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Evolution Explores Beyond Barcelona

Evolution International is continuing to explore new and exciting destinations on behalf of our clients – CEO Andi Swain recently visited the beautiful region of Catalunya.

Catalunya region is located in North Eastern Spain, stretching from the picturesque Pyrenees Mountains on the French / Andorra borders in the North, down to the Medieval splendour of Tarragona and the Penedes wine growing region in the South. Renowned for its lively Costa Brava beach resorts, Catalunya’s pulsating core is the beautiful gothic city of Barcelona. It’s fair to say that the majority of us may well have visited Barça, but how many of us have explored beyond that fantastic city?

Andi shares his experiences and highlights of Catalunya:

“Having travelled to the region as a guest of Meet Catalunya, the Catalunya Convention Bureau and the Catalan Tourist Board, I began the trip in Lloret de Mar, the perennially popular tourist resort on the Costa Brava, at the Meet Catalunya Show. This one day event gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet with a wide range of Catalan venues, hotels and specialist experience organisers, in the air conditioned comfort of the Grand Casino Costa Brava. I managed to squeeze in an staggering 22 official meetings, plus some unofficial ones too, including a buffet reception in the beautiful Santa Clotilde Gardens, perched above one of Lloret’s sandy beaches. We were welcomed by the head of the Catalan Tourist Board and the Mayor of Lloret De Mar, a big “well done” to the organisers of Meet Catalunya, for ensuring that I met with some top experts from the region.

No sooner had I finished my meetings, it was time to head off on one of six unique tours of the region organised by Meet Catalunya. These included North to the Pyrenees, Girona and the Costa Brava, south to Barcelona and Sitges (both of which locations we use regularly) and inland to Lleida. Together with around a dozen others, I had chosen the tour to Tarragona and the Costa Daurada in the far south of Catalunya, just an hour from Barcelona’s El Prat Airport, yet an area I’d never ventured to before.

The drive from Lloret to Tarragona is a hefty one in the rush hour but it took us through the spectacular Penedes wine-growing region, with vines stretching as far as your eye can see either side of the road, and then through olive groves in similar proportions. Running late due to the traffic, we headed straight to dinner at The Hotel Gran Claustre in Altafulla, near Tarragona.

This beautiful boutique hotel is sited in a medieval suburb – Castell d’Altafulla, an old convent on a steep hill. The stone walls and narrow stairways exude authenticity, as do the underground restaurant spaces with their stone walls and ornate décor. The 39 bedrooms reflect the nature of the hotel’s history, individually designed and unique in style. Despite the ancient nature of the venue, there’s a lovely spa and just up the hill, a fabulous open-air walled courtyard where we enjoyed a local-food buffet and listened to a jazz ensemble. All in all, a very unique venue!

We then headed to the coastal resort of La Pineda, close to Salou, and to the luxury of the 5* Gran Palas Hotel for two nights stay. As we were to discover, this modern hotel has a wealth of gourmet restaurants, pool, gym, spa, bars and terraces – and a good range of meeting spaces. La Pineda resort itself is popular for 3 / 4* all-inclusive hotels, sits on a lovely sandy beach and has a good range of bars and restaurants along its sea front.

The following day it was time to continue the tour with a mixture of location, venue and experience visits in the surrounding area. First stop, the picturesque port and town of Cambrils, where I clambered elegantly aboard one of the area’s finest catamarans for a quick jaunt up the coast. We can organise anything from a one hour experience to a full day trip for you, touring the coast and diving into the turquoise waters of the Med, and even include an on-board barbecue.

Next it was on to Reus (with its international airport) and the Fira Reus Convention Centre, just ten minutes from the airport. The sister of Barcelona’s Fira Convention centre, the Reus option can hold up to 3,000 people in its halls and boasts a multitude of smaller meeting spaces. Hotels are dotted around the general area, a good range from 3* to 5* all easily accessible by sort coach transfer.

And then we were talking highlights and one of my favourite experiences, La Boella. Situated amidst 110 hectares of Olive Groves, La Boella boasts an expansive meetings area, a 5* boutique hotel, winery and wine shop, gourmet restaurant and an original Olive Oil mill. We enjoyed a thoroughly educational olive oil tasting session, with an overview of how the different types of olive oil are made and graded, and discovered how to grade the oils too. Then a wonderful lunch in their private boardroom, with fantastic local wines and foods. A quick recovery nap in their beautiful courtyard garden was called for, alas, it was time to move on!

After a quick refresh back at La Pineda, I headed into the ancient city of Tarragona. I’m not sure what I was expecting to discover, and the initial impression at the starting point in Tarragona’s Las Ramblas was of a ‘mini-me’ of Barcelona. How wrong I was! Our excellent local guide began by taking us to see the Bullring; Catalunya banned all bullfighting in 2010, since then the huge arena has been used for major local events and concerts, including the famous “Human Tower” competitions. With a capacity in excess of 5000, it’s an impressive arena. Next stop, another mightily impressive edifice – the Tarragona Trade Fair and Congress Centre, El Palau – built into a rocky hillside quarry in the city centre (the stone was originally mined to build Tarragona’s harbour, hundreds of feet below in the port). This purpose-built congress centre and theatre can hold around 1,100 people for performances and conferences.

The final and undoubtedly quirkiest of the meetings spaces I visited was the Seminari de Tarragona. Now this venue would make an amazing space for a very different, inspiring and frankly awesome event. Built in 1883 as part of the local Diocesan buildings in the Roman Acropolis part of the city, in the Gothic style so famed of the region, the Centre Tarraconense “El Seminari” fell into disrepair over the years as the Church struggled with the costs of maintenance. And so the decision was taken to renovate the entire building and allow visitors and events to take place there, to fund the renovation. The Seminari is a maze of spaces that lead into each other, clustered around a central courtyard Chapel that can also be used for events. Space is both old (such as the chapel) and very modern, with a meeting room for around 80 recently added. Another feature is the Seminari library (access strictly controlled) which holds over 100,000 historic books. Wow!

And now for the unexpected, Tarragona was originally an outpost of the Roman Empire, a strategic Roman walled military settlement with all the associated infrastructure – the amphitheatre remains largely intact to this day and can be viewed from high above on the elevated promenade. And much of the original Roman wall remains, with houses now built into its sides, quite a sight. The museum is fascinating, with a 3D scale model of the original city showing the various arena and important buildings, many of which remain. It’s still possible to go to the top of one of the two original observation towers (albeit in a relatively modern small lift!) and take in the spectacular views across the city and out to the Mediterranean.

After another wonderful dinner sitting outside on a flower covered terrace at Tarragona’s Degusta restaurant, I headed for another real highlight, and something the region is renowned for – a Human Castle / Tower show. Actually, to be 100% accurate we were very fortunate to attend a training session of one of the top Tarragona teams. Human Castell (castle) or tower building originated in Tarragona, with the earliest documented record dating back to 1712. Huge teams of locals join together to build the tower, with masses of people propping up the bottom layer (a bit like a rugby scrum), progressing to fewer and fewer (and lighter) people as the tower grows. Ultimately the very smallest and youngest (a girl aged 6 in the case of the tower we watched), shins up the backs and shoulders of the people forming the tower, to reach the top and form the highest point. The practice I saw went to 9 layers high (even finding a building with a tall enough roof is difficult!!), though I believe that the record is a dizzying 11 layers high. All supported by pure brute strength. There are many different approaches to building the formation, and different competitions take place for each style. I have promised myself that one day I will return to see a full competition, perhaps in the Tarragona Bull Ring.

After another restful night back at the Gran Palas hotel, the following morning saw us head to the PortAventura convention centre and theme park, and the newly opened Ferrari land – a nearby resort (three theme parks in effect) with a very large and modern business and convention centre alongside – all part of the same property. This is another classic huge exhibition and convention hall, but with lots of space for smaller meetings too. The real bonus is that there is plenty of accommodation on site in the various resort hotels, so your delegates never need leave the resort. As a bonus, free entry to the main theme park can also be included. A word of warning, some of the rides looked pretty hairy – especially the Red Force vertical drop in Ferrari Land, the highest of its kind in Europe, but you’ll have to visit to find out for yourself!

My final stop on the tour took me to, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful hotels I have visited in Spain, and beyond. Welcome to the 5* Hotel Le Meriden Ra Beach hotel and spa at El Vendrell, simply known as the Ra locally. Set on a pristine, ‘as-close-as-you-will-get-to–private’ beach in Spain, the lobby area of the hotel was once a hospital, so located because of the healing qualities of the waters here. The lobby and immediate bar areas are spacious, chic, welcoming and airy. Perfect when it’s 32c outside with no breeze. The hotel features lots of quality meeting space, a terrific spa, a roof top infinity pool, more than 140 rooms and suites, and one of the loveliest outdoor terraced restaurants sat next to the beach. The food was exquisite, the wine too – and our host Manuel de Araujo, the Ra’s GM, took fabulous care of us – as I am sure he will you too! We have some amazing offers available for incentive and conference programmes to Le Meridien.

That was the tour over – what a packed couple of days, but so much discovered that we can share with you to make your next event awesome, amazing, and exciting. I still had time to head back into Barça (my second favourite city in the world) to head to the very newly opened May 2017 Café del Mar in the old Port area. I must admit to being a bit of a Café del Mar fan, even an aficionado, and this one is right up there with the best (Ibiza, naturally). Set on 4 floors, the top terrace is an exclusive VIP area that we can hire for around 150 guests – we had a lovely, if somewhat quirky, tray-served buffet and lots of Cava. There’s a lower terrace bar, a pool deck too and on the bottom floor, a very large outdoor dance terrace. All of the Meet Catalunya tours came together for the party, brilliantly hosted by the Meet Catalunya team. A wonderful location for an event, and a terrific way to end the five day visit to Catalunya.

I really must thank my good friends Montse Belisario (Director of the Lloret Convention Bureau) and Sílvia Garcia Denche (UK and Ireland market specialist for Meet Catalunya) for inviting me along in the first place, and being so helpful and welcoming. And a very special thanks go to our tour hosts, Yulia Fedoryshyn and Míriam Pijuan from the Catalan Tourist Board, who so expertly guided us around Tarragona and the Costa Daurada.

Evolution is constantly seeking out amazing new destinations, venues and experiences for our customers. Catalunya, with its multiple direct flights to Barcelona and Reus, is a terrific destination for conferences, meetings and incentive groups.

Drop an email to Andi at andi.swain@evolution.international to pick his brains! There’s no charge for our ideas and suggestions, and we can show how competitively priced overseas destinations can be compared with the UK. As we say at Evolution, every event must be an experience.

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