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Getaway to La Ruta del Cister: Land of human towers and monastic heritage

Discover three Cistercian monasteries and more local places of interest

Some of the historic attractions along the well-known Ruta del Cister, on the Costa Daurada, include the Cistercian monasteries Poblet, Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges, which are part of Catalonia’s fascinating and significant heritage. This area, though, also boasts other delights, from natural caves to havens of modernisme, and we can guarantee you won’t waste a minute on this organised expedition through this historic part of the country.

IN COLLABORATION WITH LA RUTA DEL CISTER.

Afternoon, day 1: An important art gallery

Afternoon, day 1: An important art gallery

Valls, the capital of the Alt Camp area, is your first stop. Wandering through the streets, you can investigate local traditions such as 'castells' (human towers) and 'calçotades' (feasts based on the Catalan 'calçot', similar to a leek), that have become rooted throughout Catalonia. But what many people don’t know is that Valls is also home to one of the most important collections of Catalan paintings of the 20th century. Located in the Valls Museum, the collection features works of art from artists including the Olot School, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, Joan Brossa, Modest Cuixart, Josep Guinovart, Ràfols Casamada, and Josep María de Sucre, to name just a few, as well as collections of sculpture, sketches and photography.

For your evening meal, you can choose from the many restaurants in the town, and on Fridays you’re certain to find the Colla Vella and the Colla Joves groups of young 'castellers', who maintain the local tradition of human towers, rehearsing at their respective venues. You're welcome to go in and watch, but please remain silent while the team is practising. And if you’d like to have a go and experience being part of a tower, they can always use your help! Just ask one of the castellers in charge for a belt (a 'faja'), and follow the instructions to form part of the base of the tower. The Colla Vella group also offer Learn to Make Your Own Tower workshops for groups of 15 to 20 people, consisting of theory and practice, and where you can dress up in the traditional costume and have a go at creating a tower. The workshop costs €15 per person and lasts two hours. To reserve your session call 654 396 201, or email colla@collavella.cat.

And if human towers aren’t your thing, a good alternative is a visit to the Vallbona de les Monges monastery. However, if you choose this option, it’s a good idea to arrive early in the afternoon as the monastery closes at 6.30pm (5.30pm in winter), and then continue into Valls to explore the city and its art gallery (the museum closes at 8pm).

Morning, day 2: The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Poblet

Morning, day 2: The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Poblet

The only one of La Ruta de Cister's monasteries to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, for its majestic appearance and size and the beautiful artistry of its cloisters, as well as the tombs of the kings and queens interned there is the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Poblet, where you'll spend the morning, and which is still home to a community of nuns.

The monastery is fronted by the Plaça de la Corona d'Aragó, which opens to the impressive sight of the building itself, with its two central hexagonal towers, more suited to a castle than a monastery, that flank the Porta Reial. Once inside, you'll enter the cloister, an excellent presentation of a perfect living art-history lesson, displaying the differences between the Romanesque and the Gothic styles. The cloister leads to all the chambers where you can marvel at the beautiful architecture. The monastery was begun halfway through the 12th century when Ramón Berenguer IV conquered the land, and has witnessed both splendid and destructive times in its history. Today it is full of light. In the church you can see the magnificent 16th-century alabaster altarpiece, and the tombs of the eight kings and six queens of the Crown of Aragon who have lain here for centuries.

Afternoon, day 2: The Espluga de Francolí caves

Afternoon, day 2: The Espluga de Francolí caves

After lunch it's off to Espluga de Francolí. The town is very close to Poblet, and includes the Espluga caves, one of the largest conglomerate rock cave formations, where you can see the different communities that inhabited the caves. A guide and a virtual archaeologist will accompany you on your journey, and if you're passionate about speleology, you'll be amazed at the revelations on the tour. Plus you have the option to pre-book a trip on the underground river. For the brave only!

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Morning, day 3: The Moreneta on La Ruta del Cister

Morning, day 3: The Moreneta on La Ruta del Cister

Today you'll discover a modernista treasure at the Mare de Déu de Montserrat Sanctuary in Montferri, Alt Camp. It was commissioned in the 1920s by a local Jesuit, Daniel Maria Vives, so that the people of the villages of Tarragona could worship the Virgin of Montserrat. The design fell to architect Josep Maria Jujol, a follower of Antoni Gaudí, and many local farmers helped in its construction. This sanctuary contains many identical elements to that at Montserrat, such as the chapel, with stairs to the right and left to ascend and descend to greet the Moreneta (Black Madonna). The whole building is, in fact, a curious exercise in bringing the Holy Mother closer to her people and an experiment of modernist architecture. However, the building was abandoned and remained unfinished after the Spanish Civil War, and it was only in 1999 that it was finished and opened. This morning you get to fully enjoy its beauty and history.

Afternoon, day 3: The Royal Monastery of Santes Creus

Afternoon, day 3: The Royal Monastery of Santes Creus

Last but not least, you can visit Santes Creus. Unlike Poblet and Vallbona de les Monges, there have been no monks or nuns here since 1835, and this means visitors may wander freely around the buildings and grounds. Some of it has been converted into museum space, including two rooms that feature an audiovisual show that transports viewers back to the earliest times of the monastery.

To reach the door of Santes Creus, cross the long Plaça de Sant Bernat Calbó, where you can see the 16th-century fountain dedicated to the saint. The architecture here is fascinating to look at and creates a peaceful environment, where you can fully appreciate the Palace of the Abbot and its small cloister. Inside the monastery, it’s worth stopping to admire the capitals of the beautiful cloister, which leads on to the different chambers: the chapter hall, the kitchens, the dining hall, the church (including part of the original 12th-century stained-glass window, possibly the oldest preserved in Europe).

In Santes Creus itself you can also see a second cloister, which is older and more simple, with a cemetery housing a single cross. Despite the grandeur of the architecture, religious life was always austere, and it was only the frequent presence of royalty that allowed more ornate elements like the capitals to be included at the monastery. The church here retains the bodies of Pere II the Great, who requested to be placed close to Admiral Roger de Llúria, and Jaume II the Just and his wife Blanca of Anjou. The tombs and the sleeping chamber are beautiful, measuring 46 metres in length and featuring diaphragmatic stone arches, similar to the Drassanes de Barcelona and the Saló del Tinell. The atmosphere just calls out for a moment's rest to fully appreciate the historic space before beginning the journey home.

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