Saturday, 18 April 2015

Catalan-speaking cities: Girona, Barcelona & Palma

The month of March took me to Girona, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. These three cities on Spanish soil have one thing in common: an additional language. Although castellano is the most common language in Spain, there are several regional tongues spoken in different areas. These include Gallego (spoken in Galicia) and Euskadi or Basque, but the most widely-used is Català, or Catalan.

Catalunya is the region in the north-east of Spain which runs down from the French border to Alcanar, just above the Valencian Community. Currently hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis thanks to the independence dreams of its regional president Artur Mas, Catalunya has long had a stronger identity than some other areas of Spain. This could be partly down to linguistic reasons: Catalan and other regional languages were banned during Franco's regime, and have come to the fore again in recent years. Cultural activities in Catalan have increased, and there's now a bilingual Castilian-Catalan education system in Catalunya. But Catalan isn't just spoken here: regional variants Valenciano and Mallorquín are used to communicate in the Valencia region and on the Balearic islands. There's some controversy over naming and difference, but essentially a Catalan speaker and a Valenciano or Mallorquín speaker can understand each other without any problem.

Catalan is most widely spoken outside big city centres, but even in the heart of Barcelona you'll hear plenty of passers-by chatting away in the local language, and all street signs are written in Catalan. Once you reach the regions' smaller cities, towns and the countryside, you'll usually find that Catalan predominates over castellano. As a tourist, you'll still be fine with Spanish, as the vast majority of people are bilingual. Arriving in Girona, I was pleased to be momentarily mistaken for a local and managed a few transactions in Catalan, a language I've been studying since late 2014. Just 40 minutes by high-speed train from Barcelona, Girona's a stunningly photogenic little city, perfectly placed between the mountains and the sea.

Girona Cathedral, in the heart of the old town

Having seen multiple pictures of Girona's rainbow-coloured riverside houses, heard about its world-class cuisine and imagined wandering its beautifully-preserved old town, it was a wonder it took me so long to visit. The brief introduction offered by this work trip didn't disappoint: Girona is petite enough to explore in a day, but its good looks and tempting-looking restaurants showed me it merits further exploration, so a return trip has been booked.

La Pedrera: One of Gaudi's most famous designs

Catalan city number two was Barcelona, a destination that needs no introduction. A city that's as cosmopolitan as it is Catalan, Barcelona boasts gorgeous Gaudí-designed architecture, sights aplenty, a food scene that's strong on both local and world offerings – and a beach. The vibe here is much busier and more dynamic than laid-back little Girona, and its big city status has linguistic effects too. In Barcelona, Catalan and Castilian co-exist comfortably, with speakers often changing languages mid-conversation. Here, my practice was limited to listening and reading, as I interpreted the menu in cosy Bar del Pla in trendy El Born.

My final March trip was to Palma de Mallorca. The capital of the largest Balearic island and I had history: my last visit was aged 18, when I was horribly ill and ended up in hospital. Round two was much more successful and thankfully illness-free – I'd go as far as to say Palma stole my heart. I've always had a weakness for beachside cities with enticing old quarters and great restaurants (hello, Valencia!), so it was no surprise that I fell for pretty Palma. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I understood Mallorquín just as well as Catalan, despite having heard that the accent was more challenging. In Palma, you're more likely to find information and menus in Spanish than Mallorquín, and official signage is usually translated. However, in certain shops I was addressed in Mallorquín, and heard plenty of the local language spoken in the street. A visit to my employer's Palma office showed me that it's commonly used on a daily basis, with locals often choosing it over Castilian.

Bon dia, Palma!

These three cities have something else in common too: the smile you can put on locals' faces with a few simple words of Catalan. It's by no means necessary to pick up a Catalan phrase book, Spanish will suffice, but addressing someone in their local language adds an extra touch. If you're visiting any of these cities or other Catalan-speaking areas, try some of these Catalan words and phrases:

Bon dia – Good morning
Bona tarda – Good afternoon/evening
Bona nit – Good night
Adeu – Goodbye
Sisplau – Please
Graciès/Merci – Thank you
Em dic Kate / Sóc la Kate – My name's Kate / I'm Kate (swap 'la' for 'el' if male)
Molt de gust – Nice to meet you
Parles anglès? – Do you speak English?
esmorzar – breakfast
sopar – lunch
dinar – dinner
un cafè amb llet – a white coffee (café con leche)
un suc de taronja – an orange juice
vi blanc / negre – white / red wine

If you're interested in learning more, is an online resource run by the Institut Ramon Llul, which promotes Catalan worldwide. If you live in Catalunya, beginner-level courses are free and other levels cost very little. In Madrid, you can study Catalan for minimal outlay at the Centre Cultural Blanquerna on Calle Alcalá. As part of Catalan Culture Week from 20–27 April, they are holding a free beginner level class at 5pm on Thursday 23 April. 23 April is also both World Book Day and Sant Jordi: in Catalunya, it's traditional to gift men a book and women a rose. Centre Cultural Blanquerna is hosting many other festivities that evening to mark Sant Jordi, involving roses and books (of course), plus cava, vermut and a few other surprises. The event is free and open to all.

What's your favourite Catalan-speaking city to visit? 


  1. I was just placed in Las Islas Baleares by the ministry of education, and am really worried my goal of using this year to improve my (beginner's) Spanish, is now dead. Do you think Palma is a place I could still learn Spanish?

    1. Don't worry, you can definitely still learn Spanish there! A lot of Spanish is spoken in Mallorca, and you're more likely to hear it in the streets than Mallorquín/Catalán. Enjoy your placement.


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