Exploring beyond Barcelona in Spain’s autonomous principality

I love Barcelona, and no matter what they decide in Brussels, it’s my own personal culture capital of Europe, hands down. But having been there more times in the past five years than can be counted on two hands, my girlfriend and I decided that we had probably seen more city-based culture, wine, music and Gaudi architecture than is possible for one lifetime, and that it was time to venture out into the hinterland to see what makes this Catalan city tick.

On our most recent visit, we thought a jaunt out into the countryside would be just the ticket for some back-to-nature satisfaction. Catalonia is relatively small so we knew we wouldn’t be doing more than two or three hours of driving each day. With the red Fiat 500 booked and paid for, the picnic basket stocked up with local goodies, we head off for a week-long odyssey around Catalonia in search of culture, religion, mountain scenery, small country pensions, adventure and of course, a lot of eating and drinking.

Montserrat

It only took us about 30 minutes to drive from Barcelona to Montserrat, the highest point in the Catalan lowlands, and home to one of Spain’s most revered Benedictine monasteries, the Santa Maria de Montserrat. From the Aeri de Montserrat cable car station it’s but a five-minute, 544 metre vertical climb up the mountain, and the views are simply awesome. We are not religious, but we agreed that it was a good thing that the mountain is under such holy protection as one slip and you won’t be waiting around long to meet your maker.

At the top, the place was buzzing with tourists and pilgrims who had come to hike the mountain trails, marvel at the views and visit the monastery with its works of art by the likes of El Greco and Picasso, and of course to visit the statue of the sacred ‘Black Madonna’, Catalonia’s favourite saint.

After watching the Escolania Montserrat’s Boys’ Choir sing in the basilica, and quite frankly being moved almost to the point of conversion, we jumped on top the Saint Joan Funicular and rode to the top of the mountain to unfurl our somewhat gourmet picnic lunch of cheese, ham and bread and wine and marvel at what looks like from this vantage point, the whole of Catalonia.

Girona

Heading up to the Costa Brava we wound our way through the woodlands and countryside on back roads until we hit the coast and continued north through the small coves and villages that lie off the edge of the Med until we got to Calella de Palafrugell, a town untouched by mass tourism, where whitewashed houses and colourful fishing boats sit almost side by side on the sand. We lunched on fresh fish and seafood, wine and the local tipple called cremat – flambeed rum, coffee and sugar. If, like me, you are driving, be wary as it’s strong stuff. Feeling a little surreal after such a lovely lunch, we then drove the 60-odd kilometres north to the Dali-daddy of the movement, Salvador’s hometown of Figuerras and the museum that bears witness to the greatness of the town’s favourite son. Housed in an old theatre, which was coincidentally where he held his very first exhibition as a young man, it still contains some of his greatest works.

Mountain high

It would be a crime not to head into the Pyrenees while in Catalonia, and although we had no time for a long hike and there was no snow to be had for skiing, we did the next best thing – we went canyoning.

Romantically called “baranquisme” in Catalan, canyoning  is ideal for a hard core shot of adrenaline and a real feeling of ‘oneness’ with nature. Squeezing into a wetsuit and climbing, swimming, abseiling, tobogganing, scrambling and jumping off of rocks into icy cold pools and scaling waterfalls in steep river gorges is unbeatable. They literally threw us into the deep end with a 10-metre jump into a river pool that scared me to death, but as the day wore on we were both crying out for more. The water wasn’t that cold either. In short, we loved it.

Wine Time

After all that scenery and adrenaline, it was definitely time to head south to the warmth of the plains sample some of Catalonia’s finer things in life. The red wines of Priorat in Tarragosa are rightly famous throughout Spain. In fact some experts say that Priorat produces the best reds in the whole of the country, so after checking into a small pension and leaving the car keys in the room we set out to explore and test the theory on a guided wine and food wine tour.

After visiting three wineries with our very knowledgable English-speaking guides and having the most amazing lunch en-route, we decided that the experts were right.

The next day, nursing slightly fuzzy heads, we drove to the ancient hilltop town of Siurana for a look around. Thanks to its massive cliffs and precipices, it was the last refuge of the Moors before they were expelled from Spain in late 15th century. It is therefore steeped in history and far from the regular tourist trail, which is just what’s needed on a trip to what is one of the most intriguing areas we had ever had the pleasure of enjoying in Spain.


Tips to get you through a Catalan adventure

  • Instead of dining in one of the pricey restaurants or cafes when visiting Montserrat, make sure you load up on all the gourmet essentials that Spain is famous for and picnic on the rock. There is simply no better lunch venue.
  • There are a number of canyoning and rafting guides to choose from in Lleida, but the one we can recommend from experience is Explora Guies de Barrancs i Muntanyes. www.exploraguies.com
  • If you fancy experiencing one of Catalonia’s many festivals, and you like a tipple, visit the village of Prades in Tarragona, where every July the baroque fountain spurts cava wine for a day. www.visitpriorat.com/eng
  • If you are afraid of heights or are travelling with small children at Monserrat then take the Cremallera rack railway to the top. It only takes 15 minutes to reach the top but comes with seating and peace of mind.
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Michael Travers
Kiwi Michael Travers, a former marine biologist turned editor and journalist, has been based in Bali but travelling extensively for the past seven years and is equally at home in a private villa dining on foie gras and sipping Calvados as he is sleeping in a grass hut on in the Spice Islands drinking coconut juice.