Look beyond the normal Barcelona must-dos and you’ll discover lunar landscapes, Europe’s largest thermal spa and artist enclaves with eccentric offerings
Barcelona is one of ‘those’ places. It’s a city break main player that’s losing none of its charm, possessing a chic and yet laidback coolness that leaves visitors coming back for more.
Gaudi’s eccentric genius punctuates the city with grand architecture and eclectic design. La Sagrada Família, his extraordinary unfinished church, and Parc Güell, with its colourful mosaics, are only the starting points. Then there’s the Barri Gòtic, a twist of medieval streets and sun-blushed squares that is the most complete gothic quarter on the continent and at its heart the iconic Las Ramblas, a tree-lined pedestrian street to walk, wander and ‘be seen’ on. But Barcelona doesn’t have to be the end of the road if you are visiting this part of the world. There’s life beyond Barcelona.
Only 30 miles away and the scenery couldn’t be more different. Stepping out at Monserrat reveals a lunar-like landscape of towering rock spires. Seated beneath is the world-renowned monastery, famous for its boy’s choir, L’Escolania, one of the oldest in Europe, who can be heard singing most days at 1pm. The lofty position of the 9th-century Benedictine monastery makes it an arresting sight, perched high against a bedrock of fluted buttresses, declared a national park in 1987.
Here, the story surrounding La Moreneta, ‘the little dark one’, the venerated smoke-blackened statue of the virgin, continues to attract thousands of visitors annually. According to legend, this statue, supposedly brought to Barcelona by St Peter in AD50 and hidden in a cave, was found in this area in AD880. When discovered by shepherds, they tried to take it to the nearby ton of Manresa. However on reaching the site where the monastery stands they could get no further and a chapel was built in the virgin’s name. This subsequently developed into the monastery. The Tot Montserrat ticket secures train and cable car travel. Tickets can be bought in advance at the tourist information office in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya
But if it's art you are after, then Figueres, an hour and a half away, showcases one of Spain’s most famous painters and creators. This is the birthplace of Salvador Dali and his legacy, the Teatro-Museu Salvador Dali, showcases his extraordinary work. The structure of this former theatre is as bizarre and eccentric as the artist himself and is now crowned with golden eggs and a latticed glass dome. Flanked by a tower of televisions and with a façade adorned with statues brandishing baguettes, the building is now considered the largest surrealist object in the world.
The interior is just as unconventional. On show is a whole spectrum of Dali creations, from his earliest pieces to his latest works. Dali also produced a number of pieces expressly for the museum, including the Mae West Room, which portrays the face of the famous actress using paintings and furniture, including a sofa in the shape of a pair of lips.
If you’ve still got space for a bit more Salvador then head to the east coast. About 25km away from Figueres, tucked away at the end of a deep inlet in the southern part of the Cap de Creus peninsula, is Cadaqués, a coastal gem, and the hangout of artists and writers like Dali, Picasso and photographer Man Ray. Nearby at Portligat is Dali’s unusual house, complete with a penis-shaped swimming pool.
But if it’s the lure of open spaces and lofty mountain views that tempts you, then you can always squeeze in a day’s skiing. Only a three-hour drive from Barcelona and you can be in Andorra. Nestling between Spain and France, this Catalan-speaking principality measures only 468sq km but has the largest ski area in the Pyrenees. Its four resorts, Ordino-Arcallis, Pal-Arinsal, Pas de la Casa-Grau-Roig and Soldeu-El-Tarter, share 281km of slopes.
For weary legs after a day on the slopes, Andorra has the perfect answer, boasting the largest thermal spa in Europe. Head to Les Escaldes and you can’t miss the mirrored building that is Caldea, housing an indoor lagoon that’s kept at a constant 32°C. As you sit back and rest those aching muscles it’s a great time to reflect that there’s definitely life beyond Barcelona. It’s pretty relaxing too.