La Ruta del Cister: Medieval spirit and land of human towers

Immerse yourself in Valls and the human towers there, and get to know the ducal town of Montblanc
Vallbona de les Monges
By Xavier Amat |
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La Ruta del Cister (as part of the tourist programme of the Costa Daurada) means much more than visiting Cistercian monasteries. On this trip, you’ll have time to see these three great buildings if you’ve not been before or at least not for some time, while we’ll also suggest many other activities. With towns such as Valls, Montblanc and l’Espluga de Francolí, there’s certainly no lack of things to do.

IN COLLABORATION WITH LA RUTA DEL CISTER

Celler de Nulles

Afternoon day 1: Wine cellars and human towers

Your first stop is at the modernista cellar of Nulles. Discover the singular enotourism and gastronomic experiences of the century-old Nulles Wine Cathedral. Each experience brings you closer to the world of wine from a different perspective, but with a common objective: to enjoy and get to know the cultural richness that is wine in Catalonia.

In the evening head to Valls, the capital of the county of Alt Camp. While you walk through the streets, it’s worth asking yourself what this town has that it has seen so many important Catalan traditions born here, principally 'castellers' (human tower builders) and 'calçotadas' (feasts built around 'calçots', a special kind of onion grown only in Catalonia and enjoyed grilled during the winter season).

Take your pick from among the local restaurants when it comes to dinner. And if your first day in the region happens to be a Friday, then you’re likely to find castellers from the Colla Vella (Old Group) or Colla Joves (Young Group), which are part of the Xiquets de Valls castellers association, practising their impressive structures in their respective rehearsal spaces. You’re welcome to watch them in action, providing you stay quiet while they’re building their castles. And if you want to join in and be part of the 'pinya' (literally, 'pineapple' – the crowd that gathers at the foot of the castle to offer support), there’s always space for one more. Ask one of the association members for a 'faixa' (strip of wide material they wear around their waists for support), learn the art of 'enfaixar-vos' (tying it tightly around your middle), and then follow the instructions about where in the base of the castle you should stand and what to do.

However, if human towers don’t really sound like your thing, a good alternative is to visit the Vallbona de les Monges monastery. If you do choose to go there, it’s better to start your afternoon with the monastery because it closes at 6.30pm (in winter, it’s one hour earlier), and then go to Valls afterwards to see the town.

Montblanc

Morning day 2: The rich heritage of Montblanc

From one capital to another. While Valls is the capital of Alt Camp, Montblanc is the capital of Conca de Barberà. The latter town (which has been a ducal town since 1387) is without doubt one of the places you must visit, and not just in this region but in all of Catalonia. To see the most important features without missing out on anything, you can sign up for a guided tour. The local Tourist Information Office is located in an old church in Plaça de Sant Francesc, and you can also see a 3D audiovisual presentation there that explains why Catalan folklorist Joan Amades connects the legend of Saint George and the dragon (Sant Jordi, as he’s known in Catalan, is the patron saint of Catalonia) with this particular town.

The outer walls are one of the big attractions of this medieval town, and within them you can stroll through the streets, discovering hidden corners and gateways, see the palace-fortress of Castlà and the church of Sant Miquel, visit the church of Santa Maria la Major (a notable gothic building), and head up to the Pla de Santa Bàrbara, from where you will get an excellent panoramic view of the town. Outside the walls, but not far away, you can see the old Hospital de Santa Magdalena and the Old Bridge (Pont Vell), which crosses the Francolí River.

To find out more about Montblanc and the county, pay a visit to the County Museum (Museu Comarcal) located in the beautiful Casa dels Josa building. You might also like to see the Cave Painting Study Centre (Centre d’Interpretació de l’Art Rupestre, or CIAR), a space for studying the art that distant predecessors left behind in Muntanyes de Prades.

Monestir de Poblet

Afternoon day 2: The World Heritage monastery

Ten kilometres separate Montblanc from the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet, so after lunch that’s the next place to head. It’s the only one of the three monasteries on the La Ruta del Cister that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and certainly its majestic appearance and large size, as well as the beauty of its cloisters and even the tombs of the kings and queens buried there, more than justify this recognition. In addition, today a community of monks continues to live in Poblet.

In front of the monastery, there is a grand esplanade (Plaça de la Corona d’Aragó) from where you can enjoy a memorable view of the building, with its two hexagonal towers in the central area (which seem more like parts of a castle than a monastery) that flank the Royal Gate. Once inside, you'll soon find yourself in the cloister, an excellent example of such, with all the elements to let you enjoy a top-notch, live art-history class, highlighting the differences between the Romanic and gothic styles. Next you visit the marvellous rooms of the monastery. Construction started in the mid-12th century just after Ramon Berenguer IV conquered the local lands, and during its history, the monastery has lived through some splendid times, and others that were more difficult and destructive. But today it's a place filled with light. In the church, for example, you can see a magnificent alabaster altarpiece from the 16th century as well as the tombs of eight kings and six queens of the Aragonese Crown, who have lain here for centuries.

If you have enough time, take a trip to the Caves of l’Espluga de Francolí. The town is very close to Poblet, and the caves are one of the largest in the world formed by conglomerate rock. If you’re a fan of caving, you’re sure to love this visit, and if you make an advanced booking, there is the chance of taking a tour through a subterranean river – only suitable for the brave.

Columbari romà Ruta del Cister

Morning day 3: The Romans and La Ruta del Cister

This morning you'll head to the oldest visitable monument in the region, a Roman columbarium in Vila-Rodona. The columbarium would have been part of a funerary religious rite, cremation, which was widely used in Roman times until the first third of the second century AD. The remains of the deceased, placed on a pyre of wood, were cremated, and the ashes remaining were kept in clay urns. Around the fifth century BC, the urns were stored in circular or rectangular buildings with built-in niches for just that purpose.

You can take a guided tour from the Ajuntament (City Hall), and if you are there around mid-May, you can also see a re-creation of a Roman burial as part of the Tarraco Viva programme. Check for dates and prices.

Santes Creus Monestir

Afternoon day 3: Santes Creus, an uninhabited monastery

You’ve seen Poblet and Vallbona de les Monges, leaving just one more monastery, Santes Creus, to visit. Unlike the other two, at Santa Creues (which is in the county of Alt Camp), there is no longer an active monastic community – indeed, it came to an end back in 1835. The fact that it is uninhabited, however, means that visitors can move more freely around the complex, while some parts of it have been converted into exhibition spaces, such as two rooms which provide an excellent audiovisual guide that takes you back to the early days of the monastery.

To get to the entrance of Santes Creus, you have to cross the long square of Sant Bernat Calbó, which has a 16th-century fountain dedicated to this saint. The buildings there are very interesting and a haven of peace, and you can wander around the Abbot’s Palace and enjoy its small cloister.

Once inside the monastery itself, the main cloister – a beautiful place with capitals that’s worth a close look – works as a point of access to the different parts of the building: the chapter-house, the kitchen, the dining room, the church (which retains some original windows from the 12th century, possibly the oldest remaining on the whole continent)... In Santes Creus, you can visit a second cloister, which is older and more humble, with a cemetery that has just one cross. This is because, despite the grandness of the buildings, the life of the monks was also austere, and if it wasn’t for the visits that kings sometimes made there, doubtless some elements (such as the previously mentioned capitals) would be much simpler. Talking of kings, in the church there are the remains of Pere II the Great and Jaume II the Just. The latter is accompanied by his wife, Blanca d’Anjou, while the former lies close to Admiral Roger de Llúria following the express wishes of the second man. The dormitory is also impressive, 46 metres long with diaphragmatic stone arches, which might remind you of Drassanes or Saló del Tinell in the Palau Reial Major, both in Barcelona. This is certainly a place worthy of seeing before you head home.

Cultural venues

Attractions

Medieval town of Conesa

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 / 660 677 465.

Things to do, Walks and tours

Guided tours of Santa Coloma de Queralt

In Santa Coloma de Queralt you can go on three types of guided tour: the monument and historic route; the 19th-century route; and the monument route with songs and medieval languages: Gregorian, Occitan, Ancient Castilian, Sephardic... All throughout the year the Santa Coloma de Queralt tourist office organises these guided tours so you can get to know the most interesting spots in the city. For more information and bookings, get in touch with the tourist office.

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Museums

Museu del Torró i la Xocolata d'Agramunt

Take a journey through history to discover the origins of 'torró' (nougat, traditional at Christmastime) and chocolate, as well as how they're made, and the Turrones Vicens company, via images, sounds and scents. Around October 12 in Agramunt they celebrate a fair dedicated to torró and chocolate.

Things to do, Event spaces

Santa Maria de Vallbona Convent

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.

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Things to do, Cultural centres

Centre d’interpretació del tèxtil i Museu Agrícola La Fàbrica

La Fábrica Textile Study Centre and Agriculture Museum was an industrial complex that encompassed the factory, the chimney, the house, the pond, and the grounds of the Martí Llopart and Trenchs textile factory that was founded in El Pla in 1916, and which employed many people who lived in the town and surrounding areas. Highlights include the modernista elements and the pond, which is surprisingly large. Today in one of the naves is the Agriculture Museum, and you'll also find the textile Study Centre with three century-old looms, an interactive table and a promotional video.To arrange a visit, get in touch with the Town Hall at 97 763 00 06.

Attractions

Torre de la Mixarda

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.

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Museu de la Vida Rural
© Albert Carreras
Museums, Natural history

Museu de la Vida Rural

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.

Museu de la Mecanització Agrària J. Trepat
© R. Miarnau
Museums, Science and technology

J. Trepat Factory Museum in Tàrrega

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. This museum is part of the Network of Science and Technical Museums of Catalonia.

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Attractions

Medieval complex of Guimerà

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.

Things to do, Event spaces

Santa Maria de Vallbona Convent

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.

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