Catalonia (Catalan: Catalunya, Spanish: Cataluña, Occitan: Catalonha) is an autonomous community in the northeast of Spain. It borders France and Andorra to the north along the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean Sea to the east, Valencia to the south and Aragon to the west. Its capital is the famous city of Barcelona.
|Barcelona (Barcelona city, Mataró)
The most urban province around the beautiful capital.
|Girona (Blanes, Figueres, Girona city, Lloret de Mar)
Charming old cities, Pyrenees mountains and small grained sand coves between mountains of the Costa Brava.
|Lleida (Lleida city)
Rural towns, the Pyrenees mountains and the romanesque churches on the Val d'Aran.
|Tarragona (Reus, Salou, Tarragona city, Terres de l'Ebre)
Fine grained sand beach on the Costa Daurada resorts and Terres de l'Ebre river course and delta.
- Barcelona — it's worth the whole trip... has great food too!
- Blanes — botanical gardens, beaches and modernisme buildings
- Figueres — home to the Dalí museum
- Girona — nice old town with an impressive Jewish quarter, close to the Costa Brava
- Lleida — door to the west Pyrenees mountains, has a Cathedral
- Lloret de Mar — millions of visitors come to this beach resort each year
- Mataró — the birthplace of noucentista architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who designed several buildings in the town
- Reus — a centre for rock-climbing and the birthplace of architect Antoni Gaudí
- Salou — another popular beach resort in Catalonia
- Tarragona — Roman age capital, has beaches, close to Costa Daurada
Catalonia has a great variety of different landscapes very close to each other, mountains on the Pyrenees (at the border with France), green hills on north of the country, agricultural planes on the west and beaches on the east.
- Costa Brava — rocky cliffs and a mix of pebble beaches and sandy beaches
- Costa Daurada — lots of sandy beaches, near Salou and Tarragona. Also, you can visit Port Aventura
- Girona Pyrenees — monumental mountain towns and skying resorts
- Montserrat — an unusual rock mountain with a sanctuary on top, very popular among Catalans
- Terres de l'Ebre — with two national parks and a river delta, it's a quiet place with traditions and nature
Catalonia is today an autonomous region within Spain, but in fact was part of the Crown of Aragon which in some ways historically predates Spain itself (the Crown of Aragon and the Crown of Castile-León united to form Spain). The region gained its current autonomous status first in the Republican era (1930s) and then again after dictator Franco's death in 1975 and continues to press for more political and economic autonomy, mainly in defence of its culture and language and in the form of the right to collect its own taxes and spend them as they see fit. Catalonia has seen many demonstrations in favour of its independence from Spain; such as the 2013 Catalan Way. A referendum for the independence of the region did not pass in 2014.
Catalan (català) is the "own language" of Catalonia, co-official with Spanish (and since 2006 with Aranese). Catalan is also spoken in Andorra, the Balearics, Valencia, La Franja (the eastern strip of Aragon), L'Alguer-Alghero (a small coastal city on the Italian island of Sardinia), and Roussillon (an area in the south of France sometimes called Catalunya Nord that corresponds roughly with the department of Pyrénées-Orientales). In everyday use, 11.95% of the population claim to use both Spanish and Catalan equally, while 45.92% mainly use Spanish and 35.54% mainly use Catalan. There is a significant difference between the Barcelona metropolitan area (and, to a lesser extent, the Tarragona area), where Spanish is more spoken than Catalan, and the rest of Catalonia, where Catalan clearly prevails over Spanish.
Visitors who speak Spanish should note that it is called castellano (Catalan castellà) and that while most people in Catalonia are bilingual in Catalan and Spanish, and are required to learn both languages in school, some people may be reluctant to answer in Spanish, due to extreme Catalan nationalistic ideologies. This is largely due to historical reasons, when the Catalan language was outlawed by the Franco regime as were other non-Castillian Spanish languages. Nevertheless, most locals are aware that Spanish is more widely spoken worldwide, and would be willing to speak to foreigners in Spanish. Replying in Catalan to a question asked in Spanish is the way to inform the other party that the conversation may continue in Catalan if desired. If you do not speak Catalan, just politely say that you do not understand, and there will be no problem in most cases. Spanish is the first language of 45.92% of Catalonia's population and 99% of Catalans speak the language fluently. At any rate avoid disparaging comments towards the Catalan language or even insinuating it might be a "dialect" rather than a language. Learning a few words of Catalan will certainly endear you to Catalan speakers.
Aranese, a subdialect of Gascon (Occitan), is a minority language and only spoken by a couple of thousand people in Val d'Aran in northwest Catalonia. In 2006, it gained official status.
As in the rest of Spain, English is not widely spoken, though staff working at major hotels and the main tourist attractions know enough English to communicate. French is widely spoken as a second or third language in the areas near the border with France.
Barcelona El Prat Airport is about 15 km to the city centre. Once there, you can go to the centre by train (every 30 minutes, stopping at Sants and Plaça de Catalunya), by bus (Aerobus), that stops in the same places and with the same frequencies. The bus is the more expensive option, with the added possibility of traffic jams. Both services finish at 23:00.
Two local buses, EA (during the day) and EN (at night) also serve the airport, however these are not particularly frequent and only run as far as the Plaça d'Espanya, which is not particularly central. However, for those on a shoestring budget they may be a good option as they are fairly cheap.
There is quite a good taxi service, the only way to reach the centre directly if you arrive by night. The fares are about €35 if you go to the centre, but this can change depending of the time of the day and, of course, the part of the city you want to reach. All Barcelona taxis are painted black and yellow and are easily recognisable.
See Barcelona#Get in for more detailed information.
Of course, you can rent cars and there is a big car park, though it is quite expensive if you leave your car there for more than a couple of hours.
El Prat airport is served by a number of airlines, including EasyJet, BMI, Virgin Air, Volare, MyTraveLite...
Other airports in Catalonia are:
- Girona, in the girona region (in the northeastern part of Catalonia). There are now flights to this newly upgraded airport by budget airlines, notably Ryanair. Travel by bus to Barcelona takes about 90 minutes and there is a bus service into Girona which costs about €25 round trip. The buses in Barcelona leave from Estacio del Nord bus station (metro stop Arc de Triomf, Line 1).
- Lleida, in Western Catalonia.
The main train station in Barcelona is called Estació de Sants, but the most central ones are Plaça de Catalunya (most local and regional trains) and Passeig de Gràcia (serving some local and most long-distance lines).
The Spanish train company is called RENFE . Barcelona is very well connected by train with Madrid, Valencia (City), Zaragoza and the Basque Country in particular and with the whole country in general.
There's also a Catalan train company Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya  (FGC), which serves destinations near Barcelona, and some tourist routes. It also operates a funicular service in the Pyrenees.
Buses and coaches connect the principal cities to many national and international locations, and it's the only public transport to get to many local places in Catalonia.
The most important bus stations are: Estació de Sants (Barcelona), mainly for international routes, is next to the train station and very well connected. 'The Estació del Nord (also in Barcelona), close to Passeig de Sant Joan, is the main bus station for medium and long routes - the nearest metro (Line 1) and RENFE station is Arc de Triomf.
The routes inside Catalonia are held by different companies, which leave from different places. Every town has normally only one company, so you should ask at some information point, or check online  which, although in Catalan, is quite easy to use (put the origin at the left, the destination at the right, and gives the name of the company and it's telephone number).
- Barcelona is a modern city with lots of historical heritage including magnificent examples of Gothic and Modernist architectures. Home of the Sagrada Familia and other Antoni Gaudí buildings such as Parc Guell and La Pedrera. Barcelona is also well known for its museums and cultural events.
- The Roman ruins including the complex and colosseum in Tarragona and the ruins in Castelló d'Empúries.
- Enjoy the long fine sand beaches of Costa Daurada and the grain beaches on Costa Brava
- See the volcanoes near the city of Olot, and La Fageda d'en Jordà, a very nice forest and extinct volcanoes.
Water activities are practiced in a lot of places in Catalonia like Llavorsí in the Pyrenees)
Catalan "Festes" or Festivals
Catalonia has hundreds of "festes" that go on around the region every week of the year. The closest word in English to translate "Festa" would be "Festival" but this is inadequate to describe the type of celebration that exists in Catalonia. "Festes" are ritual like celebrations that have been passed down through generations of people for more than 700 years. They are organized by the people of a town for their own enjoyment, and not for any commercial interest. "Festival" (which also exists in the Catalan and Castilian languages) denotes an event that is usually organized by a specific group of people for a particular market, and is often motivated by economic interest.
“Festes” have ritual like sequences of events that usually involve Giants, Devils, Human Castles and processions. A magical atmosphere is created at the “festa”, almost like a type of Catharsis. “Festes” stem from Medieval Times when fantastical dragons and Giants were created to instruct people about religion in church services. Shortly after the fantastical creatures became a part of the Corpus Christi processions that paraded through the town during the summer. The importance given to these folkloric elements has gradually increased over time and now they have assumed a national importance. Nowadays, these traditions are associated with Catalan identity as something that is individual and separate from the rest of Spain.
These “festes” are not greatly publicized by the Catalan government for visitors.
Because of its geographical location and terrific range of habitats, including dryland steppes, rocky coastlines, mountains and some of the most important wetland sites in Europe, Catalonia has a greater variety of bird life than anywhere else on the peninsular, with 95% of Iberia's and 50% of the whole Palearctic's recorded bird species.
Some of the most sought-after are Lammergeier, Black Woodpecker, Wallcreeper, Bonelli's Eagle, Lesser Grey Shrike, Dupont's Lark (recognised as probably extinct in Catalonia in 2006), Little Bustard, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Audouin's Gull and Lesser Crested tern. The most important sites are Cap de Creus, Aiguamolls de L'Empordà, Barcelona's Llobregat Delta, the Parc de Garraf, Ebro Delta, Steppes of Lleida and, of course, The Pyrenees.
There are a few companies that will organise tours for you, or even offer free advice, including Catalan Bird Tours and Oliva Rama Tours. There is also the Birdinginspain.com web site which offers birding sites and itineraries and lots of other useful information to help the visiting birder plan his or her trip to Catalonia.
There are lots of good places to eat. At lunch time (13-15:00 approx.), a lot of Restaurants and Bars offer Menú del dia (Menu of the day - Prix Fixe), usually consisting of a choice of four starters, four main courses, wine and bread for at a reasonable price. Some bars also offer "Plats Combinats" which are a few items served together at reasonable prices - e.g. Hamburger, egg and chips. At dinner time (20-23:00 approx), a Menú is not so frequent.
In all the medium sized cities, you can expect to find a large range of possibilities.
Usually announced as Cuina Casolana, based on the purposes of the Mediterranean diet: Soups, salads, meats, fish and seafood, snails (especially in Lleida during "L'Aplec del Cargol" by early May), desserts ("Crema catalana" or Catalan cream, "Braç de gitano" which is a long roll made of whipped cream and sponge cake) pastries...
- Pa amb tomàquet: "bread with tomato". Many people in Spain are surprised when discover the Catalan way to prepare "pa amb tomàquet", because instead of being sliced tomato with bread, the tomato (sometimes with garlic) is squashed and spread in the bread slice, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and small cuts of a very Catalan specialty: cured pork meat, that is, the famous Iberian ham (Spanish jamón, Catalan pernil), fuet, chorizo (xoriço), botifarra (spicy cured sausages), sobrassada, or other stuff like cheese or larger pieces of cooked meat. "Pa amb tomàquet" is a very deeply rooted meal in Catalan houses.
- Paella - Typical rice dish from the Catalan Lands. Catalan paella is with seafood, while Valencian paella is without seafood. There's also a variant of paella which is made up with little noodles called "fideuà". In addition, paella and fideuà can be prepared with black squid ink, then it's called "fideuà negra" or "arròs negre" (black fideuà and black rice respectively).
Books to read
Consider checking books by Carmen Casas, a restaurant critic and a world-renowned expert on Catalan cuisine.
Cuisines from other regions can be readily found in cities of Catalonia:
- Tapas - Typical Spanish
- Basque food
- Italian food - Pasta, pizzas, ...
- Chinese food
- Japanese food
- Fast food
Don't miss the good Catalan wines and Caves. Catalonia has had a very rich tradition of wine makers through history, and nowadays is a credited producer of world famous wines. "Penedès", "Priorat", "Costers del Segre", "Alella" and "Terra Alta" are good "D.O."s ("Denominació d'Origen" or designation of origin, the Spanish administrative division to control and preserve wine producing areas). Sangría is also served in most restaurants, with large variations in quality.
- Xanascat. Is the National Network of Youth Hostels for all of Catalonia. They have 46 different installations throughout the region. The best option for low priced accommodations.
Catalonia is usually a safe place. Be aware of pickpockets in crowds, and don't leave your car in the rest areas in motorways. Tourist areas such as Las Ramblas in Barcelona city attract many petty thieves, and you should be vigilant around these areas. As a tourist, you are a target for thieves. They can spot you and you cannot spot them. Do not carry all your money and documentation in the same bag or pocket. If you have been robbed, always go to the police.
If you travel try to follow traffic regulations or you may be fined. Notice that you will have to pay in cash immediately otherwise your car will be removed from the road. Therefore have at least €150 with you for that occasion.
You should always be fully clothed away from beaches and swimming pools. It is very annoying for local people to see tourists wandering around half-naked. Try to remember that you are a guest in another country and respect the fact that even though you are on vacation, most of the people around you live here and are trying to go about their normal lives. For example, avoid making a lot of noise late at night, as people will be sleeping.
Be aware that people usually have breakfast at 9AM, lunch at 2PM and dinner at 9PM or later. This schedule may seem a little weird but it is like this because of the sun hours. Traditionally, people worked the fields when the sun was least strong, which is early morning and late afternoon. So after working from dawn, they had a snack at 9PM or 10AM, ate lunch at 2PM, took a siesta, then back to work between 5PM and 8PM, after which they would come home and eat dinner at 9PM. The tradition as a whole is gradually disappearing, due to increased urbanisation and the abandonment of traditional farming practices, but people have largely kept the eating schedule.
- Andorra — a tiny mountainous country in the Pyrenees, famous for its beautiful views, ski resorts, and low taxes
- Aragon — with close historical ties to Catalonia, this autonomous community to the west has a distinctive culture and picturesque countryside.
- Balearic Islands — a tourist hotspot in the Mediterranean, including the world-famous party destination Ibiza, a short ride from Catalonia by plane or ferry
- Pyrénées-Orientales — also known as "Northern Catalonia", a department of France with historical, linguistic, and cultural ties to Catalonia
- Valencian Community — an autonomous community to the south of Catalonia, with beautiful weather and extensive beaches