The Catalan can make bread from stones, but the man from Priorato makes wine.
The Phoenicians—or their successors the Romans— introduced the grape to these lands, and by the time Imperial Rome had reached its zenith, wines from Priorat were being praised by Roman poets and historians, including Martial, Pliny and Virgil.
When the Romans withdrew in the 4th century viniculture was first disrupted by the Visigoths then banned by the Moors. It was not until the Christian reconquest in the 12th century that the population of the region began to recover and the grape was cultivated once again.
The present beauty of the villages of Priorat—and the excellence of their wines—can be traced to the dream of a pious shepherd in the 12th century AD, who had a vision one night of a ladder reaching towards heaven, on which angels were busy ascending and descending. This important event reached the ears of King Alfonso the Chaste, and a Carthusian monastery was established on the spot, which was named Escala Dei (the ladder of God) in honour of the shepherd's dream.
The monastery flourished and took over the administration of the surrounding villages, including Bellmunt (beautiful mountain), which came under its sway in 1218. The grape was re-introduced so the monks could celebrate the sacrament, and the villages were graced with ecclesiastical buildings in styles ranging from Gothic to Renaissance.
Travellers may wish to begin their visit to the region in the town of La Morera, the site of the shepherd's vision, and in particular the abbey of La Cartoixa, built in 1164 in its honour. The abbey is partly in ruins, although its dilapidation is very picturesque but La Morera is pretty and self-possessed, and houses many of the cellars where the wines of Priorat are matured.
The mountain of Montsant forms a spectacular backdrop to the town; it is reputed to be inhabited by angels who keep watch over the villages and vines beneath. Indeed all the mountains of the region are home to legends.
The village of Siurana, nestling on the edge of a cliff a short distance from La Morera, is the site of several of these: it contains a ruined castle, which is said to be haunted by the Moors; the dizzying precipice on which it is perched is named the "The Leap of the Moor Queen" in honour of a Moorish princess who defended the castle against the Christian Knights and, rather than surrender, blindfolded her horse and rode it into the void. Siurana is surrounded by bare mountains, and seems to float in the clear blue air.
The region is home to a number of architectural prodigies. Travellers with an interest in Mediaeval high-rise should visit Vilella Baixa whose beautifully preserved centre contains early examples of multi- storey edifices, and like so much of the region, provides excellent views over the nearby mountains. Aficionados of Catalan modernism will be delighted by the co- operative wine cellars of Falset, which were designed by Cesar Martinell, a disciple of Gaudi. Falset also contains the best restaurant in the Priorat DO, El Cairat, which is renowned for the inventiveness of its cuisine, and is the ideal location from which to muse on the existence of the angels that are said to guard the region. After lunch, and a glance at the 12th century castle of Albert de Castellvell (later the residence of the Earls of Prades), travellers may be tempted to take a stroll in the hills, equipping themselves for the trip with a bota, or wine skin.
Whilst Catalunya is said to be responsible for the invention of the cork, and for packaging wine in bottles, it also maintains the production of older types of containers. The village of Gandesa, a little to the south of Priorat, is renowned for its kidskin botas, which are worn slung over the shoulders with a cord, and form the perfect companion for a meander over rough terrain.
Ranging a little further afield, the town of Valls, thirty miles to the east of Priorat, is famed as the birthplace of "castells." Castells are complex human pyramids that are constructed every year in Valls and other towns nearby as part of their fiestas, and are fascinating examples of tradition, co-operation and futility. They consist of up to nine levels of people standing on one another’s shoulders and heads, and are assembled in time to the music of gralles, which resemble clarinets. The bases of the pyramids are surrounded by a close press of hundreds of cheering people, and they are topped by an anxanet—a young boy who waves a Catalan flag. Castell building takes place in Valls, El Vendrell, and Vilafranca throughout the summer, and there are competitions held for the most artistic tower of bodies in Tarragona, the principal city of the region, to which travellers are advised to pay a visit once they have been refreshed by the pure air and dramatic landscapes of Priorat.
Tarragona, on the Costa Dorada, was founded by the Romans and contains many monuments to their presence. Its old quarter is partially surrounded by Roman walls, it is watered by a Roman aqueduct, and contains the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in which the first bishop of Tarragona, St. Fructuos, was martyred in 257 AD. The archaeological museum of the town contains a sculpture that will delight every oenophile: a Praxitelean Bacchus depicting the old god of wine in all his majesty. Tarragona is also graced with a fine selection of mediaeval buildings, and further examples of Catalan modernism. These are best enjoyed by joining its Paseo, the evening parade of the Tarragonese, who stroll its Ramblas, to see and be seen. Finally, travellers with an interest in Catalan minimalism, in the sense of beach wear, will enjoy the beaches in and around Tarragona, where the young women wear no more than a tanga and suntan cream out of doors during the summer months.