Glossary of Catalan Place-Names

Montserrat...serrated mountain

Ever wondered where the word Catalonia comes from, or how the Costa Brava got its name? This article explores the legends and histories behind many of Catalonia's place-names. From Herculean legend to tourist rebrands, from Puigcerdá to the Pyrenees, it's an etymological journey through the urban, geographical and geological features which make up modern Catalonia...


Cadaqués, a scribble of white on the wild Cap de Creus (Cape Crosses). Now an idyllic artist's haven and popular tourist spot, it was once an isolated fishing port, remote from the rest of the Empurdá region. One theory has its name deriving from the Catalan Cap de Quers, or 'Cape of Rocks', because of the rocky, difficult terrain. Another has it coming from the Greek, 'Kata-Kairus', which means 'occasional port'. A settlement has existed on the site since the time of the pre-historic Iber civilization. In medieval times it was a favoured raiding spot for Corsairs. The Barbary Corsair Barbarrosa sacked the city in the 16th Century, torching the church. When the seas became safer, Cadaqués prospered, and would later become a inspirational bolt-hole for artists such as Picasso, Duchamp, Ernst, Magritte and of course Salvador Dalí, whose house is today a magnificent museum.


Catalonia was known as 'Cathalaunia' in medieval Latin texts. One possible explanation for this is that the word was a fusion of the words Gothia (Land of the Goths) and Alania (Land of the Alans), the Goths and the Alans being the two Barbaric tribes who settled in the area during the Dark Ages following the sack of Rome. During the Moorish incursions into the northern part of the peninsula between the 8th and 10th Centuries, Catalonia was a buffer zone protecting the (Christian) Frankish kingdom on the other side of the Pyrenees. It was referred to as the 'March of Gothia' and was ruled by the Counts of Barcelona, who were Visigothic in origin.

Another theory has it as an adaptation of the word for castle-ruler, 'castlán', suggesting it comes from the same etymological derivation as Castille. Yet another theory suggests a link to the 'Cathar' culture resident in the Rousillon area of southern France, also traditionally a 'Catalan' region.

Costa Brava

Before the previous century it had long been the custom of Catalan fishermen and coastal dwellers to refer to rocky patches of the coast as 'Costa Brava'. However, the term didn't apply to any particular part of the coast until 1908, when a Catalan journalist called Ferran Agulló used it to describe the stretch of coastline between Blanes and Port Bou in an article in La Veu de Catalunya. By the 1950s, when tourism had flooded the beaches, the epithet had become its official name. The name would later inspire Tarragona's council to rebrand its own stretch of coastline into the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast), also for tourist reasons.


Of all the rios that flow into the Mediterranean only the Nile takes a longer route. Springing from the ground in Atlantic Cantabria and flowing beneath the spires of Zaragoza and the pine woods of southern Catalonia on its way to the Delta de l'Ebre, the Ebro is Spain's most handsome, and perhaps, significant, river. Its name in Latin, Hiber, is that of the land itself, Iberia, and its people, the Iberians. The Romans took it from the ancient Greek geographers, whose word iber meant 'rivershore'.


The stunning coastal region of Empurdá takes it name from Emporion, a city-colony built by Greek Phoceans in 575 BC on the banks of the Fluvià river. The name Empurion means 'market place,' and it would become an important hub on the trade route from Massalia (now Marseille) to Tartessos (a city-state on the banks of the Guadalquivir in what is now Andalusia). When Emporion was taken by the Romans its significance waned, while Tarragona and Barcino (Barcelona) prospered. Under Visigothic rule, the city was hit by Viking coastal raids and fell into ruin.


The City of the Four Rivers encloses the finest-preserved Jewish medieval quarter in Spain within its towering Carolingian city walls. The Romans called it Gerunda, probably an adaptation of the Ibero-Celtic word 'Undario' for the Onyar river that runs through it.

Las Ramblas

A 'Rambla' is a dry riverbed which fills up with water very quickly when it rains. Its etymological source is the Arabic 'ramla'. An alternative word would be 'torrente'. Often the site of the main walkway in a town or city, hence the Catalan expression 'ramblejar', or to take a stroll. Of course in English, 'to ramble' is to 'wander aimlessly' (or since the mid-17th Century to 'blabber aimlessly') and seems to seems to derive from the Dutch word, 'romblen,' ('to walk') which itself might have come originally from Castilian.


The architect of Barcelona's Llobregat plain, leading past the airport into the sea after meandering around the skirt of Montserrat, the Llobregat derives its name from the Latin 'Rubricata', which means 'sorrowful' or 'muddy'. The aptest of names for an aesthetically underwhelming río.


Catalonia's second most populous city and the site of its first university, Lleida was home to the pre-historic Ilergetes tribe, and was for that reason called Ilerda by the Romans. Later, after much mispronouncing by subsequent Moorish and Visigothic invaders, it settled into the jolly-sounding yay-da.


Barcelona province's tallest mountain reaches a peak of 1706 metres. Acting as a prominent landmark as a guiding beacon for ships off the coast, it earned the Latin name, Mont Signus - or 'Mount Sign' in English. However, the Catalan word 'seny' also means 'wisdom' or 'common sense'.


Home to the attractive towns of Arenys, Canet, vilassar and Premiá, and the industrial port of Mataró, the Maresme Coast winds north of Badalona towards St Pol de Mar. Another tourist rebranding of a coastal area, it takes its name from the Latin term 'os maritimum,' or 'mouth of the sea'.


Catalonia's most emblematic site of pilgrimmage takes its name from the geological feature that make it so unique. Montserrat means simply 'Serrated Mountain'.

The Pyrenees

In Roman poet Silius Italicus's version of the legend of Hercules, Pyrene was the daughter of the Gaulish King, Bebryx. Bebryx offered hospitality to the hero Hercules, who was on his way to Eritheiya to perform his tenth task - stealing the cattle of the three-headed giant Geryon.

The hero abused his host Bebryx's hospitality; embarking on a monumental Bacchanalian bender, which ended up with him ravaging Bebryx's daughter.

Pyrene became pregnant with Hercules's child, and gave birth to a serpent. Ashamed, she fled away into the forest away from her family, and was killed by wild beasts. Hercules, returning from defeating Geryon and now grimly sober, found her remains in the forest. He was hit by a Herculean wave of repentence and buried her in a tomb of giant rocks, naming the site of her tomb in her honour.


An historically important town in the Pyrenees. The name Oppidum Ceretanum is recorded in ancient history books. Oppidum is Latin for 'fortified', Ceretanum for the region of Cerdanya. The Catalan word 'puig' also means mountain or elevated site.

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