Priorat: Spain's new Tuscany?
Most people have heard of Penedes and La Rioja, but the word is the next place on Spain's wine tourism trail will be Priorat. Graham Keeley visits this mountainous region south of Barcelona known as the 'new Tuscany'.
The breathtaking Priorat mountains
Turn off the motorway at Reus, birthplace of Antoni Gaudi, begin your climb into the Priorat and you are very soon in a different world.
As the car slowly winds round what seem like endless bends and the gears remain very low, the mountains appear before you in all their rugged splendour.
We timed it right, arriving in the early evening as the sun was beginning to dip; it was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road, instead of simply gazing out across the Priorat range.
It could have been in the dramatic mountains of Tuscany and in some ways the two are very similar, inhabited by that increasingly common breed, the 'cultural tourist', in search of history, beautiful countryside, great food and wine and an escape route from the hordes.
Priorat still has a long way to catch-up with Tuscany, but already the tell-tale signs are there; at least two famous names are moving here; French actor Gerard Depardieu is rumoured to have snapped up a large portion of land, as has Juan Manuel Serrat, the nearest thing Spain has to Bob Dylan.
Priorat has long been known for its strong, rich — and expensive — wine, which have long been popular in the United States.
The slate earth and the hot, sultry mountains are what gives the wine that extra strength. So, instead of an alcohol content of 12 or 13 percent, expect at least 14.
To soften the blow, the bodegas have diluted the grapes with other varieties to give it a richer taste.
But aside from the wine, what is new about Priorat is this backward, isolated area, is finally opening up to tourism.
The owners of the wineries have at last got their acts together, organising walking tours through the mountains between each winery, through the Montsant Natural Park or organising deals with the small band of excellent local 'rural houses' or hotels to you and I.
So you can enjoy a 'tasting' at each bodega on your wine tour, which makes trudging across the arid hillside a more civilised experience.
One winemaker, Buil y Gine, also launched their new winery with an exhibition of sculptures by Lorenzo Quinn, son of the Hollywood star Anthony.
Quinn junior lives in nearby Sitges and is widely known in Spain. One of his works was famously blessed by the last pope.
The 12th Century Scala Dei Priory
The winery also organises trips to the 12th Century Priory of Scala Dei, the 1st Carthusian order in Spain.
Apart from the beauty of the Montsant natural park, there is the Moorish castle and Romanesque church at Siruana.
History buffs with an interest in the Spanish Civil War can visit the sites of the Battle of the River Ebro, one of the most important and decisive of the war.
Hardy British veterans from the International Brigades, who travelled to fight for the doomed Republican side, return each year to visit the places where, as young men, they survived the bullets of General Francisco Franco's army.
There is also a cave which doubled as a field hospital during the war for the Republican side.
British writer Angela Jackson's book 'Beyond The Battlefields' on the hospital and the role of women during the Spanish Civil War is to be published this year.
Until now the lack of decent hotels or places to eat — the lifeblood of modern tourism — had stopped all but the toughest from coming here.
Not any more.
We stayed at the charming Hostal Antic in Poboleda, a minute hamlet tucked away with vine groves everywhere you looked.
There were only three other guests in this splendid old country house, which was a shame; it should have been full, such was the sheer charm of the place.
Lazing around the pool in the garden behind on our own, we really did have the place to ourselves. The best thing about it is the Hostal Antic has only recently been converted into a hotel so still has that homely feel about it.
The food was excellent and imaginative. As for the wine, Priorat really does have to breath, for at least ten minutes otherwise it will taste a touch acidic.
But your patience is rewarded; it is a rich, smooth delight.
A meal for two with wine was EUR 66, a touch pricey, perhaps, but worth a treat. Double rooms start at EUR 82.
Another charming hotel which is highly recommended is Mothers Garden, near Falset, run by British journalist Martin Kirby and his family.
This working farm-come-hotel, featured in the television programme 'No Going Back' on Channel Four in Britain, about people moving to another country and has been made into a book which has been published in a number of countries.
For breathtaking views, though, you might like to try Hostal Siruana, perched on top of the mountains overlooking the Priorat region.
As for places to eat, for something completely different try dining at Lo Teatret, the converted theatre, in the village of Porrera. As you tuck into the rich dishes, you half expect the curtain to go up and the play to start.
Another place which is highly recommended is Irreductibles in the village of Gratallops.
There are already two tour operators running trips to the area, but Priorat is really such a charming, unspoilt area, you might prefer to explore it yourself.
Buil y Gine www.builgine.com
Ryan Air to Reus www.ryanair.com
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