Exploration of Catalonia's Nether Parts: Castellet i la Gornal

Castellet i la Gornal: handsome devil

Castellet i la Gornal is not somewhere many people have heard of. But it’s the site of one of Catalonia’s handsomest devils of a castle and it has a fine position over the Foix reservoir, with the vineyards of the Alt Penedés rolling away in one direction and the pine forests of the Garraf in the other. Approached from the coast at Vilanova it’s a lovely 14 kilometre drive up the meandering Foix river.

The village is a gorgeous, golden-stoned medieval pile, mostly well-preserved but with an agreeable ratio of ramshackle. The northern vistas are a treat. Naked vines – it’s March at the time of writing – dot the open hills towards the spires of L’Arboç – a Modernist gem of a town - and the Montmell chain of mountains. It's a comely introduction to the Alt Penedés.

Domninating the village from its highest point is the Castell de Sant Esteve. During the early period of the Christian Reconquest, this fortress formed part of the Marca Hispánica, a vast belt of castles, ranging from Asturias to the northern Mediterranean, whose objective was to contain the advance of the Moors.

The original building was little more than a watchtower and a keep for weapons and supplies. But while many of the castles of the Marca Hispánica would crumble into disuse as the Moorish presence was pushed further and further south , Sant Esteve, which was well-placed between Vilafranca, Vendrell and Vilanova, prospered as a residence of the Catalan nobility.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, Sant Esteve had fallen on hard times. Now little more than a ghostly ruin, it attracted the attention of Josep de Peray i March, a rich Barcelonese philanthropist, politician and amateur architect. Caught up in the irredeemably nostalgic spirit of the turn of the 20th century, when Catalonia's bourgeoisie had an obsession with all things medieval, he painstakingly restored it, adding a few modernist flourishes of his own, including a floor of neo-medieval tiles covered in interpretative heraldic and mythological images.

The villagers didn’t like the wealthy forastero with his fancy tiles and resented him meddling with their castellet, but March carried on enthusiastically with his obras, and the result is, it has to be said, a wonderful-looking thing.

As a concession to the villagers, March also built the Plaça del Castell, now the perfect vantage point to appreciate the castle and its surroundings. In 1984 his heir, Josep Anton de Peray i Batlle, donated the castle to a charity for homeless children. It has since become the site of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Centre responsible for studying and protecting the local natural habitat.

Which leads us onto the Foix reservoir. Built at the start of the previous century for the irrigating of vineyards and fed by waters from the Serra de Llacuna some thirty kilometres away, the reservoir has become an important wildlife site.

From the village itself it’s easy to spot majestic grey herons or the black sillouette of great cormorants skirting over the surface. Or a black-crowned night heron. Or a family of Eurasian teal or mallard bobbing along over the surface. Or moorhens (aka ‘swamp chickens’ or pollas de agua) in the shallows picking about for algae and seeds.

The banks of the reservoir teem with golden plovers, great weed warblers and other grub-seekers, as well as kingfishers. In fact, with over 200 bird species to spot here, bringing the old binoculares along is a capital idea. I left mine at home, and regretted it.

The restaurant, the castle, the wildlife, the views. Agreeable reasons to go out of your way one weekend to this quiet little enclave on the edge of two regions.

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