Noticias en ‘Uncategorized’

June 10th, 2010

Belchite

Many tourists and students of Spain and its history are familiar with the characteristic views of the town, which was almost completely destroyed during the Civil War (1936-39).The site has, moreover, featured in numerous films both as a subject of the war, e.g. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006), or in general as a somewhat surreal location, for instance in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). But fewer images of the new town, built alongside by victims of the post-war repression under decree of General Franco, appear in the on-line and print media, or indeed in the movies. This is not surprising as the old town ruins, left unrestored and unpampered, are both fascinating and moving enough in their own right to fill a whole visit – as happened when a ‘delegation’ of the Iberianature Forum went there at the beginning of May 2010.

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But I returned at the end of the same month with friends of a quite different stripe and briefly explored the new town. There is no doubt that its architecture was designed to serve the Nationalist political ideology, which was explicitly stated in Franco’s decree of the town’s status,  recorded on a marble plaque set on the new church (long since removed by persons unknown!), “Yo os juro, que sobre estas ruinas de Belchite, se edificará una ciudad hermosa y amplia como homenaje a su heroísmo sin par. Franco” (“I swear that on the ruins of Belchite, a beautiful and spacious town will be built as a tribute to its unparalleled heroism. Franco”

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The Town Hall’s official web site points out that, not too surprisingly, there was a degree of favouritism in the allocation of the new properties, and in fact many citizens left altogether in the interim. Equally lamentable, perhaps, is that the town council of the day opted for the rebuilding rather than an ambitious irrigation scheme, which would have brought more long term wealth to the town – but one should ask, “Wealth for whom in particular?” of course!  The contrast between the old and the new is striking to say the least:

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Nevertheless, the architecture is fascinating and, at least from a restaurant terrace, Belchite strikes one as being an attractive place to live and work. I’m drawn to return time and again – not least for the drama of the journey there across Los Monegros – one of Spain’s most wild, weird and wonderful locations!

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The Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici – part 1

It’s been year since we were in the Parc, before we became dog owners in fact, so that makes it ten years! But a brief respite from stormy weather in early October and visiting friends who wanted to go got me there without the huskies.

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I was stunned all over again by the beauty of the scenery. As indeed is everyone else – I gather that the Parc is one of Spain’s most photographed sites – with good reason; the autumn tints over the Ratera lake never fail to please!

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It took just an hour’s walk to get to the Mirador overlooking the Estany de Sant Naurici itself, lying in the shadow of the twin Encantats (enchanted) peaks. After all these years the distances seemed shorter (due no doubt to chasing walking the dogs all this time!) so we vowed to return with The Pack the following week. But in fact we went to the other half of the Parc, to the Aigüestortes (meaning twisting waters) themselves.

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This side of the Parc features evidence of severe glaciation, making open views that are admired by all!

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Further back down the valley we were treated to yet more autumn tints, shown here to perfection against a background of Black pines (Pinus nigra) that are a special feature of the Parc.

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The weather worsened in the high mountains, however, so we took ‘refuge’ with an interlude in the Pre-Pyrenees, crossing the Sierra de Montsec. The distances here are remarkable, we could see the Sierra de Montsant, a good seventy-five kilometres away south over the Pla d’Urgell.

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We had crossed the Montsec’s summit years ago, when we had a jeep, but now the track is well metalled thanks to Catalonia’s new Observatory, reflecting the fabulous air quality found on the summit.

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The clearing air bode well for the following week’s return trip to the Sant Maurici, meanwhile the dogs were beginning to revell in the cold northern air!

A short summer jaunt to Andalusia

It’s a long way from Catalonia to Andalusia so it’s no wonder it’s easy to feel that they are completely different countries. But after a fourteen-hour journey, including six hours on the Talgo, from the Pyrenees to the small Almerian town of Albox I was beginning to feel that they are in different continents! A warm Andalusian welcome at the hotel, “there’s no kind of hurry, settle yourself in and you can eat anytime you like!” restored me though and early the following morning, with a midday train to catch, I explored the pretty town centre.

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But my real interest was up in the sierra. I haven’t been to this part of Andalusia before but found it very similar to the western Alpujarra region around Motril, where we spent one warm Christmas in the early ‘nineties, that is to say, several years before Chris Stewart made the region famous! Here just beyond its eastern extreme the region is notably drier. La Alpujarra is proud of its Moorish roots and atmosphere, indeed the landscape and land use was strikingly similar to those in the Anti-Atlas ranges on Morocco, where my wife studied the indigenous Berber agriculture.

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The ‘Rambla’ de Albox is a dry riverbed that runs up into the mountains for several miles, giving ‘road’ access to the numerous small houses and their surrounding orchards and gardens. These tiny, irrigated plots are a classic feature of this landscape, as are the one or at most two story ‘cubist’ houses. It was curious to note that about half of these had been done-up, evidently by their British or other foreign owners, complete with ornamental gardens, while the remainder reserved their efforts entirely for fruit and vegetables!

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The agriculture here would appear to be based on use of marginal land and I presume that this is owner occupied, rather than the great estates that one otherwise associates with Andalusia and much of central Spain. The distribution of the dwelling all about the valley couldn’t be more different than that of my home in Catalonia, where isolated houses are very rare indeed and the history and pattern of property ownership is different on both counts, being based around a system of familial ownership of farmland; the tradition here is for the eldest offspring to ‘inherit’ and run the family farm, while the other siblings is set up with a cash lump sum, which is often used to gain an education and/or capitalise a business, hence the notorious Catalan flair for entrepreneurialism! But I also saw the impact of new, large-scale agriculture, as huge plantations of olives crises crossed the mountainsides on reclaimed land.

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Meanwhile, it is curious to speculate the impact of such a large influx of extranjeros on such a remote and rural community. The extent of which became apparent after inspecting post-boxes that line the roadside; the names here are: Grainger, Casa ‘Jack’, Smith & Hanrahan, unreadable, and finally Marshall!

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The head of the valley is dominated by the huge XVIII century temple of the Sanctuaries de Nuestra Señora del Buen Retiro de los Desamparados del Saliente, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in south-eastern Spain. Pilgrims from all over the region, travelling on foot or horseback, converge on the site on September the 8th each year, progressing up the last leg during the previous night. Today though, in late June, it is deserted.

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Crossing over the Sierra de las Estancias the outlook changes completely, however, as huge plantations of olive and almond trees completely cover the landscape while the inhabitants are huddled together in compact villages like Los Cerricos.

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This is a vast, somewhat intimidating landscape, difficult to catch on camera. In the very far distant, out of the picture, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada shimmer in the haze – or is it my imagination!

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I was glad to be over the great plain, and near to the autovia that would which me off to catch my midday train home, but it was market day in Chirivel and after a long, lonely trip I couldn’t resist stopping to bask in the warmth of human company!

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Snowmelt fills the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s been a record breaking winter for rain and snow – and not before time after three years of drought. But even though the snow held on for longer than usual the seasons follow their eternal path, and a warm, early spring ensured a dramatic melting up in the high Pyrenees. It was a slightly unnerving night, camping in a watermeadow on the riverbank, and certainly a noisy one! But a dawn walk along the bankside path was certainly worthwhile. I’ve read that the Noguera Pallaresa is the most powerful river in the Pyrenees. Although I’m not sure how this is measured, it’s certainly easy to beleive at this time of year.

After breakfast we decided to retrace our steps along one of our favourite stretches of the river, the Congost de Collegats. Here, the old road that links the Pallars Jussà to the neighbouring comarca of Pallars Sobirà has been bypassed by long tunels, leaving the riverside to its own devices. For a change it was the river’s turn to grab one’s attention, rather than the magnificent scenery of the ravine.

Further upstream a stop at the picturesque and historical village of Gerri de la Sal, where salt has been extracted from springs at least since 807 when Benedictine monks founded the monastery here, was rewarded with a new discovery.

With a mission to educate and inform, the Planter de Gerri uses rehabilitated terraced gardens to grow a wide range of autoctonous plant species. It will be good to return here in furture years when the installation has matured.

Stormy Weather – Springtime in the Ebro Delta

I’ve been spending a lot of time in flatlands of late, ranging from the plateau ‘desert’ of Los Monegros* to the Fens of East Anglia. Wetlands have a strange beauty all of their own. The rice paddies, called ‘arrossars’ in Catalan, of the Ebro Delta brought back memories of Guyana, where we studied the huge Mahaica Mahaicony Abary (MMA) water management project back in the mid-nineties. There we gained a great deal of practical knowledge about the arcane subtleties of rice cultivation.

* Los Monegros is certainly not a desert

The increasing intensity of the rising thunderstorm and the humidity of the afternoon were atmospheric reminders of those days.

For all the technology, rice production is labour intensive, involving huge maintenance of the land’s drainage and irrigation channels. The odd big installation like a pump house or sluice, are the tip of the iceberg – the real work involves slopping around in the mud, trousers rolled up, attending to the thousands of miles of ditches – but that afternoon the farmers fled the impending tempest and headed home!

Typical of cultivated wetlands like the Fens or on the Guyanese coast, the Delta is far from uniformly flat. Tiny settlements, some ugly, some with a neat cosiness, are found squeezed onto patches of higher ground.

The mosquitoes make camping here a reckless activity, and many tiny Cases de Pages offer snug accommodation.

But for us the dream would be to stay in a ‘Barraca’, the traditional hovels that still dot an ever more wild land/seascape.

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!

Autumn along the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s only a few weeks ago now but with the recent wintry weather makes it seem as if autumn has passed us by. Mid October gave us what was probably the most perfect weeks to explore the upper limits of the River Noguera Pallaresa, high in the Pyrenees upstream of the town of Esterri d’Aneau –the last township on the southern side of the central cordillera.

The main road heads northwest in its quest for the Port de Bonaigüa and the Val d’Aran that lies beyond. But we headed due north, seeking the source of the river before it was cut off until spring. The valley of the Noguera seems to dive between towering slopes on either side, passing the tiny villages of Borén and Isil (above) before petering out altogether at Alos d’Isil. Beyond the Refugi de Fornet the track gets too rough for our car and besides the huskies are by now getting decidedly fractious.

The proximity of dense forest mean that we are all trussed up together – once huskies get loose in the range there’s little chance of them heeding our calls. So we spend time dawdling among the water meadows, exploring the ruined bordas along the way and simply admiring the stunning colours of the autumn tints.

Along the way we find a memorial plaque commemorating the guides who helped allied airmen escape into Spain during the Second World War, just alongside the present day Grande Route trail over the Porte d’Aulan, lost among the peaks high above us.

The sky begins to turn threatening as we press on, checking watches and beginning to realise that we weren’t going to get far enough. As if to remind us we encountered herds of cattle heading down from the summer pastures.

The following week the autumn seemed to shut like a barn door – blizzards and freezing weather engulfed much of Northern Spain, and the Catalan Pyrenees were no exception. Looking at the scene from a walk near to Casa Rafela we couldn’t help but notice the dogs’ yearning to return to thier ‘native’ habitat!

This time we too took the Port de Bonaigüa road and passed through the ugly ski resort of Baqueira Beret, turning sharply uphill through the snow to the Pla de Beret. Here we nearly drove into the source of the river, neatly sealed off from passing tourists by a picket fence!

The river flows constantly direct from the font and all but the heaviest snow falls fail to settle there so we could see the course meander off across the almost dead flat pla.

Its curious to think that just a few metres away the neighbouring brook tumbles northwards to join the Garona, the French river Garonne, in the Val d’Aran far below.

After a bit of an anticlimax we pressed on beyond the ski station and tried to walk down towards the abandoned monastery of Mare de Diu de Montgarri which bears silent witness to the warm climate that existed here before the mini ice age of the XVII century – nowadays life here would be unimaginable in winter!

It was frustrating to see the settlement far below, but once again we had underestimated the distances in the huge landscape!

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!