Editor’s note: Despite being somebody who “doesn’t do tours,” Jodi surprised herself recently by having a great time on a day trip to the Pyrenees from Barcelona. This time around Jodi tackles Montserrat, vortex and all.
Once again I leap into the friendly green mini-van for today’s tour to Montserrat and the CodornÃu winery in the famous Penedes cave district. Our guide, Adrien, is warm and gregarious; making sure everyone is introduced and comfortable before we set off into the hills.
The tour groups are small and have an intimate vibe, almost as though you are meeting up with friends of friends on holiday, and give plenty of space for independent wandering and sightseeing with flexible times depending on everyone’s interest and inclination.
Today is overcast and threatening to be stormy later, but the drive through the countryside is gorgeous, with the random castles and ruins spotted amongst modern apartments and factories. Information about the area flows through conversation, so you never feel bombarded by facts and figures, and any particular points of intrigue can be discussed further. On this occasion, the tour is bilingual, as one of the group only speaks French, but the informal approach remains during explanations in both languages.
As we start to climb the winding road to Montserrat the view is stunning, looking back across the fields and towns gives a new perspective to the landscape. Adrien tells us about the formation of the mountains, rising up from the river delta over thousands of years, as the stones rise and fold over each other they created these distinctive serrated formations piercing the sky. Passing a number of convents and monastic retreats along the way, some of them still in use, we arrive in the car park to a first glimpse of the flat seventies brick restaurant buildings juxtaposed against the backdrop of dramatic cliffs falling away to the deep valley below.
A cable car cuts through the rock from the valley, and two funiculars along almost vertical tracks jut through the chasm in opposite directions. Leading us past the local market where you can sample delicious cheese with honey and produce, we visit the cafeteria and gift shop, before arriving at the courtyard in a cluster of buildings around the Basilica. Philippa is tempted to buy a baby on a cloud, and I am very taken with the rows of Black Madonna’s but we both manage to escape empty-handed.
During the explanations of the attractions, one of the group asks about the vortex, which is said to be part of the earth’s energy field, and has an entry point here in the mountain. Adrien explains that this vortex is located on a black rock in front of the Baroque Gothic Cathedral, and legend has it that if you stand in the middle of the circle barefoot and raise your arms to the sky, an extraordinary force will pass through you. The priests must be thrilled by this slightly pagan worship going on directly outside. After pointing out the various options to explore, from a walk along the mountain towards the cemetery, or visiting the altars along the lower cliffs, to the long queue waiting for a glimpse of the Black Madonna up close, he then utters the fantastic invitation: “And now, I will take you to the vortex!”
Waiting for a group of nuns to finish their photo session on the black stone, we each take off our shoes and walk tentatively to the centre of the vortex. I have to confess that the experience doesn’t move me with a mysterious energy in the way I was hoping, but Philippa is distinctly swoony afterward, to the point where we start to worry that she may have to be left in the convent. Adrien warns us that ‘sinners will be struck down’ but evidently neither of us has sinned enough yet. There is no religious conversion today either, although a brief trip down the mountain path towards a series of altars held in rocky embrace is quickly deemed far too steep, so we retrace our steps and head to the Funicular de Sant Joan.
This involves a queue, as everything seems to on the sightseeing trail, but eventually we climb into the sloping cars and grind our way slowly to the summit. Stepping out onto the rocky path towards the cemetery it begins to rain, so our view is mostly clouds. The trail continues along a very narrow path on the edge of the peak, so it’s judged enough to walk a short way and enjoy the view, with our picnic of sandwiches from the cafeteria. Up here the quiet is intense, and seems to have a life of its own.
After only a short time, I can imagine how deeply a mystical experience in these hills would be felt, and have a profound effect on the traveler. Once you walk away from the main buildings, there is an incredible sense of peace, and something in the air itself changes. A choir is singing close by, mixed with the operatic tones of someone vocalizing their faith across the hill, the place has a powerful charge. It’s possible to stay here overnight, in one of the cells originally built for monks, or at a hotel, and spend more time with the rituals and excellent library of the monastery. Unfortunately some army – Napoleons, perhaps – burned the superb collection of illustrated mediaeval texts. I noted the 1811 battle of Napoleon, but can’t remember if it was then or during the civil war that the destruction took place.
Leaving the mountain across the north face and around the other side, we stop at a tiny ancient stone church, famous for something (I forget what now), and hear other legends of the rocky outcrops. Climbing one of them is said to provoke a spontaneous sex change, while another is thought to be the rearing horse of an ancient hero. Driving into the plains, the view of the jagged peaks from a distance is impressive, and it’s easy to understand why people were drawn to this place as it has a genuinely mystical aura, rising out of the land.
Now we come to worship at another church, the beautifully designed Modernist entrance hall to CodornÃu, with curving arches, diffused light and Art Nouveau details by architect Puig I Cadafalch. This is one of the oldest vineyards in the area, operating since 1551 with a family dynasty of 17 generations, and was the first to produce Cava when the method was introduced from France. ‘Everyone drinks Cava here’, a local explains, ‘not just for special occasions’. Made with the same method as champagne, it can be a less expensive alternative to fancy French labels, with comparable quality and taste.
After watching a short introductory video, we are led through the grounds past an amazing white mansion with towers and a moat, which turns out to be the family residence, and down into the cellars. These stretch for 30km, although a mistranslation in the video claimed they were 30km underground; but either way they are extremely impressive. The museum on the top floor contains mysterious wooden implements and huge oak barrels, showing the older production techniques.
The guide leads us through a maze of slightly musty smelling brick arches, explaining some part of the process at each stop. Eventually we clamber onto seats in a centipede like vehicle, and as the carriages swing wildly around corners, dub it the ‘crazy-train’. The second form of kooky transport for the day, all we missed was a ride on the cable car!
The family story would make a great melodrama, with centuries of intrigue and passion for the land, now producing millions of bottles per year. Matriarch Anna CodornÃu even has a range of Cava named after her. The vintage advertising posters are wonderfully decadent, with a range of elegant ladies raising a toast in opulent surroundings.
The tour ends with a glass of Cava for everyone, and time to buy souvenir bottles to take home. Here I cave into temptation, and indeed am about to open that sparkling Brut Reserve Rosé for a drink with the neighbours tonight.