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.