Catalonia is a land of extraordinary variety. The Costa Brava, especially in its more northerly reaches, is a place to linger over lunch in colourful fishing villages, and to seek out an ideal swimming spot in secluded, sandy coves. Inland, explore the rolling vineyards of Penedès not far from Barcelona; the Garrotxa’s wooded volcanic hills, and the ancient hill-top villages and sunflower fields that lend the Empordà Plain its timeless charm. Wherever you go, your taste buds and palate will be assaulted by a delicious array of home-grown flavours – from food and wine made with passion and flair. The Catalans are renowned for their fierce sense of pride, and for a compelling blend of tenacity and ingenuity. And when you add the superlative cities of Girona and Barcelona into the mix, you have a truly captivating blend.
Read on to discover more of what Catalonia has to offer...
Capital of Cava
Just 25 kilometres to the west of Barcelona, as the crow flies, lies one of Europe’s most intriguing and innovative wine regions. D.O. Penedès produces some of Spain’s finest wines, and the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, set among rolling vineyards, is the undisputed ‘Capital of Cava’. Besides famous names like Freixenet and Cordoniù, take the opportunity to sample produce from some of the smaller and less-well-known – but innovative and much-admired – makers of this sparkling, champagne-style tipple.
Towers of Humanity
At fiesta time, in the middle of the thronged Plaça Jaume in Vilafranca, a trembling tower of brightly clad bodies rises assuredly, tier by tier, as lithe and athletic Catalans clamber over the broad-backed men of the pinya (the base level) to form a tronc (‘trunk’). Last comes the enxaneta (usually an agile child, for reasons which become obvious), who shimmies and scrambles their way to the summit, to raise one hand with four fingers extended – a salute representing the four stripes of the Catalan flag. As soon as this human castle (castell ) is complete, it’s time to bring it all down again – an equally hairy but possibly even more dangerous undertaking.
The unique landscapes of the Garrotxa, characterised by wooded, conical hills formed by long-extinct volcanoes, have given rise to the equally intriguing concept of cuina volcànica (‘volcanic cuisine’). With recipes inspired by the land around them, local chefs use raw ingredients that have emerged directly from the fertile, mineral-rich soil – beans, black turnips, truffles, chestnuts and mushrooms – to create some strikingly innovative dishes. Try patates d’Olot : deep-fried potatoes stuffed with savoury minced lamb; or empedrat – beans from Santa Pau served with salted cod and wild Chanterelle mushrooms.
The Empordà is one of our favourite corners of Catalonia, if not the whole of Europe: there are no major sights here – just rolling farmland and a beguiling patchwork of sunflowers and poppy fields, punctuated now and again by a crumbling old farmstead – or mas – and charming villages lent the shade of a ginger biscuit by the warming afternoon sun. Pals is one of these, coiling up from the surrounding plain around its hill-top with a distinctly photogenic allure; though Peratallada possibly has the edge: not just because of its maze of medieval streets, but also due to its foodie focus – a microcosm of gastronomic bliss.
The Catalan Kitchen
Catalan cooking, for all the cutting-edge creativity of Ferran Adrià or the world-beating El Celler de Can Roca, has deeply held traditions going right back to the Middle Ages. Three culinary bibles from the 14th and 15th centuries paved the way for a 20th-century version by Ferran Agullò, son of a Girona confectioner; while today the emphasis is on the freshest of local ingredients, the ever-creative fusion of mar y muntanya (involving just about any combination of meat and seafood), and on time-honoured favourites like pa amb tomàquet (toasted bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil and salt), and the ubiquitous dessert, crema catalana.
Retaining an air of seclusion at Catalonia’s north-easternmost edge is sunny, whitewashed Cadaqués. This artsy and easy-going seaside village positively gleams across the cobalt waters of its rocky bay, and its pebbly beaches and meandering lanes seem to be showcased to perfection by an extraordinary quality of light. The 4-star Hotel Playa Sol, with its garden, outdoor pool and prime sea-front location, is the ideal place to soak it all up, and to bring to mind the eccentrically moustachioed genius who was so inspired by these scenes.
The Dalí Triangle
If Cadaqués gains its lustre from the warm Mediterranean light, then it was the artist Salvador Dalí who lent it its sparkle. He spent family holidays here during his youth, and lived much of his life at nearby Port Lligat, where the Dalí House is now a popular museum. A second lasting legacy is the Dalí Theatre- Museum in Figueres, an accumulation of his life’s work and the largest Surrealist structure in the world. Completing the ‘triangle’ is the mysterious Castle of Púbol, which Dalí had gifted to his wife and muse, Gala, and where he went to live following her death in 1982. Together, these places tell the story of a truly extraordinary life.
Girona’s age-old strategic setting, at the confluence of four rivers – the Ter, the Güell, the Galligants and the Onyar – becomes immediately apparent to the lucky few who choose to visit, and it is the Onyar which gives the city its best-known street scene: that of ochre-and-terracotta townhouses facing each other across the banks of the river. Besides this, Girona has a ring of fortified Roman walls with glorious mountain views, one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe, its very own Ramblas chock-full of boutiques and stylish cafés, and a frankly quite shocking number of top-class restaurants.
Els Quatre Gats, Barcelona
Sometimes a reputation goes before a place, but in the case of Els Quatre Gats – the former meeting place for Picasso and his artistic companions, just a stone’s throw from Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya – do not let this stop you from visiting. Opened as a hostel, bar and cabaret in 1897, ‘The Four Cats’ (meaning ‘a few people’, but also derived from a Catalan expression for strangers or outsiders) is now a Modernist gem of a bar that somehow manages to maintain its offbeat allure. And with a glass of local Vermouth to hand, and a bowl of olives or a plate of tapas to pick at, you too can feel at home in this most bohemian of hangouts.