When thinking of a holiday to Spain, most of us instantly recall Barcelona. And while Barcelona is no doubt one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, it is just the tip of the iceberg to what the entire Catalonia region entails. I love Barcelona too, but there’s so much more.
Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain with a wealth of millenary history in case you thought it the same as the rest of Spain. With its own language and heritage, this Mediterranean destination has dry, warm summers followed by cool winters. Not overly scorching or freezing, the climate is perfect for tourists like myself whose bodies simply failed to evolve to deal with harshness.
Comprising of four provinces namely Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona, there are exciting scenes for all tourists ranging from gourmet hunters to festival-goers.
Catalonia is a prime haven for the wanderlust and after visiting these amazing spots, let me show you why there is so much more to explore beyond Barcelona.
Temps De Flors
Catalonia is full of picturesque festivals all year round, and Girona’s Flower Festival (Temps De Flors) is one not to be missed.
Temps De Flors happens every May, marking the end of Spring in the old town of Girona and the transition into summer time.
In case you’re wondering about the weird imagery, having a ‘flower in your butt‘ is a Catalan saying for being born lucky and having everything go smoothly in your life.
Some of the quirky legends of the town include kissing the butt of a lion statue which seals your eventual return back here.
During the festival, incredible floral art installations are scattered across the old town, where thousands of locals and tourists alike gather to admire.
While larger sets are in prominent spots, some of the floral displays are hidden in corners of the town, and even within houses where owners have volunteered their premises for display.
You’d really need to refer to the festival map to navigate around, and even though it’s bustling with people, the displays are nonetheless a sight of beauty.
From a world map made of flowers to a flower-filled bedroom, many of these installations also carry a social message of peace and love.
The vibrant and elaborate colours of the Flower Festival splashed throughout the city perfectly epitomises just how seriously Catalans take their love of festivals.
There are a ton of festivals happening every other month in Catalonia; isn’t it time you joined in?
Scenic Vineyards and Delicious Wines
Wine-lovers can rejoice in Catalonia, which has an amazing collection of award-winning wines from serene vineyards.
Many vineyards offer a variety of educational activities including wine production tours as well as bed and breakfast getaways.
The quaint Cellar La Vinyeta vineyard located in Girona is one such vineyard I had the chance to frolick around.
Owners Josep and Marta, are two young couples who set up the business in 2002 with just four hectares of old vines located in Mollet de Peralada, bought over from a retiring land-owner through a chance meeting.
Using these existing vine stocks, they developed the vineyard under guidance from the previous owner. They’ve also started developing their own balsamic vinegar from the grape harvests, and even have a chicken farm that mainly serves to produce eggs for sale.
Finishing the cellar in 2006, La Vinyeta has received numerous accolades and has earned the appreciation of many visitors within a few short years.
My personal favourite La Vinyeta wines were from the Heus series – the white is a blend made with grape varieties from the Emporda region: White Grenache, Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Muscat, standing out for its intense aromas and long-lasting persistence.
The Heus Red is another aromatic pick that has accompanied me back to Singapore for consumption on another special day.
Many visitors have been drawn to the winery’s intimate service, and you can also rent a comfy suite within La Vinyeta (around € 135 a night) along with a packaged tour including meals, where the hosts are sure to take care of your every wine needs.
Truly a rustic, country-side experience that stands out from the more urbanised cities like Barcelona.
The Home of Gastronomy
Catalonia has earned the title of European Region of Gastronomy (2016), being one of the most bio-diverse regions with a rich cuisine that reflects its landscape, products and history.
Gastronomy lovers can experience Catalan cuisine in various ways, and not just limited to the fine-dining table. Along with a huge number of Michelin-starred restaurants with many found in Girona, visitors can also check out food-making activities and visit the origins of their food.
Visit fishermen, cheese producers, oil mills and more than 300 wineries where you can get to know the lay of the land directly from farmers and producers.
Can Xifra restaurant is one such stone-house built in the style of the Catalan farmhouses, overlooking the vast farmlands and about 7KM away from Girona.
Dishes are based off the bounty of the area, including quality sausages and exquisite game meat such as stewed rabbit, roast peasant or snails.
What other typical foods should you try in Catalonia? Let me give you some quick picks:
Jamon Iberico, the world famous cured-ham, is a must-try from various regions of Catalonia for their intense, oily, savoury flavour.
Of course, the Spanish rice dish Paella is another key highlight which I sought to try as many of given my cursed love for rice as an Asian.
There are endless variations of Paella, some being made with squid ink and seafood while others are cooked with rabbit or escargot – the diverse flavours are what keeps Catalonian cuisine intriguing.
Let’s not forget other street food delights like the cinnamon and sugar-laced fried Churros – have it dipped in chocolate, or even filled with chocolate if you prefer.
Throughout Catalonia, centuries of culinary finesse developed by the climate and traditions serve up an experience that’s uniquely Catalan, perfect for curious travelling gourmands to satisfy their palates.
Quaint Catalan Towns And Medieval Castles
With a European heritage that spans a millennia, there are many towns in Catalonia featuring cascading architecture layered by history. Within the province of Girona itself, you can see a stark difference in architecture even within the same town.
Situated along the River Onyar, Girona’s city centre is known for its medieval buildings of the Old Quarter (Barri Vell) and the Força Vella fortress, which was actually built by the Romans in the first century B.C.
Found behind the iconic yellow houses along the river, landscaped gardens and viewing watchtowers line the Passeig Arqueològic walkway that transitions into the Old Quarter.
Pals Medieval Town
If you can’t get enough of archaic structures, the medieval village of Pals is yet another spot to go digging for.
Pals is one of the best preserved Gothic sites in Catalonia just a few kilometres from the sea on the Bay of Emporda, Costa Brava. There’s also a beach (Playa de Pals) nearby surrounded by rocky cliffs that tourists can head to.
Walk through cobbled streets interspersed with semicircular arches and stone balconies, just like living out a scene from the TV series, Game of Thrones.
The original town walls date back to the 4th century, and while many structures have been faithfully restored due to damage from the war and weather, the bricks still tell tales.
Had enough of gaudy old towns? Fast forward a couple centuries to the town of Cadaques.
Cadaques is a coastal town in Coasta Brava where Salvador Dali frequented as a child – he even kept a home nearby at Port Lligat.
This sleepy fishing port is a popular tourist destination during the summer, but the town’s population is only a couple thousand large every other day sans tourists.
Notably, Cadaques is only an hour’s drive away from the border of France, which you can pay a visit to if you so fancy.
It’s best to relax, have a beer and explore the narrow alleys of this fishing town.
Here’s a secret tip: You can even find Salvador Dali’s official photographer, Joan Vehi, in one of the discreet alleys within Cadaques. Displaying his wide collection of cameras and photographs, Joan Vehi spends his time in the shop talking to interested hobbyist and promoting his foundation to preserve the arts.
Ah, architecture is truly a thing of beauty in Spain.
Surreal Museums and Exhibitions
Catalonia exudes creativity from every aspect, with multiple museums and exhibitions scattered around the region. One of the compulsory visits is Salvador Dali’s Museum located in Figueres, Girona.
Enter a world beyond the average human being’s comprehension by visiting Dali’s Theatre-Museum.
Inaugurated in 1974, everything in the museum was conceived and designed by Salvador Dali, capturing a spectrum of his lifetime artistic journey.
From his early works including many self-portraits of himself and his lover Gala, to grander large scale installations, visitors get a glimpse into one of the most creative and complicated minds of the 19th century.
Reflecting Dali’s life philosophy as well as interests, visitors are left in constant awe when viewing his various works like this installation dedicated to American actress Mae West, which is composed from individual furniture representing her facial features all culminating into her facial semblance.
Antoni Gaudi is yet another maestro who is probably the best known Catalan modernism practitioner. With many buildings and works all over Spain, one of his most well-known buildings is Casa Batlló, also known as the ‘dragon house’ or the ‘house of skull and bones’.
Technically, Casa Batlló is located in Barcelona, but since you’d probably have to drop by Barcelona when flying in to visit the rest of Catalonia, you might as well swing by this architectural gem.
Most of the building’s elements are inspired by nature (including bones), with a keen sense of ergonomics built in; even the door handles are design in the most comfortable manner it can be held in.
The house’s façade and various interior colours were inspired by natural corals and the shimmering shades of blue from the ocean.
Using augmented reality, you can use the provided mobile app guide from Casa Batlló to learn more about the rooms as well as see imageries Gaudi had in mind when designing the place – trust me, my feeble mind made more sense once viewed and explained through the app.
The whole house is structurally functional, with working chimneys and rain traps worked out to the finest detail.
Providing an alternate contrast to the temple-like Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló is an emblem of original imagination that compels a visit.
Direct Flights to Barcelona from Singapore
I hope I’ve sufficiently enticed you to visit the Catalonian region of Spain. Of course, to get to other Catalonian provinces, you’d best fly into its capital Barcelona first.
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, direct flights between Asia and the Catalan capital have improved convenience for all.
What’s the best method from Singapore, then? Singapore Airlines, of course.
Singapore Airlines now operates a direct flight from Singapore to Barcelona, without a need for a stopover like it used to – easily explore the beautiful cities of Catalonia with two non-stop flights per week aboard their state-of-the-art A350 planes.
What are you waiting for? Sample a slice of Catalonian history now.