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© José Luis Rodríguez. Photo courtesy Agència Catalana de Turisme
Sant Pere de Rodas monastery
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© Bessons. Photo courtesy Agència Catalana de Turisme
Following the Camí de Sant Jaume to Montserrat
Following the Camí de Sant Jaume to Montserrat
With the warm days approaching, it’s time to explore Catalunya’s walking routes.
CAMÍ DE SANT JAUME
The Camíno de Santiago is Europe’s oldest, most travelled and most famous walking route, but also a cultural experience that few are likely to enjoy in its entirety. Since the discovery there of the supposed tomb of Saint James, one of Jesus’s disciples, in the year 814, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia has been Europe’s most renowned pilgrimage haven and dedicated hikers from all over the world come to walk all or part of the camino, which is actually made up of a variety of different routes. Stepping onto the scallop shell (the insignia of Saint James) that has been installed in front of Santiago’s majestic cathedral signals a great triumph for all those who have spent days or weeks walking through parts of Spain and France to get there.
However, the most popular route, the Camino Francés, is a 780-kilometre trek from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port in southern France to the cathedral and can take almost a month to travel. Consequently, an increasingly popular alternative is to walk the Camí de Sant Jaume (Way of Saint James in Catalan), which traverses the Catalan landscape, capturing its natural beauty and historical significance. The principal 307-kilometre walk between Port de la Selva and Tàrrega, which later connects to the main camino, was declared the first European Cultural Itinerary in 1987 before being named one of UNESCO’S World Heritage sites in 1993. It provides an ideal challenge for lovers of the outdoors at this time of year, with the fresh spring air and long daylight hours.
The complete hike, which will take between 12 and 15 days (although it is possible to do the separate sections at different times, of course), begins in the charming fishing village of Port de la Selva. One of the more intense stretches of the walk is that to the nearby iconic Sant Pere de Rodes, a one-time Benedictine monastery which is perched spectacularly in the foothills of the Pyrenees, looking out to sea. According to folklore, the most prized relics of the Holy See, consisting of the right arm and head of Saint Peter along with a bottle containing the blood of Christ, were hidden in a cave on the mountain by order of Pope Boniface IV in the year 610CE, when the Western Roman Empire was under threat of invasion by the Persian army. However, when the relics could not later be found again, three clerics vowed to remain there and consequently built the majestic monastery to honour the missing remnants.
Sacred rock carvings follow a Roman path down to Figueres, once a European commercial gateway and birthplace of cult figure Salvador Dalí. Visits to his impressive theatre-museum, the parish church of Sant Pere and the 18th century Castle of Sant Ferran all provide enjoyable viewing whilst taking a break from walking.
The 50-kilometre stretch to Girona takes you through beautiful holm oak and beech forests where thousands of endemic plant species will be beginning to flower. Birds of prey may circle overhead as you make the steady descent down to the 11th-century Girona Cathedral, which has the widest Gothic nave in the world. If you have time, why not also visit the Plaça de la Independència, the Church of Sant Feliu and the Gironella Tower?
En route to Montserrat, the signposted trail takes you through Amer, the picturesque town of Els Hostalets d’en Bas, L’Esquirol, Vic, the stunning Romanesque monastery of Santa Maria in L’Estany and the Basilica of Santa Maria de la Seu in Manresa. Montserrat itself welcomes visitors with its awe-inspiring serrated mountain range, a popular spot for rock climbers. The Abbey of Montserrat is home to the patroness of Catalunya, La Moroneta, a 12th-century wooden statue of Mary and infant Christ, and is Catalunya’s most visited religious landmark. From here, follow the trail down to Tàrrega, at which point the route splits between a northerly way to Alfarras then on to Huesca and Jaca and a southerly option via Lleida and the Ruta del Ebro past Zaragoza; both eventually connect to the Camino Francés at Logroño. To obtain a credencial (€1), the pilgrim’s passport that grants affordable (often free) accommodation along the route and where you can receive official St. James’s stamps, see below.
LA RUTA DEL CISTER
Another route that captures Spain’s religious and cultural history is the Cistercian triangle, which links three of Catalunya’s most significant monasteries.
The 105-kilometre trail takes five days to walk, although there are alternative cycling routes available. The journey begins at the Santes Creus monastery, which was founded in 1168 and is home to the royal tombs of Peter the Great, James II, his wife Blanche of Anjou and commander Roger de Lluría.
The first stage of the hike snakes through the vineyards, olive and almond fields of Alt Camp to the medieval-walled town of Montblanc. Passing through the Hermitage of Sant Joan, walkers advance to the Way of Holy Trinity to get to the second monastery, Poblet, situated in a green forest that became a Natural Area of National Interest in 1984. The monastery itself has a rich history, as it was the burial-place for the Kings of the Crown of Aragon from Jaume I (1208-76) to Alfonso V (1396-1458). Although the monastery suffered some damage during the First Carlist War (1833-39), the sculptured tombs can still be admired.
The final Cistercian landmark is the monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona, in Urgell. It is renowned as one of the most famous buildings in Catalunya for its two gothic domes and was the only female monastery in the province. For €9, you can enjoy English-speaking guided tours of all the monasteries to learn about their legacies. Happy hiking!
Camino de Santiago - www.santiago-compostela.net
Camí de Sant Jaume - www.camidesantjaume.cat
Credencial - www.camisantjaume.com
La Ruta del Cister - www.larutadelcister.info