Barcelona & the Costa Brava, Spain: Viva Cataluna!
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
We arrived in Barcelona for a few days before traveling up the Costa Brava ("wild coast" or "rough coast"), the coastal region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. Catalonia (or Catalunya, as we heard the locals calling it) is a fascinating part of the country, but we had no idea just how strong the independent streak of this region was before we experienced it for ourselves - they even fly their own flag!
In 2017, the Catalan independence referendum declared Catalonia to be an independent republic. For years there'd been growing support for independence from Catalans who believe in their right to self-determination. Others would disagree (mainly politicians who wanted to keep this wealthy region from seeking its independence from the rest of Spain). It's truly a modern day fight for independence (you can read more about it here).
When we were in Barcelona it was an especially active time for the movement and we not only found ourselves in streets with honking cars and motorbikes flying the Catalonian flag, but we wandered right into the middle of a protest march. It was crazy and we felt like we were there for a pivotal moment in history that would define the region. We only had a few days in the city, but we wanted to get a good taste of all it had to offer in a short amount of time.
The weather was perfect, warm and sunny, so we had no excuse not to roam the city from one end to the other. We started by meandering through the streets until we reached the waterfront and then headed up to Montjüic Castle, an old military fortress that dates back to 1640 and sits high on a mountain for great views of the city. We took the Telefèric de Montjuïc cable car up to the castle and could see out over the water and down onto the city, a great way to take in Barcelona and appreciate all that we still had to do!
Next up: Park Guell, the Dr. Suess-like park designed by renowned Catalan modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Built in 1926, today the park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was a long, steep walk up winding streets to the entrance, but we were so glad we made it, even if it was a hot and thirsty trip! It really is difficult to do this place justice. From the undulating walls lining the walkways and the cartoonish buildings to the brightly colored tiles, the Hall of One Hundred Columns (which actually only has 86 columns), and even crazy larger than life mosaic serpents and salamanders, it's visually arresting and beautiful. Not to mention all of the plantings, flowers and trees, just gorgeous! So, if Gaudí designed the park why is it named after Esebi Güell? Because Count Güell actually conceived of the place as a commercial housing site. Inspired by the English garden city movement, there were supposed to be sixty triangular lots for luxury houses with spectacular views of the city.
Unfortunately, this didn't work out, and only two houses were built, neither designed by Gaudí, although he did end up buying one of the homes and lived there. It is now the Gaudi House Museum.
After a full day we walked to the Ciutat Vella district, which houses the oldest neighborhoods in the city. A friend who lived in Barcelona recommended we visit Bar Canete for dinner, and we weren't disappointed! The small plates of fish (including lobster, cod, and squid) and local ham were wonderful, as was the wine. A perfect end to our Barcelona exploration. Day one, a success!
After amazing pastries at a local cafe the next morning, we made our way to the Sagrada Família, another Gaudí masterpiece. Construction on the cathedral started in 1882 and it continues today - talk about a labor of love!
When the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar, resigned in 1883 our man Gaudí stepped in and took over. He took a transformative approach to both the architecture and engineering of the church, combining Gothic and Art Nouveau forms for a building that is unlike anything you've ever encountered. Resembling a dripping sand castle with soaring spires, the inside is bathed in brilliant light from the colorful stained glass windows. Gaudí ended up devoting the remainder of his life to the project, and, when he died in 1926, was buried in the crypt. At that point the church was less than a quarter complete! Fortunately, Gaudí left plans, drawings and plaster models to guide the continued construction.
It was expected to be completed in 2026 but COVID has delayed construction. Hopefully one day soon we will see his vision come to fruition!
As we left the cathedral we noticed cars and motorcycles and people flying the Catalan flag all heading in the same direction. Curious, we decided to follow and see what everyone was doing. We eventually arrived at the center of the action at the Plaça de Tetuan. The square is marked by the Doctor Robert monument, sculpted by Josep Llimona to commemorate this former mayor of Barcelona and a member of the Spanish Parliament. That was our introduction to the Catalan Independence movement.
We didn't speak the language but the rally was charged with emotion and pride and we couldn't help but feel for these people who believed so fervently in their cause. After speeches and cheers by the crowd, everyone headed down the long boulevard shouting in unison. Pretty cool, even if we were just outsiders looking in and pretty naive - we didn't know if this was going to be a positive crowd or a riot!
After a lovely few days in the city we were ready to begin our drive up the coast. Our first stop was the small town of Begur, about 90 minutes North of Barcelona. We were staying at an intimate hotel perched on a spot overlooking the Balearic Sea, Es Cel de Begur.
The white and blue decor was completely unique and perfectly matched the serene surroundings and the brilliant water we could take in from every window. With fewer than ten rooms, it felt like staying in a comfortable and welcoming home, and we never wanted to leave.
This tiny village of Begur is quiet, with not much going on, and it was exactly what we needed after our busy Barcelona days. We hiked up to see the castle of Begur, ate at outdoor cafes in the village square and enjoyed small town Catalan life.
Everywhere we walked we could see the blue water stretching up the coast, and we were lured back to the hotel to sit by the pool and stare north to our next destinations. We were there in September, but this place apparently balloons in population during the popular summer months, going from around 3,980 people to more than 40,000! We wouldn't have wanted to be there during the vacationing crush, so we were grateful that we had the opportunity to get a taste of life in a small Medieval village during the quiet time.
After our time in Begur we hopped back in our car and drove just over an hour North through the mountains to Cadaqués in the in the middle of the Cap de Creus peninsula.
The ride to this fishing village nestled between the mountains of Cap de Creus was gorgeous, and when we finally descended down to the water it was like arriving in a secret and special place. This town also has quite the special place in art history. Pablo Picasso visited during the summer of 1910, Joan Miró also enjoyed a stay here, and Salvador Dalí spent much of his childhood in Cadaqués. He also had a home in Port Lligat, a small neighboring town, which you can visit. Check out the virtual tour, his home is, like the artist himself, quite unusual!!
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch beside the water, and of course, given our locale, we ordered the local fish. After our meal we walked along the shore and took in this sleepy and adorable town with boats bobbing up and down on their moorings.
We spent the later part of our day driving back through the mountains to Platja de Portitxo and our hotel, Hostal Empúries. This beautiful, spa-like hotel, faces a crescent-shaped beach and originally served as housing for archaeologists working at the ruins of the Greco-Roman site of Empúries. Today it is a model of eco-tourism, with a commitment to sustainability - it was the first hotel in Europe to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
The archaeological works still go on today, and naturally we had to take a walk to visit them just down the road from the hotel. We didn't just enjoy the history, however, because all we had to do was walk along the edge of the water to town, where a beautiful, old fashioned village square offered shopping and local food. We walked there every day of our stay in Platja de Portitxo, which was good because it wasn't just beautiful following the in's and out's of the coastline, it was also great exercise to work off all of the amazing food we were enjoying!
Our last night there we celebrated our anniversary with dinner on the terrace beside the rolling tide, and toasted the nearing end of our Spanish journey. One more place to see before we said goodbye: the city of Girona.
Just 99 km (62 mi) northeast of Barcelona, Girona is a perfectly sized city - not too big, not too small. With a population of 103,369, there are great restaurants and sights to see and a great historical vibe. Girona’s Jewish Quarter, one of the best preserved in the world, is a maze of cobblestone streets that wind between the old buildings. The Passeig de la Muralla, or medieval walls, surround Girona. Our first day we decided to head to the top of the wall and walk around the city for an amazing view (when we weren’t dodging the towers that periodically pop up along the way).
You can’t miss the Girona Cathedral spiking across the sky over the city. It’s long, steep steps are a great place to people-watch and gain a vantage point of the city. The cathedral was also a backdrop in a Game of Thrones episode – it seems like lots of places we visit have been filmed for the show, we really should watch it one of these days!
Although we spent the night here, Girona would make a great day trip from Barcelona. As a last spot on our journey to the Catalunya region of Spain, it was a wonderful way to end our week.
Unfortunately, due to a completely dumb travel mistake, we'd leave Girona and make it almost all the way to Barcelona's airport before turning around and heading back - not because we wanted to.
You can read more about what you should NOT do when traveling, and how to avoid our dumb travel mistake, here. From Girona we were off to Ireland for a few days in Dublin before heading home, but the Costa Brava had been a beautiful mix of cities, small towns, history, and turquoise sea, just what we'd been looking for and more.
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