For many centuries Spain didn’t exist as a unified nation, being more a collection of distinct regions such as Aragon, Castile, Cantabria and, of course, Catalonia. Often separated by high mountain ranges, they evolved independently to become strikingly different, and some even had their own languages. These cultural variations were ruthlessly suppressed during the Franco years but have since blossomed, and today Catalonia has a regional identity that’s fiercely guarded by the locals.
Set on a plain rising from the clear blue Mediterranean through wooded foothills to the dramatic Pyrenees concealing lush flower-filled valleys, Catalonia has some truly magnificent and varied scenery. Home to tiny medieval villages as well as one of the world’s most vibrant cities, its terrain and settlements are wonderfully diverse, as are the region’s artistic gems, spanning classic Renaissance paintings and Salvador Dalí’s avant-garde works. On this tour we’ll see the best of this unique region of northeast Spain, including a surprising alpine paradise hidden away by majestic mountains and accessible only on foot or by rack railway.
In Roman times, Tarragona was one of the empire’s largest cities. It had a population of around 250,000 and a wealth of resplendent buildings, many of which can still be seen today. The delightful fortified city of Girona has been fought over by the Romans, Charlemagne, the Moors and the French, all of whom have left their mark. It may not be as famous as Barcelona, but Girona is a deserving destination in its own right. As well as being home to numerous churches and monasteries, it’s where you’ll find one of Europe’s best-preserved old Jewish quarters. The hit TV series, Game of Thrones, has also put Girona on the map – the labyrinthine alleyways, atmospheric archways and magnificent cathedral all provide the perfect backdrop to many a dramatic scene.
Inland Catalonia weaves through dramatic mountainous territory, linking some of the region’s most spectacular monasteries. Turrets of distinctive rock formations guard Catalonia’s spiritual heart, Montserrat, where a mountaintop shrine is home to one of Spain’s most revered icons. Poblet, on the famous Cistercian route, has a breathtaking monastery, which contains the tombs of medieval monarchs and was at one time the largest Cistercian complex in all of Europe. Not far away is the beautifully preserved walled town of Montblanc, where a festival is held every April to celebrate St George’s victory over the dragon.
Catalonia’s progressive capital, Barcelona, oozes sophistication and cultural dynamism. You’ll love the contrast between its historical Gothic quarter and its Modernisme buildings, where architects expressed their Catalan identity through their work. Barcelona’s identity is most perfectly expressed by the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, most notably in his Sagrada Família basilica – its futuristic spires have to be seen to be believed.
Catalans like to boast that they have the best food in Spain, and it’s hard to disagree, with 65 Michelin stars currently awarded to Catalonia’s restaurants, including the world-renowned triple-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Seafood – the salt cod is delicious – botifarra sausages and top-quality fruit and vegetables abound, with mouthwatering desserts such as crema catalana. It’s a fittingly distinctive cuisine for a unique region that charms, engages and entertains in equal measure.