Want to see the real Catalonia? So look beyond Barcelona | Holidays in Catalonia
OIn a narrow, hushed street adorned with wrought-iron balconies in the small Catalan town of Solsona, local guide Ivan Viladrich has just pushed open the sober wooden door of an 18th-century building. Hidden inside are two pairs of intricately carved objects Giants (giants of Catalan dance) whose history dates back to the end of the 17th century. In the next room, there is a 330-year-old wooden dragon (the Drac de Solsona), weighing almost 100 kg, surrounded by all kinds of other mythological animal figures. They have all just been whirled around and paraded around the city during the Festa Major, which is held every September in Solsona.
“Solsona may not have big sights like Barcelona, but it does have many small points of interest, especially the old town with its fascinating architecture and its cathedral of Romanesque origin,” says Ivan, who runs tours here with Solsona Experience since 2016. He explains how the city’s cultural heritage is one of its main tourist attractions, before highlighting the gurgling Gothic fountains, steeply sloping squares, curiously carved wooden beams and the market weekly as we stroll through the cobblestone center.
Solsona, capital of the county of Solsonès, which lies between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, is one of the many lesser-known regional stages of the brand new Grand Tour de Catalunya, a project designed by the Catalan tourist office. Covering 2,200 km, the Grand Tour aims to decentralize the region’s tourism industry focused on Barcelona, encourage visitors to explore during quieter seasons, and highlight its cultural, natural and gastronomic diversity.
As the pandemic approached, Barcelona’s fight against overtourism was reaching a critical point. Local efforts to address this already included cracking down on illegal tourist apartments, banning new hotels in the city center, and special preservation status for 220 traditional stores and 11 iconic bars at risk of being driven out by rising rents. . In 2019, the capital of Catalonia (population: 1.6 million) hosted around 32 million tourists – and only 13.9 million of them stayed a night or more (still a record number). There were also growing concerns about irresponsible tourism (especially boat parties) damaging the fragile natural environment of the Costa Brava. Then everything suddenly stopped.
Now, as tourism begins to return (Barcelona welcomed 1.9 million overnight visitors this summer, while the Costa Brava has returned to pre-pandemic levels), Catalan authorities want to continue going into a more sustainable direction and tackling overtourism, with plans also recently unveiled. to transform the invaded Rambla of Barcelona into an immersive artistic center.
“Before the pandemic, around 90% of international tourists in Catalonia headed for Barcelona, the Costa Brava and / or the Costa Daurada, and only 10% explored the interior,” explains Aicard Guinovart, director of the Catalan Tourist Office in the UK, breakfast at the 1882 Barcelona 1882 hotel. “If visitors keen to see Montserrat, for example, stay a few nights exploring nearby Solsona and Cardona (rather than taking a day trip) from Barcelona), the cultural and economic benefits of tourism will be felt more widely in this central region of Catalonia. This kind of longer and more in-depth journey is what people are looking for as they emerge from the pandemic. “
The Grand Tour circles Catalonia and is divided into five main sections, focusing on responsible tourism, small businesses, and local culture and traditions. If you want to tackle the whole trip, it will take you at least two weeks, but it can also be cut or built around a particular theme (gastronomy, the outdoors, galleries). Soon will follow guides to electric vehicles (with mapped charging points and recommended car rental collaborators), advice on sustainable accommodation and options for taking advantage of the various routes entirely by public transport.
Topping my list among the less visited corners of Catalonia is the isolated, rice-growing Ebro Delta, which lies about 80 km southwest of Tarragona and borders the region of Valencia to the south. At the mouth of Spain’s second longest river, streams ripple through electric green rice paddies, windswept Mediterranean dunes and marshes where flamingos splash around.
Much of this area has been protected natural Park since 1983. I have stayed in peaceful rural hotels here, wandered alone along wild beaches of golden sand, hopped on a boat to the Balearic Sea and devoured paellas in casual restaurants by the river. You can also cruise to a floating mussel farm for lunch, cycle and hike through the fields, try kitesurfing and kayaking or rock climbing, spot some of the Delta’s 330 bird species (especially during the fall migration season) and even join a local family to learn about rice farming.
In the Pyrenees, on the border with Aragon and France, the remote Val d’Aran of the province of Lleida is another surprise. Until the late 1940s, when a tunnel was dug in the mountains south of the town of Vielha, it was not even possible to get there by road from the rest of Spain. While the region’s high-end ski resorts now buzz in the winter, there is much more to enjoy throughout the year, including elevated hikes, a plethora of adventure activities, unobstructed views over the mountains, bubbling hot springs, French-influenced restaurants and charming stone villages filled with geraniums, like Arties, Bagergue and Salardú.
Heading south you will reach the magnificent Vall de Boí of the Pyrenees, in which I have fond memories of having stumbled after hiking over 20 km from the not-so-nearby town of Espot. This mountain pocket reveals some of the most important Catalan Romanesque churches still standing – slender, multi-storey, Unesco-listed creations dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, whose interiors were originally filled with rich religious art ( most are now in the Museu Nacional de Barcelona d’Art de Catalunya). The small stone villages here – Taüll, Boí, Erill la Vall – are some of the most striking in northern Catalonia.
The Boí Valley is located at the western end of Aigüestortes, the only national park in Catalonia. Hiking trails crisscross this high mountain wonderland dotted with pine forests, isolated refuges (mountain refuges) and sparkling lakes. And if you swap the peak summer season for fall, you might have them all to yourself.
Elsewhere you can stroll through the less touristy Catalan vineyards of the neighboring wine regions of Priorat and Montsant in Tarragona and the increasingly respected AOC Costers del Segre (Denominació d’Origen) of Lleida; soak up the locally popular beaches and modernist the architecture along the Costa Maresme just north of Barcelona; go on a multi-day hike or go climbing in the remote Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park, between Cerdanya and Seu d’Urgell; and much more.
As we head south from Solsona, past the imposing 9th century castle of Cardona, towards glitzy Sitges on the Costa del Garraf for the last night of my trip, I catch a glimpse of the foothills of the Pyrenees looming in the distance and I instantly start planning my next adventure around Catalonia. The only problem is that I am spoiled for choice.
The trip was supported by the Catalan Tourist Office; for more information see catalunya.com and grandtour.catalunya.com
A great tour: five ways to see Catalonia
Hit the coast
From riverboat cruises to thrilling water sports, the Ebro Delta in southwest Catalonia is packed with outdoor fun and back-to-nature beaches. The frescoed Hostal Cling 43 (doubles from € 68) makes a great base in Deltebre.
Work all ambles
Hikers can get away from it all in the Vall de Boí and the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes (the one-day Espot-Boí trail runs through the entire park). The spectacular Catalan Romanesque churches alone are worth a visit. Stay at the rustic and modern Hostal La Plaça, opposite the Church of Erill La Vall (double from € 63).
El Solsonès, in central Catalonia, is known for its Romanesque and Baroque architecture, including Solsona Cathedral. Solsona Experience offers excellent guided tours and you can sleep in a Modernist mansion at the Hotel Sant Roc (double from 96 €)
Going up and down the slopes
Winter skiing, peaceful villages and hiking in the region’s only national park are among the attractions of Val d’Aran, the adventure-loving Pyrenees valley. Casa Irene (double from € 120) is an elegant spa hotel with wooden beams in the pretty town of Arties.
Taste a drop
If you want to immerse yourself in Catalan wines in a slightly quieter setting, head to the prestigious wine-growing hills of Priorat west of Tarragona, where Lotus Priorat (double from € 80) is a charming place to stay.