Insider's Guide: Catalonia

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The Independent Travel

Debbie Rigg, of self-guided walking holiday specialist On Foot Holidays (onfootholidays.co.uk), offers her top tips for a stay in Catalonia.

1. Catalonia is so much more than Barcelona. Why not head north-east to Girona's quieter cobbled streets and see the views from its cathedral and its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter? Then strike out into the countryside around Olot – across the historic bridge into Besalu – forging a way up into the seemingly impenetrable medieval town of Rupit.

2. The Garrotxa is a region of dormant volcanoes, aka La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park. Montsacopa, for example, stands immediately behind the town of Olot – its Franciscan church is set in the actual crater, though it's about 10,000 years since the last eruption.

3. Besalu is on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims could obtain the same indulgences here at the church of Sant Sepulcre de Palera as at its namesake in Jerusalem, and this made the town one of the most important religious, political and cultural centres in the Middle Ages. Visit the underground Jewish bathhouse, discovered by a local while digging her garden.

4. Hike to the shrine of La Nostra Senyora de les Olletes (Our Lady of the Little Saucepans) on the lower slopes of Puigsacalm – at 1,515m Catalonia's "mountain". Gaze out from the tiny remote church of Sant Miguel at the snow-capped Pyrenees. Along the path, you'll find little fossil "smarties": foraminifera (or nummulites), which formed the rocks used to build the pyramids.

5. Explore Catalonia's legends. The red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag are said to represent traces of blood on a golden shield – a story which somehow combines Count Wilfred the Hairy with King Charles the Bald. St George becomes St Jordi here, the region's patron saint, whose day is celebrated by young men giving their sweetheart a red rose, and young women giving their beloved a book.

6. Enjoy the "volcanic cuisine", based around buckwheat, fesols (beans) de Santa Pau, pork, potatoes, chestnuts, boar and wild mushrooms. Sound heavy? Not at all. Thoughtfully prepared and presented with care by restaurants from the Michelin-starred to the simple village café, it's flavoursome cooking. Drink the local cava as an aperitif, and develop a taste for the region's herbal liqueur ratafia. (Perhaps, more wisely, don't.)

7. Catalan is spoken widely in the area. It's a Latin language, a direct heir of the dog Latin spoken in the peninsula by the Romans. Ask a local how to pronounce the ever-present "X" and impress your friends.

8. Explore Santa Pau, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Catalonia. Its colonnaded three-sided Firal dels Bous (main square) snuggles up to the imposing castle with original houses still attached to its walls.

9. Catalan culture is thriving – every town has its fiestas. Seek out the more unusual castellers (human castles); sardana (folk dancing); and, most exciting of all, the correfoc (fire run), with its devils and firecrackers.

10. Hire a car and head east to the Costa Brava from L'Escala to Port Bou, where Spain gives way imperceptibly to France. The cliff roads rise to the giddy perches of monasteries before plunging past pretty whitewashed villages to the seashore.

To get further information about holidays in Spain and elsewhere, visit the Association of Independent Tour Operators' website at aito.com

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