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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Priorat – the DOC wine area amidst steep hills

Just 30km away from Hospitalet – this is what we discover on the map – there is the small town Falset (‘Falset – accent on the first syllable) which is the gateway to the DOC wine region Priorat and the adjacent DO region Montsant . On the map we select a round tour from Falset to Gratallops and back to Falset. Later we will return to explore the Montsant region with Escaladei (literally staircase to God).

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Falset – a charming small country town

Falset is a charming small country town located in a friendly broad valley with olive trees, fruit trees and vineyards. There are many wine cellars, the most known one being the Cooperativa Scala Dei. Falset also hosts an enology school and a wine technology institute called Vitec that allows the local wine growers to analyze and optimize their wine production. I found this in Miquel Hudin: “Vinologue Montsant”, Liberdúplex 2004.

The town is quiet on this Sunday, the restaurants are full with people eating around three in the afternoon (the normal time for lunch in Spain).

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Continuing through steep hills to Gratallops

We continue north towards Gratallops. Our road climbs and meanders through steep and rocky hills. No vineyards. I am surprised. Where are the Priorat wines? We have a coffee and a crema Catalana in the restaurant “La Cassola del Priorat”.

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Around this place we can see the first vineyards, terrassed on steep hills.

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The vines are loosely arranged, it must be hard to grow wine here.

Behind the next hill appears this gorgeous village perched on a hill. This is Gratallops.

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We enter the village. Narrow streets…

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… a church,…

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and a restaurant closed right now, on Sunday.

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Also the shop selling honey is closed today.

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One shop is open. We buy some wine – Garnatxa red (Lluna Vella) and white (l’Udol), a bottle of  Vermouth by de Muller, some local marmalade and the guide to the Montsant wines by Miquel Hudin. Three innovative wine growers have their cellars just outside of Gratallops: Alvaro Palacios, René Barbier and Carlos Pastrana. This is for some other time… I would have had to call them beforehand.

We continue our way along a narrow street above the Siurana river. Around us the steep vine gardens of the Priorat.

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Torroja of Priorat is just above the river Siurana.

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The road winds uphill with vineyards and olive groves on steep slopes. I had not imagined Priorat being so precipituous. In the “Vinologue Montsant” I read that in the DOC area of Priorat, 90% of the vines grow on llicorella slate (slate mixed with quartz), while DO Montsant has many different soils which also makes it interesting, as winegrowers start to produce wines exploiting the variety of the terroir.

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Montsant – I am curious and will go back to Priorat

In the background we see the rocks of Montsant.

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Prices for wines are not as high as in the Priorat region, where prices reach even several 100 Euros. The Canadian Miquel Hudin fell in love with Monsant and wrote his book “Vinologue Monsant”.

While already the Romans had grown wine here, this tradition was interrupted during the Moorish reign, until 1153. Then the “Cartoixa de Santa Maria d’Escaladei” was  founded as the first Carthusian monastery in today’s Spain. A shepherd had a vision here: Angels climbed a staircase to heaven. Hence the name “scala dei” or “staircase to god”. The monastery owned the land that subsequently was called “Priorat”. In 1835 the ecclesial possessions were abolished and the farmers destroyed the monastery.

After reading this book and having seen the rocks, I am curious and decide go back to the Montsant area of Priorat with its staircase to God (Escaladei)