Story and photography by Barbara Angelakis
Costa Daurada, Catalonia, Spain
It is a well known fact that Catalonia, the autonomous Region of Northeastern Spain, is a delight for foodies and wine lovers (see Top Wineries in Priorat story and Can Roca Restaurant). But, there is also much to see and do while enjoying the bounty of the earth and the sea along the Costa Daurada, the corridor of land south of Barcelona that fronts the Mediterranean.
Upon arrival at Barcelona’s Airport, we were immediately whisked away to the Costa Daurada, known for its sunny disposition and silken beaches dotting the coastline. We headed inland towards the Priorat wine growing region to visit the steep vineyards clinging to the sides of mountains where the sea breezes from the Mediterranean and the hot sunny summers provide a luscious growing environment for wine grapes to flourish. In the small hill town of Gratallops, at the tiny Restaurant Cellers de Gratallops, I enjoyed one of the most memorable meals of the trip.
There were perhaps only 6 tables in this spotless and charming family-run restaurant, where communication was limited by my ignorance of the Catalan language, but where warm friendliness and a willingness to please were conveyed with broad smiles and knowing glances. We opened our dinner with Brandada de bacallà amb escuma de pebrot vermell, or mousse of cod fish topped with a layer of red pepper foam and a crisp, served in a martini glass for maximum eye appeal; a delight to behold and a joy to eat. A perfect pairing was made with a local Priorat Gratallops white wine, 2008 Usatges. The fish course, Llobarro amb arròs negre de xipirons i llimona confitada, was a grilled thick steak of sea bass fresh from the sea and served over black squid-ink rice with lemon comfit. The fish was meaty enough for a 2008 Pastrana & Jarque red, from the same Priorat DOQ.
Next came the surprising but delicious meat dish, Ventresca de xai i patata a la nostra manera, or belly flap of lamb, a cut not usually served in the U.S. It was roasted until the skin was crispy over a thin layer of flavorful meat, and served with locally sourced mash potatoes, mushrooms and asparagus. Dessert was the chefs version of a Catalonian traditional mel i mató or honey cheese, in this case made into a smooth flan topped with home-made cinnamon ice cream. We later tasted the traditional rendering of mel i mató in Tarragona, and while good, it could not hold a candle to this version. Kudos to this creative chef for an introduction to the best of Catalan cooking. The address of the restaurant is: Cellers de Gratallops, Piro, 32-43737 Gratallops, Priorat.
The next morning we visited the young and charming Albert Costa Miralbell at his Vall Llach vineyard and wine cellar (see the Celler Vall Llach story in the Oeno File) and afterwards we got down to serious sightseeing with a trip to the Carthusian Monastery of Cartoixa d’ Scala Dei (stairway to God) or Escaladei in Catalan. Recent restoration work made a visit to the monastery a fascinating and authentic study of the manner in which the reclusive monks lived. Each monk had a small suite including a bedroom with a concealed outside niche for food delivery and removal, a study alcove where they were allowed only 2 books at a time, a bathroom - with toilet - and a central hall for prayer.
Periodically the inhabitants would gather together for a religious observance or to participate in a work crew to tend the land, but generally they lived an isolated existence devoted to prayer and trying to climb that ladder to heaven (the symbol of their order was based on a shepherd’s dream of angels descending from a ladder). For seven centuries the monastery controlled a huge tract of land that was farmed by locals, and while they were not necessarily benevolent feudal overlords, we must thank them for developing advanced farming techniques including wine cultivation, making the Priorat one of the most famous wine producing areas in the region.
While on the historical trail, we stopped to visit Siurana, a spectacular hilltop stronghold, and possibly the last, of the Saracen lands in Catalonia. The breathtakingly steep cliffs play host to climbers from all over the world as one of the most challenging terrains anywhere. Standing at the high spot of the town, 1,027 meters above sea level, with a dizzying 360 degree view, one can appreciate how long the town’s small contingent of Muslims kept the Christians at bay, and marvel how the cliffs today invite extreme climbing enthusiasts. We were treated to a tale of mayhem and intrigue about the last ruler of the Saracens, the Moorish King Almemcniz and his beautiful Queen Abdlàzia. Upon hearing that the advancing Christians were about to break through their mountain defenses (apparently aided by a traitor) the desperate Queen mounted her favorite steed, tied a scarf around his eyes so he could not see, and rode him at full speed off the top of the cliff into the river below. To prove the validity of this story, you can still see a small indentation in the rock at the edge of the cliff where the horse tried to dig in his hoof at the last moment before being urged into the abyss. Fact or fiction... you decide!
Back towards the coast and the city of Tarragona, with its dual personally of port city and beach resort. Tarragona is recognized as a World Heritage Site and boasts an old town of winding, narrow alleyways, and ancient city walls, that date back to the Roman occupation beginning in the second century B.C. We were fortunate to be there during the city’s annual celebration in honor of the patron saint, Santa Tecla, when the whole city takes to the streets in a massive festival (see Festival Fever story). Unfortunately, the crowds made sightseeing in the historic quarter challenging to say the least, so we took to the streets riding a segway. We wheeled our way down the Rambla Nova (main thoroughfare) toward the Mediterranean, passing along the way the massive statue celebrating the Human Towers that the Santa Tecla festival is renowned for. We segwayed our way through the streets of the modern city and along the seashore, enjoying the warm sultry breezes and beautiful views, until circling back to the old town, we arrived in time to experience the never to be forgotten main event of the festival... the creation of the Human Towers.
Tarragona was captivating and I was sorry to leave before exploring all her many treasures. Well, there’s always a next time...
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