Monument Valley: the Vall de Serradell in the Catalan Pyrenees

July 24th, 2008 | Written by Simon Rice|

When it came the storm was as sudden as it was unexpected and the tent was lit up like daylight as lightening flashed around the night sky, surreal in the absence of its accompanying thunder, which was drowned out by the white noise of a series of rushing rapids just outside the ‘door’. As the rain cascaded down the temperature dropped sharply and Lucky, who had briefly stirred at the onset of the deluge, curled herself into an even tighter ball and adopted the classic husky blizzard position; nose tucked firmly up her bum. I did a quick mental inventory of the scene outside, nothing there that a bit of rain would hurt, but the damp had put a stop to any idea of striking camp and getting away early. I badly needed a lie-in, but Lucky needed a long walk more. I resolved to return to Monument Valley.

It sounds like overstating the obvious but one of the lovely things about the Pyrenees is, well, there are so much of them! After spending over twenty years exploring my particular area in the Catalan province of Lleida I still get the occasional surprise, or shock even. Circumstance had brought Lucky, my lupine Husky/German Shepherd cross, and I camping alone for three days. The only full day was to be occupied with business, sadly, but the evening we arrived and made camp I’d planned to re-visit the Val Fosca, meaning ‘The Dark Valley’ in Catalan, to update my image bank of the region. But as I approached the entrance to the valley, at the Congost de Erinya, I saw that ominous clouds were already forming over the high peaks beyond, so on a whim I turned off into the valley of the Riu de Serradell. I hadn’t been there for well over twenty years, when we’d been disappointed by a failed house purchase, so maybe that explains why I’d never been back. This time my eyes were for the valley, not for bricks and mortar, and I was amazed as I approached the village and the landscape opened out in front of me. Nothing for it but to boot up and take an hour’s exploration – much to Lucky’s delight!

What is it that makes a landscape so stunning? Certainly not sheer size as in this case the valley is dwarfed by the higher ranges just to the north and the two local big sierras, Boumort and Montsec. Walking the mile or so (a couple of kilometres at most) of farm track towards the Obac de Serradell, the last flat, cultivated space at the head of the valley, it struck me that here quite the opposite was the case; even though the landscape is big, even by Spanish standards, it is small enough to be constantly changing as I walked up the valley, with new vistas and facets emerging with every turn. Plus there is a lovely juxtaposition between the bare cliffs and the wooded slopes that reach up to them from the valley floor. Meanwhile, the domesticity of the immediate surroundings, with their rolling meadows and quaint bordes, or field barns, contrasted with the primordial appearance of the dense forest and the heavily eroded slopes. It was on this short stroll that I decided that some day I’d explore a ‘proper’ walk and came up with the name for it; Monument Valley. Sooner than expected, then, we were back. Still ill prepared, no map, no details, but with a cool morning ahead and plenty of willpower to thoroughly enjoy the few hours that we had left of the weekend.

Driving up towards Serradell the six kilometres of sinuous lane snake among tiny meadows and glades of oak and ash trees. The valley has a strange combination of agricultures. I usually associate olive groves with wheat fields and vineyards, and with the rearing of sheep and goats. But here the olives were interspersed with grass cultivation; it was haymaking time, and the tiny fields with the cut hay waiting for the baler reminded me of Cantabria rather than Catalonia. Some meadows had electric fences installed (useless for goats!), and sure enough, around the next bend there were dun cows with their offspring meditatively chewing the cud – much to Lucky’s amazement, she’d hardly ever seen a cow before, let alone a calf. Suddenly, the olive trees disappeared, and pine trees began to predominate the view. This is the Bosc de Serradell, and I began to gaze in wonder as the true nature and extent of the valley began to unfold. As the lane passes along the northern flank of the east-west running valley, much of the ‘view’ is over pine forests, which turn out to be plantation dating from the nineteen-fifties, but important stands of indigenous European box (Buxus sempervirens) and beach (Fagus sylvatica) trees, whose origins date from the cooler quaternary epoch, continue to thrive among the more sheltered slopes.

Serradell itself is tiny, with about thirty-odd houses all clinging around a hump of mountainside below glowering cliffs. The rocks hereabouts are all conglomerate dating from the Oligocene period. These formations crop up all over Catalonia and the best-known example is probably the Montsant range in Tarragona. Here though, and in the nearby Collegats ravine, the rocks have a very distinct pink hue and from a distance one could confuse them for sandstone; especially as the soft rock is subject to wind erosion giving the cliffs a voluptuous curving form. Furthermore, rainwater erosion, which works away wearing down exposed faces down the sides of the cliffs leave huge columns standing apart where the tip has been capped by large boulders. These sometimes have a cathedral like magnitude. There are caves visible which break the surface up into lateral lines and deep vertical scars of watercourse carve the cliffs into lobes. A sign in the village points to a walk to the Font d’Aigüafresca, the Cold Water Spring, and it’s true; spring water from this rock is extra cold! Serradell is a pretty village that clambers up the hillside with covered alleyways more typical in style to those of the high-Pyrenees. Several of the houses were being restored and those that were finished had a tendency to ‘tweeness’ that spoke of serious money. As we left the village and walked further into the valley isolated bordes, which used to be used as barns and stabling for the livestock, were also being done up, and the prevalence of Swiss registered cars confirmed the impression.

One the first excursion I’d seen a signpost for the Cova de Cuberes. I had a vague recollection of remains of prehistoric human occupation in the valley and decided to make this the aim of my walk, but as the lane petered out at the very last borda there was no sign of any cave (here is the information that I was missing, thanks to the excellent Palau Robert Institute). Instead a marked forest trail began, with the obvious intention of heading up and over the Coll de Serradell (1,550m approx.), which was clearly visible although at a somewhat frightening angle of ascent! Nothing for it but to press on into the dank forest so in we went. The trail is marked with the standard red and white stripes and but for them I would have a) given up and/or b) got hopelessly lost! Deep and dank the forest certainly was and I was glad of Lucky’s company on many occasions. She is indeed lupine in her habits and manner as having been born and raised in the Pyrenees she’s used to having free rein in the open woodland around our house in the nearby Conca de Tremp, but here in the forest it’s definitely no-go. I’m used to not seeing much of the fauna while out and about with the dogs but with Lucky’s unerring sense of smell and acute hearing causing her to pause almost every few yards one has a great sense of their presence. Squirrels and martens are a frequent sighting though, as Lucky adopts the pointer position towards some tree or other. Meanwhile walking alone gives time to ponder on one’s vulnerability and the fragility of life in general – not a good time to remember that no-one in the world knows where you are – I’d tried the mobile phone coverage earlier on – no chance! So I hung onto the dog for more than just physical support as the path began a steep zigzag ascent of around three hundred metres. Near the top, as we passed out of the now sweltering forest onto a nasty traverse across a section of cliff face, Lucky froze once again, looking back across the deep ravine that we had just climbed. She was fixed on the seemingly bare rock face opposite and as I caught my breath I could hear the tip tapping of hooves on hard rock. Try as I may I could see nothing, however, despite being only about fifty metres away across the yawning divide. I guessed they were Izards (Rupicapra pyrenaica pyrenaica) as these are the most common hoofed mammal species hereabouts. They may well have been in the trees that crept up to the foot of the rocks but I felt frustrated all the same; there was a strange intimacy between us, so alone all the way up here. Who knows how long it was, or would be, since any other human had been here?

The climb turned out to be a chimera, reaching one peak just gave me a better view of the subsequent section (in fact I’d only climbed about a hundred and fifty metres from the bottom of the cliff, plus about the same again from the village!), and I had to face the facts that I was ill prepared, it was now getting seriously hot and that I had to be back home in the city that same afternoon. So after a breather we set off back. As we left the shoulder of rock and re-entered the forest we heard a fox give a valedictory yelp, reclaiming his own, perhaps. The steep path turned out to be almost as hard going down as it was up; the curse of the husky owner being that they pull with equal force in both directions and never seem to tire! So I was glad to emerge into the strengthenig sunlight and regain the farm track on the valley floor. It gave me plenty of time to ponder our relation with nature in its more raw aspects. Ahead of me lay the trappings of civilisation; the car, good music, good food and more, none of which I would readily do without, but for the immediate future what we both wanted was to get down to the icy cold waters of Lake Sant Antoni!