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Catalonia - Beyond the Bright Lights of Barcelona

28/08/2014 11:43 BST | Updated 27/10/2014 09:59 GMT

Spain's north-east corner holds a secret. Technically, it's not Spain. At least that's what you will be told again and again by the Catalan people, fiercely protective of their independence and identity. It's a region of incredible individuality; Pyrenees peaks, golden sand coves, endless rice paddies and a surreal volcanic park, mouth-watering cuisine and its own language. With only a couple of notable exceptions, the most hyped element of Catalonia's tourism development is the lack of it; and its strong sense of cultural identity has not been watered down by English-speaking resorts, fish and chip shops and bars showing the latest episode of EastEnders. As an industry which seems to value most the places it has had least impact, it seems a wonder that Catalonia away from Barcelona has not been discovered more fully. Has the city's tourism dominance protected the rest of the region? Or does the fierce pride in everything Catalan drive a tourist industry rooted in the protection of local people, places and cultures?

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Image credit: SBA73

Certainly Barcelona takes the lion's share of tourism in Catalonia, but outside the famous city very few people who visit Spain head deeper into the region. And even less leave its coastline and head inland where the real, undiscovered delights lie. Visiting Catalonia means a world away from chain hotels and large resorts, instead there are a host of empty beaches, family-run hotels and guesthouses and local restaurants. But despite the lack of obvious tourism development this is a region crisscrossed by walking paths and cycle trails, which allow the more intrepid visitor to discover peaceful pueblos and Pyrenees peaks. For me, Catalonia offers so much tourism potential, yet lying in the shadow of Barcelona, a city which regularly appears on the "not to be missed" travel lists, the region is sheltered away from most tourist activities. Head further down into the southern end of the region, away from Barcelona's bright lights and there are areas which are unknown even to the majority of Catalans, and this is less than two hours drive from the city!

Inland, among the mountains, hills and pueblos tourism is centred on the great outdoors. And the small, often family run, businesses operating here have a vested interest in keeping the places which feed their livelihoods intact. For them, responsible, sensitive tourism is part and parcel of their daily lives. As the world wakes up to the potential for authentic, untouched experiences in Catalonia, the opportunity to discover Spain without the tourists, it will be these local, responsible tourism businesses which drive the industry. And they are helped by incredible, responsible tourism infrastructure, from local restaurants to the Vias Verdes, Catalonia's excellent network cycle paths created from old railway lines. It makes the region one of the best places in Europe to explore on two wheels, for a family friendly few hours or even a few days, and gives visitors access to communities working hard to defend their unique identity.

Catalonia is unique, and the pride of the Catalan people in their culture, food and landscape is clear from the moment you step off the plane. It is a region where food miles are so small they don't register on a scale - local restaurants will not only be serving local produce, but will also be serving it Catalan style. The ubiquitous promotion of all things Catalan, including language and local traditions, is a robust response to their prohibition during the 36 year Franco dictatorship. As travellers we need to be careful and respectful when entering into political discussions; how this autonomous region and its fiercely independent people sits with the rest of Spain is a controversial and deeply felt topic. At responsibletravel.com we always encourage travellers to immerse themselves in the country they are visiting, however we can go one step further here and celebrate the Catalan identity without the need for debate by immersing ourselves in what makes the region unique. Forget bullfighting, flamenco and Rioja, instead discover human towers or castells, watch sardanas being danced at village festivals, sip local wine, try enormous local mussels and freshly grilled prawns and taste the delectable crema catalana.

Yes, when most tourists think of Catalonia they think of Barcelona, Gaudi's architecture and Dali's museum. It's one of Europe's, even the world's, most hyped cities and with good reason. And there's no doubt that this tourism megalith has kept some of Catalonia's other towns, villages, coast and mountains hidden from view. However, I don't believe that it is just the shadow of Barcelona which has kept this region so untouched, so authentic, so Catalan. It is the Catalan people, and their pride in their identity and region which drives an inherently responsible tourism industry. One which works to celebrate, preserve and promote all things Catalan.

Read more about undiscovered Catalonia in responsibletravel.com's new 2 minute guide - http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/catalonia