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Catalunya, also known as Cataluña and Catalonia
Comunidad Autónoma de Cataluña
Catalunya, to use the native Catalan spelling of what in Spanish is Cataluña and in English is often Catalonia, is a group of four provinces in the north-east of Spain, encompassing a long stretch of the Mediterranean coast, a large proportion of the Pyrenees mountain range and a wide swathe of territory reaching almost half-way to the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay. Over 7.5 million people live in this region, where they generally enjoy a relatively prosperous standard of living in what has become one of the most cosmopolitan areas of Spain: the GDP per capita lies behind only those of Madrid, the Basque Country and Navarra.
The provinces of Catalunya are Girona, Lleida, Tarragona and Barcelona, where the regional capital is located, and in the twenty-first century they receive between them more foreign tourists than any other region of Spain, accounting for around a quarter of all those who visit the country. Most of these are attracted by the city of Barcelona and the beaches of the Costa Brava, the Costa Daurada and the rest of the coastline, but the inland province of Lleida and the rest of the region is full of extremely varied and fascinating destinations which reflect the long history and rich cultural identity of Catalunya.
Historical background: the origins of Catalan identity
Long before Catalunya became a separate political entity this area was inhabited by the Iberians, as was the rest of Spain and Portugal, and later by the Greeks and the Carthaginians. When the Romans arrived in the western Mediterranean this was the first part of the Iberian Peninsula they took full control of, and the city of Tarraco (now Tarragona) was one of the most important in the Roman Empire.
Like much of the rest of Spain, following the collapse of the Roman Empire the area came under the dominance of the Visigoths for over 200 years before the arrival of the Moors in 718, but in this north-eastern corner of the peninsula the Muslims were soon ousted by the French county of Roussillon, and Catalunya became an additional counter to the Muslim threat to France, acting as a buffer zone to reinforce the geographical barrier which was already present in the form of the Pyrenees.
Independence from the Capetian kings of France was achieved in the 10th century, and in 1137 the Catalan counties were united under the Crown of Aragon, only to be divided again just over a century later when the northern area became Languedoc and the south, in broad terms, matched the extent of modern Catalunya. The dynasty of the Houses of Aragon and Barcelona extended their power throughout the Middle Ages, but after the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs in 1469 the central role of Barcelona was gradually diminished as a unified Spain began to take shape.
This centralization of power led to a series of conflicts with the Spanish Crown which were the predecessors of the current separatist movement: the current regional government is committed to calling a referendum similar to the 2014 Scottish vote, and if historical memory is uppermost in the minds of the Catalans then the events of the War of the Spanish Succession will play a decisive role in any such vote. After Barcelona fell to the Bourbons on 11th September 1714 Catalan autonomy was effectively ended, and it was not until after the death of Franco in 1975 that some of the lost rights were restored.
This association with France and the differences from much of the rest of Spain have led to a separate Catalan language developing. Closely related to both French and Spanish, Catalan is spoken by around half the population, and the language has been championed by separatists as part of their cause. The third official language of the region, Aranés, is spoken by just a couple of thousand residents of the Valley of Arán in the extreme north-west of Catalunya in the central Pyrenees.
Despite having played a secondary role in the political development of Spain over recent centuries, in economic and industrial terms Catalunya has been relatively prosperous. Even throughout the partial ban on using the Catalan language during the dictatorship the economy grew at a spectacular rate, attracting large numbers of immigrants from the rest of Spain and ensuring that once the new Constitution was passed in 1978 the area was ready to become one of the most important cultural and economic centres in the whole of Europe.
From the Costa Dorada and Costa Brava on the coast of the Balearic Sea to the 3,000-metre peaks of the Pyrenees, the range of landscapes and climate in Catalunya is so wide as to almost defy description.
Catalunya is, of course, a popular destination for rural tourism as well as beach-goers, and the 38 natural parks in the region occupy over 5% of the total land area. Climbing, walking, skiing, bungee-jumping, angling, rafting, mountain biking, horse-riding … the opportunities for active enjoyment of the countryside inland are countless, and there are also over 40 golf courses in the four provinces.
As for the gastronomy of Catalunya, the advice is simple: try it. Apart from the Basque Country, Catalunya enjoys perhaps the best culinary reputation of any of Spain’s regions.
The fertile soil, irrigated by rivers running from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, produces top quality local produce, and from the coast to the high mountains many of the regional specialities date back hundreds of years and need no fine tuning. A range of “mar i muntanya” (sea and mountain) dishes illustrate how the different ingredients can be combined, generally mixing meat from the mountains with fish or seafood.
Alioli and romesco sauce are common complements, and the region’s cold meat products also enjoy a well-deserved reputation, while Penedés wines provide the perfect accompaniment. For special occasions, of course, crack open a bottle of Freixenet or Cordoníu cava sparkling wine from the provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona.
The restaurants in Catalunya range from the exlusive Celler de Can Roca in Girona, currently rated the second best in the world, to the countless “masías”, which offer simple fare using traditional recipes, such as roast meat and vegetables, escalibada (pepper and onion salad), esqueixada (smoked cod salad) and other traditional dishes.
The province and city of Girona
Within the region ski resorts and golden beaches co-exist, a dichotomy nowhere more evident than in the province of Girona. Here five ski resorts nestle in the Pyrenees, but at the same time the rocky coastline includes the Cap de Creus headland, which is the easternmost point of mainland Spain, the village of Cadaqués, famous as the home of Salvador Dalí, the pioneering resort and fishing town of Roses and a marvellously craggy and rocky coastline.
The city of Girona itself was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC, and the old walled city is a charming place to visit. Girona is far smaller than Barcelona, and one of the most emblematic sights is the row of painted houses along the bank of the River Onyar: these were built to replace a stretch of the city wall which was destroyed during the siege by French troops in 1807.
Visitors are also advised to explore the province, from the medieval towns of Pals and Peratallada to the peaks of the Pyrenees, from the beautiful coastline in Tossa del Mar and Sant Sebastiá to the ski resort of Vall de Núria. The landscape here rarely fails to disappoint, and the Garrotxa volcanic park near Olot is a must for all geologists!
The city and province of Barcelona
One of the main attractions of Catalunya, apart from its natural geographical and climatic features, is the capital city of Barcelona. This is now the third biggest container port in Spain and a centre of industry, but aside from its economic importance it is also one of the most cosmopolitan and dynamic cities in the Europe. The watchword here is Modernity, a term used in the past to refer to the architecture of Gaudí but also applicable to the whole lifestyle and the range of attractions for both residents and tourists.
The number of visitors to Barcelona has increased spectacularly since the city was re-modernized prior to the 1992 Olympic Games. Most visitors stroll through La Barceloneta, the old port and the area of Las Ramblas, which includes the Gothic quarter and the Plaza de Catalunya, and the whole of the old city centre is dotted with artistic and historical monuments, including eight World Heritage Sites (the Güell park and palace, the Casa Milà, the Casa Vicens, the Sagrada Familia, the Palau de la the Casa Batlló and the Hospital de Sant Pau).
Outside the city of Barcelona, the province contains a lot more. The area runs northwards right into the Pyrenees, close to the border with France, and from the prehistoric caves in the mountains and foothills to the 100 kilometres of coastline either side of the city the province of Barcelona is like a microcosm of all of the landscapes and climatic conditions of Catalunya and the eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain.
The province is one of the most densely populated in the whole country, but most of the residents live on or close to the coast, and a one-hour journey inland takes the traveller to a very different world within this multi-faceted area.
The province and city of Tarragona
Tarragona, the capital of the Costa Dorada, is truly a historic city, and was the Roman capital of a province which included much of Spain. The amphitheatre is located in the centre of the city, the centre of which which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the forum and circus can also be visited as well as the 12th century Cathedral.
Elsewhere in the province the whole of the coastline is popular with tourists, the best known resort arguably being Salou (home to the Universal Studios Port Aventura theme park). Altafulla, Cambrils and Torredembarra are also increasingly popular.
There are also a series of impressive castles – at Ferrán and Tamarit, for example – and Cistercian monasteries like those at Poblet and Santa Creus, and the Ebro delta natural park has a unique ecosystem with over 300 native bird species.
The province and city of Lleida
The inland province of Lleida is largely agricultural except in the high mountains, and the capital city was founded in the third century BC. Parts of the old medieval walls still remain, and the small city centre with its medieval cathedral and Knights Templar castle can be visited in a day, but it would be a sin not to explore the towns and villages in the rest of the province. In among the valleys and mountains are various historic monasteries such as the Real Monasterio de Santa María de Vallbona in the Urgell area and the Monastery of Santa Maria de Bellpuig de les Avellanes.
Apart from the capital, the other main towns include Mollerussa, Cervera, Tàrrega, and Balaguer, but this is really a rural area, well-known for the quality of the local pears and peaches in the lowlands of the Pyrenees. The beautiful Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park lies at altitudes of between 1,600 and 3,000 metres in the north of the province, and close by is the breathtaking scenery of the Vall de Boí, which contains no fewer than nine Early Romanesque churches and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The pre-Pyrenees are connected to the provincial capital by a special Lakes Train, enabling visitors to travel easily between the historic capital city and the remote valleys of the southern Pyrenees.
Fiestas in Catalunya
The fiestas in Catalunya are different in many ways form those in the rest of Spain: firstly, there’s no bullfighting, following the ban which was imposed on 1st January 2012.
One of the most recognizable aspects of Catalan popular culture and tradition consists of the Castells (castles) and Castellers. This is an activity in which competing groups build human castles of up to nine storeys, and has been recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Popular dances in Catalunya include the sardana, and other elements seen in many local fiestas include the parades of giants and correfocs of devils and firecrackers.
The most important fiestas, though, are arguably those on 23rd April and 11th September. Saint George, or San Jordi, is the patron saint of the region, and to celebrate his feat day lovers and friends commonly exchange roses and books. 11th September, meanwhile, is the National Day of Catalunya in commemoration of the Siege of Barcelona in 1714.
Both of these public holidays have become inextricably associated over recent years with the widespread clamour for a referendum on independence, and from the insistence on using the Catalan language to the proliferation of nationalist flags visitors cannot fail to notice that this is an issue which is very much on the minds of many natives of Catalunya.
At no time, though, does this political activism detract from the attraction of the region for visitors: over fifteen million foreign tourists a year can’t be wrong!
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