saturday, DECEMBER 31, 2011


'Great things are done when 

men and mountains meet'

- William Blake - 

We'd had a few issues booking a tour for today. I'd left my details with Explore Catalunya tours online and didn't really expect to hear from them, since it's New Year's Eve. So, as we plan for our day over breakfast, my phone rings and we are offered a tour to Montserrat, but only if we can get to the Hard Rock Cafe  to meet the bus within a very short time.

We arrive at the starting point a few minutes late, but our tour guide is expecting us and within minutes, we are on our way - out of the city of Barcelona.

About one hour out of the city, a 'sawtooth' mountain range appears on the horizon. The peculiar rock formations, which gives the mountains its name, really do look like a serrated edge from a distance. We turn off the main road and enter a driveway lined with ancient olive trees, their trunks gnarled and twisted. We are stopping at the Pares Balta Winery for a tour and a short break before reaching our destination.

This vineyard stands out amongst others as it is 100% organic, and has been so since 1790, when the vineyard was first established. In all, the owners operate five different vineyards, their individual locations determine the grapes and the wine produced.

We wander along the neatly-pruned vines as the varietal growing, picking, and pruning processes are discussed with a guide connected to the winery. Her family has been connected with wine growing for generations and she is very knowledgeable about the entire process. Although it's Winter, it's not very cold and it's nice to be outside and breathing in the fresh country air.

We are taken into the winery, where the tour takes us through the processes for producing the different wines. The highlight for me is the visit down to the caves, where the temperature is naturally maintained at around 12 degrees Celsius. This is the optimum temperature for the fermentation process for cava, Spanish champagne. Although cava is produced in exactly the same way as champagne, the copyright laws prohibit the word 'champagne' to be used for any wines not produced in the Champagne region of France. Almost 95% of all cava is produced in this region of Spain. We enjoy a tasting of a number of wines, but my firm favourite is the bubbly.

Not used to drinking in the middle of the day, I'm almost tipsy as we return to the minibus to complete our journey to Montserrat, but I soon sober up as the bus climbs up into the mountains, stopping an hour later outside the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. Nestled between the jagged mountains, is the monastery, which was founded in the 11th century. The buildings that are standing today had been built between the 19th and 20th centuries and the abbey is home to approximately eighty monks. A funicular transports pilgrims and visitors to the abbey from Santa Cova, the village located on the lower slopes. Another funicular connects with the upper slopes and is popular with hikers and those who simply want to look at the vista from a high vantage point. Our guide takes us through part of the abbey grounds and fills us in with some history about the various buildings that have stood on this site over the centuries. During the War of Independence with France in 1811, the monastery was destroyed. Rebuilt in 1844, it had became a focal point for the Catalan people, particularly during the brutal Franco regime, when it was considered a sanctuary for scholars, artists, politicians, and students. That said, Franco's soldiers were never too far away and anyone leaving the monastery were quickly detained.

Squashed between two buildings, the Baroque-style facade of the Basilica features statues of Jesus and the twelve apostles. Inside, the single nave points to the elaborate altar. Up a few dark, narrow stairs, above the main altar, is a small room in which the black virgin statue is located. The legendary black virgin was allegedly carved by Luke and brought to this area by St Peter in 50 AD. However, it is dated much later than that, and the first records of its appearance are around 880. We file past the modest statue, which is encased in glass. One hand, holding a golden orb extends through a hole in the glass case. For the faithful, rubbing the hand may provide good luck. I'm not going to miss out on my share of luck, and extend my hand to grasp the statue's fingers before moving on. I also manage to take a half-decent photo. We leave the church, and with some time to spare before our bus takes us back to Barcelona, we take the funicular to the top of the mountain.

The clear blue skies provide a perfect backdrop for the magnificent view over the Catalan region. Meanwhile, the rocks in front of us show the caves and hollows that have provided primitive shelter for monks for centuries. We reach the peak and enjoy the view as far as the eye can see; the Mediterranean sea glows in the distance as the sun starts its descent on this winter's day.

Today's excursion with Explore Catalunya has been excellent and I would highly recommend this full-day tour. 

Click here to read about our entire nine-day independent tour of Barcelona and Valencia.


Tour:  Explore Catalunya Tour: Montserrat and Cava Trail small group day trip from Barcelona



Full-day small group tour by minivan to Montserrat and Parés Baltà winery (please note that the winery can be changed during weekends and bank holidays), personalised small group and commentary, free time to explore Montserrat Monastery's basilica and scenic parklands, tour of Pares Balta winery's vast cellars and wine tasting, professional English-speaking guide, transport by comfortable air-conditioned minivan

Rating: ***** Excellent tour - highly recommended

Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton. Barcelona Diagonal Avenida Diagonal 161-163, Barcelona 8018 Spain