There are tons of things to see and do in Catalunya, and while I spent much of the summer writing I also had plenty of opportunity to get out and about and to explore.
Along with my friend Debs, my main partner-in-crime during the summer, one of the places that I enjoyed visiting was a wine cathedral.
The wine cathedral at Pinell de Brai
In a small village close to the River Ebro stands a large ostentatious brick building inlaid with a beautiful coloured frieze, yet the biggest surprise of all lay inside. Debs and I took the self-guided audio tour and wandered around listening to the history of the place.
We learnt that the cathedral was constructed between 1919 and 1922. At this time in its history. the region was prosperous from wine and olive oil production and the government, wanting to put Catalan culture on the map authorized the building of large modernist cathedrals to house the newly formed wine and oil cooperatives and the farmers’ unions.
Cesar Martinell, who studied under Gaudi, was the architect who designed the cathedral in the village of Pinell de Brai. He wanted to dignify the workers’ work and build a grand place but he also listened to them and their needs and he incorporated state of the art specialist equipment inside.
Beginning outside we learnt that the frieze had been completed at the same time as the cathedral but with mounting debts it was thought to be a little inconsiderate to flaunt the 42 metre long art work so the tiles were hidden away ; and were kept hidden during the Spanish civil war, until they were finally added in 1950.
Inside, the main hall is dominated by 46 giant cement tanks. There are a further 25 tanks underground – the wine cathedral can hold up to 2.5 million litres of wine. On the tour tourists can interact with a sensory game and try to identify different wine-related aromas in a bouquet tunnel which was good fun.
Climbing the stairs to the top floor you really get a feeling for the grand scale as the largest brick arches in the world dominate the space – at 19 metres high they parallel the great cathedrals, which was of course, Cesar Martinell’s plan.
As I said previously, Cesar designed more than just a pretty building. A`long beam stretches across the top floor containing an endless screw used in the crushing process. Much of the wine production here uses gravity in the process which ensures that the grapes are minimally affected.
The building was also home to an olive oil mill. 3 huge conical stones would have once ground the olives to a paste before it was put into the crushers. The original equipment is still here and although it is no longer used but looks in pristine condition.
At the end of the tour in the little shop you can have an optional wine and oil tasting which Debs and I were more than happy to trial. I am happy to report that the oil was delicious and the wine excellent. There is also a restaurant upstairs which serves lunch and while we didn’t eat here, the business owners also have a Michelin star restaurant nearby so I suspect that the food would be good.
Menu del Dia
Food and drink featured highly during the summer. Of course, when you can buy a very acceptable cava for under £1.50 (that is a whole bottle not a glass) it was always going to feature highly.
Wherever you are in Spain, the menu del dia is your food friend. This concept was introduced by Franco who wanted to ensure that his workers had access to good, wholesome, affordable food and insisted that restaurants offered this alternative cheaper option alongside their a la carte menus.
The small village of Benifallet is blessed with several restaurants and bars which all serve excellent food but time and time again I return to Xiringuito’s. The atmosphere is relaxed – even during the hectic August lunch times – due in part to the fact that it’s family owned and it all runs like a well-oiled machine. The food that comes out of the kitchens is always divine and is usually based on local recipes, whilst here there are no half measures when it comes to the drinks on the table – the wine comes in carafes.
You do have to book a table on the days when they serve up their paella, but for me, their black rice is the best. Salty and ever so subtly squidy this is my personal measure of a good restaurant in Spain and Xiringuito’s wins hands down for their version of it.
If you are lucky and it is your birthday and Edgar is not in school, this 15 year old may come and serenade you on his trumpet while his proud family who own the restaurant look on and everybody claps and cheers.
If you want to experience amazing home-cooked food with fresh produce in a relaxed family atmosphere you should hunt down this restaurant for lunch.
Hiking to the Santos Cross
In an attempt to counteract the excesses of the summer, Debs and I decided to do some exercise. One evening when the temperature was still 30 something degrees a group of about 30 people gathered in the road outside the bars of Benifallet. Piling into cars we drove up into the mountains to the abandoned Cardo Monastery. The road hugs the side of the mountain and has spectacular views across the valley and as you emerge through a tunnel cut into the rock you can see the impressive monastery on its bluff of rock which hangs over the valley.
But this evening we were not there to see the monastery. We were there to hike to the summit and the Cross of Santos. With the high temperature it was never going to be an easy hike but the group set off at a fast pace. Trying not to puff and pant too much, both Debs and I held our own although my knee has not been right since! The hike was 7.5 kms and we climbed 581 metres. I have done worse but the terrain was dreadful with loose rocks and steep sides. But the views were worth it. We passed several of the many abandoned hermitages that were an off-spin from the monastery, some of them perched impossibly on sharp needles of rock.
Debs told me how the monks used to live alone in them and as a safety precaution they would all ring their bells at a designated time of the day. One day, one of the bells was silent so a rescue party went to investigate – only to find the monk enjoying the company of the local prostitute! The enraged rescuers set the hermitage on fire as it had been desecrated by the monk who was banished.
As we emerged from the tree line we had views over to the coast and the Ebro Delta as well as the mountains which rolled on and on. And then the event that we had climbed for. As smokey grey cloud crept up to the peak on which we were standing, the sun set in the west bathing everything in a golden glow – and opposite in the east, a full moon rose in the midnight blue sky.
We took pictures and settled down to eat our picnics on the rocks with the view surrounding us at 360 degrees. And then, in the dark, we donned our head torches and set off back down the mountain.
I know a lady in the village who climbed the mountain one day in the past with her parents. They lugged up bags of cement and water to the peak so that they could cement in the cross which had been damaged by some over-exuberant hikers previously, and to ensure that future generations can have a focus point to aim for.
Meeting a friend after 4 years
I am a great believer that strangers are simply friends that you have not yet met and this story proves that.
About 4 years ago I was in the queue at Bristol airport waiting to fly out to Barcelona when a lady in front of me turned and struck up a conversation. We continued to chatter away, but by now I was kneeling on the floor holding up the queue because my suitcase was overweight. The scales that I had used were not exactly accurate and I had to lose several kilos of stuff. Anyway, I was choosing which stuff to dump (airports – PLEASE provide special bins and take this stuff to a charity instead of landfill). The honey-nut cornflakes had to go and several books…anyway I digress, me and Louise continued to chat and as I was planning to eventually head to Peru and she had been once married to a Colombian we swapped addresses.
And instead of never getting around to it, we actually wrote to each other. Granted, we didn’t get around to it much, but we did periodically write and we swapped news. And finally, after 4 years we were in the same place at the same time and Louise treated me to a glorious lunch at a Michelin star restaurant in Cambrils.
We had a lovely meal at the Rincon de Diego in Cambrils which comprised of a whole table of tastes of the the delicious food then later Louise gave me a tour of the area in her neat little red sports car before we went back to her home for a drink.
We had a lovely afternoon and didn’t stop talking about all sorts of things, which goes to prove my point that there are no strangers, just friends that you have yet to meet.
We could have just smiled at each other in the queue at the airport and we certainly didn’t have to exchange email addresses. We never had to write or to take the time to find out a little bit about each other, but I am so glad that we did. And the next time that a stranger strikes up a conversation with you somewhere, make an effort to reply. Who knows, you may become very good friends one day in the future.
I would like to thank the Catedral de Vi and especially Nuria for the complimentary tour and for their support in making the visit possible, however, all opinions and comments are my own.
I would also like to thank Louise for initiating our conversation at Bristol airport, for the lovely scrummy lunch, and for future meet-ups