Catalonia and Valencia

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The long curve of the Mediterranean from the French border to the mouth of the Turia River encompasses the two autonomous communities of Catalonia and Valencia, with the country’s second- and third-largest cities (Barcelona and Valencia, respectively). Rivals in many respects, the two communities share a language, history, and culture that set them clearly apart from the rest of Spain.

Girona is the gateway to Northern Catalonia and its attractions—the Pyrenees, the volcanic region of La Garrotxa, and of course the pristine beaches of the upper Costa Brava. Northern Catalonia is memorable for the soft, green hills of the Ampurdà farm country, the Alberes mountain range at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, and the rugged Costa Brava. Sprinkled across the landscape are masías (farmhouses) with austere, staggered-stone roofs and square towers that make them look like fortresses. Even the tiniest village has its church, arcaded square, and rambla, where villagers take their evening paseo.

Valencia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Aragón, Catalonia’s medieval Mediterranean empire, when it was conquered by Jaume I in the 13th century. Along with Catalonia, Valencia became part of the united Spanish state in the 15th century, but defenders of its separate cultural and linguistic identity still resent the centuries of Catalan domination. The Catalan language prevails in Tarragona, a city and province of Catalonia, but Valenciano—a dialect of Catalan—is spoken and used on street signs in the Valencian provinces.

The huerta (a fertile, irrigated coastal plain) is devoted mainly to citrus and vegetable farming, which lends color to the landscape and fragrance to the air. Arid mountains form a stark backdrop to the lush coast. Over the years these shores have entertained Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman visitors—the Romans stayed several centuries and left archaeological reminders all the way down the coast, particularly in Tarragona, the capital of Rome’s Spanish empire by 218 BC. Rome’s dominion did not go uncontested, however; the most serious challenge came from the Carthaginians of North Africa. The three Punic Wars, fought over this territory between 264 BC and 146 BC, established the reputation of the Carthaginian general Hannibal.

The coastal farmland and beaches that attracted the ancients call to modern-day tourists, though a chain of ugly developments has marred much of the shore. Inland, however, local culture has survived intact. The rugged and beautiful territory is dotted with small fortified towns, several of which bear the name of Spain’s 11th-century national hero, El Cid, as proof of the battles he fought here against the Moors 900 years ago.

Catalonia and Valencia Sights

Named for its wild and rugged coastline, the Costa Brava is where Salvador Dalí got his inspiration. His birthplace, Figueres, is home to his wacky museum, and the whitewashed fishing village of Cadaques is where he built his even wackier residence.

Visitors are drawn to Tarragona for its extensive Roman remains, including its amphitheater and aqueduct. Southwest of Tarragona are the wetlands of the Ebro Delta, rich in birdlife. Inland lie the rugged Sierra de Beceite mountains and the walled town of Morella. The Ebro River snakes its way through the interior, passing through the historical town of Tortosa. The interior is best explored by car, as the bus routes are limited. South of Tortosa, lively resort towns—including Benicarló, Peñíscola, and Benicàssim—dot the Costa del Azahar. The region’s crown jewel is artistic Valencia.

Catalonia and Valencia Reviews

The Alt Ampurdà, taking in the Costa Brava and its surrounding inland areas, has a justifiably renowned reputation as home to some of the country’s premier restaurants. The seafood in this region is excellent: the anchovies of the Alt Ampurdà are the best in Spain. In and around Valencia, indeed all along the Mediterranean coast, you’re in the homeland of paella valenciana—a hearty rice dish flavored with saffron and embellished with seafood, poultry, meat, peas, and peppers. Prepared to order in a caldero (shallow pan), paella takes a full 20 minutes to cook, so it’s not for when you’re in a hurry. Good paella is fabulous, but it’s often overpriced because of tourist demand, and it’s usually best not to choose paella from a menú del día—it’ll probably be bland and disappointing. No native Valenciano would have paella for dinner: it’s strictly a dish for lunch, and even the restaurants that specialize in it will only make it for two people or more. A variant of paella is arroz a la banda, in which the fish and rice are cooked separately; the fish is fried in garlic, onion, and tomato, and the rice is boiled in the resulting stock.

Romesco, a spicy blend of almonds, peppers, and olive oil, is used as a fish and seafood sauce in Tarragona, especially during the calçotada (spring onion) feasts of February. If you’re here for September’s Santa Tecla festival, look for espineta amb cargolins (tuna with snails), perhaps accompanied by some excellent wine from one of the nearby Penedés or Priorat vineyards. The Ebro Delta is renowned for its fresh fish and eels, as well as specialties such as rossejat (fried rice in a fish broth, dressed with garlic sauce). Jamones (hams), cecinas (smoked meats), and carnes a la brasa (meats cooked over coals) are all staples of cooking in the interior, along with good trucha (trout), conejo (rabbit), and local trufas (truffles).

Catalonia and Valencia Reviews

Accommodations in beach resorts on the Costa Brava are significantly more expensive in the summer months. A good alternative if you’re planning on driving around and exploring inland Northern Catalonia is to seek out masias, remodeled farmhouses that are often more kid-friendly and located in less touristy areas. Tarragona is well supplied with standard 3- and 4-star hotels and pensions; nearby Reus has almost none. Just north and south of Valencia, the towns of Puzol and El Saler have some famous luxury properties; the city itself offers a reasonable mix of hotels. Book months in advance if you plan to be in Valencia during Las Fallas (mid-March).

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