A Taste of Penedès

Catching the train to Vilafranca couldn’t be easier. You get on at Placa Catalunya. There are only two platforms and number two takes you south on the Vilafranca/Sant Vincens route. The 50 minute journey takes you past the gardens of Sant Feliu, el pont del Diablo at Matorell and the villas of Gelida before the vineyards begin. The view remains that of vineyards and the brighter side of Montserrat for the rest of the day. Vilafranca station is much as it was 200 years ago with a classic square as you emerge. The Station sits elevated above the tracks with the warehouses of legendary wine barons and wholesalers opposite.

Our guide, the ever cheerful Felix Miret and our bicycles are waiting outside Tanins wine shop, right beside the Station. We dump backpacks in the backup car before heading off. Felix is a native of Vilafranca and carefully steers us away from the station and into the heart of Vilafranca. This is a solid merchant town and thankfully the multinational lookalike shops are far away. Proper third and fourth generation shopkeepers with lots of 50s and 60s shop fronts and displays. Socks as they were originally meant to be displayed. Dark and detailed tobacconists.. We follow the pedestrianised streets to the Placa del Ajuntament where there’s a farmers market around the fountain, on Saturdays its standing room only. We dodge down a small street of tailors, cutlerers and household materials and come out into a small placa beside the tower of the Basilica de Santa Maria and then into the larger Placa with the wine Museum is situated opposite the gothic portal of the cathedral.
The wine museum is a great success. We get a clear picture of the thousand year old tradition of Penedès leading back to before Romans and Felix has lots of stories to keep us going. We are rewarded for our newly acquired knowledge with an excellent glass of wine and are soon to discover that wherever we go in Vilafranca or Penedès there will be no shortage of the white, rose, red and sparkling wine.

Outside its warm and the skies are blue. It’s sunglasses and a ride into the country time. We pass the elegant Placa del Oli with its curved terraced houses, hang a left and free wheel down the street and out into the country. We’re immediately surrounded by vineyards as we head for the gap in the hill between us and Pacs del Penedès. First there’s a visit to La Xarmada winery, this small family winery run by Albert and Francesc de Sangenís-Llivi i Perelló is famous for their Syrah wines but also as the first producers of Kosher wines in Penedès. After a visit and wine-tasting the car comes in handy as purchases disappear into the boot.

At one time the unique round placa of Pacs was completely enclosed with a narrow passageway as the only entrance. Cal Batlle, the noblest of the houses dates from the 16th century but there are one or two magic corners which step back into mediaeval times including one abandoned building that would make a drop dead gorgeous restoration project.

The call of the vineyards and wine again so, we cross the main road for the short ride to Bodegas Torres who know a thing or two about wines and visits, both of which they do to perfection. On this occasion they had us tasting three different wines, their white, rose and Coronas Red, a wine which along with its brother Sangre de Toro has a solid reputation from the top to the bottom of the planet. The large boutique avoids mass merchandising. There’s a good selection of wine and food related literature plus all the Torres wines, from Chile, California and Penedès. Best buy is Marimar Torres' book on the Catalan kitchen.

You would think with all this wine people would have forgotten about food but it’s going on for 2 o’clock and time to cycle the easy and scenic couple of kilometres back to Vilafranca for lunch at Cal Figerot, the home of world champions, the Castellers of Vilafranca. Felix is totally at home here and after lunch there are castles to be built.
By now an expert at handling everything from school groups to German weddings Felix takes us to the gardens and workshop where the "Verds" practice and introduces us to the layout of structures that support pillars and towers. The Pinas, folres, manillas, de tres, quatre i cinc... In no time we are conversant in Catalan and its deepest mysteries and without endangering a hair of anyones head we are making castells too. OK, there were only ten of us but if there were more we could have been on our way to the world championships in Tarragona. Go and see some Castells this summer, the season has only just begun.

After taking us up to such heights its hard to imagine what Felix has in store for us next. He leads us back into old Vila by a route that takes us down the recently restored and pedestrianised Placa Constitucio, a street of high buildings with shops and footpath under the cool arches. I love urban renewal and the energy and opportunity it creates. Dwellings that are beautiful to look at but equally delightful and vital to live in. I lived at the top of one of the very few houses left standing on the south side of the Liffey in Dublin. It had the most amazing view of the river and the Four Courts on the opposite bank.

This time enter the Placa Santa Maria with the Cathedral sitting as it does at a wonderful 45 degree angle to all around it. Felix has the keys to the bell tower so we park bikes and start to climb. Every thirty steps or so there is a scratch or blemish on the stone, some left over structure or change of material and Felix knows all the stories.
The clock room is connected to the Cathedral in Paris so we know we’re ringing the same time as the Institute Pasteur. Finally our efforts and panting is rewarded and with a rush of fresh air we come out on the terrace above the hand made tiled roofs of the town. Alt Penedès, Montserrat and the Garraf are spread out before us, a cork pops and from nowhere a glass of cava appears. This time we raise our glasses to Penedes, its fertility and variety, its wines and of course Felix Miret. Strange how a whole day can rush past and soon we are back at the Placa del Estacio and Tanins wine bar and shop. Surprise, surprise there’s a final tasting of varietal red wines, led by Paddy Mannion. Tanins organise English winetastings of Catalan and Spanish wine regions on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. There’s a very nice area for drinking and tapas, a large sunny patio/exhibition area and an excellently stocked shop where I pick up a bottle of Can Bonastre Merlot and some Nadal Cava. As we gather our bags and bottles, say our goodbyes and cross over to the station, the phrase on some better quality bottles comes to mind... drink with moderation...

Mandy Lee Deal
[email protected]
A taste of Penedes bike tour was organised by:
El Moli Bike Tours, Penedes, [email protected], 93 897 22 07