Pinned to the northeast corner of mainland Spain, Catalonia not only boasts some of the most varied scenery in Spain, but arguably its most fascinating city and the countryâ€™s most successful economy. Not bad for a community that is autonomous from the central government in Madrid.
Made up of four provinces, Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona, Catalonia has been blessed with not just a fantastic location, on the Mediterranean coast, tucked just under France and the Pyrenees, but great natural resources, which have in part contributed to its tempestuous history.
A maritime power since the Middle Ages, Catalonia once had an empire of its own, including Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Sicily. While the unification of Spain eroded some of its independence in 1469 and the region was positively crushed under the autocratic rule of General Franco in the 20th century, Catalans are a resilient people and have battled to restore their ancient traditions and independence.
One of the most exciting parts of this region for visitors is the amazing diversity that can be found in a relatively small area. From the snow-capped Pyrenees that seemingly pierce the sky in the north, to the packed beaches of the Costa Brava, the culture-drenched city of Barcelona and quieter beauty of lesser-known stop-offs like Girona and Figueres.
Probably the best-known part of Catalonia is the colourful city of Barcelona and that golden expanse of coastline that stretches along the eastern side of Girona, the Costa Brava. The artistic Catalan capital, packed with Gaudi buildings, moody gothic architecture and the bustling Las Ramblas boulevard, tramped down by thousands of visitors and locals every day, is constantly listed as one the top five city break destinations in Europe for its great food, buzzing atmosphere and amazing sights.
To the south of the city, straddling the Barcelona and Tarragona provinces, is the area of PenedÃ¨s, the home of that much-vaunted sparkling wine cava. One of the most ancient viticultural areas in Europe, it is Spainâ€™s second most visited wine area after Rioja, where visitors can sample the local offerings and learn more about cava production.
And to the north of Cataloniaâ€™s dynamic capital, the Costa Brava, a 160km stretch of rugged coastline, has long been a must-see for beach-loving tourist. As well as busy Lloret del Mar and Blanes, which saw some of the first beach-loving foreign tourists in Spain in the 1950s, there are plenty of quaint little spots, such as CadaquÃ©s, which was the residence of Salvador DalÃ.
Travel inland from the Costa Brava and arrive at the provinceâ€™s pretty medieval capital Girona, a walled town known as the City of the Four Rivers, with one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe, as well as a cathedral, built over seven centuries and blending both Romanesque and Gothic influences.
Still further north, the town of Figueres, just a short hop from the French border, offers an all-the-more artistic atmosphere. It is here where Salvador DalÃ was born and died. He is buried in the Theatre-Museum - named after the Municipal Theatre that was burnt down at the site at the end of the Civil War - and most of his works are on display in the museum. Alongside is the church where both the christening and funeral for the artistic genius were held.
Head back further from the coast, across Barcelona and Girona province and you will reach Lleida, the most westerly province of Catalonia and one full of natural wonders. It is sewn together with Andorra by the Pyrenees, offering plentiful skiing and hill-walking opportunities, and boasts the Costers del Segre wine region where pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and ull de llebre are all grown.The wines help wash down the award-winning olive oils also produced in the province and given as Designation of Origin label, as well as its cheese from Lâ€™alt Ugell and La Cerdanya. The capital city of Lleida is also a worthy stop-off, one of the oldest towns in Catalonia, it dates all the way back to the Bronze Age.
The Old Town, north of the River Segre, boasts the 13th century Seu Vella cathedral, built within the walls of La Suda, the existing Moorish fortification, as well as a pretty, tree-lined Rambla boulevard. The Castle of Gerdeny, originally a monastery complex built by the Orde of the Knights Templar in the second half of the 12th century is beautifully preserved, if expanded during the 17th and 18th centuries, and marks the focal point of a Templar route, taking in various castles across the province.
Head due south from Lleida and you will arrive in the final of Cataloniaâ€™s four provinces, Tarragona. The capital city, also called Tarragona, is located on the beautiful Costa Dorada, which, justifiably, translates as The Golden Coast. The huge stretches of sand and sunny weather attract millions of visitors each year. The city of Tarragona, once a Roman provincial capital, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with examples of Roman Spainâ€™s ruined grandeur dotted all around.
Salou, set just south of Tarragona, is the most popular beach resort, while just inland Reus is more than just an airport city, with its pretty plazas and contemporary ambience. Holidaymakers looking beyond the beach can explore traditional Catalan towns set in the foothills of the sierras. Rasquera is one such example, criss-crossed with cobbled streets and decorated with ancient arches, it takes tourists beyond the beach resorts, back to the Catalonia of years gone by. While Valls and Tortosa also make attractive spots for daytrips to see Tarragona beyond the cities and beaches.
From mountains to coast, cities to rural outposts and wine to gastronomy, Catalonia is sure to have something to keep enthral every visitor to her shores.