Noticias en ‘Catalan Culture’

March 24th, 2011

Vall de Gerber

Early Autumn brought warm weather to the Catalan Pyrenees – ideal for walking high in the mountains north of the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, where Lucky is prohibited from running free. Access to this high glacial valley is easy as the entrance is near to the Port de la Bonaigua pass, which seperates the vally of the Noguera Pallaresa from the Vall d’Aran – the anomalous region, which, being on the northern watershed of the mountains, would otherwise be in France.

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That’s not to say it is an easy ride, however, as tthe Vall de Gerber is a hanging valley and the start of the walk passes through dense forest and some scrabbling was required – but  it was all good practice for seeking wild fruit! The Catalan for raspberries is ‘gerds’ and they were so prolific that I wondered if the name ‘Gerber’ was linked – I doubt it though!

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Soon we reached the glacial valley proper, with a delighful tarn on the edge of the forest – and the precipice – the sound of the nearby cascade was deafening after the solitude of the woods.

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But we persevered, Lucky and I. In dog years she’s in her ‘seventies’ and it was saddening to find that she’d lost some of her zeal since we had last walked seriously in Spring – before being grounded by the summer heat. But she was bouncy as ever when it came to games of hide and seek among the striated rocks – the scars left by passing glaciers – that strew the valley floor.

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Surrounded by high peaks such as the 2656 m Tuc de Locampo (centre) the main tarn, or estany, was a welcome sight when we finally got there – that pure water was irrrsistible!

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Refreshed, we headed home . . .

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Not forgetting the gerds, which came in handy for bribing the Car Park Security!

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In Hannibal’s footprints?

Late October gave me a brief respite from the weather to test a pet theory of mine. The Roman historian Polibius noted that Hannibal’s route led through zones occupied by tribes called Arenosis and Andosins, which are now believed to be the Val d’Aran and Andorra. Leaving the latter to one side (with good reason!) I decided to make a round trip on my motorbike through the two possible routes into/out of the Val d’Aran: a green lane that follows the course of the river Noguera Pallaresa right up to its source on the Pla de Beret, and a return trip on the black stuff over the Bonaigües pass, which now hosts the main C28 highway.

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The view from Borén towards the beginnng of the green lane section

The Noguera Pallaresa appears to branch off into a smaller valley from the small town of Esterri d’Aneau, but it is the major branch in fact. The ‘main’ valley is that of the Bonaigüa river, which gives its name to the pass, the Port de Bonaigües. After passing through a narrow stretch the road, now a tarmacadamed lane (C-147), passes through the picturesque villages of Isavarre, Borén, Isil and finally Alós d’Isil and one gets an idea of the terrain still to be negotiated further up into the mountains.

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Packhorse bridges like this are a common feature all along the river Noguera Pallaresa

The first stretch of the cami rural from Alos d’Isil is asphalt, but it is very narrow and quite alarming as the visibilty is poor. It also overlooks a precipice into the rushing waters far below! But this lane soon changes to a rutted track beyond the mountain refuge, the Refugi de Fornet, from here on the valley opens out somewhat and the riding is much easier.

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Have BMW G650 X-Country - aka the Flying Banana - will travel!

As one gets higher and the valley’s orientation veers to the west, the trail leads into deep forest. Quite a shock to me as I was banking on encountering open, dry surfaces. I had inherited the bike’s original swanky Metzler hybrid tyres, which were also more than half-worn out. So I had plenty to occupy my mind as there was plenty of squelchy mud as the lane runs along the dark southern side of the valley, much less drying sunlight!

The autum tints are truly superb - depite being a 'Reserva Natural' green laning is allowed, encouraged even. Restricted trails are clearly signed, but whatever you do don't appear to be holding an organised rally, let alone a race!

The autum tints are truly superb - depite being a 'Reserva Natural' green laning is allowed, encouraged even. Restricted trails are clearly signposted.

I’m still a novice at green lane riding (and at my age every learning curve is that much steeper!) but I would judge this route to be quite easy – it would have to be! But the route does have a bit of everything; ‘staircases’ of steep, switchback bends, fords across rushing streams and lots and lots of inquisitive horses and cattle, all waiting to be herded down to the lower valleys before the onset of winter!

In the sunny uplands: - thanks to temperature inversion due to high pressure it was over 25C at 2,700 metres!

In the sunny uplands: - thanks to temperature inversion due to high pressure it was over 25C at 2,700 metres!

All in all I was grateful to reach  ‘civilsation’ at the ski station on the Pla de Beret itself – at 2,700 metres I felt I had had quite a climb! From here one passes over an escarpment into the Val d’Aran itself – with some spectacular views!

Down into the dark, dark valley - plunging into the shadows of evening with temperatures falling quickly sub-zero is one of the 'pleasures' of riding in the Pyrenean off season!

Down into the dark, dark valley - plunging into the shadows of evening with temperatures falling quickly sub-zero is one of the 'pleasures' of riding in the Pyrenean off season!

The Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – part 2

We began our return trip to the high Pyrenees with a visit to the annual horse fair at Esterri d’Àneu, almost at the end of the Noguera Pallaresa river. Apart from fairs helping bind local communities and provide entertainment during the autumn, they stimulate the local economy in what would otherwise be a quiet period between the summer and the winter months when tourists return for the skiing.

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The stocky Pyrenean breed is not used for riding or even ploughing, however, but are a traditional part of the diet! Turning away from the food tent we were drawn to the procession – complete with its pyrotechnical dragon, El Drac, in this case based on the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus aquitanicus). The protected Gal Fer is endemic to the forests hereabouts and are an emblem of this part of the Pyrenees. I must be one of the few people alive who has actually eaten one – many, many years ago I hasten to add!

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Throughout Catalonia the Caps Grossos always parody local characters and are dressed in traditional costume. A good deal of ribald humour, often self deprecating, accompanies them in a parade.

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We had good reason to go to the fair, however, as the north wind came straight from the Arctic, with a top-up dose of cold as it crossed the highest peaks for good measure. The fair had a splendid market on the fringe, just the place for buying warm hats and gloves in readiness for our day out in the Parc.

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This time we stayed around the Lake of Sant Maurici, whose waters were whipped up by the chill wind. We explored the sylvan woodland along the lakeside, accompanied only by the brave!

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In severe winters avalanches fall through the pine forest, cutting great swathes right down to the valley floor. Surpisingly perhaps, birch trees are the first to repopulate the newly cleared terrain. White birch (Betula pubescens) are a feature of this side of the Parc and it was in such a colony that we had our best moment of the day.

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The red deer are  in the midst of thier rutting season and this stag sported a magnificent set of antlers. Perhaps it was the season that overcame his usual caution and he remained close by during a two-minue ‘stand-off’, facing down our  exited huskies!

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Lucky certainly thought she had landed on the moon; fortunately we were well provided with heavy dury restraint gear! We all slept well that night after our long day – but a good amount of four-legged sleepwalking took place!

Calçotada!

It’s the first weekend of spring and, paradoxically, the last calçotada of the winter!

Eating calçots is unique to Catalonia, in fact it’s even more specific, belonging to the Camp de Tarragona. Although the ‘capital’ of the calçotada is the small town of Valls, which even has a D.O. (Denominació d’origen) for calçots, the trend, or craze perhaps, for eating them has spread far and wide – I’ve even heard of them on flash restaurant menus in Madrid! But to fer calçotada one really has to be in the country, specifically a farm or garden where all the necessary materials are on hand: a big fire pit, firewood and kindling, chairs, tables and above all – no need to worry about the mess!

I’ve given details of the process on the Iberianature web page so here I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves! The Catalans are noted for their sense of ‘seny‘, a sort of canny sensibility, but the reverse is ‘rauxa‘, a word that’s impossible to translate succinctly but which has overtones of riot, raucous and just plain rowdy! Food obsessions such as hunting wild mushrooms or vast trays of snails baked over an open fire are examples of rauxa, but the calçotada has perhaps the most rauxa of all!

Careful attention to detail is all important, of course; good seny ensures that there are plenty of willing hands available to do the ‘man’s’ work!

As always more ‘volunteers’ turn up when all is up and running!

Meanwhile the party gets under way . . .

While yet more go onto the blaze, each batch of calçots is wapped up to keep warm – just like fish and chips!

A slight ‘technical hitch’ causes a brief moment of concern . . .

. . . but all’s well . . .

. . . that ends well . . .

. . .until the second course is ready!

Followed by dessert, coffee and refined parlour games for the ‘children’!

Until it’s time to wave goodbye – and to wash your hands!

There’s a bitter-sweet irony about this calçotada – as the masia is slowly being swallowed up by the city’s inexorable growth. But the integration of urban and rural life is very much a Catalan specialism – with thier long history of migration to centres such as Barcelona, Catalans have learnt to keep thier roots alive by living the culture. Although a calçotada doesn’t quite come off outside of a bucolic location, it’s more about a way of seeing things than the actual event, participation and friendship are at the heart of such festes!

Water, water everywhere: Festa de Sant Magi, Tarragona, August 2008

We walked into our nemesis quite casually. What had started out as a rendez-vous for a look at one of the better parades of Sant Magi, Tarragona’s Festa Major Petita, and a quiet drink in the Plaça de la Font began to take on the all too familiar fiesta fever as friends passed by, stopped, suggested the next place along the trail of the parade . . . Innocent fools that we were, we all thought we’d be safe. After all, this wasn’t Santa Tecla, the city’s Festa Major proper, who’s Chatreuse-charged, pyromaniac debauchery is not for the fainthearted. In contrast, Sant Magi is a staid affair. Both fiestas have their due portions of piety, or course, but their corresponding profane elements, a very necessary counterbalance, are profoundly different; Santa Tecla is above all else about fire, whereas Sant Magi is based around water.

Sant Magi*  himself was probably an III or IV Century hermit who lived in the Sierra de Brufaganya, his hermitage is hidden among cliffs overlooking a delightful secret valley near the headwaters of the Riu Gaià. After the dramatic ravines encountered downstream the landscape beyond the Sierra de Brufaganya opens out to reveal the rolling hill country that separates the Segre basin from the plains of Tarragona. This is wheat and sheep country where the horizons stretch away to the distant Pyrenees. There’s a curious similarity with the English Cotswolds, however, maybe it’s the honey coloured stone of the buildings and the drystone walls that stretch away in all directions. Or perhaps it’s the sense of ominous desolation; in winter this area is bleak, with unstoppable cold dry winds and the few villages have a closed, shut-away atmosphere about them. Life must have been hard indeed for the likes of Sant Magi. Nothing is known in detail about his exploits but it appears that from the early XII Century a cult grew up around his tomb, resulting in the establishment of a monastery or ‘Sanctuary’ alongside. Magi appeared in papal lists of saints in the XVI Century with over 300 miracles accredited to him. By the early XVIII Century the number of pilgrims was such that extra wells had to be dug to cope with the demand for healing waters and it was during alterations to the crypt in 1735 that his remains were found to be uncorrupted and have the ‘odour of sanctity’.

One curiosity from Sant Magi’s iconography is that he holds an Arab scimitar. There’s no possibility of him being involved in the reconquista if we accept that he lived at least two centuries before the Moorish invasion in 711CE. Perhaps his name was invoked as part of a blood-curdling battle cry by subsequent re-conquering heroes. Brufaganya is just about within the sphere of the Counts of Urgell, a rough lot who used to smite the Moors with a will, when they could tear themselves away from smiting each other, and when they smote their enemies stayed well and truly smitten!

The link with Tarragona dates from 1588, when the city’s bishop made a pilgrimage to mark the departure of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps he had family among the ships’ crews as Tarragona had a history of naval jaunts; Catalan King Jaume I, the Conqueror, launched his invasion fleet, said to consist of over 500 vessels, from this coast in 1229 and,

We set sail on Wednesday morning with the land wind behind us . . . and when the men of Tarragona and Cambrils saw the fleet getting under way from Salou, they too made sail, and it was a fine thing for both those on land and for us to watch, for all the sea seemed white with sails, so great was our fleet.**

Pilgrimages to the Sanctuary are also recorded from other towns and villages, and that of nearby Santa Coloma de Queralt is known to have been continuous from those days. A feature is that water from the spring at Brufaganya is carried back. This water is noted for curative powers, most notably for venereal diseases, so it’s always handy to lay a bottle or two. What is certainly true, as proved in actual tests, is that it tastes revolting.

Nowadays the route of the aigüa miraculosa, or miracle water, is followed by a caravan of horses and carts, which carry the water itself. The passage takes two days and its progress is eagerly reported in the local rag, the Diari de Tarragona. As one of Tarragona’s two Festes Majors, the celebrations start well before this, but when the cavalcade finally arrives in the early evening of August the 18th the party really begins. The caravan is joined the seguici popular, or entourage of bands, giants, caps grossos, colles of castellers . . . All in fact, but for the city’s Mythical Beasts, who are kept well and truly under lock and key until they ‘break out’ at Santa Tecla in late September and all hell lets loose! The seguici does several circuits of the mediaeval city centre. One notable feature is that the drovers and crew of the carts bring huge amounts of basil, so as to disperse the fleas, flies and other beasties that they might have picked up in the countryside, and to scent the city with its sweet smell.

There comes a moment in all fiestas when, sometimes after a long gestation as the fiesta really gets in to the swing, one finally just let’s go; the mind losses all sense of being sensible and earnest and all one’s other anglosajon virtues. It happened to our little party when we unwittingly entered the Plaça del Rei, where huge set pieces of carts, barrels and watermelons (another ‘icon’ of the Fiesta, on the first big night, literally called La Sindriada, crowds queue up to buy slices of deliciously refreshing watermelon for a token 5 cents to a musical accompaniment – it’s all completely silly!). We’d passed this way in previous years and seen the illuminated fountains of water gushing out of the sets, but we had no idea of what was to happen next; a deluge of 35,000 litres of water suddenly soaked us to the skin. There was nothing for it but to go completely crazy and what followed is a blur of recollections; walking through the city, still soaked, passing amongst all the ‘respectable’ folk in their big-night-out night finery going to or coming from the cities packed restaurants, straying into a late night bar and freezing as the powerful air conditioning chilled our damp clothes, falling on a gut busting Full English Breakfast next day with lashings of brown sauce, red sauce, Worcestershire sauce . . . getting stuck among the Xiquets de Tarragona achieving a new personal best tres de nou (nine ‘storeys’ of three persons each, a very fine ‘castle’ indeed!), running into our ‘gang’ during the lethal l’ora del vermut, when the only hangover cure on offer is the proverbial hair-of-the-dog . . .

Postscript: we were flattered reading the report of the fiesta that the Plaça del Rei was filled with jóvenes, as none of our party will see fifty again, and some not even sixty, or maybe even seventy! Having got our guests well and truly slaughtered at Sant Magi I was somewhat dubious about accepting an invitation for a day’s sailing, a first time for me, on their retirement home, the twenty-two ton ketch Samothrace***. But I needn’t have worried, having fixed the date the fickle weather did its worst and laid on a dead calm. But at least I could learn the ropes in peace and the subtleties of keeping her head to the wind, achieving a personal best of 2.4 knots – no match for the automatic pilot’s effortless 2.8!

* With thanks to Dr Graham Jones of Leicester University

** From Jaume’s autobiography, El Llibre dels Feits, or Book of Deeds, translated in Robert Hughes’ Barcelona (1992)

*** Photo courtesy of Dave Gayler

KESSE 08 International Music Festival: Tarragona

Readers of my last blog, Monument Valley (July 24, 2008), will no doubt have questioned my sanity at leaving such a wonderful place just to go back to the big city. Notwithstanding the fact that the following day was Monday with all that that entails, they wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But I had other motives, both general and specific, and it’s only now in retrospect that I see that I was marking a transition from a landscape of natural monuments to those of a built environment. I won’t attempt to emulate Lucy’s wonderful blogs and images on urban wildlife; in any event she literally pipped me to the post! Now that the swifts have gone, vanishing as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared a month or so ago, I’ll have to leave my description of their frantic ‘race’ around Tarragona’s Roman Circus until next year. But to underline a point implicit in these posts; the urban environment is just as ‘natural’ as out in the countryside, but that the impact of mankind is so much more obvious. Furthermore, we, that is, those of us who have an interest in nature and wildlife, de facto readers of Iberianature, sometimes tend to regard towns and especially cities in a negative light, holding the illusory belief that without them nature would revert or maintain itself in a ‘pristine’ state. This is an illusion because the rural environment is so profoundly influenced by human activity that you’d have to go a very long way, certainly away from anywhere on the Iberian Peninsular, to find a completely, natural, i.e. pristine, environment. Indeed, now that we have a scientific onsensus on humanity’s influence on climate change there is nowhere on this planet that isn’t subject to this impact. And even our closest celestial neighbours, the Moon and Mars, now support restos humanos! Be that as it may I just happen to love both the rural and the urban environment, or rather those that conform to my tastes, and that Sunday evening I had a particular wish to observe and indeed participate in, the arcane behaviour of its dominant indigenous species, Homo sapiens!

KESSE, Tarragona’s annual world music festival is small beer by comparison to those of other cities, but the availability of superb open-air venues, mainly based on the medieval plaças, Roman remains like the amphitheatre or the purpose-built Auditori Camp de Mart, a renowned modern ‘tent’ design which has the towering Roman walls as a backdrop, make it something really special. Moreover, its timing, at the end of July, means that it really belongs to the citizens; much of the student population has gone away for the summer recess but the residents don’t start their holidays until August, when the city more or less dies for four weeks or so. KESSE draws some big attractions like Calima (above, more on them later) but the show that drew me back early from my weekend break was the Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona. I’m fascinated by Arabic culture and history, and highly conscious of my lack of knowledge of either, but what made the Orquestra most interesting to me was that it is firmly rooted in Catalonia, which has a very large Arabic population, including many of my friends and neighbours. Although their music is based on traditional Arab sources, specifically from Moroccan and Andalucian cultures and the Sufi traditions, I was sceptical of the description of their last album, Báraka, as being influenced by world music, jazz and Mediterranean music. One of the great things about the trend for World Music is its ability to transcend cultural and political frontiers, facilitating cross-cultural awareness and understanding, and this is a wonderful end in itself, of course. But I can have a bit too much of World Fusion Music, sometimes feeling that the music is reduced to its lowest common denominators, just in order to get a recognisable theme in there. I’m very pleased to say, however, that the OAB has not fallen into this trap, their music only has slight overtones, hardly more than a salpica, of these influences and sticks very clearly to its ‘base’, and very beautiful it is too!

What struck me more, however, was the way that the band represented itself very clearly as being Catalan, the leader, Mohamed Soulimane from Chefchaouen (dressed in white), spoke to the audience in fluent Catalan, even making a few ‘in jokes’. Furthermore, two of the musicians are Catalans; you could hardly find more Catalan names than Jordi (George) Gaig and Joan (John) Rectoret if you tried! Underlying the band’s ‘agenda’ is that Barcelona has absorbed Arabic culture to the extent that it now faces back out into the world as part of the panoply of Barcelona’s and by extension Catalonia’s and perhaps Spain’s, cultural kaleidoscope.


Calima, in contrast, could hardly be more different. The band was founded by Juanlu, ‘El Cani’, bassist from Ojos de Brujo, who brought Flamenco to the world stage thanks both to importing electric instruments and influences from the orient in the form of the related Bhangra sound from the Punjab. But Calima’s objective still is Flamenco, Flamenco and more Flamenco. So here the project is reversed; Spain’s most well known traditional music is drawing to it musicians from all around the world, in this case Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden and the United States, but keeping its ‘purity’; the ‘World’ influence is really synonymous with being contemporary in our globalised age. It’s curious to note how Calima’s line up, including the foreign musicians, is given very much in the Spanish manner, using nicknames only rather than the musicians’ full names, strengthening this cultural identification. In contrast the OAB, while identifying itself as being contemporary Catalan, also maintain their racial and cultural origins very clearly.

It strikes me that the cultural diversity and dynamism that is such a feature of contemporary Spain has, or will have, a vast importance for the broader environment. Spain has suffered, indeed is suffering, many environmental threats that originate, at least in part, in influences that are now obsolete; the rush for development at no matter what environmental cost dates from Spain’s need to develop quickly, both to get up to speed with its European partners after accession to the EU in 1986, and to escape the stagnation of  the Franco years; or the influence of ‘Big Government’ that still lingers on from those years of despotism and is evidenced in so many current environmental controversies like the corruption of city councils from Malaga to Mallorca. Many foreign residents of Spain’s rural regions have, like me, been exasperated by a common attitude dubbed, ‘como siempre’, meaning it is as it always was, that is a barrier to changing attitudes about the importance, and the sensitivity, of the environment. But is in the furnace of youthful urban life that new ideas and beliefs will be forged, not least because they attract so many of Spain’s rural youth.

After the party was over I got chatting to the soundman from a local band, Tumbuktu (residents of Tarragona but Argentine in fact) that was also part of KESSE. It just so happens that I too used to be in the sounds business, last working at that in 1979, the year of my new acquaintance’s birth! Apart from the technology it seems that nothing much has changed; the old rock’n’roll is still a crazy business and above all jobs in it, although well paid, are very short-lived (especially if you want a long life!). I was impressed with the clarity and sense of purpose my new friend stated his plans for the next ten years or so: reach the top of his profession in terms of technical skills and then dip out of the ‘rat race’ and move into the country, his living there supplemented by short seasonal work away on tour. It’s people like him who are our hope for the future.

Postscript: as an afterthought I simply couldn’t let the opportunity pass to feature what was for me the musical highlight of the week: Habib Kointé (guitar) & Bamada, from Mali, were quite simply a marvel!