Leaving the peaceful Delta L’Ebre behind, we headed away from the coast and back into the familiar comfort of the mountains. But before reaching our goal, we had a quick side visit to glimpse a portion of the city of Tarragona. We drove through the busy centre and found a narrow but workable space on the side of the road, then walked back along the busy road, passing some terraced parks, towards the historic centre.
We passed several Roman ruins, one that had been extended and repointed to offer a modern use. We walked through the tall, grand streets, with five or six storied façades on each side with wrought iron balconies framing the large windows. We reached the cathedral in a small central plaza where a few locals enjoyed coffee. We arrived next at the grand square at the Town Hall, lined both sides with recently pollarded trees and many shops and cafes; a space that we could imagine would be well used on sunnier days.
We passed through the original and formidable looking city walls, but the ramparts were closed for works at this time, so we couldn’t enjoy the view from them. We found a great viewing plaza at the end of a grand, wide street, with views looking out to sea where many ships waited patiently to be called into port. We then passed the remains of a Roman ampitheatre in a small park, another surprising addition to a city, to close our short loop.
It was a whistle-stop walking tour, just to get an initial impression of the city. As always we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of historical and architectural interest Tarragona held. We had almost passed it by, as many no doubt do, visiting only its big brothers Valencia and Barcelona. We were glad we took the time to stop; frankly, it deserved more than the passing glance we could offer.
Avinyonet and #ARTCAVA
We arrived in the carpark aire of the vineyard late afternoon, surprised to be the only motorhome there. After parking up, we went into the reception with the intention of booking a tour for the following day. Inside we met Ramon, one of the three partners in the #ARTCAVA venture, who suggested he could give us a quick tour and tasting session right now, and for free, rather than wait until the next day. We liked his idea very much.
We found out that the lower stone walls of the farmhouse were over 1000 years old, with additions and changes made at various periods over the following centuries. A reclaimed stone arch, possibly scavenged and added in 18th century, formed the opening between the animal quarter and the main house. In the rear gardens we saw the original, now ancient, olive tree traditionally planted at the inauguration of the farm, over 1000 years ago. It had been split by a lightning strike at some point but was now growing back together strongly, healing the wound, a process that could take another 200 years.
We saw a dug-out granary store positioned under the house, accessed by a hole in the floor. We learned that when filled with grain and sealed properly, the heat inside causes the still moist outside grain to attempt germination, which in turn absorbs oxygen. This creates a vacuum in the store, and the lack of air restricted the growth of any bacteria that could cause rot, allowing grain to be stored for anything up to 15 years.
Working animals were traditionally kept inside a room in the house, and we saw holes formed in the soft stone wall from the constant attention given to hanging salt licks. The bedrooms above the animals were prized, especially in winter, due to the heat given off by their large bodies. The house and the lands had a fascinating history, with the earliest extant written documents from the farm ledgers dating from 1521.
But enough of the history; let’s look at the present and future.
This region of Catalunya produces over 250 million bottles of cava annually, with one well known brand responsible for almost half of this, at 120 million bottles. In contrast, #ARTCAVA produce only 18000 bottles annually, the very smallest of micro-wineries.
Cava bottles have glass four times the thickness of that used in a typical wine bottle, to contain the internal pressure, over 100 psi, created during the second in-bottle fermentation stage. They can occasionally violently pop, like mini bombs, if the bottle glass has any imperfections. They use traditional methods, hand turning bottles over 21 days, turning a little each day to ensure all sugars are consumed. The dead yeast gathered in the neck is later removed with a -21 deg neck freeze and careful manual opening before re-corking each bottle, the very definition of a hands-on approach.
It is an artisan craft, yet, as Ramon explained, Catalans treat cava as an ‘everyday‘ drink, to be enjoyed alongside food at mealtimes, like any other wine. Bubbles don’t necessarily only mean special occasion, as the French would have us Brits believe, but are a matter of suitability and taste preference. We bought a few bottles to test this out for ourselves.
Away from the farmhouse we had a short local walk to some historic ruins, passing through expanses of recently trimmed back vineyards to see the local church. The next day we got up early and went for a finger-numbing cycle through the local vineyards. The distant jagged peaks of Monserrat sat on the horizon like an inverted saw, with the blue skies helping disguise the fact it was close to freezing. We were wrapped up well and soon warmed up when we found a few ascents. The cold crispness of the air made breathing a shock, but the air was fresh and clear and the views beautiful.
On previous cycles we’d passed through olive groves, then orange orchards, and this time in Cava country we enjoyed the gnarly, knotted stems of the grape vines, harshly cut back and leafless this December morning. They stood regimented, like rows of crosses in a large military graveyard, with small white flowers, probably a weed, growing prolifically between the rows.
A portion of the marked cycle route we found was classified as facil, but we didn’t agree. It was a designated off-road blue route, usually an easy category, but the recent rains had cut up portions of the track into deep grooves and the going was rough and difficult.
We were also very glad to have chosen wisely on the direction to follow the circular loop; we had a difficult, skiddy downhill of around 250m over a few kilometres, on large bouldered scree slopes that would have proved very difficult, if not impossible, to climb on our bikes. The return path was compacted gravel or, near the end, tarmac, making the steep climb back to the local villages easily manageable.
The day never really warmed up in the mountains, although in direct sun the radiated rays were very pleasant. The track was mostly in the shade through thin trees, and only the workout on the hills kept us warmed. We passed through several local villages before returning to our site at #ARTCAVA. It was only a 20km cycle in total, but allowed us to see a portion of the local countryside and feel like we had properly earned a glass of bubbles.