Relocate: Catalunya, Spain

by Pete O'Donovan Aug/2009
This article has been read 12,213 times
In this UKC mini-series 'Relocate' we take a look at different areas of Britain and beyond to find out what they are like to live and climb in. Here UK ex-pat Pete O'Donovan takes us on a photo-tour of the gorgeous Catalunya, Spain. Pete's images capture the beauty and wildness of the climbing and open a window in to a strong culture and fiercely proud area of Europe.

Other articles in this series are Sheffield by Adam Long, Fort William by Dave MacLeod and North Wales by Jack Geldard.


+The cliff-top village of Siurana, with the walls of Montsant in the distance., 201 kbThe cliff-top village of Siurana, with the walls of Montsant in the distance.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Bolted Granite in the Catalan Pirineus: Lisi Roig on ‘Salem Alekum’ (6c) in Cavallers., 186 kbBolted Granite in the Catalan Pirineus: Lisi Roig on ‘Salem Alekum’ (6c) in Cavallers.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
Catalunya, aka Catalonia, aka Cataluña, is an autonomous region in the northeast of Spain. To the east lies the Mediterranean Sea; to the north the mountains of the Pyrenees, and the French border. Though only a small part of Spain, Catalunya is a big place, covering an area half as big again as Wales. The number of permanent residents was recently estimated at around 7 million, but with at least two thirds of that number clustered around the big coastal cities, much of the interior remains very sparsely populated. It has a rich, distinctive culture, its own unique language, and great pride in its history.

Like the Pais Basque, Catalunya's relationship with the greater Spain has often been troubled, though fortunately, in modern times, never to the same extent as in the lands of their northern cousins. There's actually a great affinity between the two regions, and nowhere more so than in the football stadium: at a recent cup final — La Copa del Rei (King's Cup) — between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, Basque and Catalan fans were united in remaining absolutely silent during the Spanish national anthem, many even turning their backs on a very embarrassed looking King and Queen for the duration of the music. Judging by the front pages of the Madrid newspapers the following morning, some were not amused!

There's world -class sport climbing in virtually every corner of Catalunya

Of all the regions of Spain, Catalunya is perhaps the most 'European' feeling. This is partly to do with its geographic location, which makes it not only physically closer to the bigger cities of France, Germany and Italy, but also influences the climate, resulting in a landscape very different from the semi-desert areas, common further south. But another factor is the human element. Whether an outsider would notice any great differences in temperament and character between Catalans and people from, say, Sevilla or Granada, is debatable, but rightly or wrongly, their image among the rest of Spain is one of a dour, taciturn, less volatile people, more concerned with making money than having fun. They might be right about the money, but Catalunya's current status as Spain's economic powerhouse now gives them considerable political clout in Madrid, and if their work ethic in any way prevents them enjoying themselves, I've seen little evidence of it.

+Scenes such as this are still common in the more rural western parts of Catalunya, 225 kbScenes such as this are still common in the more rural western parts of Catalunya
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Albert Cortés on ‘Garotiña’ (7a), one of the many superb conglomerate climbs at Margalef, 165 kbAlbert Cortés on ‘Garotiña’ (7a), one of the many superb conglomerate climbs at Margalef
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
The capital, Barcelona, is like many big European cities: busy, noisy, and full of foreigners. While we're on the subject let's clear up one little anomaly that regularly reappears on UKC when people discuss the city: Barca is Catalan for 'boat'; Barça is the abbreviation used strictly in relation to the football team. If you want to use the proper shortened name for the city it's Barna. Got it? Barcelona is as modern and cosmopolitan a centre as any in Europe, full of towering office blocks and home to three of the architectural wonders of Antoni Gaudí: the beautiful Casa Milà, the surreal Parc Güell, and the magnificent unfinished church La Sagrada Famila, still a work in progress 125 years after it was started. The trio bring in millions of foreign visitors annually, from every corner of the globe. Nearby cities such as Terrasa, Manresa and Matorell, have also become gradually more and more crowded, partly of a result of demographic shifts in the population, with many young families no longer able to afford property in the capital, thus heading further and further out into the suburbs and surrounding towns.

The whole coastal strip is highly developed, with tourists, particularly those from colder northern European countries, flocking in their millions to the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean, basting themselves senseless in a desperate attempt to return home looking like bronzed Gods, but usually only managing passable impressions of oversized, overcooked prawns. Few of these sun seekers could possibly imagine that, were they to jump in a car and head northwest for a couple of hours, they would encounter some of the wildest, most dramatic landscapes in the whole of Europe: 3,000 metre snowy peaks, towering rock walls, deep limestone gorges, and turbulent snow-fed rivers.

For the outdoor enthusiast, the possibilities for adventure are mouth watering: big walks, big walls, sport climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking, white water canoeing, canyoning, via ferrata, paragliding, and skiing

I first encountered the Catalunya way back in the late 1980s, while visiting the hometown of a certain young lady — my future wife — whose acquaintance I'd recently made back in the UK. First impressions weren't entirely favourable (the place, not the lady) as scorching mid-summer temperatures made every movement an effort, and sleep almost impossible. My prospective mother-in-law's continual attempts to cheer me up with food were largely unsuccessful. They were, however, rewarded by my first words in Catalan: "Estic tip!" (I'm full!). I skedaddled back to the cool sanctuary of Sheffield, wondering not only how people could lead normal lives in such a hostile climate, but also how they managed to wolf down platefulls of mayonnaise-drenched snails at two in the afternoon! But of course, I returned, many, many times, and later visits revealed just what an amazing country Catalunya is. The landscape is full of contrasts, the old and the new worlds existing harmoniously side-by-side. Bustling rural towns full of newly built apartment blocks are often overlooked by the ruins of medieval hilltop castles, and kids on skateboards sporting the latest hip-hop fashions share sidewalks with little old ladies, dressed in black from head to toe. Reminders of religion are also ever present, with place names beginning 'Sant' or 'Santa' (Saint) commonplace. For the outdoor enthusiast, the possibilities for adventure are mouth watering: big walks, big walls, sport climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking, white water canoeing, canyoning, via ferrata, paragliding, and skiing. In Catalunya you're rarely more than an hour's drive from the wilderness experience of your choice.

So how would a prospective re-locator go about setting up home here? Realizing that my own situation i.e. 'marrying' into the country was rather unusual, I sought the help of a young British couple, Tom Bolger and Lynne Malcolm, who initially came out here on an extended climbing trip, but liked the place so much they decided to stay. Although not exclusive to Tom and Lynne, some of the following advice is based on their experiences.

+Tom Bolger, Lynne Malcolm and Dillan, one of the three canine rescue centre dogs they’ve found a home for, 147 kbTom Bolger, Lynne Malcolm and Dillan, one of the three canine rescue centre dogs they’ve found a home for
© Pete O'Donovan

+Modern supermarkets abound, but local produce markets are still going strong in many rural towns and villages, 238 kbModern supermarkets abound, but local produce markets are still going strong in many rural towns and villages
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
The Language

The Catalan language, or to give it its correct name, Català, is not just a dialect of Castillian (Spanish) it's completely different. Forbidden in public during the reign of Franco (1939-1975), and punishable by imprisonment if heard in the streets, Catalan is now the first language in every school. However, Spanish is also taught, understood by all, and still widely used, even if begrudgingly by some. Visually Catalan presents no great problems of pronunciation for English speakers: the double 'l' is very commonly used and should be treated the same way as in 'million', though their appearance at the beginning and ending of words can be a tongue twister. Try saying the name of one of the region's favourite poets, Ramon Llull; if you can manage that you can manage anything. Likewise, names ending in the letter 'y', such as Montgrony and Montseny, also seem to give foreigners problems. The 'y' should be pronounced the same as in 'you' rather than 'any'. However, realistically speaking, if you want to learn just one language the sensible choice is Castillian. That way you'll get by here and also be fine in the rest of Spain.

+Catalunya’s national dance — the Sardana. Not as sexy as the Flamenco, but definitely a step up from Morris dancing., 176 kbCatalunya’s national dance — the Sardana. Not as sexy as the Flamenco, but definitely a step up from Morris dancing.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Scenes from la Fira del Teatre, an annual event held in the western Catalan town of Tàrrega, 154 kbScenes from la Fira del Teatre, an annual event held in the western Catalan town of Tàrrega
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
The Life

The working day in Catalunya is still split into two halves, with a sizeable lunch break in between, meaning many people turn up at their place of employment at 9.00 in the morning and don't leave again 'till 8.30 in the evening, though in the smaller towns lots of folk go home for lunch. This system, though obviously very sensible back in the days when most people used to work on the land, and thus needed to avoid the hotter midday hours, seems utterly crazy to me in the age of air conditioning and Venetian blinds. But, as they say in Scunthorpe, "when in Rome........" Consequently lunch tends to be the main meal, and dinner (we call it 'tea' in Sheffield) eaten rather later than in the UK. In fact, the whole of life is lived on a later footing here: during the summer months very young children are often seen joining their parents for midnight ice cream treats at street cafes, and at a recent 'open' bouldering competition in Lleida, which featured such revered names as Chris Sharma, Dani Andrada and Ramon Julian (Ramonet) the men's final didn't wrap up until 4.30 in the morning! Catalans like to enjoy themselves and, at least during the summer months, spend a lot of time doing so outdoors. Wherever you go, from the smallest village to the largest town, you can't help but be impressed by the number of Festes, street theatre events, and celebrations of one sort or another going on.

+More fun in the streets — his time it’s a procession of ‘Capgrosos’ (big heads) and ‘Gegants’ (giants), 209 kbMore fun in the streets — his time it’s a procession of ‘Capgrosos’ (big heads) and ‘Gegants’ (giants)
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Detail from Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, still a work in progress after 125 years., 149 kbDetail from Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, still a work in progress after 125 years.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
Work

Any citizen of a European Union member state is legally permitted to work in Spain without the need for special permits of any kind. However, your options for employment largely boils down to one thing: can you speak the language or can't you? I'm talking Castillian here rather than Catalan, although in certain parts of the region a few words of the latter will open more doors than complete mastery of the former. If you can get by in Castillian then your job prospects are obviously far better, but if English is your one and only tongue, then the best chance of obtaining work is to teach it. By a stroke of good fortune we are going through a period in Catalunya where it seems that virtually everyone wants to learn English, and the government has put large recourses into what it calls its 'third language project'. The aim is for every child to leave secondary school with a basic level of English, and to finish baccalaureate (sixth form) with a sound working knowledge of the language. Kids begin English in school from as early as 5 years old, and the new directive foresees employing thousands of native (English) speakers as classroom assistants over the next few years. But many children also attend extra evening classes in private language schools several times a week, and it is these establishments which offer the most likely source of employment for English speaking foreigners. While many require TEFL qualifications (teaching English as a foreign language), some private schools are willing to accept people without, putting them through their own training programmes before unleashing them on the public.

That's the good news; here's the bad. Working hours may be flexible, but will almost certainly be geared to the latter part of the day meaning if you want to climb on a regular basis you'll need to get up early. Tom and Lynne do three morning shifts (including Saturdays) and five late afternoon/evenings, so their cragging time is actually quite limited.

Furthermore, the pay in these establishments is not particularly great — around a €1,000 a month for a typical 30-35 hour week seems about the going rate, and you'll be stopped tax and social security out of that. In fact, wages here are generally worse than in the UK, whichever field of work you're in, and with the cost of living only slightly lower, if at all (whatever anybody tells you to the contrary), most will find themselves on a pretty tight budget.

The usual way to find work in private language schools is via the internet, which means you could possibly land a job even before leaving Britain. However, another English friend of mine, who now lives and works in Girona, became seriously discouraged with this approach, after applying for dozens of potential jobs without reply. He found the direct route of phone calls and personal visits to be far more successful.

+Catalans work hard, many continuing well past normal retirement age...., 244 kbCatalans work hard, many continuing well past normal retirement age....
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+No electricity, no water, no roof. Decent views though., 196 kbNo electricity, no water, no roof. Decent views though.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
Housing

Given the aforementioned budget constraints, even the cheapest forms of rental accommodation will likely eat up a considerable portion of income, particularly in the larger cities, which ironically are the places most likely to offer the best employment opportunities. Rent for a basic two bedroom flat in somewhere like Lleida, the western Catalan city so beloved of climbers, will set you back around €500-600 a month. Add at least 30% for Barcelona where, unless you find someone to share with, the figures just don't add up. Tom and Lynne, after initially renting in Lleida, later moved out to one of the surrounding rural villages, and now pay something like 40% less for a considerably larger and nicer property. They have a longer commute into work, but a shorter one to the crags, plus an absolutely wonderful view from the kitchen window.

For those looking at a more permanent move, and perhaps with a bit of capital already in the bank, buying a property is another option worth considering. The pros and cons of this are discussed endlessly on hundreds of ex-pat websites, so it's not my intention to dwell too deeply on the subject here, but suffice to say that, provided one has a thorough understanding of all the legal complexities, in certain areas of Catalunya it is still possible (even at €1.14 to the £) to find some reasonably priced houses. Getting a mortgage here, especially in the current economic climate, may prove slightly tricky. Rather than proof of earnings, what the banks really want to see is a written contract of work, promising employment for a reasonable period of time. You'll typically need to put down at least a 20% deposit, and although there's no stamp duty here, VAT at 7% is payable on all property transactions. Add roughly another 5% to cover legal fees and setup costs and the result is that, for a €100,000 house, you'll need to have around €32,000 in the bank. Apparently, the vendor sometimes contributes to initial costs.

+Camarasa, a typical village in the north-western part of Catalunya, 215 kbCamarasa, a typical village in the north-western part of Catalunya
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Catalan winters can sometimes be rather chilly!, 200 kbCatalan winters can sometimes be rather chilly!
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
The Weather

Better than the UK! Summers are generally hot and dry, though not so extreme as further south in Spain. Even so, temperatures from late June to mid September generally hover between 80 and 95°F, meaning as a climber you'll either need to either head for the hills or head for the shade (or maybe the swimming pool). And don't, whatever you do, think about bringing a car over that doesn't have air-con — you'll suffer, believe me. Spring and autumn are usually fine, but sometimes unpredictable, with rainfall figures seeming to vary dramatically from year to year. However, with many of the crags here drying out much faster than UK limestone, there's nearly always something to climb. Winter is my favourite season in Catalunya and, although the 2008/2009 is not one to remember fondly, often provides perfect climbing conditions. Anti-cyclonic weather systems frequently settle over the country from December to February, bringing very cold nights, but beautiful sunny days. Pick your spot carefully and you could well be climbing bare-chested. It's worth noting that in the lower-lying parts of Catalunya, particularly the huge fertile plain, which surrounds the western city of Lleida, these stable high-pressure systems often cause temperature inversions, resulting in dense, freezing fogs, which can last anything up to a month at a time. My own neck of the woods is susceptible to this and it never ceases to amaze me how, driving up to higher ground for a day's climbing, one minute I can be peering through the windscreen into the gloom, headlights on, and scanning the road for patches of ice, the next I'm scrabbling around for my sunglasses as we break through into clear, blue skies. Returning in the evening the sequence of events is exactly reversed — the demarcation line often moving less than a few metres!

+The village of Ciutadilla in Lleida province, shortly after a thunderstorm passes through., 143 kbThe village of Ciutadilla in Lleida province, shortly after a thunderstorm passes through.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Wetter than average spring weather carries one consolation…, 202 kbWetter than average spring weather carries one consolation…
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Chris Sharma, seen here in action on his route, ‘Pachamama’ (9a+/b) at Oliana, 195 kbChris Sharma, seen here in action on his route, ‘Pachamama’ (9a+/b) at Oliana
© Pete O'Donovan 2009
The climbing

Where should I start? There's world -class sport climbing in virtually every corner of Catalunya. In the east, Montserrat, Montgrony and Sadernes. To the south, the Costa Daurada, with its internationally famous locations such as Siurana, La Mussara, Montsant and Margalef, to name just a few. The west of the region, north of the city of Lleida, is home to some of the latest 'must visit' crags heading the hit lists of any ambitious rock star — Oliana, Tres Ponts and Paret de les Bruixes at Terradets. Lleida is also well placed for Rodellar, only an hour and a half drive away into neighbouring Aragón. The foothills and main peaks of the Pyrenees (I should really use the Catalan Pirineus) add a further ingredient to the mix, offering adventurous multi pitch climbs, both bolted and trad, as well as opportunities for winter mountaineering and ski touring.

So, are you interested? Catalunya might not be everyone's cup of tea. Compared to, say, southern France, the villages aren't quite so pretty, the landscape harsher and the drivers definitely crazier! But with the right attitude and an open mind I think for that, for people passionate about climbing, there can be few better places in Europe to live. Tom and Lynne see Catalunya as a place where their quality of life is far beyond anything possible back home and have great plans for the future. They eventually hope to set up accommodation and guiding facilities for visiting climbers, and are currently searching for appropriate premises from which to base their operation.

+Dani Andrada, originally from Madrid, but resident in Lleida since the mid-nineties., 200 kbDani Andrada, originally from Madrid, but resident in Lleida since the mid-nineties.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Lisi Roig tiptoes across the delicate rising traverse of ‘Black Mamba’ (7b)., 237 kbLisi Roig tiptoes across the delicate rising traverse of ‘Black Mamba’ (7b).
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Climber on ‘Així de Bé’ (6b+) on the magnificent walls of Racó de Missa in Montsant., 225 kbClimber on ‘Així de Bé’ (6b+) on the magnificent walls of Racó de Missa in Montsant.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+Àngels in action on the Via Ferrata de Peramola, an extremely impressive, though safe, outing near Oliana., 236 kbÀngels in action on the Via Ferrata de Peramola, an extremely impressive, though safe, outing near Oliana.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+A walk on the wild side: Andy Hyslop seconding pitch 5 on ‘Latin Brothers’ (500m 7a) on the awesome Paret de Catalunya., 218 kbA walk on the wild side: Andy Hyslop seconding pitch 5 on ‘Latin Brothers’ (500m 7a) on the awesome Paret de Catalunya.
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

photo
Raquel Hernandez on ‘Dancing Team’ an excellent 6b on the cliffs of Camarasa.
UKC Articles, Jul 2009
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

photo
Àngel Arrabalí on the crux moves of ‘La Bella de la Conca’ (7b), one of the...
UKC Articles, Jul 2009
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

Footnote

Finally, sorry Manchester United fans, but it would be remiss of me to finish any article about Catalunya without adding a footnote concerning the favourite topic of its citizens: Barcelona football club. The club is a mutual society, owned by its fans; they play beautiful, flowing football: and they wear the Unicef logo on their shirts. What's not to like? The clubs fans, known affectionately as 'Culés' are spread across every age range and important games, particularly those against their great historic rivals Real Madrid, are always occasions for collective joy or sorrow. There's a definite political undertone to all this: back in Franco's day, Real Madrid were always considered to be the 'government's team', by suspicious Catalans, favoured by politicians and referees alike. When, in 2001, serving Spanish president José Maria Aznar reportedly stated that "all is well in Spain, the economy is booming and Real Madrid are top of the league" it appeared that little had changed. However the current leader, Zapatero, is a confirmed Culé himself, so maybe they have. The last time the two sides met, back in mid-April, I happened to be staying at a campsite just outside the town of Organyà, near the current 'super-crag' Oliana. Although playing away, and with Real looking at narrowing the gap at the top of the league to just one point should they win, the game finished 6-2 in Barça's favour. Even though Organyà is just a small, rural centre in the Pyrenean foothills, almost 200 kms from the capital, each and every Barça goal was marked by fireworks, car-horns and general all-round hysteria, from the youngest child to the oldest granny. This level of commitment to what is essentially just a game might seem a little unhealthy to the casual observer, but actually witnessing it one realizes it's relatively harmless. Celebrations after wins are always good-natured and rarely alcohol-fuelled. Losses are accepted stoically — Catalans are born pessimists and consequently gracious in defeat. That night at Organyà, sounds from the ensuing street party (it was also the Festa Major) continued to drift over the campsite well into the small hours. However, that was nothing compared to what transpired a few weeks later. As I sit here in front of the computer, the day after the Champions League win against Man United, I'll leave it to your imaginations to picture the scenes across Catalunya last night. Visca Barça! Visca Catalunya!

+Jubilation on the streets after Barça’s 2-0 win against Manchester United, 194 kbJubilation on the streets after Barça’s 2-0 win against Manchester United
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

+This is not in the capital itself, but in a small town more that 100 km to the West!, 126 kbThis is not in the capital itself, but in a small town more that 100 km to the West!
© Pete O'Donovan 2009

©Pete O'Donovan 2009


Photo Gallery


Catalunya

Guidebooks?
Golden, sun-kissed limestone, here we come:

Guidebooks:
Tarragona Climbs (2012), Tivissa Rock Climbs (2012), Siurana (2010),
Out of print: Costa Daurada (2002)

Most Popular Climbs:
Tan san fot 6b, Viagraman 7a, Marieta de l'ull viu 6a+, Remena nena 7a, Crosta pànic L1 7a+, Cos que cao 6a, Ay Mamita 7a, Última del 85 6a

Classifieds:
Find Classifieds in this area (Indoor Walls, Outdoor Shops, Campsites, etc)

Cornudella de Montsant, TARRAGONA

"Cornudella de Montsant is located Northeast of the beautiful region of Priorat, south of Catalonia. The village is in Siurana River valley between the Montsant and Prades mountains. We..."
homeaway.es

Job Opportunities?
Various websites exist.

Websites with jobs in Spain:

Climbing Walls:

Climbat Barcelona


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