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|Occupying the north-eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, the region of Catalonia is highly varied, from the craggy Costa Brava to the mountains of the Pyrenees, and with cities as different as Barcelona, Tarragona, Lerida and Gerona. The mountains aside, in general Catalonia has a milder climate and a lusher flora than its neighbouring regions. Historically, it has been and is an important maritime region, though subordinate to the Crown of Aragón when it was at the height of its influence. Nowadays, it is one of the more prosperous regions of Spain and has far greater influence in Spanish and European affairs than you would expect for its size or its population, a mere 7 million.|
|Visitors generally only see a part of the real Catalonia: a seaside area, a ski resort, a modern but historical city like Barcelona, or a nature reserve like the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park. There is nothing wrong with that, they are all good reasons to visit the region, but to get a grasp on what makes Catalonia tick, you need a larger perspective, and most of all you need an idea of the Catalan psyche. Catalans have the reputation of being hard-working and money-loving, not necessarily in that order, enterprising and inventive, and the most flattering thing you can say about a Catalan is that he has seny. An approximate translation of this noun could be “cleverness,” but the closest English words to seny I know are the North British nouse, which shares the Catalan sense of “getting things right,” or the adjective canny, particularly in its Northumbrian meaning, which includes the idea of anticipation.
Administration and Political Divisions. Catalonia borders Andorra and France to the north, the Mediterranean to the east, the Valencia region to the south and Aragón to the west. It is one of what are called the “historic” autonomous regions of Spain, together with the Basque Country and, to a lesser extent, Galicia — the term refers as much to the linguistic singularity of these regions as to their actual independence historically. Its government is the Generalitat, a word which includes both legislative (parliament) and executive (cabinet and president) branches. It covers four provinces: Gerona (Girona in Catalan), Lerida (or Lleida), Barcelona and Tarragona. These provinces are in turn divided into comarques, roughly the same as counties.
Geography. Because of its different geographical features and climatic influences, Catalonia is one one of the most varied regions in Spain. The Pyrenees dominate the north of the region, while the south of the region runs from mountainous to hilly to flat as a pancake, the Ebro Delta in the very south, one of the most important wetlands in Spain, and the fertile plain behind it being the most notable features. Girona is a rugged coastal province, where the influence of the Mediterranean on its climate and nature is evident (though it has its section of the Pyrenees for good measure). Lerida (Lleida in Catalan) is the only wholly inland province of Catalonia, its capital sitting on its very own plain (the Plana de Lleida), south of its Pyrenean foothills which rise up into the mountains proper, east of Andorra. Agriculturally prosperous Tarragona is the flattest, most southerly Catalan province, though the Central System runs into it from the west creating extremely rugged terrains. Barcelona, the most urban of the four provinces with a population of around five million (though less than a third of them live in the municipality of Barcelona itself) is extremely hilly rather than mountainous, but the sheer verticality of Montserrat Mountain is probably its most interesting point. All told, it would be difficult to find a region anywhere with scenery as varied as Catalonia’s. Fortunately, the Catalans are more aware of the value of this than others and the region has a whopping seven national parks and any number of protected areas of other kinds.
Music. The sardana is the Catalan national folk dance and music, though originally only from the north of the region. It is a circle dance, popular since at least the 16th century. Its music is bouncy, played at jolly andante tempo usually by a sardana band called a cobla (which apparently involves 11 musicians playing 12 instruments, don’t ask me to elaborate, I don’t know).
Correfocs. Firework processions with monstrous figures, particularly devils.
Castells. Castles, spectacular human towers. Six tiers is considered child’s play, nine is not uncommon. Competitions are held, and the real fun comes when they have to get down.
Language. Catalan and Spanish. Note that Spanish-speaking visitors need not learn the local language unless they want to (though the odd word will be much appreciated): practically all Catalans are bilingual. But Catalan-speakers are quite aggressive about it, and will slip back into Catalan at the first opportunity, cutting mere Castilian Spanish speakers out altogether. Is this rude or just a local custom? It is a custom, but so is spitting on the floor, in other words it is bloody rude (let’s be lenient, though: forty years of Francoist repression is enough to make anyone’s manners slip a little). In addition to Catalan, a language called Aranese is spoken in the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees. It is a variety of the Gascon dialect of Occitan, the language of the troubadours, and in spite of the tiny population of the Val d’Aran (7,000, by no means all of whom speak Aranese), it is an official language, unlike France which has far more Occitan speakers. You are extremely unlikely to hear it, but it’s nice to know, isn’t it?.
Eating and Drinking. Catalan cuisine does not have quite the same prestige as Basque cuisine, but it is gaining ground and top Catalan restaurants such as Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli are right up there with the best in the world. For obvious reasons, Catalan cuisine differs according to whether the area in question is near the sea or up in the mountains, but in general it is essentially Mediterranean, based on fresh vegetables, fish, poultry, olive oil, wine and wheat products – bread and pasta (beef and veal are less common than in Castile, at least traditionally). Butifarra is a Catalan cured pork sausage. Escalivada is sliced, barbecued peppers and aubergines. You will find ali-oli sauce everywhere in Spain, particularly in the form of patatas ali-oli, a budget traveller’s staple, but it is Catalan in origin: it is often erroneously called “garlic mayonnaise,” but should not in fact contain eggs. Pa amb tomàquet, also called pan tomaca, is lightly toasted bread, rubbed with fresh tomato and sprinkled with olive oil and salt and served with, for example, slices of cured ham. It has become popular everywhere in Spain, as indeed has the tosta, which is what it sounds like, a slice of toast, served like a mediaeval trencher underneath a prepared filling or a simple piece of meat and generally eaten with a knife and fork.
In terms of wine, Catalonia has five denominaciones de origen, including the champagne-method cava, and a number of other wine producing areas. The most notable D.O. is Penedés, which makes worthy reds and excellent, fruity white wines.
Getting There. Barcelona is indecently well connected, easyJet, for example, operating flights from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Paris Orly, Geneva, and Berlin. Girona is also easy to get to, and Ryanair runs flights to it from nine British and twelve continental European airports.