12 Reasons Why We Love Catalonia

Deal Expert, London

It’s likely you’ve heard of the Costa Brava — or even visited its sunny shores. But there’s so much more to Catalonia. Its four provinces contain a wealth of treasures, including underwater caves, medieval villages, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and hidden thermal springs.

And then there are the festivals (big enough to rival Rio) and the food… In fact, it’s no wonder it was named the European Region of Gastronomy in 2016.

Here are our favourite things about Catalonia:

1. Its endless summers

With temperatures reaching a balmy 25°C in September and October (and a year-round average of 19°C), plus charming beaches, hidden coves, buzzing cities, rural towns and world-famous wine regions, Catalonia offers the ideal escape from the colder months in Britain.

2. It has some of the best scuba diving in the Mediterranean

The Medes Islands, off the coast of the Costa Brava, are teeming with marine life and are considered a top dive spot. Declared a protected marine reserve in 1983 by the Catalan government, the area features coral reefs and underwater caves to explore.

3. World-class walking and cycling routes

Catalonia is home to more than 9000km of hiking trails, including the high peaks of the Pyrenees, exotic volcanic terrain and paths between sandy beaches and sheltered coves.

For cycling, there is terrain for all levels, from flat coastal paths to ascents and descents in the Pyrenees. There are also greenway routes, which follow old, disused railway lines through the countryside. These routes are not open to cars, so are a safe, fun option for families. They pass through medieval villages, sometimes following mountain roads, and are a great way to discover the Catalan countryside.

4. The protected areas and UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 141 square kilometres of national park, marine reserves and 13 natural parks spread across the region. The jewel in the Catalan crown, Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, is the area that has the highest protection, and is home to lakes, streams, waterfalls and pine forests.

UNESCO has named six World Heritage Sites in Catalonia, including works by Antoni Gaudí; the Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall in Barcelona; and the Romanesque churches in Vall de Boí, 150km from Lleida.

5. The Castell (Human Tower) Competitions

A Catalan tradition dating back to the early 18th century, this heart-in-mouth spectacle is a key part of the region’s culture, of which the locals are fiercely proud. Various clubs compete to build and dismantle the highest human tower in town squares and at festivals to audiences of thousands.

People from all walks of life participate in this sport. Each tower begins with strong, sturdy people stood at the bottom, then team members scale their peers to take their positions on each other’s shoulders, before a child climbs to the top and raises four fingers — a symbol said to represent the Catalan flag.

UNESCO has given the castells Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status.

6. The food

With over 50 restaurants boasting Michelin stars, the Catalans have proved that their gastronomic prowess is reason enough to visit. Speciality dishes of the region include pa amb tomàquet — toasted bread topped with crushed tomatoes, garlic and drizzled with olive oil, and botifarra amb mongetes — spiced sausage with white beans.

Another favourite is calçots, and the locals enjoy calçotadas — parties or festivals centred around these barbecued, soft, giant spring onions. After being grilled, they’re dipped in sauce and lowered vertically into your mouth in one go. It’s fun (and messy), and often followed by a feast of grilled meat with wine.

7. The wine

Previously mainly known on the world stage for its sparkling cava, Catalonia has become a well-respected wine-producing region in recent years. With over 65,000 hectares of vineyards and an annual output of more than 380 millions of bottles of wine and cava, Catalonia is a great place to enjoy a quality tipple while taking in a stunning view.

The most renowned wine regions are Penedès, southwest of Barcelona, which, among other blends, generates a large amount of Catalonia’s cava, and Priorat, a hilly area near Barcelona that typically produces rich, dark reds.

8. The locals know how to throw a street party

Instead of flying to Rio to experience the buzz and colour of carnival, you can find it much closer to home. Sitges, a beach town south of Barcelona, throws one of the biggest and wildest week-long parties in the world, complete with street dancers, parades of floats with over 2000 participants, fireworks, drag queens, masquerades, feasts, and dancing in the streets and local bars until dawn.

In Vilanova i la Geltrú, the next big town along the coast, they have a Merengada, where locals parade through the town in traditional fancy dress, and throw meringue at each other. The local schools close on this day, to allow the children to participate in the fun.

9. The beaches

With about 580 kilometres of coastline, Catalonia has no shortage of spots to lay down your towel. There’s the Costa Brava to the north, with its rugged, unspoilt coves and bays, and Costa Dorada to the south, with palm-fringed golden-sand beaches favoured by the locals.

Lively coastal towns include Sitges, with a nightlife to rival the top Mediterranean party spots, and Cadaqués, a pretty fishing village that became popular with wealthy artists thanks to Salvador Dalí featuring its picturesque seafront white washed buildings in his paintings.

10. The opportunities for adventure sports

Due to its mountainous landscape, adrenaline thrills are available year-round in Catalonia. In summer, abseil, climb and jump your way through Hell’s Canyon, which features waterfalls, white limestone cliff walls and crystal-clear water; or white-water raft down the River Noguera Pallaresa, enjoying rapids and calm spots to take in the breathtaking surroundings.

In winter, there are several ski resorts just hours away from Barcelona and Girona, making it easy to combine a city break with some time on the slopes. The Pyrenees also provide opportunities for dog sledding, ice climbing and heli-skiing.

11. Theme parks

For family fun, PortAventura, seven kilometres west of Tarragona, is a good place to start. Featuring Shambhala, Europe’s tallest and fastest rollercoaster, as well as themed shows, an aquatic park with winding slides, a lazy river and a wave pool, it caters for all ages.

In April 2017, the new Ferrari Land park will open, which will feature a new record-breaking rollercoaster, standing at 112 metres tall.

You can get a direct train there from Barcelona Sants railway station, which takes about an hour and a half.

12. The natural hot springs

The Romans and Greeks discovered the wealth of natural hot springs in the region, and there are numerous spa towns where you can bathe and de-stress in the thermal baths and salt caves. Head to Caldes d’Estrac, a beach town 40 kilometres north of Barcelona, where water emerges from the ground at 39 degrees. The Romans originally built baths here, which now form part of the old town. Caldes de Malavella, home to the mineral water brand Vichy Catalan, features two luxurious 19th-century spas offering treatment programmes including mud therapy and seaweed thermal baths.

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Photo credits: Hero image – Gonzalo Azumendi; Costa Brava image – Marc Castellet Puig; cycling image – Maria Rosa Ferré; protected areas & UNESCO image – Kim Castells; human towers – Oriol Llauradó; food – Lluís Carro; wine – Maria Rosa Ferré; street parties – Oriol Llauradó; beaches – Miguel Raurich; theme park – Nano Cañas; hot springs – Nano Cañas.
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