Copyright Consell Comarcal de l'Alt Camp
Alt Camp, as suggested by its name (literally meaning high field), is the highest comarca in Tarragona province. It offers plenty of stunning landscapes thanks to a mix of mountains, plains, forests and rivers, and also has a vibrant cultural heritage making it a well-known tourist destination. The Parc Natural de Les Montanyes de Prades, which is spread between Alt Camp and four other comarques, is a protected park and has the largest mass of evergreens in Catalunya. The area is bursting with wildlife and fauna, some of it specific to the region, such as the tree pipit. At this time of the year the fields of olive trees are full of white clover flowers giving the ground beautiful colour against the turning leaves. Although inland, the area attracts tourists most of the year round enticed by both its history-steeped landscapes and local food.
WHAT TO SEE
Due to the region’s location—it stands at a crossroad between the cities of Tarragona, Barcelona and Lleida—it has enjoyed a strategical advantage and seen its fair share of historical battles. The valley of the Gaià River was, in medieval times, the border between the county of Barcelona and the expanse of Muslim-occupied territory in the Iberian Peninsula, Al’andalus; for that reason there is a host of medieval castles here dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Although some of them are in ruins, a few remain worthy of a visit. A good way to see them is to follow the Ruta dels Castells del Gaià, which follows the river and lets you see many fortifications in various states of repair including Santa Perpetua del Gaià, Castell of Santa Coloma and Pinyana Castle, which is to the south of Querol and in better condition; it was declared a site of cultural interest in 1985. Lying to the south-east of the region is Rodonyà Castle: although the interior of this castle was destroyed by a fire in 1809 during the war of El Francès, a new castle was built on top of the original site and used as a feudal residence.
If you head to the town of Montferri, which sits on the left bank of the Gaià river, you can take in the originality of the Santuari de la Mare Déu de Montserrat; the windows and u-shaped catenary arches designed by Josep M. Jujol in 1922 make it a remarkable looking building. Construction was put on hold due to the Spanish Civil War, and it was only completed in 1985 and officially opened in 1999.
The capital of Alt Camp is the town of Valls. The nearby Pont de Goi (Goi Bridge) will be of interest to history buffs carrying as it does the scars from when it was the location for a crucial Napoleonic battle fought in February 1809 on the Francoli River at the border between Alcover and Valls.
Other notable buildings in Alt Camp are the Modernista wineries, known as Catedrals del Vi due to their ornate design. Most of these elegant buildings were designed by Cèsar Martinell, a Valls-born architect and contemporary of Gaudí. Evident in all his buildings is the Catalan totxo (coated-brick), which features around the windows, columns and ceramics for decoration. In total there are eight co-operatives in the comarca all built between 1915 and 1920. They were created in order to overcome economic difficulties due to an epidemic of phylloxera (a grapevine pest) that destroyed almost all the vines in Europe. The two best examples of Martinell’s work are the impressive San Isidre cellar in Nulles, known for its cava, and the one in Vila-rodona. Most of the wineries are open to the public and have guided tours and tastings so you can appreciate both the beautiful architecture and wine-making process close up.
One of the most spectaclar local attractions is the royal Santes Creus Cistercian monastery, which lies in the centre of the region and was founded in 1158. It is considered one of the best examples of a preserved monastic site in southern Europe. Its design conforms to the Cistercian simplistic form and its construction continued until the 18th century. The 11th-century façade of the church is Romanesque and holds a spectacular and large Gothic window. The monastery was abandoned in 1835 but in 1921 was declared a monument of national interest and subjected to a process of restoration.
WHAT TO DO
Many tourists come to the region for the walking that can be enjoyed there. One of the most popular walks is the Ruta del Cister. Established in 1989, it is 104 kilometres long, encompasses the three counties of Alt Camp, Urgell and Conca de Barberà, taking in three magnificent monasteries: as well as Santes Creus, there are Poblet and Vallbona de les Monges in the adjoining counties.
If you are looking for a different kind of activity, then head to the Parc Natural de Les Montanyes, which offers a wealth of activities. From the equestrian centre Mas Aragó in Aiguamúrcia, you can trek on horseback along various routes that last at least an hour. Or perhaps you would prefer to see the area on bike: there are numerous cycling routes, for instance around Nulles and along the GR-172 walking path. You can rent bicycles from the Aula de Natura Les Esplanes in Nulles and they offer a guide service as well.
If you’re looking for a less active sport, how about spectating? Head to Valls to catch a jaw-dropping castell (human-tower). Valls is said to be the birthplace of castells and the tradition stems from 1805 when there were two casteller groups, the Colla Vella del Xiquets de Valls and the Colla Joves dels Xiquets de Valls, who competed fiercely. After experiencing a dip in popularity, the human towers have seen a renaissance in recent years and the same two teams remain in competition, along with various others. You are likely to find these staggering feats of human gymnastics and strength at any of the numerous festes (festivals) that take place here throughout the year.
One of the best venues to visit for a dose of culture is the Museu de Valls. It holds one of the finest collections of modern Catalan art from the last 120 years. With around a thousand paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs by artists, including Joan Mirò and Antoni Tàpies, it contains some of the best examples of Realism, the Olot school and Modernism, plus some fantastic Noucentistes pieces, making it a great place to see the emergence and formation of Catalan modern art.
WHAT TO EAT
The cuisine of Alt Camp is one of the top draws of the region and the calçot (a large spring onion) is easily the star turn. Thought to have been originally planted by farmer Xat Benaiges at the end of the 19th century, the region now grows upwards of five million calçots annually. Calçotades (big feast for eating mountains of calçots) happen in restaurants and homes throughout the months of January, February and March. In addition, on the last weekend of January every year, Valls holds a public calçotada: as many as 30,000 people come to take part and (seemingly) eat their weight in the vegetable. During the festival, you can learn how to grow them, how to make the salvitxada sauce they are tradionally served with and, for the novices, you can attend workshops on how to eat the long vegetable. But the most important part of the festival is the eating competition: witness competitors from all over Catalunya eat up to as many as 300 calçots as the crowd enthusiastically cheers them on. After a winner is declared, the public eating can begin. Large grills are put out all over town to cook the delicacy alongside meats and sausages, all accompanied by local wine and cava, drunk from long-spouted porrons. Other gourmet attractions from the region include hazelnuts, olives, grapes and almonds.
WHEN TO GO
The first months of the year are busy due to the calçotades and the Tres Tombs de Sant Antoni, which takes place in different towns the second weekend of January [see pages 22-23]. In July and August, the monasteries of the Ruta de Cister host Concerts d’Estiu (Summer Concerts), where you can enjoy classical music in wonderful settings.
WHERE TO STAY
The area is home to many cases rurals and for the warmer months, there are a couple of campsites. If looking for somewhere a bit different, the Hotel Spa Les Vinyes in Vilardida has just seven rooms, each decorated with a different theme and colour.
Ajuntament de Valls
Tel. 977 63 60 10
Hotel Spa Les Vinyes
La Ruta del Cister
Oficina Comarcal de Turisme de Santes Creus
Tel. 977 63 81 41
Oficina Municipal de Turisme de Valls
Tel. 977 61 25 30