Lezaan Roos takes us on a tour of the fascinating region of Catalunya.
If I had to pick a word to sum up the region of Catalunya (Catalonia), I'd go with 'diverse'. From valley base to mountain top, you'll find a wealth of ways to experience the 'real' Catalunya – and yet I'm giving myself the formidable challenge of picking only five. Well, here goes...
Catalunya is a very quick flight from London (2 hours 15 minutes). There are plenty of airlines that fly to Barcelona on a daily basis (this time round I flew with Vueling from Gatwick). Barcelona is where you disembark, but get outside this vibrant city and you'll find Catalunya quickly offers a flavour all of its own.
Here are my five suggestions for getting a taste of the place that'll leave you hungry for more.
1. Visit the Boi Valley, UNESCO World Heritage site
The Boi Valley is a three to four-hour drive from the Barcelona. You'll find your world quickly transforms from sunny Barcelona to snow-covered peaks as you drive through the beautiful countryside, until the mountains of the Pallars Sobirà rear up in front of you. UNESCO have bestowed the title of World Heritage Site upon the Boi Valley, and it's not hard to see why. It's a peaceful, dazzlingly scenic place, dotted with wonders like the 12th Century church of Sant Climent De Taüll, effortlessly whisking you back in time with its fresco paintings and ornate church tower.
2. Snowboarding in the Pyrenees
Want that dream snowboarding experience? Catalunya offers you the choice of quite a few snowboarding resorts, which might come as a shock if, like me, you hadn't necessarily associated the region with snowsports. Boi Taüll Ski Resort for instance is a quiet and peaceful place for much of the year, and some months it's not unusual to find yourself virtually alone on the mountain. The snows last until April, and friendly Spanish locals can always be found for assistance and friendly banter. Runs cater for beginners and advanced snowboarders alike.
Port Ainé Resort, on the other hand, is more bustling. If you get a buzz from having similarly excited people around, this is the place for you. My room looked down onto the resort – the perfect place for leisurely people-watching. No transport required to get to the ski lifts - you can just walk out and hit the slopes! As twilight falls, slip on your snow shoes, get away from the bright lights - and just stop, and listen. Nothing but the mountain, and your own heartbeat...
Note: both Boí Taüll and Port Ainé resorts have snowparks for those adrenaline-seeking freestyle types.
3. The art of mountain cheese
When in the mountains, you're going to eat real mountain-style cheese, right? Plentiful cheesy moments are on offer, including mouthfuls of fundu and 'Mountain Raclette', and everything offered by Tros De Sort, an artisan dairy founded in 1995 by five milk farmers from the High Pyrenees. With an agricultural engineer specialising in cheese-making and a veterinarian as founders, you'd be right in expecting something spectacular - the butter and cream they produce is heavenly, and they've perfected the preparation of their delicatessen specialities: double fat cheese (be still my clogged heart) and cheese filled with sour cream in three different flavours. For the traditional must-have mountain cheese experience, steer yourself towards the Serrat del Triadó, often made from unrefined cow's milk and matured for a minimum of two months.
4. The joy of shallots
They're a speciality of the region and they add a unique twist to the flavour of Catalunyan cuisine. They're also an education: a fleshy onion that doesn't overpower with its flavour and can be smoked by the fire, dipped in romesco sauce (as any self-respecting local would do) and eaten in one delicious bite. Catalunya's shallots are larger than you may be used to, but they're still small enough to be finger-food. If that sounds fun, get your timing right: they're only in season November/December to March/April.
5. Catalan wine
Driving through the spectacular countryside, often covered in bright red poppies (if you're there in September as I was), it's suddenly less hard to believe that in addition to the snow it offers in the ski season, the climate and environment also provides the perfect conditions for local wine production.
Wine-tasting in the countryside is always an amazing experience, and Catalunya certainly doesn't buck the trend. There's no better way to wine and dine than when surrounded by vineyards overlooking miles of the region's natural beauty.
The higher altitude (somewhere between 850 and 1000 metres) also serves to enhance the quality of the wine. One farm that can attest to that is Castell d'Encus, a wine producer whose tagline is “wines grown at high altitude and fermented in stone”. The history at Castell d’Encus goes back to the 12th century, when the property was donated into the hands of the Order Of Hospitalier monks. It was they who first created wine there, preparing the grapes in immense cisterns carved out of the local rock. They're still in use today - hence 'fermented in stone'.
Wherever you seek out wine in Catalunya, make sure it's served in a porró – a distinctive traditional glass pitcher with a watering-can-like spout. It holds around three-quarters of a litre – the perfect serving for a merry meal you won't regret later.
Catalunya is a collection of rich experiences all year round: metres and metres of snow and sunny, clear blue skies co-existing in harmony. There's a remarkable range of authentic experiences to discover between the mountains and the ocean, and I've barely scratch the surface of them here. Experiences unique to the region and so many treats of Catalan cuisine, there are the gladiators of Tarragona (yes, really), there's also olive oil tasting sessions - and there is, of course, the Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya. It's a place that defies easy definition, which is why I'm struggling here. You'll just have to go and see for yourself. Deal?
Thanks to the region of Catalunya for helping me to discover these experiences.