On a hushed, slim road adorned with wrought-iron balconies within the small Catalonian metropolis of Solsona, native information Ivan Viladrich has simply pushed open the unassuming wood door of an 18th-century constructing. Hidden inside are two pairs of intricately sculpted gegants (Catalan dancing giants) whose historical past goes again to the late seventeenth century. Within the subsequent room, there’s a 330-year-old wood dragon (the Drac de Solsona), weighing virtually 100kg, surrounded by all types of different mythological animal figures. They’ve all simply been twirled and paraded round city through the Festa Main, held each September in Solsona.
“Solsona won’t have huge sights like Barcelona but it surely does have many small factors of nice curiosity, particularly the previous city with its intriguing structure and Romanesque-origin cathedral,” says Ivan, who has been main excursions right here with Solsona Expertise since 2016. He explains how town’s cultural heritage is considered one of its key tourism sights, earlier than mentioning gurgling gothic fountains, steeply sloping squares, curiously carved wood beams and the weekly market as we stroll by the cobbled centre.
Solsona, capital of Solsonès county, which lies between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, is considered one of many lesser-known regional stops on the just-launched Grand Tour of Catalonia, a undertaking devised by the Catalan vacationer board. Protecting 2,200km, the Grand Tour goals to decentralise the area’s Barcelona-focused tourism business, encourage guests to discover throughout quieter seasons and shine a lightweight on its cultural, pure and gastronomic range.
Within the lead-up to the pandemic, Barcelona’s battle with overtourism was reaching disaster level. Native efforts to sort out it already included clamping down on unlawful vacationer residences, a ban on new motels within the metropolis centre and a particular preservation standing for 220 conventional retailers and 11 emblematic bars at risk of being pushed out by rising rents. In 2019, Catalonia’s capital (inhabitants: 1.6 million) acquired round 32 million vacationers – and solely 13.9 million of them stayed for one night time or longer (nonetheless a document quantity). There have been additionally rising issues about irresponsible tourism (notably boat events) damaging the Costa Brava’s fragile pure surroundings. Then every part got here to a sudden standstill.
Now, as tourism begins to return (Barcelona noticed 1.9 million in a single day guests this summer season, whereas the Costa Brava returned to pre-pandemic ranges), Catalonia’s authorities are eager to proceed transferring in a extra sustainable route and fight overtourism, with plans additionally lately unveiled to rework Barcelona’s overrun La Rambla into an immersive arts hub.
“Earlier than the pandemic, round 90% of worldwide vacationers to Catalonia headed for Barcelona, the Costa Brava and/or the Costa Daurada, and solely 10% explored the inside,” says Aicard Guinovart, director of the Catalan Vacationer Board within the UK, over breakfast at Resort 1882 Barcelona 1882. “If guests eager to see Montserrat, for instance, keep on for a number of nights exploring close by Solsona and Cardona (moderately than day-tripping from Barcelona), the cultural and financial advantages of tourism shall be felt extra broadly throughout this central area of Catalonia. This type of longer, extra in-depth journey is what persons are on the lookout for as we emerge from the pandemic.”
The Grand Tour loops throughout Catalonia and is split into 5 foremost sections, with a concentrate on accountable tourism, small-scale companies and native tradition and traditions. If you happen to fancy tackling the total journey, you’ll want a minimum of two weeks, but it surely can be lower down or constructed round a specific theme (gastronomy, open air, galleries). Quickly to comply with are electric-vehicle guides (with mapped charging factors and beneficial car-hire collaborators), recommendations on sustainably run lodging, and choices for having fun with the assorted itineraries fully by public transport.
High of my checklist amongst Catalonia’s lesser-visited corners is the secluded, rice-growing Delta de l’Ebre, which is round 80km south-west from Tarragona and borders the Valencia area to the south. On the mouth of Spain’s second-longest river, waterways ripple amongst electric-green rice fields, windswept Mediterranean dunes and marshes the place flamingos splash about.
A lot of this space has been a protected parc pure since 1983. I’ve stayed in peaceable rural motels right here, wandered alone alongside wild, sandy-gold seashores, hopped on a ship all the way down to the Balearic Sea, and devoured paellas at laid-back riverside eating places. You can even sail out to a floating mussel farm for lunch, cycle and hike by the fields, strive kitesurfing and kayaking or mountaineering, spot a number of the delta’s 330 fowl species (particularly through the autumn migration season), and even be part of a neighborhood household to find out about rice-farming.
Up within the Pyrenees, on the border with Aragón and France, Lleida province’s distant Val d’Aran is one other shock. Till the late Forties, when a tunnel was carved by the mountains south from Vielha city, it wasn’t even attainable to get right here by highway from the remainder of Spain. Whereas the world’s upmarket ski resorts now buzz in winter, there’s lots extra to get pleasure from by the yr, together with elevated hikes, a wealth of journey actions, wide-open mountain views, effervescent scorching springs, French-influenced eating places and wonderful stone villages full of geraniums, akin to Arties, Bagergue and Salardú.
Spinning south, you’ll attain the Pyrenees’ stunning Vall de Boí, which I’ve fond reminiscences of stumbling down into after mountain climbing greater than 20km from the not-so-neighbouring city of Espot. This mountainous pocket reveals a number of the most vital Catalan Romanesque church buildings nonetheless standing – slender, multistorey, Unesco-listed creations courting from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, whose interiors have been initially full of wealthy spiritual artwork (most of it’s now in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Artwork de Catalunya). The small stone villages right here – Taüll, Boí, Erill la Vall – are amongst northern Catalonia’s most placing.
The Boí valley sits on the western fringe of Aigüestortes, Catalonia’s solely nationwide park. Strolling trails thread by this high-mountain wonderland dotted with pine forests, distant refugis (mountain refuges) and glowing lakes. And in the event you swap the high-summer season for autumn, you might simply have all of them to your self.
Elsewhere, you’ll be able to roam round much less touristy Catalan vineyards in Tarragona’s adjoining Priorat and Montsant wine areas and Lleida’s more and more revered Costers del Segre DO (Denominació d’Origen); take in regionally liked seashores and modernista structure alongside the Costa Maresme simply north of Barcelona; set off multiday mountain climbing or go mountaineering within the distant Parc Pure del Cadí-Moixeró, between Cerdanya and La Seu d’Urgell; and way more.
As we head south from Solsona, previous Cardona’s imposing ninth-century fort, in direction of glitzy Sitges on the Costa del Garraf for the ultimate night time of my journey, I spy the foothills of the Pyrenees looming within the distance, and immediately get cracking on planning my subsequent journey round Catalonia. The one drawback is that I’m spoilt for selection.
A grand tour: 5 methods to see Catalonia
Hit the coast
From riverboat cruises to thrilling water sports activities, Delta de l’Ebre in Catalonia’s south-west is filled with out of doors enjoyable and back-to-nature seashores. Mural-filled Hostal Cling 43 (doubles from €68) makes a wonderful base in Deltebre.
Work all of the ambles
Hikers can get away from all of it in Vall de Boí and Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes (the full-day Espot-Boí path crosses all the park). Spectacular Catalan Romanesque church buildings are price a visit in their very own proper. Keep on the rustic-modern Hostal La Plaça, reverse Erill La Vall’s church (doubles from €63).
El Solsonès in central Catalonia is thought for Romanesque and baroque structure, together with Solsona’s cathedral. Solsona Expertise gives wonderful guided excursions, and you’ll sleep in a modernista mansion at Resort Sant Roc (doubles from €96)
Up and down the slopes
Deep-winter snowboarding, peaceable villages and hikes into the area’s solely nationwide park are among the many attracts of Val d’Aran, the adventure-loving Pyrenees valley. Casa Irene (doubles from €120) is a trendy, wood-beamed spa resort in fairly Arties.
Pattern a drop
If you happen to’re eager to dive into Catalan wines in a barely quieter setting, head to the celebrated grape-growing Priorat hills west of Tarragona, the place Lotus Priorat (doubles from €80) is a captivating boutique place to remain.