It's Culture / Travel There

How to Do Catalonia Like a Local

If you’ve like many people, you’ve probably only ever heard of Catalonia in the context of Barcelona. It’s a semi-autonomous state of Spain with its own language and customs. And while Natalie and I have both gone to Barcelona (read our recaps here and here), there is so much more to the region! In addition to working in Tarragona (recap here) over the summer, I just got back from what I would consider the ideal study-abroad experience in Catalonia. I was staying with a Spanish Catalan friend and was integrated very nicely into his daily life–from barbecues to house parties to watching all of the Catalan news. Everyone spoke Catalan Spanish with me too, despite me being a total guiri (stereotypical blonde American tourist)!  Here’s what we did when we took a lovely tour of the region, doing everything and anything that’s totally local and not even remotely touristy.

Puigcerdá

Puigcerdá is a small town in the north east corner of Spain Catalonia that borders France. For funzies we walked across to the France border and had a coffee on the other side. Since Catalonia is in the EU (for now), its like crossing over state lines. On the way back, we perused through a ceramic store and I bought a handmade bowl!. For dinner with had a decadent dinner of fondue at La Taberna del Sibarita in the city center, which was filled with a bunch of cute boutiques. And then went to this country bar/restaurant El Badiu for drinks! We stayed in La Molina in a darling country house. The town is popular destination during the winter for skiing, and during the fall has gorgeous, colorful mountainous views. We had pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato) for breakfast, which my friend gave his Catalan nod of approval towards the quality. It’s a must-try Catalan food!

The following morning we began our road trip back south. We stopped at Castellfollit de la Roca for the panoramic view of the little medieval city and tried to spy some Catalonian donkeys–they’re the symbol of the region. We also stopped in Besalú which is a medieval city with high stone walls and a bridge. This city is where the locals go to be tourists. We enjoyed a vermouth at Bar Miqwahs! A vermouth is like the mimosa of Spain–perfect drink for day drinking on Sundays, it traditionally comes with olives, mussels and oysters.

 

Catalonia is a hot political topic these days. I happened to be there in the days leading up to their declaration of independence (they made it official just hours after I left the country), so it was really interesting to see what the people in the region actually think. I found that nearly everyone I encountered wanted independence. Every place we went from teeny villages in the countryside to big cities were adorned with colorful flags and banners proclaiming “Sí” and acknowledging their support of an independent Catalonia.
If you have no clue what I’m talking about or need some humor in your life, watch this video by Stephen Colbert for a great summary.

Girona

Where to Take Pictures in Girona Catalonia

Rounding out our road trip, we ended at the colorful city of Girona! Like Dubrovnik (read my guide here!), this medieval city has a set of towering city walls with great views and whose Cathedral was  used as a set for Game of Thrones. We lunched at this fabulous place called Els Jardin de La Merce. Lunch in Catalonia doesn’t start until 1pm and typically consists of a set menu with three courses (app, main, dessert) and a drink or coffee. As it was Sunday, the menu is a bit bigger and elegant and costs around €22. For a daily menu during the week, its closer to €10-12.

The highlight for my blogging soul was crossing the red iron Eiffel Bridge and snapping some pics. Fun fact: The iron from this bridge was leftovers from the aptly named Eiffel Tower. Also, although we didn’t go, Girona’s most favorite gelato spot is Rocambolesc. They have creative Popsicle in the shape of crazy things like the finger of Columbus and Game of Thrones characters. The park in town was also setting for the city’s festival. If you visit Catalonia during the fall there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon a town festival–they all have them! Before I left, I also kissed the butt of this weird lion statue (prayers I don’t get sick) which now ensures that I’ll return to Girona.

On the way home, we swung by the outlet mall of Barcelona in La Roca Village. It’s your generic outdoor mall that legitimately receives busloads of Asian tourists from Barcelona.

Barcelona

Naturally, no trip to Catalonia is complete without a stop in Barcelona. If only for the fact that that’s probably where you flew into. We went to the capital city on Monday morning and kicked off our day with some spectacular views of the Turó de La Rovira. At 9am on a Monday, it’s empty and this mountain view is peaceful and glorious. We then popped into the Boqueria on Las Ramblas (okay, this was kinda touristy, but I was with a local so it doesn’t count). We ordered some juice for $1 and then wandered around the neighborhood stopping on a college campus to cheer on some people playing giant chess. For lunch, we went to the trendy af Flax & Kale restaurant. It’s packed with vegetarian, gluten-free, raw items and essentially blogger heaven. Where is the stone lion butt to kiss?! I will definitely be back.

Granollers

Granollers was my central home spot during my week abroad so I got to know the town pretty well. I went on daily runs along the river, worked in the Santagloria coffee shop for their free WiFi, and snacked on panellets pastries with almonds and pine nuts from local bakeries.

I made nearly daily stops to the local grocery stores for various ingredients. If you have a chance, try a bright red persimmon! One day I agreed to make TexMex for the Catalans. Turns out they hate margaritas, but are obsessed with queso. Also, explaining the concept of queso to native Spanish speakers is a tad confusing.

On Thursday’s, the city has the largest street market in the region. And let me tell you, it’s HUGE. Think any farmers market you’ve ever seen and then add like 200 more stalls. It magically pops up around 6am and is gone by 2pm. The stalls snake through all the streets of the town and are filled with everything from toys to clothes to fresh food. I was particularly obsessed with the giant heirloom tomatoes that were the size of softballs. Also, with the discerning eye of my Catalan amigo we selected some fantastic wild mushrooms to cook. He scoffed at my selection of regular crimini mushrooms and praised the local variety, even knowing a few of the stall owners from his hometown. Growing up, he and his family would hunt for mushrooms during the fall. So he’s definitely and expert on the local eats.

When we weren’t adventuring to different cities, we’d grab lunch at a local restaurant in town and enjoy the menú del día (menu of the day). We ate relatively early–aka right at 1pm when the restaurants open, but most people tended to trickle in later. Just about everything in the town is shutdown for a lunch lunch until 3pm.  Why don’t we do this again in America? I found some solid vegetarian food at El Mirallet.

On Thursday’s, many restaurants serve paella. This tradition started back in the Franco days because he never went out to eat, unless it was Thursday and only if it was paella. We managed to find some quality vegetarian paella as a menú del día at a restaurant called Sant Miquel Gastronòmic. If you select red wine with your meal, it comes with sparkling water  so you can break up the bitterness and make sort of a poor man’s sangria.

 

Hiking

Definitely one of the highlights of my trip was hiking in Catalonia. We took a car up a nearby mountain and hiked in Montseny. We did the Santa Fe del Montseny trail and Les Agudes. Ah-mazing panoramic views in which we could see all the way past Barcelona to the sea and even into France! On a clear day you can even see Mallorca.
Along the mountains, we saw lots of people hunting for mushrooms and chestnuts. Afterwards, we went and got a sip of water from Can Felip. By far the most local thing I did on my trip. Basically, it’s just a well that’s connected in someone’s backyard and all the people in the region go to get the best spring water. People arrive with up to 20 canisters to fill up and bring home with the magical spring water. My friend said his grandmother swears by it and refuses to use tap water for anything–even boiling pasta! For lunch, we stopped at Hípica Can Marc for their menú del día. One of my courses was trinxat, a cabbage and potato dish that is very typical in the Pyrenees during the fall and winter.
 
All in all, I absolutely loved my trip to Catalonia. Visiting the region in the fall was absolutely gorgeous! I had great weather with lots of sun, no rain, and beautiful fall colors. Plus, I went at a very interesting time in the history of the region as well that definitely made my experience unique. Every day, we listened to Catalan news as the political situation was constantly changing. We’d be at a party or dinner and a neighbor would come by and say the president was speaking and they’d cut the music or turn on the TV in the bar to listen to the broadcast. I found that most people I encountered were pro-independence and that the region was quite safe, despite what might have been broadcast on US news. We’ll see how the Independence movement pans out. Banking on the fact that I kissed the lion butt in Girona, so I’ll definitely be back–maybe next time as a new country!

For more of our adventures in Spain see our other blog posts:

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