The region of Catalonia, with its independent identity, is full of rich contrasts embracing modernity and ancient tradition in equal measure. It has its own style of cuisine, which displays Iberian, Italian and Arab influences.
Occupying a neat triangle of northeast Spain, Catalonia holds a unique place within Europe. A region of contrasts, it is defined by its fiery spirit 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.
A Region of Contrasts
Take a look at a map, and you begin to get the idea. Bordered by the snowy Pyrenees, the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean 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, 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.
Cities of Catalonia
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.
Tarragona’s inhabitants celebrate their rich history at the Tarraco Viva festival, held in May, and the Tarragona Historia Viva, which takes place during the summer months. It’s not just their Roman heritage that is honoured, however – the tradition of building castells (human towers) was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.
The Costas of Catalonia
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.
Popular towns: Girona, Cadaqués, Tossa de Mar Popular beaches: Platja de Pals Beach, Tamariu Beach, Llafanc Beach, Playa de Sant Pere Pescador Nearest Airport: Girona Airport.
The Costa Dorada runs south of 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.
Popular towns: Tarragona, Salou, Cambrils. Popular beaches: Llevant Beach, Llenguadets Beach Nearest Airport: Reus Airport.
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.
Crema Catalana Recipe
500 ml whole milk
½ an orange - zest
½ a lemon - zest
½ a stick of cinnamon
1 vanilla pod- split lengthwise
7 large free-range egg yolks
95 g sugar, plus extra to serve
1 heaped teaspoon of cornflour
Place the milk, orange zest, lemon zest and cinnamon in a saucepan along with the vanilla pod, and gently bring to a boil.
Once you reach a gentle boil, remove the pan from the heat and allow the flavours to infuse for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, whisk the 7 egg yolks along with the sugar and cornflour until pale and creamy.
Pass the milk through a sieve, return it to the pan and place it over a medium heat.
Just before boiling point is reached, add the egg mixture slowly, whilst whisking continuously until it begins to thicken and can coat the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove the mixture from the heat and pour it into ramekins.
Cover each ramekin with greaseproof paper to stop a skin from forming, and allow each portion to cool before placing them in the fridge.
Remove the greaseproof paper prior to serving, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar on each portion and use a blow torch to caramelise. If you don't have a blowtorch, you can place the sugared cremas under a preheated gas grill, until the sugar turns dark brown. Allow the sugar to harden, then serve immediately.
Arròs Negre Recipe
710ml fish stock
1/4 tsp saffron threads
60ml extra virgin olive oil
1 cuttlefish (cleaned)
1/2 Italian sweet green pepper
4 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
2 tomatoes - Around 110g
220g cup uncooked bomba (paella) rice.
2 tsp squid ink
handful of finely chopped parsley
a pinch of sea salt
a dash of black pepper
In a saucepan, combine the fish stock with your saffron threads. Heat over medium heat.
Prepare your ingredients: finely chop your onion and green pepper, roughly chop your garlic, finely grate 2 tomatoes, and cut the cuttlefish into medium cubes.
In a paella pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. After 1 minute, season the oil with sea salt and add the cuttlefish. Sauté for 2 minutes until lightly cooked, then set it aside.
In the same pan, add the chopped onion and green pepper. Sauté for 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the chopped garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Stir in the paprika and the grated tomato. Simmer for 3 minutes until it thickens.
Add the uncooked bomba rice, the squid ink, sea salt, and black pepper. Stir continuously for 2 minutes, then pour in the saffron-infused fish stock and the cooked cuttlefish. Increase the heat to high and mix everything together. Do not stir again.
After 8 to 9 minutes, when most of the broth is absorbed, but some remains, reduce the heat to low-medium. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the remaining broth is absorbed. Then, increase the heat to medium-high for 90 seconds to create a socarrat (the caramelised crunchy bit on the bottom of the pan - Often the tastiest bit!)
Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a clean tea towel, and let it stand for 5 minutes.
Uncover the pan, garnish with lemon wedges and finely chopped fresh parsley, and enjoy!
Aside from this intense variety and colour lie modern restaurants like Jordi Artal's two Michelin star restaurant, 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.
Culturally the Catalan instinct seems to challenge and see things differently (after the Canary Islands, Catalonia was next to ban bullfighting). Inventiveness is no stranger to the Catalan mindset: the flamboyance of Gaudí and the surrealism of Dalí and Míro bear witness to that.
Joan Miró - Surrealism, Dada Born: 20 April 1893 - Barcelona Died: 25 December 1983 - Palma Famous Work: Dona i Ocell, The Tilled Field, The Farm
Antoni Gaudí - Art Nouveau, Modernisme Born: 25 June 1852 - Baix Camp Died: 10 June 1926 - Barcelona Famous Work: Park Güell, Church of Colònia Güell, Sagrada Família, Casa Milà, Casa Batlló
Salvador Dalí - Surrealism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism Born: 11 May 1904 - Figueres Died: 23 January 1989 - Figueres Famous Work: The Persistence of Memory, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, Galatea of the Spheres
Antoni Tàpies - Tachisme, Surrealism, Informalism, Abstract expressionism Born: 13 December 1923 - Barcelona Died: 6 February 2012 - Barcelona Famous Work: Grey and Green Painting, Head and varnish, Skeleton on material, Llibertat, No doors or windows
Tourism in Catalonia
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, build and improve, all in a dynamic, ‘can-do’ style.
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.
Camping in Catalonia
Tourism is hugely important to Catalonia (the region accounts for around 25% of all visitors to Spain), and camping and caravanning are a vital parts of this mix. British visitors come all this way for the sun, of course, but also for the high-quality infrastructure and impressive world-class facilities. Many campsites in the region represent the modern breed of progressive site: holiday villages certainly, but among the finest equipped campsites in Europe.
Rob has been involved in the leisure industry since completing a BTEC in Travel & Tourism in 1993. Previous roles have included the promotion of tourism in Yorkshire and running a motorcycle touring company in the Australian Outback.
He is the General Manager at Alan Rogers Travel Group, responsible for the ongoing development of the Alan Rogers website and the publication of the Alan Rogers Guides and 'Destinations' magazine.
He regularly travels with his wife and young daughter in their Dethleffs 'Campy' caravan. A keen cycling fan, Rob can often be found in a field in Belgium during the 'Spring Classics' season or riding his Royal Enfield Himalayan motorcycle.
As of 2021, there are 43 UNESCO sites in Spain, four of which are located in the Canary Islands, one in Ibiza and one in Mallorca (we've only included mainland sites). Spain joined the 8th Session in 1984 and inscribed five sites; Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Córdoba, The Alhambra and the Generalife, Granada, Burgos Cathedral, Monastery and Site of the Escorial, Madrid and Park Güell, Palau Güell and Casa Milà, Barcelona.
When you are planning your next road trip, there is one place that is the perfect contender, and that's Spain. Spain is a country that has it all. Beautiful sunshine and hot weather, culture, architecture and a fascinating history too. Even if you are looking for a little winter sun to drive away those winter blues, Spain is the place to go.