The great triangle of land south of Barcelona may be one of the lesser-visited wedges of Catalunya – but it shouldn’t be. This wonderfully varied area encompasses a sun-speckled coast, a trinity of medieval monasteries and the historically rich provincial capitals of Tarragona and Lleida.
West of Barcelona lies cava country, where you can tour Catalunya’s best-known cava producers, especially around Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. On the coast, just south of Barcelona, sits vibrant Sitges, a major gay summer destination that’s also home to some fine modernista architecture. Beyond this is the Costa Daurada – the coastline that stretches from just north of Tarragona to the Delta de l’Ebre – which suffered less exploitation than the Costa Brava. It’s easy enough to see why it was so neglected – the shoreline can be drab, with beaches that are narrow and characterless, backed by sparse villages – but there are exceptions, and if all you want to do is relax by a beach for a while, there are several down-to-earth and perfectly functional possibilities, including Cambrils.
The Costa Daurada really begins to pay dividends, however, if you can forget about the beaches temporarily and spend a couple of days in Tarragona. It’s a city with a solid Roman past – reflected in an array of impressive ruins and monuments – and makes a handy springboard for trips inland into Lleida province. South of Tarragona, Catalunya peters out in the lagoons and marshes of the Delta de l’Ebre, a riverine wetland rich in bird life – perfect for slow boat trips, fishing and sampling the local seafood.
Inland attractions are fewer, and many travelling this way are inclined to head on out of Catalunya altogether, not stopping until they reach Zaragoza. It’s true that much of the region is flat, rural and dull, but nonetheless it would be a mistake to miss the outstanding monastery at Poblet, only an hour or so inland from Tarragona. A couple of other nearby towns and monasteries – notably medieval Montblanc and Santes Creus – add a bit more interest to the region, while by the time you’ve rattled across the huge plain that encircles the provincial capital of Lleida you’ll have earned a night’s rest. Pretty much off the tourist trail, Lleida is the start of the dramatic road and train routes into the western foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees, and is only two and a half hours from Zaragoza.Read More
The Monestir de Poblet
The Monestir de Poblet
There are few ruins more stirring than the Monestir de Poblet, lying in glorious open country, vast and sprawling within massive battlemented walls and towered gateways. Once the great monastery of Catalunya, it was in effect a complete manorial village and enjoyed scarcely credible rights, powers and wealth. Founded in 1151 by Ramón Berenguer IV, who united the kingdoms of Catalunya and Aragón, it was planned from the beginning on an immensely grand scale. The kings of Aragón-Catalunya chose to be buried in its chapel and for three centuries diverted huge sums for its endowment, a munificence that was inevitably corrupting. By the late Middle Ages Poblet had become a byword for decadence – there are lewder stories about this than any other Cistercian monastery – and so it continued, hated by the local peasantry, until the Carlist revolution of 1835 when a mob burned and tore it apart. The monastery was repopulated by Italian Cistercians in 1940 and over the decades since then it’s been subject to continual – and superb – maintenance and restoration.
As so often, the cloisters, focus of monastic life, are the most evocative and beautiful part. Late Romanesque, and sporting a pavilion and fountain, they open onto a series of rooms: a splendid Gothic chapterhouse (with the former abbots’ tombs set in the floor), wine cellars, a parlour, a kitchen equipped with ranges and copper pots, and a sombre, wood-panelled refectory.
Beyond, you enter the chapel in which the twelfth- and thirteenth-century tombs of the kings of Aragón have been meticulously restored by Frederico Marès, the manic collector of Barcelona. They lie in marble sarcophagi on either side of the nave, focusing attention on the central sixteenth-century altarpiece.
You’ll also be shown the vast old dormitory, to which there’s direct access from the chapel choir, a poignant reminder of Cistercian discipline. From the dormitory (half of which is sealed off since it’s still in use), a door leads out onto the cloister roof for views down into the cloister itself and up the chapel towers.
LLEIDA (Lérida), at the heart of a fertile plain in inland Catalunya, has a rich history. First a municipium under the Roman Empire and later the centre of a small Arab kingdom, it was reconquered by the Catalans and became the seat of a bishopric in 1149. Little of those periods survives in today’s city but there is one building of outstanding interest, the old cathedral, which is sufficient justification in itself to visit. Several interesting museums and a steep set of old-town streets will easily occupy any remaining time. Rooms are easy to come by, and the students at the local university fill the streets and bars on weekend evenings, including at the breezy Plaça de Sant Joan, in good-natured throngs.
Cava – Spain’s answer to champagne – is grown largely in the Penedès region, which also produces quality white wines and sturdy reds. “Cava” simply means cellar, and was the word chosen when the French objected to the word champagne. The eminently drinkable, and very affordable, sparkling wine is usually defined by its sugar content: seco (literally “dry”) has around half the sugar of a semi-seco (“very sweet”). In addition to selling cheap bottles of bubbly, the region’s famous bodegas often offer informative tours and tastings, and are located in stunning properties, attractions in themselves. Most can be found in the Penedès region near the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, about 30km west of Barcelona, and easily accessible via the highway that zips right past it. The countryside around Vilafranca de Penedès, 15km southwest of Sant Sadurní, is also dotted with wineries, including wine giant Torres. There are regular trains from Estació-Sants Barcelona to Sant Sadurní (40min) and Vilafranca de Penedès (50min).
Around Sant Sadurní d’Anoia
Codorníu Avgda. Jaume Codorníu, just outside Sant Sadurní d’Anoia t938 913 342, wcodorniu.com. Codorníu, one of Spain’s best-known cava brands, is credited with bringing champagne production to Spain in 1872. On a tour, you’ll explore the cellars, view the beautiful modernista premises designed by Josep Maria Puig i Cadafalch and enjoy a tasting at the end. Reservations are essential – you can call, email or book online. The winery is about 2km from the highway and well signposted. Tours €6. Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–1pm.
Freixenet c/Joan Sala 2, visible from the highway t938 917 096, wfreixenet.com. This celebrated producer offers interesting tours which include a visit to their oldest cellars, originally excavated in 1922, a ride on a tourist train around the winery and samples of bubbly. There’s also a well-stocked shop. Tours must be booked in advance, either by phone or the website. Tours €6.10. Consult the website for information on hours.
Jean Leon Pago Jean Leon, El Pla del Penedès, 10km west of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia t938 995 512, wjeanleon.com. Owned by Torres, the boutique wine-maker Jean Leon features an American-modernist-inspired visitor centre set in particularly bucolic surroundings. Tours include a visit to the vineyards, the wine cellars, ageing barrels and a small museum, followed by a tasting. They also offer Segway tours for groups. Book in advance, via phone or web. Tours €10. Mon–Fri 9am–6pm, Sun 9am–1pm.
Around Vilafranca del Penedès
Bodegas Torres Finca el Maset, Pacs del Penedès, 3km northwest of town t938 177 487, wtorres.es. Torres, one of Spain’s big-name wine producers, leads well-organized tours, which include trundling through the fragrant vineyards in a small tourist train, slick audiovisual presentations and a tasting at the end. Oenophiles can opt for a more in-depth experience with wine-tasting classes on Saturdays (4–6.30pm; €22). Tours €6.10. Mon–Sat 9.15am–4.45pm, Sun 9.15am–1pm.
Touring the Priorat
Touring the Priorat
Around 35km west of Tarragona lies one of Spain’s emerging wine regions, the Priorat, which was awarded its DOC in 2001. The red wine produced here, and in the adjacent Montsany DOC, is highly sought after, and the cellers have started to follow their more established competitors in La Rioja by cashing in with wine tours and tastings. The turisme in Tarragona has up-to-date information, or you can try the local office in Falset (Mon–Fri 9am–3pm & 4–7pm, Sat 10am–2pm, Sun 11am–2pm; t977 831 023, wturismepriorat.org). Most tours cost €5–7, and many have English-speaking guides – reservations are essential.
La Conreria de Scala Dei c/Mitja Galta 32, Scala Dei, just south of La Morera de Montsant t977 827 027, wvinslaconreria.com. This established winery, named after the Carthusian monks of Scala Dei, offers tours through its cellars and vineyards followed by tastings. Book tours in advance, via phone or website. Tours €10. Mon–Fri 11am–5pm, Sat & Sun 11am–2pm.
Costers del Siurana Camí Manyetes, Gratallops t977 839 276, wcostersdelsiurana.com. This highly regarded winery offers tours through the cellars, and also runs the charming, small Cellers de Gratallop restaurant nearby, which serves regional cuisine – and Priorat wine, of course. Call or email ahead to enquire about tour hours and prices.