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.

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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!

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?

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!

Apparently, I’m Not the Only Guiri Who Dislikes Barcelona: Aga’s Take on the Ciudad Condal

After I confessed that Spain’s cosmopolitan Barcelona – a city on nearly every traveler’s itinerary, I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t alone in feeling iffy about it. Even friends of mine who have called Barna home have admitted that the city is a bit sketchy, that it’s hard to navigate and that it took a while for it to grow on them. Upon publishing what has been my most controversial post, Aga of Aga Nuno Somewhere offered to write a counter post about what’s to love about the sprawling city. Her story:

Barcelona was the first Spanish city that I visited. Maybe that is why I have such a soft spot for it? I remember walking the first time around Passeig de Gràcia and admiring Gaudí’s masterpieces and how intimidated I felt when being surrounded by thousands of tourist on la Rambla.  During my first visit I was only a tourist, but then came back to Spain for my Erasmus exchange and spent a whole year in a small Catalan town Lleida. I took every opportunity I could to travel to Barcelona, which is only 90 minutes away.

I love big cities, the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, and Barcelona had all I ever needed – sun, beach, beautiful monuments, calmer districts like Gràcia. I secretly dreamt of living there. Little did I know that I would actually move there with my boyfriend for two years. And as much as I like the city, I must admit it was not as great as I would have wanted.

Barcelona is expensive, finding a flat is a nightmare (we actually had to fight in court to get our 1500€ deposit back from the first landlord), Catalans are not really friendly when it comes to service and it is really hard to get to know them. As my boyfriend used to say: in winter they all go skiing to Andorra, in summer they all go to their beach houses on Costa Brava. When you actually live in the city that always appears on a list of top destination to travel in Europe,  all those tourists who come to visit start to annoy you… But I still loved being able to say: Oh, I live in Barcelona.

I discovered some great places to eat, as I am a foodie, so I tend to look for nice bars or restaurants everywhere I go. But unfortunately I have to admit that when comparing it to other Spanish cities, when it comes to food, Barcelona is falling far behind Madrid or Andalucía. You really must know where to go, otherwise you end up in some pintxo chain or paying a fortune for simple tapas and sangria.

I love street art, so every walk around Barcelona was exciting: I never knew what was waiting for me around the corner! And all of those Catalan traditions that I discovered during the fiestas: castellers (human towers), correfoc (parade with fire) or calcotada (eating grilled calcots – a kind of sweet onion). I had my calendar full of all the city fiestas –  la Merce (the Patroness of the city), fiestas de Gràcia and some other neighborhoods.

I also travelled a lot around the region, to lovely Sitges, Montserrat, Dali’s Triangle and Costa Brava. But even if you live in Barcelona for a long time, there is always something new to do, somewhere to go and discover, or simply sit in a chiringuito on the beach with a cold beer (or the winter version: drink in a vermutería- small local bar that serves homemade vermouth).

I really like Barcelona and had my favourite spots there, but then understand that not everyone falls under the spell of Ciudad Condal, especially when spending there only few days and just being a guiri.

Aga writes in Polish and English about her travels throughout Europe with her boyfriend, Nuno, on Aga Nuno Somewhere. Currently residing in Ireland, you can find her on twitter at https://twitter.com/AgaNunoBlog.

The Sagrada Familia: Gaudi’s Obra Maestra

The Sagrada Familia is perhaps one of the most well-known construction sites in the world, as well as one of the longest running. Intended to be the obra maestra of Antoni Gaudí, his untimely death leaving the construction site nearly 100 years ago launched the church into the epicenter of a battle over how closely to finish Gaudí’s work.

Nature inspired Gaudí as a child, and his grand temple is a testament to his religious devotion and belief that no man can create what God has done upon the Earth. Every detail of the facade and the towers were conceived bearing that in mind, though recent advances in technology have led to a stray away from the original blueprints. The church is slated to be finished in 2026, 100 year after its mastermind’s death.

On my first visit to the Sagrada Familia in 2005, a hangover dampened our plans to make it to the site early, but we lucked out that the hot July day meant that tourists had taken to the water. The line snaked halfway around the block, but the cavernous church provided refuge from the hot sun. It would be five years before the cranes would be removed, the sound of the drills quelled and the makeshift floorboards that served as walkways around a construction site would be replaced with smooth marble floors.

I went a few years later with my grandmother, and not much more work had been done. On my most recent trip to Barcelona, I could marvel in Gaudí works that partially redeem the city for me. While we scoffed at the thought of paying 20€ for the Casa Batlló, devoting an entire morning to the Sagrada Familia and paying the price of entrance and an audio guide was a no-brainer.

I’m not very religious or even very spiritual, but the emptiness and the contrast of colors, mixed with the soaring buttresses, was uplifting. We spent well over 90 minutes before taking the elevator up to the top of one of eight towers.

If you go: The Sagrada Familia is located in the Eixample neighborhood, and metro lines L2 and L5 serve the Antoni Gaudi plaza, making a stop at the station called Sagrada Familia. The basilica, museum and towers are open daily from 9am until 6pm in the winter, and until 8pm in the summer. You’ll be charged 13,50€ for entrance (11,50€ if you’re a student or senior), or 18€ for an audio guide with entrance fee. The towers will run you an extra 4,50€, and you will be assigned a specific time to avoid lines (we were able to sneak in 15 minutes earlier).

The temple was consecrated in 2010 and mass in now celebrated regularly. Many thanks to Meritxell of Tourism with Me for her help with where to eat nearby. We had a filling Catalan menu at Juanma, located at C/Lepant, 280. If you’re looking for a place to stay, look no further than Barcelona Home for great apartment rentals.

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