Want to see the real Catalonia? Then look beyond Barcelona

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Photograph: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy

On a hushed, narrow street decorated with wrought-iron balconies in the small Catalonian city of Solsona, local guide Ivan Viladrich has just pushed open the unassuming wooden door of an 18th-century building. Hidden inside are two pairs of intricately sculpted gegants (Catalan dancing giants) whose history goes back to the late 17th century. In the next room, there’s a 330-year-old wooden dragon (the Drac de Solsona), weighing almost 100kg, surrounded by all kinds of other mythological animal figures. They have all just been twirled and paraded around town during the Festa Major, held every September in Solsona.

Catalonia

Solsona might not have big sights like Barcelona but it does have many small points of great interest, especially the old town with its intriguing architecture and Romanesque-origin cathedral,” says Ivan, who has been leading tours here with Solsona Experience since 2016. He explains how the city’s cultural heritage is one of its key tourism attractions, before pointing out gurgling gothic fountains, steeply sloping squares, curiously carved wooden beams and the weekly market as we stroll through the cobbled centre.

Solsona, capital of Solsonès county, which lies between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, is one of many lesser-known regional stops on the just-launched Grand Tour of Catalonia, a project devised by the Catalan tourist board. Covering 2,200km, the Grand Tour aims to decentralise the region’s Barcelona-focused tourism industry, encourage visitors to explore during quieter seasons and shine a light on its cultural, natural and gastronomic diversity.

Aigüestortes national park. Photograph: Quico Gómez/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the pandemic, Barcelona’s struggle with overtourism was reaching crisis point. Local efforts to tackle it already included clamping down on illegal tourist apartments, a ban on new hotels in the city centre and a special preservation status for 220 traditional shops and 11 emblematic bars in danger of being pushed out by rising rents. In 2019, Catalonia’s capital (population: 1.6 million) received around 32 million tourists – and only 13.9 million of them stayed for one night or longer (still a record number). There were also growing concerns about irresponsible tourism (particularly boat parties) damaging the Costa Brava’s fragile natural environment. Then everything came to a sudden standstill.

Now, as tourism begins to return (Barcelona saw 1.9 million overnight visitors this summer, while the Costa Brava returned to pre-pandemic levels), Catalonia’s authorities are keen to continue moving in a more sustainable direction and combat overtourism, with plans also recently unveiled to transform Barcelona’s overrun La Rambla into an immersive arts hub.

“Before the pandemic, around 90% of international tourists to Catalonia headed for Barcelona, the Costa Brava and/or the Costa Daurada, and only 10% explored the interior,” says Aicard Guinovart, director of the Catalan Tourist Board in the UK, over breakfast at Hotel 1882 Barcelona 1882. “If visitors keen to see Montserrat, for example, stay on for a few nights exploring nearby Solsona and Cardona (rather than day-tripping from Barcelona), the cultural and economic benefits of tourism will be felt more widely across this central region of Catalonia. This kind of longer, more in-depth trip is what people are looking for as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Vilassar de Mar on the Costa Maresme. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

The Grand Tour loops all around Catalonia and is divided into five main sections, with a focus on responsible tourism, small-scale businesses and local culture and traditions. If you fancy tackling the full trip, you’ll need at least two weeks, but it can also be cut down or built around a particular theme (gastronomy, outdoors, galleries). Soon to follow are electric-vehicle guides (with mapped charging points and recommended car-hire collaborators), tips on sustainably run accommodation, and options for enjoying the various itineraries entirely by public transport.

Top of my list among Catalonia’s lesser-visited corners is the secluded, rice-growing Delta de l’Ebre, which is around 80km south-west from Tarragona and borders the Valencia region to the south. At the mouth of Spain’s second-longest river, waterways ripple among electric-green rice fields, windswept Mediterranean dunes and marshes where flamingos splash about.

Much of this area has been a protected parc natural since 1983. I’ve stayed in peaceful rural hotels here, wandered alone along wild, sandy-gold beaches, hopped on a boat down to the Balearic Sea, and devoured paellas at laid-back riverside restaurants. You can also sail out to a floating mussel farm for lunch, cycle and hike through the fields, try kitesurfing and kayaking or rock climbing, spot some of the delta’s 330 bird species (especially during the autumn migration season), and even join a local family to learn about rice-farming.

Delta de l’Ebre. Photograph: Ignacio Ruiz Casanellas/Alamy

Up in the Pyrenees, on the border with Aragón and France, Lleida province’s remote Val d’Aran is another surprise. Until the late 1940s, when a tunnel was carved through the mountains south from Vielha town, it wasn’t even possible to get here by road from the rest of Spain. While the area’s upmarket ski resorts now buzz in winter, there is plenty more to enjoy through the year, including elevated hikes, a wealth of adventure activities, wide-open mountain views, bubbling hot springs, French-influenced restaurants and lovely stone villages filled with geraniums, such as Arties, Bagergue and Salardú.

Spinning south, you’ll reach the Pyrenees’ beautiful Vall de Boí, which I have fond memories of stumbling down into after hiking more than 20km from the not-so-neighbouring town of Espot. This mountainous pocket reveals some of the most important Catalan Romanesque churches still standing – slender, multistorey, Unesco-listed creations dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, whose interiors were originally filled with rich religious art (most of it is now in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). The small stone villages here – Taüll, Boí, Erill la Vall – are among northern Catalonia’s most striking.

Sant Joan, a Romanesque church in the Vall de Boí. Photograph: Imagebroker/Alamy

The Boí valley sits on the western edge of Aigüestortes, Catalonia’s only national park. Walking trails thread through this high-mountain wonderland dotted with pine forests, remote refugis (mountain refuges) and sparkling lakes. And if you swap the high-summer season for autumn, you may just have them all to yourself.

Elsewhere, you can roam around less touristy Catalan vineyards in Tarragona’s adjoining Priorat and Montsant wine regions and Lleida’s increasingly respected Costers del Segre DO (Denominació d’Origen); soak up locally loved beaches and modernista architecture along the Costa Maresme just north of Barcelona; set off multiday hiking or go rock climbing in the distant Parc Natural del Cadí-Moixeró, between Cerdanya and La Seu d’Urgell; and much more.

As we head south from Solsona, past Cardona’s imposing ninth-century castle, towards glitzy Sitges on the Costa del Garraf for the final night of my trip, I spy the foothills of the Pyrenees looming in the distance, and instantly get cracking on planning my next adventure around Catalonia. The only problem is that I’m spoilt for choice.

The trip was supported by the Catalan Tourist Board; for more information see catalunya.com and grandtour.catalunya.com

A grand tour: five ways to see Catalonia

The Catalan Pyrenees around the Colomèrs lakes. Photograph: PhotoStock-Israel/Alamy

Hit the coast
From riverboat cruises to thrilling water sports, Delta de l’Ebre in Catalonia’s south-west is packed with outdoor fun and back-to-nature beaches. Mural-filled Hostal Cling 43 (doubles from €68) makes an excellent base in Deltebre.

Work all the ambles
Hikers can get away from it all in Vall de Boí and Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes (the full-day Espot-Boí trail crosses the entire park). Spectacular Catalan Romanesque churches are worth a trip in their own right. Stay at the rustic-modern Hostal La Plaça, opposite Erill La Vall’s church (doubles from €63).

Grand designs
El Solsonès in central Catalonia is known for Romanesque and baroque architecture, including Solsona’s cathedral. Solsona Experience offers excellent guided tours, and you can sleep in a modernista mansion at Hotel Sant Roc (doubles from €96)

Up and down the slopes
Deep-winter skiing, peaceful villages and hikes into the region’s only national park are among the draws of Val d’Aran, the adventure-loving Pyrenees valley. Casa Irene (doubles from €120) is a stylish, wood-beamed spa hotel in pretty Arties.

Sample a drop
If you’re keen to dive into Catalan wines in a slightly quieter setting, head to the prestigious grape-growing Priorat hills west of Tarragona, where Lotus Priorat (doubles from €80) is a charming boutique place to stay.

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