Yes, the beaches are fabulous. But venture a little further inland, away from the busy resorts of the coast to discover the Costa Dorada’s mountainous backbone, its castles and vineyards and its historic villages. If you hanker for a true taste of the region, you’ll be glad you did. Half an hour is all it takes to shake the sand away. Here are some of our favourite interior scenes to explore…
Miravet is a pretty village located in the middle of the Terres de l’Ebre, locked in an embrace between wild mountains and ancient forest. You can enjoy the view by crossing the river on a tiny, pulley-operated car ferry – the last one of its type in the region. There’s a great Romanesque-styled Knight’s Templar castle perched on an impregnable crag, a lovely old village and, at the Sanaqueta Balcony, a terrific view over the river, glinting in the sunlight below.
Hunkered beneath limestone cliffs, Tivissa is a handsome sight. High on its peaceful promontory above oak and chestnut forest and the glinting Ebro river, it’s the start of many great hiking trails. Way back in 1975, the first of the GR trails that would go on to cover the whole of the Iberian peninsula was inaugurated here, in the grounds of the Hermitage of San Blai. Now you can take your pick of routes, weaving their way through rocky landscapes and wild Mediterranean mountain. Try the Mountain Road, Vueltas de la Llena, or the caves and rock paintings of Vilella y Fogassos. Either will comfortably take up four glorious hours of your time.
The whole of Montserrat has developed around the worship of the statue of the Black Madonna – the Virgin of Montserrat – in the huge Basilica. The statue was believed to have been carved in Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago, and attracts pilgrims from around the world (prepare to queue if you want to kiss her hand). The monastery, and associated buildings tucked into the rugged Montserrat mountains, west of Barcelona, is Catalonia’s most spiritual location. Whether you have faith or not, it makes for a powerfully memorable day out. The Basilica houses a museum with works by many prominent Spanish artists including works by El Greco, Dalí and Picasso. There are two funiculars allowing a further climb into the mountains and a descent to the Santa Cova where legend has it the Virgin of Montserrat was found.
About four kilometers from Tarragona, Valls’ Acueducto Pont de les Ferreres was built during the era of Emperor Augustus – at 27 meters high it’s quite a sight. Elsewhere, this historic town rewards a casual stroll – perhaps to the town’s central square, with the remains of its 12th century castle, the chapel of El Roser, with glazed tiles from the 17th century. Or the ‘castells‘, the teetering human towers where various teams compete to achieve the tallest towers – a crash-helmeted kid scaling to the very top. Festivals are the time to catch them – 23rd and 24th June, 6th August, and 10th September.
Montblanc is a delightful, beautifully preserved medieval town. Its UNESCO World Heritage site-awarded historic centre lies within its defensive walls. Here, in this car free old town, you’re free to wander the labyrinthine streets filled with 13th and 14th century buildings. Legend has it that the St Jordi gate is the spot where St George killed the dragon. There is a plaque marking the site of his victory. All roads eventually lead to Placa Major, a restaurant-and-bar lined square perfect for people watching. Other highlights include the Gothic church of Santa Maria, the Romanesque Sant Miquel and the 14th century Royal Palace.
The Monestir de Poblet
The Monestir de Poblet is one of the key religious and historical sites in Spain and is another of Catalunya’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Poblet is just 8km from Montblanc and was once one of the most powerful monasteries in Spain. It’s one of three sister monasteries known as the Cistercian triangle along with the Monastery of Santes Creus and the Monastery of Vallbona de les Monges. Founded in 1151 as a Cistercian monastery, the complex also includes a royal palace – the kings of Aragon and Catalunia were buried here. The restored buildings are truly beautiful. Inside the fortified walls are the Abbey Church with the Royal Tombs, a Chapterhouse, dormitory (part of which is still used by monks) and lovely, light filled dining hall.
Tortosa (pic above) loves festivals, in particular its Renaissance Festival, which takes place around the third week in July each year. Expect thousands of people dressed in period costumes, with stalls, performances and special events throughout this walled city. The Roman Portal leads to the Camí Sant Jaume de l’Ebre (The Way of St. James along the Ebro) – an ancient pilgrimage route. There are several Gothic palaces dotted around the old town – each more captivating than the last. Tortosa is that sort of place – always ready for a photo opportunity. Look, too, for the Arab castle of La Suda, perched on a hill, and the 14th-century Gothic Cathedral with its outstanding, richly-coloured interior.
Wine production is making a huge comeback in this region – and the quality, and interest in the wines of the Priorat area is increasing year after year. This is a land of gentle mountains, quiet villages (centred on Falset) and rushing rivers. Roads meander between the wineries, many of which are open to the public. Yields are low, because of the rocky soils – but the wine (red Garnacha tinta, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah and whites such as Pedro Ximénez and Chenin) is intense, mineral-driven and definitely worth hunting down. Head to the village of Gratallops, where some of the best makers are to be found, or the cellars of Falset.
The Red Town of Prades is well named. The local stone glows coppery pink in the sunlight, and is a memorable sight. The town’s lovely arcaded square with renaissance fountain and 14th century church is the centre of activity in this bustling little enclave. The area’s deep within the Prades Mountains, a lovely region of soaring limestone peaks, oak forest and easy hiking trails. Try the trail to the pretty village of Capafonts (a great spot for lunch, with its medieval bakery – pic above) and continue on to Farena, a village built into the rocks with a network or walking trails to the Toll de l’Olla natural pool, great for cooling off after a hike in the hills.
The last Moorish stronghold in Catalonia, Siurana (main pic above) is a land of legends. The precariously perched village saw the area’s last Moorish queen jump off the cliff edge overlooking the river, with her horse, rather than being captured by the advancing Christian armies in 1153. It’s hard to take in this turbulent history when you visit the magnificently situated church, the highlight of this cobblestone-street village deep within the Serra de Monsanto, and the Prades mountains. Hiking, mountain biking, canoeing in the reservoir, wine tasting and kayaking are all possible in the local area. But, for us, this is the place to come with a picnic, and just soak in those terrific views over a land definitely worth fighting for