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.

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 www.gaudiallgaudi.com 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, turismeacatalunya.com, 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 pyreneestourism.org, 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!