A tight huddle of ancient arcaded houses, grand churches, climbing cobbled streets and medieval baths, and Catalonia’s most extensive and best-preserved Call (medieval Jewish quarter), all enclosed by defensive walls and the lazy Río Onyar, constitute powerful reasons for visiting northern Catalonia’s largest city, Girona.
Away from the beaches and mountains are a host of little-visited gems splashed across the Catalan hinterland. About halfway between Barcelona and the Pyrenees lies the graceful town of Vic, with its grand Plaça Major. Northwest of the capital you can strike out for Montserrat, with its mountain shrine, or Cardona, with its windy castle complex en route to Lleida.
Just 35km along the coast from Barcelona, this lovely fishing-village-turned-pumping-beach-resort town has been a favourite with upper-class Catalans since the late-19th century, as well as a key location for the burgeoning Modernisme movement which paved the way for the likes of Picasso.
Cerdanya, along with French Cerdagne across the border, occupies a low-lying green basin between the higher reaches of the Pyrenees to the east and west. Although Cerdanya and Cerdagne, once a single Catalan county, were divided by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, Catalan is spoken on both sides of the border and Spain flows seamlessly into France.
Parc Nacional d'Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici & Around
Catalonia’s only national park extends 20km east to west, and only 9km from north to south. But the rugged terrain within this small area positively sparkles with more than 400 lakes and countless streams and waterfalls, combined with a backdrop of pine and fir forests, and open bush and grassland, bedecked with wildflowers in spring, to create a wilderness of rare splendour.
Montserrat, 50km northwest of Barcelona, is a spectacular 1236m-high mountain of strangely rounded rock pillars, shaped by wind, rain and frost. With the historic Benedictine Monestir de Montserrat, one of Catalonia’s most important shrines, cradled at 725m on its side, it’s the most popular outing from Barcelona.
Penedès Wine Country
Some of Spain’s finest wines come from the Penedès plains southwest of Barcelona. Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, located about a half-hour train ride west of Barcelona, is the capital of cava, a sparkling, champagne-style wine popular worldwide, and drunk in quantity in Spain over Christmas.