Although I enjoy visiting museums and cathedrals when traveling, I make sure to include time to hike and discover natural spaces. It is all about balancing cities with a bit of nature and the outdoors. Such was the case during a recent trip to Barcelona. A search for Regional or National Parks close to Barcelona brought up the Parc Natural de Serra de Monsant. The Parc was close to Tarragona - another city my wife wanted to see. The Parc also surrounds the famous Priorat wine region. With so much to see and so little time, we decided to combine as much as we could in one day.
A short train ride from Tarragona drops visitors near the town of Falset which makes for a good base for exploring the area. The Priorat Tourism office has an excellent portal online at Turisme Priorat . It was there that I found the services of a local guide. It did not take long for Txell from El Brogit to answer my email.
As always, I was pressured for time since I had other plans for the rest of Cataluña. I was also aware that July would be close to the hottest time of the year – far from ideal hiking weather. We took our chances and planned to meet Txell outside our hotel early one morning for the day trip. The plan was for a little bit of hiking, photography, sightseeing, and wine exploration.
We started the day with a short drive through the hills to get to the top of an area high above the town of Porrera. The drive up can be a bit unnerving at first but the view of the Monsant range beyond is spectacular. We were trying to beat the heat by doing a short hike down to the town of Porrera early in the day. The path, which was easy to follow with a clear view of our destination down below, was surrounded by wild roses, berries, peaches, and chestnuts. Everything was growing and thriving in a very rough and tough environment.
The walk was a good introduction to the land that imparts a unique quality to the Priorat wines. This area primarily produces powerful red wines with international fame. The area is characterized by its unique black slate and quartz soil. It is as if there is no topsoil, only shale fragments reflecting the hot sun. Vine roots have to dig deep through cracks in the rocks in search of moisture. The vineyards are planted on slopes on terraces. It soon became obvious why this wine can be more expensive to produce. The vines produce very few grapes in this soil. There is hardly any flat terrain and the vendimia (grape harvest) takes place on steep hillsides.
After arrival in Porrera, we took a short break before wandering around this small town. Next, after another short car ride, we stopped by the Cartoixa d’Escaladei. The Carthusian Monastery of Scala Dei is one of the most important historic sites of the Priorat. The monastery was founded by French monks from Provence in the 12th century. They built the monastery at the foothills of the Sierra de Monsant. The monks introduced new farming techniques including planting vineyards on the steep slopes of the region. We were running short on time so the visit was quick but there is an opportunity to walk around the back of the property. The Monsant mountains rise sharply at the back of this site.
We learned more about winemaking and the region’s history during a visit to a local cellar and had a wine tasting. Soon, it was time for lunch and one of the restaurants across the Plaza looked really good. We found Catalan food and house wine at a good price. The menu del dia, menu of the day, included Boletus Lasagna (mushroom lasagna) and Croquetas (fried mashed potatoes often mixed with meat, fish, etc.) – no dissapointments here.
After lunch we jumped in the car and headed for the Spanish Civil War Observatory at La Figuera. High above the valley, the observatory consists of a dugout maze reinforced with concrete. It commands a view beyond the Ebro river and was used by the Republican forces. Walking inside these walls transported me to another era. I was imagining what Hemingway described in For Whom The Bells Toll.
We wrapped up the day with a visit to the town of Vilella Baixa. The town is known as the New York of the Priorat with somewhat tall buildings on the edge of a small river. Txell recommended a shop for their Embutidos (mixture of different sausages), Terrines, and Pate. After our long day, we were so exhausted that night that going out for dinner was out of the question. Our dinner consisted of crackers with Vi Ranci Pate.
Eduardo Rodriguez, born in Puerto Rico, works as a software engineer by day. His true passion is travel, photography, food and wine, and saltwater flyfishing. When traveling, he always tries to combine new cultural experiences with his love of nature and the outdoors. After many trips to Italy, France and Spain, he loves the Mediterranean lifestyle. He is currently based out of Orlando, Florida. His Blog can be found at http://www.andaremos.com/