume bottles. Early on a monkey holding a bottle of the liqueur came to be the company's symbol, culminating in a 200 kg bronze sculpture of the monkey being installed on the waterside outside the factory in 2012. It remains a popular photo opportunity for tourists strolling along the seafront.

The distillery is a modernist jewel, with a modernist style that is preserved to this day, complete with wooden furniture and vintage posters. It was formally declared to be of historical heritage in 2007. The period heritage feel can be experienced with a tour – usually on the third Sunday of each month, but it’s best to check online for details.

Montjuïc Cemetery

Montjuïc Cemetery
Montjuïc Cemetery

The Cementiri de Montjuïc, wedged between the concrete expanse of Barcelona’s industrial port, the castle and the university, is somewhat unique. Sprawling over 57 acres it has its own charm, providing insight into burial practices and wonderfully peaceful space in a bustling metropolis.

By the late 19th century the city was fast expanding, and smaller cemeteries could not cope. The then little-used Montjuïc district offered an ideal solution, opening on 17th March 1883. For some, a cemetery as a ‘tourist attraction’ is unsavoury. But there are 150 years of rich art history to explore, with elaborate family vaults and burial niches lining the walkways, often stacked up to 8 high. There was room for everyone here – it just depended on how much you wanted to pay. Overall, in the cemetery of Montjuïc over 152,000 people are buried, including the renowned painter and sculptor Joan Miró.

Poble Vell de Corbera d'Ebre

Poble Vell de Corbera d'Ebre
Poble Vell de Corbera d'Ebre

A century ago, the small town of Corbera d’Ebre was prosperous; inland from Tarragona in a peaceful valley surrounded by vineyards and mountain ranges. The old town was completely destroyed in 1938 during the Battle of Ebro in the Spanish Civil War. Today it’s an eerie place, a memorial of a once-thriving community ravaged by war.

Visitors can stroll through the deserted streets, past buildings slowly crumbling away, empty windows and endless mountains of rubble. Elements from earlier times can still be seen, notably the small ruined fort and the ancient cave of Betlem which was used as a sanctuary and command post during the battle. Several surrounding hills are etched with miles of trenches and shelters that are gradually being worn away over time. The 18th-century church of Sant Pere still stands as some kind of symbol and a focal point. The old town was declared a place of national historic interest in 1992 and has become a monument to peace.

Jardins del Príncep

Jardins del Príncep
Jardins del Príncep

The Prince’s Gardens are part park and part open-air gallery, beautifully arranged to showcase some wonderful sculptures. It’s a serene space, both inspiring and thought-provoking. Various themes in the artworks, created by the Spanish sculptor Santiago de Santiago, explore relationships and mankind’s tribulations. Most are nude figures cast in bronze though there are some more whimsical pieces, such as the family sitting on a bench, seeming to invite visitors to photograph themselves in the empty spaces.

The gardens are situated on the site of early 19th-century public baths and latterly a convent, at the foot of the Castell de la Suda’s northern ramparts. They offer a pleasant respite from the bustle of the town. After years of decline, they were opened in 1991, named after Prince Felipe de Borbon. There are great views over Tortosa’s old quarter from the top of the fortified town walls.

Map of Attractions

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