Explore the history and terrain of the Catalan holy mountains whilst off-roading in a 4 x 4 vehicle.
The Sierra de Montsant mountains of Spain's Catalonia are home to an abundance of history and nature. The varied terrain, rivers, reservoirs, woodland and historical villages boast many species of plants, trees and wildlife, with a few local people around too.
The mountain chain is the Catalan Pre-Coastal range. Montsant translates from the local language of Catalan to mean Holy Mountain. The name was given due to the number of hermits in the area during Medieval times.
The area now has Natural Park status and is protected as such. It can be explored on foot, bicycle, by climbing or in some areas, by car. However, to see things a little differently whilst releasing some adrenaline, there is also the option of going off-road in a 4 x 4 vehicle with a local guide.
The company providing the day trip is Elite Excursions. The driver will collect and drop off passengers from their doors along the Catalan coast of the Costa Dorada. Popular with holiday makers from across Europe, the coastline offers kilometres of golden sandy beaches, water sports, shops and restaurants. This destination therefore provides a contrasting experience by escaping inland for a while, quite literally for a breath of fresh air.
The excursion took me to not only see, but also learn about these gems.
Passing through traditional villages known for locally produced wines, stone buildings, churches, plazas, cemeteries and even an old oven built within a baker's outside wall, it was interesting to find out the history of each one.
I heard about the current and past habitants, their old methods of communication, religion, battle defence and how the places have progressed or declined to be as they are today. Some of these villages were low and accessible but others stood looking down from the peaks of the hills.
Some now abandoned villages have chilling tales of witches and ghosts.
Modernised rural areas on the route offer camping facilities, restaurants, activities such as zip lining and tree house accommodation that can be seen from the road.
The dusty tracks that lead up, in and around the hills and mountains of the range are bumpy. They wind around and can occasionally be difficult to pass even in a 4 x 4 vehicle. The adrenaline can flow at slower speeds, taking in the views from close to the edge of the hillside. At higher speeds, the adrenaline can surge.
Some narrow tracks are covered by tree canopies, others are dry riverbeds. Passing by walking routes and tracks popular with mountain bikers it can be difficult to see what lies ahead. At each side however, there are spectacular views, fresh smelling pine trees, wild-flowers and historical landmarks that make one wonder how they ever came to be built there.
There are many different panoramic views to be seen from various points across the Sierra de Montsant range. Some of the most impressive are those over the Costa Dorada, the ‘Canyon of Catalonia' and the ravines around Siurana.
The roads are said to wind up to a height of approximately 1,200 metres. At some points it is possible to stand close to the edge and look down as well taking in the surrounding views. In the wilderness without barriers, this is not for the feint hearted.
Another of the excursion's fascinating stops is to visit an old outdoor church, said to be from the ninth century. The stone pews are nestled in a small clearing amongst the trees and look up towards the Catholic shrine. Historically a popular place for worshippers, it is said to still be occasionally used today.
There are various other man-made landmarks to be discovered too. For example, the old military air-field base that is now used for paragliding still has standing sentry guard huts. Old buildings from previous habitants and farmers or from battles such as the Civil War are also dotted around, some by the roadside whilst others need a keener eye to be seen.
When passing the fields whilst on the main roads, towers and religious buildings can also be spotted.
It is possible to find and smell the natural mountain herbs and fruits. Various animals such as wild boar and birds such as grouse or eagles are native to the area. There is also the chance to see where wildfires have destroyed some of the vegetation and the impact this has had. The excursions tour guide shares some interesting information surrounding the areas nature and wildlife.
Some trees throughout Spain are protected and I learnt about how they came to be there and the penalties for chopping them down.
Sitting quaintly at the top of the mountain of Prades is the castle and village of Siurana, with just one long, winding road up to it and the same one back down again. Learning the history and tales of this location is just one aspect of a visit. There is also a spring water fountain to fill up the water bottles, a church, housing, bars, restaurants, a boutique store selling local produce and plenty of stunning views across the mountains or down into the valleys. Climbers can often be seen working their way up the mountain ridges.
With a nearby reservoir and other small rivers and gorges, a stop off on the excursion to cool down allows for some wild swimming in the natural mountain waters. Swimwear and towels are a must if going on the trip.
Elite Excursions are recommended to explore some of what this stunning mountainous destination has to offer whilst learning about it in a day. Some aspects of it just would not be possible without the vehicle and guidance. As an all-inclusive day out, a picnic lunch is provided. The baguette sandwiches, pastries and drinks can be prepared to suit dietary requirements.
Some aspects to take into consideration when planning a 4 x 4 off-roading excursion are to feel well on the day. It would not, for example, be a good time to have any type of headaches or sickness as the heights, speed and motion could turn a potentially fantastic day into a really unenjoyable experience.
Adequate footwear and comfortable clothing are recommended as is a camera to capture all the magical moments within the holy mountains of the Sierra de Montsant.
Walk around the medieval Old Town and travel in time with the stories and legends from the past. See the most important monuments of the Gothic quarter. At the end of your trip, relax with a glass of Sangria in the Boqueria Market.