You’ll already be well aware of Barcelona; Catalonia’s cool and trendy capital where Gothic mazes lead you to hole-in-the-wall tapas restaurants, sweet sangria, kooky architecture and hidden bars…  and with over 7 million tourists heading to Barcelona every year, it’s high time to venture out and see some of the stunning countryside that wraps the city edges.

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So hire a car and get out on the road. Take off on a road trip along the Cistercian Route through Catalonia to see a quiet, beautiful countryside where community rules, wineries are bountiful and old monasteries stand tall in sleepy villages. Cruise the winding roads along a backdrop of craggy mountains, zip past neat vineyards, walk slow through walled cities, and hike ancient paths to hidden churches deep in the countryside. A road trip is the best way to explore Catalonia – what are you waiting for? Make a Catalonia Bucket List from the below must-see places, and let’s go!

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8 must-see places on a road trip through Catalonia

1. Explore the walled city of Montblanc:

Take off along winding roads to get to the medieval city of Montblanc. Curl around mountains and overlook the small town, shrouded in morning mist with the turrets of its encircling walls poking through. With 30 towers sprinkled along the walls, this town was booming in the 13th century. To protect from invasions, these beautiful walls were maintained and kept throughout the years with watchers looking out for enemies around the clock.

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These days, the cobbled streets are brilliantly preserved and quaint to wander through whilst looking up at the tall walls. Climb the towers and look out over the rooftops to Santa Maria, a majestic church, and San Miquel’s rickety bell tower. Pop into Montblanc on 23rd April for the Saint Jordi (Saint George) festival, as this is rumoured to have been the place where Saint George slayed the dragon. The town comes alive with festivities in celebration of the legend – this old neighbourhood has a community with a whole lot of heart.

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2. Hike La Ruta del Cister (The Cistercian Route)

Everyone loves to have a good walk to get the blood pumping, fill the lungs with fresh air and see some incredible sights. Leave your car behind in Montblanc and stride out onto the Cistercian Route. You can walk the hefty distance of 105 km (no surprise that it’s the largest European network of paths) to be swept past the three most beautiful Cistercian Order monasteries in Catalonia.

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Now I’m not the fittest gal, but a great walk gives me a good excuse to dig into some mighty portions of Catalan grub… I did the 10 km stretch, starting from Montblanc towards Poblet. Start early in the morning and pick your way up steep woodland slopes, peering into eerie mist that masks the pine trees, turning them into ominous shapes. As you break above the clouds at the top of the mountain, teeter on the sheer cliff drop and look out across expansive lands. Sit and gaze for a while at the abandoned church, Sant Joan de la Muntanya, before continuing on to the next town – or return to the starting point.

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3. Eat on top of a mountain

As mentioned above, one motivation to do a big hike is to justify a binge on tons of fantastic Catalan food! Be prepared for fresh Mediterranean produce on the menus: fresh tomato, garlic, pungent olive oil, broad beans, zingy spring onion, succulent salami, anchovies and cuttlefish. If you love these ingredients, you’ll rarely encounter something you don’t like here.

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Have lunch with a view – wind up a steep mountainside to Restaurant Lo Mirador de Forès in Tarragona. Set in the teeniest ‘village’ with only a population of twelve, this strange alpine cafe holds some seriously inventive dishes and wildly delicious flavours. The abandoned mountain top upon which it sits has views that stretch hundreds of miles out to sea, but not a soul wanders the terrace.

Enter the cafe and the kooky decor will immediately make you feel like you could be hidden in the bustling streets of Barcelona. Begin with pa amb tomàquet – tomato rubbed bread which beats any butter – and the delicacy, tempura de calcot, deep fried spring onion with Romesco sauce. Then dig into the ‘best croquettes in the world’ (the chef didn’t lie) fat with creamy potato and chicken. Meats from the land are next: Slow-roasted lamb that falls apart at a nudge matched with caramelised onions, and an unusual cauliflower and onion gratin showered in Cayenne pepper gets those fresh, regional veggies in. Loosen that belt for dessert – traditional Crema Catalana – a zesty version of a creme brûlée.  

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4. Visit the monasteries

Since this is the Cistercian Route, it would be a travesty if you didn’t pop into some of the impressive monasteries that pepper the landscape. There are a few to choose from, such as, Santos Creus Monastery (1168) which is one of the largest, best preserved structures with beautiful stone work… but for those who appreciate beautiful architecture, head to the World Heritage Site, Poblet Monastery, to be WOWed by grandeur.

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The largest on the route, Poblet is one of the two monasteries that still holds a community of monks who go about their business in hidden quarters. Wander the grounds and feel dwarfed by the beauty and history of the place. Peer at the pantheon of the kings of Catalonia and Aragon, and feel humbled in the cavernous church.



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5. The human towers: Castells in Valls 

You may not have heard of this age-old tradition, but to see a Castell (Catalan for ‘castle’) in action is something everyone should do when in Catalonia. Dating back to the 18th century, this small town called Valls hosted villagers who began building towers. The human structure began as part of a dance, but the dance soon got phased out and competitive tower-making became the focus.

Unfortunately, no competitions were afoot during my visit, but we managed to get into one of the castell rehearsals. A crowd of 100 are coordinated with fantastic organisation – the majority of participators form a large circular pattern, packed in tight with arms pushed towards the centre to provide a solid base for the climbers. Men and women begin climbing on top to form a standing circle, which then allows others to climb on their shoulders, ascending vertically to form a high tower – seeing is believing.

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An incredible sight of overwhelming skill, the castells in Valls really instil awe into onlookers.  The values, “strength, balance, courage and wisdom” all come into play and as the tower begins building, immediate silence descends on this crowd who were laughing and joking merely seconds ago. When the young children reach the top, nearly to the ceiling, everything stops. You could hear a pin drop as the tower stands tall and strong, swaying slightly from effort… five seconds later, they begin to dismantle themselves with symmetrical precision until the tower melts into a crowd of friends whose laughter fills the gymnasium.

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6. Art and food – TASTING MIRÓ

With the majority of Catalonia extremely rural with historic, age-old architecture, you would never suspect that a phenomenal art gallery full of the artwork of Miró would be lurking in the quiet village of Verdú.

Foodies and art lovers rejoice – Miró a la Taula is a four-level museum that showcases pieces of Miró’s work and work that he collaborated on with various artists over his career. Start at the top and work your way down through the gallery with food and wine matched with the visual treats. You’ll get walked through the collection and food which mimics the expressions on show. Walk through over twenty-five pieces, including pieces by Picasso, Dalí, Calder, Tàpies, Chillida, Plensa and Barceló!

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The collection will change according to what’s on show in the national museum in Barcelona, but the gastronomy will always be made up of local and sustainable produce prepared by one of Catalonia’s best chefs. Sign up to ‘taste Miró’ as minimum numbers are required, or simply wander the gallery for free from Wednesday to Friday, and every third Sunday of the month.

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7. Sip endless wine

You’re in wine country so it would be a travesty if you didn’t pop your head into a vinícola (winery).  When taking a road trip through Catalonia, you’ll pass endless vineyards that comb out to the horizon. Many vinícoles have their own unique way of processing the wine to keep the taste true to the region, and they swear they can taste the landscape with every sip. They seem to know exactly what the grapes have been through whilst growing on the vines…

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Vinícoles play a vital part in society here in Catalonia. When times of strife hit these regions, the community often banded together and created a cooperative to keep the wine industry going in their town. Since Catalan architecture is so damn good, they began to make insane wine cathedrals to house their processing. Visit the tight-knit community of Nulles and stop at Vinícola de Nulles for a tour of the cathedral and a tasting of their wine (red wine lovers will be heaven). Their grounds are stunning and you can enjoy a sunset experience out in the grounds for food, culture and merriment.

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Visit Wine Cellar L’olivera de Vallbona de les Monges for a tour of their wines and oils… although the main reason why this vinícola should be supported is for the good they’re doing in the community. It’s a social integration cooperative where the workers are predominantly people with various difficulties that are preventing them from finding work in the cities. The work provides mental and emotional therapy, helping them get into the workplace and learn skills.

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8. Lunch at a castle

So you’ve been exploring all this stunning architecture and art, and eating and drinking your way through the Cistercian Route… so why not continue. It would be rude not to! Head to Castell de Riudabella for sublime food and wine created on their grounds. You’re literally sitting in a piece of history as this grand castell has been in the same family since 1835.

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Built to protect the region from being pillaged and robbed by outlaws, it’s a grand building stocked full of antiques and terraces to capture that perfect view of rolling hills covered in thick tree canopies. Dine on sweet balsamic figs topped with anchovies, crunchy croquettes and roasted pork cooked for 15 hours in an authentic medieval oven. Again… loosen your belt and be prepared for flavoursome local produce that you simply can’t stop eating.

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So pack your bags and load up a car with your favourite pals and music. The Cistercian Route in Catalonia makes for a great road trip that’s rich in history, so be sure to travel slow – soak up all on offer, including as much delicious Catalan wine as you can!

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