With a referendum on independence slated for October 2017, Catalonia is once again debating separating from Spain. But is Catalonia really that different from the rest of the country? We take a look at just some of the things that make this region truly unique.
The region has its own language, Catalan, which is its joint-official language with Spanish. The teaching of Catalan is mandatory in schools, with teachers, doctors and other public sector workers being legally required to use it. Catalan is strongly associated with national pride – if you speak to someone in Spanish in Catalonia they might well answer you in Catalan. The language is spoken in other territories such as Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra (where it is the official language), Sardinia and areas of southern France.
Catalonia had a distinct history of its own long before it became part of Spain. It stretches back to the early Middle Ages when the County of Barcelona rose to pre-eminence in the 11th century. The county was brought under the same royal rule as the neighbouring Kingdom of Aragon. The region became part of Spain in the 15th century when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabel of Castille, uniting the two kingdoms. There was a resurgence of Catalan identity in the 19th century, and there was a real push to preserve and promote Catalan. The region was given more autonomy under the Republican government of the early 1930s, but when dictator General Francisco Franco came to power at the end of the Spanish Civil War all autonomy was taken away, and the use of Catalan was prohibited.
Weird Christmas traditions
You might not have heard of the Christmas crapper, but this figurine of a man relieving himself is one of Catalonia’s most beloved Christmas traditions and a staple of many a nativity scene. El Caganer (literally ‘The Crapper’) is traditionally depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap and is said to bring good luck for the year ahead. These days, caganers come in all kinds of modern versions, depicting everyone from Barack Obama to Cristiano Ronaldo with their trousers down.
Continuing the unusual traditions theme, castells, or human towers, are a unique Catalan tradition that was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010. Towns across Catalonia hold competitions to see who can make the tallest human tower, which are particularly popular during fiestas. The towers usually comprise men, women and children – at the top – and are a sight to behold, as people scramble over each other and balance precariously on each other’s shoulders. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
While there is plenty of tapas to enjoy in Catalonia, there are certain dishes and drinks that come specifically from the region. Cava is perhaps Catalonia’s most famous export, with the sparkling white wine enjoyed throughout Spain and across the world. The region is also famous for its take on the classic paella, called fideua (using noodles instead of rice) and calçots, a kind of spring onion that even has its own festival. There’s also the classic pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato) – the quintessential Catalan breakfast of bread with tomato rubbed on it and a drizzle of olive oil over the top. Delicious.
No one can visit Barcelona, Catalonia’s biggest city, without noticing the huge influence of the artist Antoni Gaudí. The Catalan architect was born in the town of Reus in 1852 and became one of the most famous practitioners of Catalan Modernism. His modernistic structures pepper the skyline, from the iconic and as yet unfinished Sagrada Familia and the mosaic masterpiece of Parc Güell to La Pedrera, Gaudí’s dreamy vision come to life.
Catalonia has some of its own unique bank holidays that are not celebrated across wider Spain. For instance, La Mercè is the celebration of Barcelona’s patron saint Our Lady of Mercy, or La Mare de Déu de la Mercè in Catalan. Another example is Sant Esteve, which is celebrated on December 26th – like Boxing Day – but only in Catalonia or Catalan-speaking regions such as Valencia and the Balearic Islands. While each of Spain’s autonomous provinces has its own local bank holidays, the Catalan bank holidays are strongly felt as an assertion of the individual Catalan culture.
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