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In Search of Picasso in Terra Alta

Gain an insider's view of Horta de Sant Joan, the heart of Terra Alta's rural revival.

In the summer of 1898 Manuel Pallarès invited his art school friend to his childhood village of Horta de Sant Joan in rural Catalonia. Busy sketching and exploring, the visit extended through winter, its role in shaping the direction of 20th century art still unknown. Pallarès’ friend, a 15-year-old Pablo Picasso, was captivated by all he saw – an untamed wildlife, peasants going about their daily noble task, a vernacular architecture whose geometric shapes cast stark shadows under the Spanish sun – inspiring the artist’s early forays into Cubism during his second visit in 1909. Picasso’s relationship with Horta de Sant Joan would remain intimate until the end of his days, declaring later in life “Tot el que sé ho he après a Horta” translated from Catalan as “Everything I know I learned in Horta."

The medieval streets of Horta de Sant Joan leading to the Picasso Museum
The medieval streets of Horta de Sant Joan leading to the Picasso Museum.

The allure of Horta de Ebro, renamed Horta de Sant Joan in the early 20th century, endures well into the 21st, and not only for Picasso enthusiasts. A hamlet on a hilltop, its privileged location at the foot of Els Ports Mountains has beckoned the likes of the Moors and the Knights Templar, its mix of early Gothic and Renaissance architecture reflecting a history at once affluent, mystical, heretical and artistic. Relics of a bygone era are still present (public announcements are made on loud speakers every morning) reconfirming the pristine, if primitive life which fascinated Picasso more than a century ago.

At 200 kilometers from Barcelona, Horta de Sant Joan remains romantically remote.

View from Horta of Els Ports Mountains
View from Horta of Els Ports Mountains. The region's natural beauty inspired young Picasso. © Maïté Cardon

Horta, as its locally referred to, is one of 12 municipalities in Terra Alta, a sort of modern day final frontier before entering the ancient Kingdoms of Aragón to the west and Valencia to the south. With a population today half of that when Picasso visited, the region was later ravaged by the Spanish Civil War. It seemed both Horta and all of Terra Alta were destined to become part of “La España Vacía,” what Sergio del Molino coined in his 2016 memoir describing a desolate Spanish hinterland filled with crumbling columns and ghosts of past glory. Yet the opposite happened.

« Unlike Molino's 'Empty Spain', Terra Alta is in the midst

of a quiet rural revival. »

Skirting the tourism boom of the 1960s and 70s that left a pockmarked Spanish coast, Terra Alta has kept its tradition intact and centuries old olive and almond groves unspoiled. Wine and olive oil co-ops, valuing quantity over quality during the Franco regime, have given way to world- class production by artisans both local and from abroad. Unlike the crumbling estates and untilled fields of Molino's “Empty Spain”, Terra Alta is in the midst of a quiet rural revival.

Picasso made dozens of sketches of the region. To the left, Horta de Sant Joan

Young talent has harnessed the potential of the terroir’s superstar grenache, securing Terra Alta’s D.O. a place on wine lists in Barcelona and beyond. Artisan brewers and producers have traded in corporate jobs in search of a deeper relationship with the land and its heritage. Such is the case of Toni Beltrán, who left Barcelona and returned to his family’s 12th century house where he founded Identitat, recently awarded best olive oil in the Ebro region. Dilapidated country houses have been restored as handsome rural accommodations outfit with organic vegetable gardens and infinity pools. Michelin star chefs have taken note.

Modernist interior of La Catedral de Vi, Pinell de Brai
Modernist interior of La Catedral de Vi, Pinell de Brai.

Where John Deeres still chug through town square and old men converse in the jargon of their grandparents, old and new mingle effortlessly. With summer upon us and Spain easing travel restrictions, Terra Alta’s physical beauty, sparse population and isolation – the hallmarks of Picasso’s intrigue – check all the boxes as an ideal destination in a post Covid reality.

"La Bassa", Picasso's 1909 cubist masterpiece
"La Bassa", Picasso's 1909 cubist masterpiece ©MoMA

Newer initiatives include La Via Verde, a 100- kilometer path of old rail line converted into biking trails which snakes its way through the canyons of Terra Alta to the banks of the Ebro River. La Catedral de Vi, or wine cathedral, is a rare example of rural Modernist architecture crowning the sleepy village of Pinell de Brai. Built as a wine co-op by César Martinez, a disciple of Antoni Gaudí, today it offers guided tastings and a seasonal menu promoting the gastronomy of the Ebro River Valley. And there's El Centro Picasso, equal parts museum and homage to its adopted son. Housed in a stately 3 story building which served as Horta’s hospital in the 1500s, its walls are covered with maps, period pieces and facsimiles of every sketch, drawing and painting Picasso ever made while in Horta. I asked a local resident if “La Bassa”, Picasso’s 1909 Cubist masterpiece painted just down the road, should stay in the MoMA in New York or if it belonged in Horta. She paused for a moment and smiled: “We don’t want to have security guards in Horta. Let them keep it. » •

Reserve a privately led experience across the arts, culture & cuisine of Terra Alta on our Half Day and Full Day Experiences.

Jonathan Lerner is the founder & CEO of Tailored Tours based in Terra Alta. Tailored Tours curates cultural & gastronomic experiences in Spain and across Europe.

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