You can take several noteworthy day trips from Barcelona. The most popular is to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, northwest of Barcelona. To the south, the Roman city of Tarragona has been neglected by visitors but is particularly interesting to those who appreciate ancient history. Beach lovers and gays and lesbians should head for the resort town of Sitges.

About six million people live in Catalonia, and twice that many visit every year. It's one of Europe's playgrounds, with its beaches along the Costa Brava and the Costa Dorada, centered on Sitges. Tarragona is the capital of its own province, and Barcelona is the political, economic, and cultural center of Catalonia.

The province of Catalonia forms a triangle bordered by the French frontier to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the east, and the province of Aragón to the west. The northern coastline is rugged, whereas the Costa Dorada is flatter, with sandy beaches and a mild, sunny climate.

Pilgrims may go to Montserrat for its scenery and religious associations, and history buffs to Tarragona for its Roman ruins, but just plain folks head to the Costa Dorada for fun. Named for its strips of golden sand, this seashore extends along the coastlines of Barcelona and Tarragona provinces. One popular stretch is La Maresme, extending 64km (40 miles) from Río Tordera to Barcelona. Allow at least 2 1/2 hours to cover it without stops. The Tarragonese coastline extends from Barcelona to the Ebro River, a distance of 193km (120 miles); a trip along it will take a full day. Highlights along this coast include Costa de Garraf, a series of creeks skirted by the corniche road after Castelldefels, Sitges, and Tarragona. One of the coast's most beautiful stretches is Cape Salou, south of Tarragona in a setting of pinewoods.

We begin our tour through this history-rich part of Catalonia inland at the Sierra de Montserrat, which has more spectacular views than any coastal location. Wagner used it as the setting for his opera Parsifal. The serrated outline made by the sierra's steep cliffs led the Catalonians to call it montserrat (saw-toothed mountain). Today it remains the religious center of Catalonia. Thousands of pilgrims annually visit the town's monastery with its Black Virgin.

The Monestir de Poblet in Tarragona is the other major monastery of Catalonia. It, too, is a world-class attraction.