Exploring Tarragona: Priorato and the Ebro

Insight Guide (Catalonia: Costa Brava)  London-Singapore, 1991, 1,500 words; extract  

Tarragona is not much written up by comparison, say, with Girona, but its farming landscapes and magnificent architecture give it a resonance of its own. Here you can explore as much as visit, without knowing exactly what you will find around the corner.

Getting a grip on the contours of Tarragona province is not as easy as it may look at first sight. Seen from the coast the mountainous inland areas merge into one magnificent silhouette, but once youre immersed in them they break up into distinct landscapes squeezed together cheek by jowl: the rust and emerald hills of Terra Alta, the slate-black slopes of Priorat, the small but craggy Serres de Prades and gently undulating Conca de Barber....


El Priorat is an administrative comarca, but the real El Priorat for Catalans is a small core of eight villages perched between swooping vineyards planted in steep slate-black hills....

El Priorat is an administrative comarca, but the real El Priorat for Catalans is a small core of eight villages perched between swooping, steeply terraced vineyards on harsh, slate-black hills. Founded and protected by Scala Dei (or Escaladei in Catalan), the first Carthusian monastery in Spain, which grew to glory from the 12th century, the villages then survived harsh times. The monasterys closure in the 1830s was the first of a series of disasters. Phylloxera followed, destroying the vineyards, then came the slow closure of the lead mines - and the villages struggled through 150 years of poverty. 

Today El Priotato still forms a self-contained pocket visibly defined by the bowl-like horizon and intangibly shaped by pride in the quality of their deep crimson wine, now the most expensive in Spain. The vines roots tunnel deep here, tentacle-like, running metres down into the dry, black slaty hills to suck up water and nutrients. At Torroja there is a small private wine museum and an altar made from an olive press; at Bellmunt a Modernist house; at Gratallops a traditional cooper still working. Escala Dei itself is a superbly romantic ruin overgrown by ivy and the wild herbs from which the monks made medicines in their apothecary.


To the west, El Priorat is bounded by the snaking Ebro Valley. You can view it best from the cornice road which winds high along the left bank through peach, cherry and plum orchards. Until road and rail took over, the river was an important economic route along which coal, oil, wine and almonds were carried downstream in barges and rice and salt were pulled back upstream. Riverboats still chug back and forth from Miravet and Amposta, but these days its

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