The diverse country of Spain houses numerous autonomous regions, perhaps the most vibrant of which is Catalonia. More than simply a region of the larger nation, Catalonia is considered a separate nationality under Spanish law. The region has suffered a long history of cultural and linguistic repression, so its residents are prideful and protective of their cultural identity. Catalan is the native language, and although Spanish is widely spoken or at least understood, locals are more warmly receptive of travelers who endeavor to learn a few Catalan phrases. As many locals support varying degrees of further independence from Spain, it is easy to offend residents with carelessly chosen words about the country and its politics. Once properly cautioned about the complex social and political issues to avoid, travelers can more fully appreciate the vast array of beauty and culture that Catalonia has to offer.
Catalonia features a variety of natural landscapes, from the Pyrenee Mountains in the north, down the rugged coastline of Costa Brava, through the rich river delta in Terres de l'Ebre, and rounded out by vast agricultural plains in the western inlands. Ski resorts in the northern reaches of Catalonia provide access to winter sports for adventure seekers. Girona, the capital city of Costa Brava, is thousands of years old. The rocky cliffs that drop off into the Mediterranean is a view rivaled only by the cityscape as seen from the top of the ancient city walls. Catholic pilgrims flock to the monastery perched on top of a mountain. The Benedictine abbey at Montserrat hosts the famous Virgin of Monteserrat sculpture as well as the oldest publishing house in the world. Nature lovers can enjoy Terres de l'Ebre numerous natural parks where the Ebre river meets the Mediterranean.
Catalonia's most famous city, Barcelona, is a booming modern metropolis. The works of the prolific and celebrated Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí decorate the city with a whimsical flair, and the city's Picasso Museum houses one of the best collections of that artist's work. Shoppers overrun Las Ramblas, the long pedestrian walkway that sits in the middle of one of Barcelona's main streets and is overflowing with outdoor vendors.
As in the rest of Spain, paella is a popular dish. The Catalan version of the rice dish is made with fresh seafood from the Mediterranean. For a truly local specialty, try “pa amb tomàquet,” or bread with tomato. Similar to Italian bruschetta, this dish of crushed tomato spread over bread is often topped with ham or sausage.