Captivating Catalonia


"Motor through the Pyrenees?" I asked incredulously.

"Come now," I told my determined friend, "those roads up the mountains must be rather tricky. I think not."

Fast forward … and there, in a minibus with seven other hardy souls, I experienced a spectacular, though curvelinear, visit to one of the most beautiful vistas in Europe.

Catalonia, in the northeast corner of Spain, borders France and the Mediterranean. Roughly the shape of a triangle and the size of Holland, it is a fascinating region of varied geographical landscapes.

Below snowy peaks and glacial lakes of the Pyrenees in the north, the landscape is green and thickly timbered. The coast above Barcelona known as the Costa Brava is rocky, yet the shore below the city, the Costa Dorada, derives its name from its golden sandy beaches.

While Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, to the Catalans, Catalonia is a country – with its own language, it own national customs and, in rural areas, its own festivals. Truth be told, it feels like it bears little resemblance to Spain.

Because Catalonia is cut off by mountains from the rest of Spain, the region feels an association with southern France.

Interest in Romanesque art in Catalonia has caused a flurry of tourism to this proudly independent province in Spain.

Catalonia has some 1,900 Romanesque churches; about 200 castles and fortified houses with Romanesque features; a few renovated manor houses and city mansions; sculptures and altar decorations.

In the churches and monasteries from the ninth and 10th centuries, the traveler finds the genius, imagination, innocence and wisdom that a group of anonymous artists bequeathed to posterity.

Catalonia is divided into four provinces: Barcelona, Tarragona, Lerida and Gerona. The diversity of Catalonia gives the region its distinctive character – the result partly of geography, partly of race and partly of history.

Wild and thinly settled areas are situated alongside densely populated fertile valleys with gardens, olive groves and vineyards. This mountainous region has become Spain's economic heart, the most densely populated and progressive part of the country.

It is also the most prosperous area due almost solely to the vigor of its efficient, hard-working people.

Most visitors to Spain are unaware of the traditional and intriguing Catalan life that is inland in villages and mountain towns just waiting to be discovered.

The boundaries among the four provinces are mostly administrative; what little rivalry exists is usually good-natured, although each county within a province produces its own tourist information, town fairs and local celebrations. Literally thousands of villages and towns exist in Catalonia, some with as few as two families living in them.

Romanesque art was the first great style to be shared by the whole of Western Europe. This style of art lasted well into the 13th century.

In Tarragona, one eagerly awaited event each year is the building of castells des ziquets (human towers) with as many as six men standing on each other's shoulders. There is also the festival of Corpus Christi, which features masked giants and capgrosso (clowns with giant heads) who entertain the crowds as they dance the traditional sardana to the sounds of las coblas (traditional bands).

Music also plays an important part in the life of Catalonia; there is not the Moorish wailing of flamenco as in the south of Spain, but more European folk songs with a strong Spanish flavor.

Pablo Casals (1876-1973), Catalonia's most famous musical son, refused to live in Spain while Francisco Franco was in power and chose to make his home in Prades, in the French foothills of the Pyrenees. Other creative stars who have brought fame to Catalonia are painters Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.

The weather in Spain, which is near perfection almost every day of the year, brings people out for strolls into the streets from morning to dusk, which is after 10 at night.

Motoring in Spain proves to be a rewarding experience, but remember to have a full tank when starting out, as it can be quite far between gas stations in the countryside.

For more information, call the Tourist Office of Spain, 35th floor, 666 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10103; or call 212-265-8822.



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