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Catalonia - the Costas and inland

Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona

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Dawn over Montserrat 

 The second largest region in Spain, with its second largest city Barcelona, and its own language, Catalonia sometimes feels like a separate country. Many would like it to be that way. But to visitors from abroad, Catalonia is part of Spain, and indeed for many is the defining part of Spain, since it receives more international visitors than any other region of mainland Spain.
    For most visitors, Catalonia means the Costa Brava, the Costa Dorada or Barcelona. While Barcelona ranks as one of Europe's top tourist cities, and the Costas are among the most popular seaside areas, the rest of Catalonia, with its history, its monuments, its mountains and its interior in general remains largely ignored. Yet from the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Tarragona and the Vall de Boi, to the Salvador Dali Museum in Girona, the awe-inspiring site of Montserrat, the peaks of the Catalan Pyrenees or the Spanish Railway Museum in Vilanova i la Geltru, Catalonia provides more than enough sites of interest to keep the most demanding of travellers busy for several weeks if not longer.

Place names in Catalonia

The first official language of Catalonia is Catalan; Castillian Spanish comes next. Place names tend to be written in Catalan on road signs, except on National routes like motorways where they are in both languages. Many maps show place names in Spanish. Catalan and Spanish being closely related (unlike Spanish and Basque), spelling differences are small. Most place-names ending in -as in Spanish end in -es in Catalan, so  you may find references to Figueres or to Figueras. Other differences can be guessed - the beach in Catalan is Platja, in Spanish it's Playa.... and so on.


  ► Click here for information on the Barcelona City Pass

  Sagrada Familia Sagrada Familia - Gaudi's masterpiece 
Barcelona is one of the world's great tourist cities, with a substantial cultural and artistic heritage, most notably the architectural heritage of Antoni Gaudi, one fo the most distinctive architects of the twentieth century. One of the few individuals to have had a World Heritage site named after them by UNESCO (1), Gaudi is best known for the unique "twentieth century gothic" Art-Nouveau style Sagrada Familia church,  a cathedral-size  basilica, which is now nearing completion after  more than 140 years in the making. The Sagrada Familia is expcted to be officially completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.
    In addition to the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona is home to a dozen or so more buildings and ensembles designed in the architect's quirky and unmistakable style. The best known of these is the Casa Mila, a.k.a. la Pedrera, which houses the Gaudi Centre, and is one of seven sites  in and around Barcelona making up the UNESCO World Heritage site.
    The throbbing heart of the city of Barcelona is Las Ramblas, Barcelona's Champs-Elysées. Stretching for over a kilometre between the port and the emblematic Plaça de Catalunya, Las Ramblas is a tree-lined boulevard that is at the heart of Barcelona life. A pedestrian area,  it is lined with cafes, shops bars and restaurants, but like many urban touristy areas, it is reputedly a part of town where you need to be on your guard against tricksters and  rip-oiff merchants.
    In the old town, some 300 metres north of Las Ramblas, the Santa Eulalia cathedral  is a fine Catalan gothic cathedral built mostly in the 14th century; beside it is a 15th century cloister.
Barcelona skyline from Gaudi's  Parc Guëll 
    Barcelona is a Mecca for lovers of modern and contemporary art,  and has a surprising number of museums or art galleries showing works of the twentieth  and twentieth centuries, notably works by Catalan artists including Picasso and Miro, who both have their own dedicated museums in Barcelona. More generally, Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art houses a large collection of modern and contemporary art, mostly by Catalan artists. For those with more classic tastes in art, the Catalan National Art Museum has an extensive collection of old masters, including works by El Greco, Velazquez, Cranach, Reubens and most of Catalonia's own artists. This museum is also noted for its remarkable collection of Romanesque art from the 10th to 12th centuries, which includes original murals from some of the UNESCO World Heritage listed churches of the Vall de Boi in the Pyrenees. These works of art were removed to Barcelona in the 1920s in order to put them into safe keeping, after unscrupulous dealers began removing historic artefacts, including murals, from their remote Pyrenean locations, and selling them abroad.
    The Catalan National Art Museum is located, like the Miro Foundation, half way up the hill of Monjuic, just south of the old port.  The easiest way to reach the museums, and explore Montjuic with its spectacular views over the city and the coast, is to take the funicular, which connects with Metro lines 2 or 3 at the station called Paral-lel. From the top of the funicular, there are cablecars (telepheriques) around the hilltop, or city bus line 150 to the top of the hill. Another way to get up Montjuic is to take the (different) Aeri del Port cablecar from the old port. While the funicular can be used with a Barcelona public transport ticket, and is included in the Barcelona travel cards, cablecars are not.

Trips outside Barcelona

   Visitors wanting to take a trip outside Barcelona are spoiled for choice, even if they do not have their own vehicle. There is an extensive rail network connecting the city with much of the area. Suburban  line R1 from the main Sants train station or from Plaça de Catalunya station runs up the coast, literally beside the beaches as far as Mataro. Hop off at Montgat (which is in Zone 1, so included in City Pass or city travel card) or El Masnou for a day on the beach.
    The other great trip out of Barcelona is to visit the spectacular site of Montserrat (details below), which can be reached by train from Barcelona Plaça d'Espanya station, via the R5 line (Barcelona to Manresa). At the foot of the mountain, passengers must change either at Aeri de Montserrat station, for a cablecar to the monastery, or at Monistrol de Montserrat for the rack and pinion railway line up the mountain. Tickets for the whole journey, single or return, can be bought at the station, but take care; travellers must choose either the cable car route or the funicular when buying their tickets.

Take a visitor pass ?

The Barcelona City Pass, including public transport in central Barcelona (Zone 1), a harbour trip, a hop-on hop-off tour, a guided city tour,  the Miro Foundation, the National Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and a lot more is available for 109 € for two days,  119 € for 3 days, plus longer options.

    Note 1. Among the very few other Architects honoured in their own name by UNESCO are Le Corbusier, Vauban, Frank Lloyd Wright and Palladio.

The Catalan costas

Cadaques, one of the small towns along the Costa Brave.
The Costa Brava shot to fame with the birth of modern mass tourism in the 1960s. Located in the northeast corner of Spain, just south of the Pyrenees, it was an area easily accessible by car and plane, even by train, from France, the UK and northern Europe in general.
    The string of small picture-postcard fishing villages along the coast, with their whitewashed walls and Roman-tiled roofs, became the archetypal images of the Mediterranean. Naturally, in many cases, that quickly led to rapid and sometimes unregulated development, and the small  villages developed into resorts – though mostly without the monstrosities that blighted many Spanish coastal areas further south. With only limited expanses of long sandy beaches, less flat development land close to the coast, and small towns and villages already  occupying the space round the natural harbours, most of the coast, except very close to Barcelona, escaped the worst ravages of late twentieth century tourism development, and remains an attractive shoreline to this day.
    While there is no shortage of holiday accommodation in the area, many small towns, like Cadaques, Roses, Llanca or Palafrugell have kept their character and remain attractive and –  out of the main tourist season – quiet smalll towns or villages, where fishing boats are tied up alongside pleasurecraft.
        The northern part of the Costa Brava is very rocky, with only small inlets. South of Roses, there are more loger sandy beaches. Yet beaches and harbours (plus bars and restaurants) are not the only attractions along the Costa Brava. For the more athletic, there is a 200 km coastal hiking trail running from Port Bou in France (accessible by  train from Paris with 1 change, in just over 7 h, or from Perpignan direct in 50 minutes) to Blanès. Along the path, besides the parts of the Costa Brava that are inaccessible by any other means, there are many interesting sites, including the remains of the ancient Greek city of Empurias (Ampurias) near L'Escala. For a good guide to the coastal path, check out here.
    The Costa Brava's most popular resorts are Blanes, Lloret de Mar,and Tossa, to the north of Barcelona, with Lloret reputed for its nightlife.

Tarragona - Roman amphitheatre
Tarragona's Roman amphitheatre, with the sea as a backdrop.  .
    Around Barcelona, the coast is more built up, but the beaches are longer.
    Heading along the coast southwest from Barcelona, there's nevertheless a stunning 14 km section of coastal road, the narrow and twisting C31, between  Port Ginesta and Sitges (best accessed by taking the C31 exit 42 before the start of the C32 Autovia at Port Ginesta).
    The Costa Daurada (Costa Dorada) , between Vilanueva i la Gelitru (site of Spain's national railway museum) and L'Ametlla de Mar, is largely flat and developed with resorts such as Calafell and Coma Ruga, as well as theme parks and other distractions. In the middle of this area stands the historic city of Tarrgona, which has some of the best Roman remains in Spain. Seventy kilometres southwest of Tarragona,  the southern Catalonia coast ends with a large expanse of protected wetland, the Ebro delta, which is one of Spain's great rice growning areas, an interesting area for wildlife, and part of the UNESCO Terres de l’Ebre Biosphere Reserve.

Elsewhere in Catalonia

Figueras - the Dali Museum
The Salvador Dali museum in Figueres.  .
    Away from its coasts, Catalonia boasts an impressive choice of places to visit, historic monuments, castles, cloisters, museums and natural areas, few of them ever seen by many of the tourists who flock into the area. Different travel guideooks and websites pick and choose what to mention, and while there are some places that make it into all the lists, there are others that  visitors are more likely to stumble upon by accident, than after looking up in a guide book or website.
  Montserrat cablecar Cable car to Montserrat
Among those that make it into most of the guidebooks, there are three that stand out in particular. They are the remarkable rock formations and monastery at Montserrat (the name means serrated or jagged mountain) fifty kilometres northwest of Barcelona, the Vall de Boi in the high Pyrenees, and the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres / Figueras, the first town in Spain on the main road from France.  
    Montserrat (photo above) is Catalonia's "holy mountain", and has long been home to an important monastery. Most of today's monastery buildings are under 200 years old, but monks have lived in this location since the ninth century. The monastery complex  includes the basilica and, surprisingly perhaps, an impressive museum and art gallery with works by Dali, Miro and Picasso, as well as El Greco, Monet, Sisley and Degas. There are also two inns, and a campsite.
    The views from Montserrat are spectacular, none more so than for those who spend the night up on the mountain, particularly at the campsite, and witness the sun coming up over the mists in the valleys below. It is an unforgettable experience.
    From the monastery area, there are hiking trails to the top.
    For rail access to Montserrat from Barcelona, see above.
   Vall de Boi.  Located in the northwest corner of Catalonia, in the province of Lleida, this high Pyrenean valley contains a remarkable collection of 11th - 12th century Romanesque churches, which are classed as a UNESCO world heritage site. While most of the original frescoes have been removed to the Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona (see above), faithful replicas have been recreated inside the churches such as Sant Climent in Taull. Anyone who visits the churches not knowing that the paintings are replicas will never guess; and seeing this fine Romanesque artwork in situ is somewhat more of a memorable experience than seeing it in a museum.
    As for the Salvador Dali museum in Figueras, it is... well Dali. The master of Surrealism  created the largest and most elequent expressions of surrealism in the shell of the former theatre in the heart of Figueres. Along with hundreds of works by Dali - paintings, prints, sculpture, jewelry - the museum has a small collection of works by other artists, including El Greco.

Ten more places to visit in Catalonia

The renovated city walls of Montblanc, between Barcelona and Lleida
 As for other places to see in Catalonia, the best solution is to check out local tourist offices. For good measure, in  alphabetical order, here are a few that are worth the visit.  
Other pages of interest : - Andalucia - Extremadura -  Valencia Undiscovered Spain - The coasts of SpainTravel in Spain  -  Food and eating in Spain  -  Driving in Spain  -  Spanish motorway map

Catalonia, with main locations


Getting to Catalonia:
By car from the UK or Paris via the A71 / A75 / A9 route through France through Orleans and Perpignan
Fly to Catalonia:  Barcelona airport BCN is well serviced with flights from all over Europe and beyond.
Low-cost carriers service airports at Girona and Reus.
By train: There are daily TGV high speed train services from Paris. and AVE high-speed services from Madrid. Through tickets bookable on the Trainline

San Climent Taull
Late eleventh century church at Taull / Tahull, centrepiece of the UNESCO world heritage site of the Val de Boi

Ebro delta
Flamingos in the Ebro Delta wetlands 

Fortified medieval bridge at Besalu

October morning in Llanca

Neighbouring areas :

►► Spain - a thematic guide:
Spain - the country  Essential information about Spain.
Driving in Spain
Getting round Spain by car - roads and driving tips
Spain by train
A guide to taking the train in Spain
Tourism in Spain
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The coasts of spain
Top attractions in Spain
Eastern Andalucia
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Castile y Leon
Castile La Mancha
Undiscovered Spain
Map of the Spanish regions
Accommodation in Spain
 Where to stay, and the different options available
Spanish food and eating

Text and photos copyright About-Spain.net
Except for photos:
Dawn over Montserrat - by Josep Monter
Sagrada Familia by  Patrice Audet
Flamingos by Marc Pascual
Parc Guëll - by N Bader
Cable car to Montserrat - by Adam Hill

Photos of Besalu by Javier Rodriguez
and of Montblanc by Gitidfi
Licenced Creative Commons 2.0

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