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Beyond Barcelona, Montserrat, Figueres and Sitges

BY RICK STEVES Modified: January 23, 2013 at 9:17 am •  Published: January 23, 2013

It's hard to top Barcelona, Spain's most cosmopolitan and fun city. I love the place, but I'm not alone. Every year, ten million visitors swoop into town, rambling the Ramblas, touring hidden corners of the Old City, and marveling at playful Modernista architecture.

If you want a break from the crowds, several day trips from Barcelona are tempting scene-changers: the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat, the Salvador Dali museum at Figueres, and the beach town of Sitges.

For almost a thousand years, Benedictine monks have lived atop Montserrat — the "serrated mountain" — which dramatically rockets up from the valley floor northwest of Barcelona. Poets claim that the mountain was carved by little angels with golden saws. Geologists blame nature at work.

Either way, with its unique rock formations and dramatic cliff-clinging monastery, this is an inviting excursion for pilgrims with (or without) hiking boots. A one-hour train ride from Barcelona links up with a rack railway or a cable car to get you to the lofty site. Serious pilgrims walk up.

Legend has it that in medieval times, shepherd children saw lights and heard songs coming from the mountain. They traced the activity to a cave, where they found a statue dubbed La Moreneta, the Black Madonna. The monastery quickly became a pilgrim magnet.

The small wooden Mary is behind protective glass in the Montserrat basilica, but the royal orb she cradles in her hand is exposed, ready to receive the venerating touch of the faithful. Newlyweds in particular seek this Mary's blessing.

For hikers and nature lovers, a funicular climbs nearly a thousand feet above the monastery. Up top, the air is fresh and the views are spectacular, sweeping (on the clearest days) from the Mediterranean to the Pyrenees. From the trailhead here, well-signposted hikes radiate out.

The most popular one is mostly downhill back to the monastery. Hiking along the peaceful trail makes me want to turn cartwheels.

If you're a Dali devotee, head to Figueres (two hours north of Barcelona) and the strange, fanciful Dali Theater-Museum. From the Figueres train station, it's an easy 15-minute walk to the museum.

You can't miss it: It's painted pink, studded with golden loaves of bread, and topped with monumental eggs and a geodesic dome. For fans of Surrealism and Dali, it's one of Europe's most enjoyable museums.     

Much of the art in the building (a former theater) is movable and coin-operated, so have a few euro coins in your pockets when you go. You know how you can never get a cab when it's raining? Pop a coin into Dali's personal 1941 Cadillac, and it rains inside the car.

Another highlight is the Mae West room. From just the right spot, you'll see that the sofa lips, fireplace nostrils, painting eyes, and drapery hair come together to make the face of the sultry actress.

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