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Travel: The sacred and the sublime

The wineries and monasteries of the Montserrat region are some of Catalonia’s greatest treasures



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Started in the 16 th century, the basilica was pretty much destroyed during the Napoleonic wars. Rebuilt at the end of the 19 th century, it is today an odd blend of gothic, Byzantine, renaissance, and modernist Catalan design. This shrine-church is made up of a huge single nave and buttresses, innumerable side chapels, and a separate and sumptuous throne room that houses the revered image of Mary.

From the statues above the entrance, to the octagonal interior dome, through one-of-a-kind votive lamps, carved wood pillars and contemporary, even avant-garde, religious art, everything is the work of the most skilled and gifted Catalonian artists and artisans. Clearly a great deal of money - and passion - has gone into this basilica. In a way it can be seen as modern - and people friendly. Cumulatively, it's awesome.

Among the great Catalan architects who worked on Montserrat was a friend and colleague of Antonio Gaudi, Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Puig designed the plazas that lead into the basilica. And back down on the plain, not far from the Torres estate, he created the main building of the Codornui Winery, one of the largest makers of the sparking white Spanish wine called cava.

Huge wrought-iron gates open onto this red-brick winery shaped like a series of parabolic arches, with windows of stained glass. The impression is both appropriately earthy (this being a winery) and suggestive of Montserrat, still a central feature of this Penedes region (and lovingly guarded by Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War).

Codornui introduced cava to Spain in the late 1800s. So it's the oldest cava producer, though not the largest (that honorific goes to nearby Freixenet). Similar to Champagne, cava is fermented with a wine base before sugar is added. It's then blended, fermented again, and stored upside down. Codornui sells 50 million bottles a year, with another 100 million fermenting in its cellars. You can buy a bottle of cava for about $5, and a good one for $10. An excellent bottle can be had for, say, $50 - "less than a comparable bottle of champagne," says Codornui staffer Asier Vivanco Larrea.

As at Torres, a "train" carries visitors through several of the 26 kilometres of darkened subterranean cellars. Afterwards, pourers like Larrea, a young Basque cava expert, will introduce you to cavas like Codornui's Pinot Noir and the Codornui Clasico.