Spain’s Regions

Spain’s constituent regions aren’t states or provinces, as in many other countries of the world, but autonomous communities. This political distinction results from the profound differences in culture within the country’s borders. Several of the regions have their own language, all have their own food, and many have their own storied histories as ancient, proud civilizations.

El País Vasco, or Basque Country, is perhaps the most famously independent of Spain’s autonomous communities. The Basque language is notoriously difficult to learn. Luckily Spanish is widely spoken, but any effort to communicate in Basque is appreciated by locals. San Sebastian is the area’s top destination, thanks to its breathtaking Atlantic shores and its reputation as the best producer of the region’s unique food. A local specialty worth sampling is sidra, a slightly alcoholic apple cider.

Spain’s other famously independent region, Catalonia, is located on the country’s eastern shore. Its language, Catalan, is easily learned by Spanish speakers. Barcelona is known for the many structures by famous modern architect Antoni Gaudí, whose style permeates this well-planned regional capital. The beaches of this cosmopolitan city nicely complement the region’s ski resorts to the north and nature reserves to the south.

Andalucia is the intersection of all the finest aspects of Spanish culture, from food to music to architecture. The region invented tapas and is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, while the city of Sevilla is known as the home of flamenco music and dance. This southern region of Spain enjoys a rich Moorish history; sites such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and La Alhmabra of Granada exhibit the height of Arab art and architecture from the Middle Ages.

El Comunidad de Madrid consists of the city of Madrid and its surrounding towns. Despite being the home of Spain’s central government and the Royal Palace, Cathedral, and Gardens, Madrid is best known for its nightlife. The neighborhoods of Huertas and La Latina are filled with revelers at all hours of the night as they scour the city for the best bars and dance clubs.

Even Spain’s less famous regions have their own defining characteristics. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, La Rioja is famous for its red wines, and the windmills of Castilla La Mancha were immortalized in Don Quixote. One of Spain’s ancient kingdoms, Galicia adds another regional tongue, Galician, to the tally of official languages, and another famous dish, empanadas, to the nation’s cuisine. Aragon, another such kingdom, houses a wealth of historical artifacts from the Middle Ages, while Cantabria is home to more Stone Age archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. In Navarre’s largest city, Pamplona, locals and tourists alike run through the narrow streets with bulls during the Feast of San Fermin, and with its soaring mountains and dramatic rocky coastline, Asturias is considered the most beautiful part of the country.

Thanks to the linguistic, culinary, architectural and artistic diversity displayed across Spain’s autonomous communities, a trip to this one country can feel like a tour of over a dozen different nations.


Montserrat, Spain

Millions of years ago, as the Iberian plate converged upon the European plate, masses of earth were thrust upwards, forming what is now the Pyrenees mountain range that borders Spain and France, and depositing rock to form what is now the Montserrat chain of mountains. In Catalan, “Montserrat” means “serrated mountain,” which describes the jagged silhouette of the mountain range, formed by centuries of erosion.

Today, Montserrat is famed for its unique rock formations, as the location of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, and for the historical significance of the area in connection with the struggles of the Catalan people. At 4055 feet above the valley, Montserrat stands at a central point above the Catalan lowlands, and has long played an important role in Catalonian history. Overnight hikes up the mountain to watch the sunrise remain a significant part of Catalonian tradition.

Nestled within the crags of the mountain, the monastery was founded in 1025. The Montserrat Escolania, a world-famous boys’ choir, came into existence soon after. Traditionally, the boys lived and studied in the monastery. Though run by the Benedictine monks, the school’s goal is to prepare students for acceptance into music conservatories, not into the order. In 2005, when enrollment dropped drastically, allowances were made for the children to return home overnight and on weekends. The choir gives brief performances at the abbey every day but Saturday.

The monastery was destroyed by the French in 1811. Monks managed to hide the statue of Mary before the destruction. During the 1830’s, Spanish royalty banned religious orders from building monasteries and convents. The present church was built during the 1850’s. Under dictator Francisco Franco, 300 protestors were held as prisoners within the monastery.

The focus of the basilica is the statue of Mary, known as the Virgin of Montserrat, La Moreneta or the Black Madonna. Pilgrims line up along a decorated passageway for the opportunity to spend a few moments alone with her. All but encased in protective glass, only the orb that Mary holds in her hands is available for pilgrims to touch. The site is also home to the Museum of Montserrat, featuring paintings by El Greco, Caravaggio, Money, Picasso and Dalí.

While a modern hotel is located near the abbey, visits to Montserrat are most often taken as day trips from Barcelona. By car, it’s a 30-minute drive from Barcelona to the base of the mountain. Many visitors choose to disembark at the base and ride the cable car up to the abbey site. Visitors may also drive up along a series of switchbacks to the site. Trains take visitors to the base of the mountain from Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya. Rack railway is also available up the mountain.


Figueres, Spain

Spain is a country rich in culture and history. Inspiring generations of visitors with the sweeping vistas and stunning mountains, Spain is home to some of the most splendid cities in Europe. Figueres located in Catalonia is often overlooked by tourists who prefer the larger cities that offer more hustle and bustle. Figueres is a charming location well loved by the residents and by those who happen across it.

The city is home to about 40,000 residents. Known for the beaches, the wine, and the gourmet food Figueres offers visitors an array of activities, sights, and sounds.

Dali Egg, Figueres SpainFigueres’ history can be traced to the 10th century and the city enjoys a rich diversity of architectural inspirations taken from nearly every era of its history. The Castell de Sant Ferran is billed as one of the largest castles in all of Europe. Constructed in the 18th century the castle overlooks the city and is a favorite spot for locals. While the grounds are most always open, the interior of the castle can only be viewed during certain time depending upon the season.

SALVADOR DALI MUSEUM IN FIGUERES, SPAINFor those who want to drink in the sights and sounds of Figueres a trip to the Placa de les Patates would be a welcomed diversion. The square is lined with traditional and classical architecture and lined with shade trees visitors can enjoy a lazy afternoon at any of the cafes and small restaurants. When night falls, the square is populated by revelers looking to unwind and relax after a long day.

It is the Dali Museum; however, that remains the biggest draw to the city. Figueres is the birthplace of the eccentric artist Salvador Dali that helped to change the face of art for generations to come. The Teatre-Museu Gala Salvador Dali is not hard to spot. The facade is bright pink decorated in an eccentric style must like Dali himself. Many visitors will spend the entire day roaming the halls and grounds of the museum. It houses the largest collection of Dali’s work including his sculptures and curiosities designed by the artist.

While visitors will find accommodations in Figueres many visitors come by rail from Barcelona. The trip to Figueres averages about 2 hours which makes for a perfect day trip. Figueres is an incredible town ideal for a quick getaway during a visit to Barcelona or an extended stay while in Spain.


Sitges, Spain

Approximately 22 miles south along the Spanish coast from Barcelona is Sitges, a town of about 26,000 which has been celebrating Carnival for over a hundred years. Carnestoltes (Carnival) beginning on Fat Thursday, continuing throughout the week before Lent, promotes nonstop festivities attracting over 250,000 visitors to one of Europe’s most outrageous parties. Beginning when the Carnival King comes back to life on Thursday through two huge parades until the Carnival King and Queen perform a ritual but doomed conflict with the Spirit of Lent on Ash Wednesday, drag queens change costumes to mourning head gear and black dress, screaming and wailing the death of Carnestoltes for another year.

Other than Carnival, Sitges is famed as the home of an international film festival billed as the world’s number one fantasy film celebration. Beginning in 1968 the Festival is an assemblage fantasy and horror movies lovers worldwide. Attendees have included Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Paul Verhoeven, Jon Voight, Santiago Segura and Quentin Tarantino as well as many others year in and year out during early October.
The economy, based on tourism, offers 5,000 hotel beds weighted heavily with four-star ratings, all of which is easy to understand considering the extensive beaches, exciting nightlife, and active gay accommodations. Yet, it is also charming in winter, although much quieter, with day trips to Barcelona. Never forget that because Sitges’s main industry is tourism, there are many excellent restaurants specializing in seafood as well as local fare.

Sitges began as an agriculture, fishing and commerce center in the 10th century; therefore, its oldest building is the parish church, Eglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla, replete with stone foundations having withstood the past thousand years. By the end of the 16th century monasteries and castles appeared and Sitges became a township, important to American sailing ships by the 18th century. Cau Ferrat museum, commissioned in the late 19th century by Santiago Rusinol, became a center for bohemian art and modernist parties. Paintings by Picasso, El Greco, Miro and Ramon Casas are still shown at Cau Ferrat.

At the border of Catalan wine country, Spanish sparkling wines are in abundance promoting yet another celebration. In August Sitges entertains yet another crowd with its Fiesta Major in honor of Sant Bartomeu parading giant puppets through the streets and executing an outstanding fireworks display at the old cliff-edge church.


Barcelona, Spain, Day Trip to Tarragona

Tarragona is a beautiful and historic city located in Tarragona province in northeastern Spain. The city which is the provincial capital is situated on the Mediterranean Sea just 100 kilometers southwest of Barcelona. The history and culture offered by the many attractions in Tarragona makes it the idea place for a day trip from Barcelona.

Taking just a bit over an hour by car and by train, Tarragona is a delightful place for visitors to spend the day and enjoy the city. One of the main attractions in the city is the ancient Roman ruins of Tarraco. Tarraco has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. These ruins include the 2nd century amphitheater that is located on the coast, a monument called the “Tower of the Scipios,” an aqueduct, the citadel and multiple other ruins or structures that have inscriptions from the ancient Roman era.

The Archaeological Museum is another stop to view ancient artifacts, coins, sculpture and relics from the past. The Head of Medusa is a featured attraction in the museum. Other museums in the area include the Necropolis Museum and the Casa Pau Casals, an early home of cellist Pablo Casals.

The Cathedral of Tarragona is a Roman Catholic church dating back to 1154. The cathedral features Romanesque architecture and remarkable stained-glass windows. Also inside are notable carvings and artwork that represent the Catalan culture. Other religious structures including several convents, a Jesuit college and a monastery can be found in the city.

For those interested in leisure activities, Tarragona has a number of beautiful beaches fronting the coastline. Many beaches such as Arabassada Beach are just a few minutes walk from the city center. Crystal clear water and sea breezes draw many to the beaches of the Mediterranean where sunbathing, swimming, strolling and volleyball are among the activities that occur there.

A prime recreational and leisure place to visit is PortAventura. PortAventura is a theme park and resort located in Salou which is just a few kilometers outside of Tarragona. It is the most popular theme park in Spain. It features rollercoasters, rides, several areas with themes such as Mexico, the Wild West and Polynesia, and shops and restaurants. It is definitely worth the trip over from Barcelona.

Numerous shops, restaurants and galleries can be found in the central part of Tarragona. Placa de la Font is one of the streets in the old town section of Tarragona that has several restaurants with many featuring Catalan cuisine. Many shops and restaurants can be found along Rambla Nova, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Tarragona. Others are scattered throughout the central business district.

Tarragona provides a great side trip from Barcelona. It is not overwhelmed with tourists yet it offers a variety of attractions and things to do for the day


Tarragona, Spain

Tarragona is a city located in the southernmost part of Catalonia, Spain, by the Mediterranean Sea. It is the capital of the Catalan Comarca Tarragones and as of the 2010 census, the city had a population of 155,443, with the metropolitan area’s entire population an estimated 675,921.
Tarragona was an ancient Roman port city situated on a rocky bluff above the sea, and is one of the greatest sightseeing centers in Spain, although it took many years for the city to achieve its recognition as a tourist destination. Featuring authentic medieval remains and architecture, it is the second-oldest city of Catalonia and sheltered over one million people when occupied by the Romans in 218 B.C.

Tarragona was also one of Catalonia’s four capitals when it was a medieval principality and Julius Caesar once lived within the city’s walls. The city was once endowed with a vast array of fine structures, many of which have been revealed in a series of archeological excavations. While the majority of the remains are fragmentary and obscured by more recent buildings, they still provide a vivid picture of this provincial capital’s grandeur. Southern Tarragona consists of houses with connecting balconies and other old-style architecture and has a decidedly medieval flair, while the northwestern section of the city is much newer with more contemporary buildings.

From the artistic point of view, Tarragona offers a higher number of tourist attractions and monuments than many other Spanish cities. Visitors can view Iberian civilization remains, which are plentiful throughout the region, or explore multiple Roman vestiges in Tarragona city, where one can trace the timeline of Catalonia’s splendorous past through carvings and architecture.

Certain sections of the city are still enclosed in a well preserved wall, which is a popular tourist attraction all by itself. Perhaps one of Tarragona’s most notable landmarks is the Roman Amphitheater, the size of which many tourists find impressive. The Cistercian monastery in Poblet is also a celebrated Tarragona attraction, and guided tours are available throughout most of the year for those who wish to take a glimpse into the lifestyle of contemplation and prayer experienced by the ancient cistercian monks.

Attractive capes, sunny shores and massive cliffs make up the unique panorama of Tarragona’s coastline. The city’s beach region has gained considerable popularity throughout the world over the past decade, and those who have experienced an unforgettable visit to Tarragona can easily see why this is so.

Tarragona is very accessible by rail and trains run frequently to Barcelona, Valencia, and down the coast to Andalucia. National buses run daily from Tarragona to cities such as Pamplona and Madrid and there is a local bus service which serves the city and its outskirts Monday through Friday.

Throughout the summer season, the average temperature in Tarragona is 87 degrees Fahrenheit, although the humidity often runs at 100 percent. Winters in Tarragona are almost always calm and pleasant, and there is little rainfall throughout the year. Similar to the rest of Spain, Tarragona features over 290 sun-drenched days each year, making it a perfect location for those who enjoy plenty of sunshine.