Now don’t get me wrong, Barcelona is such a vibrant, engaging and enthralling city, that a weekend will more than do its streets and monuments justice. (Here is a Guide to a blister-free Barcelona trip.) Although there is always so much more to a city than just within its walls. Peek outside of her boundaries and you will find many more highlights.
We certainly found this to be true of the Barcelona Province as we stepped out into the further reaches of her kingdom. Two areas in particular made our trip to this region memorable; the Monastery of Monserrat to the west and the quaint seaside village of Sitges to the south. Both so different and yet equally captivating to the curious and eager tourist and travelling explorer.
In deep contrast to the hubbub of Barcelona and with only 40 minutes driving west of the city, you start to feel cleansed. As you navigate the spaghetti motorway links leaving the metropolis behind, the mountains sit on the horizon, beckoning you to their own natural version of a tourist hot-spot. Mother Nature has carved her own architectural monuments that will have you gasping and wondering how on earth such amazing formations have been crafted. Surely geology was not the only artistic hand?
1. The Monastery at Monserrat is a must-see diversion from your city tour as it offers such a contrast to the sometimes claustrophobic composition of avenues and four-storey buildings. High in the Monserrat mountains, which is Spain’s first National Park and pride of Catalan, whether you are sporty, love nature or are spiritual, this whole area will certainly appeal. ‘Monserrat’ is translated as ‘the serrated mountain’ and is unique in this area, as it reaches up from the river below with its limestone outcrops and boulders.
The monastery, albeit not in its current form, dates back to 880AD, where children are said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary and after showing their parents what they had seen, the area became a religious sanctuary. Today many people make the pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna, which is the patron saint of Catalan, whilst the rest of us mere mortals explore this area for the beauty of the architecture, to seek sanctuary or just breathe in the peace that this hidden monastery harbours, tucked away in the bosom of its limestone domain.
There are a couple of car parks on the main road at the base of the mountains, that offer you a chance to trek, cable car or take the train to this wonderful spiritual retreat. We chose to take the train and for €9.90 out of season, you meander gracefully up the mountain side to reach the eagle’s nest.
Even if you have seen pictures of the monastery in your Guide Book, nothing will prepare you for the breathtaking vision in front of you. A stunningly restored building that offers peace and tranquility for visitors who wish to soak up the atmosphere, beyond the throng of day-trippers looking to experience the choir at 13hr each day. (Some Guides say the choir begins at 12.00, although when we arrived, the chapel was full for a Mass at 13hr. So you may need to contact the monastery for confirmation if this is something you would like to experience.
In a dedicated ante-room off the Chapel’s courtyard, hundreds of candles burn in memory of loved ones, and for €2 you too can show your respect by lighting your own candle; and whether you are religious or not, this has a deeply profound effect on you. In fact the whole place, despite the crowds, has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it. As a venue, it commands humility and demands you to be still.
After a walk around the monastery and perhaps the artisan market, which seems to only sell bee products and cheese, you may be sorely tempted by the many vistas and pathways perched way above you. These walking routes have been made accessible by either the Sant Joan funicular or the cable car. We chose the vertical funicular that ascends the mountain with dexterity and precision. As you journey upwards, you get a bird’s eye view of the monastery and surrounding area. For €12.50 return, you feel like a child getting into a fun-fare ride, excited and a little scared as you hold onto the railings and feel the lift of the tram as it climbs steadily up the mountain. After 10 minutes of stunning, camera clicking views, you arrive at the top. If you thought you were impressed at the bottom, you wait until you reach this pinnacle of beauty. You really feel like you are on top of the world. Fingers and boulders of limestone rise from the earth like a phoenix from the flames, stretching up to the sky. Chapels and hermitages are sprinkled around every corner and caves are built into the rock face, revealing a history of mountain people dating back hundreds of years. What a contrast to city life.
I defy you not to be moved by the stillness up in the mountains. The crowds have gone, just serious walkers, nature-lovers and rock climbers come here. So there is no sharing to be done – you have your own little slice of heaven. Here it is only the wind that talks, the foliage that moves and the skyline that provides your movie background. If you’re feeling energetic, take the walk back down to the Monastery and be rewarded, beyond sore knees by the ever-changing vistas and casting shadows around each corner. It’s a good 3.5km walk, although worth the stress on the knees to see this Monserrat kingdom in all its glory.
Take a picnic, take your camera and be prepared to be offered a sanctuary that goes beyond just the magnificent monastic architecture. Religion, contemplation and prayer have been blended seamlessly into Mother Nature’s realm to create a spiritual sanctuary that offers everyone, from every belief, a chance to breathe clean air, still their racing heart and, for a short moment, be very present in this magnificent province of Barcelona. You will not be disappointed.
2. Sitges, via the road-less travelled. Barcelona will impress you with her cultural offerings and diversity although to experience the true essence of Catalonia you must also see the contrast that Sitges offers.
The Catalan coastline is simply stunning. As part of the Costa Brava, this craggy seafront delights with its clifftop views, road hugging highway, harbours and beaches. One of these examples is only 20km south of Barcelona – Sitges. Unlike some other resorts that have high-rise buildings blocking out the sun or wall-to-wall ‘Kiss me Quick’ hats more at home in the southern provinces, Sitges has a classy feel to it.
Your Sitges experience begins well before entering the town’s boundaries. Leaving Barcelona, it would be tempting to blast down the motorway, reaching your destination in super quick time. Although we recommend you avoid this traditional, ‘let’s get there fast’ mindset of the modern world. Instead take the Road Less Travelled, which you can find just outside Castelldefels – C-31. This coastal road will weave you up, down and around the craggy coastline, giving you beautiful glimpses of the Parc del Garraf on your right and the sparkling Mediterranean sea on your left. Little harbours and marinas dot the route, which is only 13km long, although so worth the rollercoaster ride. It will impress and prepares you for this intriguing seaside town. With the marina one end and the golf course the other, in a very short time you will sense Sitges’ unique persona. Quaint, charming and appealing in so many ways. The promenade takes you past the Parròquia de Sant Bartomeu church with its sandy coloured walls and imposing tower, along the seafront of classic looking buildings, restaurants one side and windsurfers looking to master the waves on the other. Sadly the tacky-tacky men make their appearance, although we are still in tourist heaven for them, so it just goes with the territory. At least they don’t hassle you for a sale.
Deviating from the salty seafront, you will be intrigued by the network of alleyways that ooze gorgeousness, presenting classy boutiques, many of them focused on the male population, interestingly and somewhat disappointingly for the female shopper. Although do not despair there are a couple of lovely shops that you just don’t expect in Spanish towns where you can purchase unique items for your awaiting family back home. Now these alleyways aren’t just full of shops; look skywards and you will see the pretty style fishing cottages, decorated in white and blue, with balconies full of plants and flowers. It just creates a really warm feeling inside.
Sitges deserves your adoration and your time. Have coffee, a beer or a frozen yoghurt whilst you watch the world sail or walk by, soaking up the atmosphere and character that this sultry corner of Catalan offers you. Wander around the shops, walk the Promenade and take time to look up and see the detail of the arty buildings that make this place their home. You will be charmed by the inner-sanctum of Sitges and the personality that oozes from every street.
So Barcelona and her Province are well worth the time to explore. Put it on your list, make the time to indulge yourself in the treats that she offers and you will leave the area feeling like you’ve done more than just a city-break – you will have experienced just a little bit of authentic Catalan countryside. Adiós. Kx