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Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain and home to the Catalans, lies between Spain’s eastern coast and the Pyrenees. The region’s culture borrows heavily from the Iberians, Romans, Moors, Franks and the Visigoths. All these civilizations took turns in occupying the region. Today, however, the people of Catalonia have more or less progressed from large, close-knit families to modern nuclear families. This is usually the case in larger cities such as Barcelona. The local population is generally friendly, and if you can speak a bit of Catalan, you’re on your way to winning over a lot of people.

Where to stay?

As the majority of universities in Catalonia are in Barcelona, the Barcelona University Centre has made arrangements with housing groups, and students can rent out flats or apartments, or choose to live in residence halls, most of which are located at the heart of Barcelona. Each university’s international student services office will help with all the basic processing. The universities in Girona, Lledia and Tarragona also have student services offices that help students find accommodation in student residences and apartments. In addition to these, students can also opt to rent out apartments without their university’s help.

How to get around?

Getting around should be simple enough as the region has good transportation systems in place. The metro system in Barcelona is efficient and well connected. All the cities have buses that commute within the city, as well as connect one city to the next. Trains are inexpensive and are also a good option.

Communicating with the locals

It is necessary to note that while Catalonia is a part of Spain, the people of Catalonia prefer to be called Catalans. While several people speak Spanish, Catalan is the primary language here. For international students planning to study here, taking up a course in Catalan or teaching yourself some of the basics is a good idea. However, this is not compulsory. Several people speak English, and most courses are taught in English as well. Taxis are also available.

Are there any customs you need to know about so as not to disrespect the Catalans?

Like with everyone else, being polite is always a good idea. It would be wise not to confuse Catalans with the Spanish, and speaking Catalan to these folks is advisable. Elders in Catalan communities are always shown much respect, so when meeting a group of people, addressing the elders first makes sense. A possible point of contention is bullfighting, which is synonymous with Spain. The Catalans have banned bullfighting and want nothing to do with it. They do not consider the bull to be their national animal either, opting instead for the Catalan donkey.

What can you do in Catalan to entertain yourself?

In addition to catching up with friends at restaurants and bars, or watching television, there are many other interesting things to do in Catalan. For those students with more refined tastes, a visit to the opera houses, museums and theatres is recommended. Catalonia has a variety of interestingly unique traditions that are always a lot of fun to celebrate. Some of these include ‘Correfoc’, which is essentially a representation of good vs. evil, and involves a procession of people dressed as devils, playing with fire; L’ou com Balla, which takes place 60 days after Easter Sunday, sees churches across Barcelona decorating their fountains with an egg placed atop of the bobbing water that draws several observers; and L’home dels nassos, one of Catalonia’s most famous characters, who is said to have 365 noses, draws Catalan children out on December 31 to hunt for him. Let’s not forget futbol, which is an incredibly popular sport here. Watching local favorites and football giants, Barcelona FC, play against any club should make for a fun evening.

Places to see

For short trips, there are a vast number of places to visit while in Catalonia. The region has some beautiful architecture with Roman as well as modern influences. For a beautiful day by the sea, head to the Costa Brava coastline. For golden beaches and a bohemian vibe, Sitges is the place to visit. Tarragona has some remnants of Roman history that should thrill history buffs. Girona has an interesting mix of Roman, Jewish and Moorish influences, so be sure to visit the Jewish Quarter, Força Vella, Medieval Quarter and the Arab Baths. Also close by is Andorra, which is a great place to visit through the year, where one can kitesurf or mountain bike during summer, and ski during winter. Valencia, Madrid and San Sebastian are not too far away and are good options for the weekend.

What to eat

When one thinks of Spanish cuisine, Tapas come to mind, but Catalonia has its own delicious cuisine. Of course, Tapas, which are essentially portions of food, are available as well. However, for more authentic Catalonian cuisine, your best bet would be to try Escudella, Escalivada, Esqueixada, Pa amb tomaquet, Crema Catalana, Xuixo, Mató, Panellets, Torró and Neula. Vegetarians need not worry as vegetarian options are available at most restaurants. Cava, a form of sparkling wine, is local to this region and very popular among tourists and Catalans alike.