Don't tell anyone, but I'm rather fond of Ryanair. Granted, the airports the airline uses are sometimes nowhere near the city they're supposed to serve and seat pitches leave something to be desired. But I don't have long legs and Ryanair doesn't have long flights.

The budget carrier has an extensive European route network, which means that "open jaw" trips (airline speak for flying to one destination and returning from another) are easy to organise. Flying in from London, I've allowed 12 days to get from Carcassonne, in southern France, to Barcelona, Spain. It's a generous schedule - I could do it in three hours but that would mean taking the E15 autoroute, a charmless highway that goes out of its way to avoid anywhere of interest.

Impressive, at least from the outside, the medieval citadel of Carcassonne, with its "thou shalt not pass" parapets, beefy walls and fairy-tale turrets, kept invaders out for centuries. These days, retailers do all they can to keep the marauding hordes in. Atmospheric at dawn, the once impregnable fortress is swamped with summer sightseers by mid-morning, which is a good time to head for the hills.

The back route to Barcelona weaves through Languedoc-Roussillon, the southernmost region of mainland France. I pause for coffee and croissants in pretty stone villages bisected by adolescent rivers and surrounded by vineyard-cloaked countryside that gradually rises to form the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Gears grinding, my hired Renault strains skywards into a bank of clouds near the Andorran border. Pas de la Casa is one of the highest paved roads in Europe but this doesn't deter French shoppers who are prepared to cross mountains in order to save a few euros in the tiny tax-free principality

Andorra has a whiff of Switzerland about it; a global banking centre, it's incredibly scenic, squeaky clean and hasn't been at war for centuries. Should the pocket-sized princedom ever become involved in an international conflict, ancient law decrees that the armies of Spain and France are required to come to its defence. I'd be tempted to declare war on Belgium just for the fun of it.

Once past the unsightly frontier, with its duty-free stores and enormous discount petrol stations, the traffic eases. Meadows replace motorways and cows outnumber cars at Val d'incles, a verdant valley of fanged mountains, photogenic farmhouses and streams clean enough to drink from. It's three hiking-filled days before I get back behind the wheel again.

Bidding farewell to the only country in the world with Catalan as its official language, I cross into the only province of Spain where they're envious of the fact.

The craggy peaks of the Pyrenees, undiminished by the absence of snow, seem to rise even higher in Catalonia. Market stalls in lofty towns are crammed with flowers, fruit and cheese, and at ancient Besalú, which rose to importance during the Middle Ages, sightseers gawp at the Romanesque bridge and ponder that the place was once ruled by someone called Wilfred the Hairy.

"It's all fish and chips, bingo and British pubs," an English couple warn, heads shaking disapprovingly when I tell them I'm heading for the coast.

Long associated with cheap and cheerful package holidays, the Costa Brava promotes its gaudy resorts to the world but keeps quiet about the many secluded coves and exclusive boltholes in which second homes change hands for millions of euros.

Anyone foolish enough to arrive in August without a booking, or a second home, is vulnerable to merciless price gouging or a hefty commute. I ask a waiter if he knows of any vacancies and receive a look of incomprehension usually reserved for people who suggest Catalonia should forever remain a part of Spain.

I eventually find a modest habitación with a shared bathroom in Verges, a farming town 20 minutes from the beaches. Frankly, I'm relieved to not be sleeping in the car.

A succession of seaside sorties provides a tantalising snapshot of the Costa Brava. At picturesque Sa Tuna, fishermen's cottages tumble down pine-covered cliffs to inviting turquoise waters. The calm seas around Aigua Blava are ideal for snorkelling and there's space aplenty on the Gulf of Roses, where the sands stretch for 12km.

I grow to like Verges. By day three I'm on first-name terms with regulars at the hotel bar and joke about staying on to teach English. I suspect there wouldn't be much money in it - locals dawdle all morning over a single coffee and painstakingly count out piles of copper coins to pay for their groceries. Perhaps I need a city where the streets are paved with gold.

Poblenou used to be paved with soot. The area was Barcelona's industrial heartland until it fell into decline. A regeneration scheme has boosted property (and hotel) prices and shaken up the retail mix. The spruced up Rambla de Poblenou, a leafy pedestrianised thoroughfare, is lined with stylish galleries, bars and eateries. Where the inhabitants go to get a key cut or buy the kids a pair of football boots is anyone's guess.

Talking of the beautiful game, a visit to Camp Nou Stadium, home of FC Barcelona, is almost compulsory and transcends mere sporting endeavour. Catalan identity, civil war grievances and a yearning for independence are bound up in the fortunes of the team.

I find myself in a section reserved for fans who bought their tickets at the tourist office. Instead of the rabid Barça faithful, I'm surrounded by Singaporean, Danish and mainland Chinese tourists, who spend most of the match taking selfies. We're unable to join in the Catalan chants - a few choruses of We are the World would be more appropriate.

Kick-off is scheduled to coincide with when Spain sits down to dinner - or about the time I usually go to bed. This means the game finishes a few minutes before the last metro train departs, leaving 90,000 spectators facing either a sprint to the station or the futile experience of bargaining with a Barcelona taxi driver after midnight.

I eventually find a cabbie but he demands such an extortionate fare that I'm tempted to pay him in piles of copper coins.