Priorat, on the Costa Daurada, is a sparsely populated village that makes the most of its lands to produce an excellent harvest, including olive oil and wines with an intense flavour and a quality that's recognised all over the world. This quality is undoubtedly a combination of the climate and the soil, which make the area a unique place – almost like a tiny country – that's worth taking the time to visit and explore the ancient streets of its villages.
IN COLLABORATION WITH PATRONAT DE TURISME DE LA DIPUTACIÓ DE TARRAGONA.
The villages in the Costa Daurada area include five that are internationally recognised for their Designation of Origin (DO) wines, the vineyards and bodegas of two of which, Montsant and Priorat, are included in today’s visit. Priorat is in fact the only place in Catalonia that bears the label DOQ (Qualified DO), and you can’t visit Priorat without going to one of its many bodegas, where you'll learn about the process of making these excellent wines. Head to the bodega of your choice – you'll be treated like royalty at any of them – and they'll show you around the spaces where the fruit of the grape from the vine ages, explaining the wine-making process, and some will give you a tour of the vineyards, and of course you'll get a wine tasting as well.
The Priorat region has garnered quite the reputation for its wine in recent years. But there's another liquid produced here that's also top-notch and is exported near and far: we're talking, of course, about olive oil. This morning we'll show you around a cooperative in Bisbal de Falset, which is the area's biggest company.
You'll find the Cooperativa de la Bisbal de Falset in a mill that dates back to 1951, but where nowadays the olives are pressed with modern machinery that makes it easier and also gets the best-quality oil from the fruit. During your visit you'll see how olive oil is made, in this case from arbequina olives, and you'll sample the extra virgin olive oile that the cooperative produces.
What better way to help your digestion than to go for a walk among the olive trees in the surroundings of Bisbal de Falset. In fact, there's a route called Olivos Sobre Rocas, sponsored by the previously mentioned Cooperative de la Bisbal de Falset, which is fairly easy to do even if you're not used to walking or hiking much. During the flat, three-kilometre walk, you'll get to discover these olive trees that give us oil of such extraordinary quality.
And while you're at it, you can dedicate the whole day to this liquid gold at the Olive Oil and Productive Economies of Montsant Study Centre, in Margalef. Here you can learn about the different parts of the process of producing oil and, among other highlights, you'll see a working olive washer.
The last morning of this visit is also the most exciting, beginning with more of Montsant, and a trip to one of the hermitages at the foot of the spectacular mountain range, Sant Joan de Codolar, three kilometres from Cornudella de Montsant. The hermitage was built by Carthusian monks at the end of the 15th century, and today is still home to one resident, who's more than happy to open her doors to visitors. The name Codolar comes from the large rocks that surround the site.
And so from one unique spot to another. Around a few bends in the road you'll reach the picturesque village of Siurana. You can wander round on your own to take in the pretty cobbled streets, old houses and amazing views over the Siurana reservoir. Or, if you're visiting over the second weekend of any month, you can choose to take a theatrical tour on which you can learn plenty of facts about the magic of this clifftop village, in a fun tour of many fascinating cultural attractions such as the Romanesque Santa María church and the remains of the Moorish castle.
As you're so close, it would be a shame to miss out on a trip to the Escaladei Carthusian monastery, possibly the area’s most significant monument. The monastery is today mostly in ruins, but it's still worth a visit to see the pure size of the site, and the beauty of its setting against the Montsant mountain range. The monastery is also of historic importance: not only were the Carthusian monks from Provence charged with repopulating the whole land, they also introduced viticulture to the area. The name Priorat, in fact, comes from the Prior of Escaladei. The monastery was built in the 12th century and was the first Carthusian monastery on the Iberian Peninsula. Some of its interior, including a cell, one of the three cloisters, and the refectory, has been rebuilt in recent years in the original style, so visitors can see how the monks would have lived.
With associate Priorat with vines and wines perhaps with olive oil. But is inhabitants have had other ways of making a living, such as working in the mines at Bellmunt, where galena was mined to be transformed into lead. The mine was still working until 1972, and we nowadays we can visit one of its twenty subterranean galleries, which lies some 35 under the ground.
Capçanes has become the new capital of cave paintings in Catalonia following the discover of a concentration of prehistoric paintings, among them a singular mural of 27 figures that represents a slaughter or human sacrifice. The scene is part of the biggest discovery of cave paintings since the early '80s. The group of cave art features 19 paintings representing 150 human and animal figures, among which is a 54cm bull, one of the biggest documented to date. Other of the singularities discovered and that makes the area of Capçanes more important is a group of engravings on the ceiling that represent three deer.
Located in a unique setting, Escaladei (12th century) was the first Carthusian monastery in the Iberian Peninsula and is a must for all visitors to Priorat. Even though much of the original monastery is now in ruins, you can still get an idea of the splendour of the place from its three cloisters, one of which is fully restored, its church, refectory, a cell that has been thoroughly reconstructed... You can also take advantage of your visit here to explore the surrounding countryside.
This Olive Oil and Productive Economies of Montsant Study Centre boasts two levels: you enter on the top floor and that's where you'll find the visitor information, and where you can see an oil washer in action, as well as a replica of a traditional kitchen. There's also a screening of a short film, 'The fruits of the earth', which helps you become familiar with the Montsant Natural Park and the economic activities that go on here. The lower floor, with more of a museum feel to it and featuring restored pieces, shows you different stages in the oil-production process that you learn via a self-guided tour and an accompanying leaflet. Here you see how the olives are crushed and pressed, decanted through tanks, stored in vats and weighed, and how the oil is transported once it's ready.