A peaceful retreat to Montserrat

September 1, 2017 - Barcelona, Spain

Confident of finding our way via Carrer Santa Ana to the Explore Catalunya Office, we left the hotel at 7.45am and walked up a comparatively deserted La Rambla. Max said that when he had been out for his early walk there seemed to be left-over party goers from the night before, but even they were gone by now, and some of the stalls were already open.

We picked up a take-away coffee and (for Max) a croissant – I am too worried about growing out of all my clothes to indulge in croissants for breakfast. Having handed in our voucher I was pointed to our guide who introduced herself as Laura (‘Lau..’ as in ‘how’). Several other tourists, obviously not as enterprising as we are, asked us where we got our coffee, so we were happy to give directions, naming the appropriate streets like the Barcelona cognoscenti we now are.

While we were waiting Laura introduced us to Micheline and Louise, mother and daughter from Canada, and we swapped tourist stories for a while before being led off to our bus in Plaça Catalunya. Mindful of my mistake when selecting seats in the minibus on our last day tour from Barcelona, I pushed Max into the bus first so that I could blame him if we didn’t get a good view. We did, although our elbows weren’t quite sharp enough to beat others to the front seats.

Laura was lovely – vibrant, knowledgeable, funny – and gave us a good commentary as we passed through the Eixample district, the late C19 extension to a city that had outgrown its ancient limits. The vision of the developers was extraordinary – wide avenues with rows of trees down the centre, and a mix of residential and commercial, so now it is a pleasure for residents to stroll out from their apartments in the evenings and enjoy the many restaurants and coffee shops that line the footpaths. Can you imagine a C21 developer whose primary aim was a happy, healthy lifestyle for end users?

On the outskirts of the city is an ugly, sprawling industrial area. Laura told us this is what it was, and advised us that, as the drive to Montserrat would take about an hour, she would now keep quiet so we could sleep through the dull bits.

Montserrat is a ‘serrated mountain’ that rises abruptly out of the surrounding plain, and, so Laura told us, was thought to look, from a distance, like an angel’s wing. The road climbs steeply, and the changing views are very spectacular. The bus parked at the top of a wide slightly sloping avenue which we walked down to get to the monastery. On one side was a deep gorge with mountains all round, and on the other, the walls of the monastery and choir school rose away just as steeply. Stall holders selling local produce were setting up along the way, and Laura told one of them we would be back later. She pointed out from across the valley the spot where some children looking after sheep in the C13 saw a vision of the Madonna – who was black, as it happened – and in due course Bishop Oliver came from Vic to authenticate this vision and direct the construction of a shrine. Naturally word spread and soon there were to many pilgrims so the shrine gradually expanded into a huge monastery into which the shrine was incorporated. Familiar story.

At the bottom of this wide avenue there was a restaurant, an information centre, the entrance to a scenic funicular railway and a metro station at the terminus of a line from Barcelona.

Laura gave us a map each, told us about the things we could do in our free time and led us through the wall into the square in front of the monastery. She told us all about it, pointed out the different stages and styles of development, told us that if we wanted to touch the Madonna we would have to line up, and then left us to our own devices. We decided to go to the Museum and then, if there was still time, up the funicular railway to the lookout.

The museum had a good selection of Catalan art, and we discovered the Modernists, particularly Casas and Rusinol. We seem to enjoy that era and style of painting, architecture and decoration in whatever country – witness our enthusiasm for Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There were also some other treasures, e.g a Caravaggio, and a wonderful Picasso portrait painted when he was 13 and unexpectedly (to me anyway, not being particularly literate where Picasso is concerned) realistic.

Naturally there was no time to go up to the lookout, so we bought a bread roll and a drink from the restaurant and then had a look at the stalls of local produce. We were offered slices of cheese to taste as we passed, and eventually chose a goat’s cheese to have on our roll. The young woman selling it to us didn’t understand when Max asked for 6 slices, so she called on the assistance of the adjoining stall holder who struggled a bit herself, but we eventually got half a cheese cut into thick slices. On Laura’s recommendation, we also bought a little pot of mato to share. This is a soft cheese a bit like ricotta, drizzled with honey. We found a seat beside the avenue and under a vine-hung pergola with a view of the valley and had a very pleasant picnic.

We all gathered back at the bus and headed back down the hill to the little church of St Cecilia which was the site of a Nunnery at one time. Just a quick stop to look at the style of the church.

Back into the bus for another hour’s trip to the Codorniu vineyard and cellar. The vineyard has a wonderful distant view of Montserrat, and the complex of buildings is amazing. The Codorniu family has been making Cava (think Spanish Champagne) since the C16 on land they originally acquired in 1497 and expanded thereafter. There are two family houses on the property, one being used solely for functions. The present cellar complex was designed by the Catalan architect Cadafalch, a Modernist contemporary of Gaudi, and includes a massive sort of reception hall, a series of rooms designed as a museum and about 34km of tunnels which are the storage cellars. We were given an explanation of how the cava is now made – the first fermentation occurs in a vat, and the second in the bottle. The bottle is stored upside down so that the sediment forms in the neck which is sealed with a metal crown seal. At the appropriate moment the bottle is tapped and the seal blows out, taking the sediment with it. The bottle is then corked, wired and re-stored.

Our guide Pepe – aka Pep – showed us where the really good stuff is stored, and explained that it is given a quarter turn and a slight tilt by hand every day for years (I forget how many). He mentioned with awe that a 10-year-old bottle is worth about 185 euros (not quite as much as Grange, we thought to ourselves, but still not likely to grace our dinner table).

Next there was a trip through the tunnels in a little train, past uncountable numbers of bottles stored on triangular frames. They were so dusty we knew they couldn’t have been turned recently and when I asked Pep at the end of the tour he said that some of them had been there since the ‘80s and although they were all full they were obviously no longer turned. I wondered, and wish I’d asked, what happens now to a bottle of 1980 cava – undrinkable I would think. But then, why keep so many of them for show?

Next we were led into the tasting hall and given two glasses of cava each – one of their traditional ones (there are about five different blends) and a newer pinot noir cava which we liked best. I asked Pep whether any Codorniu was exported to Australia and he said a small amount of a limited variety was sent to a few places, but obviously the majority of their exports go to Europe.

So what with one thing and another everyone was pretty cheerful by the time we got back on the bus for the two hour drive home. Max told me later that he overheard (in fact couldn’t help overhearing) a loud conversation in which a young American man was extolling the superior virtues of Californian food, especially steak, and Tex Mex. He can still think that after having been to Spain??? Shame! Apparently they went to a Mexican Restaurant the other night. 'It just isn't the same', he said (near shouted), 'they mustn't have the right spices here!'

There was a lot of traffic in the Placa Catalunya when our driver tried to park, and he had to go around several blocks twice. When an officious policeman tried to make him do it again, Laura became quite vocal and possibly even shook her fist at him. Anyway, we managed to sneak into a spot under his very nose.

Then off ‘home’ to our rooftop bar for a few beers and a plate of patatas bravas, and another of nachos and guacamole. (Lucie, you will be pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the latter was vastly superior to what we in our ignorance ordered on Starfish Island!)



The Monastery at Montserrat
Bishop Oliver's statue in the garden
The basilica houses the Madonna of Montserrat
Cloisters at Montserrat

1 Comment

Judy Crewe:
September 9, 2017
It sounds lovely, enjoy.
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