Captivating Catalonia

Lifestyle | Fri 11 Mar | Author – Niamh Mac Sweeney
The Montsant mountain range

Niamh Mac Sweeney discovers there is more to Catalonia’s Costa Daurada than sandy beaches and breathtakingly beautiful coastline.

If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then perhaps you shouldn’t judge a holiday destination by the brochure. This became blatantly obvious after a recent visit to the Costa Daurada region on the coast of Catalonia. Hailed as a busy tourist resort, Costa Daurada is so much more than just pristine sandy beaches and Mediterranean coastline.

Although it has beaches in bucket loads, it also has many delights and hidden gems begging to be explored. Whether its history, culture, vineyards and fine cuisine, or art, fiestas, theme parks and world heritage sites, given the variety and depth of things to do along this stunning, Catalonian coastline, you might be hard pressed to find time to recline on the sun-lounger for any great length of time.

Flying into Reus airport, a short 20-minute taxi ride and you’re in the popular resort of Salou. Staying at the Hotel Regente Aragon, this contemporary hotel is ideally situated in the old town and makes for a great base from which to explore the coastal hot spots.

Salou is renowned for its beautiful beaches. The nine beaches and coves that make up the resorts coastline all have very different characteristics – ranging from long, wide stretches of fine, golden sand to small inlets surrounded by pine trees – perfect for sunbathing, swimming and water sports.

Cala_Llenguadets

Cala Llenguadets

If you visit Salou in early September, the King Jaume I festival will take you on a delightful journey back in time to the 13th century. The medieval market, where vendors dress in traditional costume, sets the scene, as does the king and his entourage’s colourful precession through the old town down to the sea. And if that’s not enough, the abundance of street performers and artists who throng the streets during this festival are sure to entertain tourists of all ages.

When it comes to dining out in Salou the options are endless. For a fine dining experience, Villa Alexander Restaurant on Paseo Jaime I, overlooks the sea, and the menu is as tantalising as the views of the lush garden in which this delightful restaurant is situated.

Another restaurant that comes highly recommended is Restaurant Le Sommelier. A unique gastro bar with a market and liquor store atmosphere, the décor is as innovative as the tapas style menu. The concept of this contemporary restaurant is well executed and the result is a refreshing wine cellar and eatery that combines traditional Mediterranean elements with modern Nordic touches. There is also a well-thought-out Gastronomy Route in Salou that showcases some of the finest traditional and modern Catalonian cuisine. Fear not, you won’t go hungry in this town.

If all the dinning is beginning to take its toll, there are plenty of ways to work it off. Walking, cycling, water activities or a few rounds of golf at the exclusive Lumine Mediterranea Beach and Golf resort, will certainly put you back on an even keel. For something less taxing but equally enjoyable, the 2.5km coastal path that runs parallel to the sea, offers breathtaking views and weaves effortlessly around enchanting coves and bays. And if a gentle stroll is more than you bargained for while on holiday, then the tourist train is a convenient and easily accessible means of exploring this coastal wonderland. 

A RAMBLE IN REUS

While many will be familiar with Reus as a place to fly in and out of, spending some time in this enchanting city reveals much more than an arrival or departure point. The city is teeming with historical and cultural places of interest. In the 18th century, Reus saw considerable growth in its population, becoming the second most important town in Catalonia thanks to the liquor trade, and the term ‘Reus, Paris and London’, still stands today. Soon after in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the great modernist buildings were constructed, many of which have survived to this day.

Cartoixa d´Scala Dei

Cartoixa d´Scala Dei

Famous for its Art Nouveau architecture, Reus is the city of Gaudi. The Gaudi Centre is dedicated to the life and work of Antoni Gaudi, where visitors can discover how his creative genius took shape and discover how the city inspired him. Located in the heart of the historic and commercial centre of Reus, the Gaudi Centre is an interpretation centre that uses modern exhibition techniques that convey the secrets of his life and work. Visitors can enjoy a fascinating journey through time, space and sensation to discover Gaudi and his genius.

The Costa Daurada is so much more than just pristine sandy beaches and Mediterranean coastline

The Modernist Route allows visitor to stroll around this city and discover outstanding modernist architecture and admire the façades of some 26 buildings. After Barcelona, Reus is the most important modernist city.

Visitors can marvel at Casa Navàs (1907) a unique house with ceramics, mosaics, stained glassed windows and stonework, all of which are great examples of the decorative arts of modernism. And in the heart of Reus, Prim Square features the sculptures of the politician and soldier Joan Prim, who was born in Reus and was president of the Spanish government in 1869. The Teatro Fortuny (1882) was built by Francesc Blanch and this theatre, along with the Bartrina Theatre, are two of the most important in Catalonia.

L’Institut Pere Mata (on the outskirts of the city) is part of the Modernisme Route. This psychiatric hospital was once a landmark in the field, and the Pavilion of the Distinguished was declared a place of cultural interest by the government. Considered a jewel in the crown of Art Nouveau in Europe, it was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of the most important figures in European architecture in the 19th century. Admittedly, a visit to a psychiatric hospital might not be on the itineraries of most holidaymakers, but it is worth a visit for its inspiring architecture and design, its ornamental richness and great artistic splendour.

The origins of Vermut de Reus is another special relationship central to the heritage of this city. The Museu del Vermut is a unique bar and restaurant gathering together the world’s finest collection of vermouth. Belonging to Joan Tapias, this expansive collection features more than 5,000 objects relating to vermouth including: 1,900 brands from 56 countries; 1,400 bottles, 300 advertising posters; 3,000 labels and hundreds of commercial and decorative objects. Here you can try various brands and the restaurant provides great food for substance, if nothing else. Other restaurant’s in the city that come highly recommended include: La Glorieta del Castell, La Bajoqueta, Mas de l’Avia or Kenavo for crepes of the sweet and savoury variety.

Monsant

TRADITIONAL TARRAGONA

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the roman legacy of Tarragona still stands the test of time. A stroll along the defensive walls and archaeological promenade reveals an abundance of historical places of notoriety. The Amphitheatre, the Circus and Pilate’s Tower – now part of the city’s Museum of History – are the most important sites relating to the Roman period, along with the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona. The Cathedral dates from the medieval period as does the narrow streets in the ‘Part Alta’ – the old quarter. At the end of the Rambla Nova, the Mediterranean Balcony offers splendid views of the sea and in the lower part of the city, the El Serrallo fishing quarter and marina offer great restaurants and nightlife.

Cami de Ronda

Cami de Ronda

Forget Pamplona’s running of the bulls or the Valencian town of Buñol’s La Tomatina festival, the real test of mettle and endurance takes place each September in Tarragona when the city celebrates ‘castells’ or the ‘human tower’.

Renowned for its seafood cuisine, Cambrils is regarded as the gastronomic capital of the Costa Daurada, thanks to more than 200 restaurants

In jaw-dropping and spectacular fashion, young and old build and then dismantle human towers. Not for the faint-hearted, this long-standing tradition dates back to the 18th century and is indicative of the Catalonian spirit.

CALMING CAMBRILS

After all the treats for the cultural senses, a nice juxtaposition is a visit to the sleepy seaside town of Cambrils. Renowned for its seafood cuisine, Cambrils is regarded as the gastronomic capital of the Costa Daurada, thanks to more than 200 restaurants.

As a town, Cambrils dates back to the 12th century. The old district reveals remains of the medieval Cambrils with its narrow streets, and the fishing harbour and beaches are picture postcard. In the early evening you can watch fishing boats sail in with their daily catch and the Port Tower – dating back to the 17th century – is the perfect vantage point from which to take in the view.

POWER OF THE PRIORAT

No visit to the Costa Daurada would be complete without a visit to the Priorat wine region. A land of vineyards, harsh cliffs and imposing rock faces, the valleys and ravines are stunning, and the wines the region produces are renowned internationally.

In order to put things into context, a good place to start is the Wine Castle. The museum is in the castle of the Counts of Prades in Falset, which was built in the 12th century following the Christian re-conquest of new Catalonia. Through audiovisuals and interactive exhibits, the Wine Castle takes visitors on an interesting journey through the winemaking culture that is such an important part of life in the Priorat region.

Falset festival

Falset Festival

The Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) covers 11 municipals that primarily produces exquisite red wines, which came to international attention in the 1990s. The area is characterised by its unique terroir of black slate and quartz soil, known as llicorella, and is one of only two wine regions in Spain, alongside Rioja, to qualify as DOCa, the highest qualification for a wine region according to Spanish wine experts.

The wineries of DO Montsant and DOQ Priorat are most welcoming, opening their doors for visitor to discover their wines, their heritage and their passion.

The Celler El Masroig, is one such winery where their enthusiasm for what they do is palpable. Not only do they still pay homage to traditions, but their love of the region and the wine they produce is inspiring.

Founded in 1917, Celler Masroig has maintained its essence and character for nearly 100 years and is currently one of the most celebrated wineries in the area. Grenache and Carignan are the local grape varieties of the area, and a tour of this vineyard will reveal that there is as much spirit in the bottles as there is in the people that produce them.

The Cellers de Scala Dei is another interesting winery worth visiting. Founded by the same families that bought the monastery in 1840, this winery is the living history of wine in the region, with the first wines bottled here in 1878. Steeped in tradition, wine from surrounding vineyards are still aged here in the old cellar and the warm and friendly staff are more than happy to show visitors around as part of a guided tour. For those wanting to take a tour of the Priorat region, if you go by yourself you will need a car. For an easier option, book a place on the Priorat Wine Van Tour which picks up from the main resorts.

The historical Cartoixa d’Escaladei (monastery of Scala) is another must see on any visitor’s itinerary to the region. Located at the bottom of a valley and protected by the impressive Montsant mountain range, in this tranquil setting it is easy to understand how devoted the monks were to their lives of silence, prayer and solitude.

Rachel Ritchie, an English woman who has lived in the region for over 20 years, is an informative tour guide and comes highly recommended. She informed us that the Charterhouse of Scala Del was founded in 1194 when King Alphonse I ceded the land to the Carthusian Order as part of the need to repopulate the territory. The Order gained importance, even enjoying royal protection, which allowed them to expand the monastery to three cloisters and 30 cells.

Port_EsportiuFood in the Priorat region is like the wine itself and oozes authentic charm. A family business since 1923, Hostal Sport Falset is a spectacular restaurant that has stood the test of time. Marta Domènec, the current manager, is the perfect host and a traditional Catalan lunch is served and devoured with nothing but praise for the service, food, wine and ambiance.

TIME FOR MORE

With so much to do and see along Catalonia’s Costa Daurada, many visitors will find that their one complaint is finding time to do everything in one or two weeks. Whether its high octane activities or slow leisurely strolls, fine dinning in contemporary restaurants or meandering away the time in traditional Catalan watering-holes, the Catalonian coastline has something for everyone.

And if you’re only complaint after a holiday in this captivating part of the world is that you didn’t get to do everything you would have liked to – well that’s not the worse complaint now is it? If you have to return again and again, so be it. Reliving the Costa Daurada adventure is what its all about.

… the real test of mettle and endurance takes place each September in Tarragona when the city celebrates ‘castells’ or the ‘human tower’

Human Towers

ALL THE FUN OF THE FARE

For a family fun holiday, PortAventura with its theme and water parks, is the perfection destination for all the family.

PortAventura_ParkLast year PortAventura celebrated its 20th anniversary and with more than four million visitors annually, it’s easy to see why so many people flock to this resort each year. PortAventura resort comprises of a theme park, waterpark, four 4-star themed hotels and the new Mansión de Lucy, a 5-star hotel that opened in 2015. In addition, there is a Convention Centre that can hold up to 4,000 delegates.

At PortAventura, works have begun on the construction of Ferrari Land, the first Ferrari theme park in Europe, which is scheduled to open in 2016. But the range of leisure activities doesn’t end when the theme park rides stop, and three golf courses designed by Greg Norman and a Beach Club, provide plenty more fun and activities.

In 2014, PortAventura became the first resort in Europe to host a show by Cirque du Soleil, and given the incredible success of this venture, the show has returned again each summer.

To find out more about PortAventura or to make a booking, visit www.portaventuraworld.com.