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Monks, meat & mountains

Part 6 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue

by Thor Iverson

18 October 2006 – Montserrat, Spain

Abadia de Montserrat – Signage around Barcelona isn’t what it could be, but only the most geographically incompetent driver could manage to miss all of the many routes to Montserrat. Unfortunately, all those roads bring their share of visitors, and any tranquility this mountaintop retreat might once have had is pretty much shattered by the endless procession of buses and camera-wielding tourists (including us). That’s to be expected. What’s not is how overtly tourist-focused the entire enterprise is; it seems like there’s more space given over to gift shops and restaurants than there is to the religious facility itself. It’s a little dismaying.


However, the abbey buildings themselves – if one can ignore the relentless parade of tchotchkes – are attractive and peaceful enough, and low-hanging clouds (which bring intermittent deluges separated by periods of misty gloom) lend their own sort of quiet. And to be sure, the setting itself is spectacular, though today’s weather hides some of the more impressive views.

[stations of the cross ascent][chandelier]

Despite the moody skies, we decide to proceed from Montserrat to Cardona and do a little sightseeing. Unfortunately, due to continued signage issues, we’re unable to find the required road. Eventually, we give up, and point to car towards our next destination, with the rain still falling. It’s a wet farewell to Cataluña, but it’s also a temporary one; we’ll be back near the end of our trip.

[rainy walkway][candles]

Andorra la Vella, Andorra

The tiny independent countries of Europe hold a certain magical charm, but in the main they disappoint one’s more romantic notions. So it is with Andorra, which seems – at least at its southern end – an endless strip mall surrounded by impossibly-angled mountains. And it’s still raining.

Hotel Carlton Plaza – Our presence here is somewhat accidental, as the hotel I’d booked is closed for renovation; a fact which was not communicated to me until the day before I left for Barcelona. I shudder to think what driving aimlessly around the streets of Andorra la Vella, looking for our missing lodging, would have been like…and it’s not like anything other than Catalan is widely spoken here.

The replacement hotel is very nice, and in fact we appear to be lodged in some sort of suite, which definitely borders on lavish; it’s a major upgrade from our intended accommodations, and unusually large for a European hotel room. As it turns out, this multiplicity of rooms and surplus of space will be important later on.

[misty mountains][cloudy road]

Borda Estevet – I have a brief consultation with the desk clerk about restaurants, looking for any that serve what he’d consider more traditional Andorran cuisine. Without hesitation, he’s on the phone with this stone-walled establishment, a pleasant fifteen-minute walk from the hotel. It almost feels hewn out of the mountains itself, with a rustic feel that is reflected in the cuisine…modern niceties and influences exist, but the overall impression lent by the food is wintry, hearty and deeply satisfying.

Tomatoes and raw garlic comprise a low-budget amuse, and in that form they’re definitely bracing. There’s a melon soup, cool and refreshing, with a counterpoint of intense sausages on the side. A steaming bowl of rich ceps with ham and vinaigrette is awesome and rather obviously mountainous, while vegetable soup is pure and equally alpine…though its accompaniment of cool marscapone doesn’t quite work to the dish’s benefit. However, the final course is both authentically local and truly definitive: a pierre chaude of various cuts of the most succulent beef (of a consistency and flavor closer to veal) I’ve had in years, grilled as one prefers and with a few traditional condiments as the sole accompaniments. We’re in carnivore heaven.

Viña Perdrosa 1996 Ribera del Duero (Castilla & León) – Dill, stale wood and old fruit. Gets slightly better and spicier with air, but ultimately the stewed green herbs and wood dominate.

A digestif of something resembling an herbed limoncello is also included, but I’m too full (and, it must be recalled, still too sick) to inquire after the name. More memorable is the darkest coffee I’ve ever had outside Sicily.

It’s a staggeringly good meal at a very fair price, and the staggering continues as we lug our stretched bellies back to the hotel. But starting now, the evening begins to go down the drain. Literally.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.