About six million people live in Catalonia, and twice that many visit every year, flocking to the beaches along the Catalan costas (coasts), the area of Spain that practically invented package tourism. Though some areas -- such as Lloret de Mar -- have become overdeveloped, there are many unspoiled little seaside spots to be found.
Three of the most attractive resorts are on the Costa Brava (Rugged Coast), 100km (60 miles) north of Barcelona: The southerly town of Tossa de Mar, with its walled Ciutat Vella; the idyllic coastal village of Calella de Palafrugell; and the northerly whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, up near the French border.
Inland from the latter lies Figueres, low-key capital of Girona province's northerly Alt Empordà region, birthplace of the father of surrealism, Salvador Dalí, and home to his eccentric museum, which enthralls everyone from art lovers to the downright curious. The capital of the whole province, including the lower Baix Empordà region, is Girona, an ancient town steeped in history, with a magnificent Old Quarter and cathedral.
South of Barcelona, along the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast), the beaches are wide and sandy. Sitges, a fine resort town that has a huge gay following, and Tarragona, the UNESCO-classified capital of the region, are the two destinations to visit here, the latter for its concentration of Roman vestiges and architecture.
Away from the coast, amid attractive wooded hills and fertile valleys at the meeting point of Tarragona and Lleida provinces, is a fine trio of small Cistercian monasteries -- Poblet, Santes Creus, and Vallbona de les Monges -- all dating from the 12th century.
These are eclipsed, however, by the greatest monastery of them all: Montserrat.
Thousands flock to this mountainside monastery each year to see and touch the medieval statue of La Moreneta (the Black Virgin). Many newly married Catalan couples come here for her blessing on their honeymoon, and many name their daughters “Montserrat” (“Montse” for short). If you want to meet Catalans, visit on Sunday, especially when the weather is nice; for smaller crowds, visit on a weekday. The winds blow cold on the mountain, even during summer, so bring a sweater or jacket.
The best way to get to Montserrat is via the Catalunyan railway, Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC; R5-Manresa; www.fgc.es; tel. 93-237-71-56), with 12 trains a day leaving from the Plaça d’Espanya in Barcelona. The R5 line connects with an aerial cableway (Aeri de Montserrat), which is included in the fare of 35.30€ round-trip. An excellent alternative to the Aeri (especially when windy weather grounds the cable car) is the Cremallera de Montserrat, a 15-minute funicular ride from the village below the mountain. You get off the train one stop sooner at Olesa de Montserrat, and transfer to the funicular. The fare is also 35.30€ round-trip. Either combination ticket can be purchased at any FGC train station. Alternatively, a Tot Montserrat package, which includes the train and choice of cable car or funicular, admission to the museum and the new interactive audiovisual gallery, and a self-service lunch is sold online (http://barcelonaturisme.cat) and in the brick-and-mortar stores of Turisme de Barcelona.
The tourist office, Plaça de la Creu (www.montserratvisita.com; tel. 93-877-77-77), is open daily from 10am to 5:45pm.
You can see Montserrat’s jagged peaks from all over eastern Catalunya; the almost otherworldly serrated ridgeline is a symbol of Catalan identity. As a buffer state between Christian France and often Islamic Spain, medieval Catalunya espoused a fierce and intense Christian faith that reached its apogee in the cult of the Virgin of Montserrat, one of the legendary “dark” virgins of Iberian Catholicism. A polychrome carving of the Virgin and Child (in Catalan, Maria del Deu) was discovered in a grotto on the mountainside in the 12th century, and many miracles have been ascribed to the figure.
The Basilica de Montserrat and a Benedictine monastery have grown up on the site. Most believers are less interested in the glories of the basilica than in getting close to the statue. To view La Moreneta, enter the church through a side door to the right. The meter-high carving is mounted in a silver altar in a chapel high above the main altar. You will be in a long line of people who parade past the statue, which is mostly encased in bulletproof acrylic to protect it from vandalism. The casing has a cutout that lets the faithful kiss her extended hand. If you are around at 1pm daily, you can hear the Escolanía, a renowned boys’ choir established in the 13th century, singing “Salve Regina” and the “Virolai” (hymn of Montserrat). The basilica is open daily from 8 to 10:30am and noon to 6:30pm. Admission is free.
At Plaça de Santa María, you can also visit the Museu de Montserrat (www.museudemontserrat.com; tel. 93-877-77-77), a repository of art donated by the faithful over the years. Many of the works are religious subjects, some by major artists like Caravaggio and El Greco, but others are purely secular pieces, including an early Picasso (“El Viejo Pescador” from 1895) and some lovely Impressionist works by Monet, Sisley, and Degas. The museum is open daily 10am to 5:45pm, or 10am to 6:45 weekends, feast days, and in summer; admission costs 7€ adults, 6€ seniors and students, 4€ ages 8 to 16.
You can also make an excursion to Santa Cova (Holy Grotto), the purported site of the discovery of La Moreneta. The natural grotto was reworked in the 17th century, and a small church in the shape of a cross was built here. You go halfway by funicular but must complete the trip on foot. In 2013, the monastery and the Catalunya government transformed the church into a gallery with a permanent exhibition of religious art. The grotto is open daily 10am to 1pm and 4 to 7pm. Round-trip fare is 4€.
If waiting in line to see holy relics isn’t your thing, you might just enjoy a day of hiking in the spectacular scenery that surrounds this special site while your family shops the Disney-like souvenir shops of Montserrat.
Sant Sadurní d’Anoia
Plenty of terrific wine is made in the countryside around Barcelona, but only Sant Sadurnì d’Anoia is easily visited on public transportation—a must if you’re planning to taste a number of the sparkling wines (cava) for which the village is famous. More than 40 winemakers in the village open their cellars for tastings.
The easiest way to get to Sant Sadurní is to take an R4 train from Plaça de Catalunya or Barcelona-Sants station in the direction of Sant Vicenç de Calders. Trains run about every half-hour from 5:30am until 11:15pm, and the journey takes 45 to 50 minutes. The fare is 4.20€ each way.
The tourist office at Carrer del Hosital, 26 (www.turismesantsadurni.cat; tel. 93-891-31-88), is open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 2pm.
Exploring Sant Sadurní D’Anoia
Thick-walled 19th-century cava cellars fill the town, but you should make your first stop the new Centre d’Interpretació del Cava (Carrer de l’Hospital, 23; www.santsadurni.cat/turisme; tel. 93-891-31-88). Located inside an old distillery, it mixes old-fashioned and high-tech exhibits to introduce visitors to the history of cava, the grapes used to make it, and the entire production process. You can even hold a (dead) phylloxera louse, just to drive home the history of cava. (When phylloxera struck the vineyards of champagne, the makers there desperately sought new territory, thus giving birth to the Catalan cava industry.) The center charges 6€.
Staff at the tourist office inside the center (admission free) can help you plan your excursion in Sant Sadurní, including making calls to cava operations that require reservations. Cellars that are open for visits and tastes (usually for a token fee or no charge) are listed on the interpretation center’s website. Sometimes a paper printout is available, but don’t count on it. Some small cellars make a few hundred cases of cava; some are bigger—much bigger. Note that many cellars close on Friday and Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. Just walking around the village and stopping at some of the tiny operations with open doors by their loading docks can be a lot of fun. Two of the larger producers that put the town on the map offer excellent overviews of the traditional champagne process.
At the edge of town, the massive Freixenet (Carrer Joan Sala, 2; www.freixenet.es; tel. 93-891-70-96) pioneered U.S. distribution of cava as a less expensive alternative to champagne. Since the winery gets large groups, much of the tour is via video and includes a heavy dose of marketing, complemented by a quick trip into the deep cellars to see aging bottles and—finally—a tasting. The entire tour takes about 90 minutes and should be reserved in advance. The basic tour costs 15€ for adults, 10€ for ages 9 to 17, and is free for ages 8 and younger. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday 9:30am to 4pm and Sunday 10am to 1pm. Reserve tours by phone, or on their website.
The other giant of Sant Sadurní cava production, Codorníu (Avinguda Jaume Codorníu, s/n; www.codorniu.es, tel. 93-891-33-42) is worth visiting to see the so-called “Cathedral of Cava,” the winemaking and storage facility built 1895 to 1915 and designed by Modernista architect Josep Puig i Cadalfach. If you know Codorníu from its entry-level cava, the tasting will open your eyes (and palate) to some extraordinary high-end selections. Several options are offered, from a standard tour and tasting to extended tastings or even a tapas lunch. The basic tour starts at 16€; times vary; book ahead. A variety of other tours, including one focusing on architecture, are available. Reserve by phone or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vilafranca del Penedés, which is the center of cava country, also has a wine center in its old town, Vinseum on Plaça Jaume I, 5 (www.vinseum.cat; tel. 93-890-05-82). Summer hours are daily 10am to 7pm; the rest of the year it’s open 10am to 2pm and 4 to 7pm (closed Mon). Admission is 7€ adults, seniors and students 4€; it includes a wine tasting.
For a more personal experience, if you have a car and an extra day to explore wine country, there are other charming wineries to visit that excel in organic wines. In Sant Pau d’Ordal the lovely winery Albet i Noya (www.albetinoya.cat; tel. 93-899-48-12) is open Monday to Friday 9am to 1:30pm and 3 to 6pm, weekends and holidays 10am to 2:30pm. Book a tour of their cellars and grounds for 13€.
Or try or the organic (“bio-dynamic”) vineyard of Parés Balta in Pacs del Penedés (www.paresbalta.com; tel. 93-890-13-99) for their variety of cavas and still wine. You can book a delicious wine pairing here. It’s open daily, except for some bank holidays, from 9:30am to 6:30pm. A basic tour costs 15€ and includes four wine tastings. For a special wine country experience, consider their special 4x4 tour that goes through their terroir and lasts 4 hours, including a sommelier tasting for 66€ or a gourmet tasting for 77€.
A larger and more established winery that is more about still wines (also they do produce cava) is the Familia Torres just outside Vilafranca, where you can book a winery tour, or enjoy delicious pairings of wine and food. Reserve on line at www.torres.es or call tel. 93-817-74-00. Tours cost 12€ and include a tasting of two wines.
If you’re making a long day of it, put one of these two special restaurants on your itinerary. It’s not pretty, but the local food is first-rate at Cal Xim in Sant Pau d’Ordal (Plaça Subirats, 4; tel. 93-899-30-92). You will have a view of the vineyards at the elegant dining room of Cava and Hotel Mastinell restaurant (www.hotelmastinell.com; tel. 93-115-6-1-32), located near the town of Vilafranca del Penedés inside a bizarre structure built to resemble a wine rack. Its 22€ prix-fixe lunch Tuesday to Friday is a good deal; from Tuesday through Thursday, dinners are the same price, which includes all the wine you can drink. Bon profit!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.