Meaning “saw mountain” in the regional Catalan dialect, Montserrat is pinch-yourself photogenic: knife-edged cliff peaks erupt like giant pink molars above a 11th-century Benedictine monastery. Home to over 70 monks, there’s a real spiritual energy here – touch the hand of the Virgin of Montserrat statue in the Basilica, which is said to have healing powers. Of the five hiking trails in the area, the route to Sant Jeroni, via bizarre rock formations, is worth the ascent, as you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Mallorca on a clear day. To get here you can catch a one-hour train from Plaça d’España (which leaves Barcelona hourly or twice hourly). Arrive early, as Montserrat gets busy as the day goes on.
Catch the train south from Passeig de Gràcia – Barcelona’s glossy shopping street – and 40 minutes later you’ll pull into picturesque Sitges. This seaside town is a patchwork of cobbled streets, pastel walls and balconies straining with blooms. It’s a treat for the stomach too. Paella at Vivero Beach Club is served mere centimetres above the sea (book the “terraza inferior”), while laid-back Nem offers a modern incarnation of tapas – its patatas bravas ditches predictable potato cubes for crispy-skinned slivers of salty goodness. Sensory overload peaks at Palau de Maricel, a palace whose exuberantly over-the-top décor is a sight to behold.
The cava region, an hour west of Barcelona, is where 95% of the Spanish sparkling wine ferments – made by both big producers (Torres, Freixenet, Codorníu, Jean Leon) and smaller family operations serving organic wines and farm-to-table tapas. Take the train from Plaça de Catalunya to cava-land’s capital, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, where many wineries are within 15 minutes’ walk – including Freixenet beside the station, Gramona, with its ancient underground cellar, and the brilliant Recaredo (reservations are essential everywhere). Castlexperience hosts daily tasting trips to country house wineries, while Blend and Bottled – Barcelona’s coolest wine-tasting studio – has launched boutique cellar and sampling tours for eight or more people.
River Onyar, separating Girona’s medieval Barri Vell from its newer western side, provides the postcard image of this arty cathedral city – with reflections of sunset-hued houses that look more Copenhagen than Catalunya (though Game of Thrones fans will know Girona better as the setting for Braavos). Ancient streets wind like threads, knotted with coffee-sipping patios (La Fábrica serves the best), but little beats dining at the world’s second-best restaurant according to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2018, El Celler de Can Roca. Can’t crack the one-year waiting list? Eat lunch at Divinum, whose chef Jordi Rollan trained in the Roca kitchen, or try a panet – hot brioche stuffed with ice cream – from Rocambolesc, the Roca family’s ice cream boutique. Trains from Barcelona Sants take 38 minutes.
5. La Roca Village
La Roca Village, accessible via coach from Barcelona, falls firmly into the camp of an outlet shopping mall that serves up genuinely wardrobe-changing finds. Part of the consortium behind Shanghai Village and Bicester Village near London, it’s also a beautiful place to shop: all Modernist-style architecture and bright flower vines. But, above all, its brand selection delivers in the form of unique pieces from Spanish designers such as LOEWE and BIMBA Y LOLA alongside Bally, Burberry, Gucci and Prada. Discounts can reach up to 60%, though 30% is more typical.
The birthplace of Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was never going to be boring. Back in the 1960s, the town’s mayor asked if Dalí would consider donating an artwork to a local gallery. Dalí, with characteristic flamboyance, said no – he preferred to build himself a museum. And so, the Dalí Theatre-Museum was born – a storage spot for 1,500 pieces of art (including a mirrored flamingo, a taxi with rain falling inside and a few skeletons) which has pink exterior walls topped with eggs (best glimpsed from along Pujada del Castell). Trains go from Barcelona Sants to Figueres-Vilafant (a short bus or taxi ride from the city centre) in 55 minutes.
7. Costa Brava
What do Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Truman Capote have in common? They all got inspiration from the Costa Brava – a coastline of white-walled villages and electric blue waves that spectacularly ripples from Blanes (70km northeast of Barcelona) all the way to France. Aside from Lloret de Mar, its towns have also managed to escape the skyscrapered gulp of mass tourism. Cove-hop by car or take a Moventis Sarfa bus from Barcelona’s Estació del Nord to Palamós, Begur, Cadaqués or Palafrugell. The latter is famous for its summer music festival, Cap Roig, where big-name artists perform on the grounds of a medieval-style castle.
Once one of the most important Roman cities, much of Tarragona’s epic 15,000-seater Mediterranean-hugging amphitheatre remains – today, honoured with Unesco World Heritage site status. There’s also the eye-catching cathedral, with a giant rose window in its façade; the buzzy central square, Plaça de la Font; Rambla Nova with its Modernist architecture and lunchtime pit-stops; or the nearest beach, Platja de l’Arrabassada. While the latter lacks the wildness of Cala Fonda (dubbed Tarragona’s Waikiki) further along the coast, it’s easily accessible and delightfully golden. It’s all just an hour’s train ride from Barcelona.
This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine