For most holiday-makers, the region of Catalonia is synonymous with its most famous city, Barcelona.
The colourful, historic Catalonian capital pulls in visitors by the millions each year, and many linger to enjoy the impressive local beaches and wonderful Mediterranean climate.
However, for nature-lovers who dare to venture off the well-trodden tourist-path in and around Barcelona, a real treat awaits. Catalonia may be one of the cultural centres of Southern Europe, but it’s also renowned as having some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the country.
Surrounding the city, there are several beautiful forests and parks, which demonstrate a very different side to the region. Explore the parks and you’ll find yourself amongst scenery that includes dramatic Pyrenean valleys, soaring mountain peaks, dense woodland and quiet beaches, virtually untouched by tourism.
1. Garrotxa Natural Park
The Garrotxa Natural Park is one of Catalonia’s finest terrains, and is a haven for hikers and wildlife watchers alike. Its principal draw is the prevalence of volcanoes in the region; across its 12,000 hectares, it has 40 volcanoes and more than 20 lava flows. The volcanoes aren’t extinct, but before you panic, don’t worry, the last major eruption was over 11,000 years ago!
As a result of the volcanic soil, the landscape is quite unique and has over 1,000 different types of flower in the area. In total, Garrotxa has nearly 30 walking trails, and most of them are well signposted. However, it is advisable to get a map at the Catalonia Interpretation Centre, which is in the park.
2. The Val d’Aran Lakes
Situated in the very heart of the Pyrenees, the region of Val d’Aran is stunningly beautiful, with snow-capped peaks, pretty streams and many large lakes. It’s not only excellent for walking, but also great for horse-riding and cycling. There are centres for both these activities within the park area itself.
Children will enjoy spotting the local wildlife, especially the birds of prey (including vultures), white grouse and the Rebeco, a type of deer that is native to the area.
3. Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici National Park
The name of this national park provides a clue as to the nature of its personality, as Aigüestortes quite literally translates as ‘winding waters’. The area is filled with rivers, waterfalls and lakes, making it one of the most scenic in Catalonia.
It features some of the most wild, mountainous scenery in Spain, and is widely recognised as being one of the finest natural areas in Europe. There are numerous hiking trails in the region, which offer huge diversity in landscape, from sparkling glacial lakes to verdant alpine meadows. In winter, the area is also a firm favourite with cross-country skiers.
4. Cap de Creus Natural Park
The Cap de Creus Park is a must-see for history fanatics, as the area is scattered with remarkable archaeological remains, including dolmens and a well preserved chamber tomb near Creu d’en Cobertella. The Monastery de Sant Pere de Rodes is also highly recommended.
Located on the eastern most tip of Iberia, the Natural Park also includes the pretty islands that surround the peninsula.
5. Cadí Moixeró Natural Park
The Cadí Moixeró Natural Park is one of the largest in the region, covering over 40,000 hectares in total. As a result, it’s impressively diverse, boasting a landscape that includes fertile valleys, mysterious forests and the ragged peaks of the Cadi mountains, the most famous of which is the Pedraforca Massif.
As you might expect, the mountainous area is highly popular with mountaineers and climbers, although there are also plenty of hiking trails suitable for those looking for a more leisurely stroll through the picture-perfect scenery. It’s been declared a special protection area for birds, and if you’re lucky, you might spot a golden eagle in the sky, or even the rare capercaillie bird, a member of the grouse family with a highly impressive mating display.
Culture enthusiasts may want to head to the town of Gósol; which was once home to Pablo Picasso. It was in these tranquil surroundings that he first came up with the concept of Cubism.
Source: Sunday World.