Spring and summer getaway to La Ruta del Cister
History and spirituality in three regions
Poblet, Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges make up a unique, special, almost magical triangle and are unmissable visits for everyone from lovers of history and architecture to anyone interested in seeing magnificent landscapes or seeking spiritual peace. This is undoubtedly one of the most complete getaways you can do, not only on the Costa Daurada, but indeed, in the whole of Catalonia, many of whose historical and spiritual roots lie here.
Afternoon day 1: The Cathedral of wine in Nulles
Our first stop today may well surprise you. But La Ruta del Cister offers many more places of interest than its three monasteries. And since we have time to spare for everything, let's head for Nulles, in the Alt Camp region. It won't take you long to spot the town's modernista-style winery, which is one of the region's so called Cathedrals of wine, with its red brick façade, designed by one of the most prolific architects in the field, Cèsar Martinell. The guided visit begins outside where the guide will explain the long tradition of wine-making in the lands of Tarragona - 2,000 years ago, Pliny extolled the virtues of the wine from Tarraco - and how, despite its elegance, the design of the building responds to strictly functional criteria and was built with local materials, in this case limestone, clay and bricks, since those paying for the work were local farmers and Martinell couldn't afford to go over budget on the project.
Once inside, you will be struck by the huge circular tubs, original pieces that are elevated on metre from the floor for health reasons, and the parabolic arches that are so characteristic of the winery's architect and which, despite their elegantly insubstantial appearance, are able to take any amount of weight. It's no wonder that the winery has been declared a Site of National Cultural Heritage, though it's still working today, producing 400,000 bottles of wine a year, mostly white. You'll have the chance to try some at the end of the visit.
On Friday evening, except in the two coldest months of the year, dinners are also served here. It's a great experience, for which pre-booking is advised.
Morning day 2: The living monastery
We will now make our first incursion into 100% Cistercian territory. And out of the three monasteries, we will visit first the one that is considered by many to be the most prominent, either for its majestic appearance, for its size, for the number of kings and queens who lie entombed there, or because even today, unlike its neighbouring Santes Creus Monastery, it is still inhabited by a living community of monks. We are, of course, talking about the Reial Monestir de Poblet, located in the Conca de Barberà region, within the municipal boundaries of Vimbodí i Poblet, very near the town of l'Espluga de Francolí.
A vast esplanade (Plaça de la Corona d'Aragó) gives way to the imposing image of the monastery building, with its powerful hexagonal towers in the central part, making it look more like a castle than a monastery, and which flank the Royal Gate. We will start the visit at this entry way, and head for the beautiful cloister, which has all the elements needed to give us a privileged lesson in art history on the differences between the Romanesque and the Gothic and which connects all of the spaces we will be visiting.
Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991, the monastery is still home to the Benedictine monks that you will easily spot going about their routines, their ora et labora following the rules of Saint Benet. Nowadays the community consists of around thirty monks, who use some of the rooms we can see from behind the rope barriers, such as the dining room and the chapter house, while others are closed to the public .The visit itself offers a very intense insight into a historic monastery that started its rise to splendour in the mid- twelfth century when Ramon Berenguer IV conquered these lands, and which subsequently went through dark and difficult times and even times of destruction, but which stands before us today so full of light . Examples are the 16th century alabaster altarpiece in the church, and, of course, the tombs of eight kings and six queens of the Crown of Aragon, from Alphonse the Chaste and Faithless John (father of Ferdinand the Catholic) to James I and John I. On the upper floor, the enormous sleeping quarters give us an idea of how crowded and important the Royal Monastery once was.
Afternoon day 2: Medieval essence
© Fons Fotogràfic de la Ruta del Cister
We'll now be heading to the local capital Montblanc, which lies a few kilometres away from the monastery and is well worth a visit, either alone or with a guide. The town's well-conserved walls that encircle the historical centre are one of its attractions, but there is more to see. So let's make our way to Plaça de Sant Francesc, where we will find the tourist information office, housed in an old church, where we can see a 3D audiovisual presentation that explains why the eminent Catalan ethnologist Joan Amades links this town to the legend of Saint George (Sant Jordi, patron saint of Catalonia). Following the wall of Sant Francesc we get an the idea of the power that Montblanc must have had in the Middle Ages. Then we will come to the tower portal of St. George, in front of which, according to local legend, the knight fought the fierce dragon. We can read the story on the portal itself, which faces a large wrought iron railing in which we can make out the head of the dragon and the shield and the arms of the saintly knight. Now we will cross through the gate and enter the ancient streets of the capital of Conca de Barberà. Take Carrer Poblet i Teixido and turn left into Carrer Sant Isidre i de Vilanova and then turn left again into Carrer del Mercadal to reach the main square. The porches of Cal Malet mark the appearance of the town's central square, and our eyes are also drawn to the Town Hall and Casal Desclergue. As we take Carrer d'Hortolans we are struck by one of the prettiest sights in Montblanc, the stairway that lead to Casa dels Josa (nowadays a museum) on one side, and, in the background, the church of Santa Maria la Major. In fact, the Way of Saint James passes through this street on its way through the lands of Tarragona.
At the church, which is a notable Gothic construction, we can read that it was the seat of the Catalan Courts in 1333. If you would like to carry on taking beautiful photos of the town, walk up past the church to the Pla de Santa Bàrbara. Although there are now few remains of the castle that once presided over the walled town, but the short climb to get here is well worthwhile. We can now head outside the walls, through the gateway named El Foradot, and bear right along Baluard de Santa Anna. You'll notice how few towns have as many well preserved stretches of wall as this one. Once we reach Raval de Santa Anna we can enter the walled city once again to visit the old Hospital de Santa Magdalena before reaching the Pont Vell (old bridge), which is probably of Roman origin but whose current structure dates from the 7th century. Turn your back on the bridge and the Francolí River and retrace your steps until you reach the wall again and, once outside, head left to see the curious Torre dels Cinc Cantons. We'll now have to turn back again and reenter the city walls through the Portal de Sant Antoni gateway. We can then walk along Carrer Major, turning into Carrer de Sant Josep in order to explore the main buildings in the old Jewish quarter. When we rejoin Carrer Major we'll see more noteworthy buildings, such as the Church of Sant Miquel, with its slim and simple belltower that appears to be twisted, and beside it, the Palace-Fortress of Castlà. We are now back where we started our visit.
Morning day 3: The female community
It's the last day of our getaway and we still have two religious centres to visit, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first on our list is Vallbona de les Monges, in the Urgell region. It's very different to the other two buildings on our itinerary, despite being built at the same time and for the same reasons. This is firstly because it is the only female Cistercian centre on the route, as well as being the largest in the country. It has been inhabited for more than 850 years and was only abandoned during the civil war). It is austere, but no less beautiful for that. It can be said to have a unique beauty, emphasized by the two eight faced gothic towers and the church with a single, long nave whose style is transitional between the Romanesque and the Gothic. The church contains the remains of two important women: Queen Violant of Hungary, consort of James I and her daughter Sancha of Aragon. The cloister is another little gem and each of its galleries has a different style: Arabic, Romanesque and Gothic. However, before you go, make sure it is open, the convent's visiting times are more restricted than at Poblet and Santes Creus. You can do so by calling 973 33 02 66.
Afternoon day 3: An uninhabited monastery
We have seen, then, that both Vallbona and Poblet still have an active community of nuns and monks respectively. But that is not the case of Santes Creus in the Alt Camp region, our last stop, which has not been inhabited by a religious order since 1835. The fact that it is uninhabited, however, allows us to move freely through all its rooms, and means that some areas have been converted into museum spaces, like the two rooms near the entrance that offer an audio-visual presentation in which the deep voice of actor Joan Crosas takes us back to the early days of the monastery. We reach the Porta de Santes Creus by crossing the large Plaça de Sant Bernat Calbó, which has a 16th century fountain in the middle that is dedicated to the saint. The buildings surrounding us are very interesting, and a haven of peace, and we can browse around the abbot's palace and visit its small cloister.
Once inside the monastery, the beautiful cloister with capitals that are worth spending some time seeing, connects the different areas: the chapter house, the kitchen, the dining room, the church ( with some of the original 12th century stained glass, which is possibly the oldest preserved example on the continent). We can also visit an older and humbler cloister, with a cemetery with only one cross. Despite the magnificence of the buildings, the monks lived a life of austerity, and if it hadn't been for the royal visits, some elements, such as the aforementioned capitals, would be much simpler that they are. Speaking of royalty, the church contains the remains of King Peter II the Great and James II the Just. The latter lies together with his wife Blanca of Anjou, while the former has near him Admiral Roger de Llúria, following his express wishes. Their tombs are beautiful, as are the sleeping quarters, which is 46 metres long and has diaphragmatic stone arches which remind us of those in the Drassanes shipyards and the Saló del Tinell in Barcelona.
Speaking of the sleeping quarters, it's getting late and our time here is over. It's now time for us to leave this land of grand Cistercian monasteries.
WITH THE SUPPORT OF LA RUTA DEL CISTER
Where to stay and where to eat
The Mixarda Tower (Torre de la Mixarda) is a circular watchtower, 10 metres high and 6 metres in diameter. It was built between the 16th and 17th centuries and has been designated a Cultural Asset of National Interest. You can visit its interior, where you’ll find a study centre on watchtowers. To get there, from Figuerola del Camp take the path towards Valls, then follow the green flags.
- Torre Mixarda, s/n, 43811
The Museum of Rural Life (El Museu de la Vida Rural) in l’Espluga de Francolí, explores all the characteristics of traditional life in the towns and villages of Catalonia, with special reference to agricultural labourers as a key feature of rural life. It has a varied collection of items related to traditional life, culture, agricultural workers, arts and craft trades on permanent show. The collections are divided into various sections installed in such a way as to discover the Catalan rural world through time up to the present day.
- Carretera de Montblanc, 35, 43440
Take a stroll and a leap through time at the Cal Trepat factory, the main manufacturer of agricultural machinery in the whole of Spain during the middle of the 19th century.
- Av. de Josep Trepat Galceran, 9, 25300
This is a charming village with a significant historical part. Guimerà still has its medieval street layout, which climbs up to the church of Santa Maria and the remains of the local castle, from where you can enjoy magnificent views. During August, a medieval market takes place here with a privileged natural backdrop.
- Pl. Major, s/n, 25341
The historic town centre of Conesa has been declared a Cultural Asset of National Interest, and you can only access it through the gateway of Santa Maria or of Sant Antoni, dating from the 14th century. Stroll the streets while exploring the remains of the wall, towers and the parish church of l’Assumpció. For guided tours, you need to make a reservation in advance by calling 626 900 520.
- Pl. Major, 2, 43437
One of the three monasteries that make up the Cistercian Trails and possibly the best known thanks to its grandeur, the fact that the Kings of the Crown of Aragon are interred here and because it has been inhabited by monks since they returned here in 1940. Founded in the mid-12th century, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
- Plaça de la Corona d'Aragó, 11, (Poblet)
The most important Cistercian convent in Catalonia, Santa Maria de Vallbona is still inhabited by nuns after some 850 years of history. Though more humble in appearance than the Monasteries of Poblet and Santes Creus, it’s worth visiting to see its austere but beautiful cloister, its bare chapterhouse and the single-nave church, as well as its archives that are rich with historical documents.
- C/ Major, s/n, (Vallbona de les monges)
Unlike the Monastery of Poblet, Santes Creus has been uninhabited for some decades now. But that does mean that visitors can enter all of its spaces, some of which have been turned into museum exhibits. This is a beautiful monastery, whose cloister is a perfect example of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style and which boasts exquisitely detailed capitals. The church, which contains the tombs of a number of Kings of the Crown of Aragon, is another highlight of the visit.
- Plaça de Jaume el Just, s/n, (Santes Creus)
Among the longest caves in the world formed in conglomerate rock. Part of the interior of the caves is habilitated as a museum dedicated to explaining the human imprint on this site and the geological formation of the cavity. For the more adventurous, with prior reservation, there is the possibility of doing a caving trip up the underground river.
- Av. Catalunya, s/n, (L'Espluga de Francolí)
Any time of the year is good for a walk around the streets and squares of Montblanc, visiting its churches and townhouses and discovering its history and legends in the company of tourist guides.
- Inici a l'antiga església de Sant Francesc (Oficina de Turisme), (L'Espluga de Francolí)