Recommended: Castles, Cathedrals and Catalonia

Magical driving in the Pyrenees (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Tim Van Schmidt

Several weeks ago I wrote a column about traveling — and I dreamt of journeying to Spain. Well, it was no dream. I really did go to Spain over the holiday season.

My wife and I flew to Barcelona to meet another couple from Washington state and from there we managed to get a big taste of the northeastern part of Spain known as Catalonia.

Gaudi architecture rules in Barcelona (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

We spent several days in Barcelona itself, staying in an apartment right off of the busy Rambla, the city’s pedestrian-friendly centerpiece full of people, food, and stores.

From there, we rented a car and made a big circle through some of the highlights of the area, experiencing Catalan culture, history, and more.

The ceiling of the Sagrada Familia cathedral (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

So let’s get this straight right away. Catalonia is officially a part of Spain but there is more than a little independent spirit everywhere you go.

The Catalan flag is commonly displayed whereas you would be hard-pressed to find the flag of Spain anywhere. A yellow ribbon symbol of independence appears just as frequently — everywhere from in shop windows to street graffiti. It’s interesting to note that this is true throughout the region, but not in the Barcelona airport.

There’s more than a little independent spirit in Catalonia (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Our Catalan journey included visiting castles and medieval villages. One 11th-century castle had been purchased and decorated by Salvador Dali. Another lay in the midst of a medieval town located right on the fringes of an area littered with dozens of extinct volcanoes.

There were churches and cathedrals — every village had their own — and they were often the most prominent and imposing structures in town. Many of them were centuries old. Many had been restored after war damage.

Bridge in medieval village Besalu (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Especially in Barcelona, groundbreaking architecture in general is a prominent thing. Of course, we visited the Sagrada Familia, the incredible cathedral in the center of the city designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. It is a unique sight, grand spires shooting up into the air and decorated with religious relief sculptures.

We also visited the Parc Guell, an otherworldly collection of buildings also designed by Gaudi that was originally meant to be a unique housing development.

Roman amphitheatre in Tarragona (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

In one block alone in Barcelona — the “Block of Discord” — there are multiple examples of other “Modernista” architecture, all lined up next to each other, competing for attention.

Catalan history goes back millennia and in Tarragona, we saw ancient Roman ruins. Those included a huge amphitheatre and a cirq where the chariot races were held. But Roman ruins were everywhere, including a lone column sitting in a square where we enjoyed a Christmas beer.

Spreading fertilizer- the caganer (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

We also learned of several unique cultural practices in Catalonia. That includes the curious “caganer”, a little dude that appears in Catalan nativity scenes, squatting and pooping as a sign of fertilizing the earth. I kid you not.

We also were introduced to “castells” or human towers built by teams of participants. There’s a mass of mostly men at the bottom, forming a base from which a structure is carefully created, all to get the last person to the top of several stories. It’s a competitive thing and an example of raw human engineering.

Monument to the Catalan human tower (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

We drove along the Pyrenees on a twisty, curvy little highway that we called our own thanks to being there in the offseason. These were magical drives, centuries old villages dotting the hillsides.

Our time in Catalonia was special indeed. In an upcoming column, I’ll be writing about the art in the region — from street art to Salvador Dali. 

Explore “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt” on YouTube.


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