Thursday 15 November 2018

Barcelona: Hot on the heels of Wilfred the Hairy

 

The cathedral in the centre of Manresa, Catalonia
The cathedral in the centre of Manresa, Catalonia
A statue of Oliba, bishop of Vic

David Blake Knox

We flew from Dublin on a Vueling flight to El Prat airport, just outside the Catalan capital of Barcelona. I have visited that wonderful city many times, but this was to be the first occasion I had ventured into the surrounding countryside.

We travelled north east by bus from the airport for about an hour before reaching the Seminaria Hotel near the historic town of Vic.

As its name suggests, it was once a seminary for Benedictine monks. From the outside, the building looked rather foreboding and there is a vast, echoing reception area. However, my doubts disappeared on viewing our rooms. They had once been cells, occupied by novice monks, and they retained some of the character of their previous role. The spartan design now worked to their advantage - the rooms seemed fashionably minimalist and contemporary. In fact, they provided the sort of accommodation that I like: a soft bed, a complete lack of fuss in the decoration, pitch darkness when the lights were turned off, and a great power shower to wake me up properly the next morning.

Our arrival had been delayed due to the very late appearance of our luggage at the airport, but we were just in time to order some food before the hotel restaurant closed - a blessing, as by then I was extremely hungry. I started with some fresh pasta, served with a mushroom sauce. This was followed by a traditional Catalan dish: confit of duck with pears and cauliflower. After that, I tried another traditional dish: crema cremada - which was very similar to a regular creme brulee.

A statue of Oliba, bishop of Vic
A statue of Oliba, bishop of Vic

This part of Catalonia is well-known for the excellence of its gastronomy, and our dinner that night lived up to the reputation. Our menu had been written in Catalan, which reminded me of the controversies that have dominated recent politics in this part of the Iberian Peninsula.

We were up early on our first morning. The sky was overcast, but that seemed a good time to visit the monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, which was built in the 12th Century. This monastery is located on the tip of a finger of steep and rocky land that overlooks a winding river. According to local legend, this Benedictine foundation was built around the body of a holy child who had predicted his own death when he was just three days old. In times of drought, the child's mummified remains were carried by the monks down to the river and immersed in its waters - which may or may not have proved effective.

There were never more than a dozen or so monks who lived here, and by the 15th century, they had all moved on. In 1991, the local council acquired the buildings and restored them with tact and restraint. Today, the monastery provides a terrific exhibition - including the Chapter House, the Refectory and the Scriptorium - that allows us to imagine the sort of life that monks followed there almost a thousand years ago.

Later that afternoon, we drove to Vic, the capital of this Catalan county. Vic was once at the centre of intermittent warfare between Christian and Islamic forces, and the city was entirely destroyed during one Muslim incursion. However, it was rebuilt by the Count of Barcelona, the delightfully named Wilfred the Hairy, and retains much of its original medieval character; with narrow, twisting streets, and houses and shops seeming to jostle each other for space.

Vic is a centre of Catalan nationalism, and has played a leading role in the campaign for political independence. Many of the town's trees were festooned with yellow ribbons to indicate support for that campaign. Red and yellow Catalan flags hung from many houses along with posters demanding the release of Catalan politicians from Spanish jails.

On Saturdays, the central square of this lively bustling town is filled with stalls selling local produce, including the thin cured sausages for which the region is famous. Another square is home to the Catedral de Sant Pere. The murals in the central nave of this impressive church were painted by celebrated artist Josep Maria Sert, and they took him almost 30 years to complete. When his original work was destroyed during the Spanish civil war, Sert was commissioned to paint the walls again - but the murals were very different the second time round. Still painted in his extravagantly Baroque style, but the mood had grown distinctly sombre. Many of Sert's enormous murals appear to have been painted in monochrome, but this is offset by some dramatic flashes of scarlet and gold, and the overall impact is intense and very powerful.

Our hotel that night was more conventional than the Seminaria, but was also extremely comfortable and well-appointed, with another excellent restaurant. The Hotel Mon Sant Benet is located a few hundred metres from what was once another Benedictine foundation. This Romanesque monastery was reputed to hold some of the remains of Saint Valentine, and was a place of medieval pilgrimage. The monastic community managed to survive there until the 19th century. Then, in 1835, all religious orders in Spain were required to surrender their possessions to the State. The monastery was attacked and sacked by local villagers, and the few remaining monks fled or were killed.

This turbulent history was recounted in an film we were shown inside the ancient chapel, which included a remarkable hologram of a former bishop celebrating Mass.

In the early 20th century, the crumbling structure of the old monastery was acquired by the wealthy family of the artist Ramon Casas, and the buildings were restored by the architect Puig i Cadafalch. Nowadays, it is possible to visit the beautiful medieval chapel and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the monastery's cloisters. The former living quarters of the Casas family are also open to the public.

There is also an extensive collection of Casas's work, covering the full range of his talent. It reveals his skills not only as a society portraitist, but also as a painter of vivid crowd scenes, and the designer of eye-catching posters and postcards.

The next day, we travelled to the city of Manresa, which is sometimes known as the "heart of Catalonia". A centre of modern industrial development, Manresa has also retained many architectural features from the medieval period. The town also has a special religious significance. St Ignatius of Loyola once lived in a nearby cave (the way saints do), and it was apparently in this cave that he received the inspiration to write his Spiritual Exercises, which led to the founding of the Jesuit Order.

It seems that, while he was in the town, Ignatius also managed to resurrect a dead chicken that had fallen into a well. It may not be one of his major miracles, but it is still commemorated in Manresa by a ceramic wall plaque.

We had an excellent lunch that day in the Kursaal restaurant in the centre of Manresa. The restaurant prides itself on its use of local products and seasonal vegetables, and its menu includes local specialities such as pork cheeks stewed with figs. We were served by the owner of the restaurant, who explained the provenance of each course before it was served, and also recommended which wine would be the best accompaniment for each dish.

The next morning, we had an opportunity to visit the Abadal winery, one of the best known vineyards in this part of Catalonia. We discovered that the same family has been making wine in this vineyard since 1199, and, as we walked through the buildings, we could see how the family business had developed from using ancient oak barrels to modern steel vats. Nowadays, Abadal produces three whites, five reds, and one rose wine - most of which I sampled, and all of which I can recommend.

The following morning, we headed back to the airport for our return flight. The past few days had been, in more ways than one, a flying visit. But they had convinced me that there is a good deal more to the Barcelona region that the city of that name.

Getting there

You’ll find all you need for a wonderful trip to Catalonia at

* www.barcelonaismuchmore.com

* www.spain.info

* www.catalunya.com

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