The Pilgrim Route

Two roads lead out of the south west corner of Penedès in the direction of Alt Camp and Santes Creus. The first and most travelled cuts its way up the Pontons Valley to the Town of the same name. Two kilometres from Torrelles de Foix there’s a sign on the left “Cami a Pla de Manlleu” ,and now I’m about to tell you of one of my favourite routes. First the road enters a collection of large old buildings, former mills. Then it starts to zig-zag upwards, and ,honestly, you wouldn’t want to be using pedal power. However, when things level out 1 km later, you will wish all your best friends and their 4 year old sons’ trikes and trainer wheels were with you. For the next 7 kilometres a gentle and beautiful valley draws you into the Mermellar mountains and down to Pla de Manlleu, followed by Aiguavives, Vila Rodona and Santes Creus. All together about 40 km of forest, valley and silence.
The river at Manlleu can be swum in, at least my gang jumped in and made it theirs. I doubt anyone else had explored the moulded limestone rocks and pools in years.
Mermellar itself is the stuff of one-horse town, but it is pretty and lost. Freddie an errant English gentleman has established himself as a wine farmer and his home is now a perfect rural retreat. I could swear the living room was transported from an old English country mansion with great spaces to spread out, rest and read.
Photo freddie's
In the small bar of the town you may be disturbing the rhythm of the easygoing drinking classes with children and screams for lollipops and crisps; they don’t make village bars like that anymore. There is another more prosperous establishment on the way out of town, but it feels like a converted 1980s garage by comparison. You may not notice it as the forest-lined road ahead invites. A further 10 minutes and there is a clearing. On the left a picture postcard mill complete with reservoir acting as duck pond, on the right a small town that seems to fade into the mountain. In a car you will miss it all. The lucky few to be taking their time will turn right at the sign for Aiguavives. Go deep into this small town and you see a sign for a restaurant “El Celler . Careful with the waiter as he could be having a bad day. He means no harm but has spent many years in these here mountains. Be nice and he will turn to gold along with the whole establishment/barn as it slowly unfolds. There are very few restaurants that try to teach an old dog new tricks. I can tell you that one of the most pleasant 3 hour experiences of my recent existence was spent here. To a background of Bebo and Cigala who I’d never heard or witnessed before, and with a stomach already protruding mischievously after 3 straight days of consumption, I increased the original order of calçots for three at least twice. The calçots were startlingly sweet and fresh, I would normally never wear a bib, but what the hell. On a call to nature I passed a deliciously smelling and steaming tureen of escudella destined for another table and immediately ordered one. Take one lame cyclist, expose to 8 km of leg turning at an agreeable angle in somewhat cooler than cool weather, add an escudella of this type, and you get tears. Our starters arrived on large attractive plates, each of which would have done nicely between three people. Esqueixada is a lettuce and torn/ripped cod salad and xato turns up the intensity with the addition of tuna, anchovies, black olives and is dribbled with romesco sauce. The lettuce is traditionally escarole. My esqueixada was so big I got a little bored and started invading the xato; the additional variety of this dish creates a crescendo of flavours I can pronounce as excellent. My unfeedable children wolfed their macaroons, greasy dark bits and all. By this time we had two more waiters, the friendly Nuri and Chef, Juan Puig, who discussed and served our wines at length, a Gran Raurell was followed by an even better Raurell Merlot from Llopart Pons of el Pla de Penedès. Juan was at first names terms with all the wines on his compact but excellent list of Penedès wines, all my heroes were there.
My Galtes de Porc were cooked to a touch but Mandy expired from exhaustion halfway through her butterlike steak, the roquefort sauce was a bit on the strong side and ruey but once removed I was able to finish the rest with a little help from Don Mascaro’s cognac. Cousin Kieron insisted the lamb ribs would put Irish butchers to shame. Traditional Catalan cuisine at its very best.
The spectacular range of armoury decorating the restaurant was far too attractive for Tommy who for dessert wielded Juan ‘s collection of fighting irons before the fireplace as we sipped our goodbye moscatels. Delighted, sated and enchanted.
Celler d’Aiguaviva, 977 26 81 04

To continue the pilgrim route follow the very quiet road from Aiguaviva to Vila Rodonya. Vila Rodonya is unlike any town in Penedès, the atmosphere is older, more fortified and worth discovering. Santes Creus and the first of the Cistercian monasteries is the next stop. There is no shortage of traditional restaurants here and the couple of cafes closer to the gates of the monastery are quite chic which may have something to do with the French character of the monumental buildings and surroundings. For a small deposit the receptionist will give you a tape recorder guide in any language which allows you the freedom to approach the visit as you like, especially helpful if you have children who will love all the mysterious corners. The tour is usually offered to a background of Gregorian choirs.
Tourist Office Santes Creus 977 63 83 29 [email protected]

Over 212 samples of bubbly from 15 countries participated in the International Challenge of Sparkling Wines held at l’Escole Hotelier du Lycée in Dijon on the 11 and 12 of December.
Gramona won a gold medal for their Cava Rosat and a silver for their “Tres Lustros” 1998.
Silver Medals also went to Can Feixes “Huguet” and Raventós Blanc.

What’s happening?
Jan 6-8. Agricultural fair Batea, Terra Alta
2nd Sundays Antiques and art, Vilafranca
Jan - Feb Challenge Garraf Penedès, 5 stage Open road race, Sundays. Consell Comarcal, Alt Penedès, Garraf, Olerdola, Bici Sans.
Tres Tombs, horses and lots of them, big, small, Zorro lookalikes, draught horses, wagon trains, cowboys..... a different town every Sunday, Alt Penedès, Conca de Barbera, main towns.
Festa de Xato, restaurants all over Alt and Baix Penedès
Jan 17 - 19 Olive oil fair Les Borges Blanques. Llerida
Winter Festa Major, Sant Vincenc de Calderes, trains direct from Barcelona.
Jan 27 Festa Major Sant Pau d'Ordal, plaques de cava
Xatonadas Populars, a different town every Sunday
Classic cars, Antic Car Club Catalunya, Llorenc de Penedes
End of Jan, Valls, Alt Camp: Calçot Season begins offically, calçot eating contests, entry free.
Going Organic! Roses Vila/El Molí, pedal power, organic wines, organic calçots, [email protected]
Feb 1 Bike racing, Garraf - Penedes Challenge, Unio Ciclista Vilanova
Feb 8 Museu de Vi, Vilafranca organises "La Poda" Vine pruning technique. 93 890 05 82
Feb 20/March 1st Carnival parades in Sitges and Alt Penedès
Feb 22 Bicletada Nature, Castelvi de la Marca
Feb 21/22 Artichoke Festival, Amposta,Ebro Delta

Happy 2004, Paddy Mannion [email protected]