Saturday, July 10, 2010

On the Road (Europe 2010): Berga, Montserrat, and Barcelona

Left Berga on the morning of July 10 for Barcelona by way of Monsterrat. Berga redeemed itself the evening before with one of the best meals of the trip, at Restaurant Sala (Paseo de la Pau, 27, Berga 08600), following perhaps the worst meal of the trip at Hotel Estel. The hotel itself was fine--nothing fancy, but serviceable--but I'd avoid the restaurant there at all costs. Having said that, breakfast was pleasant enough on the terrace the following morning, which was blessedly cool for a change.

The meal at Restaurant Sala featured carpaccio of shrimp, apple ravioli (ricotta cheese in paper thin slices of apple, on top of even thinner slices of tomato with a light olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing), a wonderful mushroom soup, Scampi, baby squid with vegetables and wild mushroms (pictured), and other tasty things. The chef seems to really like mushrooms. There were many dishes on the menu that featured one kind or another. Washed it all down with a crisp, fragrant 2008 Vionta Rias Baixas Albariño.

Spent most of the 10th in Montserrat.  The place reminded me of Lourdes, which isn't much of a recommendation. It's rather commercialized (with big souvenir shops), and I was surprised to see that nearly all of the construction is new (only about 100 years old), but the place has its good points as well--and apparently nothing much is old because Napoleon's army razed the place.

The mountains are undeniably beautiful. Montserrat, or "serrated mountain," is aptly named--there is a stark ridge of exposed stone points at the summit. At the top there are good hiking trails (accessible by a very steep funicular railway) that give wonderful views all the way to Barcelona and beyond. The rock is a very attractive pegmatite with inclusions of many colors of fist size or bigger. There is a small but interesting art museum (the collection is mostly modern Catalan and uneven, but there are quite a few paintings worth seeing, including two very early Picassos; I liked many of the Catalan works, but no photography is allowed, so I was unable to remember any of the names). Besides paintings, the museum has a small collection of art from antiquity from various parts of the Holy lands (glass, pottery, cylinder seals, etc.).

The famous Virgin of Montserrat in the monastery was worth a look. It is the most revered piece of sacred art in Catalonia. While standing in the long line of pilgrims and tourists waiting to view her, there was a wedding going on in the church. I couldn't see much of what was happening, but someone sang Schubert's Ave Maria beautifully. Schubert would have been famous if he had written nothing else.

The wooden statue is Romanesque, from the 12th century, and probably carved in Jerusalem. According to legend, it was found in a cave below where the monastery stands today (the cave can be visited, but there wasn't time). The monastery was built to house it. Because it has blackened over the centuries, it is known as La Moreneta, or "the little dark one."

On the bird watching front, I've added four new species to my life list since last writing, for a total of 30 new birds since leaving the US. I got a glimpse of a Eurasian jay and good looks at long-tailed tits in the mountains between Cardona and Berga, and good looks at alpine swifts (bigger than the swifts at Pouzolles, and with a pale belly) and a Dartford Warbler, both at Montserrat, in the hills above the monastery. The swifts came quite close at times, sounding exactly like bottle rockets as they whizzed past.

Arrived in Barcelona in the early evening. It took about an hour to get to the hotel because many of the streets were blocked off, for reasons that weren't clear. Had time to walk around a little and have a late-night meal. Tomorrow will be the start of a couple of days seeing the sights.

[It later became apparent that the blockages were related to the World Cup soccer matches.]

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