Montserrat's limestone peaks
Bages, located in the centre of Catalunya, is rich in spirituality, history and nature. Spiritually, the main attraction is Montserrat, (meaning ‘serrated mountain’), which has been of religious importance for locals ever since an image of the Virgin Mary was found there, according to legend, in the ninth century.
Today, the Benedictine abbey perched halfway up the mountain, home to La Moreneta (the ‘black Virgin’ of Montserrat), continues to be popular amongst Catalans wanting to pay homage to the saint who is Catalunya’s official patron. Religion has also been important in the county capital, Manresa, since the founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius, wrote his Spiritual Exercises there in the 16th century. Another significant, but secular, historical figure for the Catalans is Rafael Casanova, born in the Bages town of Moià. In the 18th century, Casanova led the besieged city of Barcelona against the Borbon troops surrounding it until the surrender on September 11th, 1714, which is now commemorated as Catalunya’s national day.
Economically, Bages has enjoyed periods of prosperity since the 13th century, thanks to its local resources and the efforts of its people. When faced by a drought in the 14th century, a canal was constructed with a series of aqueducts to bring water from the Llobregat river to Manresa. Although the plan was temporarily held up by the refusal of a local bishop to allow the canal to cross his lands, a miracle attributed to Montserrat made him change his mind and La Sèquia canal has functioned ever since. Following the interest in the area inspired by the work of Saint Ignatius, which saw the construction of buildings to his memory and workshops for religious art, Bages then found itself benefitting from the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, with textiles, especially silk, being one of the main sources of income.
Away from the towns, Bages is full of hilly forests and striking rocky outcrops. Castles and Romanesque buildings dot the landscape, while in the natural park of Sant Llorenç there is a wide variety of rare and not-so-rare fauna and flora. And in the north-west of the county, there is the Cardona Salt Mountain.
Things to do
The capital of Bages, Manresa, is well-located at the crossroads of routes dividing the region. This position no doubt contributed to the prosperity enjoyed there through much of the last 1,000 years, which is reflected in the variety of buildings constructed on the back of the wealth made. Visitors can see examples of Baroque, medieval and Modernista architecture dotted around the town, as well as old factory chimneys. The town is set on a number of slopes, making for some very steep streets. This means that exploring is heavy going but worth the effort. On one of the upper parts is La Seu, a Gothic Basilica dating from the 14th century. The cavernous interior has an interesting selection of religious art including various altarpieces that are many centuries old. Not far from the Seu is the House of the Exercises, an enormous neo-Classical building marking the spot where, in the 16th century, Basque soldier Ignatius Loyola (later Saint Ignatius), who discovered his vocation in Manresa, wrote his Spiritual Exercises in a small cave, as a guide for the devout.
Not far from Manresa, and visible from some parts of the town, is the unmistakable formation that is Montserrat. The holiest mountain in Catalunya is a geological anomaly, with rounded limestone peaks that couldn’t be more different from the surrounding countryside if they tried. Prehistoric remains have been found in the area and there have been chapels on the mountain since the end of the ninth century, with the current church being consecrated in 1592. Nowadays Montserrat is renowned for the singing of its boys’ choir (apparently the oldest of its kind in Europe) and recently became the focus of popular literature when it featured in a novel that included the claim that in the Second World War, Himmler visited the abbey in the hope of finding the Holy Grail. Access to the monastery and its surrounding amenities is by car, cable car or funicular.
Water has played an important part throughout the development of Bages, and this is reflected in the Sèquia de Manresa. This canal is now considered one of the main pieces of hydraulic engineering carried out in medieval times. It runs for 26 kilometres but only descends by 10 metres in level, thanks to the design of its 30 aqueducts. Along the canal there is much to do and visit, including an Iberian village (El Cogulló), mines and one of the houses that was formerly occupied by a sequiaire, the person responsible for the upkeep of the canal. Other important buildings in the comarca include the Castell de Cardona, built in the ninth century by Catalan king Wilfred the Hairy, and the Romanesque monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, in Sant Fruitos de Bages, which has recently undergone a significant renovation.
Although the countryside of Bages is best-known for Montserrat, there is more to it than that. The natural park of Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac covers 14,000 hectares of the border between Bages and neighbouring comarca Vallès Occidental, with a mix of vegetation, such as heather, oak and hazelnut trees and rock formations, including monoliths, caves and grottos. Close to the town of Mura, within the confines of the park, is the Casa Museu El Puig de la Balma, a prime example of the houses built into rock by people in the eighth and ninth centuries. And for those who like to see the local wildlife when they visit the countryside, the park is home to over 200 species, including bats, wild boar and weasels.
The geography of Bages provides excellent walking. Rambling is well-catered for in the Sant Llorenç natural park, and the Manresa tourist office has designed two nature walks near the town.
Music lovers will enjoy hearing the Montserrat choir, which sings twice daily during the week, usually at 1pm and 6.45pm and on Sundays at 11am and 6.45pm (call monastery to confirm).
The Cardona Salt Mountain is a great place to learn about the importance of salt. The former mine, which operated until 1990, has a photos and machinery exhibition, but the highlight is visiting the mountain itself. Visitors are driven into the valley and then, wearing mining helmets, they walk into the mountain to see stalagmites and stalactites that have been formed over the past millennia.
Where to stay
The Castell de Cardona has a Parador hotel, a state-run hotel that provide the opportunity to sleep in specially refurbished historic buildings at a reasonable price. If you’re thinking of exploring the area near the La Sèquia canal, close to the town of Sallent is the Hostal del Camp, a three-star hotel with 26 rooms and an outdoor swimming-pool.
What to eat
Bages is known for its cuina del secà (dry cooking), featuring ingredients such as lamb (cap i pota), beef (morro i tripa de vedella) and, oddly for a land-locked area, cod. Sweet items have a notably religious connection with panets de Sant Ignasi (Saint Ignatius rolls) and ametlles de llum (almonds of light).
When to go
Bages is interesting all year round, but for those who like to plan ahead there are a couple of dates to note in the calendar. In November and May there are fairs held in Manresa, a tradition from the time when people living in the outlying villages would ‘go down to Manresa’ to buy items that they couldn’t find locally.
Another good time to consider a trip to Manresa is for the Festival of Light, which takes place on February 21st each year. This marks the miracle that took place that day in 1345 when a mysterious light shot out from Montserrat and all the town’s church bells started to ring on their own at the same time. The event caused local bishop Galceran Sacosta to revoke the excommunication he’d placed on the town, in response to their disobedience following Sacosta’s refusal to let them build the Sèquia canal through his land to bring much-needed water to the town.
Consell Comarcal de Bages
Tel. 93 693 0350
Paradors’ network of Spain
Tel. 902 54 79 79
Hostal del Camp
Tel. 93 837 0877
Cardona Salt Mountain
Monastery of Montserrat
Tel. 93 877 7701
Sant Llorenç Natural Park
Manresa Tourist Office
Tel. 93 878 4090
www.ajmanresa.cat—to get on-line details of the nature walks near the town, see the Medi ambient section, in the Viure a Manresa menu.