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!