Monday December 28th - Barcelona
On board the Iberia flight to Barcelona obscenely early in the morning, Spaniards were into red wine before 8am while I abstained and brushed up on Barcelona and lingo. We flew over the ice white Pyranees that we would be touring within a week. It was sunny over a 10am Barcelona, the major city in Catalunya, as we flew down to land over the blue Mediterrean Sea. And a moderate 13'C on the ground. Warmer than London at any rate. The terminal was a brand spanking new spic and span building, constructed for the Olympics the previous summer. No customs to deal with, and through the sliding doors, we spotted a local Spanish man holding a sign with "Mr Jack" on it. He led us to a seat where I filled out the relevant car hire forms and attempted some light conversation in spanish. The small red Citroen car was parked across from the terminal. In pristine condition - which didn't last long. It took a while to come to grips with the indicators and windscreen wipers which were on the opposite sides to my car. For the first hour, I would indicate with my windscreen wipers. The brake was sharp and the gears and handbrake were sticky, but we were on our way.
In what seemed minutes, we were in downtown Barcelona and cruising The Ramblas - the tree lined central strip with a make do market in the middle and traffic jammed either side. I had thought it might be quiet, what with Xmas and all, but it appeared to be a normal Monday morning. In the Rough Guide book, Barcelona was described as "the self confident and progressive capital of Catalunya, and a tremendous place to be". I had visited it briefly in 1990 and it had seemed just another large city. This time, after an hour in the traffic jams... I had the same conclusion. A thriving port and the most prosperous commercial centre in Spain (which was rewarded with the 1992 Olympics), it saw itself as the Spanish future. "Barcelona Mes Que Mai" - Barcelona More Than Ever - was the city's slogan.
The cheap accomodation was in the Barri Gothic - the old town off from the Ramblas, but it appeared impossible to negotiate by car. We ended up parking underground at the Place de Catalunya, and a glimpse at the prices (£20 for 24 hours), meant we had to hit the ground running, find a hostel, find somewhere to park and take it from there. Walking into the Barri Gothic, I spotted the "Pension Nogaro" - a 2nd floor hostel on a side street to Rauric Street. A large dog welcomed us. Yes - there was a room which I had requested in my pigeon Spanish. It was'nt much, but 1000 pesetas each per night was ok with me as long as we had hot water and a bed. Fortunately, a local square had parking space, but it took an age to negotiate the tiny alleys to find it. We had no idea about traffic laws and I probably broke a book full. Finally, we dumped the gear and explored the streets.
We headed SW towards Montjuic, the large hill to the west of the city which contained the castle, various museums and the Anella Olimpica (Olympic village). En route, we came across Sant Pau Del Camp, a quaint old 12C church which once stood in open fields outside the city walls. Now it was surrounded by aging tenement buildings. Ascending the steep Montjuic which tested the legs, we had a marvellous view of the city (and also the terribly ugly docks) despite the overcast skies. The cable car was closed for Xmas. We could see the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral on the other side of the city. The castle wasn't much to look at, so we caught the Funicular railway back down and boarded the efficient metro system, buying a "Tarja" (10 tickets). From the Parallel station we changed the coloured lines until we reached Sagrada Familia.
Barcelona is famous for the modern architecture of Antoni Gaudi (1852 - 1926). ""Modernisme", the Catalan offshoot of Art Nouveau, was the expression of a renewed upsurge in Catalan nationalism in the 1870s. Gaudi's buildings are the most daring creations of all Art Nouveau. RG "Apparently lunatic flights of fantasy, but at the same time, perfectly functional. They demand reaction". Without doubt, Gaudi's most famous creation is the great Temple Expiatiori De La Sagrada Familia. Begun in 1882, it remains unfinished (due to Gaudi's early death), but is being extended. Huge cranes now surround it. The size alone is startling - eight spires rise to over 100 metres like "perforated cigars or celestial billiard cues". For Gaudi they were metaphors for the Twelve Apostles (four remain unbuilt). The facades are divided into three porches, devoted to Faith, Hope and Charity. We climbed the hundreds of steps up and down the towers for views over the city and over the open cathedral which is really a building site for the current constructions. It was certainly a highlight for me and so far ahead of its time (all built before 1911).
Later in the evening, we strolled past drunk punks smashing bottles everywhere, to a local restaurant for a set Catalan meal of salad, pork chops and chips and desert with red wine to wash it down. It had been a shock to discover much of my Spanish was useless in deciphering Catalan and menus were to prove quite a problem.
Tuesday Dec 29th - Barcelona
We took in the Cathedral (La Seu) - one of the great Gothic buildings in Spain. Begun in 1298, it was finished in 1448. Well lit with 29 side chapels and wooden tombs, it was surrounded by magnificent Cloisters which had a tropical garden, palm trees and white geese. Flanking the cathedral were two 15C buildings - the Casa De Arcedian and Palau Episcopal with superb courtyards and outdoor stairways (a frequent feature of the Barri Gothic). The Barri Gothic is a remarkable concentration of beautiful medieval Gothic buildings - forming the very heart of the old city (once entirely enclosed by 4C Roman walls). Walking through the narrow alleyways, we found the 'Museu Picasso' which holds one of the most important collections of Picasso's work in the world. Here we came across our first tourists (mostly French). It contained a lot of early work - the Pink Period (1904-6), Cubist (1907-20) and Neoclasical (1920-25) and the forty four canvases of the Meninas series. It was all housed in a strikingly beautiful medieval palace.
The sun was up and we walked to the Parc De La Ciutadella via the Santa Maria Del Mar Church. Inside the park we saw Gaudi's monumental fountain, and the remains of the 1888 Exhibition. Catching the metro to Passeig De Gracia, we discovered Gaudi's Casa Battlo - designed to stimulate a breaking wave, and his weird apartment block Casa Mila. Based on the mountain of Montserrat, the flats resemble eroded cave dwellings. Moving on, we walked the length of the Ramblas, picking out the famous buildings, (Hospital De La Santa Creu, Gaudi's Palau Guell) before returning home. In the evening we attempted to find a cheap fish restaurant near the port in the Barceloneta district, but it was overpriced. After endless searching, we found a cheap and cosy restaurant that did wonderful dishes like Spinach and bacon. The Barri Gothic has a bad reputation for poverty and mugging, but we had no trouble. The punks had come, drank and gone, and by the time we returned, the old street cleaner was there to clear up the mess. Interesting spectacle. By now the dog knew us back at "The Pit".
Wednesday December 30th - Montserrat
I had continually checked on the car which had been parked in the square for two days, expecting it to be missing or stolen, and had felt lucky that we still had wheels. It was no surprise however, to find a parking ticket there on the window this morning. It had been issued at 1am. Were there really traffic wardens on the job at that time of night? We translated the ticket which offered us a 20% discount if we paid it promptly, but decided to flee like vagrants. Just as we struggled to find our way into the Barri Gothic, we had to negotiate our way out through the narrow, almost impassable alleyways. As we pulled out into Pg Colom, a Spanish traffic cop on a motorbike waved us down, indicating that we had driven out of a one way street, the wrong way. "Soy Ingles" I shrugged. He rattled on in Spanish, and then, realising we were holding up the traffic, cursed and waved us on. We drove past the Monument a Colum with Columbus on top for a final time and headed along the coast road (Rhonda Litoral) around L'Hospitalet district, and up the A2 motorway. The Spanish traffic roared past on my left.
At Olesa de Montserrat we pulled off on a windy narrow road and up to the extraordinary mountain of Montserrat, 40km northwest of Barcelona. One of the most spectacular of all Spain's natural sights, it was a saw-toothed outcrop left exposed to erosion when the inland sea that covered this area around 25 million years ago, was drained by progressive uplifts of the earth's crust or so it siad in my guidebook. In the sunlight, the rocks appeared bleached white globules welded together. Amongst the weirdly shaped crags of rock, there is the famous monastry and some ruined hermitage caves. St Peter is said to have deposited a carving of the Virgin by St Luke in one of the mountain caves, fifty years after the birth of Christ. We drove up through the mist, overlooking the valley and eventually got stopped by a parking attendant and lost 300 pesatas. There was no traffic on the road up to the monastry, which seemed strange considering how popular it was supposed to be.
We soon found out why. Everyone (including at least twenty coaches) was already there. It was packed. RG "It is the 'Black Virgin' (La Moreneta), the icon hidden by St Peter (yet curiously reflecting the style of 6C Byzantine carving), which is responsible for the monastry's existence. The legend is hazy, but apparently the icon was lost in the early 8C after being hidden during the Moorish invasion. It reappeared in 880 and would not budge (a miracle!) when the Bishop of Vic attempted to remove it. A chapel was built to house it which in 976 was superseded by a Benedictine monastry - the predecessor of the present monastic structures, about three quarters of the way up the mountain at an altitude of nearly 1000m. Miracles abounded and the Virgin of Montserrat soon became the chief cult-image of Catalunya and a pilgrimage goal, second in Spain only to Santiago De Compostela. Churches were dedicated to her all over the world. The monastry enjoyed an outrageous prosperity, having its own flag and a form of extra territorial independence along the lines of the Vatican City which declined only in the 19C. The site has become a nationalist symbol as much as a spiritual centre". The monastry itself is of no particular architectural interest. 'La Moreneta', blackened by the smoke of countless candles, stands above the high alter - reached from behind up a stairway. We joined a queue and forty minutes later filed past it for a few seconds, while a service went on in five languages beneath us.
The sun was up and we wanted to escape the crowds. We caught a funicular railway up to San Juan and walked up to a hermitage. I climbed up to the summit at 1300m for a view over the valley and along the ridge of the mountain. We walked back down a track to the monastry and then down another track along to the hermitage of San Jeronimo. Inside was a room full of assorted gifts and messages left by religious pilgrimages (sailors' hats etc). The climb was tough back up to the monastry and the sun was going down. The cable car made an occasional pass by us going down or up the valley. Originally, we had thought of staying the night at Montserrat, but it was already cold and it seemed that we had done everything there was to do.
We decided to drive back down the mountain and headed for Manresa. This turned out to be a very ugly town with little worth stopping for. We continued along the N141 hoping to find a little hamlet where we could stay, but there was nothing and we pulled into Vic, a major market town, after dark. Driving through the centre, we could'nt spot any hostels. Finally on the 3rd attempt, we saw the Hostal Calu on the main street. Parking in a local square, we were relieved to find there was a 'Cama Matrimonial' and unpacked. The room was comfortable, warm with an en suite bathroom and a great improvement on the Barcelona digs. Tired, but hungry, we ventured out looking for a restaurant. We found a lively one called 'Cantonada Carrer Estret' in the enormous arcaded square. The menu was in Catalunyan (our first example), and the friendly waiters attempted to translate it. We tried out 'butifarra' - regional sausages which were delicious.
Thursday Dec 31st - Car Theft, Besalu, Figueres and Santa Pau
There was a lot of ground to cover so we were up early. I walked down the side street to La Plaza Martires to pick up the car. My first shock was seeing a yellow clamp attached to the front right wheel. We had checked the parking laws and even paid for the last hour. I knew we didn't have to pay more until 9am, which was why I was there on time. As I approached the car, I found the small triangular window on the passenger side had been smashed. The food we had left on the back seat had been turned over. On the dashboard, there was a note from the local police, telling me to contact them. I couldn't believe it. It seemed to take ages to find the police station. I walked in the front general office and showed them the note. They told me to go around the back to the other section. A local officer led me upstairs to a detective Sr Juez Iltmo. He sat me down and I explained how we had arrived, parked the car and stayed at the hostel. I was more concerned about the clamp and reinforced the parking ticket we had bought. I had to use my phrase book, but he understood me. They had found a gold necklace which wasn't ours. I had checked the car when I found it, and could'nt spot anything missing (since our bags were in the hostel). The detective typed out everything onto a computer and then printed out seven copies which I had to countersign. we took one copy for insurance purposes. The clamp still had to be removed, and we went back round to the front entrance. A large policeman beckoned us to his landrover and drove us back to the car and unclamped us. The car had been clamped to stop anyone driving it off, since they could get in easily. It had all been an interesting experience. The detective had told us of a Citroen dealership outside town, which was fortunate.
We found it and had the window repaired. We drank coffee in their cafe, while a local old man plied his with whiskey. We were out and away from Vic before midday losing the morning, but happy to be back on the road. Deciding to keep to our plans of heading for Figueres (to see the Dali museum), we drove in the sun along the twisty C153 for Olot, making good time through the countryside. Passing through Olot (the capital of the volcanic region) where we would have liked to have stopped, but we were pressed for time. We came to Castellfollit de la Roza, which had its church and crowded houses built on the edge of a precipace falling a sheer sixty metres to the Fluvia River. It was a stunning view from below. Continuing along the C150, we stopped at Besalu which had rave reviews in the guide book and deservedly so. From the road, the imposing 12C fortified bridge by the confluence of the Fluvia and Capalleda rivers is the only sign that there is anything remarkable about Besalu, but passing under the portcullis, we entered a medieval town pretty much untouched by tourism (despite the fact there were quite a few tourists there). Some of it has been restored and all monuments survive from the 11C and after. We tried to find the remains of the Jewish bath house - the Mikwah, and moved on to the 12C monastry church of Sant Pere in the town square - the sole remnant of the town's Benedictine community. Apart from the tourists, it was a very peaceful and delightful village and we were tempted to stay, but all accomodation appeared to be closed.
We decided to push onto Figueres on the C260. Figueres is a provincial Catalan town, famous only for the Museu Dali, installed by the artist in a building as surreal as the exhibits within. The second most visited museum in Spain "appealing to everyone's innate love of fantasy, absurdity and participation". The building is fortress like from the outside - bright orange, with large white eggs lined along the roof edges. Inside, there was an open circular courtyard, with a cadillac - the famous 'taxi' of snail covered dummy passengers. But his embalmed body was not there. It was a curious building of four floors, full of his sketches, paintings, sculptures. Amazingly creative and absurd. It took us a couple of hours to take it all in, and we stocked up on food and wine at nearby shops as dusk fell.
It was New Year's Eve and we still did'nt know where we would stay - but we knew Figueres was not our idea of seclusion. As we left Figueres, back towards Besalu, there was a marvellous sunset in the west, ahead of us. I had searched through the guidebook for a small village and spotted Santa Pau in the heart of the Parc Natural de la zona Volcanica de la Garrotxa - the volcanic region. 11,500 years since the last eruption, the ash and lava have weathered into fertile soil whose thick vegetation masks the contours of the dormant volcanoes. There are 30 cones in all. Evergreen oak is the predominant tree. The medieval Santa Pau, presents to the outside world, a defensive perimeter of continuous and almost windowless house walls, but is "positively reeking with the atmosphere of old Garrotxa". We arrived, via Olot (10 km away) in the dark and drove in through a narrow twisty lane.
The village seemed deserted. The "Calk Sastre" was the only restaurant and hotel in the fortified area. We were able to find a room in a small former farmhouse. Cramped but comfortable. The restaurant had been booked out for the evening, but we had seen one just outside the village on the main road. Since it was New Year's Eve, we weren't sure if it would be open. When we arrived, they had a special but expensive meal on offer. We did want to eat but not expensively. The waiter finally allowed us to order from a small menu. Salad, sausage and copious amounts of wine. It was an ugly little cafe with a small open fire and a TV in the corner, but it was all there was on offer. A table of eight Spaniards ate the special meal, which appeared to be the same as us, except that we didn't get the large prawns. At midnight, the owner dished out warm rum and whiskey was passed around.
Friday January 1st 1993
By the time we had shaken off our hangovers, it was midday. The sun was blazing outside and we discovered that we had a marvellous view of the mountains from our room. Idyllic. A decent walk to clear the head was on the agenda. The tallest mountain around was Finestres Santa Maria at 1027 metres. A local man told us the footpath started from where we were based. Packing a lunch, we set off through farmland, past a few isolated farmhouses and into the woodland. There were frozen puddles along the way. Eventually we started to climb up the track which followed a dried up stream. The gradients became extreme and we were both sweating. Silent and wonderful walking up through the forest. Eventually, when we thought we'd never reach it, the mountain levelled off and we caught glimpses of the valleys on the other side. We reached the deserted Santa Maria church. Mist shrouded the valley and cliff tops as we ate our lunch of cheese and sausage rolls. We climbed on to the summit for further splendid views. Conscious that it would get dark by 5pm, we descended quickly - a lot easier than the ascent.
We were back in Santa Pau before dusk and explored the core of the village - the 13C Firal dels Bous with its archway shops and church. There was a serenity about the place. A few bonfires had been lit, people pottered around, and exhibits were being set up. Something was obviously going on, but we didn't know what. A local told us there was a celebration happening at 7pm. We also spotted the local man who had directed us to the footpath. He seemed very impressed, that we had climbed it, though we must have been 'crazy'. Before the evening festival, We drove back towards Olot to see if there were any restaurants. we found a cafe full of men smoking and playing cards. Dinner always started late in Spain and we could only get a coffee out of them.
At 7pm we returned to the centre to find everyone in costume. Various rooms had been opened up and people were taking up positions. It was the start of a strange religious festival. Just outside the town, we found hundreds of visitors waiting in the dark . Loud speakers told the story in Spanish. Then we were prompted to move into the village to look at the tableaux exhibits. A strange experience, whereby the locals assume poses in arable, religious or village life. It took an hour to parade through the village. Exhibits included the clog maker, the blacksmith, shepherds, haymakers, potters, stall owners, the traditional sunday lunch, Roman soldiers, Herod, baker, Joseph and Mary, angels, the three kings. A wonderful show, quite unexpected, and never mentioned in the guide book. We felt as if as we had discovered an 'undiscovered' part of Catalyan life. After the parade, there were sugar cakes and port drunk from the famous Spanish pourers.
Saturday January 2nd - Girona, Ripoll
We drove via Banyoles (on the C150) to Girona through the industrial suburbs. The ancient walled town of Girona stands on a fortress like hill above the Riu Onyar. The streets are narrow and medieval. The "City of a Thousand Sieges", Girona has been fought over in almost every century since it was a Roman fortress. Parking the car, we walked to the tower of San Feliu. The slim belfry tops a hemmed in church that combines Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. The most fascinating part of Girona is the neighbouring Casc Antic (old City), a zone of high walls, closed gates and hidden courtyards. The core of the district is around the Cathedral which is built onto a hillside and reached by a mighty Baroque staircase or by the narrow streets leading from the Call (Jewish Quarter). Founded in 1038, it is an awesome building inside. There are no aisles, just a single nave with a span of 22 metres, the widest Gothic vault in the world. Most of it dates from the 15C. Down the Cathedral steps are the Banys Arabs (Arab Baths), built by Moorish craftsmen in the 13C. The finest of their type in Spain, they have the usual under-floor heating system and the Roman influenced layout of three principal rooms. We toured them and the Call, considered the best preserved Jewish quarter in Western Europe, before grabbing lunch outside a cafe. It was very sunny, and it seemed a shame to spend the day in the city.
Time to move north to the Pyranees. We retraced our steps via Banyoles, Besalu, Castellfollit De La Roca up the C150 and C153 to Camprodon. The guide book told us it was where "the shops are full of leather goods, ski gear and mountain cheese and sausages". This was true, but they did'nt have vacant rooms. I tried every hotel and hostel without success. As a major skier stopover, it was full to the gills with skiers. We drove north to Villagonga, as the skiers drove back to town, and had no luck there. Finally, we tried Tregura, up a twisting road at 1400 metres. Both hotels were booked. It was getting dark and we needed accomodation.
I had stayed at Ripoll for a night two years previously, and knew that there was a hotel there that was never full. We drove to Ripoll back along the C151, to find a traffic jam upon entering the town. Finding the Hotel Payet, it inevitably had room. A sprawling hotel with three floors and endless rooms. We had a great view of the bridge from our room. Ripoll occupies a prominant place in the history of Catalunya, despite being a depressing little town. It was the chief monastic centre of medieval Catalunya, and the Benedictine Monasterio de Santa Maria has been restored and was floodlit at night, as we strolled the cold streets looking for a restaurant. Finding a packed cafe, we were led to the deserted restaurant and took a table by a piping hot radiator. More salad and sausages, but an excellent meal all the same. Hotel Payet had boiling hot water too, even if the plug didn't fit.
Sunday January 3rd - Nuria, Bellver De Cerdanya
We wanted to do some walking in the snow, so we drove the few kilometres to Ribes De Freser north of Ripoll. It was cold and we had breakfast at a warm cafe before parking at the railway station. wrapping up in our winter gear, we boarded the Ferrocarril Cremallera train into the mountains - the last rack railway in Catalunya. The two carriage train was packed and the windows steamed up as we climbed to Queralbs and then onto the breathtaking twenty minute ride to Nuria. The train entered the Gorges De Freser and then the Gorges De Nuria, with dramatic views and awesome drops. Through a series of tunnels, we emerged into a snow bowl and the Santuario De Nuestra Senora De Nuria - the ski resort at 2000 metres. It was -4'C outside and we felt it, despite the sunshine. Snow and ice everywhere and our only way out was down on a track. As we joined it, the ice had completely covered it and it was trechorous walking.
Once we could walk easily, we relaxed and enjoyed the valley views of snow topped mountains surrounding us. Noone was walking down, but a few groups passed us going up. The sun was up, though mist descended behind us. Halfway down, we found shelter behind a large boulder and had lunch in the sun. We continued on down, along a twisting narrow track which was hard on the boots. We were able to shed clothing until we reached the shade. Mist passed down and across the valley. Trains occasionally passed us, up above. On target around 4pm, we arrived at Queralbs - pretty exhausted but exhilerated. Still conscious of inevitable darkness, we concluded that we would never reach the bottom in daylight, and opted to wait for a return train back to Ribes.
We headed west along the N152 and when darkness fell, were forced to find the nearest village. This turned out to be Bellver De Cerdanya. Arriving in total darkness, I could'nt find a way into the village perched on a hill. A car roared past up a one way street and I followed it. At the top, the local Guardia pulled us up and cautioned me on coming up a one way street - the wrong way. The "Soy Inglese" line worked again as I tried to convince them of our innocence in following the other car. We tramped around the hill town and nothing seemed open. It was a traditional old hill town with narrow alleyways, thick grey gloomy walls, and a church lit up by spotlight and covered in illuminations.We spotted a hostel, checked in and crossed the road to a restaurant where I was able to try Catalunya soup called "Estmollella" - almost a stew.
Monday January 4th - Sierra del Cadi, Sant Llorenc
Keen to get back on the road and explore the Sierra del Cadi area of mountains, we were only delayed by a thick layer of ice all over the car. I scrapped it off using my gloves and bare hands. Heading south, we had to pass through the Tunnel del Cadi underneath the Tosa d'Alp (2531m). There was an exorbitant toll to pay (£6) to travel ten minutes at top speed through a well lit and wide tunnel. We had no choice. It was the only way south. Travelling down the C1411, we reached Guardiola Bergueda and took a tiny side road west (B4000).
As we climbed towards Saldes, the landscape was quite a spectacle, with steep drops into the Riera del Saldes on the early stretch, giving way to brilliant views of Pedraforca. The sun was high and it was warm enough to open the windows. Saldes was just a farming village, so we took a dirt road up to the base of Pedraforca. Beyond Saldes, the scenary changed dramatically, first to black stained rocks, then into speckled gold and red rock, deeply eroded into ravines, and then to lush endless pasture and forest. Pedraforca is a massive two pronged summit. Pollego Superior (2497m) and Pollego Inferior (2400m) divided by a scree choked gully. The top third was covered in thick pine forest and the last 500 metres were sheer snow lined cliffs. The track was rough on the car. Large holes, dust, ice and tough gradients known as the El Collell pass. We reached a parking place with a scenic view which had been built on top of a sheer cliff overlooking the valley. A perfect spot for lunch, with the mist shrouding the valley and a majestic vista of the mountains in the south and east and Pedraforca above us.
Our attempt to drive further was impeded by thick ice covering the track in the shade. There was no traction and we returned to the car park before we got stuck, opting to walk up instead. It was just as trecherous walking. We followed some other hikers up long an ice covered footpath through the trees to the Refugi Lluis Estasen (1640m). It lay in a thick bed of snow which would be a meadow in the summer. We explored tracks around the refuge, but they became impassable in every direction we took. It would be lovely climbing country in the spring. For now, the summits seemed an eternity away.
Returning to the car with more tumbles, we drove onto Gosol, another old stone village, where Pablo Picasso came in 1906, to immerse himself in the untamed landscape of deep Catalunya. The track became worse. Very twisty and narrow, with huge boulders laying all over the road surface. There was a serious threat of a puncture or skidding on ice over the edge. I misjudged the size of one rock which scraped the underside of the car with frightening volume. Late in the afternoon, we followed a river and descended towards Sant Llorenc de Morunys. It took a lot longer than predicted and we never saw another car for a couple of hours.
At Sant Llorenc, we tried two hostels which were above our budget, and I eventually made a bad decision to opt for a cheaper hostel called Fonda Morunys. It was empty and there was no heating. The heater in our room proved worthless. We christened it "The Igloo", because the -4'C temperatures outside were no different inside. In the evening, driven out by the cold, we found the only restaurant open, which had a roaring fire. They were not open for another hour, but we begged to wait inside. Sipping beers in front of the fire, we thought we'd be better off with sleeping bags there for the night. The savings on the accomodation led us to splash out on a decent meal. We had rabbit and steak. We stayed close to the fire until we were forced to return to the igloo.
Tuesday January 5th - La Seu D' Urgell
Sant Llorenc had an old centre, surrounded by modern streets, but finding the car frozen even more than usual (the milk and mineral water were frozen solid in their containers), we were too preoccupied with more scrapping and a need to get going as soon as possible. A frozen bed is a good alarm clock. Heading west along te L401, we passed through a very twisty stretch of road, climbing into the Coll de Jou and then along a corniche to Oden, Cambrils, Llinars and the spectacular setting of Alinya, before joining the Segre valley near Organya. The road was heavily iced and we passed through short tunnels which had long icicles hanging down at either entrance.
The sun rose and we took the C1313 north to La Seu D' Urgell through the towering grey limestone cliffs of the Garganta De Organya. La Seu D' Urgell is the capital of Alt Urgell (the local region). The town's historic dual function - Episcopal seat and commercial centre - was instantly clear from the town's appearance, as the austere cathedral contemplated the Cadi on one side and the bustle of the town's narrow alleys on the other. There was an outdoor market in the streets and we strolled past the stores.
The principality of Andorra lay only thirty kilometres north, but we decided to give it a miss. I had visited it two years previously, and didn't rate it as an enjoyable diversion. We backtracked south a few kilometres and took a road climbing west along the Solanell River between empty cornfields and then over more scrubby rises to the village of Castellabo. Continuing onto Sant Andreu, we climbed towards Sant Joan De L'Erm (1720m). Dumping the car, we decided to hike along a trail into the forests towards the top. The track disappeared and we were left struggling through rough scrubland. Eventually, we found another track and route-marched it. Pushed for time, we tried to reach a clearing, but one never appeared. Conscious of darkness falling, we quickly retraced our steps back to the car. At least we got some exercise.
We returned to La Seu D'Urgell and found another dismal hostel Fonda Urgell. It was warmer, but dirty. Dinner commenced at a Pizza restaurant. We both knew it was time to find decent accomodation in a decent setting and settle for a couple of days.
Wednesday January 6th - Espot
I wanted to visit the Parque Nacional Aigues Tortes (National Park of Twisting Rivers) and had read of Espot - a tiny resort just outside the Park. We set off early and drove along the twisty C146 making good time to Sort which was nothing special. At Llavorsi, the road forked and we took the C147 past Escalo and then a side road to Espot. It was a twisty climb up to the village, but as soon as we reached it, we knew we'd be happy here for a couple of nights.
Outside the high season, Espot "preserves something of its old village atmosphere" with its Romanesque Capella bridge and church (Santa Llogaia). We checked into the Hotel Roya which was glamorous in comparison to our previous two nights. Central heating, full sized bath, constant hot water, very clean and comfortable. the view from the room was of the church. Two nights please. Never mind the cost (£16 each per night). After dumping the gear and thick hot chocolates, we drove up to the park - but the road was again covered in ice and we were forced to leave the car and continue on foot, wrapped up and carrying a decent lunch.
The area was deserted. We walked up through the trees and entered the official park boundaries. The snow got deeper around us. The sun was high and hot. A beautiful setting. It was the Pyranees we had come to find. Water (and ice) is the predominant feature of the Park with its flashing rivers and waterfulls, surrounded by granite peaks and dominated by the Pic De Subenuix at 2949m. Walking for two hours up to the Estany De Sant Maurici (a lake), we had lunch in the snow and sun, before walking around the edge of the frozen lake, which was cracking in the heat. The whole area was deserted. We saw a dozen people all day. Taking a track away from the lake, we reached the Refuge El Mallafre at 1885m where cross country skiers were holed up. Reluctantly, with the sun falling, we headed back. Running through the snow and falling over on more ice, we found the car and returned to our hotel for hot baths and wine. In the evening, we were able to look at four menus of local restaurants, all within a quarter of a mile of the hotel. we opted for the cheapest and had enormous meals even though the owner wanted to shut up for the night. Huge sausages and beans satisfied the appetite.
Thursday January 7th
There were jeeps you could hire to take you up into the park, but having walked as far as the jeeps could go, we knew we would'nt get much further than we had yesterday. So we opted to drive north for the day to try the other side of the mountains. On the way down to the main road, I turned on a bend, to find ice on the road in the shade. Too late to miss it, the car did a 90' skid into the barrier, but it hit the barrier slowly with its bumper. Thankfully no damage. Emerging intact onto the C147 we drove northwest up to Puerto De La Bonaigua through a beautiful valley surrounded by snow and forests of silver birch, pine and fur, in the gleaming sun.
All the tracks were snowbound, so we parked at the bleak Puerto de la Bonaigua. To the north was a steep climb to a plateaux which we struggled up, but reaching it, we had the entire area to ourselves for a lunch on the edge. The surface was covered in a thick layer of virgin snow. The next slopes were as steep as before, but we dug in and reached the cold windy summit for a wonderful vista of the Aigues Tortes to the south, and the Aran valley to our west. Surrounded by mountains, we took panoramic photographs. We ran down the slopes through thick snow (knee height) back to the level surface and then negotiated the final descent again. As we did so, we could see a group of cross country skiers transversing the slopes. After exploring the other side of the road, we drove through ski resorts to Vielha, the major town. It was siesta time and the shops were closed so we returned to Espot. It was nice to have a room waiting for us. We tried another restaurant in the evening. Noisier, but more atmospheric than the previous evening.
Friday 8th January - Montblanc
Reluctantly, we left our hotel. We had covered as much a possible in the time and consumed some wonderful walking and scenery. Time forced us to finally turn south. Negotiating the road carefully, we avoided another crash and rejoined the C147 passing through Sort and the limestone gorges, following the Rio Noguera Pallaresa until we reached Gerri De La Sal. The Noguera Pallaresa is the most powerful river in the Pyrannees, once used to float logs from the upper valley to the sawmills of La Pobla de Jegur. Gerri De La sal is home to a Benedictine Community as far back as the 9C.
The surviving Monastry of Santa Maria, was consecrated in 1149 and we visited the attractive building, (via the old arched bridge) with its arched hay loft running the length of the building. From Gerri, we took a tiny road westwards to Poleta De Bellvei, to the idyllic little Estany De Montcortes - a lovely blue lake, where we had lunch and sunbathed. From the village of Bretui we had views of the Collegats Gorge. Back on the C147, we followed the Rio Noguera Pallaresa through Tremp and onto Lleida in the heart of a fertile plain near the Argonese border.
It was dark by the time we reached this major commercial centre and the roads were clogged with Friday night shopping traffic. The old Cathedral was enclosed within ruined castle walls high above the Rio Segre, a twenty minute climb from the centre of town. We parked the car and made the ascent to walk around the impressive floodlit structure. Returning to the town, we ambled through the pedestrian precinct of shops. This was no place to stay. Full of shoppers and commercialism. So we opted to get out using the N240 going South East. It was very foggy and slow and difficult driving, but we reached Montblanc around 9pm.
This was a walled medieval town with extremely narrow alleyways, which we searched thoroughly before finding the Fonda De Los Angeles just inside the town walls. It was a converted building and very comfortable. We were also able to eat a basic meal there with plenty of wine.
Saturday January 9th - Poblet, Tarragona, Cubelles
In the morning, we walked through the picturesque streets until we found the grand Gothic parish church of Santa Maria with its beautiful XVIIC Renaissance facade. Inside we discovered the Gothic alterpeice from XIVC. After a view of the town from a lookout point, we drove to Poblet in the mist. The monastry of Poblet lies in glorious country, vast and sprawling within massive battlemented walls and towered gateways. Once the 'great' monastry of Catalunya, it had much power and wealth. In the Carlist revolution of 1835, it was destroyed. Restoration has taken place for the last fifty years since Italian Cistercian monks took over the place. The cloisters, focus of monastic life, are the most evocative and beautiful part. Late Romanesque, they open onto a splendid Gothic chapter house, wine cellars, a parlour, a kitchen, library and refectory. Beyond them, you enter the chapel in which 12C and 13C tombs of the kings of Aragon have been restored. There is also the vast old dormitory. We joined a small Spanish group, and the guide attempted to translate what he could into English. He was through, so much so, that the two hour tour left us both impatient to get out into the sun and away from the frozen interior.
From Poblet, we drove up through the hills (T700) to the walled village of Prades. Old men sat in the sun by the wall, exchanging the latest gossip. We had lunch in a deserted restaurant before driving to Tarragona (on the T701 and C242). The most remarkable (and less visited) of Tarragona's monuments stands 4km outside the city walls. This is the Roman Aqueduct. Popularly known as El Pont Del Diable (Devil's Bridge). We managed to find it (unmarked) and walked across it and back. A two storied stone structure, with a narrow waterway, it was a hidden treasure.
Tarragona is "Majestically sited on a rocky bluff rising above the sea". Maybe so, but to us, it was a major town with a shopping centre. We explored the few shops that were open, before deciding to get out and find somewhere quieter for our last night. Late in the afternoon, we followed the coast road (N340) which we knew would be heavily populated. We were, however, surprised that it was completely dominated by towering holiday accomodation. We explored various places - concentrating on Catafell Platja without success, then Cunit, where there was no accomodation we wanted. Finally, in Cubelles, an ugly little resort, we found a decent room in a hotel. I had wanted a nice final fish meal down by the beach, but we were nowhere near the beach. We finally choose the only restaurant available and ordered what seafood we could.
Sunday January 10th
We drove to Sitges - a popular resort and parked up on the front. After sunbathing we grabbed a table at a seafront cafe and had lovely garlic soup (with an egg in it). Something that we'd searched for all holiday. Hoping to find a pottery market, we headed east towards Barcelona to Castelldefels, without luck, and backtracked to Sitges, to find that one closed so returned east to the Airport. We returned the car and didn't get our "broken window" money (it was recouped back in England). After checking in,we drank a bottle of farewell Rioja, and jumped on board the 7pm plane to Heathrow. Back to London - routine, crowds, noise. Whatever happened to the holiday?
Maps courtesy of www.theodora.com/maps used with permission.