With a coastline that stretches 700 kilometres from the rugged Costa Brava on the French border passing through the Costa del Maresme and the city beaches of Barcelona right down to the golden sands of the Costa Daurada in the province of Tarragona, it is not surprising that Catalonia is a prime destination for tourists from all over the world – but the Principality offers the visitor much more than just its beaches. Skiing holidays in the Pyrenees, a weekend break in Barcelona or rural tourism in the Ebro Delta are obvious alternatives, and the diverse geography of the region along with its history, architecture and vibrant sense of its own culture make any stay in Catalonia one to remember. I should know I came here on holiday more than twenty years ago, and still find living here a continual delight.

Catalonia also enjoys excellent transport links. The AVE high speed train connects with Madrid and many other cities in Spain. (Málaga is just 5 hours away!) It has three major airports in Reus, Girona and Barcelona (El Prat) which connect Catalonia to the world. There are numerous flights to Barcelona from many national and international destinations every day. As of January 2012, there were in fact almost 150 direct destinations from El Prat making it Spain’s second airport behind Madrid Barajas (172).

Modern Catalonia is the rump of a Mediterranean nation that included Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Rosselló in the south of France and the independent state of Andorra, and an empire that incorporated Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Milan and Naples, and for a brief period stretched as far as Greece and Asia Minor. Although remnants of Catalan dominance can be found all over the Mediterranean, in the present day, the Principality is now restricted to the top north-eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula.

Given their impressive imperial history and their cultural and linguistic differences from the rest of Spain, the Catalans have long considered themselves an independent nation within the Spanish state, and from a geographical point of view it is easy to see why this is so. The Principality is clearly defined by the Pyrenees to the west, the Mediterranean to the east while the River Ebro forms its southern boundary separating it from neighbouring Valencia. Its northern border, however, allows easy access into France, with whom it has close historical and linguistic ties.

Catalonia has a cultural flavour that is markedly different from southern Spain, and this is particularly evident in its Gothic and Romanesque architecture and in the cadences of the Catalan language. One of the reasons for this is that both architecturally and linguistically, Catalonia received very little Moorish influence. The Moors began their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, but never really succeeded in controlling Catalonia, and the reconquest of Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801 meant they never had time to leave their mark. This is sharp contrast to the rest of Spain where their dominance lasted centuries, with the ‘Reconquista’ by Ferdinand and Isabella not being completed until 1492.

To this day, Catalan territory is divided along the lines established by the Franks and Catalan Counts in the 8th and 9th centuries. The comarques, of which there are 41, are similar to the English counties. They have their own identity based on geography, agriculture and commerce, and are governed by a district council made up of elected municipal members. However, for administrative purpose within the Spanish state, since 1833, the Principality has been split into the four provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.

The Principality is one of the largest of Spain’s 17 Autonomous Communities covering an area of some 32,000 square kilometres, making it bigger than many other countries in the European Union including Belgium, and with a population of around 7 million, Catalans comprise about one sixth of all Spaniards. The region is also economically prosperous, and, in Barcelona, boasts a capital that is on a par with any other major European city

Just as in the rest of Spain, the Principality has a regional government with its own President and Parliament. However, after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, the Generalitat was ‘restored’ in 1977 whereas the other autonomous governments were not created until 1979 when the new democratic constitution was ratified by the Spanish Parliament. The Catalans are quite rightly very proud of their political institutions and democratic traditions. Els Usatges, for example, is one of the first documents to define the rights of the people and the obligations of their rulers, and predates the English Magna Carta by almost 150 years.

For long periods of their history, the Catalans have pushed for independence from Madrid. However, with the passing of Catalonia’s updated Statute of Autonomy in 2006 and a new Statute in Andalusia this year, Spain in the 21st century is becoming increasing federal. Now Catalonia’s cultural and linguistic rights are safeguarded, calls for complete independence are becoming less frequent, and what’s more’¦ Living in such a beautiful, diverse and prosperous country, who on earth would want to complain?

If this is your first visit to Catalonia? Here are some tips

© Simon Harris

Simon Harris lived in Barcelona for over 25 years and is the author of the acclaimed Going Native in Catalonia. He wrote extensively about Catalan culture, history and politics and provided in depth information and help for visitors to Barcelona.