Noticias en ‘Catalan Pyrenees’

September 13th, 2008

A Rushing River Ramble: the Riu Noguera Pallaresa

Dryads of mist rose and swirled among the trees and around the tent as the previous day’s torrential rain had left the ground sodden and the air decidedly chilly. But above the canopy we could see clear blue sky that hinted of a fine day to come. This Sunday was certainly not a morning for lounging around with the papers, so nothing else for it but to rouse The Pack and get down to our more or less eternal task of enlarging our list of ‘Favourite Walks’ that we leave for guests at Casa Rafela.

In its brief life the river Noguera Pallaresa passes through several distinct landscapes; high Pyrenean meadows, deep ravines like the Collegats (see ‘Gaudí on a Natural High? August 18th), or the spectacular Congost de Terradets. Terradets is in limestone country but here, on the stretch between Gerri de la Sal and Baro, there’s a swirling mishmash of rock types in the interstitial zone between the pre-Pyrenees and the granite massifs of the Pyrenees proper. Outcrops of red ironstone mingle with swathes of conglomerate and schist. The river, oblivious to this primordinal drama, meanders along the narrow valley, indolently slicing the harder rock into steep cliffs and depositing silt along quiet intermediate level stretches. The cliff sections hardly qualify as ravines, many are only fifty or so metres long with cascades of white water over the still eroding substrate. These stretches make the area ideal for rafting, specialised outward bound companies operate out of  the nearby township of Llavorsi. Several are ‘one sided’ as the river simply worked its way around obstacles, following a pre-determined path of softer rock. Here the forest sweeps majestically down to the riverside and at odd places huge oak trees have been undercut by the swiftly flowing waters and lie at crazy angles, their upper branches dipping into the water and making little dingles of shale and gravel in their wake.

Our route follows the trail from the roadside village of Baro to the hermitage of Mare de Deu d’Arbolo. Baro was an ancient fording place that grew to become a village from around the XIV C as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age of the XVIII C. This made life in the higher villages untenable in winter. In the upland valleys important settlements, like the Bronze Age village of Santa Creu de Llagunes, which is thought to have been inhabited from around 1500 BCE, were completely abandoned as early as the turn of the XIII C. We are able to cross the river at Baro by the new Pont d’Arcalís, which lies alongside the earlier suspension bridge there. If the name sounds familiar there’s a well-known folk music group who have adopted it as their moniker.

From here the track winds in and out of the forest, sometimes running alongside water meadows where small herds of the indigenous Pyrenean Brown Cow, the Vaca Bruna, idly chew the cud. The great asset of this walk is the way the path is endlessly varied, climbing gently up and down the hillside and giving alternate views over the surrounding mountain scenery, or peering down to the river almost vertically below. The presence of the road is swiftly forgotten as the noise of the rushing river drowns out any hint of passing traffic, and in any event there are two tunnels where the road disappears entirely, leaving the riverbank to the wildlife and occasional visitors like ourselves. These reaches of the river are known for otters (Lutra lutra), called Llúdria in Catalan, and the woods are a haunt of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), or Gal Fer.

This sylvan reach of the river ends abruptly at the hermitage, which is perched on a shoulder of rock high above the river at a ‘real’ ravine. The hermitage is well preserved and mass is still held there during fiestas. There are numerous hermitages in this region, I can think of a dozen off the top of my head. Although many are completely in ruins and very difficult to access several are the focus of meetings called ‘aplecs’ where as well as doing the pious bit the locals very sensibly settle down to a good meal! Here are Arboló there’s a lovely terraced area with a built-in picnic table and we settle for elevenses under the watchful eye of a dozen or so griffon vultures circling above the cliffs on the opposite bank. Meanwhile a heron took off along the river far below, much too far for a photograph, even if I had kept the camera switched on!

Later, while Mrs Simon explored our El Carillet walk in the nearby Val Fosca, I was reflecting on the morning’s walk when another heron flew slowly down the adjacent riverbank, just under the canopy of trees. I’m no birder but I’ve always been lucky with herons; as a schoolboy I was on nodding acquaintance with one as I cycled to school of a morning (hard to imagine that journey now in this age of the ubiquitous ‘School Run’, a two-mile ride into the village to catch the bus there for the remaining six miles into ‘Town’!). I love the heron’s quiet dignity, a far cry from the raucous gregariousness of the griffons. That word ‘raucous’ put me in mind of the Catalan, ‘rauxa’, which is much more than just a word! Rauxa and seny represent the duality of the Catalan character. Many newcomers to Spain, and we were all newcomers once upon a time, come expecting all Spaniards to have the fey bravado so well summed up by Ian Gibson in the title of his book ‘Fire in the Blood’. So it comes as a shock to find a people notorious for their diligence, level headedness and, if you believe what many other Spaniards say about them, a rather slavish regard for money. These anglosajón qualities, or rather anglosaxó as it would be said here, are summed up by the word seny, which implies a canny, common sensical pragmatism (the Scottish word, nous, is probably the best translation) that is indeed highly valued hereabouts. But life would be very boring, anglosaxó indeed, if this summed up the entire Catalan mentality. Fortunately for them, and ‘tourists’ like ourselves, this is counterbalanced by rauxa, which has been feebly translated as ‘rashness’. But rauxa is far more than this. We’d been having a seny weekend, getting back in touch with the earth and the stars and recuperating from a manic summer, but more than that preparing ourselves for the rauxa ordeal to come. For back home in the city of Tarragona, in secret caverns, mysterious beasts are stirring, literally warming up for the mayhem soon to be unleashed upon its citizens!

Gaudí on a Natural High? The Argenteria waterfall, Congost de Collegats, Lleida

It’s not been so very long ago that a trip to the upper Noguera Pallaresa valley, beyond the town of La Pobla de Segur, was quite an adventure. The conditions of the roads were ‘as built’ and with numerous patches and repairs. Anyone with experience of pre-EU Spanish roads will know what that means, patches on patches on patches! Furthermore, the road itself was ‘engineered’ sometime between 1886, when the road arrived at La Pobla, and 1924, when the road over the Port de Bonaigua and into the Val d’Aran was opened, so the curves were, shall we say, interesting! Almost the first obstacle one encountered was the Congost de Collegats ravine, where the road twists and turns for what seems like miles, ducking down to the river or lurching along precipitous cliff faces, where the telephone lines were fixed directly onto the rock wall and a dementedly driven Pegaso truck seemed to lurk around every blind corner. Throughout years of short holiday trips the pretty village of Gerri de la Sal seemed a good enough goal to aim for, as indeed it still is. But, even more, the ravine itself contains a hidden treasure. It’s ironic that since the new road was blasted through the ravine during the early 1990′s (almost all of it through long tunnels thanks to the sterling efforts of environmentalists reclassifying the ravine as a protected area), and the original road is now an official footpath, one of the region’s few ‘tourist attractions’, which even rates ** ‘worth a detour’ in the Michelin Guide, has been eclipsed. Notwithstanding a rather forlorn looking car park at the end of the north tunnel and one of the ubiquitous hideous brown heritage signs pointing to it, the fact is the sub-species Homo sapiens michelinnus won’t get out of their cars and walk a few hundred yards for anything that isn’t spoon fed to them – poor fools!

Needless to say, having a genuine, Michelin starred attraction in their midst has led certain less scrupulous locals, with an eye for the main chance perhaps, to be rather hyperbolic. But the urban myth surrounding the Argenteria waterfall has a touch of genius. Not only does the idea that Gaudí’s design for the Nativity Façade of the famous Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona was inspired by it has a grain of credibility but also, as Gaudí did indeed travel around Catalonia during his early years as a participator in the contemporary trend for Excursionisme, it is at least theoretically possible that it’s true!

It is axiomatic that Gaudí incorporated themes and elements of the natural world into his work and he is known to have been influenced by such luminaries as John Ruskin and William Morris. Moreover his work bursts with representations of nature, especially in the Nativity Façade , so why not this example? (courtesy of NB I don’t like copying images so crave your indulgence by opening the complementary images in a new tab) The immediate evidence is in the physical impression of similarity a visit to both sites gives. Sadly this doesn’t come across at all well in the photographs but it’s to do with the scale and the sense of power that both structures share. This is heightened by the means of arriving at both sites; as many readers will know the S.F. hits you right between the eyes the first time you come across in, lurking as it does behind the corner of a perfectly ordinary street, or nowadays as you emerge from the glass lift from the new metro station there. Similarly, the Argenteria seems to pop out of the rest of the cliff face only as one passes it close by; otherwise it is swallowed up within the grandeur of the whole scene.

Then there is the devil in the detail. Compare this element in the Façade (with thanks to Barcelona Photoblog) to these views of the Argenteria: Here in the globular looking masonry that frames scenes from the Nativity has the look of melted candles, giving an impression in stone of fluidity. These ‘arches’ of ‘melted rock repeat throughout the whole Façade. This conical form is repeated in the Argenteria; although this is a result of water erosion rather than an igneous process, the conical shape has a vivid similarity. This is reinforced with repetition up and across the rock face as it does in the Façade. Furthermore, little ‘vignettes’ of vegetation, nesting birds, etc. under the frames formed by the rock resemble the various Nativity scenes in the Façade.

Another example is in the way strange reptilian beasts leer down from on high on the Façade, seeming to emerge from the molten rock as if out of the primordial slime itself! Similarly, strange glowering forms left by calcium deposit dotted around the edges of the Argeneria leave an equally eerie impression. In fact the Argenteria gives a strong feeling of the power of elemental forces. Perhaps the most striking element is the contorted strata of the exposed face of sedimentary rock right alongside. To get an idea of scale, note the fully-grown trees dotted around the structure. That such huge sections of solid rock are twisted and torn like so many sheets of paper is truly awe inspiring. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of this blog (it’s certainly beyond my scope!) to posit that Gaudí drew parallels between the Nativity story and the Creation. This portrayal of the latter in terms of the emergence of animals and plants from a morass has so much resonance with the imagery of modern ideas of the origin of life on earth that it is certainly too tempting to suggest an influence there; that would be a very big leap indeed! Apart from anything else the timeframe is all wrong; Darwin talked about the Origins of Species not the origins of life itself.

Back to the Urban Myth idea, a quick Google search reveals the nature of the beast. Here’s an entry by an anonymous contributor to the MisPueblos, a sponsored blog about villages in Spain (NB. errors in translation are all mine):

me dijo un historiador que aquí venía Gaudí en bicicleta para inspirarse y coger croquis de de los encantos de la roca para realizar la Sagrada Familia y su Arte.”
” I’m told by a historian that Gaudí came here by bicycle to take sketches of the charms of the rocks and to be inspired for the Sagrada Familia and his Art.”

A more inclusive entry on a commercial travel site,, includes the poet Jacint Verdaguer  (1845 – 1902), Catalonia’s emblematic dead poet, who devotes a few lines to the Argenteria in his epic poem Canigó of 1885:

Així trobem: l’estret de Collegats amb l’Argenteria, que fou font d’inspiració per a Gaudí i Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer . . .
“Here we find: the Collegats ravine with the Argenteria, which was a source of inspiration for Gaudí and Friar Cinto Verdaguer . . .”

A personal report comes from a pair of tourists, Laura and Jordi, writing in Gallician and Mallorcan respectively, on their voyage along the Pyrenees:

Paga la pena aparcar el cotxe al congost i fer una excursioneta fins a l’Argenteria, una formació rocosa que, segons diuen, va inspirar a Gaudí a l’hora de construir la Sagrada Família.”
“It’s worthwhile to park the car and take a short walk to the Argenteria, a rocky formation which, so they say, inspired Gaudí’s idea for the Sagrada Familia.”

Now the Lleida tourist board description:

“. . . la Argenteria, lugar en que dicen se inspir Antoni Gaudí para crear la fachada del edificio de la Pedrera.”
“. . .the Agenteria, the place which is said to have inspired Gaudí to create the façade of the La Pedrera building.”

Note the subtle change to the La Pedrera building in Passeig de Gracia. This has led to a change of direction recently. Here’s a description in English from, which looks like an NGO but is in fact a “tourism interactive .com LTD business” – and very good of them to point this out in miniscule writing!

“The Catalan intelligentsia have been coming to admire the scenery here for well over a century, and the portion of the canyon labelled L’Argenteria, with its sculpted, papier-mâche-like rockface streaked with rivulets, supposedly inspired Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera apartment building in Barcelona.”

I can’t quite see the similarity to La Pedrera, but I’ll take their word for it – as far as I take anyone’s! There are altogether too many passive references that fail to identify the source for my liking; and that, “supposedly”, in the final description certainly looks suspicious! I’ve no doubt at all that all of these remarks have been made in good faith, however, I heard the myth back in the 1980′s long before people started writing blogs or building tourist websites, but maybe it’s now time to seek some clarification. I’ll be visiting Barcelona in September to have another look at the subjects in question. Meanwhile, at least the Verdaguer poem is carved in stone on a monument at the site. As for Gaudí, well it’s August, we’re in Spain and my only source of an actual definitive life of Gaudí is in the library, which is closed for the duration. So see this blog in a few weeks’ time for The Truth!

Monument Valley: the Vall de Serradell in the Catalan Pyrenees

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!