The best laid plans of mice and men don’t always come to fruition. While I was in Barcelona, I had planned to go on a full day tour to Monserrat to visit the monastery and taste cava (Spanish sparkling wine) at a winery. However, when I got to the Explore Catalunya tour office behind the Palau de la Musica, I was told my Monserrat tour had been cancelled. No one knew why, but they promised to refund my money (which they did) and offered me a free full-day excursion to Tarragona that day, if I wanted to go.
Needless to say I was very disappointed, but I always think there’s a reason that things happen. I’m supposed to learn something or perhaps something better is going to come along. So since I knew nothing about Tarragona, I decided to swing with the change and learn something. Our tour group of five headed out on a journey of a little over an hour south of Barcelona in a small van with our guide Feliciano.
On the drive, I sat in front with Feliciano, and we had a chance to chat. He was apologetic about my Monserrat tour being canceled. In fact, everyone in the tour office was exceptionally apologetic about it. Their attitudes stood in stark contrast to how rude people can be in the States.
For example, when I started off on my trip to Barcelona from Los Angeles in the wee hours of Christmas morning, I drove to the LAX Flyer bus station and planned to leave my car there to take the bus to LAX. It’s a pattern I’ve established over the last several years for all of my trips and the arrangement has worked out very well. When I arrived at the station, however, there was a sign saying that the parking lot was full. A rude surprise! I parked in front of the building and went in to inquire about the situation. Not only was I told there was no parking, the uniformed man laughed cruelly and said I’d better start looking for street parking. There is no way I would leave my car for six days on the street in that neighborhood. The man had no other suggestions and seemed to take joy in my difficulty. I ended up driving to LAX and found a long term parking garage with a courtesy shuttle to my terminal. It turned out to be pretty easy and not too expensive, but did that guy at the bus station have to be so mean? It was Christmas!
Anyway, my experience with Spaniards has been that they are very polite and helpful. It was a pleasure chatting with Feliciano on our way to Tarragona. He pointed out a prominent mountain in the distance and let me know it was Monserrat, not to rub it in, but it was still on his mind that I was disappointed not to go there. By the way, the tour company also told me (and backed it up with an email) that when I return to Barcelona, they will give me a free trip to Monserrat. Now, that’s customer service!
As we passed by a vineyard, the conversation turned to drinking wine. I mentioned my love for Rioja wine, but that I especially love wine from the Priorat wine region, which is south of Barcelona. I had looked into a wine tasting tour from Barcelona to Priorat, but I could only find a private tour which would have cost me over $900 USD, since I travel alone. I don’t make that kind of money, so that was out of the question.
Feliciano was surprised and excited that I was familiar with Priorat wine, as few people have heard of it. Spain has two certified wine regions: Rioja and Priorat. Most oenophiles have tasted Rioja (probably many times), but Priorat is comparatively unknown. I’ve had Priorat wine and was amazed at the flavor. As much as I love Rioja wine, Priorat surpasses it.
Feliciano was very knowledgeable about wine and knew many of the tour guides who do wine tours. He recommended two wine tasting tours in Priorat, one fairly exclusive and probably too expensive (but I’ll check it out). The other is a group tour that I could join, and the cost would be more affordable for me, probably somewhere around $150 USD. Already, the change in plan was paying off! I thought, perhaps this was why I was supposed to go to Tarragona that day instead of Montserrat. I’ll arrange a tour to Priorat for my next trip to Barcelona.
Aside from getting that great wine tip, the best part of the day was our first stop: a preserved Roman aqueduct two and a half miles north of Tarragona. A few years ago, I saw a Roman aqueduct through the window of a tour bus in Italy, but I had never seen one up close and personal.
El Pont del Diable (The Devil’s Bridge), as it is called by locals, is a magnificent 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct, part of the Via Augusta aqueduct system that carried water more than nine miles from the Francoli River to the ancient city of Tárraco, now known as Tarragona. Built in the 1st century A.D., the structure is hidden in a mountainous forest park where many locals walk their dogs and run along the gravel paths. According to the Explore Catalunya website, hardly anyone knows about this hidden gem. At more than 817 feet long and 89 feet at its highest point, it certainly is impressive. It’s constructed in two tiers. 25 arches comprise the upper tier with 11 arches forming the lower tier, each arch spanning 20 Roman feet. I’ve always wondered what the top of an aqueduct looks like. Now I know. We got to walk along the channel on top where the water used to flow. How fun!
Our next stop was the historic city of Tarragona, set high on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Founded by the Romans and known at that time as Tárraco, the city was the Roman capital of the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important cities on the Mediterranean. Now, it’s an active shipping port with much of its economy reliant on a large chemical industry. Many Roman ruins of Tárraco can still be seen in Tarragona and collectively have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After a brief tour passed the Roman amphitheater and through the narrow maze of cobbled streets in the Medieval heart of the city, Feliciano unleashed us to wander on our own for a couple of hours.
I explored the area around the Tarragona Cathedral, a Romanesque and Gothic sandstone structure dating to the 12th and 13th centuries. I wandered down a pristine alley and heard a cat yowl behind the cathedral. When I came around the corner, I spotted a yellow tabby up above on a terrace as he called to his friends. I found his three friends sunbathing under a car.
I retraced my steps to the front of the cathedral and passed by an antique market where locals chatted and browsed. Then I ventured down a narrow alley lined with little shops. In a patisserie, I savored a croissant and Spanish-style espresso as I soaked up the ambiance of this place in which locals (and maybe a tourist or two) read newspapers, worked on laptops and relaxed.
At the Roman amphitheater, Tarragona’s number one attraction, I paid a small entrance fee (3 Euros) and explored the ruins set beside the beautiful azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It was hard to imagine that many centuries ago in this place, gladiators had fought to their deaths and Christians had been eaten by lions.
There are other Roman ruins to see in Tarragona, such as the Roman Circus where chariots raced, Roman walls, the Forum and Necropolis. But it was so sunny and beautiful by the sea that day, I decided to skip the museums and strolled along the boardwalk high above the water. It was Sunday, and there were many people out enjoying the great December weather. I sat on a bench, watched oil tankers come into port, observed people socializing and dancing to big band music broadcast from a restaurant and simply enjoyed some rare down-time until we left for Sitges.
Sitges is a little seaside town 22 miles southwest of Barcelona, world renowned for its film festival and carnival, and is a beach and nightclub hotspot. Feliciano dropped us off on the boardwalk by the beach that lined the main street and gave us two hours to wander around town and have lunch before we met back up to return to Barcelona.
I suppose my feelings about Sitges were colored by the disappointment of not going to Monserrat (okay, I’m being a baby) and by the fact that I couldn’t find a restaurant that had an empty table for me. I was famished, my blood sugar was plummeting, and I was still miffed about not going to Monserrat. This city is very touristy, like many of the American beach cities that I dislike, and I’m really not much of a beach person, anyway.
Sitges would have been my kind of place in the 1890’s when it was an avant-garde, bohemian art community. At that time, the city was an important center of culture, inhabited by painters, artists, sculptors and writers, who gave birth to and spread the artistic style of Catalan Modernism. But now instead of artists, there were tourists and sun worshippers everywhere in this city whose economy is based on tourism.
We had arrived in Sitges at the height of Spanish lunchtime, around 2:30 pm. It was a beautifully warm Sunday, and the boardwalk was crowded with people who had escaped Barcelona for a relaxing day at the beach. As a result, I wandered for well over a half hour before I found a restaurant that could seat me. I ordered a plate of traditional Spanish Iberico ham with melon and a plate of grilled prawns. That seemed reasonable, though I was baffled by the high cost. I tried to order a glass of wine, but they only served it by the bottle. When the food arrived, I realized I’d ordered way too much for one person. It seemed that their plates (and wine menu) were designed for two people. The lunch cost over 40 Euros and I only ate about half of it. What a waste! Okay, lesson learned. I should have asked. It took forever to get my check, so by the time I finished lunch, it was time to meet Feliciano and the rest of our group to drive back to Barcelona.
There are many disappointments in life. These disappointments always seem big when they first come our way but usually soften with time. So much of what we plan never plays out the way we think it should. I’ve learned over the years that when life disappoints, it’s best not to fight it. Just let the events unfold. More often than not in these circumstances, I’ve experienced special moments that I could never have planned but will treasure for life. Though I can’t say that anything earth shattering happened to me that day on the Tarragona tour, I’d like to think this hand is still in play. Who knows what waits for me on my next trip to Barcelona?