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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On of the most impressive wineries in the world is about an hour's drive from Barcelona. Here the Torres family operates 15 distinct vineyards - some are celebrated "single" vineyards of a particular grape - on 1,300 hectares, extending from the Penedes Mountains, down through a series of stepped plateaus, to the Mediterranean coast.

The Torres family has been producing wine here since 1800; the current baron is Miguel Torres. Torres runs a kind of empire, exporting wine and some spirits to 120 countries. As well as this vast spread in Spanish Catalonia, the family owns thousands of wine-producing hectares in Chile and California.

At B.C. liquor stores you can pay between $14.50 and $65 for Torres wines, the latter being a cabernet sauvignon from its Catalonian Mas La Plana vineyard. In 1970, Torres shook up the wine world when one of these Mas La Plana cab-sauvs beat out all its competitors at a kind of wine Olympiad in France. Since then it's been, well, nothing but up. At the same time, Torres has enhanced its reputation by pioneering conservation and environmental issues in Spain and abroad, even at the loss of major grape yields.

At Torres, a mini-train ride takes visitors through lower-level vineyards and a tunnel that, with a multi-media presentation, replicates the year-round life of the estate. Our winery host, Lluis Canellas (despite his name, he's French: "In Spain they tell me it's my one flaw," he laughed), took us through tastings that included a gewürztraminer, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. Near the end of our visit (by now the conversation was pretty spirited), Canellas disappeared, eventually returning with a particularly superior vintage of the Mas La Plana. I haven't forgotten it.

From the higher reaches of the Torres estate, you can see a series of rounded sandstone spires standing alone on the plain. This is Montserrat (meaning "serrated mountain"), an important symbol and place of pilgrimage for Catalonian Spaniards.

It's an hour drive northwest from Torres to Montserrat. Up close the mountains look otherworldly, like bulbous pillars. For that reason, and the presence of crevices and caves, these mountains attracted hermits. An image of Mary is said to have been found in a cave in 880 AD. A Benedictine monastery began to take shape a century later.

Today Montserrat remains a functioning monastery with a world-famous boys' choir. It's also an impressive architectural site, reached by a funicular railway. As well, it's the base for trails and climbs to remote caves and chapels.

On the monastery level, 750 metres above sea level, with spectacular views over the plain, stands a large complex, including hotel and restaurants. An exceptional gallery features works of Impressionists and Expressionists including Picasso and Dali, but as importantly, paintings by significant but less widely known Catalan modernists - artists with names like Rusinol, Casas, Nonell and Mir.

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