Some visitors call it the Manhattan of the Priorat because its buildings are tall and narrow, rising six or seven stories high like mini-department stores. Each floor housed something different: grains, nuts, wine, animals or people.
Perhaps the village was founded by one of the two Vilella brothers and named baixa (a fall or descent). As the legend says, if you drop a crate of grapes in Vilella Alta, they will roll into Vilella Baixa, which sits in the verdant valley where the Siurana and Montsant rivers converge. The abandoned waterwheel for milling grains along the Montsant River is next to the Moorish tower, a reminder that the village’s origins are much older than the documented year of 1286. It is this waterwheel that defines the village crest.
Narrow streets, including Carre de No Passa (street of no passage), lead to the village center where medieval walls provided shelter during more turbulent times. El Centro market and its house-made patés are well known throughout the region.
When the two rivers formed this valley, they deposited sedimentary clay soils and alluvial rocks. Carinyena is predominant here, along with Garnatxa and other varieties. Located in the west, the area is hot but it has a high water table, which provides refreshment to the struggling vines.
On a clear day the villages appear across the landscape like wedding cakes sprawling down hillsides. They are close enough to each other to feel connected, but before there were roads, which was not that long ago, they were too far apart to reach in a day. Imagine working in the vineyards, seeing a friend on a hillside across the valley collapse from the hot sun and having no cell phone to call for help. These circumstances kept each village reliant upon its own community. But some people managed to fall in love with “exotic” spouses from other villages, though they were all intrinsically bound by the Montsant.
Technically there are nine villages in the Priorat. Only the land around El Molar and Falset is within the DOQ Priorat, not the villages themselves. Scala Dei is technically part of La Morera, but it has its own community and terroir distinctive enough to be referenced independently. Some villages have less than 10% of the population they had at beginning of the century. After the phylloxera epidemic the population plummeted, and by the end of the Franco era the region was in stasis. But the Priorat was not depressed because, while the people had little money, they still had their land and their freedom, which had value all their own.
As the region finds prosperity again, families are returning to their ancestral villages and restoring their family homes along with the regional pride. Narrow pedestrian streets now make room for modern cars, but the church squares remain the place for social gatherings. The older generation stroll the streets, recollecting each stone and plant along the way. Some things are changing, but others never will.
Ethos Priorat is vividly panoramic. It is best viewed in landscape format to fully enjoy the experience.