Choirs, culture and cracking food in Catalonia's Paradores
Two by two they trooped in, dressed in black robes and white surplices, the smallest leading. Forty odd cherubic choral schoolboys, aged between eight and 14, emerged through tall wooden doors to sing to a packed Basilica. Not just any boys choir, but the famed L'Escolania, based at a Benedictine monastery in Monserrat, the oldest music school in Europe and one of the many attractions of the area.
The boys are all locals, we were told, as their parents must be nearby to collect them from the school on Fridays and return with them for Sunday morning service. I was glad I had skipped the long queue to kiss the statue of the Black Virgin in order to get to hear them sing. Kiss one virgin, kiss 'em all, as they say.
Our time was limited and there was a Caravaggio and an early Picasso (painted when he was just 14) among other gems to be seen in the monastery's little known gallery, as well as a Catalonian luncheon feast in the nearby hostelry, Abat Cisneros.
Outside on the 1,236m mountain there were strangely shaped rock pillars and an art deco sculpture eagerly climbed by bravura boys; on a clear day you can see all the way to the Pyrenees.
Twenty-five monks were murdered in the monastery during the Spanish Civil War. The air is bracing.
We spent a few days experiencing the often overlooked cultural, historic and gastronomic delights that Catalonia can offer from the vantage point of Spain's famed Paradores (many within easy reach of Barcelona).
Paradores are state-owned Spanish hotels, many of them ancient castles, noble farmhouses, historic monasteries and stone fortresses – a wonderful combination of history and luxury at very reasonable prices and very popular with the Spanish themselves.
First port of call was the Castle of Cardona, a ninth Century citadel set atop a hill overlooking the river- valley Cardener. The Dukes of Cardona got their wealth from the nearby salt mountain.
A visit to a salt mine may not be top of your holiday "must-dos", but the Cardona Salt Mountain is a well-deserved tourist attraction; with sparkling caves of stalagmite salt deposits glistening in eerie, Narnian splendour, one would not be surprised to see the White Witch emerge from the shadows of its shimmering depths.
Men have died here, we were told, mining the white gold of its interior.
That night, a storm raged about the Cardona battlements, and from my cosy bed I thought of ghostly Adeles, the daughter of a Second Century Duke who was reputed to have been imprisoned in the tower when she fell in love with a Moor.
While the men fought, the women oversaw the building of churches. The nearby 11th-Century Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres is a renovated building worthy of an Umberto Eco mystery.
Our guide told us that a baby born to the Cardona-Osona household spoke when three days old, only to prophesise his death at 30 days. His body was to be put on a mule, he said, and where it stopped a monastery was to be built to St Peter.
In times of drought, the 12 noble monks who worshipped in the Romanesque church would take his mummified body and submerge it in the surrounding river Ter. Christianity is never far from its pagan roots.
Our next Parador was the beautiful Vic-Sau, a former Catalan farmhouse set high above a lake and surrounded by forested valleys. Our staunchly Catalan guide took us through the Episcopal museum in the ancient town of Vic, with its impressive display of Romanesque and Gothic Catalan art.
From there we headed off to gaze at the cornucopia of Gothic, neo-Classical and Romanesque architectural styles contained within the nearby 11th Century cathedral. After exposure to so much history, so many artefacts and stories of honour, death and destruction, the incensed warmth of the brown and gold-hued cathedral was a welcome sanctuary.
But one can't live on culture alone and a trip to nearby delicatessen Ca La Teresona had us donning white hats and fetching plastic gowns in order to try our hands at preparing sausages – a Vic delicacy.
Much hilarity and smutty double entendres followed before we settled down to sample sausages prepared earlier with a much needed glass or two of local vino.
Our third and last Parador was the dramatic Aiguablava, built on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, where we were delighted to be fussed over by the lovely Diego. Nearby sights included the incredible Theatre-Museum Dali at Figueres. The genius of Dali's surrealist mind was, from the Mae West room to the 3D pictures, quite bluntly, brilliantly bonkers.
In Begur, rich returnees from Cuba were strangely dubbed "Indians". They built themselves homes that bragged of their cigar and rum money. We house-viewed an old colonial mansion; peeling blue murals, a damp, dusty wine cellar, a grand piano in a ghostly ballroom with faded drapes – a snip at €5m.
Over in the beautiful Roman city of Girona, we stood in the middle of its great 14th Century cathedral (90 steps up, we counted!) and tried to think who the Irish artist was who had donated a stained-glass window.
Even though we had seen one of his pieces in Montserrat just a few days earlier we didn't, I'm ashamed to say, cop on that it was Sean Scully (I googled it later).
Exiting to torrential rain we headed to the Jewish quarter of the city; a dense quagmire of atmospheric lanes and tunnels straight out of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter – except built quite a few centuries earlier.
And, oh, the food! I'm salivating just thinking of it. All the Paradores serve hearty yet exquisite Catalan dinners. And breakfast tapas, who knew such delights existed? In the Aiguablava Parador, local fare included anchovies from L'Escala and grilled prawns from Palamos.
In Palamos itself, we learned how to make vermicelli and fisherman's stew, as well as Crema Catalan – taught to us by chef Lluis, late of the famous El Bulli restaurant.
Vic's historic Cal'U restaurant served the best dressed trout I have ever – and probably will ever – taste. But of all these gastronomical delights, the one we agreed we would fly back especially for was, as it so often goes, the one we least expected.
In the heart of the natural park of the Garroxta's volcanic zone hides the tiny medieval village of Santa Pau. Three hundred souls live here, and as we arrived, preparations were being made for the annual Christmas nativity scene.
On both Christmas and St Stephen's Day, all the inhabitants of the town perform a living crib and thousands of spectators come to watch the festivities.
We lunched in the tiny, atmospheric Cal Sastre restaurant, and tried their traditional bean dish and their award-winning cannelloni stuffed duck with truffle cream sauce.
How to describe the best thing I have ever eaten? I won't even attempt it, but will instead advise you to get on a plane and try it for yourself!
To book any Spanish Parador or get the best expert advice on them, contact MAP Travel on 01-8783111, www.maptravel.ie
To book sausage-making parties: www.calateresona.com
To try the cannelloni stuffed duck of the Gods, visit www.calsastre.com
Cooking lessons in Palamos at www.espaidelpeix.org /index.php/en.html.
Aer Lingus fly to Barcelona daily. www.aerlingus.com