Beyond Barcelona – the enticing setting for Catalan's jewel

9/08/2011 07:02:00 PM ·

The Catalan city of Barcelona quite rightly dominates the agenda for any visitor to this north-eastern corner of Spain. After all, Barcelona is a city fashioned by city-lovers, home to some the world's most treasured architectural gems. A traveler to Catalonia could quite easily fill half-a-dozen vacations, just within its gilded districts. But that would be a shame. Barcelona is a city defined as much by its wider setting, nestled between sea and mountain, as it is by its world-renowned cityscape.

So if you want to get a proper feel for the Catalan spirit, it would be well worth stepping outside of the crowded capital – and setting your compass to wander beyond, and around, Barcelona. So let's head out south-west first, along the coast and its warm Mediterranean sea breezes. Of course, the sea is a strong allure within Barcelona too. But for all the attention focused on the exquisite urban beaches of Barceloneta and Sant Sebastià, it is when you escape the claustrophobic clutches of town – and roam along the Costa Dorado – that you get a true feel for the Catalan coast.

Here the beaches are long, open and a rich shimmering gold – Costa Dorada means quite literally Golden Coast. The combination of sun, sea and sand has led to parts of the coast becoming crowded with tourists. But just a little inland, you will find winding roads that string together a dozen ancient fishing villages, often gathered around hilltop castles. Pirates and corsairs were a threat for the locals for many centuries, so the need for a fortified retreat was on many-a-villager's mind.

And just 50 miles from Barcelona is the archaeological wonder of Tarragona, home to spectacular Roman aqueducts and amphitheaters. These have earned the town the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and top to-do list for any visitor. But if you're in Tarragona in September, a completely human architectural wonder can be seen too – the world-famous Castille human tower competitions take place here, as part of a 10-day festival.

Swinging back north-east along the interior roads, you'll quickly find gleaming white-and-gray hills of the Garraf and Olèrdola Parks, which form a contrasting backdrop to the gold-and-blue coast. Cool gorges compete with sun-swashed plateaus, dotted with caves and chasms, in land of outstanding natural beauty. And a little further north lies one of the most dramatic visages in Catalonia – the razor sharp pink ridges of Montserrat.

Quite inspirational on approach, as they tower out of the surrounding plains, these peaks slice 3,000 feet up into the air. Their drama has been both a poetic and religious inspiration through time – the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer saw them as being cut by angels with a golden saw. And nestled within Montserrat's pinnacles is the centuries-old Benedictine monastery, lying directly beneath frowning sheer cliffs of pink rock.

Curling back east through the pine-clad hills of Parque Natural de Sant Llorenç, and the bustling towns just north of Barcelona, you eventually break through to Catalonia's other coast, the Costa Brava. The atmosphere here is very different to that of the Costa Dorada. The hills spill right down to the sea here, creating an endless series of cliff-tops, bays and hidden coves. Again, some parts of the coast here have suffered from a rush to develop tourist facilities, so some beaches are crowded-out both with people and hotels.

But there is also plenty to pick from, for those looking for an authentic slice of Catalan culture. A good example is Cadaques, found close up to the French border. Once a sleepy fishing village, Cadaques became something of an artistic honey-spot in the last century, drawing in artists such a Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. That's not surprising given the beauty of the setting, with its checkered white-and-red streets enfolded by verdant hills, and mirrored by the azure sea.
And this part of Catalonia is also home to the vineyards that produce the sparkling delights of cava, the Spanish champagne. The Penedès region is one of the oldest vine-growing parts of Spain, with Sant Sadurní d'Anoia as the acknowledge capital of cava. As the celebratory drink of choice is Spain, a glass of cava may well be in order for the intrepid traveler -- having explored the scene in which Barcelona plays center-stage.

This guest post is contributed by Wozniacki, a fitness instructor who owns a website offering fitness tips & workout plans at

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