Tucked in the eastern corner of Spain, Catalonia is actually closer to its neighbours France and Andorra than to its capital. This autonomous region packs a lot into its four provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona; for starters, the north is dominated by soaring Pyrenean peaks and valleys, while its entire east coast is lined with some of the most stunning beaches in Europe.
Catalonia’s hinterland is where nature takes over, where countless peaks, forests, valleys and rivers tempt you to go cycling, hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, skiing, climbing, canyoning, and more.
Tucked in valleys and mountains are countless hilltop villages, medieval monasteries, ancient churches and watchtowers. Wherever you go, there is an undeniable sense that Catalonia is different from the rest of Spain, with its distinctive cuisine, fiestas and traditions, and Catalan, rather than Spanish, is the main language.
The second largest province in Catalonia, Barcelona is by far the most populated. Its landscape is also the most varied, ranging from the Pyrenean range to the coastal plains.
Just 35km northwest of Barcelona lies the jagged mountain range of Montserrat, one of the Catalonia’s most important religious pilgrimage sites.
At 1,236m, it is the highest point of the Catalan lowlands and is home to the monastery containing the figure of La Moreneta (Black Virgin). It is one of the monasteries along the famous 140km-long Way of Saint James pilgrimage route which leads to Santiago de Compostela; those wishing to undertake the pilgrimage can obtain a pilgrims passport (stamped by each monastery along the way), which you will need in order to access accommodations at the monasteries along the route.
Montserrat is easily accessible by train and cable car or funicular (1.5 hours) from Barcelona, so it can get crowded during the weekends, and choir sessions. To get away from the crowds, the funicular takes you further up the mountain, where several hiking trails lead you to quiet paths, meditation caves or to the highest point on Montserrat (Sant Jeroni).
The geography of this monolith creates some intriguing rock towers and pinnacles, making Montserrat a mecca for rock climbers. There are over 2,000 routes with a good mixture of sport routes and traditional routes – it has some of the best multi-pitch routes in Spain ranging from 200m-300m long, with characteristic hanging belays.
Vall de Boí
Just an hour’s drive south of Val d’Aran is Vall de Boí, a valley that contains the densest concentration of Romanesque architecture in Europe, dating back to the 11th century. Situated in the commune of Alta Ribagorça at the edge of the Pyrenees, it is home to the 9 UNESCO-listed churches in villages that dot this mountainscape. These historic monuments are well known for their bell towers and murals.
While, sadly, most of the murals have been removed – and currently on display in a museum in Barcelona – you can still see the characteristic architecture of the area. At Sant Climent in the village of Taüll, you can see what the murals would have looked like thanks to a unique projection mapping project.
The Romanesque Route 1 is a mountainous walking trail that connects many of the villages in this valley along a 16km loop. Along this route, you can see some of these Romanesque churches, including Santa Maria de Taüll, San Joan in Boí, and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall.
Straddling the province of Lleida and neighbouring Aragon is the stunning Mont-Rebei Gorge (Congost de Mont-Rebei). This land is a transition between the Pyrenees mountains and the flatlands of Lleida, where rivers have carved out spectacular gorges and 3 Montsecs (dry mountains): d’Ares, de Rúbies and d’Estall.
Covering an area of 600 hectares, Mont-Rebei Gorge was carved by the river Noguera Ribagorçana. There is no road, railway or electricity line inside the area, and the only access is via a mule track dug out of the rock face.
Part of the 1,200km-long GR1 hiking trail, it traverses this entire canyon (which is about 4km long). This spectacular trail is hewn out of the narrow canyon walls, dug about 500m above the river, giving you breathtaking views of the surroundings.
The easiest way to start is from the village of Masieta in the north – the trail crosses 2 suspension bridges. Once you’ve covered the entire canyon wall you’ll see another highlight of the trail: the aerial walkway.
The aerial walkway – a set of wooden stairs and planks anchored to the vertical rock wall – zig-zags you down to the banks of the river and back to the GR trail. The walkway takes you down 80m from the top of the canyon wall to the riverbank; it’s exposed in parts and narrow, and not for the faint of heart.
You can opt to make a loop of the gorge (turning back to Masieta), or arrange for a river pickup anywhere after the aerial walkway section. The calm, blue waters of the Noguera Ribagorçana is also popular for kayaking, and the vertical rock faces are a magnet for rock climbers (avoid climbing from December to June as vultures and other rock birds nest during this time). There is also a popular via ferrata route that starts from the base of the Mare de Déu de la Pertusa, and once on the top, the tiny chapel provides an amazing panorama of the entire canyon.
To the east of Val d’Aran, the commune of Pallars Sobirà stretches from the Collegats gorge to the base of the Pyrenees, following the course of the river Noguera Pallaresa through snowcapped mountains and green valleys.
Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park
Most of this region is a protected nature reserve, which include the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, the only national park in Catalonia.
Ranging in elevation between 1,600m and 3,000m, the park has montane and alpine vegetation that is home to wildlife like the Pyrenean chamois, marmot, roe deer, as well as birds like the gigantic lammergeier and golden eagle. It’s a picturesque landscape of rivers and lakes surrounded by jagged, snowcapped peaks. Park guides are available for nature or birdwatching tours (with snowshoe tours available in spring).
There are over 200kms of historic trekking trails – called the Camins Vius, or ‘Living Paths’, that date back to medieval times – that join the 6 valleys, 3 mountain passes, and their villages throughout the park. The paths can be covered in 7 or 9 one-day stages, with each stage ending at a village where you can appreciate the area’s rich cultural heritage. The trans-Pyrenean GR11 footpath also traverses the park from one end to the other.
The Carros de Foc (Chariots of Fire) route is a circular tour of some of the refuges in the area; 4-5 days is ideal to appreciate the route.
Catalonia’s northernmost outpost, Val d’Aran (or the “Aran Valley”) is located at the western end of the Pyrenees, with 3,000m-tall soaring peaks. Few visitors make it as far north to this region, but its relative isolation – it is only accessible by road – is a major part of its draw.
Part of what makes Val d’Aran different from the rest of Catalonia is that it’s a region with Provençal roots (the locals speak Aranese, and have their own cultural traditions), and is influenced by an Atlantic climate.
Dotted with plentiful historic sites, quaint hilltop villages and mountains, Val d’Aran is also home to Spain’s biggest, trendiest ski resort.
Situated between altitudes of 1,500m and 2,510m, Baqueira-Beret is the only Spanish ski resort located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, guaranteeing an abundance of quality snow until early April.
Located 13km from Vielha (the capital of Val d’Aran), Baqueira-Beret actually consists of 3 interconnected ski resorts: Beret, Baqueira, and Bonaigua. The resort is the most prestigious in Spain, patronised by many celebrities, including the Spanish royal family. Even so, the prices here are generally lower than at Alpine resorts.
The base at Baqueira is an upmarket resort area with plenty of accommodation and off piste options, while on the slopes, cafes and other facilities ensure that you don’t need to descend to base for almost anything.
With over 180km of piste, it’s the largest ski area in Spain that caters to all levels of skiers and boarders. The lift system at Baqueira-Beret is able to transport an impressive 60,000 people per hour up to the slopes.
Beginners have ample space to practise, while experienced skiers have the run of the entire resort, as many of the runs are either blue or red. Ski safaris – on the red, blue and black pistes – range from 2 to 4 hours long, taking advantage of the easy connectivity between the 3 mountains.
Of course, skiing isn’t the only activity on the cards. Snowshoeing is popular here, with plenty of trails that lead to quiet forests, frozen lakes and isolated mountain huts. For a more relaxing – yet exhilarating – way to glide around the white landscape, you can also go dog sledding from Beret to the mountain hut of Montgarri. If the skies are clear at night, you can zip through the dark forest with the milky way spread out above you, and the silence broken by paws padding through snow.