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Crisis-hit Catalonia, a strategic region for Spain

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Barcelona (AFP)

Catalonia, which holds a vote on Thursday aimed at solving a crisis triggered by an independence referendum, is one of the most strategic regions of Spain, the eurozone's fourth largest economy.

Here are some key facts about the region as its independence crisis nears its moment of truth:

- Economic powerhouse -

Catalonia accounts for 6.3 percent of Spain's territory, 16 percent of its population and a fifth of its economic output. It was one of the first stretches of Spanish coast to be developed for tourism.

Still, Catalonia is one of Spain's most indebted regions. Nonetheless it complains that it pays billions of euros more in taxes each year to Madrid than it gets back in services such as schools and roads.

Some 3,000 companies have relocated their legal headquarters from Catalonia -- but not their staff -- to other parts of the country since the regional parliament declared independence declaration on October 27.

- A troubled history -

The cradle of anarchism in Spain, Catalonia has often had complex ties with the central government in Madrid. General Francisco Franco took away the region's special powers and repressed the use of the Catalan language during his 1939-75 dictatorship.

Catalonia today is one of Spain's most decentralised states. Considered a "historical autonomous region", it has the power to run its education and healthcare systems.

- Divided over independence -

While Catalans feel proud of their language and culture, they are more or less evenly divided over the question of independence.

But the vast majority are in favour of holding a referendum to decide their fate.

- Proud of its culture -

The home of surrealist painter Salvador Dali and architect Antoni Gaudi, Catalonia has its own language and distinct culture.

Catalan cultural centres have sprouted up across the region, which teach the sardana folk dance, where circles of people join hands and raise them in the air, or how to form a human tower called a "castell".

- Home to FC Barcelona -

More than a fourth of the players on Spain's national football team come from Catalonia, which is also the home of Argentina star Lionel Messi's FC Barcelona.

Barcelona, whose motto is "more than a club", is home not just to football lovers but supporters of the separatist cause, with secessionist chants often heard at key matches.

In an extraordinary twist of fate, Barcelona are set to play arch-rivals Real Madrid on Saturday -- just two days after the Catalan election.

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