Conca de Barbera home
Poblet Royal Monastery of Santa Maria
The name of this comarca, located halfway between the Tarragona coast and the city of Lleida, comes from the town that is now its capital, called (rather confusingly) Barberà de la Conca. The Catalan word conca means basin or drainage basin for rivers; it is an appropriate name for a comarca that has various rivers starting in, and running through, it. Thanks to these waterways, the land here is fertile and grapes and nuts are two key crops; in medieval times, the local agricultural abundance attracted settlers who created towns and villages, many of which retain historic monuments and features. The local wine industry is a significant one, as is highlighted by the number of Modernista cellers (cellars) created in the area at the vanguard of that Catalan artistic movement; their elaborate and spacious design has led to them being called ‘wine cathedrals’.
Montblanc is a walled town that was founded by Alfons I in February 1163. It sits on a small hill (its name, which literally means ‘empty mountain’, came about due to the fact that no vegetation was growing there at the time) and the parapets of the historic walls (muralles) are still visible today from some distance.
There are also several medieval churches, including the 14th-century Santa Maria la Major, which has a stunning façade set against a very simple building. In its day, Montblanc was an important political base and the Catalan parliament (les Corts Catalanes) was held there on various occasions.
Another medieval town, Santa Coloma de Queralt, sits at the confluence of three rivers, making water an important asset to the town. This is highlighted by the 17th-century Fonts de les Canelles, situated at the point where the river Gaià rises. The fonts (fountains) feature eight bronze taps in a line, from which water pours into a stone trough below; this was traditionally used by humans and animals alike to drink, and by the former to clean clothes and water fields via stone channels.
One of La Conca’s most outstanding features is the Poblet Royal Monastery of Santa Maria. It is the largest inhabited Cistercian monastery in Europe and, since 1991, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1150, it is one of a trio of Cistercian communities (the others are Vallbona convent in Urgell and Santes Creus in Alt Camp, no longer in active use) set up as part of the strategy of reorganisation and repopulation of ‘New Catalunya’, adopted by the Catalan-Aragonese rulers after the defeat of the Moorish conquerors. Today it is possible to visit about half the monastery, including the main cloister, the 13th-century kitchen, dining-room and dormitories. The tour also takes in the main church where there are the impressive 14th-century tombs of eight members of the Aragonese royal family.
The lands around the monastery, once used by the monks for farming, have been recognised as a Paratge Natural d’Interès Nacional (Natural Area of National Interest). Made up of the Prades mountains and the Forest of Poblet, it is ideal for long country walks and spotting wild animals: wild boar, roe-deer, badgers and shrew are amongst the local inhabitants. Creatures of the flying variety to look out for include the blue titmouse, the long-eared owl and the greater spotted woodpecker. Various hiking routes are marked, setting off from the youth hostel next to Poblet monastery, and taking in local features such as the monastery’s old well for storing ice (pou de gel), quarries and caves.
Vimbodí (to the west of Poblet) has for many centuries been a town of glass-makers; different objects are created there using clear and green Catalan glass, of which the porró (Catalan wine container with a long, thin spout for drinking from) is the most famous. Vimbodí’s Glass Museum pays homage to this local industry with hundreds of pieces on show that were once used for religious, domestic and decorative purposes.
East of Vimbodí and Poblet is L’Espluga de Francolí. This town is well known for its caves (the word espluga comes from the Latin spelunca, which means cave), and as well as this natural underground attraction, there is also the Museu del Vi (Wine Museum) in a Modernista wine-cellar and, aboveground, the Museu de la Vida Rural, a four-section museum dedicated to Catalan country life.
Besides being the town that gave the comarca its name, Barberà de la Conca has long been the focus for the wine and cava industry of the area. In the 12th century, the Knights Templar were lent the castle of Barberà by the Counts of Barcelona and Urgell to help them in the reconquest of Catalunya, and parts of the Castell dels Templers still stand. But that is not the only bequest left by the Knights; the art of vinoculture was learned by locals from them as well as from Cistercian monks. When a devastating phylloxera plague hit at the end of the 19th century, the wine-makers were moved to face the crisis head-on, and they created the first cooperative for their industry in Catalunya (and indeed in the whole of Spain): the Sociedad de Trabajadores Agrícolas.
What to eat
Conca is not an area where it’s easy to go hungry. Montblanc’s speciality is cargols (snails), typically cooked a la llauna—this literally means ‘in the tin’, and an order of these will get you a very healthy portion of molluscs served in a square tin. Another regional favourite is coques de recapte: recapte means leftovers and this dish has a bread-like base topped with a range of items that can include botifarra, sardines and peppers. Sweeter options include carquinyoli biscuits from L’Espluga de Francolí and coca de poma (apple cake) from Vimbodí, also a good source of nous (walnuts). In addition, there are 23 wine and cava producers in La Conca de Barberà, with many cooperatives selling reasonably priced wine.
Where to stay
Vallfagona de Riucorb has a three-star balneari and the four-star Hotel Regina and Spa, both ideal for those looking for a relaxing getaway. More down-to-earth, but in an amazing setting, is the youth hostel (Alberg de Joventut Jaume I), situated close to Poblet Monastery and a good option for anyone wanting to explore the surrounding countryside.
Alberg de Joventut Jaume I, L’Espluga de Francoli: Tel. 977 87 03 56
Balneari de Vallfagona de Riucorb:
www.hotelbalneari.com, Tel. 977 88 00 25
Hotel Regina and Spa: www.cityhotels.es, Tel. 977 88 00 28
Oficina Comarcal de Turisme Poblet-Vimbodí: Tel. 977 87 12 47
Oficina d’Informació Turística de Santa Coloma de Queralt: Tel. 977 88 04 78
Oficina Municipal de Turisme de
Montblanc: Tel. 977 86 17 33
Oficina Municipal de Turisme de L’Espluga de Francolí: Tel. 977 87 12 20
Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Poblet: www.poblet.cat, Tel. 977 87 02 54
So they say:
Montblanc stages an annual week of medieval festivities, coinciding with Sant Jordi (April 23rd)—the timing is meaningful because legend has it that Sant Jordi (or Saint George, in English) victoriously took on his nemesis, the dragon, in the environs of Montblanc.