It is easy to consider Catalonia to be a country in it’s own right, it has a language, distinct character and traditions of its own. The people are proud of their heritage and the diversity of their nation.
I witnessed this variety first hand when spending a week travelling through the Catalonian countryside with a team of travellers. We experienced just a taste of the varied city and landscapes and the many opportunities for adventures.
Starting in Barcelona one of the World’s great cities is an ideal introduction to Catalunya. Chic and stylish with amazing architecture and sophisticated bars and restaurants. The variety of the city rivals the region itself, there are many districts each with its own distinctive flavour and character.
Tourists visit to experience the genius of Gaudi and while all of his buildings are concrete works of art there is much more to modernist Barcelona. A stylish seafront with beaches, restaurants, marina and industrial port, vibrant streets like Las Rambles, colourful markets such as La Boqueria and a café culture to rival anywhere. It’s no wonder many people rate it as their favourite city.
Whether lazing on the beach, enjoying more active like pastimes windsurfing, kitesurfing or just exploring the many streets finding hidden courtyards or other gems, Barcelona does not disappoint.
Visiting when Formula One in the form of the Spanish Grand Prix was in town added a touch of razzamatazz to the itinerary. Watching the supercars flash past to the deafening soundtrack of roaring engines, witnessing the drama of the team pits and the pageantry of the whole show made the Circuit de Catalunya the place to be.
Poppies, paragliding and planets
The following day our intrepid band was split into two, some of us chose the ‘buckelistable’ experience of parapenting above poppy fields whilst the remainder witnessed the amazing site of a multitude of feeding vultures . Both groups came away awestruck at their respective exciting activities so it is hard to say which had the better deal.
Floating on thermals high above the ground was a lifetime ambition achieved for me, but listening to the childlike excitement of the vulture watching group who described it as both impressive and slightly daunting it almost seemed as if we’d missed out.
After lunch of local cuisine at a nearby winery and settling into our monastic accommodation it only seemed like an hour or so later we were tucking into another meal beside the telescopes of the Parc Astronòmic del Montsec. The food was great but under the blanket of stars provided by a clear night it was only the appetiser to the star gazing main course which was to follow.
The prelude film show was entertaining but seeing Saturn’s rings and the Orion Nebula the ‘birth place of stars’ through a high powered telescope deserved a standing ovation. We were also filmed for appearance on Spanish television but in reality the only stars were the ones lighting up the night sky.
Mountains, glacial lakes and waterfalls
The following day was spent walking in the beautiful National Park, Aigüestortes i Estanys de Sant Maurici with a knowledgeable guide. I am always happiest when on a mountain trail and although we only reached a height of just over 2000m when we arrived at Glacier Lake it was still partially ice covered.
The scenery is comparable with anywhere, snow filled couloirs, powerful cascades shielded by dramatic, north facing and sheer rock walls. Discovering how the sap of pine trees is ‘harvested’ for the production of turpentine and witnessing the devastation past avalanches have caused still evident after twenty years made it an even more interesting experience.
Building Castells in wine country
Returning to wine country again was a pleasure, this time in Priorat which is one of Catalonia’s most exclusive wine producing regions. The wines are highly rated, winning many prizes and are produced in a biodynamic manner. This means following lunar cycles which seem to produce excellent earthy and organic wines.
It is also the ideal place to experience the correct way to cook and then consume calçons, a kind of large spring onion like delicacy of Catalonia. The cooking process is relatively simple, wrapping them in newspaper and cooking over a large wood fire, but eating them is an entirely different matter! It was an extremely grubby looking bunch of travel bloggers that later emerged after peeling the charcoal covered skins and dipping our prized calçons in delicious but messy sauces.
After some wine and a filling, locally produced meal and we were ready to build castells, which are human towers with the Castellers de Vilafranca. This was great fun, and our trio of instructors made it look so easy, though if UNESCO had witnessed our attempts maybe they would have revoked the status bestowed of ‘masterpieces of humanity’ upon them.
Musselling in on Oyster beds and rice paddies
Arriving early at Delta de L’Ebre in the south of the region in time for a breakfast of fresh oysters and mussels washed down with cava on platforms directly above the organic shellfish ‘farms’ was the perfect start to the next day. Harvested just moments earlier they are a treat for any shellfish lover, brine salted to taste. It’s probably noticeable that gastronomy was a large part of this trip, which is hardly surprising as the Catalans take their cuisine very seriously.
The area is an extremely important area of wetlands, one of the most important in the Mediterranean with many species of birdlife stopping off during their migrations.
The afternoon was spent working up an appetite while learning about and attempting some traditional pastimes of the region. This included fishing with nets and picking rice from the one of the vast expanses of paddy fields. This also acted as a form of mud therapy for our feet, a sort of occupational therapy spa! However the less said about our later attempts at punting boats against the wind the better, giving up our day jobs would be a mistake!
Segways and settling gladiatorial dispute in Tarragona
We employed a bloggers favourite transportation device for a tour of Tarragona. Segways are such a fun way of getting around though it might have been advisable to close the streets as six crazed travellers sped around the city, seeing the sites whilst taking photos and tweeting to bemused followers of the trip from their segways.
There was just enough time to squeeze in a few gladiator contests at the Tarraco Viva Festival which looked like hard work as the competitors often seemed defeated by fatigue. All contests seemed to end with the loser being ‘voted’ for death by the crowd; however the ‘referee’ must have been deaf as all were spared.
Night of Champions at the Camp Nou
Finally returning to Barcelona the trip ended in a magical finale, an evening spent being wined and dined at the home of FC Barcelona; the Nou Camp. It is a cathedral to football and a very special experience even though it was Champions League Final night and due to a lack of televisions we missed underrated Chelsea taming mighty Bayern Munich.
In a week of unforgettable experiences standing on the hallowed turf of this magnificent stadium was one of the highlights. Imagining the roar of 110,000 fanatical spectators particularly during El Clásico when their great rivals Real Madrid roll into town, must send chills down the spine of even those most indifferent to football.
The diversity of Catalonia was ably displayed its during this short but packed week. The variety of locations, culture, cuisine, activities and adventures available mean it is a destination which has much to offer all travellers. One thing that is always constant however is the friendliness of the welcome.
We were guests of the Catalan Tourism Board throughout this trip, however the great experiences detailed here are all my own.