We were out of the house and on the N340 going north the Barcelona's El Prat airport for Clare's return by eight o'clock this morning - quite an achievement, but well worth the effort. Throughout the journey the air was crisp and clear and the mountains were vibrant with colour from the early morning sun. How I would have loved to stop and take photos! We made good time and by 10h20 we were hunting for section C of terminal 2, where the EasyJet fights come and go - not as well signed as it should be, when it stands an extra quarter of a mile from the main departure terminal.. Two hours early - that makes a change. We had a coffee together, then made our fond goodbyes - today is our 46th wedding anniversary, celebrations interfered with by travel schedule, unfortunately.
I set out for Vinaròs at 11h40, blinked at the C-32 junction and unwittingly drove past my turning to the motorway along the coast. The highway took me west and south of Barcelona, up the Llobregat river valley, but still with promises of a turning towards Tarragona. Ten minutes later, I picked up signs for the N340 south, and followed them, not knowing what the outcome would be. We'd been warned against following the N340 all the way, massive delays, an extra hour's journey time, but back tracking was out of the question. The road began to wind up into the mountains up a narrow valley, through towns without a bypass and long slow traffic processions.
The road climbed higher over a 495 metre col. The road was so busy and had no lay-bys, so stopping and reading the map was out of the question. I just had to trust and keep going - quite a familiar life stance really. Over the top of the col, suddenly I was in a different world of wide open rolling plains covered with vineyards. There was little that blatantly promoted the region I was driving through, but I worked out that this was Penedès, and recalled that I had bought the odd bottle or two of red at Lidl's in the UK. Only later did the penny drop. This is the homeland of Cava production, and only last night did Clare and I drink an excellent bottle of the pink brut Cava, a farewell thankyou present from sister in law Ann. This is one of Catalunya's premier products. But the region doesn't exactly rub your face in the fact of its great assets as happens in the Champagne region of northern France.
Despite the heavy traffic, and the extra hour's road endurance, I was glad to have made this unexpected journey. Penedès is worth a longer visit in its own right - not just its bodegas, but also its towns and villages. One that caught my attention at a junction on the road was L'Arboç. The thousand year old village is set on a hill. Its somewhat austere church is a 17th century rebuild of a much older romanesque building, visible above the houses. Close to it, however, towers a grand, ornate building in the islamic architectural style. It looks like a palace with a mosque attached. It was ancient in style, but oddly seemed to have survived the depredations of time. How come? Was it modern, was it perhaps controversial? Speculation was inevitable.
La Giralda de L'Arboç, I later discovered is a nineteenth century folly. The house was built as a private dwelling by the wealthy founder of the Teatro Romeo in Barcelona, Joan Roquer i Marí, as a gift for his wife following an inspirational visit to Andalucia, between 1877 and 1889. Its fake minaret, 52 metres high, is a half size replica of the Giralda of Seville, (minaret turned into bell tower). The internal decor is a copy of the Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra in Granada and the Hall of the Ambassadors of the Alcazar of Seville. In the past decade it has been restored, explaining why it looks so fresh. It is used now for tourism promotion and as a convention centre.
It all goes to show that the Brits don't have a monopoly on rich eccentrics with 'Grand Designs'