On the road to Spain – visiting Vilella Alta and Escala Dei in the Priorat

It is November 2019. We are spending two weeks in the appartment of our friends at L’Hospitalet del l’Infant. Some days ago we had already visited the Priorat to walk in the vineyards of Bellmunt. On a sunny day, we now return to the Priorat to visit another wine village, Vilella Alta, where we buy some wine in the bodega Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat. In addition, we look at the ruins of the former Carthusian Monastery Escala Dei.

Source: Googlemaps


Steep vineyards in the Priorat aound Gratallops

Just before arriving at Gratallops we stop to have a coffee in the restaurant La Cassola with the amazing view of the small town perched on a mountain edge…

… and with the view of these steep vineyards above the river Siurana.

This is an amazingly steep vineyard with very loosely planted vines that shine golden in the sun.

And here is the view of the Siurana valley with the table mountain Montsant in the background.

Gratallops is the wine village, where in the 1980’s the Priorat started to revive (Vinos de España, p. 171). Gratallops is pretty and worth a visit, but today, our target is Vilella Alta.


Vilella Alta, wine village perched on a rock, and the welcoming Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvat

Vilella Alta is another pretty Priorat village perched on a steep hill. The streets are narrow. This is the Carrer Major with the view of the church.

Here we stand below the small village and look uphill.

In one of the small streets, we find this beautifully restored house. with the carefully arranged plants in front of the main entry.

I look for the Cellers Vilella de la Cartoixa de Monsalvat. I walk down this street, almost to the end of it. Ursula stops in front of the door arch of the small house on the right hand side. “Come back, the celler is here”, she says.

Yes, Ursula is right, here it is, the bodega Cellers de Vilella de la Cartoixa de Montsalvant that I have looked for, based on the hints found in “Vinos de España”, p. 172 and in “Més d’enlla del vi – DOQ Priorat”, p. 123. The Montsalvant is a small family owned bodega. This unpretentious entry in the narrow street reminds me again of how different the DOQ Priorat is from the second Spanish DOQ Rioja, where some bodegas have been constructed by star architects and are visited by hords of tourists. Here we are alone… almost…

According to “Més d’enlla del vi”, Francesc Sánchez-Bas, has founded the bodega de la Cartoixa with two friends in 1995, and he took it over ten years later, when one of his companions became president of the Conseil Regulador de la DOQ Priorat. 1995, this was almost 25 years ago. We count back – yes we were in our forties then, and hence Francesc Sánchez-Bas must be in his early sixties now. Is this him, rushing through the large door just below where we stand?

Yes, it is him. He is about to leave for Tarragona, but nevertheless finds time to prepare two bottles of his best red Montsalvat (2006, mainly Carignena, aged 18 months in barrels and made from old vines) and one bottle of white Montsalvat 2016 (made from Trepot Blanc, Macabeu and  Garnatxa Blanca, two months in barrel… I am particularly interested in the Trepot Blanc, an autochthonous Priorat grape that is new to me). Francesc gives us “identity cards” of his wines and apologizes that he does not have the time to show his bodega to us.

Well, we might return to this friendly place next year. We say good-bye and hope, the bodega helps to build a future for the children of Francesc, as he said in “Més enllà del vi”.

We take another photo of the surroundings of Vilella Alta…

… and admire some fragmented slate that is favorable for the wines of the Priorat. On his wine identity card, Francesc talks about “granite and quartzite shards”, which might be the better term coined by engineers in agronomy.

Next we continue to the monastery Escala Dei.


The Charterhouse Escala Dei – the nucleus of the Priorat, now a ruin

The ruins of the Carthusian monastery or charterhouse of Escala Dei are in a gorgeous location just below the table mountain Montsant. The monastery was the nucleus of the Priorat. It owned the nine villages that now form the DOQ wine region Priorat and – being a monastery – gave the area the Name: “Priorat”. The monastery was built, where a shepherd once saw a ladder with angels climbing to heaven. “Escala Dei” means “ladder  of God”. It was the first Carthusian monastery in Spain and for centuries it was an important cultural center. Now, it is even not mentioned in my art guide books, neither in Dumont’s “Katalonien und Andorra” nor in Barbara Bongässer’s “Katalonien – Kunst – Landschaft – Architektur”. The formerly wealthy monastery, reconstructed in baroque and neoclassical style from the 16th to the 18th century, has been destroyed effectively in the beginning of the 19th century. However, the monastery is well worth a visit, due to the amazing location and the restoration efforts that started in 1989 and illustrate life in the former monastery.

Entering Escala Dei is just stunning. The Montsant massif watches over the line of three gates and the alley of cypresses. This is the second gate…

… and the Santa Maria portal leading to the center of the monastery.

The style of the Santa Maria portal looks baroque to us, with Maria standing in a niche.

The small Romanesque cloister has been reconstructed with the elements excavated. A film in the former refectorium documents the process of reconstruction. The ladder to heaven or “Escala Dei” is engraved on the fountain.

The ladder of God is also on the tableware in the reconstructed living area of the monks. There is a room for study and praying, a second room for cutting wood, a third room for handcrafting and this is the room for eating and sleeping. All rooms are arranged around a small garden, it is just like a small “atrium house”. Through a small, “curved” window, the  monk received his meal from a laybrother that could not see the monk through the pass-thorugh.

Behind the “atrium house”, there is a double garden on two levels. This is the upper level. The monk planted his herbs and vegetables in these gardens.

A complex system provided water to the monastery. Above the monastery, spring water was captured in a cistern and distributed to the individual cells (or “atrium houses”). Each “atrium house” had its system of tubes and fountains. First the upper garden received water (top level in the scheme), second the water continued to the fountain in the lower garden (middle level in the scheme), and third the water arrived at the lowest level, the “atrium house”, where the monk lived (lowest level of the scheme). At this lowest level, an underground tube collected the water.

This is the fountain that carries water to the lower garden.

And this is the (reconstructed) lowest fountain that the monk used in his small “atrium house”, for his personal needs.

We look back to the refectory in front of the Montsant massif and say good-bye to the charterhouse Escala Dei.

We have lunch in the small restaurant near the monastery and then return to Hospitalet to enjoy our balcony with the view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Sources: Sebastiano Albo, “Més enllà del vi – DOQ Priorat”, Barcelona 2011; “Vinos de España”, Larousse, Barcelona 2008; Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015 (for the monastery Escala Dei) and explanatory plates in the monastery Escala Dei.


Beyond the Costa Daurada – Montsant, monasteries and the Roman aqueduct

A round trip to the montains with two monasteries and to the aqueduct near Tarragona, this is our plan for a hot and sunny Thursday.


The impressive rocks of Montsant 

From the golden coast line (Costa Daurada) we cross the mountains behind Cambrils to Falset and enter the Priorat area approaching the rocks of the Montsant…

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with the vineyards hanging on the steep slopes.


We reach the small village of La Morera just under the rocks of the mountain Montsant – with its fruit gardens,

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There is a great view of the mountains we have just crossed coming from the coast.

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There are more vineyards here… they surely are producing high quality wine given the low density of vines.


The Montsant rocks watch over the monastery Scala Dei

The impressive mountain Montsant protects the monastery of Scala Dei or literally the “staircase to God”.

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This Carthusian monastery was founded in the 12th century, after the Moors had been expelled from the area. Backed up by the king, it became a powerful monastery with large land possessions. In 1835 the monasteries in Spain were expropriated. The peasants having felt oppressed for centuries destroyed it.

We enter the ruins through the main gate with a statue of Maria decorating it.

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To understand how the monks lived, a cell with courtyard, kitchen, bedroom and work areas has been reconstructed. This is where the monks sat and read the bible.

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Also the cloister has been carefully reconstructed reusing parts from the ruins.

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A delicious trout with a jar of wine

Near the monastery we find a nice small restaurant, where we eat a full menu with salad and products from the area. The trout from the rivers has been cooked in the oven. A crema Catalana  and a crema limón top our menu.

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The price of 15 Euros includes a jar of country wine – I can just take a mouthful (as I am driving). Some cyclists from Norway join us here and later a group of about 20 very noisy motor cyclists.

I later buy some wine from the Scala Dei cellar. It is a Garnatxa or – in French – Grenache.

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Across the mountains to our next monastery: Poblet

We take a road that winds along a mountain ridge and then down to the monastery of Poblet. This monastery is large (the walls surrounding it measure 1.5km) and is located amidst vineyards.

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Like Sacala Dei, this Cistercian monastery was also founded in the 12th century and it has also been expropriated and destroyed in 1835. However, it has been rebuilt reusing what could be reused from the old monastery and now has a living community of monks.  This is the cloister with the cypress trees and the fountain.

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From the cloister we enter the main church with the renaissance altar made from alabaster.

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The kings of Aragon have been buried in these coffins hanging in front of the choir.

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We say good-bye to this impressive place.

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Stop over in the small town Montblanc – and why is it called “white”?

Yes, here in Spain, we find a small town called Montblanc. Why is it called “Montblanc“? Perhaps the rocks are white? The guard of the church only can say that there is a mountain nearby also called Montblanc. Well, may be a small brother of “our” Alpine Mont Blanc covered with ice and snow?

Through narrow streets…

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… we walk to the cathedral sitting on the top of the hill.

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A beautiful atmosphere inside.

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The guard explains to us that this gothic church has not been completed. Right – the nave ends abruptly somewhat in the middle and there is also no tower. We climb to the roof and enjoy the view.


Our next target: The Roman aqueduct

Our next target is the Roman aqueduct built to supply water to Tarraco. We find the access from the N240 shortly before entering Tarragona. Here it is crossing the valley.

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This aqueduct can also be seen from the motorway – there is a platform providing the view of it – for those travellers that are in a hurry.


Along the street canyons of Salou and Cambrils

We cross Tarragona and follow the street canyons of Salou and Cambrils. No, we would not like to stay in one of these skyscrapers with beehive apartments. But – Ursula has found the excellent restaurant Les Barques here, where we have some delicious seafood before returning to our apartment in Hospitalet – yes, we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and the great view of the pine trees and the sea from our spacy balcony.