Tucked in the folds of the Albera mountain range in a valley which is now part of the natural park, Sant Quirze is one of the oldest monasteries on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. The remains of the original 9th century church were incorporated in the Romanesque basilica built in the10th and 11th centuries, and some frescoes are visible in the nave although in poor condition.
Since the monastery had been closed to the public for most of the last decade for restoration, I had high expectations. Unfortunately they were dashed by a combination of unfinished work and a lack of explanation on what had been one of the most important monasteries for some 500 years in the Middle Ages.
Its strategic location, on one of the main routes across the mountains into Spain, meant that it was regularly overrun by hungry French soldiers who were happy to take anything they could carry, especially if it was gold or silver. By the 16th century it was no more than a ruin and was ceded to one of the local farming families that used it to shelter their livestock.
The area is beautiful, if stark, and cows still wander the valley with bells around their necks. Small fast- running streams come down from the mountains which are covered in an almost impenetrable thick gorse. This is a great place for walking and cycling and there are numerous marked paths that lead here from the coast at Colera and continue inland to Rabós and Espolla as well as the Coll de Banyuls and France.
Montserrat is only some 50kms from Barcelona and yet feels like a different world. Forget the Ramblas and Mediterranean casual seaside lethargy, this is a combination of the Grand Canyon crossed with Saint Marks Square and it is amazing!
There is a choice of three ways to ascend this strange landscape from below; by a modern funicular, by cable car or by road but the religious types may even consider walking depending on how penitent they feel.
For non-believers there are some great hikes around some incredible basalt rock formations with views of deep ravines and small villages below.
The real action is back at the Monastery where there are plenty of chances to save your soul in the Chapel, visit the Black Madonna, light a candle for a loved one, visit one of the best art collections of mainly Catalan artists or sit and watch the hordes of people from all over the world milling around.
A great day out will be had by all, nature overwhelms religion, but what a combination!
Image via WikipediaThis tour goes to one of the most beautiful parts of the Empordà region, the Sant Pere de Rodes monastery and surrounding Cap de Creus natural park. When starting from Girona you need to allow at least an hour’s travel time. I always go through the small village of Villajuïga and stop to fill up my water bottle with the mineral water available at the tap next to the entrance to the bottling plant where the well is located. This is a water rich in minerals and one of the few that come out of the ground with a little natural carbonation which is nice and refreshing without producing the aggressive bubbles of gas added mineral waters.
From here we enter the Cap de Creus natural park and wind our way up the hill through the olive trees and then cork oaks and meditterranean pines and heavy gorse and broome (called ginesta in Catalan.) The area suffered a very big fire in 2000 which destroyed most of the pine trees while the cork oaks with their thick protective layer of cork survived even though they are still black and sooty on the outside which shows the hardiness of this local species.
From the top not only do we have spectacular views of the coast, the Bay of Roses and Pyrenees but also the famous 10th century monastery, Sant Pere de Rodes, set in a commanding position where they could survey the terraces where the grapes and olives made them one of the wealthiest landowners in Catalunya for nearly 500 years. By the early part of the 20th century a combination of phylloxera which wiped out the vines and a shortage of labour from migration to tend the very steep terraces meant the whole area went into dramatic decline until the tourists arrived to bring new life and income to the remaining people.
Several of the benefits that the fires produced was to reveal the old terraces on the steep slopes as well as acting as a renovating and revitalizing force for new plant growth throughout the park.
Coming down the other side towards Port de la Selva, making sure to watch out for the many cyclists that use this road for training, especially in the spring when all the wild flowers are out and seeing the sparkling sea get closer is a joy. Time to head into this charming fishing village for lunch sitting outside and tasting some of the fresh fish which the fishermen bring in each day.