This past summer, we vacationed in Catalonia. If you’re unfamiliar with Catalonia, it’s the region of Spain in which Barcelona sits, and one of the country’s 17 autonomous regions. While each of Spain’s regions is distinct, Catalonia is especially independent – in addition to having its own customs and culture, it has its own language (though we got by decently well with limited Spanish). If you’ve watched the news at all in the last year, you’ve probably seen reports on Catalonia’s attempt to separate from Spain all together, and the political upheaval that its caused. Given this, it might seem like a less than peaceful destination. But having been there twice in the past year, I can decidedly say that I felt completely safe, and that the house we rented outside the small town of San Pere de Ribes was one of the most peaceful, idyllic spots I’ve ever stayed.
“San what de what?”, you might say. If you’re not familiar with this town nestled in the mountains about an hour outside of Barcelona (with traffic), you’re not alone. It’s not particularly a tourist destination, nor does it have any major “must see” sights. It’s mountains overlooking farmland, with a (comparatively) small town center that boasts a surprising number of cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores. It sits on the edge of Garraf National Park, as 12,820 hectare park that is popular with hikers, is about fifteen minutes from the well-known seaside resort town of Sitges, and if you’re looking for a quieter spot where you can enjoy nature and relax, yet not be completely isolated, it’s an ideal location. Not to mention, the day trip possibilities for those who want to get out and about in the region are numerous.
The house we rented was approximately a mile from the town center, and sits perched up in the hills with a view of the entire valley below. This house was, in a word, perfection. If you’re interested in doing Catalonia and staying outside of the city, I highly recommend renting a house (this one if it makes sense for your group/budget), renting a car (definitely would aim for an AWD/SUV), and doing day trips from the countryside. While there is so much to do in this region it’s near impossible to describe it in a single post, here were the highlights from our trip.
- Montserrat: Montserrat is a region, and a famous monastery, about one and a half to two hours drive north of San Pere de Ribes. The drive itself is gorgeous, if not for the faint of heart in some places. You drive along the windy roads and hairpin turns, that traverse up the mountains, jagged peaks on one side, steep drop into the valley below on the other (let me note here, I was not the driver). Once you get to the abbey, or near it, there are several parking lots (they do charge, and you pay on the way out) at the base. You have to walk a bit uphill to reach the area where the abbey is, but it’s nothing horrendous. From here, you have the option to go into the abbey and, if you choose, stand in line to see/touch the Black Madonna – it’s only open at certain times, and the line is literally out the door, so we did not take this option. We did wander through the abbey, which is gorgeous in and of itself. In addition to visiting the monastery, you can take one of several funiculars, or mountain trains, to either reach the cave of Santa Cova, for general viewing points, or to reach walking/hiking points in the area. Had there not been a group of about 15 and had it not been past lunch time when we got out of the abbey, we may have done this. You can learn more about them here. Montserrat is definitely a place worth visiting, and we absolutely could have spent time there hiking and seeing more. There’s also a boys choir that’s quite renown, but they were on holiday when we were there. Montserrat is absolutely the visit, but definitely do your research and have a plan before you go.
*A note: Montserrat is not a place for super little kids. Partly because it’s on the side of a mountain and walking can be strenuous. More because there’s someone that understandably but obnoxiously walks around overtly “shushing” people in the abbey literally every five minutes, if not more frequently. If he hears a peep, you get shushed. While I understand the need for quiet respect, his efforts were to the point of distraction and honestly took away from the experience, since the loudest sound I heard the whole time we were in the abbey were his shushes. So I’d steer from taking little kids who you think might not be able to stay basically silent during the whole visit.
- Sitges. Sitges is about 15 minutes by car from San Pere de Ribes, and is well known for its beaches and promenade, it’s pedestrian shopping and dining town center, it’s mansions/expensive real estate, and as an LGBT-friendly destination. If you were to picture an upscale, Spanish (Catalonian), beach bustling beach resort city, that’s Sitges. For dining, especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan, or looking for a variety of ethnic cuisine (in addition to Catalonian/Spanish), it’s the place to dine out. There are bakeries and coffee shops every five feet, and it even has a couple of breweries. A note about Sitges beaches: many are topless optional, and a few are clothing optional. If you are adverse to this, or have little kids that you are averse to being on a topless/clothing optional beach, it may not be the place to visit for beach time. You can certainly still enjoy the town and all it has to offer, but you may want to head somewhere else for the family beach day. That said, a large number of Spain’s beaches (and really Europe’s) are topless optional, so if this is a concern, you’ll have to plan your beach time carefully.
- Villanueva y Geltrú: This town gets my vote for a beach day hands down. This beach is significantly more local than Sitges. It began as a fishing town, and still operates as an important fishing port today, though the town has grown up around it. The beach here is wider, less crowded, and the water is gorgeous. Plus, the town of Vallanueva y Geltru itself is worth the visit. It has a La Ramblas, much like Barcelona’s (but smaller), plazas surrounded by restaurants and shops, architecture worth noting, and it’s known throughout the country for its unique and copious festivals and celebrations.
- Tarragona: About an hour-ish drive from San Pere de Ribes, Tarragona is a port city known for its Roman ruins and its human towers. We combined it with Vallanueva y Geltru, due to time constraints, but it absolutely could be a full day trip on its own. It’s amphitheater, adjacent to the coast, archeological museum, and the Pretori i Circ Romans – home to chariot races in the last 1st Century, and the Pretori tower, are all relatively well-preserved remnants of it’s Roman past. The city’s Cathedral is also magnificent, and absolutely worth the visit. Outside of the city center, you can find the Aqueduct and the Necropolis museum, if you have more time. As for the human towers, or castells, we sadly were not there during prime “human tower season”, but if you’re planning trip to Tarragona, or Catalonia in general, this fall, you might be in luck, as the Human Tower Competition is Oct 6th and 7th this year! Tarragona, like basically every coastal city, has its beaches – I just did not make it to them.
- Garraf Beach: If you’re looking for a particularly local beach, and a beautiful drive, head to Garraf beach. Even if you aren’t really in the beach mood, the windy road that traverses along the coast from San Pere de Ribes is worth the drive. The beach is not super large, but the surf is a bit more intense for those looking for waves, and it definitely has a local feel. A few notes for heading here: 1.) There is a parking lot, but you need to drive over a curb to get there, as there’s literally no actual entrance, and parking is rather haphazard – people just squeeze their cars in where they can, with no real order. 2.) It is indeed topless optional. 3.) While at other beaches I didn’t see much lifeguard presence, Garraf beach had both lifeguards seated in chairs, as well as patrolling the beach. Between this and the surf, this leads me to believe that swimming here could be a little trickier (we just hung out on the beach, not in the water), so if you have little kids or are not a great swimmer, this might not be the ideal beach for you.
- Catalonia’s festivals: I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure Catalonia’s towns have festivals at least once or twice a week, especially in the summer. I’m not joking. The region is filled with festivals and celebrations, some of which are unique to a specific town or province, some of which are over-arching across the region with each town having their own version on a specific day. If you’re there around the time we were (last week of June), you may get lucky enough to experience Festa Major. Festa Major is a huge festival across Catalonia, with numerous towns holding multi-day events that include parades, fireworks, music, dancing, food, drink, and more. It’s extremely “Catalonian”, and was such a unique experience. If you happen to be there during this time of year, I highly recommend you check out the festivals that are happening during your visit, and head to at least one. These are the types of local experiences that you can’t recreate in a photo (though I tried) or a guide book/article/blog, but you truly have to experience for yourself.
Of course, we also went into Barcelona, but as I blogged about that in posts from my trip last fall, I wanted to focus more on Catalonia, outside of its capital city. There was so much more to see and do in the area. I could have easily spent a few additional weeks. We could have hiked Garraf park, headed to Girona, spent time on the Costa Dorada and Costa Brava. There were so many smaller towns we could have explored. We could have visited the region’s wineries. We could have gone to the Dali house and Dali museum (several of our group did visit the museum, though I was not among them). There is truly so much to explore in this region of Spain.
My takeaway suggestion is this: Go to Catalonia. Get outside of Barcelona (but do visit it!), rent a house/apartment/flat whatever works for your group and your budget, rent a car, and see as much as you can. Bring your beach gear and your hiking shoes (if you’re able to physically hike). Take day trips where you simply go from town to town, wandering for a while and having a coffee or gelato or snack, and then head to the next town. Let yourself explore as much as you can. But also give yourself some time to take in the views, the mountain air, the tranquility, and relax.