Sunday could be a momentous day for Catalonia – and for once it will have nothing to do with the left foot of Barcelona striker Lionel Messi. The ever-restless Catalans are going to the polls in regional elections that pro-secessionists have billed as a vote on independence from Spain.
Its 7½ million people are famously proud – arrogant is how people from elsewhere in Spain often describe them – but they have much to be proud of. Barcelona hogs the limelight, of course, but outside the capital the sheer variety of alluring places to visit – from mountains to coast, lively cities to dozing villages, is staggering.
Even Lleida city’s mum probably wouldn’t say it is the most charming place, but it is home to one of Spain’s standout buildings, La Seu Vella. This 13th-century hilltop cathedral with its majestic tower dominates the skyline and has a vast, breathtakingly beautiful cloister. An hour’s drive to the north-east, the little town of Solsona has a wonderful tangle of medieval streets and the air of a place that knows its luck’s in. The hills around here (see turismesolsones.com) and south towards the lovely old town of Cervera make for great walking. The tower of Vallferosa on the GR170 is particularly worth seeking out. Even the tiniest village in these parts has its own castle; a prime example is Montfalcó Murallat. Fans of modernisme can get their fix near Solsona, at the extraordinary cemetery of Sant Esteve in Olius, with its Gaudíesque parabolic arches.
Further west is the spectacular Mont-rebei gorge, with a narrow footpath cut into the face of a cliff hundreds of metres above the Noguera Ribagorçana river. There’s no handrail, and it’s terrifying – and unmissable.
Heading north into the Pyrenees brings an array of marvellous places. My favourite is absurdly pretty Vall de Boí, where the villages often boast 12th-century Romanesque churches. Many of their frescoes have been moved to Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, but an ambitious scheme to recreate their effect has just been completed at the church of Sant Climent in Taüll. I sat in darkness, and in awe, as its original frescoes were digitally projected, brushstroke by brushstroke, on to the walls. At the northern end of the valley is Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes, with forests, lakes and peaks crying out to be hiked.
Where to eat
In Lleida, Zeke (tapas from €4, Avenida Prat de la Riba 42, no reservations) has some of the most innovative tapas outside Barcelona and is a rare find in a very conservative city. In Solsona, La Gatera (Plaça Sant Pere 3, +34 973 48 15 07) is a real locals’ favourite, with tasty meals for a few euros. Or go trad with snails and pig’s trotters at Restaurant Mare de la Font (around €20pp, Carretera de Bassella, +34 973 483967) in a pretty woodland setting just outside town. In Cervera, the eco-friendly L’Antic Forn restaurant (Plaça Major 18, +34 973 533152) has a very good menú del diá (set lunch) for €13. The hearty mountain fare on the menu at La Cabana in Boí village (set meal €17, Carretera de Taüll, +34 973 696213) hits the spot after a trek or a hard day’s church-hopping.
Where to sleep
No offence to Lleida city, but it’s probably not worth an overnight stop. In Solsona, Hotel La Freixera (doubles from €99 B&B), in a 14th-century building, is lovely; a little less lovely, but great value and almost as central, is Hotel Solsona Centre (doubles from €53 room-only). In Senterada, charming Casa Leonardo (doubles from €74 B&B, dinner €15pp) is the perfect base for heading south to the Mont-rebei gorge or north into the Pyrenees.
Another good thing about Lleida is the road out of town. The drive south follows the Ebro river, Spain’s second-longest, through marvellous scenery to the endless rice fields of the Ebro delta. Day-tripper Barcelonians squeeze into a few beachside spots at weekends and eat bad paella made out of good local ingredients. A better bet is to rent a bicycle (around €10 a day from Hostal Cling 43 in Deltebre, see below) and explore the dusty tracks of the Parc Natural del Delta de l’Ebre, spotting herons, marsh harriers and flamingoes. Pack a sandwich from Hostal El Faro (see below).
Penedès, west of Barcelona, may be Catalonia’s biggest wine-growing area, but Tarragona’s wineries concentrate on quality. El Priorat is a 50km sliver of land north-west of the city, and produces some of the world’s best red wines. Its capital, Falset, is an attractive little town with a modernista winery designed by Cèsar Martinell, who worked with Antoni Gaudí on the Sagrada Familia. Many wine estates offer visits: try Costers del Siurana (+34 977 839276) in the village of Gratallops.
Tarragona was a major Roman city when Barcelona was a provincial backwater but there has been a dramatic change in the cities’ fortunes since, something not even Ryanair flights to nearby Reus could reverse. That means, though, that Tarragona’s magnificent ruins, which include an amphitheatre and a well-preserved Roman circus, don’t get the number of visitors they deserve. Add a delightful old town and a tremendous cathedral and Barcelona’s thronging Ramblas looks, well, less fun.
Tarragona is fascinating, but it doesn’t do barbecued giant spring onions. For that, a 20km a detour north to Valls is essential. But only if it’s late January, when this mildly interesting town is consumed by a passion for the calçot. Hundreds of thousands are wolfed down during its annual festival (festadelacalsotada.com).
Where to eat
Mas de Prades (set menu €18, +34 977 059084) is a farmhouse on the edge of Deltebre – away from the day-trip madness – that serves local specialities such as eel. Hostal El Faro (Avinguda de les Goles de l’Ebre 357, +34 977 480229) in the centre of Deltebre does delicious sandwiches for a few euros to fuel a bike ride. Degvsta (set menu €16.50, Carrer dels Cavallers 6, +34 977 252428) in a splendid modernisme townhouse in Tarragona does a modern take on Catalan classics such as duck confit. There’s a genuine passion for locally sourced ingredients at El Celler de l’Àspic (three course dinner around €30, Carrer de Miquel Barceló 31, +34 977 831246) in Falset.
Where to sleep
Masia Tinet (doubles from €60 B&B) is a pretty former farmhouse with garden, but sits on a rather nondescript road at the edge of Deltebre. My pick would be new, friendly Hostal Cling 43 (doubles from €50 B&B) which is in the centre of town and can arrange bike and kayak hire. Boutiquey Cal Llop (doubles from €90 B&B) is a superbly renovated medieval mansion in Gratallops. The owners can arrange winery visits and its bar stocks the superstar local wines. In Tarragona, hotel Plaça de la Font (doubles from €55 room-only) is on a square in the old town and its terrace is a fine place for an evening drink.
Who needs Barcelona? The northern city of Girona has history, a fascinating old quarter, interesting food, and no marauding gangs of stags and hens. Its cathedral sits high over the city and is worth the climb for its spectacular 22-metre-wide single nave – only St Peter’s in Rome is wider. The tiny streets and vaulted passageways of the Barri Vell, opening into little squares with bars, are ideal for an aimless stroll and there are plenty of museums for a cultural fix. In the 13th century, the city was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Spain and this history is explored at the Museu d’Història dels Jueus (€4). The atmospheric Banys Àrabs (€2) is the best-preserved Moorish bath complex in Catalonia.
Girona province has by far the finest coastline in Catalonia, the Costa Brava, stretching for more than 100 miles to the French border. There are so many wonderful places – the ports of Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Palamós, Roman ruins at Empúries, stunning coves near Cap de Begur – that it’s hard to pick one, but my favourite is the town of Cadaqués. It’s surrounded by high cliffs and its little whitewashed houses cluster around the port.
There are fabulous walks along the coast from here to the tiny village of Portlligat. Salvador Dalí had a house here (€11, book in advance, salvador-dali.org) and was inspired/driven slightly loco by the pure light and fantastic rock formations. Footpaths carry on north-east to dramatic and undeveloped Cap de Creus, or the coast can be explored from the water on a half-day guided trip with Kayaking Costa Brava (€45pp).
Catalonia, a land of volcanoes, who would have guessed? North-west of Girona lies La Garrotxa, a parc natural dotted with around 30 dormant cones. The area around the medieval village of Santa Pau (its white beans, fesols, are famous for no apparent reason) makes for scenic walks, including into the crater of Volcà de Santa Margarida, the largest in La Garrotxa, with a picture-perfect chapel at the bottom. There are loads more walking routes around Sant Feliu de Pallerols further south. If that all sounds too strenuous, hot-air balloon rides (€140pp, en.turismegarrotxa.com) over the craters are popular. The walled town of Besalú, with its 11th-century dog-legged fortified bridge, makes a good base for exploring the area.
Where to eat
El Bullí may be closed and El Celler de Can Roca (currently top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) is booked solid/too expensive, but anyone visiting these parts who is interested in food benefits from their massive influence. In Girona, Nu (Carrer de Abeuradors 4, +34 972 225230) has an innovative €54 tasting menu with an Asian twist that is worth the blowout.
El Bullí alumni (they are everywhere) run Compartir in Cadaqués (meal around €50pp, Riera Sant Vicenç, +34 972 258482) and they deserve all their plaudits, but I also like the healthy, simple food at Can Tito (set menu €15, Carrer Vigilant 8, +34 972 259070) just off the waterfront. There are only a handful of tables at Amb els 5 sentits in Besalú (€11.40 for five courses, Carrer Abat Zafont 8, +34 633 633390) and there’s no choice. You just sit down and eat delicious food.
Where to sleep
Bells Oficis (doubles from €40/€85 B&B with shared/private bathroom) is a characterful B&B in Girona just a few minutes’ walk from the main sights. Hotel Port Lligat (doubles from €70 room-only) is remarkably good value bearing in mind its prime spot just metres from the beach. You may never manage to drag yourself away from the view from your room’s balcony. In Besalú, Hotel 3 Arcs (doubles from €70 B&B) is right in the centre of town in a beautifully renovated building.
• There are several budget airlines that fly from the UK to Barcelona, Girona and Reus airports