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Priorat 1 homeCourtesy of Turisme Priorat
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Priorat 2 homeCourtesy of Turisme Priorat
Nestled in the inland areas of southern Catalunya, the comarca (county) of Priorat is a dramatic place. The terrain that gives the region’s internationally-renowned wines their distinctive flavour also gives the area spectacular, craggy landscapes and a wild, lonely beauty. It’s a sparsely populated place with tiny, ancient villages scattered on hilltops here and there and occasional masies (traditional farmhouses) isolated amongst the vines. The stern mountains that encircle Priorat only add to this sense of isolation.
The vines have been crucial to Priorat’s history and in the last two decades they’ve become a beacon of hope for the region. In the 12th century, the monks of Priorat’s Carthusian monastery, Escaladei, started making wine for the first time in Spain since the Romans left. Priorat’s winemaking tradition flourished and was the area’s economic backbone, until the phylloxera (an aphid-like pest) devastated the region at the end of the 19th century. With the wine industry crushed, much of the rest of Priorat’s farming suffered too and the area became very deprived. Throughout the 20th century people left in droves, giving Priorat one of Catalunya’s highest rates of depopulation. People have mostly stayed away. Even today, the 2,500-inhabitant capital, Falset, dwarfs all its surrounding villages, most of which have no more than a couple of hundred residents.
However, in recent years a new generation of ambitious young winemakers has moved back into the area, tempted by the slate soil and rock-bottom land values. In little over 20 years, viniculturists like Àlvaro Palacios have places Priorat squarely on the international wine map, using a blend of native and important grape varieties. Wines from certain areas of the comarca carry the uber-prestigious denominació d’origen qualificada (D.O.Q) label, indicating their exceptional quality and heritage; Spain´s only other region for D.O.Q. wines is La Rioja. Although Priorat remains depressed in comparison to other areas of Catalunya, a surge in rural and wine-based tourism and the burgeoning wine industry have brought jobs and stability and staunched the flow of people leaving the area.
Things to see
Priorat takes its name from the prior who led the Cartoixa d’Escaladei, the Carthusian monastery that was founded on the lonely windswept site at the foot of the Serra de Montsant in the 12th century. Over the next six centuries, the monastery became hugely rich and powerful and was extensively enlarged and redesigned. However, in the 19th century, when the State stripped huge areas of land from the ‘dead hands’ of the Church, Escaladei was the abandoned. Within two years, the monastery was sacked and demolished by the nearby villages, whose people had been forced to pay high tithes for centuries. These days, only a marble-clad entry arch remains standing, although the Generalitat has rebuilt a monk’s cell to illustrate the monastic lifestyle, and is currently working to preserve the ruins. Near La Morera de Montsant. Closed Mondays.
Perched on a clifftop overlooking two rivers, Siurana was once at the hub of the Saracen occupation of Catalunya; by the 12th century it had become its last bastion, with its castle besieged and vanquished in 1153 by the Christians. Local legends says that the Moorish queen, Aldalaiza, rode off the cliffs rather than fall into Christian hands. A deep scar in the rock at the cliff’s edge is said to be the hoofmarks of her horse, frantically pawing the rock in its attempt to stop their plunge into the abyss. The castle lies in ruins, while the village is a tiny, ancient huddle of houses with a Romanic church, spectacular views, and few inhabitants. Near Cornudella de Montsant.
A kilometre outside the little village of La Bisbal de Falset are the impressive caves of Santa Llúcía, people have used the caves and natural spring for centuries: archaeologists have found tools here from Paleolithic occupiers. More recently, they were used a as a field hospital during the Battle of the Ebre in 1938. Eighty beds, an operating theatre, and a pharmacy were installed and were used to treat soldiers from both sides, as well as civilians from nearby towns, which were under heavy bombardment.
The comarca’s capital, Falset, is positively cosmopolitan by local standards but retains a certain sleepy, traditional charm. It has medieval remains, a Romanic castle and an 18th century palace, which now houses the Ajuntament. The town also boasts a Modernista building, designed by Cesar Martinell, which houses the local winemaking cooperative, Agrícola Falset-Marçá.
Priorat’s craggy beauty is riddled with caves, cliffs, precipices and gullies and it has recently become almost as well-known among climbers as it is among wine lovers. The region’s mountains, such as Montsant, aren’t particularly high, but they abound with challenges for climbers of every level. The cliffs of Siurana have become especially famous, drawing climbers from as far away as Australia and Japan. Esports d’Aventura Arbonés organizes introductory courses in rock climbing in Siurana.
They are ample hiking and mountain biking trails throughout the comarca; some of the best trails are around Montsant. Many routes lead to tiny chapels, hermitages and natural caves hidden high in the hills. For a map and an extensive list of hiking and mountain bike trails, pick up the leaflet Senders del Priorat (walking paths of Priorat) at tourist offices.
For a more leisurely approach to the Priorat, many of the area’s vineyards offer tours and wine tastings. Those that offer tours in English include Cellers d’Scala Dei, Mas Blanc-Pinord, and Agrícola Falset-Marça. For the region’s most unusual wine tour, try the Celler de Capçanes, which makes kosher wines. It’s best to reserve tours in advance.
When to go
It may get pretty chilly and windswept on the hills in the winter, but January offers the chance to see the traditional ‘Encamisada’ in Falset. This traditional celebration marks the feast of St Anthony, patron saint of working animals, with the ‘Tres Tombs’ (a procession of decorated carts which tours the town three times) before the animals are blessed in church (20th and 21st).
What to eat
While the area is most famous for its wines, the hills around Siurana also produce some exceptional olive oils. The local delicacy of tortilla con salsa (omelette made with beans or spinach in a stew) is also popular and well worth trying.
Where to stay
Thanks to Priorat’s ever-growing rural tourism sector, there’s reasonably priced accommodation in houses and cottages in most towns and villages; the Consell Comarcal del Priorat has lists of establishments. The more visited villages also have a handful of one-to-three star hotels and affordable hostels. For more upmarket accommodation, the four-star Hotel Abadía del Priorat, near Montblanc, is elegant and offers guests a variety of tours, visits and guided activities.