Now Reading
Beyond Barcelona: wine tastings and spirituality with a Catalan twist

Beyond Barcelona: wine tastings and spirituality with a Catalan twist

The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey is a short drive out of Barcelona

When I opened my eyes at six in the morning, after one of the most relaxing night’s sleep of my life, I said to myself: ‘I have to see the sunrise.’ I’m glad I did: staying at the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey – or the Montserrat monastery – and staring at the sun from beyond the mountains was one of the few things in my life that put me in touch with the divine.

One of the best sunrises ever, in Montserrat
One of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen, in Montserrat

I’m not talking about gods, religion, divinities or the supernatural. I’m talking about the certainty that the night has gone, a new day has come and that the bright orange light of the sun is real proof that I’m still alive. We are all still alive.

The monastery of Montserrat, roughly a one-hour trip from Barcelona, is one of the gems this side of Catalunya. Because yes, of course, it’s possible to visit the Barcelona province without actually visiting the city of wonders, of the Ramblas, Sagrada Familia and the Barceloneta Beach, where Mediterranean dreams are made.

The Montserrat mountains and the hotel, on the right
The Montserrat mountains and the hotel, on the right

But outside of Barcelona you’ll find miles and miles of vineyards and wineries, bell towers and busy agricultural villages, lush green forests and rocky mountains, busy market towns and strong character. Forget about binge drinking in Torremolinos or fish and chips in Benidorm. This region is all about a wonderful quality of life, and a holiday that’s worth it.

First of all, the mountain of Montserrat, and the stunning monastery situated on top of this huge rock. This is a place for faith and pilgrimage – Montserrat is one of the most popular day trips among Catalans. It’s also a place for nature lovers. The monastery is situated among forest and you’ll be able to walk for hours, hiking and exploring the best path on this big wedding cake-looking mountain.

You can even sleep here. I was lucky enough to stay at the Hotel Abat Cisneros, just next to the old monastery where hundreds of thousands of people come every year to see the statue of the ‘Black Madonna’, or Our Lady of Montserrat, the Virgin of Montserrat, one of the patrons of Spain. All the businesses here are owned by the religious order.

The main entrance of the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey
The main entrance of the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey

The hotel is simple but comfortable. Don’t expect to find any thrills or glamour. But, if you’re able to appreciate the quiet and peace, you will be rewarded by magnificent views. Ask for a room facing the square.

The hotel’s restaurant is also worth visiting: lamb, cod, Catalan delicacies and cava wine are all on the menu. It’s not by chance that this place has hosted pilgrims and tourists since the 16th century (of course, it’s been renovated several times since then).

Try to visit the church pre-10am, before huge flocks of tourists come from Barcelona and the cruise ships. It’s full of artistic treasures: here you may be able to listen to the L’Escolania de Montserrat, or Montserrat’s boys’ choir, which is one of the oldest in Europe; they sing during religious ceremonies in the basilica. Next to the sanctuary, you’ll find a museum as well; Caravaggio, Picasso, Dalì and El Greco are among the famous ‘guests’ in this gallery, owned by the Benedictine monks.

The Barcelona province, however, is much more than old monasteries and quiet. Be ready to experience the buzzing Spanish nightlife in towns towns like Terrassa and Vilafranca del Penedès: full of crowded squares, tapas, fiestas and cava, bottles and bottles of cava.

Wine tourism, in fact, is a relatively new trend in the area next to the Catalunyan capital, and a culture that is celebrated in the VINSEUM Catalan Wine Cultures Museum, in Vilafranca del Penedès. Also known as the proper homeland of cava: the ‘Spanish champagne’. Here you’ll learn about grape varieties and the history of wine, before enjoying the inexpensive wine bar.

If you have time, have a look at the Jean Leon winery, founded by a Spanish entrepreneur who made his fortunes in the United States and then came back to his homeland, giving international recognition to Catalonia. Celebrities and VIPs contributed to Jean Leon’s success, thus a visit to this winery is the best way to find out the Spanish countryside can be glamorous too.

Then, Bodegas Torres, a well known wine growing company, where you will be able to take a small electric train to visit the canteens and the cellars. During the tasting I really appreciated the Viña Esmeralda, one of their bestsellers; a fruity white wine which reminds me of summer berries with a hint of lemon zest.

The village of Collbató at nightfall
The village of Collbató at nightfall

After a wine tasting, why not to spend an evening in a wonderful natural setting, maybe after having tried the best food this countryside can produce? Collbató is a tiny and charming village in the mountains, with one of the best eateries of the area, L’Illa Restaurant. The tasting menu here offers a great chance to discover many Catalunyan delicacies; I was a big fan of their homemade fish croquetes, and the chocolate and raspberry cake.

The chocolate and raspberry cake at Sol i Vi
The chocolate and raspberry cake at L’Illa

Another good option in the area is the moderately-priced restaurant in hotel Sol i Vi (meaning ‘sun and wine’). The starters are huge and diverse (not just olives and cheese!), and the cured ham was simply divine – it literally melted in my mouth.

Elsewhere in Collbató, the Coves del Salnitre (or the Saltpetre Caves) are the most impressive sight in the Mount Montserrat massif. (Visiting the caves is a tiring experience, though. Try to avoid the hottest hours of the day and be ready to walk a lot).

Insider the weird and wonderful Saltpetre Caves
Insider the weird and wonderful Saltpetre Caves

To visit the caves, you’ll embark on a 500-metre underground journey through galleries and cavities adorned by stalagmites and stalactites.

My guide and I at the entrance to the caves
My guide and I at the entrance to the caves

Bear in mind these winding natural passages were first discovered by Neolithic settlers and have since inspired talented artists like Santiago Rusiñol or Antoni Gaudí. He famously designed the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the most iconic example of Catalunyan modernist architecture.

A view of the exterior at Church of Colònia Güell
A view of the exterior at Church of Colònia Güell

On the subject of Gaudi, be sure to check out the church of Church of Colonia Güell, dating back to the end of the 19th century. This artistic gem, the father of the modern Catalan architecture, epitomizes Gaudi’s endless creativity and genius.

One of Gaudi's windows in The Church of Colònia Güell
One of Gaudi’s windows in The Church of Colònia Güell

From spring to summer, but maybe even in autumn, coming to this side of Spain means being able to enjoy the sea breeze as well. I strongly suggest the town of Castelldefels, which is between Barcelona and Sitges, (obviously one of the most popular gay resorts in the world). Castelldefels is quiet, has a long and golden sandy beach (this year honored with a Blue Flag, given to the best beaches in Europe only), traditional restaurants, a buzzing nightlife and a beautiful 10th century castle.

The hilltop Castelldefels Castle
The hilltop Castelldefels Castle

You’ll be most pleased to try the creamy lobster soup in La Canasta before partying in one of the clubs facing the beach. You could even sleep here and party in Sitges, which is only a few miles away. The hotel Bel Air, on the beach, is a great option. Ask for a sea-view room and you’ll literally be having breakfast on the beach. And the staff were great; the night receptionists are some of the kindest and most helpful I’ve ever met.

Last but not least: don’t forget to attend one of the human towers classes. This is a very old Catalan tradition and somewhere, almost every night, followers meet to train and have fun. They’re an amazing sight!

A human tower class in Vilafranca
A human tower class in Vilafranca

With thanks to the Spanish Tourist Board, the Barcelona county tourist board, the city of Castelldefels, the cities of Vilafranca del Penedés  and Terrassa, the Montserrat Monastery and Colonia Güell.