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Catalonian Town of Cardona Is Worth Its Salt

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Meisler, a veteran foreign correspondent, recently spent three months in Spain</i>

This little mining town of the towering castle and sweeping vistas is so deep within the Catalonia region of Spain that some people look a little puzzled when they hear a question in Spanish. They understand, of course, but sometimes reply in the language in which they feel most comfortable--Catalan.

Cardona is less than two hours’ drive from Barcelona--35 miles beyond the sacred Catalan mountain and monastery of Montserrat--but, in spirit, it is as far into the heartland of Catalonia as anyone can go. The Catalans dwell there alongside two mountains--one noted for its salt, the other for its wondrous castle, which now houses a historic 65-room parador .

The town, founded in the 10th Century as a fortress against the Arabs, was once the seat of a province ruled by the dukes of Cardona, who lived atop one mountain in a castle that enveloped a simple Romanesque church. The golden-brown castle, embellished over centuries with fortifications and a tower, has been restored and transformed into one of the most spectacular paradors in all of Spain, known as the Dukes of Cardona Parador. (The government-run paradors , a network of inns situated in castles, convents, mansions and hotels, reflect the character of their various regions.)

The castle complex, with its additions and rebuildings from many centuries, is so picturesque that it seems to crop out of a fantasy. Perhaps that is why some visitors, once they have driven up the mountain to the parador , feel no need to leave it at all during their stay in Cardona.

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It includes portions of a Gothic cloister, a ducal patio, an old cistern, the Church of San Vicente and the tower, where, according to legend, the daughter of the Viscount of Cardona was imprisoned by her brothers because she had fallen in love with a Moor. As the story goes, she died there within a year.

Within the parador , there are a number of salons, a bar, a cellar bodega and dining room with beamed ceilings and heraldic tapestries.

And in fact, the vistas from the castle are remarkable: One sees the salt mountain that was once the source of Cardona’s wealth, the idle potassium mines, the devil’s bridge (actually an arch-like structure built over the Cardener River in the 15th Century so pilgrims could make their way to Montserrat), the long agricultural plain leading toward distant, craggy mountains, and directly below, the crowded old town of perhaps 7,000.

Moreover, the castle itself demands several hours of exploration. Its Church of San Vicente, built in 1040, retains a grand simplicity with its procession of Romanesque arches. Some of the early dukes of Cardona were buried there, but marauding armies either destroyed or carted away most of the sculpted tombs in long-ago wars. Its frescoes have been stripped; some were discovered during the restoration of the parador in 1956 and sent to the Museum of Catalan Romanesque Art in Barcelona. But a lovely 14th-Century patio leads from the church to the parador that is part of the old ducal apartments of the castle.

Despite all the fun of exploring the nooks and wonders of the castle, it would be a loss not to descend into the town of Cardona. The town itself is a quiet place where the elderly and unemployed take their coffee and brandy every morning in the open air of the public square that offers the best vista of the castle. The shops are crowded into a few blocks of pedestrian-friendly streets.

The merchants offer rock-salt sculptures as souvenirs, and the town bakers pride themselves on producing a hard, almost rock-like cookie that’s worth a gingerly test for tourists with strong teeth. The massive Church of St. Miquel, built in Catalan Gothic style in the medieval era, dominates the main town square. A visitor can scamper up and down the salt mountain, only a few blocks from the center of town, but the mountain no longer provides any wealth for Cardona.

Like the rest of Catalonia, the dukes of Cardona chose the wrong side in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 18th Century, sending their Catalan soldiers to fight alongside Austrian soldiers against the combined Spanish and French forces. The Catalans believed that the Austrians would protect their rights more than the Spaniards. But the Catalans and Austrians were defeated. This defeat gradually led to the end of the dynasty of the Cardona dukes and the on-and-off-again suppression of Catalonia by Spanish central governments over the years.

Suppression was at its worst during the years of the Francisco Franco dictatorship. Catalonia had fought in defense of the Spanish Republic against the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s planes bombed the castle in Cardona then. After the war, Franco tried to wipe out Catalan nationalism. But he failed, and the Catalans now enjoy a good deal of autonomy and the full use of their native language in a democratic Spain. Catalan, for example, is now the main medium for education in Catalonia.

The decline of Cardona as an administrative center and supplier of salt over the centuries has led to a dispersal of its people throughout Spain and the rest of the world. Many now carry the surname Cardona. In 1986, celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the grant of a town charter to Cardona by the Count of Barcelona in 986, the town invited all those in the world named Cardona to join in the celebration.

When Juan Ratera, who had been in charge of the invitation list, heard that my Colombian-born stepchildren carry the name Cardona, he came out of the back of his grocery store to greet us.

“About 2,000 Cardonas came to town to celebrate, most of them from the United States,” Ratera told us rather formally. “I am sorry you were not there. But, to be honest, I did not invite anyone from Colombia. I was afraid to do so. I have just heard too many stories about all the crime and drugs there.”

He then piled a reprint of the 986 charter and a host of pamphlets about Cardona and its salt mountain upon the boys. “Next time we celebrate,” he said, “I promise to invite you.”

But you do not have to be named Cardona to enjoy the beauty and warmth of this Catalan town with its magnificent castle and great salt mountain.

GUIDEBOOK

Cardona

Getting there: Cardona is best approached by car on the A-19 super-highway toll road that goes from Barcelona past Sabadell and Terrassa to Manresa, a total of 42 miles. Then continue on highway 1411 for 20 miles to Cardona. About a third of the way up from Barcelona, visitors can stop for an hour or two at Montserrat, the holy city and church of Catalonia.

Where to stay: It would be foolish to come to Cardona and fail to stay at the National Parador Dukes of Cardona, one of the finest government paradors in Spain. The prices of rooms vary from about $60-$75.

Where to eat: The choice is limited. Of course, visitors can eat at the parador . Newcomers to Catalonia should try such typical dishes as the bread baked with tomatoes and anchovies, Catalan spinach (filled with pine nuts) and creme Catalan (a custard burned much like the French creme brule).

For more information: Contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 938, Beverly Hills 90211, (213) 658-7193.


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