About six million people live in Catalonia, and twice that many visit every year, flocking to the beaches along the Catalan costas (coasts), the area of Spain that practically invented package tourism. Though some areas -- such as Lloret de Mar -- have become overdeveloped, there are many unspoiled little seaside spots to be found.
Three of the most attractive resorts are on the Costa Brava (Rugged Coast), 100km (60 miles) north of Barcelona: The southerly town of Tossa de Mar, with its walled Ciutat Vella; the idyllic coastal village of Calella de Palafrugell; and the northerly whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués, up near the French border.
Inland from the latter lies Figueres, low-key capital of Girona province's northerly Alt Empordà region, birthplace of the father of surrealism, Salvador Dalí, and home to his eccentric museum, which enthralls everyone from art lovers to the downright curious. The capital of the whole province, including the lower Baix Empordà region, is Girona, an ancient town steeped in history, with a magnificent Old Quarter and cathedral.
South of Barcelona, along the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast), the beaches are wide and sandy. Sitges, a fine resort town that has a huge gay following, and Tarragona, the UNESCO-classified capital of the region, are the two destinations to visit here, the latter for its concentration of Roman vestiges and architecture.
Away from the coast, amid attractive wooded hills and fertile valleys at the meeting point of Tarragona and Lleida provinces, is a fine trio of small Cistercian monasteries -- Poblet, Santes Creus, and Vallbona de les Monges -- all dating from the 12th century.
These are eclipsed, however, by the greatest monastery of them all: Montserrat, a hugely popular day excursion to the northwest of Barcelona. The serrated outline made by the sierra's steep cliffs led the Catalonians to call it montserrat (saw-toothed mountain). Today this Benedictine sanctuary remains the religious center of Catalonia, and thousands of pilgrims annually visit the monastery complex to see its Black Virgin.Due northeast of Barcelona, the atmospheric Romanesque towns of Vich, Ripoll, and Camprodón -- each one more charmingly compact as you approach the Pyrénées -- are well worth an off-the-beaten-track tour.
Sant Sadurní d'Anoia ★
Plenty of terrific wine is made in the countryside around Barcelona, but only Sant Sadurnì d'Anoia is easily visited on public transportation—a must if you're planning to taste a number of the sparkling wines (cava) for which the village is famous. The easiest way to get to Sant Sadurní is to take an R4 train from Plaça de Catalunya or Barcelona-Sants station in the direction of Sant Vicenç de Calders. Trains run about every half-hour from 5:30am until 11:15pm and the journey take 45-50 minutes. The fare is 4.30€ each way. The tourist office at Carrer de l'Hospital, 26 (tel. 93-891-31-88; www.turismesantsadurni.cat), is open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 2pm.
Thick-walled 19th-century cava cellars fill the town, but you should make your first stop the new Centre d'Interpretació del Cava ★ (Carrer de l'Hospital, 23; tel. 93-891-31-88; www.turismesantsadurni.cat). Located inside an old distillery, it mixes old-fashioned and high-tech exhibits to introduce visitors to the history of cava, the grapes used to make it, and the entire production process. You can even hold a (dead) phylloxera louse—just to drive home the history of cava. (When phylloxera struck the vineyards of champagne, the makers there desperately sought new territory, thus giving birth to the Catalan cava industry.) The interpretation center charges 6€.
The tourist office inside the center is free and can help you plan your excursion in Sant Sadurní, including making calls to cava operations that require reservations. The cellars that are open for visits and tastes, usually for a token fee or no charge, are listed on the interpretation center's website. Sometimes a paper printout is available, but don't count on it. Some small cellars make a few hundred cases of cava; some are bigger—much bigger. Note that many cellars close on Friday and Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. Just walking around the village and stopping at some of the tiny operations with open doors by their loading docks can be a lot of fun. Two of the larger producers that put the town on the map offer excellent overviews of the traditional champagne process.
Located at the edge of town, the massive Freixenet ★★ operation (Carrer Joan Sala, 2; tel. 93-891-70-96; www.freixenet.es) pioneered U.S. distribution of cava as a less expensive alternative to champagne. Since the winery gets large groups, much of the tour is via video and includes a heavy dose of marketing, complemented by a quick trip into the deep cellars to see aging bottles and—finally—a tasting. The entire tour takes about 90 minutes and should be reserved in advance. The basic tour costs 7€ for adults, 4.20€ for children 9 to 17, and is free for children 8 and younger. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday 9:30am to 4pm and Sunday 10am to 1pm. Reserve by phone or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s closed the last 2 weeks of December and the first week of January.
The other giant of Sant Sadurní cava production, Codorníu ★★ (Avinguda Jaume Codorníu, s/n; tel. 93-891-33-42; www.codorniu.es) is worth visiting to see the so-called “Cathedral of Cava,” the winemaking and storage facility built 1895–1915 and designed by Modernista architect Josep Puig i Cadalfach. If you know Codorníu from its entry-level cava, the tasting will open your eyes (and palate) to some extraordinary high-end selections. Several options are offered, from a standard tour and tasting to extended tastings or even a tapas lunch. The basic tour costs 7€ and is offered Monday through Friday 9am to 5pm and Saturday and Sunday 9am to 1pm. Reserve by phone or email at email@example.com.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.