Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cataluña

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collage

Ask any American if he or she has traveled to Spain. If you receive a positive response, it’s highly likely that that person has only been to Barcelona. Thanks to a large international airport, it seems to be on every European itinerary, and its parties and politics have made it a European capital of cool.

In case you didn’t know, I’m not a fan of Barcelona, its capital city. But, at the time I’m writing, Cataluña is still part of Spain and deserves a spot in this Autonomous Communities project. Love it or not, Catalonia is in the news and reaches far beyond Barcelona, from the cradle of catalán in the Val de Aran and the Roman ruins at Tarragona to the whitewashed coastal villages and mountaintop monasteries bordering the Pyrenees – and visiting Barcelona should include visiting Catalonia

Name: Cataluña, or Catalunya in local tongue.

Population: 7.5 million (roughly 16% of Spain’s population)

catalonia

Provinces: Four; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona

When: July 2005, 7th of 17

About Cataluña: Cataluña boasts a large and diverse population, mostly thanks to economic factors and a degree of  stubbornness.

Given its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea, it had been populated by Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians before forming part of the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of this culture are still present in Tarracó, in present-day Tarragona. The region was wrestled between Visigoths and Muslims, and then came under the power of the Frankish Empire after the battle of Roussillon. 

The Monastery of Monserrat

This change of events would be the origin of Catalonia.

At the end of the 10th Century, Wilifred the Hairy, then count of Barcelona, refused to recognize the king as his own, effectively making all of his successors free from being ruled over. The 1258 Treaty of Corbeil saw the count, along with those of Mallorca, Valencia and Aragón, declare the King of France as their ruler, though the king formally renounced this, and the Crown of Aragón was put in charge of the coastal zone.

Even with the advent of the Catholic Kings’s marriage and the union of the Castillian and Aragonese Crown, Catalonia was able to rule under its own constitution, and a large part of the battle for secession can be pinned on this. Increased tension between the Spanish Crown and Catalonia, the outcome of the Treaty of Utrecht and an industrial boom – which brought workers from all over Spain and Europe – caused the rift to deepen.

catalan flags independence barcelona

After the Second Republic and Francisco Franco’s rise to power in 1939, all catalonian symbols were banned, including language, in an attempt to stifle independence and promote Spain as a unified front after a devastating civil war. It wasn’t until the 1978 Constitution that catalanes recovered some of their political, economical and cultural power. To this day, the question about splitting from Spain is plastered all over the news and spearheaded by the Generalitat president, Artur Mas. A recent referendum was deemed a success by Mas, but a huge failure by mainstream media, as a small number of voters turned out.

Cataluña is petitioning to become a fully-fledged member state under the European Union, though the central Spanish government has quashed any official referendum voting rights.

This post is not about whether or not Cataluña should separate from Spain. I think you can imagine where I stand on the subject, though I ask that you be respectful in comments below.

Must-sees: Nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, the region offers everything from ski to surf, and it’s a colorful place with deep-rooted tradition.

parc guell barcelona5

Your trip will likely include Barecelona, the bustling Catalan capital city known for Gaudí and the 1992 Olympics. On my first visit to the city as a study abroad student, I found a region so unlike Castilla or Andalucía, that it had me wondering if I was still in Spain or not.

Haha, I guess that’s the point.

parc guell barcelona8

In Barcelona, don’t miss the colorful markets and neighborhoods – I loved Gràcia and El Born – , Gaudí highlights like the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, or the views from Tibidaboo or Montjüíc. Walk the wide avenues and tuck into funky boutiques and hole-in-the-wall bars. Like Madrid, Barcelona is as old school as it is avant-garde.

While I’m not head-over-heels for the cosmopolitan capital, I really do think the region offers many bright spots.

daytrips barcelona

To start with, catalán cuisine is often touted as being one of the best in Europe, thanks to renowned chefs like Fernan Adrià and the Hermanos Can Roca and several Michelin stars. Fuet is a delicious hard, boiled sausage, and springtime brings grilled shallots with romescu sauce. The region is also home to several protected wine regions, as well as Spanish champagne, called cava

Starting from north to South, the Pyrenees are home to several ski resorts, charming villages and monasteries, while the coastal villages on the Costa Dorada like Cadaqués and Tossa del Mar are said to be breathtaking. Apart from Barcelona’s many museums and cultural significance, Tarragona hosts Roman ruins and several wine regions produce whites and sparkling champagne.

My take: Is Barcelona worth a visit? Absolutely. I am in the minority by admitting that the city does very little for me, even though I go gaga when I see Gaudí and love Joan Miró, have read the book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ multiple times and am proud to have a degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. 

Spanish abuelos in Barcelona

Eso, sí, but be aware that Barcelona is one of Europe’s most-visited cities, so you’ll be rubbing elbows with tons of other tourists from around the world. This makes Barcelona what it is – about as much of a melting pot as Spain gets – but means that prices are higher, on the whole, and that pick pockets abound. Yes, this happens in other cities in Spain, as well,  but I’ve felt less secure in Barcelona than anywhere else.

If you have the chance, visit the jaw-dropping Monserrat monastery via cable car and cafe-hop in Girona. Take in the small fishing villages and drink cava or white wine in Penedès. Hike in Montseny and the Pyrenees. There is a wealth of small villages

Just don’t make it all about Barcelona!

Have you ever been to Cataluña? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha

Top Tips for Visiting Catalonia

Catalonia is without a doubt one of Spain’s most beautiful regions, home to the splendid Pyrenees mountain range, striking medieval villages, breathtaking scenery and of course vibrant and culturally rich cities such as Barcelona, Girona, and Tarragona. With this in mind, here are some top tips to help you make up your mind whilst visiting this delightful Spanish region.

Visit the city of Barcelona


When visiting Catalonia a visit to Spain’s second largest city is a must. You will have the chance to explore this visually stunning and incredibly exciting city, admire Gaudi’s impressive architecture and enjoy attractions such as Montjuïc’s Magic Fountain and Port Vell. Spend a few days here to truly experience the vibe of the city, you will be able to find your room in Barcelona through this page.

Admire the Costa Brava


The beautiful Costa Brava begins in Blanes and stretches for miles on end before reaching the French Coast. Visitors are able to explore quaint Catalan villages such as Begur and Tossa del Mar before taking a dip in the crystal clear waters or relaxing on the beach. The Costa Brava is also lined by delightful restaurants and bars making it a wonderful place to enjoy a little Spanish nightlife.

Explore medieval Montblanc

Montblanc is located in the Catalan region just one hour’s drive from the city of Barcelona. Legend tells that it was here where St. Jordi killed the ferocious dragon back in the medieval times. The medieval village itself is well worth a visit due to its spectacular ancient defences, splendid architecture, colourful past and extraordinary Catalan panoramas.

Marvel at Tarragona’s Poblet Monastery


If you are passionate about architecture you will almost certainly want to visit Bargués’ fabulous monastery. The monastery has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for more than two decades and attracts a staggering number of visitors each year. This is one of Spain’s most historically significant buildings as it was once the royal pantheon of the almighty kings of Aragón.

Discover the Delta de l’Ebre


This spectacular nature reserve is also home to Spain’s rice growing plantations. If you are a keen bird watcher you will be delighted to admire the region’s many migratory species from the specially constructed birding stations. Nearby visitors are able to visit a number of museums dedicated to the Battle of the Ebro, the longest battle of the dramatic Spanish Civil War.

Catalonia not only boasts awe-inspiring architecture, natural beauty and a fascinating history, but this Spanish region is also celebrated for its divine cuisine, exquisite shopping and vivacious nightlife meaning that there really is something for everybody!

Check back in a few months when I delve even deeper into Cataluña (a region I really like, despite not clicking with Barcelona) as a part of my 17 Spanish Regions series! For the first two installments, click here.

What are your top tips for Catalonia? Looking to learn Spanish in Barcelona? Contact me!

The Best Destinations for European City-Breaks

Editor’s note: Just last night, my friend Mickey and I were talking about our travel tastes. While she loves exotic, I prefer a weekend of city life – museums, hip coffee houses and pounding the pavement. Living in Seville, I have the chance to take city breaks every weekend, thanks to no work Fridays and tons of destinations under two or three hours away. Fall is a great time to travel because of the lower cost to fly and stay, and it’s ideal to come to Seville now. Where’s your favorite city break?

A city-break offers the ideal opportunity to glean a glimpse of local life. Indulge in your destination, its culture, history and heritage and enjoy iconic tourist attractions with a one-stop weekend away. Europe boasts a wealth of dream city destinations, just a short flight from UK shores.

With something to offer everyone, European city-breaks promise a weekend away packed with entertainment and enjoyment. With relatively reasonable flights to an array of European destinations, get set to start exploring.

Immerse yourself in Italy’s capital

From culture vultures and art enthusiasts to fans of fine dining and superlative shopaholics, Rome has something to astound every visitor. Steeped in history, Rome is a city of culture with iconic attractions at every corner. From the Vatican to the Colosseum, prestigious landmarks prevail. So much so that the entire old city centre is celebrated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Help make your holiday money go further. Find affordable flights here and make your selection from a variety of convenient departure points. Soak up the cafe culture or hit the shops with your savings.

Romantic Rome offers some of the most iconic historical and cultural experiences in the world so enjoy the majesty of this Italian jewel with an unforgettable weekend away.

More: Where to eat in Florence and Bologna.

Discover Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is a Croatian coastal delight, steeped in history – and one which is becoming increasingly popular. This walled city is home to Baroque buildings and medieval fortifications and overlooks the sparkling Adriatic Sea so it’s hardly surprising that Croatia’s tourism numbers were up to 6.6 million for January-July 2013!

Beautiful beaches and astounding architecture vie for attention and combine to create a varied choice for a spectacular city break. With everything on offer from superlative seafood to adventure sport facilities, visitors will want more than a weekend away to enjoy this fantastic destination fully!

More: read about walking the Dubrovnik City Walls and chowing down on spicy cevapi.

Soak up some Spanish culture

Barcelona remains a popular destination, combining heritage and history with contemporary and cosmopolitan city life. The historic quarters of the city intrigue with a network of narrow streets and the tree-lined, pedestrian street, La Ramblas proves ever popular as a destination.

The Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell showcase some of Spain’s finest feats of architecture. Several of Gaudi’s monuments are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and sit comfortably alongside Barcelona’s bustling modern districts and beautiful coastal location.

Plus, there are some pretty sweet hotels and apartment rentals to stay in while in the Ciudad Condal.

Read more: Barcelona’s whimsical Parc Guell, visiting the Sagrada Familia or Day Trips from Barcelona.

Where are you headed on your next trip? Or, since it’s a long weekend in Spain, where are you now?

My Travel Round Up from the First Six Months of 2013

My parents, upon my high school graduation (10 years ago…thank you, Atlantic Ocean, for existing and putting distance between me and my fellow Tigers just this once!) gave me a heartfelt speech about how I was always the child who never learned how to walk. I went from spitting up on myself to running, just like I went from college to globetrotter four years later.

There was no better way to start my year than ringing in 2013 with my familia and cousin Christyn in Puerta del Sol. The first six months of the year have been busy (but the good kind), fruitful and happy. I’ve been able to sneak in some travel, my 30th country and finish a master’s in the process.

January

After a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and the extra responsibility of becoming a training Director of Studies was a lot of work, but the great people at Almohalla 51, Myles and David, allowed Hayley and I to come stay with them at their newly-opened boutique hotel in Archidona.

I also looked forward to having the Novio home from his duty abroad. As a late anniversary present, I took him to eat our way through Florence and Bologna. In between bites, we checked out the sites along the Arno, drank copious amounts of espresso and Moretti beer and befriended a Venetian named Peppino. Buona manggia, sí señor!

February

February was quiet, though Angela and Ryan of Jets Like Taxis joined me on a colorful trip to Cordoba. I chalk it up to being a short month.

March

As the trimester wound down, I began to get geared up for my Semana Santa trip to Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Hayley, my Spanish media naranja, and I walked the impressive city walls in Dubrovnik while refueling on cevapi, a spiced sausage sandwich and drinking in the views and local beers at Buza Bar (despite its obnoxious advertising).

After a few days in the Pearl of the Adriatic, we took a bus across the border to Montenegro, which was my 30th country. While  the weather wasn’t stellar, we were charmed by Europe’s youngest country. The friendly people, the free wi-fi and the views of our roadtrip around the Bay of Kotor made for a rejuvenating week.

April

April showers seemed to have brought Feria heat – we sweated right through our flamenco dresses, and I think my right bicep is now twice as large as its twin from all of that fan flicking. I even broke some of my own rules when it came to stalking around the Real!

Just the week before, I had gone up to Madrid (if only I had a euro for every maldito trip I’ve made to la Capital…) to visit my sister-in-law, Nathàlia, and pick up my new car, Pequeño Monty. Nath is Brasilian but did her degree in Alcalá de Henares, city of Miguel de Cervantes fame, so she showed me around her town known for its university and free tapas.

May

Luckily for this guiri, the usual May weather was nowhere to be found, so we got some respite from the heat. Meg and I drank rebujito at the Feria de Jerez, a lite version of Sevile’s famous fête where you don’t get trampled by horses, and we bounced between a Mexican-themed caseta and a biker bar. Toto, We’re not in Sevilla anymore. The following day, I continued the fiesta in the Novio’s village at their Romeria de San Diego, a booze-soaked picnic in the middle of the dehesa.

A week later, I attended my first blog trip to Calpe, a small fishing village that has capitalized on the tourism boom from nearby Benidorm. Despite the hotels popping up along the beach, Calpe is laid-back yet bursting with energy. We were treated to tons of water-related activities, including paddle surfing and betting on our lunch at the Lonja de Pescado.

June

During the first weekend of June, I had to make a trip to Madrid for mandatory camp meetings and Camino dealings. I met with Pablo, Fernando and Alex of Caser Expat Insurance, who are helping me make my Camino For the Kids a reality. I even got my feet checked out by the team at Podoactiva, the same people who outfit professional athletes with their shoes.

The Novio and I snuck in a day at the beach, and my mom came to stay for a week in the last sweltering week of June. I was extremely busy with my master’s and preparing for summer camp. Apart from showing her my favorite restaurants and rincones of Seville, we also made it to Jerez to see the horse show, to Doñana for a horse ride through Mazagón, and San Nicolás del Puerto, where she got to meet the Novio’s mother and ride their prized mare, Orgiva.

I am happy to say that I have very few travel plans at the moment for the second half of the year, save slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina with Kelly in August and Oktoberfest with my cousins in late September – I need a break after a year of turning my blog into a business, completing a master’s in a second language and starting a new job. Sunshine? Yes. Siesta? POR FAVOR. 

Don’t forget that I’ll be back at camp in July, and then walking close to 320km to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer patients back home on the Camino de Santiago. Please follow #CaminoFTK on twitter or instagram for more information. Sunshine and Siestas is also accepting guest posts during this time, so please send your stories and photos from Spain!

What were your travel highlights of the first six months of the year?

Dia del Libro: Barcelona’s Yearly Homage to the Book and my Favorite Books About Spain

Well known fact about me: I’m a huge proponent for books. I average 20 novels a year and nerd out at bookstores in Seville (and online – damn Amazon’s one-click for my Kindle!). In Spain – particularly in Cataluña – the International Day of the Book is celebrated as a day for lovers, even if only for lovers as books.

The UNESCO has delegated April 23rd as the International Day of the Book, owing to the fact that both Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered to be true purveyors of their languages, died on this day in 1616. What’s more, the feast day of St. George, the patron of Cataluña, commemorates his death and falls on April 23rd. This holiday is revered in the region, and I actually first heard of the celebration reading one of my favorite books set in Spain.

According to local legend, Sant Jordi heroically saved a princess on the outskirts of Barcelona by using a spear. From the slayed dragon’s spilt blood grew a rosebush, and Saint George pick them and gave them to the princess. Since the Middle Ages, men have been giving roses to their sweethearts on this version of Valentine’s Day, and women gift books to them. Results are a massive sale of both in the days leading up to the 23rd.

On this Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, I leave you some of my favorite books set in Spain:

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruíz Zafón

Celebrated young adult novelist Ruíz Zafón jumped into adult fiction with this superb work of mystery and intrigue, set in Barcelona. Youngster Daniel’s father takes him to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a forlorn library stacked floor to ceiling with obscure books. The one he chooses, the Shadow of the Wind, is subsequently devoured. When his father warns him that he must protect the book forever, a sinister man tries to destroy it, throwing Daniel into a struggle to save a book and the legacy of an author called Julián Carax. Set in post-war Spain, I had an insatiable thirst for this book, relishing in the intricate story lines and well-drawn characters. I’ve subsequently read many others by the author but not the prequel to Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game.

buy it: The Shadow of the Wind Paperback | The Shadow of the Wind Kindle

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Am I the only one who felt tortured reading Old Man and the Sea? I was convinced I was anti-Hemingway, but my English lit teaching sister has set me straight. Bullfighting’s biggest proponent and the one who put Pamplona and the San Fermines festival on the map, troubled Hemingway was a Hispanophile in his own right. After having a coffee in his haunt in Pamplona, Cafe Irún, I grabbed a copy of the book with a torero emblazoned on the front. Set in 1920s Paris, a group of socialites travel to Pamplona to attend the San Fermines bullfights and running of the bulls. The book explores love, lust, masculinity and death against the backdrop of a Spanish town.

(The Paris Wife is a painful but beautifully written biography of Hermingway’s first wife, reconstructed from letters and journal entries by Paula McClain. Hadley divorced him just after the publication of The Sun Also Rises and took all of the royalties for it).

Buy it: The Sun Also Rises Paperback | The Sun Also Rises Kindle

Dancing in the Fountains: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, Karen McCann

Back in the Fall, I was thrilled to give away a copy of a laugh-out-loud tale of expat life by my friend and fellow Seville inhabitant, Karen McCann. Exploring the canny and kooky, the ups and the downs, Karen’s account of swapping brutal Cleveland winters for the eternal sunshine of Spain with her husband, Rich, is spot-on. I chuckled, recognizing several of the bars Karen and Rich frequent or the characters I’ve also come to know. This delightful recounting of the dreaming to the doing is one I’ve recommended to anyone who years for the sunshine and siestas lifestyle Karen and I enjoy.

Buy it: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Paperback |  Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Kindle

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, Giles Tremlett

For a country know for its exuberant and open people, talking of the Civil War and the Franco years remains taboo, even fourty years after his death. Journalist Tremlett sets out to discover the dark roots of one of Europe’s more open and inviting countries. There’s talk of sex and the boom of the tourism industry, of midnight firing squads to eradicate those who cried out against El Generalísimo, of flamenco and gypsies. To truly understand a country whose history spans more than 2000 years is difficult, but Tremlett’s book about modern Spain and its secrets sheds light on modern society.

Buy it: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past Paperback

 Winter in Madrid, CJ Sansom

My second post-war novel is a spy story set in Madrid with strong, British characters who make a life in the capital under the new Franco government. Madrid itself takes on a persona as if it were a character, and it made me look differently at several barrios that I’d come to know and enjoy, and the story of lost love made it an enjoyable read.

Buy it: Winter in Madrid: A Novel Paperback | Winter in Madrid: A Novel Kindle

Zen Khou, Maestro, Jeremy Joseph Dean

The most recent book I read is a story that mirrors my own in many ways. Jeremy Dean left his comfortable job as a teacher in England after over twenty years to teach at a bilingual immersion school in the Comunitat Valenciana. What he finds is a school that is poorly organized, the kids not quite bilingual and his own teaching styles no match for Spanish niños. Like I said, mirrors my experience at a bilingual immersion school. Dean complements his experiences at school with the day-to-day dealings of bureaucracy and language issues, though his students (the Marias, the Jaime/Jaume and the effable Macarena) steal the show with their ganas, their progress and their gut-busting pronunciation that kept me in good spirits during my two years teaching.

One of these days, I’ll actually get around to reading Don Quijote. After all, I did by a 400 anniversary edition and threw out half of my clothes after studying abroad to make room for the 800-paged brick!

Do you celebrate Día del Libro? What are you favorite books about Spain? Like books themselves can be, these are subjective views and by no means a be-all, end-all list. I’d love to hear your suggestions – I’ll need to download onto my kindle for the Camino anyway!

Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that many other bloggers tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.

Montserrat

Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture (c’mon, we’re American and never see old stuff like Jewish ghettos or castle ruins) made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummyache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweettooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.

Andorra

This miniscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting? If you’re looking for a great place to stay, check out Barcelona-Home, or if you’d like to take a Spanish course while in Barcelona, I’ve got top tips and language schools!

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