Catalonia: Wind of change

A growing appetite for independence means these are interesting times for Catalonia. A journey through this proud corner of Spain, from snowy peaks to sandy shores, reveals a defiant, charismatic spirit

By Gavin Haines
Published 25 May 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:26 BST
Las Fellas

Las Fellas

Photograph by Realizada por Lluís Carro - Carrostudi

Tramuntana sighs softly, before planting an icy kiss on my cheek. She's playing coy today, but her mood is unpredictable. Sometimes she's powerful and persistent, other times she's conspicuous only by her absence. She comes from France and has a hard-earned reputation across Catalonia for her tumultuous temperament. And she's as old as the hills. In fact, in some ways, she is the hills; her enduring strength has helped sculpt the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees for millennia. Suffice to say few winds carry with them such romanticism.

Like Tramuntana, the north wind, Catalonia's appetite for independence has blustered unevenly down the ages. But a glance at recent headlines would suggest the desire for change is currently strong. In late 2014 Catalonia held a controversial de facto referendum on independence, with 80% of voters in favour of leaving Spain, albeit on a vote with a low turnout.

Miffed Madrid is having none of it, declaring the referendum illegal, but the Catalan government says it will push through independence next year. Quite how they'll do this is currently unclear, but the potential for a messy breakup can't be entirely dismissed.

As with all breakups, it's important to get some perspective — and what better place to do that than at the Boí Taüll Resort in the Spanish Pyrenees. You can get a lot of perspective up here, in this sky-scraping ski resort, where I watch snowy massifs glisten in the morning sun and dark clouds linger ominously on the horizon.

The Catalans are famously proud of their little corner of northeast Spain, which some of them actually wish wasn't in Spain. And they'll remind anyone who listens that in Catalonia you can ski down snowy slopes in the morning and scorch on sandy shores in the afternoon. But what really appeals about the journey from the Pyrenees to the Costa Brava is the opportunity it offers me to decipher as much as I can about the Catalan character along the way.

My trip begins in a chairlift, which glides silently above Boí Taüll's powdery slopes. Below me, colourful figures carve through fresh snow, while above dark clouds surrender more of the white stuff. Topping out at 9,025ft, Boí Taüll remains largely overlooked by foreign skiers. And the Catalans (and Spanish) are probably keen to keep it that way, as they currently have the undulating slopes of this bijou resort to themselves.

"It's not busy and the snow is perfect," coos Luis Arnedo, my ski guide. "I don't know what it is, but there's something about this place — I love it here."

Luis is from (whisper it) Rioja and admits to feeling, well, like a bit of foreigner in Catalonia. "It's like a different country," he says. "They have their own language, Catalan, which I've had to learn."

Luis hopes Spain and Catalonia bury the hatchet and stay together, but understands why their relationship has become strained. "It's more expensive to live here than the rest of Spain because the taxes are higher," he sighs, hopping off the chairlift.

Some Catalans are aggrieved, complaining that their region, the powerhouse of the country's economy, is subsidising the rest of Spain. Fair or not, it's clear that, as with many relationships, money is helping to break this one apart.

Playing with fire

Tramuntana puffs persistently, before engulfing me in a blizzard. Undeterred, I complete the blue run without incident, but I'm not satisfied: at the bottom of the slopes, I suspect there's more to this affair than money, so I ditch my skis and drive down to Vall de Boí, stopping in the village of Taüll en route to admire its Romanesque churches. There are nine of these UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated churches scattered around the valley — two in Taüll — and they stand as a reminder of Catalonia's long-diminished might.

"A powerful count with lots of money built them after recuperating the territory from the Arabs," explains Carme Polo, a journalist I meet in Taüll. "Arabic people were out of Catalonia very early compared to the rest of Spain — and now we want to push out Spanish ideas."

Carme was instrumental in securing UNESCO listings for Vall de Boí's feted churches and has travelled here from her home in Barcelona to witness the premier of a video-mapping production at the church of Sant Climent de Taüll. A marriage of medieval art and modern technology, the impressive, 10-minute show digitally reproduces the church's missing frescos, which were prized off the walls by art collectors in the 1900s. I watch the spectacle twice before exiting the pillaged place of worship.

Outside the church, I spot a giant Estelada flapping on a flagpole. With its red and orange stripes, blue triangle and white star, this is the standard for Catalan independence. These flags are everywhere here: schools, houses, government buildings — in the Vall de Boí, you're never far from a fluttering Estelada.

Neither are you far from the legend of Las Fallas, which provokes passionate discussion in the valley. Las Fallas is a time-honoured fire festival that takes place here during the summer and is celebrated with gusto throughout the Pyrenees. It was, much to the jubilation of locals, recently placed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Teaching me about the ways of Las Fallas is Xavi Farré, who I meet in the town of El Pont de Suert, which looks gloomy under a brooding sky. Xavi has a PhD in cultural geography and grows organic apples for a living; his greying mane, silver earring and weathered skin give him a distinguished, outdoorsy quality.

Xavi explains how, during Las Fallas, people across the Pyrenees chop down trees, make giant torches from the felled timber and carry them up nearby mountains where they drink more wine than is advisable. Come nightfall, these revellers then ignite the torches and dance down to the village square carrying them over their shoulders, trying to avoid third-degree burns. What could possibly go wrong?

"It can be dangerous — it depends how drunk you get," says Xavi. "The grass can be slippery and there are many rocks, but the adrenalin keeps you going."

Las Fallas happens in Andorra and France, as well as Catalonia, and it predates the borders between these territories. As well as being inherently dangerous, and a lot of fun, this jamboree is symbolic of the cultural exchange that's taken place between Catalonia and its northern neighbours. And that exchange, as I'll learn in Girona later today, is fundamental to understanding Catalonia's character.

The French connection

Tramuntana blows boisterously, before whistling down the cobblestone streets. Girona is a fair schlep from Vall de Boí, but the medieval city is not beyond the reach of this fabled wind. Her gusts blow hope into independence flags that hang from Girona's ornate balconies.

Often overshadowed by nearby Barcelona, Girona is enjoying the spotlight at the moment after landing a starring role in series five of Game of Thrones, which gave viewers a glimpse of its medieval splendour.

There's a measured beauty about Girona, which is dominated by the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona and surrounded by what remains of the Roman walls. Sparrows sing in leafy parks, lovers linger on stony steps and the River Onyar reflects the colourful facades of waterside properties, conjuring memories of Florence. I climb the city walls, which offer another perspective on the Catalan character. Up here, I learn about life in this region under Franco, the iron-fisted dictator who ruled Spain from 1936-1975.

"Everything Catalan was forbidden," explains my guide, Carles Pongiluppi, as we look across Girona. "The language, the dancing, the flag; anything related to Catalan culture was illegal."

The solitude of exile united Catalans against Spain and encouraged them to look to neighbouring France, says Carles, who is undecided on the question of independence. "You can see France from here and at that time France represented liberty," he says, pointing to a snowy massif on the horizon. "In Catalonia, you could listen to French radio, watch French TV and get French newspapers. A lot of ideas at that time came from France, but they didn't reach the rest of Spain."

From Girona, Carles and I set off on a road trip to the seaside. We take the scenic route, driving through pretty medieval villages where, every Sunday, locals gather in front of the church to do the Sardana. Outlawed under Franco, this folk dance is woven into the fabric of Catalan culture and you can witness the dance in towns, cities and villages across the region. Its tempo is dictated by the cobla, a traditional music ensemble also unique to Catalonia.

We stop in the sleepy village of Monells, whose rustic stone dwellings, cobbled streets and decorative archways were used as a backdrop in the 2015 film Ocho Apellidos Catalanes (Eight Catalan Surnames), which took a comedic look at independence. We also stop in the town of Púbol, where orange trees groan under the weight of their unpicked bounty and sleepy cats purr on sunny steps.

Catalonia's famous son Salvador Dalí kept a property here. "It was this one," says Carles, pointing to a stone dwelling next to the church. The house once belonged to a wealthy nobleman, who had a private window looking into the church so he could observe mass without leaving his home.

"When Dalí bought the place, the first thing the priest did was wall up the window," says Carles, flashing me a smile. "For him, it was like having the Devil living next door."

We stop in nearby La Bisbal d'Empordà, a town famed for its pottery, where we eat a Catalan lunch — white beans and sausage to start; barbecued rabbit and roast vegetables to follow; and a crème Catalana to finish — washed down with a pitcher of red wine. Catalan, of course. Vineyards abound in Catalonia, so if the region does separate from Spain at least its cellars will remain well stocked.

Back on the road, we cruise through rolling vineyards, which tumble towards the shimmering Mediterranean in the distance. From slopes to shores, my journey is nearly complete. In the village of Begur, we watch the Costa Brava ('Rough Coast') tumble towards France. It's hackneyed to describe somewhere as having Dalí-esque landscapes, but the views before me are just that because this is the land that inspired so many of the surrealist's paintings. The plains sweeping down from the Pyrenees, the craggy coves, the sleepy fishing villages: they all feature in the artist's works, a large number of which hang in the eccentric Dalí Theatre-Museum in nearby Figueres, where the artist was born and buried.

He loved it here, Dalí. Not only did he have that rustic house in Púbol, but he also had a seaside bolthole in Cap de Creus, the most easterly point of the Iberian Peninsula, which lingers on the misty horizon.

"Dalí liked telling people he was the first person to be visited by the sun — and he really was," says Carles. "He used to say he allowed the sun to continue its journey to the rest of Spain."

Like Dalí, we're all products of our environment. And Catalonia, whose independent spirit has followed me from snowy peaks to sandy shores, is separated from the rest of Spain by its history, language, landscapes, culture and cuisine, which all imbue a sense of nationalist pride in Catalonia. But whether it secures independence or not, Catalonia will remain one of the most curious, charismatic corners of Southern Europe. And ultimately, there will only ever be one true ruler of this land: the tumultuous Tramuntana, from which there's no escape.


Getting there
Ryanair flies direct to Girona from Luton, Stansted, Bournemouth, Bristol and Manchester. Jet2 and Thomson fly there from Glasgow and Birmingham respectively.
Average flight time: 2h.

Getting around
To experience the slopes, shores and villages of Catalonia, you really need a hire car (most major rental firms are present in the region). AVE high-speed trains are a great way to travel around the whole country.

When to go
The Costa Brava warms up to 17C in May and stays hot till early November. Avoid July and August if you don't like crowds. Visit Vall de Boí in June for Las Fallas or from December to April if you want to ski.

Need to know
Visa: None for UK citizens.
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.27.
International dial code: 00 34.
Time: GMT +1.

More info

How to do it
Scott Dunn offers seven nights at Mas De Torrent in Girona from £1,300 per person, based on two sharing a Garden Suite, B&B. Includes return British Airways flights and private airport transfers.

Alternatively, fly to Girona, then hire a car to Boí Taüll (ski season, Dec-Apr). Hotel el Rantiner is well placed for skiing and Taüll's Romanesque churches. From Taüll, drive to Girona, and stay at Hotel Museu Llegendes de Girona in the old town. From here, drive through medieval villages and vineyards to the Costa Brava, stopping at the Mas Oller vineyard. Hotel Llevant in Llafranc is a good base for day trips to Dalí's Figueres.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK). This article was amended on 7 June, 2016.


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