If you’re planning your vacations and looking for a destination to fall in love with on your next trip and, along the way, experience the Middle Ages, we’d like to suggest a country with a long history that is still alive, visible and well-preserved in all kinds of wonderful places. Have you ever been to Catalonia? In northeastern Spain, just to the south of France, and with the waters of the Mediterranean Sea bathing its coasts, Catalonia is one of the regions of Europe with the best preserved historical remains from the Romanesque period, ranging approximately from the 9th to 12th centuries. At that time, what is now Catalonia was the Marca Hispanica, a territory bordering the Carolingian kingdom to the north (the direct predecessor of France) and Al-Andalus―the Muslim caliphate that had conquered the Iberian Peninsula a few centuries before―to the south, a free and militarized Christian region where they began building castles, churches, monasteries and bridges. Catalonia was an area of transit for trade and pilgrims towards the west, so it needed plenty of fortresses, places of worship and transport links.
Most of these buildings survive in good condition, making Catalonia the ideal travel destination if you like medieval art and culture and you also want to complement the experience with good food, incredible landscapes, friendly and welcoming people and other kinds of monuments or artistic attractions like painting, sculpture or historic centers with cobbled streets. If that appeals to you, look no further: Catalonia is the ideal destination for your trip. And if you’re wondering what’s worth seeing, here’s the answer: 11 comprehensive routes through the country to discover Romanesque art and enjoy it in situ.
Barcelona is a very well-known city with all kinds of tourist attractions, and above all a city where art shines bright. However, there is a much more popular Barcelona―that of the Gothic and modernista periods―and another less well-known but just as captivating thanks to the Romanesque pictorial and architectural remains dating back to the 9th century, when the inhabitants of the old city―which had been a Roman town called Barcino―started to build churches and walls in the new style of the Italian Peninsula (Lombardy) and the center of the continent, such as some details that you can see on the side doors of Barcelona Cathedral, or the Pia Almoina, now Museu Diocesà, which has Romanesque windows.
You’ll find the most outstanding medieval art in museums: the Museu d'Història de Barcelona (MUHBA) holds wall paintings, while the biggest collection is in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC). You should spend at least a whole day in MNAC to fully explore its impressive collection of sculptures, objects and paintings taken directly from Romanesque churches and moved to the museum to preserve them. But if you like walking the streets, you’ll find several Romanesque churches in the historic center: the Chapel of Santa Llúcia in the cathedral, the Chapel of Sant Llàtzer in the Raval neighborhood, the Monastery of Santa Ana or the Chapel of the Mare de Déu de la Guia in Carrer Carders. And, above all, don’t overlook the Monastery of Sant Pau del Camp to enjoy its surprising facade and original cloister.
To visit Santa Maria de Mur you have to travel quite a few kilometers west of Barcelona, to a region called Pallars Jussà, right at the foot of the central Pyrenees. It’s an area with vast green and rocky expanses, meadows and monuments that will make you feel as if you’re in a past era where the passage of time is imperceptible. And in the municipal district of Collmorter you’ll find one of the best preserved buildings of Catalan Romanesque architecture, the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria de Mur.
As with many Romanesque monasteries and churches, what mostly remains is the structure but not the paintings inside, which were moved to different museums. The wall paintings of Santa Maria de Mur can currently be seen in Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and Barcelona (MNAC). But you can still enjoy the interior of the Augustinian monastery and, above all, its cloister, one of the most resilient and representative sites of the whole period.
This magical place, in the heart of the Pyrenees, is much more than a mountain destination. Since 2000, the architectural site in the Vall de Boí has been listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, and is one of the biggest concentrations of authentic buildings
from the 11th and 12th centuries, the era of greatest splendor and perfection of Romanesque art. The highlight in the area is the Monastery of Sant Climent de Taüll: the current interior paintings, including its famous Pantocrator―a depiction of God the Father with his fingers pointing heavenwards―, are reproductions, and to see the originals you have to go to MNAC in Barcelona. But you can still experience the feeling of seclusion and mystery evoked by the churches of the period, hardly touched by light.
Other places of interest worth visiting are Santa Maria de Taüll, Sant Joan de Boí, the Church of Santa Eulàlia d’Erill la Vall―with one of the most awesome and tallest bell towers in the area―and the Shrine of Sant Quirc de Durro, part of a site that comprises nine buildings that embrace all the forms adopted by the genuine Romanesque art of the Pyrenean valleys.
If you travel a few kilometers to the south, you’ll reach the main city in the area, Lleida, which can serve as the perfect base of operations to explore the Romanesque art you’ll find more to the north―including north of Vall de Boí (see the next point)―or the south. Lleida is a small, welcoming city that boasts some examples of Romanesque architecture worth discovering. The most outstanding is the impressive Seu Vella, the city cathedral, whose construction started on a hill in 1203, and which, although it was completed in a Gothic style, still has a Romanesque façade.
Also of great interest is the Parish Church of Sant Llorenç Màrtir, a building on which construction began in the 12th century and was completed during the Gothic period. Inside, several altarpieces from the time still survive.
Another sight you won't want to miss seeing if you pass through Lleida is the church of Sant Esteve d'Olius, located in the township of Solsona. The church is a unique example of 11th-century Catalan Romanesque architecture, its crypt awork worthy of admiration.
The further you venture into the Pyrenees, the more Romanesque architectural remains you’ll see in different small villages where time seems to stand still. Once you’ve visited the Vall de Boí, which boasts several architectural jewels close together and well connected, the next step is to ascend even further and reach small villages such as Esterri d’Aneu, where you’ll find the Church of Mare de Déu d’Arés―a false Romanesque construction built on what had been an original 12th century church that deteriorated over time―or the Vall d’Aran route―the most northwestern point of Catalonia and the best connected with the mountain nature―, where you can enjoy buildings such as Santa Maria d’Arties, Sant Miquéu de Vielha, Sant Andréu de Salardú and Santa Eulàlia de Unha.
Further to the south, Lleida has even more places of interest worth visiting: Santa Maria de la Seu d’Urgell, an impressive and majestic 12th century cathedral, or the Cistercian abbey known as Santa Maria de Vallbona, a monastery for nuns standing on a mound, where the late Romanesque and early Gothic styles are fused.
Girona is a city worth visiting for many reasons: its closeness to Barcelona, its hospitable character, but above all the feeling you have when walking around its historic center, where in many corners time seems to have stopped in a distant past. Some facades and streets in Girona have been immortalized in films and series, but this is only a fraction of the enormous number of public buildings, museums, and monasteries that reflect the city’s medieval legacy.
Girona deserves more than a one-day visit: the first obligatory stop is the cathedral, followed by a stroll through its delicate ancient cobbled streets to discover different buildings of great interest: the Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants―with its well-
preserved reliefs and columns―, the Museu-Tresor de la Catedral, with tapestries and pictorial works rescued from the churches, and the Arab Baths, which despite the name are an imitation of Al-Andalus art in Romanesque style.
Girona will provide the perfect base camp to explore Romanesque art in the surroundings, where you’ll find some of the best examples of this style in Catalonia. Without doubt, the most important site is the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll, one of the oldest buildings of the Romanesque period―9th century, built from 888―and that underwent different extensions and improvements over the following centuries.
Today, the monastery is completely restored after many years of deterioration and natural disasters that almost reduced it to ruin, and has recovered its past appearance: a large church with a gardened cloister that exudes peace, and an imposing facade,
covered in reliefs that provide some of the most delicate examples of Romanesque wall sculpture.
The Empordà region is one of the most popular in Catalonia for reasons not exclusively linked to monuments: it offers countryside, beaches and mountains just a stone’s throw
away, it’s one of the most enjoyable summer destinations, and its food is a delight. And several villages near Girona have very interesting Romanesque remains which will be the perfect complement on an exhaustive route through medieval stone wonders.
The most interesting thing to do is explore the centers of small villages like Pals, Peralada, Sant Quirze de Colera, La Bisbal and Vilabertran, above all for their well- preserved narrow streets, bridges and some habitable buildings that date back almost
eight centuries. Once there, don’t miss important buildings such as the Monastery of Sant Miquel de Cruïlles (on the outskirts of La Bisbal), the Church of Sant Pau de Fontclara and the cloister of Sant Domènec de Peralada. And the imposing Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, located on the side of the mountain facing the sea, an essential visit.
It’s well worth following a particular route through the Garrotxa region―very close to the city of Girona and the Pyrenees―that will take you to several places that still preserve almost their entire medieval layout, and where not only will you be able to
explore very elegant old buildings but feel you’ve gone back in time. For example, the small town of Besalú is almost a medieval theme park, full of stone bridges and narrow winding streets; and you get the same feeling in nearby villages like Beget and Camprodon.
Once there, you can visit various well-preserved religious buildings, such as the Church of Sant Cristòfol, in Beget, with views of the high mountains, or the Hospital de Sant Julià in Besalú, an essential visit after crossing the extremely long bridge over the river.
One of the least known areas of Catalan Romanesque art, perhaps because of its closeness to Barcelona, lies beyond the city in peripheral places that still have churches and monasteries of interest. So it’s also important to make brief trips to towns like Sant Cugat del Vallés: in its historic center not only can you admire cobbled streets and passages under solid archways but also its monastery and, in particular, the perfectly restored cloister.
The next destination would be Cardona―the College Church of the Monastery of Sant Vicenç is 1,000 years old―or Terrassa, which has a very interesting monumental site comprising the churches of Santa Maria, Sant Miquel and Sant Pere. And, as an exotic and unique example of Catalan Romanesque art, the Church of Sant Miquel del Fai, in the middle of the Montseny massif, partly built in a grotto and fully integrated into wild and paradisiacal nature.
Normally, what brings tourists to the city of Tarragona are its Roman remains but medieval art is also important in the area. It's a somewhat more mixed and later style, and fundamentally military, as it was the southernmost demarcation of the Marca Hispanica, but just as interesting to complete the route. For example, in the regions of Tarragona there are many castles―in Camarles, Calafell, Barberà de la Conca or Aiguamúrcia―and a good number of monasteries and shrines.
The most complete sites are in Pontils, Prades, Querol and Santa Coloma de Queralt, always using the city of Tarragona as the base of operations, where you’ll also be able to visit the Museu Diocesà, which holds many pieces that originally belonged to
churches in the area. As you can see, Catalan Romanesque art is an inexhaustible treasure.