Best of Catalonia Beyond Barcelona

By Saul Schwartz

Catalonia is steeped in tradition, with its own language and enormous sense of pride in its separate identity. From gravity-defying monasteries to medieval alleys, where time has stood still, the hinterland of Barcelona will surprise you with its authenticity and opportunities. Follow first-time visitor Saul Schwartz and his wife Fern, as they explore the best day trips from Barcelona.

Montserrat

Montserrat is about one hour outside of Barcelona. The dramatic Montserrat has been considered Catalonia’s most famous mountain range. The mountain ridge is part of a national park. Montserrat means jagged mountain and its silhouette evokes the toothed blade of a saw.

At the top of the unusual rocky mountain is a Benedictine monastery dating from 1025. The Royal Basilica of Montserrat holds the famous iconic statue of La Moreneta, the Black Madonna. Carved in the 12th century, the Virgin of Montserrat is venerated. She has been the patron satin of Catalonia since 1881. Pilgrims come from all over the world to see the Black Madonna and touch her hand. Her statue sits in the rear of the chapel, surrounded by an altar of gold.

In terms of architecture, the Basilica falls between the Gothic and Renaissance traditions. Unfortunately, the Basilica was greatly damaged by war in the early 19th century, but was reconstructed at the end of the same century. The Santa Maria abbey stands 4.055 feet above the valley floor. Appropriate attire is required for entrance into the abbey.
Exiting the abbey, we went through a barrel vault tunnel. The magical passageway is filled with colorful flickering votive candles. Each flame in this tunnel is a special prayer to Saint Mary. We then had a snack in the informal café.

We enjoyed our tour through Julia Travel. The bus left from the travel agency’s office in central Barcelona, a short walk from Catalunya Square. The cost of the half-day trip was 55 Euros, which included bus transportation to Montserrat, a cogwheel train up the mountain to the monastery, a short audio visual presentation of the basilica and a short guided tour.

During the five kilometre journey by cogwheel train, we were able to sit back and enjoy the panoramic landscape. The rack railway offers spectacular views of the mountain over gorges and alongside numerous other hermitages and left us off right in the middle of the abbey. If you arrange a visit in the morning, you can hear the famous boys’ choir.

Girona

Girona is about one hour north of Barcelona. It is the largest city in northern Catalonia with a population of about 100.000. Girona is a very beautiful city and representative of northern Catalonia.

On the banks of the Onyar River, the city’s picturesque facades are reflected in the colorful apartment buildings over several bridges, including the wooden St. Feliu Bridge and the red Eiffel Bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel in 1877, before the Eiffel Tower was built. This pleasant town is surrounded by lush green hills. As in Barcelona, Girona has a pedestrian only street called La Rambla which was established in 1885. Girona’s version is much smaller.

Girona is a medieval city with one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. As in Barcelona, the Jewish quarter was referred to as the Jewish call or El Call. The calls were unique urban units in different cities of medieval Catalonia. The alleys, house, shops, synagogues and workshops formed a framework that met the conditions for the development of Jewish life from 982 to 1492. The labyrinthine Jewish quarter of Girona is located off of Carrer de la Forca. It was one of Spain’s largest Jewish quarters in medieval times.

Follow in the footsteps of Saul on his first visit to Barcelona:

Inside the last synagogue to close in Girona is the Jewish History Museum, which shows how the Jewish population lived in medieval Girona. The museum occupies the building which in the 15th century housed the synagogue and other communal areas used by Girona’s Jewish community. After the expulsion of the Jews, the building survived as a private property. In the 1980s, it was renovated to become the contemporary restoration of the city’s Jewish heritage.

Inside the museum, there are rooms containing tombstones bearing Hebrew inscriptions found in Girona, rooms dedicated to the achievements of Catalonia’s Jews and to the difficult relations. In the courtyard, there is a very interesting two-sided sculpture. On one side, there is Christopher Columbus leaving for America in 1492 and on the other side there are relics related to the Jewish expulsion from Catalonia in 1492. The two events took place within days of each other!

Our guided walking tour took us through the atmospheric old town which contains one of the finest assemblages of historic architecture in Catalonia, with narrow winding streets, medieval walls, Roman and gothic monuments, and baroque spaces. The medieval quarter is one of the most evocative in Spain with such features as the Carolingian city wall, the Sant Feliu church and the towering gothic cathedral. In the ancient quarter, we walked by the Arabic baths, from the 12th and 13th centuries, which make up the best preserved Roman complex of its kind in Spain.

We also walked by the “lioness of Girona.” Kissing the lioness’ butt is said to ensure a return to Girona. The lioness is located on Calderes street. The locals are proud that one season of Game of Thrones was filmed in this city.
We took our tour through Catalunya Bus Turistic. The comfortable tour bus left from the Julia Travel offices in central Barcelona. The 79 Euro cost included our trip to Girona and Figueres.

Figueres

Catalonia has a long artistic heritage that spans its Iberian, Greek and Roman past. The hometown of artist Salvador Dali is about two hours north of Barcelona, not far from the border of France with Spain. From the town, we could see the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France from Spain. The town has about 45.000 residents.

Dali was born in Figures in 1904. He studied in his home town until 1922 and returned there later in life. His tomb is placed within the Dali Theatre-Museum. Salvador Dali was one of the most complex and controversial figures of the 20th century. He is one of the most celebrated artists of all time. Not satisfied with convention, he boldly explored a variety of media, creating a vast collection of eccentric works.

The unique Dali Theatre-Museum is an epicentre of Spanish surrealism. Dali created work that shattered conventional ideals of what are could be and, as a result, is considered a rebellious artist. After experimenting with impressionism, futurism, cubism and Dadaism, Dali put surrealism on the global map with his famous works, using images such as his famous melting clocks. Despite the limited commercial success of his paintings, he became to be seen as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. The vast majority of works in the museum are those of Dali, but there are a few other works on display from other artists. The Dali Theatre-Museum is the second most visited museum in Spain.

Dali converted the Italian-style municipal theatre into a museum in 1974. He designed spaces such as the Mae West room of custom furniture where the image of Mae West can only be seen from a certain point of view. The museum is divided into 22 rooms. The museum building is said to be the largest surrealist object in the world. The exterior is topped by a series of giant white eggs, with loafs of the local bread throughout the facade! During our guided tour, we learned how Dali and his wife Gala promoted both his works and his persona.

During a portion of his life, Dali lived in the United States where he became world famous.
We had visited The Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida, this past January. The Florida Dali Museum has a permanent collection with art spanning Dali’s career, from his student pieces through works of surrealism and his later career creations. The Florida collection is delightful and includes some of Dali’s finest works. With over 2.000 pieces dating from 1914 to 1980, the Dali Museum is one of the largest collections of his works. The museum opened in 2011 in its current location. The museum features paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints. It is the largest Dali collection outside Europe.

Right next to the Dali Theatre-Museum is a permanent collection of jewelry made by Dali. This exhibit is located at Gala-Salvador Dali Square 5.

Sure, there are many things to do in Barcelona. Fern and I were very glad to explore some of Catalonia beyond Barcelona. As a result, we learned more about medieval Spain, its Jewish heritage and its art. These two towns and the Montserrat Mountain shouldn’t be missed if you’re planning to visit this corner of Spain for more than a week.

About Saul Schwartz

Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country. 

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