Occupying a neat triangle of north east Spain, Catalonia holds a unique place within Europe. A region of contrasts, it is defined by its fiery independent identity, yet remains very much part of Spain. It embraces modernity and ancient tradition at the same time and has a character all of its own.
Take a look at a map and you begin to get the idea. Bordered by the snowy Pyrenees, the sandy beaches of the Med and, in the hinterland, a mass of hilltop villages, monasteries and vineyards which provide an almost medieval character, it immediately invites closer inspection.
With a proud and strong identity of its own, a unique culture and language, it really is a country within a country, distinct from the rest of Spain. As for the big ‘draws’ of this exciting region, the headline grabbers of Catalonia are the usual suspects: artistic Barcelona and the golden beaches of the Costas in particular. They too have their contrasts.
Of course, Barcelona has its historic Ramblas but it is essentially a contemporary vibrant world city. Even Gaudí’s iconic cathedral seems funky and modern, despite being constructed (mostly – it is famously unfinished) over a century ago. Then there is the dazzling Park Güell with its fluid curves and bright colours, the Museu Picasso with its collection of the artist’s early work and the labyrinthine Gothic Quarter. While Barcelona epitomises the progressive, international ‘destination city’, Girona to the north is more traditional: here you’ll find venerable buildings, cobbled streets, peaceful squares, a roman wall and Arab baths.
As for those Costas, the Costa Brava runs 200 km down from the French border to the north of Barcelona and manages to retain plenty of wild beauty and rocky headlands while remaining a mecca for beach-seeking tourists. The Costa Dorada runs south from Barcelona, and as its name (Gold Coast) suggests, adds more options for the serious beach seeker. As with any beach location, there are watersports schools all along the coastline offering active holidaymakers a chance to windsurf, sail and dive.
The Catalan kitchen, too, is a mix of traditional and modern, a hotchpotch of different influences. A large part of many menus is based around all the familiar Mediterranean ingredients – fresh vegetables, pasta, fish and olive oils – alongside various versions of paella, and simmering pots which seem to fuse ingredients and influences from all quarters.
A must-try dessert is crema catalana, a sweet similar to crème brulée, but flavoured with citrus peel and cinnamon. It dates back to medieval Spain and is the national dessert of Catalonia, a perfect dessert for a summer evening.
Aside from this intense variety and colour lie the modern restaurants like Cinc Sentits embodying a new breed of gastronomy. Dining is a multi sense experience, with beautifully presented food, heavenly smells and delicious tastes, and opting for a meal with wine matching enhances the flavours even further.
Keeping it surreal
Culturally the Catalan instinct seems to challenge and see things differently (after the Canary Islands, Catalonia was next to ban bull fighting). Inventiveness is no stranger to the Catalan mindset: the flamboyance of Gaudí and the surrealism of Dalí and Míro bear witness to that. Meanwhile popular culture might range from high tech spectacles to, more simply, the precarious Castells (human towers that have been popular entertainment since the late 18th century).
Tourism is hugely important to Catalonia (the region accounts for around 25% of all visitors to Spain) and camping and caravanning is a vital part of this mix. British visitors come all this way for the sun of course, but also the high quality infrastructure and impressive world class facilities. Campsites like Amfora, Valldaro and Sangulí Salou represent the modern breed of progressive campsite: holiday villages certainly, but among the finest equipped campsites in Europe.
Theme parks like Port Aventura and Aquapolis are well conceived and integrated into the region’s tourism system. In short, the Catalan instinct, perhaps a nod to its industrial boom of a century ago, is to invest, to build and to improve, all in a dynamic, ‘can-do’ style.
To return to the map, it perhaps explains the fantastic diversity of this region. Historically it is a blend of peoples from France, Italy, Africa and southern Spain, not to mention influences from Sicily, Sardinia and the Arab world. No wonder Catalonia is so uniquely rich in culture, language and tradition; no wonder there is such contrast and no wonder that the old and the new are embraced in equal measure.