With a coastline stretching 700 kilometres from the Costa Brava on the French border passing through the Costa del Maresme and the city beaches of Barcelona right down to the golden sands of the Costa Daurada, it's not surprising that Catalonia is a prime destination for tourists from all over the world. But the Principality offers visitors and residents much more than just beaches.
Skiing holidays in the Pyrenees, a weekend break in Barcelona or rural tourism on the Ebro Delta are just some of the possibilities, and the diverse geography along with its history, architecture and vibrant sense of its own identity make any stay in Catalonia one to remember. I should know. I came here for what was supposed to be a short stay 30 years ago and still find living here a delight.
Modern Catalonia is the rump of a Mediterranean Empire that included Aragon, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Rosselló in southern France and the independent state of Andorra as well as Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Milan and Naples and for a brief period parts of Greece and Asia Minor. Although remnants of Catalan dominance can be found all over the Mediterranean and the Catalan language is still spoken in a much larger area, the Principality of Catalonia is now officially restricted to the top north-eastern corner of the Ibrian Peninsula.
Given their impressive imperial history and cultural and linguistic differences, the Catalans have long considered themselves an independent nation with the Spanish State, and from a geographical point of view it is easy to see why. Catalonia is clearly defined by the Pyrenees to west, the Mediterranean to the east while its southern boundary, the River Ebro, separates it from neighbouring Valencia. Its northern border, however, allows easy access into France, with which it has close historical and linguistic ties.
So, while cut off from central and southern Spain, Catalonia is a "terra de pas" or passageway linking the mysteries of Iberia with northern Europe, and its geographical position explains much of its turbulent history.
Catalonia has a cultural flavour that is markedly different from southern Spain, and this is particularly evident both in its Gothic and Romanesque architecture and in the cadences of the Catalan language. One of the reasons for this is that both architecturally and linguistically, Catalonia received very little Moorish influence.
The Moors began their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, but never really succeeded in controlling Catalonia, and the reconquest of Girona in 785 and Barcelona in 801 meant they didn't have enough time to leave their mark. This is in sharp contrast to much of the rest of Spain, with the 'Reconquista' by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, not being completed until 1492.
To this day, Catalan territory is divided along the lines established by the Franks and Catalan Counts in the 8th and 9th centuries. The comarques, of which there are 41, are similar to the English counties. They have their own identity based on geography, agriculture and commerce, and are governed by a district council made up of elected municipal members. However, for administrative purposes within the Spanish State, since 1833, Catalonia has been divided into the four provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.
Catalonia is one of the largest of Spain's 17 Autonomous Communities covering an area of some 32,000 square kilometres, making it bigger than many other countries in the European Union, including Belgium, and with a population of over 7 million, Catalans comprise about one sixth of all Spaniards. The Principality is also economically prosperous, and in Barcelona boasts a capital on a par with any other major European city.
Just as in the rest of Spain, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia has a regional government with its own President and Parliament. However, at the end of Franco's dictatorship, the Generalitat was 'restored' in 1977 whereas the other autonomous governments were not created until 1979 when the new democratic constitution was ratified by the Spanish Parliament.
The Catalans are quite rightly very proud of their political institutions and democratic traditions. Els Usatges, for example, is one of the first documents to define the rights of the people and the obligations of their rulers, and predates the English Magna Carta by almost 150 years.
For long periods of their history, the Catalans have pushed for independence from Madrid, and this feeling has accelerated since large sections of Catalonia's updated 2006 Statute of Autonomy were cut by the Spanish Constititional Court in 2010. The last few years have repeatedly seen pro-independence demonstrations of over 1.5 million people on La Diada or Catalan National Day on September 11th and a referendum on independence is planned for late 2017.
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