It’s very easy to fall under the spell of the medieval walled town of Montblanc. Peaceful cobbled streets lead from the gate towers to the central, main square of Placa Major, bordered by a gothic town hall, a former noble’s mansion and a simple fountain. Several cafes offer the chance to warm up with a coffee, and even in January, the outside tables are popular with local ladies, dressed in stylish coats and fur hats.
Steps lead up to the 17th century baroque portal of Santa Maria la Major Church. It’s just approaching 10am and I patiently wait while a grey-haired lady opens the main door with a huge iron key, allowing me access to the interior which is pure 14th century gothic. There are some interesting wooden and stone carvings and a beautiful, stained glass rose window but I’m enticed by the possibility to access the roof for views across the town. Like Miravet Castle, I have to squeeze up a stone, spiral staircase before emerging under the large, cast-iron bells. From beneath the arched buttresses, I have a 360 degree view of the walled town and red, tiled roofs of the buildings below. The only downside, is the loud audio recording of screeching birds, seemingly designed to deter the pigeons from making a home there, but more likely to deter any potential human inhabitants to the surrounding area.
Next to the Church is the Regional Museum, with interesting displays of local trades, such as ironwork, barrel making, paper production and agriculture. Upstairs there are some history and art exhibitions, including some rather phallic Roman pendants.
Nearby is another Museum dedicated to the interpretation of rock art. Several caves in the local Prades Mountains were discovered to contain Neolithic paintings of red symbols and hunting scenes and the museum displays life-sized replicas of these caves, as well as lots of information about other rock art from the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of the world. Having already visited the caves of Altamira and El Castillo in Northern Spain, I am fascinated by the wealth of information on offer here and inspired to visit more rock art sites on my future travels.
After spending the night in a small car park just outside the town walls, next to the Convent de la Serra, I drive out to the monastery of Poblet, at the base of the densely wooded Prades Mountains. It is the largest of three Cistercian monasteries in the region, the others being Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges, and has been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage landmark. This may account for the expensive and, in my opinion, unjustified entrance fee. Founded in 1150 by the order of Count Ramon Berenguer IV, it was first populated by French monks who established an important spiritual and economic centre at the site. Even today, it is surrounded by vineyards and the powerful priorat wine is an expensive accompaniment to any meal.
The monastery was abandoned in 1835 following the Act of Dissolution but a few Italian monks returned in 1940 and began the restoration of Poblet. The main facade is very impressive with the twin towered Royal Gate and the baroque portal of the church. Inside, the main buildings of the monastery are simple and teach us about the daily life of the monks. The refectory is still used today and tables are laid up with cutlery, glasses and carafes of wine, whilst the library holds thousands of historical manuscripts but also a modern computer and printer. However, it is the church which holds the most historical and architectural interest. Lying upon two low, intersecting arches are the tombs of 8 Kings and 6 Queens of Catalonia and Aragon. They date from the 14th and 15th centuries but were carefully restored by Frederick Mares in the 20th century.
Back in the local village of L’Espluga de Francoli, I visit the art nouveau wine cellars of the Museo del Vi. There are many such buildings in the region, built to hold the vats of the wine cooperatives. I find the museum very interesting, even though there is no information in English. The wine tasting afterwards is even better and I’m especially warmed by the sweet, fruity moscatel. Luckily, I only have to stagger back to my motorhome, parked up for the night in a small car park across the river.