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Catalunya, Spain

By Edward Britz

Ah, the surf; the sand between your toes. The aromas of other worldly foods. The cacophony of mingled languages. The air around you is saturated with an impressing cultural ambiance. Welcome to Spain, the European tourist's paradise, famous for its beaches, carefree lifestyle and lively nightlife.

It’s beautiful and you know it. Maybe you know it a little too well.

Well then, my ambitious friend, let us get off the beaten path. Venture with me, if you will, to the northeast. Beyond the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona, in the rugged mountains of the country within a country... is Catalonia.

It is a toss up as to which is more intense, the food or the people. Catalonia and its 7,000,000 inhabitants have a personality all their own, from their circular dance, the Sardona, to their human towers as much as 10 people high. Their food is unique, and if you leave the area without sampling a “pa amb tomàquet” (recipe on the next page), then you really never got out of your “Best Western.” Their official language is not Spanish, as you would suppose, but Catalan. And their typical autonomous community status is superseded by their self-declaration as an official nation. Though the Spanish Government does not recognize it as a legal term, they allow it. Catalonia’s ambitious productivity is essential to Spain’s welfare. Freixenet, for example, is one of their more famous products.

Do them a favor and learn a few words in their language... or speak English. I have found that to be the preferred second language. (Franco was none too kind during his reign, and had actually outlawed Catalan for all business.) Aside from a well earned “chip on the shoulder,” you will find a delightfully friendly people, who warm up even more if you make an attempt at their language. Here is a brief tour:

Start in Barcelona; your plane will land there. Make sure you visit the Sagrada Familia (pictured above), an eccentric architectural phenomenon designed by Antoni Gaudí. It is still in the making with the highest of its 13 spires set to tower at 170 meters, higher than that of any Cathedral in the world.  Take a 1.5 km walk up “Las Ramblas.” Barcelona’s world famous pedestrianized street is a nonstop carnival decorated with street performers, restaurants and kiosks.

Montserrat: A short 30 miles northwest will take you to a mysterious and unique rock formation jutting out of the landscape. Full of religious legends, its impact is only heightened by an 11th century monastery rising out of the high cliff walls.

A couple of hours north you will come to Girona, a city with a history as turbulent as it is colorful. From the Iberians, to the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, it underwent numerous sieges and captivities. Some of the best preserved evidence of a once flourishing Jewish community is seen throughout this city of 80,000 people. Its 14th century Cathedral stands atop 70 steps, and is worth the climb. Beautiful bridges and colorful buildings line the walled in shores of its various rivers. And the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat will fill you in on the city’s incredible history.

Banyoles, a lake-side city 9 miles away, is the capital of the area. “EI Pla de l’Estany”, the “plain of the lake”, refers to Lake Banyoles, the location for the rowing events in the 1992 Olympics. The city’s winding stone streets, many closed to traffic, lead you to a quaint plaza that will take you back... centuries. A vibrant weekly market takes place here as well. Visit the 14th century church of Santa Maria del Turers, the Regional Archaeological Museum, and Sant Esteve, the monastery that birthed the town in the 9th century. The area benefits from a vast array of outdoor recreation both on land and water, inspired by its incomparable natural setting. Rent a bike and take a 3-mile ride around the lake.

Head west into the The Garrotxa Volcanic Park. You’ll find enormous excursion possibilities around dormant volcanoes and craters as well as valley-views in this one-of-a-kind area. Ask a taxi driver for the best restaurants. I’d recommend heading out of town to establishments that will leave you surrounded by rugged farmers and workmen. You will get an incredible meal for your money.

Deeper still into the heart of this culture is Besalú, just 6 miles away from Banyoles. This is a superbly preserved medieval masterpiece complete with the area’s only 12th century Mikva, a Jewish Ritual Bath. The stunning Romanic bridge over the river Fluvià leads you into its arcaded streets and squares.

Towering atop 150-foot basalt cliffs lies the town Castellfollit de la Roca. Built mostly of volcanic rock, the dark and narrow streets of this citadel date back into medieval times. One can only appreciate its defensive position when standing on its outermost ledge and viewing the breathtaking panoramic view.

Catalonia is indeed a rugged, adventurer’s masterpiece. It’s not as tainted by tourism as you’d suppose. If you’re looking at Spain, and want to see something other than beaches and other people from your own country, then get off of the beaten path and venture northward... into Catalonia. 

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