Learning Spanish in Catalonia

Some facts and historical details about Catalonia (Catalan: Catalunya, Spanish: Cataluña) and some suggestions about interesting places to visit:

Catalonia is one of Spain's 17 Autonomous Communities situated in the Northeast of the Iberian Peninsula between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. In the North it shares borders with France and Andorra.

Population 7,504,881
Area 32,114 km2 (12,399.3 sq mi)
Climate Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and mild, rain-laden winters 
Capital city 
Official languages Spanish, Catalan (in the Aran Valley also Aranese)
Most importnat cities and 4 provincial capitals Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona, Manresa, Igualada, Martorell, Terrassa, Sabadell.
Touristic sights Buildings designe by Gaudí in Barcelona, Dalí Museum in Figueres, Monasterio de Montserrat (Benedictine Cloister), cathedral of Girona, archaeological museum and Roman amphitheatre in Tarragona, old cathedral of Lleida, historic city centre of Siurana

Catalonia's diverse countryside offers mile-long sandy beaches along the Costa Brava, Costa del Garraf or the Costa Durada/Dorada, the delta of Spain's longest river, the Ebro (910 km/ 565 mi), with lagoons, canals and paddy fields, and the Catalan mountains with the lower coastal mountain ranges and the partly high alpine Pyrenees. The highest mountain of Catalonia is the Pica d'Estats with 3143 m / 10,312 ft.

The history of Catalonia starts with the first settlements of the Iberians and the colonisation of the Ancient Greeks. Towards the end of the 3rd century BC the Roman domination in the area increased and in the year 19 AD they made the region the Roman Province Hispania Tarraconensis and thus a part of the Roman Empire along with the rest of Hispania. After Rome's collapse Catalonia came under the rule of the Visigoths for four centuries. In the 8th century it came under Moorish Al-Andalus control. At the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century in relation with the fights between the Arabs and the Franks – the latter had conquered former Visigoth states which had been under Muslim rule –, Charlemagne (King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans) created several small counties in the Northern part of Catalonia, known as the Marca Hispanica, as a buffer zone between the Frankish Kingdom and the Umayyad Moors of Al-Andalus. The Counts of Barcelona, nominated by Charlemagne and from the 9th until the 17th century the major rulers in Catalonia, obtained the primacy of the Marca Hispanica and became more and more independent from the Frankish rule.

In 1137 a new dynastic union, the Crown of Aragon, was established following the marriage of the Count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer IV, and the heir to the Kingdom of Aragon, Queen Petronila of Aragon. The Crown of Aragon was to become the leading power in the Western Mediterranean during the High and Late Middle Ages and Catalonia as an important part of it became a maritime power.

In 1469 the heir to the Crown of Aragon, Ferdinand II, married his cousin Queen Isabella I Castile, and the couple became known as los Reyes Catolicos (the Catholic Kings). This union was seen as the dawn of the Kingdom of Spain and even then Catalonia kept its political independence, although it started to erode during the following centralisation of power in Spain.

The death of Charles II of Spain, who died without a direct heir, caused the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713) during which Catalonia, as part of the Crown of Aragon during the Middle Ages, supported the Habsburg pretender Charles VI whereas the rest of Spain mostly supported the French Bourbon claimant Philip V. On 11 September 1714 Barcelona fell and surrendered to the troops of Philipp V. Thus in the following years the Catalan institutions were abolished and the Catalan self-government came to an end within a united Spanish administration. Today September 11th is celebrated as the National Day of Catalonia to remember the capitulation from 1714.

In 1931 Catalonia was granted provisional autonomy and the Generalitat (autonomous government of the region) was re-erected only to be abolished again during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The following regime under General Francisco Franco suppressed any kind of Catalan nationalism or democracy and the use of Catalan during public events was forbidden. After the death of Franco in 1975 and the beginning transition from the Franco regime to a parliamentarian democracy after Western example, Catalonia was granted provisional autonomy again in 1977. Following the adoption of a Spanish democratic constitution in 1978 Catalonia received a new statute of autonomy in 1979.

The Autonomous Community Catalonia, together with the other so-called 'historic' Autonomous Communities País Vasco (Basque Country), Galicia, and Navarre, has the highest degree of autonomy in law enforcement. Catalonia has its own police force and shares jurisdiction with the Spanish government in education, health and justice.

Due to Catalonia's historic, linguistic, and cultural differences with the rest of Spain, many inhabitants regard it today as a separate nation. The languages Catalan and Spanish (Castilian) are officially equal; however, Catalan is becoming increasingly dominant, supported by the regional government. In the printed media, radio and on TV the usage of Catalan is increasing and the official correspondence with public authorities, lessons at school and at universities are nearly all in Catalan.

Regarding the economy Catalonia is the fourth strongest Autonomous Community in Spain after Madrid, Navarre and the País Vasco. The most important economic sectors are textiles, chemistry, pharmaceutical products, car manufacturing, and tourism.

Some Catalan traditions and most important holidays:
  • 11 September: Catalan National Day (see history above).
  • 23 April: Day of Sant Jordi (St. George's Day), the patron saint of Catalonia. As on this day the man traditionally gives the woman a rose and the woman the man a book, the UNESCO accepted this day in 1995 as the National Day of the Book . To give a book as a present probably leads back to the fact that on 23 April the famous authors Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616, Don Quijote) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) died.
  • The Sardana, traditional dance of the Catalan people. The dancers stand in a circle and hold hands. The circle then slowly turns in the left and right direction, accompanied by an orchestra of 11 people, the Cobla.
  • The Castells (Catalan for 'castles' ) are human pyramids and up to 9 or 10 floors high. They are built in Catalonia since the 18th century and are a traditional part of many festivities. The participants, the so-called Castellers, climb on the shoulders of the person below them, building different structures and forms.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Catalonia:
  • The works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona (Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Sagrada Familia, Casa Vicens, Casa Batlló) and in Santa Coloma de Cervelló (Crypt of the Colonia Güell).
  • Cistercian Monastery in Poblet.
  • The Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau in Barcelona.
  • The archaeological ensemble of Tarraco in Tarragona.
  • The Catalan Romanesque Churches at Vall de Boí.

Characteristic for the Catalan Cuisine is the composition of mar i muntanya (sea and mountains), combining fish and seafood with meat dishes, e.g. Pollastre amb llagosta (chicken with crayfish). There are many different types of sausages, a favourite are dishes with rice and in autumn dishes with different kinds of mushrooms. Another important part of the Catalan cuisine is the onion, e.g. Calçots, a type of spring onion which is eaten barbecued and seasoned with salt. The unofficial national dish is probably Pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato), for which a slice of white bread - often toasted - is rubbed with half a tomato and garlic and afterwards sprinkled with olive oil and salt. Another characteristic of the Mediterranean cuisine in general are the usage of olive oil, garlic, herbs and vegetables such as aubergine, courgettes, artichokes and pepper.

Catalonia is furthermore a leading producer of sparkling wine.

The Catalan chefs are worldwide renowned and two of the five best restaurants in the world are in Catalonia. The most famous chef might be Ferran Adrià, head chef of the Michelin 3-star restaurant elBulli, and known for molecular gastronomy.