Sunday, March 13, 2016


One of the best parts of living in Barcelona is having so much history in such a compact space. People have been living here for a long time but the city really had its first growth spurt during Roman times. There's still evidence a couple blocks from our apartment in the form of an old aqueduct-turned-building facade, columns from a forum inside another apartment building, and various building foundations throughout the city. Sort of like noticing the palm trees every day when I lived in San Diego, I never get tired of it.

For the last day of our trip to the Ruta del Cister, I wanted to visit the town of Tarragona, which is located on the coast about 60 miles south of Barcelona. Back in the day, Barcelona was a bit of a backwater and Tarragona was the big city. It was the first major Roman city on the Iberian peninsula and they have a bunch of Roman ruins, including an amphitheater right next to the sea, that you can visit.

After leaving Joan's place, we drove about 30 minutes through mostly farms to Tarragona and parked under La Rambla Nova. Immediately after coming up, we came across a fundraising event for a dog rescue. There were a bunch of dogs for adoption (no, we didn't get one much to Diana's continued frustration) and lots of dogs and their owners were dressed in costumes.

Tarragona and the surrounding area are respected as one of the powerhouses of castellers so much so that the annual castellers competition is held nearby. They have a surprisingly big sculpture celebrating the tradition about half-way down La Rambla Nova. After my time as a casteller, I couldn't help myself and pitched in with the pinya:

We spent some time walking along the old city wall and through neighborhoods near the old town center. One of my favorite things was seeing all the orange trees lining the streets. Diana sampled one of the oranges but it wasn't very good - not sweet at all. But they sure do look nice.

After a quick stop at the cathedral, we walked down towards the sea so we could visit the Roman sites before they closed for the day. The first thing we came across was the old Roman theater, which is built along a natural rock formation. It's been partially renovated but not by so much that it looks new. (Note how crazy blue the sky is in these photos.)

There's a Roman-history museum that opens up into of the ruins. You know the tunnels that you have to go through at some stadiums or the hallways behind the seats at the theater, well here's the ~2000 year-old version:

From the museum's rooftop, there's a nice view of the sea and surrounding city. That's the cathedral in the distance.

On the way out, my mom's voice popped into my head as I spotted this Romulus and Remus sculpture just like one I saw in Italy. "Were you raised by wolves?" she'd always ask when we did something foolish like leave the door open, be rude to someone, or perhaps, sometimes, just generally annoy her.

The final stop on our planned-to-be-lazy-do-nothing trip to the Catalan countryside was at the very scenic Roman amphitheater. It surprises me that this has managed to survive for something like two millennia.

If you'd asked me just a handful of years ago if I'd be spending my Sunday afternoon checking out Roman ruins along the coast of Spain, I'd have laughed. Even more if I'd have thought about giving up the palm trees and lovely Pacific for the history of Barcelona. But, it's been an amazing "trip" and our vacation to La Ruta del Cister and Tarragona was one more feather in that cap.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ruta del Cister - Part 2

This is Part 2 of our trip around the Ruta del Cister. Part 1 is here.

On our second evening, after eating our cal├žots lunch, we decided to go check out the Museum of Rural Life in the small town of L'Espluga de Francoli. Our host Joan recommended it as it's near his wine shop and has some of his family's heirlooms on display. How crazy's that? Do you own anything that is old/special enough for a museum... Anyway, I don't have any worthwhile photos to show but the museum was interesting and extra special because we got there about 45 minutes before they closed and were the only ones there.

After the museum closed, we went for a walk through the town, which, like lots old towns, is built on a large town-sized rock (just like Montblanc, Mont Sant-Michel, or Castellfollit de la Roca). It's amazing to see houses built right onto the hillsides... this house above a cliff face with a small, cave-like space complete with a bench and mood lighting:

We returned the next morning to visit Joan's wine shop as it was closed by the time we got there the night before. It's located next to river in L'Espluga de Francoli. The shop is run by Joan's niece and her husband and there's even some production going on in the building.

Joan's shop shares a parking lot with a museum that's built on top of a large, underground cave (according to Wikipedia, the seventh largest in the world). It's not quite the Cathedral de Sal but La Cova de la Font Major (the Major Source Cave) was a worthwhile guided-tour visit. They take you down into the cave and walk you through history using some videos, music, and displays. The staff wasn't too keen on photo taking so I (unusually) grudgingly complied thus no photos. But, it's a cave. If you don't like enclosed spaces, it's probably not your cup of tea.

Our next stop was at the Poblet Monastery, which is Diana's favorite of the ones in the area.

Poblet is also a Cistercian monastery and was founded in the mid 1100s. It's a testament to the work of the Generalitat of Catalunya and their restoration and maintenance efforts. Like Santes Creus we visited the day before, I'd imagine the scale of these facilities was awe-inspiring back in their day as they still are today.

Just look at the cooking area on the left side of the photo below. The "stove" room is similar in size to the entire apartment where Diana and I live!

The Poblet monastery's church is another reminder why it's good to be rich. Not only do you get to buy elections, you get to be buried and displayed for all time in the church.

If you remember back to part one of this story, I said that my idea for the weekend was to hang out and relax, maybe read a book, and so on. Realize that we're probably 72 hours into this "relaxing weekend" trip and we've already done more than probably most folks would do during a whole week. And no books were yet read. Oh well, that's kinda' our style.

So, onward and upward. The Poblet monastery is right next to a village named Vimbodi. We had no idea what was there but it was like three minutes away so we headed over. There was pretty much nothing but an old church, some houses, and a bunch of winding little streets. Just as we were about to leave I looked up at this house and noticed the plaque (above the top right-hand corner of the wood door) that says it was built in 1776, which is the same year the United States was founded. And someone still lives there!

One of the last things Diana and I wanted to do was visit the little town of Barbera de la Conca, which, yet again, is built on a town-sized rock. We had driven by it several times as it was right near where we were staying in Cabra del Camp. On our way there, we stopped to take photos and, just as we got out of the car, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the town of Barbera de la Conca and made for a great photo!

We walked up to the top of the hill to check out what was left of the castle we could see back when we took the photo above. As we got to the castle's door, there was an early-twenties-something couple just inside. We asked them if we could come in and they told us that they were waiting for a woman who'd be coming in a few minutes to give them a tour and it'd be better to ask her.

The woman was a member of a local group who oversees and cares for the castle and they periodically offer tours and hold special events like concerts. She was super nice and agreed to let us join her tour.

The castle, like a lot of things in the area, was first built in the mid 1000s and has served a variety of purposes including, until recently, a school. One of the more interesting things we saw was the old prison/dungeon room. Originally built with only the square roof opening, they've since opened a new slightly larger hole and put in a step ladder to make it easier to get in and out. I'd imagine this wasn't the best airbnb stay!

The other castle-tour highlight was going up to the top of the observation tower, which had a commanding view of the area. Note the Catalan-independence flag - you see a lot of more of these when you get outside Barcelona.

We were super stoked to happen on the castle tour and thanked the guide. But, it turns out it wasn't over! She asked if we wanted to come with her to visit the Agricola de Barbera, which is a wine-and-cava-making facility down at the bottom of the hill. What? Wine-making tour? Absolutely!

By the way, these random things happen to us a lot. I'm not sure if it's because we seek them out, if we're just open to "random", or what it is. There's another story I'll be writing soon that was also a very cool random-chance thing like this one.

The Agricola is a cooperative where local smaller-scale wineries can use the shared production facilities. Diana and our guide checking out one of the bins where incoming grapes are transferred from the trucks into the facility:

I've been to a couple of cava-factory tours (here and here) but those tend to keep you (understandably) at arms-length from the equipment and facilities. This tour was right up close to everything including the grape-processing equipment, fermentation tanks, cellars, and even the packing facility:

The funny thing is, that from the outside, the building looks fairly small. But it isn't until you go past the shop and through the production-facility doors that you realize just how big the place is. It's a full-on factory and warehouse.

We walked around the facility for a good 20 minutes. When we thought we were done, the guide took us down some stairs in the corner of the building, which led to the caves down below. Wow! Crazy... These caves are where the cava is kept during the fermentation process

After a nice glass of cava and some tapas, our our visit to the Ruta del Cister was over (but not yet the whole trip). It was back for one last enjoyable evening with Joan armed with even more stories to share.

One final view over the vineyards in front of the Poblet monastery: