A Pilgrimage To Poblet And Pinot Noir In Catalonia

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Travel with Beebe as she explores the 12th century Catalan Cistercian monastery of Poblet and its wine fields in the heart of Catalonia.

By Beebe Bahrami

My friend Mia had joined me for ten days during my research into the sacred sites of Catalonia. We were currently fixed at a local café across the street from the Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet, located inland in the rippling countryside not far from the coastal city of Tarragona.

Getting there had been another one of those local bus adventures: The bus driver from Tarragona assured us he would let us off in Poblet. But as we passed the scant four or five building site — granted, one of those ”buildings” was the Cistercian monastery complex — the entire bus load of elderly locals and young commuting workers erupted in an uproar. As one voice they chorused, “You didn’t stop for the two Americans! Stop! Go back!” On the bus ride, curiosity and boldness, two wonderful Spanish features, had already led to other passengers learning all about us and why we were on the bus.

Momentarily embarrassed, our driver hit the brakes and reversed to Poblet. By the time Mia and I got off, his usual puffy confidence had returned, “I’ll be back at 4:45 p.m. sharp to pick you up at the fountain.” I craned around, looking for a fountain, refusing to step off the bus for fear that he would leave before explaining. “The fountain?”

“Si, the fountain, back there.” He gestured with his thumb to an imagined place somewhere 180 degrees behind him.

“You promise?” I tried to say sweetly, hiding my trepidation at his lapses in memory.

“Of course. Why don’t you trust me?”

I stepped off the bus, deciding that being left in Poblet forever was not a bad fate. As the bus door closed behind me, I heard our Greek chorus say as one, “Would you trust you?”

We looked around ourselves and took stock. Mia had been studying the area indicated by our bus driver’s thumb. After a few minutes she saw, a couple hundred yards down the road, a grove of trees overshadowing a crumbling semi-circular pool with a hovering cherub-like angel.

“I think that’s the fountain.” There was hope in her voice.

The bus was a white dot on the black stripe of road when I suddenly saw the immense beauty of the place. A grand and ancient stone wall lined one side of that road and the other side was covered with rolling vineyards. The Torres vineyard’s fields were nearest at hand. Behind us, rising behind the slight hill was Poblet, a truly small hamlet, and the golden-pink stones of one of the Cistercian world’s most beautiful monasteries. The hamlet and monastery were nestled in these vine-covered hills like a puppy in its basket with its brothers and sisters, all huddled and cozy. Wine fields radiated from the monastery forests, purple-green hills arrayed like the sun’s rays.

Later that afternoon, I was to learn that the winemakers on this rare little spot within the monastery’s grounds predominantly produce Pinot Noir, a rare varietal in the Spanish world of wines. This spot has the perfect conditions, warm days and cool nights in summer, to lure this sensitive grape into a delightful vintage.

But for the moment, a mutt that had Rotweiler somewhere in his past ancestry lay at my feet snoring and drooling. Once, he woke up and lifted his head toward me, allowing me to scratch his head. He looked Rotweiler but had the disposition of a retriever.

Arrayed before us on our little café table were a selection of tapas: a ceviche of little neck clams marinated in red wine vinegar and spicy Spanish paprika (berberechos al pimentón); homemade chicken fritters (croquettes casera de pollo); succulent, small, deep fried squid (calamares), and a green salad of baby romaine, radicchio, escarole, radishes, onions, carrots, and tomatoes dressed simply with local olive oil and sea salt. We enjoyed a dry white wine with notes of juniper, orange zest, and spring grass from the Campo de Borja growing area in Aragón, to the west of Poblet. We would wait to try the local Pinot Noir once we got into the currently closed monastery.

Poblet means “white poplar grove,” derived from the Latin, “populetum,” and I think the brothers knew something when they arrived here and decided to build. Mia said it best when she stood taking in the monastery and fields. “There are angels all around here.” She paused, looking with the same intensity she had when locating the crumbling fountain. “They’re even in the fields.”

This might well be the secret to the incredible Pinot Noir made on the monastery grounds.

When our lunch of tapas was over, the monastery gates swung open. There were other visitors just like us, dining at the little café just across the street. It was a good set up. Get there for lunch, dine on great food in the one place in Poblet that has any food at all, and then funnel in to the sacred grounds.

Poblet is still occupied by monks. Visits here must all be done as a part of a guided group tour. The only tour for the afternoon before Mia and I had to catch our ghost bus was for a group of visitors from France and was to be in French. Luckily, in graduate school I’d had to learn French in order to read and translate texts for my research. I faux-confidently told Mia not to worry, I’d translate. To assist, our tour guide unknowingly helped. He spoke French with a nice strong Spanish accent (meaning, more letters got pronounced than usual), and he even threw in the odd Spanish or Catalan word to my delight and to the rest of the crowd’s confusion. Mia floated through, enjoying her unique perch of hearing a patois of French, Catalan, Spanish and English as we soaked up the yellow-pink-light-from-within stone on the arches, and fountain, and the carved sacred symbols on walls all across the monastery.

The highlight of the tour was walking on the rooftop of the cloister below, and then descending into the monastery church via inner private passages.

poblet2The Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet was begun in the 12th century, with subsequent additions going on up to the 18th century. Like other monasteries in the region, Poblet was a part of the campaign to resettle territories in Spain that had been ousted from medieval Muslim Spain’s control. The new conquerors wanted to secure the empty lands with enough settlements so as to discourage Muslim attempts to take it back.

In its heyday Poblet was an important monastery for the Aragonese and Catalan nobles and many are buried here, including Jaime I (James I) whom you will find in the church in a tomb embedded into an arched underpass near the apse. In his peaceful slumber, which you see in a beatific smile, he holds his sword hilt with his left hand and a vigilant lion lies beneath his resting feet. Other nobles lay in these curious in-the-air tombs, the purpose is to be perpetually in the path of prayers and benedictions so as to assure blessings in the afterlife. This was a common practice in many churches for anyone who could afford to acquire such an auspicious burial spot.

Poblet’s Cistercian church possesses exquisite acoustics, something for which the Cistercians were famous in their architecture. The physical harmony that brings this about is equally delightful to experience. Throughout the monastery, the stones glow with an ethereal pink-yellow hue.

In 1835, all across Spain, monasteries were disbanded. Poblet, among hundreds of other monasteries, was abandoned and pillaged. The contents of the royal tombs were taken to Tarragona’s cathedral for safe keeping, and they were restored to their original resting place in 1946, shortly after the Cistercian Abbot General brought four monks from Italy to revivify the monastery.

These 20th century refounding monks are credited with making Poblet a vibrant spiritual center today. Within the monastery grounds you will see vineyards, which are a part of the Cistercian wine-making revival begun in 1989. The choice to grow Pinot Noir grapes, in addition to possessing the ideal climate, was also historical. The first Burgundian Cistercians grew this grape in the 11th century and Poblet wanted to maintain its spiritual heritage, also stemming back to the Burgundians. When you enter the monastery through its outer gate, the Vins de Poblet cellar and wine shop is immediately to your right, in a 19th century farm building.

Our bus driver did return for us. That evening Mia and I dined in. Back in our home base of Tarragona, we procured an array of cheeses, cured hams, fruits, baby cucumbers, and vine-ripened tomatoes from the little shops on the plaza beneath our third floor balconied room perch. We uncorked the bottle we’d bought at the monastery — Les Masies de Poblet, 100% Pinot Noir, 2004, Denominació d’Origen: Conca de Barberá. Resting our feet on our balcony, we took a sip.

I don’t think Pinot Noir achieves this personality anywhere else in the world, here on the edge of its ancient ancestral lands and in the hands of people who have all the time in the world, and the help of angels, to make it.


Beebe Bahrami (www.beebesfeast.com) is a widely published freelance writer and cultural anthropologist. Her book, “The Spiritual Traveler Spain — The Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes,” is due this May 2009 from HiddenSpring Books, an imprint of Paulist Press.

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