Escornalbou – the monastery and the castle on top of the “ox horn”

In November 2018, we are spending three weeks in Catalonia, near Tarragona and in-between we explore the surroundings.  

Today our target is Escornalbou. We have visited it a few years ago, and now we return.

Escornalbou is a rocky peak at about 650m above sea level located in the first line of the mountain ranges and above the plane of Tarragona (Camp de Tarragona). This rocky peak is the spectacular stage for a castle, a monastery and, on the very top, a small hermit.

This is the Castell Monastir with its small Hermit Santa Barbara above, taken from the viewpoint across.

From the small hermit Santa Bàrbara, we can see the unique location of the Castle Monastir overlooking the mountains of Prades, the Camp de Tarragona and the Mediterranean Sea.

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The exposed rock of Escornalbou has always been a fortification

Due to its strategic location, Escornalbou has been fortified since ancient times: The Romans had a castle here (3rd century), the Saracens (8th century) and the muslims until the middle of the 12th century. After the expulsion of the muslims, the rock continued to be a fortification. The monastery was added then to mark presence of Christianity. The complex suffered in the Carlist wars of the 19th century. Only ruins were left.

In 1910 Eduard Toda (1852-1941) bought the hill with the ruins. Toda had worked as a diplomat in China, Cairo, Helsinki, then as a merchant he made a fortune. In 1918 he returned to Spain, became professor in Barcelona and published various books about Egypt and his travelling.

Puig i Cadafalch advised him to rebuild the Escornalbou site based on all that was known about its history. But Toda built a comfortable mansion, based on romantic historism modern at that time. He even had a “medieval” tower added to the former cloister that he remodeled to become his garden with a marvellous view. I took this photo from one of the palace windows.

The mother of Toda managed much of the reconstruction. In 1924 the mansion-castle was completed.

This is one of the cosy rooms that you can heat with coal in the middle.

Toda loved to invite guests, mostly men, once even the Spanish king. The second floor of his palace had bedrooms for men and the third floor was reserved for ladies. In the dining hall, they would celebrate and eat. Ursula murmurs something about “Völlerei” or gluttony.

As a diplomat and merchant, he has seen much of the world. He collected books, and built up a huge library. 

He also acquired souvenirs such as the tiles that are decorating all walls of a small room. We would love to have these pretty tiles in our kitchens.

Escornalbou changed hands later. In 1979, the Bank Urquijo and the government bought the complex and renovated the palace to illustrate the life of notables in the early 20th century.

The palace can only be visited with a guide. We were the first group of the day, a German with his Spanish wife and the two of us. The guide must have been from Castile, because he spoke like a machine gun and he did not slow down, when being asked to do so. I needed some time to get used to him.

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The monastery Sant Miguel with the church – today the stage for a wedding

When the muslims had been exiled from the area, Alphonse I founded the monastery San Miguel. First the Augustinian Order lived here, then, in 1574, the Franciscans took over. They left the place in 1835, when the properties of the church in Spain were sold.

Today’s oldest parts of the monastery are from the 12th century: The Romanesque church and the chapter house. Toda had the belfry removed and the cloister remodeled to become his garden.

The Romanesque church has dressed up. A wedding is being prepared, as white flowers at the entry portal indicate.

Inside we find more flowers, white chairs and a blue carpet. Under the ribbed vault in front, the choir is practicing. The setting is very romantic for a wedding, but it is chilly here. 

The ribbed vaults – typical for gothic churches – are unique in a Romanesque church – it seems that the architect has been trained in France.

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Castle and monastery on the exposed ox horn give rise to legends: El jorobado (the forger)

The museum of Pratdip, attached to their Oficina de Turismo, tells the following charming legend on a panel: “Once upon a time the nights in the castle of Escornalbou were odd. Few people approached the castle, and those that did, heard a terrible noise and voices coming from underneath the earth. Worse even, they heard a metallic sound – alarming and frightening. Perhaps chains from the afterworld? “Are there ghosts in desolation?” the people asked, ”tormented souls roving around in the crypts of the monastery?” Those who could not sleep would pray the rosary. At night they often watched a crooked man descend the hill walking with difficulties. It always seemed to be the same man, tall and corpulent, and miraculously his hump was sometimes to the right, and sometimes to the left.

One day, the people from the village of Colldejou assembled and decided to send a delegation of courageous young men to the castle. The young men did, as they were told, and what a surprise… they discovered a counterfeit production. The forgers and their machines were the reason for the infernal noise and the crooked man was the one mandated to carry the counterfeit money down in a huge sack, and in one night he carried the sack to the right, and in the other night to the left.”

Today I learn from the guide that the legend remembered by the people living in Colldejou near Escornalbou is based on real facts: At the end of the 19th century, when the castle and the monastery were in ruins, a man called Macià Vila installed the counterfeit production here. He was a friend of General Prim who is much venerated in Reus.

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Wrapping up the visit by climbing to the Ermita Santa Bàrbara at the very top of the ox horn

At the end of the 19th century, the chapel Santa Bàrbara was added on top of the “ox horn”, made out of stones from the Romanesque tower.

I went up to wrap up my visit. From here the view is just marvellous, of the mountains in the west (with wind mills)…

… and of the Castell Monastir below, with the church to the left and the palace to the right.

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Good-bye Escornalabou

The parking is now brimful of Saturday tourists and wedding guests. The location for the marriage is extremely romantic.  But, a cold wind blows and I feel sorry for the wedding guests that come festively dressed, some ladies just with a light jacket and transparent (or even no) stockings. They must be shivering soon in the church. I wish that the sun having come out today, after a few rainy days, may be a good omen for the bridal couple.

We return to our cosy apartment to warm up.

Source: Website Castell d’Escornabou

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