This wonderfully varied land of sandy shores, snowy mountains and ancient towns and villages is essentially a country-within-a-country. With its own rich culture and language, Catalonia is as distinct from the rest of Spain as is the Basque region – but without the sporadic outbursts of violence. Set in the north-eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, the province covers an area about the size of Switzerland. It has its own government and a passionately patriotic population of about seven million.
Of course, the conventional attractions of this striking region are Barcelona and the sweeping sands along the province's northern stretch of the Mediterranean. Yet there's a great deal more to Catalonia than the Ramblas and Costas that hog the limelight, so we're stepping beyond the glories of the Catalan capital and the sunny delights of the Costa Brava. From mountains to the Med, this richly diverse region offers other fascinating towns, as well as glorious landscapes and the remains of ancient cultures.
I'd like a city break
The fine walled city of Girona should be very much a destination in its own right, but despite having become a significant hub for Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), it remains curiously undervisited, the cobbled alleys of its old town relatively free of tourist crowds. Most visitors arriving on Ryanair's services from 11 destinations across the UK (Blackpool, Bournemouth, Bristol, Doncaster, Durham, East Midlands, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted) immediately board a bus for Barcelona, about an hour's drive away, which means that they miss some great medieval sights. Chief among these are Girona's majestic Gothic cathedral with an amazing Romanesque tapestry in its museum (both open 10am-6pm daily, adults €4/£3.10, free on Sundays); its ancient Jewish quarter around Carrer de la Forca; and its glorious 12th-century bathhouses, Banys Arabs, at Carrer de Ferran Catolic (open 10am-2pm daily, €3.50/£2.70).
Down on the Costa Dorada (the Golden Coast), in the south of Catalonia, the city of Tarragona was founded by the Romans in about 215 BC. It offers sandy beaches, a striking Romanesque and Gothic cathedral (open 10am-2pm Monday-Saturday, admission to both €2.40/£1.80) and, best of all, some astonishing Roman remains that are now, collectively, a Unesco Word Heritage Site. From an amphitheatre and an aqueduct to ancient walls and a circus built for chariot races, there are seven Roman sites in and around the city. These, along with an aristocratic town mansion showing different architectural styles from the 14th to the 18th centuries, come under the umbrella of the Museu d'Historia de Tarragona, and are open Tuesday to Saturday 9am-7pm, single entrance €2.20 (£1.70), joint entrance for all enclosures €8.60 (£6.60) – the Roman quarry outside town is open until 4pm; the walls until 5pm; while access to the aqueduct is free at any time).
The most convenient international gateways to Tarragona city are Barcelona to the north – variously served from across the UK by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com); Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com); and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) – and Zaragoza in neighbouring Aragon to the west, served by Ryanair from Stansted.
For more ancient splendour...
Make for the substantial complex of Greek and Roman ruins near the charming village of Sant Marti d'Empuries on the coast north of Girona. Empuries (open daily 10am-6pm, €2.40/£1.80) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Spain. It was a significant Greek colony, founded around 550BC, and later became a Roman settlement. Today, parts of the Greek defensive walls still stand, as well as of the Greek town square, while the Roman remains include an amphitheatre, arena and villa.
On the southern fringes of Catalonia, the Ebro Delta offers intriguing prehistoric rock art. The Abric d'Ermites cave paintings (free access) are close to the dramatic ruins of a medieval castle near the town of Ulldecona.
Specialist in archaeological holidays, Andante Travels (01722 713 800; www.andantetravels.co.uk) launched a new trip to this area last year, and is offering another tour here in September. The seven-night holiday will take in the Neolithic rock cave sites as well as the Roman ruins at Tarragona. The tour includes wine-tasting and excursions to early Christian sites. It costs from £1,600 per person (based on two sharing), which includes flights from Heathrow to Barcelona; all transport in Spain; three nights accommodation in the Parador de Tortosa on the plains of Ebro, and four nights at a seafront hotel in Tarragona; most meals, and guidance.
And other arty attractions?
There are, of course, glorious works by Gaudí, Miró and Picasso to be seen in Barcelona. But Catalonia also boasts a trio of extraordinary galleries in the north-east. These celebrate the life and local legacy of the fabulously flamboyant Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The son of a lawyer, Dalí was born in the town of Figueres in 1904. He worked and, made his name internationally, in Madrid, Paris and the States, but returned to Catalonia in later life and died in Figueres in 1989.
About 10km north-east of Girona, Castell de Pubol is a medieval mansion that Dalí bought for his wife Gala as a semi-ruin in 1969. He turned it into an extraordinary showpiece of art and architecture, full of surprises and symbols, and complete with a Gothic-looking throne room. Today, it houses a collection of Dalí's drawings and elephant sculptures. From 12 March, it opens daily 10am-6pm; €6 (£4.60).
From the Thirties, Dalí's own eccentric residence was at the fishing hamlet of Port Lligat, near the picturesque village of Cadaqués, north of Figueres. Here he converted a row of fishermen's huts into winding accommodation that included a studio, library, bedroom and dining area. He also created a bizarre garden with a swimming pool, which he shared with his swans. From 16 March to 16 September, the house is open daily 9.30am-8.10pm; €10 (£7.70); visitors must book ahead by calling 00 34 972 251 015 or visiting www.salvador-dali.org.
In the Seventies, Dalí transformed the old theatre in his hometown Figueres into a gallery for his works – and some by other artists such as El Greco and Maria Fortuny.
The Dalí Theatre-Museum is now one of Catalonia's most popular attractions, last year drawing around 900,000 visitors. It is both mad and marvellous: as well as paintings there are Dalí sculptures, mechanical works, collages and installations, including a Mae West Room where the actress's face is rendered in the form of a red sofa for a mouth, a chimney for a nose and two paintings for eyes. The gallery is open daily 10.30am-6pm; €10 (£7.70).
East of Figueres, near the seaside town of Roses, another form of artistic spectacle can, literally, be savoured – if you can get a table at one of the world's most sought-after restaurants: elBulli at Cala Montjoi (00 34 972 150 457; www.elbulli.com). It's pure gourmet theatre, presenting diners with an amazing drama of food textures, colours, shapes and tastes. Set menus consist of 20 or so small and exquisite courses, the creation of the dishes overseen by Ferran Adrià. The restaurant opens only April-October, and is currently officially booked out for the 2008 season, but tables sometimes become available at short notice.
Give me more local flavour
Other Catalan gourmet highlights include El Celler de Can Roca, at Carretera Taiala 40 in Girona (00 34 972 222 157; www.cellercanroca.com). This tucked-away establishment is owned and run by the three Roca brothers who describe it as a "family" restaurant, yet El Celler de Can Roca's two Michelin stars attest to sensational cuisine that defies such a label. Savoury dishes include calamari smoked with paprika, and slow-roasted suckling pig, while desserts play on combinations of spices, sorbets, fruits and more, and look like works of art.
North of Girona, in the haunting, volcanic region of Garrotxa, Mas Les Cols at Carretera de la Canya, Olot (00 34 972 269209; www.lescols.com) won a Michelin star in 2006. The chef Fina Puigdevall serves cuisine based on robust local ingredients such as white beans and home-grown charcuterie, given a contemporary twist. Her restaurant is set in a stunningly converted 13th-century house, beside which she has built five avant-garde glass pavilions in which diners can stay overnight. Each is minimally furnished and costs from €250 (£192) per night, not including breakfast.
South of Barcelona, around Vilafranca del Penedès is wine country. This is where u o about 85 per cent of Spain's cava is produced, with tours of Freixenet (at Joan Sala 2, Sant Sadurni d'Anoia; 00 34 93 891 7000; www.freixenet.es) and Codorniu (at Avenida Jaume Codorniu, Sant Sadurni d'Anoia; 00 34 93 891 3342; www.cordoniu.com) conducted daily for visitors who book in advance.
You can also take a tour of the 300-year-old Torres winery (about 3km north-west of Vilafranca del Penedès; 00 34 93 817 7487; www.torres.es; adults €4/£3.10). Still family run, it produces highly regarded reds and whites – Sangre de Toro, Vina Sol and more – and prides itself on its spirit of innovation. Vilafranca del Penedès itself offers an absorbing local museum, complete with a sizeable section on wine, housed in an atmospheric Gothic building in the centre of town (open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-7pm; Sunday 10am-2pm; €3.50/£2.70).
Catalonia is dotted with old villages of enormous charm. You'll find a particularly visit-worthy group just east of Girona, and within easy reach of a very pretty stretch of the Costa Brava. Begur has a 10th-century castle presiding over the village from a hilltop, as well as cobbled streets of honey-coloured stone and a number of watchtowers built to protect the village from pirate attack in the 16th century.
Further inland, Monells offers wonderfully atmospheric old streets and contains the ruins of an ancient castle. Peratallada, meanwhile, is a medieval delight of narrow alleys, vaulted passages and pretty squares – and also has a crumbling castle. The number of antique and handicraft shops here reflect the village's popularity as a day-trip destination from Girona.
Further west, in the Garrotxa region, is the fortified medieval village of Santa Pau, complete with a huge castle and a Romanesque church. Stop at the information centre (open daily 10am-4pm) in the arcaded Placa Major to pick up maps of the well-signposted footpaths around the outlying nature park, a spectacular place of volcanic hills and woodland.
Due south, in rugged central Catalonia, Rupit is a must-see village of charming houses, medieval cobbled streets and terracotta roofs. The most dramatic way to approach this enchanting medieval settlement is across a wooden footbridge, first built in the 13th century, although considerably shored up since then.
Get me to a monastery...
For a sublime perspective of Catalonia, head to the Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes (10am-5pm, closed Monday, adults €3.60/£2.80), splendidly set about 500 metres above the resort and fishing village of El Port de Selva. Cloisters, crypt, ambulatory, refectory: there's plenty to explore, if you can drag yourself away from the amazing ocean views. The monastery dates back to the 9th century, or even earlier, but the buildings that remain today were largely constructed in the 10th to 12th centuries, when the monks acquired great political and economic power. Now a museum, the complex has been cleverly excavated to show different layers of history, with a slightly weird net effect that leaves you feel as if you're walking through an Escher drawing.
In southern Catalonia, in the green and hilly district of Conca de Barberà, you can visit a magnificent still-functioning monastery. Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Poblet, at Vimbodi near Tarragona, was founded by the Cistercian order in the 12th century and is a haven from the modern world – although, in fact, the monastery became increasingly decadent during the 19th century and was abandoned for decades. The monks returned in 1940 after the buildings were restored. It opens 10am-12.30pm and 3-5.30pm daily (Sundays from 10.30am), admission €4.50 (£3.50).
Alternatively, for a serene tour of some of Catalonia's loveliest religious buildings, make for the Vall de Boi, south-west of the Parc Nacional D'Aigüestortes, in the high Pyrenees.
The nine Romanesque churches in this dramatic, narrow valley were collectively declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2000. Dating from 1123, the church of Sant Climent de Taüll is the largest and best conserved, with an elegant six-storey bell tower and beautifully decorated friezes and pilasters.
Other listed mountain churches include the pretty little Sant Joan de Boi, partly renovated in the 18th century, and the striking Santa Maria de l'Assumpció de Coll, with its barrel-vaulting and later Gothic additions. They are open daily, 10am-2pm and 4pm-7pm; adults €1.20 (92p) per church.
I'd like an active holiday
Skiing, walking, cycling: take your pick.
The mountains in the north of Catalonia offer plenty of possibilities for winter sports. Skiing options from the UK include a seven-night break at Baqueira-Beret, travelling with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk). Prices start at around £670 per person (based on two sharing) and cover flights to Toulouse, from Gatwick (or Birmingham, Manchester or Stansted for marginally more), transfers, and half-board accommodation at the four-star Hotel Tuc Blanc. Six-day ski passes (free for children under six) can be pre-booked with Inghams from around £164 per person.
Numerous hiking options include a range of walking holidays from Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk). One of the company's most dramatically scenic trips is the seven-night Catalan Pyrenees holiday, on which you walk from the small Pyrenean spa town of Ribes de Freser, through wild valleys and astonishing, semi-hidden villages, to Molló, close to the French border.
This independent trip is offered between the end of May and the end of October, and costs from £648 per person (based on two sharing). The price includes half-board accommodation in comfortable hotels, three picnic lunches, walking maps and notes, and luggage transfers.
Flights need to be arranged separately: Barcelona is the recommended airport, with onward travel by rail and taxi to Ribes de Freser costing around €50 (£38).
Meanwhile, cycling in Catalonia is all the more enjoyable when you take the traffic-free dedicated "greenways", former railway tracks converted into cycle routes.
Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) offers a "Pyrenees to the Med" holiday along such trails. This week-long trip starts in Barcelona, from where you take a train to the Pyrenean town of Ripoll and cycle from there through the Garrotxa region to Girona, and on to Sant Feliu de Guixols on the coast. The cost from around £700 (based on two sharing) is for departure on 25 May and includes flights to Barcelona from Heathrow, hotel accommodation, some meals, transport in Spain, and the services of a tour leader.
Where can I find out more?
The Spanish Tourist Office, 79 New Cavendish Street, London W1W 6XB (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).
The Pyrenees stretch across the top of Catalonia; the highest point, Pica d'Estats, lies on the border with France, west of Andorra. The 1,000km of signposted paths include the GR11 long-distance Pyrenean Path and the GR107 Bons Homes Path, following an ancient Cathar route used in the 12th to 14th centuries by those fleeing persecution. The trail ran from the Sanctuary of Queralt in Catalonia to the castle of Monségur in France.
At this time of year, however, skiing may be more appealing. There are a good 300 ski slopes and 300km of cross-country ski trails. The resort of Vall de Nuria (00 34 972 73 2020; www.valldenuria.com), north of Barcelona, is a convenient option, while Baqueira-Beret (00 34 973 63 9010; www.baqueira.es), in Val d'Aran in the north-west, has at least 70 ski slopes.