Branch out from Barcelona
The Roman footprints in Tarragona. Picture: Steve McKenna

When it comes to Catalonia, Barcelona hogs all the attention. Hardly surprising.

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One of Europe's most enthralling cities, the Catalonian capital is crammed with spectacular sights - including the quirky architectural treasures of Antonio Gaudi and the Nou Camp stadium where some of the world's best soccer players ply their trade.

However, Barcelona is just one highlight of a proud region in the north-east of Spain, where people often speak Spatalan (a blend of Spanish and Catalan).

Visitors - especially repeat ones - should use the city as base to discover more of Catalonia's charms, which are ideal for day trips or overnight stays. Before spreading your wings, learn more about the region in the Museum of the History of Catalonia on Barcelona's Port Vell (Old Port). And for those train journeys, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a top read.


Tarragona

Two thousand years ago, Barcelona was just a speck on the map compared to Tarragona, or Tarraco, as the Romans called this ancient port city.

Ruins, notably several imposing columns, pepper the rather forgettable modern centre, while a magnificent aqueduct, nicknamed "the Devil's Bridge", sits on its northern outskirts.

The most concentrated cluster of Roman relics, however, can be found in and around the walled old quarter, with the prize for most spellbinding sight going to the amphitheatre, whose sparkling blue Mediterranean backdrop adds to its postcard-perfect quality. You can dine alfresco in the shadow of vaults from a Roman circus where chariot races were once held and further appreciate Roman Tarragona by visiting the city's handful of archaeologically minded museums (most are closed on Mondays).

Each May, Tarraco Viva, a popular Roman-themed celebration, features recreations of gladiatorial contests and cavalry shows plus much feasting and drinking.

Besides the Roman imprints, check out the striking cartoon wall mural on Placa dels Sedassos.

tarracoviva.com and tarragonaturisme.cat
 

Sitges

Dubbed the St Tropez of Spain, this pearl of the Costa Dourada - between Barcelona and Tarragona - exudes an old-school feel with a stylish modern twist.

Winding, whitewashed, maze-like streets, hiding funky cafes, bars, cinemas, clubs and fashion boutiques, tumble down to a string of raked sandy beaches caked in striped umbrellas and sun lounges.

There's a yacht-filled marina, a clutch of galleries and sculptures, a centre dedicated to all things Bacardi (the brand's founder was born here) and a restaurant-studded promenade ripe for strolling and people watching.

Sitges touted as Catalonia's gay capital (you'll see rainbow flags fluttering and men embracing and holding hands) but everyone from young families and pensioners to bohemians and celebrities rub shoulders here.

Busy in the northern summer, the town also rocks during its annual Carnival, held before Lent, and its fantasy film festival which is on from October 4 - 14 this year.

sitgesfilmfestival.com/eng and sitgestur.cat


Montserrat

A monastery has been tucked up this eye-catchingly craggy mountain chain, the highest point of the Catalan lowlands and the inspiration for the name of the rocky Caribbean island, for more than a millennium.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), it was a refuge for defiant Catalan monks, scholars, artists and politicians escaping the clutches of General Franco's troops.

Today, it's a curious mix of the devout and the commercialised. diner-style eateries, convention spaces and gift stores sit alongside shaded, candle-strewn cloisters, a modern art gallery and a sprawling basilica which is home to a revered sanctuary of the Black Virgin, Catalonia's patron saint (which the faithful will queue for hours to see).

While Montserrat can get chockablock, especially during Easter and August, it's easy to avoid the crowds.

Hiking trails skirt off from the busy central hub to quieter pastures lined with shrines, crosses and look-out points, from which spectacular views can be savoured. On a clear day, nearly all of Catalonia, and even the island of Majorca, are visible.

Half the fun of visiting Montserrat is getting up there. After an hour's ride on Barcelona's suburban rail network, you can either take a rack railway or a cable car, which has been clunking up and down since the 1930s.

www.montserratvisita.com


Girona

Regularly voted one of Spain's most liveable cities, Girona is a laid-back gem with easy-to-get-lost-in cobbled streets laced with enchanting drinking and dining spots, beguiling mediaeval architecture and one of Europe's best-preserved Jewish quarters.

Girona's medieval beauty. Picture: Steve McKenna
Girona's Gothic cathedral is said to have the world's widest nave (23m) after St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican while the towering ramparts snaking around the eastern side of the old town offer scenic vistas.

Repeatedly attacked by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and again during the Civil War, Girona is endearingly calm today, although in summer (June-August), it's jolted to life by a raft of musical and cultural festivals.

Come May, during the Temps de Flores, it's ablaze with colourful flowers.

A flea market is held every Saturday in tree-shaded Parc de la Devesa, and daily artisan stalls sell a range of crafts on Pont de Pedra, one of several bridges spanning the Onyar River, whose banks are fringed with bright, sun-speckled apartments.

girona.cat


Figueres

The largest Catalonian city before the French border, Figueres has appealing sidewalk cafes, a quirky toy museum (which displays more than 4500 toys and puppets) and an impressive castle-fortress (one of Republicans' last Civil War outposts before Franco's troops bombed them into submission).
For many, however, Figueres means only one thing (or should that be one man). Salvador Dali was born here in 1904 and his legacy is everywhere. Shops are crammed with Dali books, paintings and souvenirs. Dali - and Dali-inspired - sculptures decorate the town while the extraordinary Dali Museum is a repository of his eccentric works and his dreamy personal art collection.

Attached to Figueres' old theatre, the sprawling burgundy-shaded building, capped with giant model eggs, is regarded as the world's largest piece of surrealist art, and, after the Prado in Madrid, is Spain's most-visited museum.

salvador-dali.org/museus/figueres


FACT FILE

• Emirates flies twice daily between Perth and Dubai and has just launched daily flights from Dubai to Barcelona. emirates.com/au
• Girona, Figueres, Tarragona and Sitges can all be reached from Barcelona Sants station. Trains leave at least every hour. See Spanish rail operator Renfe (renfe.com) for more information, including up-to-date times and fares. If travelling on a Eurail Global Pass, reservations are not needed. See Rail Europe (raileurope.com.au) for details on passes.
• To reach Montserrat, take line R5 from Placa Espanya station. Then either transfer to the cable car (aeridemontserrat.com) or rack railway (cremallerademontserrat.com).
• Nestled in a quiet residential neighbourhood, a five-minute walk from Barcelona Sants railway station - and also close to Placa Espanya and Parc Joan Miro - the Urban Suites are an excellent base to explore Barcelona and wider Catalonia. There are 16 sleek suites and four apartments, catering for up to six people. Minimum two-night stays available online from $230 ($292). theurbansuites.com
• For more on the region, see gencat.cat and spain.info.

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