Lleida: The precious cathedral Seu Vella resurrected from being a casern

In November 2018, we spend three weeks near Tarragona in Catalonia, as we have done many times already.

On the way we have sometimes driven around Lleida. What a headache. Multilane avenues with endless traffic lights and complicated circuses amidst faceless multi-storey houses. I have always tried to get through Lleida as quickly as possible.

But… we read that the cathedral of Lleida is worth a visit and that the pedestrian zone around Carrer Major is pretty (Dumont and “newspaper”). Hence we decided to visit Lleida. And yes, our sources are right, Lleida is worth a visit.  


The old Cathedral or Seu Vella – resurrected from being the stage of fights and being maltreated as a casern

The engraving below shows the siege of Lleida in 1707, during the Spanish War of Succession. French troops fighting for the Bourbons attacked Lleida that – being part of Catalonia – had taken the side of the Habsburgians, as the latter were less centralistic than the French Bourbons (I suspect). Much of the cathedral was destroyed then and the complete top of the hill was turned into a fortification and a military casern (engraving found in the Museu de Lleida).

In the 1960’s, the army retreated and the restoration of the maltreated Seu Vella started, after all the destruction that had taken place since more than 200 years.

The cathedral is surrounded by rings of thick walls, it still looks a fortification today.

We had accessed the fortification using the lift in the triangular modern tower (a lazy mountain biker joined the two lazy ladies…). The wooden bridge had taken us from the lift to the fortification wall. The river below is the Rio Segre coming from the Pyrenees.

After having reconquered Lleida from the Muslims in 1149, the king of Aragon started construction of the cathedral in 1203. It is at the brink from the Romanesque to the Gothic style. The footprint of the church is peculiar: The nave consists only of three bays…

… and continues to the west with the marvellous cloister in pure Gothic style, as the views taken from the belfry show. In the background is the so-called royal Castle.  

The unusual layout of nave and cloister can also be seen from the royal Castle.

At the end of the 14th century, the octagonal belfry was added. It can be climbed, which requires taking some 280 huge steps winding up on narrow corkscrew stairs. It has never happened to me before that my muscles ached after having climbed a belfry, but the steps were somewhat unergonomic and high for a person as small as I am (twinkling…).

The cloister is a masterpiece. Each of the Gothic arches is differently chiselled, perhaps influenced by muslim architecture.

The rain has left puddles reflecting the fine arches.

A photographer has mounted his camera on a tripod so high that he needs a ladder to access his camera and shoot photos of the capitals. I ask him, whether he will edit a book about the cathedral. His eyes glow: “Well, these capitals are marvellous. I take pictures for the anniversary of the renovation that has started 60 years ago. My father was then responsible for the renovation. He was an architect”, he says. “So, you are a professional photographer”, I ask. “Yes, and I am also an architect.” Later I find him taking pictures of the arches reflecting in the puddles. “Muy divertido”, he says – great fun. “Yes”, I reply, “I have also taken photos with the puddles.”

This arch attracts my attention: Something is hanging in the middle – very unusual.

I have a closer look. It is a crucifixion with Maria to the left and the disciple John to the right. Some angels are surrounding the group.

From the cloister, we enter the church with its ribbed vaults.  

I am particularly attracted by this fresco with Maria in the middle. The decorated tiles below the fresco show a clear influence of the muslims that had just been exiled from here, when the church was built.

We find many tomb slabs in the front area of the church. Ursula took photos of them. This head has been bedded on a comfortable cushion.

From outside we can see the apsides…

… and two beautiful portals. This is one of them, the Porta dels Fillols. The decoration also shows muslim influence.

From the cloister and from the belfry the view is marvellous, though on this grey day not up to the Pyrenees. We have to come back on a clear day to see the Pyrenees and to visit the Seu Vella or old cathedral again – perhaps by then the book of the photographer-architect will have come out.


The Carrer Major and around

After having visited the old cathedral, we stroll along the Carrer Major and adjacent areas.

Christmas is ahead of us, as the decorations in the many clothing and shoe shops show.

Also the Plaça de la Paeria with the Gothic townhall is decorated for Christmas.

The wrought-iron lamps are next to the entry of the townhall.

In the 18th century church Sant Pere, we find an old friend of ours, Gaspar de Portolá. He is buried here. We know him from the Aran Valley in the Pyrenees where we have stayed four nights in the former Palace of the noble family Portolá – the palace is now a Parador. In the 18th century, Gaspar de Portolá set off to America and discovered San Francisco and the Monterrey Bay in California.

There are also quite a few Art Nouveau buildings in Carrer Major. I love the fancy and playful Art Nouveau style in Catalonia – also outside of Barcelona.

This house is called Casa Magí Llorenç (1918).

And this is the Casal de la Joventut Republicana (built in 1919).

Again and again we return to the Carrer Major to savour the buzzing atmosphere.


The Museu de Lleida – very instructive – with the streets around it

Outside the old city center we visit the Museu de Lleida to learn about the history of the region and of Spain. The museum starts with the first men and we get as far as the 15th century. Then the museum closes. The explanations are very instructive and we forget the time. Here are two take aways.

Not far from Lleida is El Cogul that is famous for its rock paintings called Roca dels Moros – but the paintings are, of course, much older than the muslim times. Archeologists concluded that this is a group of dancing women.

El Cogul will be another day trip target, when returning to Catalonia (then I might also visit the wine region Costers del Segre nearby).

From the many marvellous sacral sculptures on display we liked this expressive figure of John the Baptist in full concentration with the small Agnus Dei on his left arm.

Near the museum we find the church Sant Llorenç from the 13th century, completed in Gothic style. I like the huge gargoyle against the dark blue sky… the fog has disappeared in the afternoon.

Hm, I did not know, that bees are also good for therapy.

The area around the Museum is much poorer than the Carrer Major.

When, after the War of Succession in the beginning of the 18th century, the Bourbons transformed the castle hill into a military casern, they donated a new cathedral to the city, built in the then modern baroque style. Since then, Lleida has owned two cathedrals which, however, have not always  been ready for use.

Just across we find the charming Gothic patio of the Hospital de Santa Maria.


Recovering and saying good-bye

In between we take a coffee with a tasty, crusty ham sandwich in the Mesón Rincón Iberico. It is full of noble ham legs, amidst them the best from Jabugo labelled “5J”.  I buy sliced ham to take home.

For lunch we find the quiet and cosy restaurant Romeu, where the menu costs 11.50 Euros – well worth the price.

In the evening – it is now dark -we say good-bye to the lively Carrer Major.

I manoeuvre my car out of the utterly narrow parking house (why are they all so narrow here?). Along the C-12 to Flix and Mora d’Ebre we return to our cosy apartment near Tarragona.

When traversing Lleida the next time and fighting with the traffic lights and complex circuses, we might stop for a coffee in the Carrer Major.



« Routen der Romanik in Katalonien », Generalitat de Catalunya, Departement de Commerç, Consum i Turisme, 1987 (I call it « newspaper »)

Fritz René Allemann und Xenia v. Bahder, «Katalonien und Andorra», Kunstreiseführer DuMont, Köln 1980


Exploring Morella with Perucho in mind

In November 2018 we spend three weeks not far from Tarragona.

After having crossed the mountains of the Maestrazgo with Perucho in mind, I now continue with Morella, also with Perucho in mind. 

Let us quickly recapitulate, what happened in the Maestrazgo and in Morella in Perucho’s novel “Las historias naturales”(see separate blog): In 1840, during the first Carlist War, the protagonist, liberal Antonio de Montpalau traverses the mountains of the Maestrazgo in search of the vampire, alias El Mochuelo, alias Onofro de Dip de Pratdip. Montpalau and his followers are captured by the conservative Carlist troups and taken to Morella, where the general of the Carlists, Ramón Cabrera, has his headquarter. Cabrera had been bitten by the vampire. Later Cabrera with his troups leaves Morella for Berga, where Montpalau will help Cabrera escape from the gloomy fate of becoming a vampire.


Morella – this eagle’s nest could well be the castle of King Arthur

We descend from Port de Torre Miró. Approaching Morella from the north, we see the medieval city towered by the castle. Actually, the whole City, with the walls surrounding it, might be part of the castle.

It looks like the nest of an eagle, as Perucho writes: “el escarpado nido de águilas realista” (p. 172, at that time occupied by the royal (realista) Carlists). Like Perucho, I could imagine King Arthur having resided here (p.181): “Llegando por la carretera de Monroyo…, uno cree estar ante de una de aquellas ciudades del Rey Arturo y de los caballeros de la Tabla Redonda, adecuadísima para albergar el Santo Grial”. (Arriving on the road from Monroyo…, one thinks to stand in front of one of those cities of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, well suited to keep the Holy Grail). Furthermore, Perucho compares Morella to Mont Saint Michel in France, just without the sea around it.

We park our car along the town wall and stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets. “Morella tiene mucho carácter,” Perucho says (p. 178, Morella has much character). It was an important city connecting the Ebro valley and the coastal planes around Valencia.


Strolling through the medieval city with its palaces

The strategic position of Morella is reflected in numerous palaces. The palace of the Cardinal Ram (built in the 15th century) is now a hotel.

Another Gothic palace has belonged to the Marquès de Cruilles.

Next door is the Casa Rovira. In 1414, Vincent Ferrer, a famous Dominican friar and preacher from Valencia, stayed in this house on his way to meet the antipope Benedict XIII and the Spanish king Ferdinand I (Vincent wanted to convince the antipope to abdicate, in which he did not succeed). The hosts of the Casa Rovira agreed that for Vincent they would prepare a meal made out of the best they owned which was their son. When being served the meal, Vincent understood, what had happened, did not eat, but revived the son successfully – the boy now lacked only one finger, because the mother had tried the meal before serving it. Vincent Ferrer later became Sant Vincent. Legend mixed with reality, explained on these ceramic tiles.  


The church of Santa Maria la Mayor – also valued by Perucho

Now I look forward to seeing the famous apostle portal of the Gothic church Santa Maria La Mayor (built around 1300). Here it is, hidden because of renovation. Bad luck.

Next to it, the virgin’s gate is still waiting for renovation.

Perucho’s description of this church is very much to the point (p. 182): “La cathedral es una joya de piedra profusamente esculpida y con un coro construido de manera ingeniosa, en medio de la nave” (the cathedral is a jewel made out of stone lavishly sculptured and with a choir constructed in an ingenious manner, in the middle of the nave).

This is the ingeniously constructed choir elevated in the middle of the nave and decorated with the representation of the Last Judgment. 

Spiral stairs with magnificent sculptures explaining the life of Jesus are leading up to the Choir.


The Convento San Francesco with its Danse Macabre

Above the cathedral we buy tickets for the Convento de San Francesc, now in ruins. This is the Gothic cloister.

We admire the Danse Macabre. Every one will be the victim of godfather death – and they are all sitting on this tree. 


Climbing up to the castle with Cabrera in mind

High above the Convento San Francesc is the castle. The access is in the cloister. This is the castle seen through one of the arches of the cloister.

“Who is this man?” a family father asks, “ah, hm, Ramón Cabrera, okay”, and he makes selfies of Cabrera with his children and his wife. Yes, Ramón Cabrera, the Carlist leader, has the honour to greet visitors of the castle still today. The castle was his headquarter in the First Carlist War. Cabrera had the title “Count of Morella” and his surname was “the Tiger of the Maestrazgo”.

Walking up to the castle I notice that there is no direct way up. I have to go around the rock, until I reach these steep stairs with high steps. A young man approaching the top of these stairs sighs “Madre!” Come on, you are much younger than I am…

From the top of the castle I enjoy the gorgeous view. It is almost impossible to approach Morella without being noticed from here. And with the clever system of defensive walls protecting the castle on top of the steep rock, it seems almost unconquerable.

I can well imagine, how Cabrera and Montpalau sat on one of the terraces of the castle and had a coffee, with the magic view of the stone city at their feet: “Una tarde, mientras tomaban un café en una de las terrazas del castillo, con el mágico visto de la ciudad de piedras a sus pies, …” (p. 183).

Not much later after that coffee break, Cabrera left Morella with most of his troops to retreat north to Berga. They did so early in the morning. It was very cold then and they intended to reach the warmer Ebro valley as quickly as possible. “Cabrera y el ejército emprendieron la marcha al rayar el alba. Hacía un frío que pelaba, y la tropa… llevaba tapabocas. El Maestrazgo era una región terrible y necesitaban llegar a la cálida ribereña lo más pronto posible.” (p. 190). My guidebook says that temperatures in winter can feel as low as minus 20 degrees centogrades, as wind and frost are cumulating.

Soon after Cabrera had left Morella, Baldomero Espartero (who fought for the cause of Queen Isabel II) conquered the castle and elevated the conservative flag of the Queen on the castle.

Zooming I can see the medieval aqueduct from the 14th century that up to the 19th century provided Morella with water from the near mountains. I believe that I see a ditch behind the aqueduct.

Now I understand, what Prince Lichnowsky experienced here, as described by Perucho. Lichnowsky was a nobleman from the Prussian Army that fought for the Carlists and Ramón Cabrera in the First Carlist War. Lichnowsky did not know that Espartero had taken over Morella in the meantime. He wanted to warn Cabrera of spies believing that Cabrera still resided in Morella. Lichnowsky approached the gate near the aqueduct. He noticed that he was received in a hostile manner. He retreated to one of the arches of the aqueduct. From here, he looked up and noticed the enemy’s flag wave on the castle. He understood, Espartero has conquered Morella and he, Lichnowsky, has to escape. He turned around, crossed the ditch to his right and disappeared towards Catalonia. (“El príncipe Lichnowsky… montó al caballo… y, a trote ligero, se dirigió a Morella… después de pasar bajo un arco del acueducto, llevaba, derecho, a la maciza puerta fortificida… Súbitamente vio como saltaban minúsculas salpicaduras de tierra a su alrededor… Oía las detonaciones agrias, … hacía dar la vuelta a su caballo. Encontró protección de uno de los pilares del acueducto, mientras una bala rebotaba contra la piedra, a un palmo de su cabeza. Entonces con mucho cuidado, miró hacia arriba. En la torre del castillo ondeaba la bandera de la reina… ¡Dio mío! Qué había pasado?… Lo urgente era escapar,… A la derecha se abría una barranca medio cubierto con matas de brezo florido. Espoleó a su caballo. El salto fue a la desesperada, cerrando los ojos y mientras sentía a la Muerte a su espalda… El Principe huía como un gamo hacia tierras de Catalunña…” (p. 229)).

This is the gate closest to the aqueduct (seen from inside the city) that gave the unfriendly welcome to the Prince Lichnowsky.  


Wrapping up the visit of Morella

After having visited the castle, we walk back through the city…

… and evaluate the woven blankets with the typical pattern of Morella.

All blankets that we looked at, were made out of synthetic fiber containing some 10 or 20% of pure wool. Not what we had expected. We buy some sweet specialties instead, flaons and mantecados.

We stop at the beautiful townhall dating from the 15th century.

Inside the courtyard we find some giants (used at Corpus Christi) and a film of the Sexenni that the town celebrates every six years to commemorate the end of the plague in 1672.

We return to the town wall to pick up our car. We notice a heavy fine behind our wiper for having parked where only those authorised are allowed to, not foreigners like us. On this busy Saturday with many cars parked all over, we had not noticed the prohibition sign… but we find it okay to leave some money to support the ongoing renovation in this charming town.

In the evening we unpack our souvenirs, the flaons and the mantecados.

The sweets accompany our afternoon coffee times. From our selection of sweets, our favourites the larger mantecados with the almond in the middle.

Yes, Morella is worth a visit.



David Navarro: “Morello”, Reihe Tourismus Spanien, Fisa Escudo de Oro.

Juan Perucho: “Las Historias Naturales”, Hurope, Barcelona 2003.

Morella in Wikipedia and tourist home site of Morella


The Maestrazgo: On the way to Morella with Perucho in mind

In November 2018 we spend three weeks not far from Tarragona.  

Having read “Las historias naturales” by Juan Perucho, I wanted to cross the mountains of the Maestrazgo and visit Morella.

Let us quickly recapitulate, what happened in the Maestrazgo and in Morella in Perucho’s novel “Las historias naturales”(see separate blog): In 1840, during the first Carlist War, the protagonist, liberal Antonio de Montpalau traverses the mountains of the Maestrazgo in search of the vampire, alias El Mochuelo, alias Onofro de Dip de Pratdip. Montpalau and his followers are captured by the conservative Carlist troups and taken to Morella, where the general of the Carlists, Ramón Cabrera, has his headquarter. Cabrera had been bitten by the vampire. Later Cabrera with his troups leaves Morella for Berga, where Montpalau will help Cabrera escape from the gloomy fate of becoming a vampire.

Now, let us follow the tracks of Perucho and Montpalau by crossing the Maestrazgo on the way to Morella.


Our routes to Morella crossing the Maestrazgo mountains

Montpalau crossed the Maestrazgo mountains coming from Horta San Juan and Valderrobres (just outside the map above, see the dotted red line). We traversed them farther south starting at Tortosa (continuous red line leading to Morella).

Source: Street map Michelin “España Noreste”


Approaching the Maestrazgo mountains

This is, how Montpalau approached the Maestrazgo (p. 164): “En Horta de San Juan visitaron la plaza gótica porticada y el Convento de San Salvador… el aire era muy frío y tuvieron que abrocharse hasta el último botón de la levita. El paisaje había cambiado ahora; salvaje, grandioso y como telón de fondo, las altas montañas del Maestrazgo.” (In Horta de San Juan we visited the gothic main square and the monastery San Salvador… the air was very cold and they had to close their frock coats up to the last button. The landscape has now changed; wild and grand and with, in the background, the high mountains of the Maestrazgo).

We, however, ascend to the Maestrazgo mountains via Más de Barbera where we have a wonderful view of the Montsia mountains and of the Galera plane with its utterly tidy olive groves.

We take a coffee in the Lo Racò that would make a good stop for eating, recommended in Tripadvisor. Nearby we find a signboard that lays out enticing hiking paths.


The Maestrazgo mountains – fresh pristine air and wild barren landscape

We continue ascending to the village La Senia where we reach the Maestrazgo mountains. The road becomes narrow curving through wild rocks.


The Cistercian monastery Benifassà is closed and opens on Thursdays from one to three p.m., just two hours per week, not more. Very secluded.

The village of Benifassà looks like an aery – a nest for eagles – in a barren landscape.


The road winds up and down along a rocky mountain ridge. We are on about 1000m above sea level.  

We agree with Perucho and Montpalau (p. 165) “Era un paisaje de maravilla. A media que se ascendían se renovaba el aire, se hacía más puro, y un perfume salvaje de bosque y de animal en libertad se mezclaban curiosamente… Pasaron por debajo de grandes cascadas de agua ensorcedoras…; descubrieron cuevas… enormes… En verdad, el Maestrazgo era una tierra muy extraña y sorprendente…” (It was a marvellous landscape. As they climbed higher and higher, the air refreshed, became more pristine, and a perfume of wild forest and animal in freedom mixed up strangely… they passed under large and ear-deafening waterfalls; they discovered big caves… as a matter of fact the Maestrazgo was a strange and surprising area).

We reach a barren high plateau with some lonely farms dispersed on meagre meadows. Ever once in a while we see some cows, some sheep, some goats. We are alone here – like Montpalau and his friends in Perucho’s novel (p. 165): “Desde que se hallaban en el Maestrazgo no habían visto a nadie. Se acercaba el puesto del sol. Vieron una masía, medio abandonada… Decidieron de pasar la noche en la triste masía… “ (Since they had arrived in the Maestrazgo, they had not seen anyone. The sun was about to set. They saw a farm, half abandoned… They decided to stay in the desolate farm for the night…).

The next day, Montpalau and his followers succeeded to escape giant fleas that were attacking them… their weapons were branches of pine trees that they ignited and carried like torches. Very fancy… but perhaps… why not… I could almost imagine giant fleas jumping around us in this wild landscape and if they came, thanks to Montpalau, I would know, how to fight them – with ignited branches of pine trees..

After more than two hours on narrow roads, we reach the Port de Torre Miró. We are now above the valley of Morella and enjoy the gigantic windmills and the view together with other tourists. We are no longer alone.

Mountains around us. Ursula captures them with a panoramic view.


We continue our way to Morella – and I will talk about this small and fortified in my next blog.



Juan Perucho: “Las Historias Naturales”, Hurope, Barcelona 2003.















The Ebro Delta is always worth a visit

Again and again we have visited the Ebro Delta, when staying in Catalonia. We love it for its rice fields changing with the seasons and for its natural reserve lagoons holding a variety of birds.

This is what the rice fields looked like in spring 2018, all fresh, brown, ready to be watered and to grow rice.

Now it is November 2018. The rice has been harvested. The green stubbles remain.

The tractors are ploughing up the harvested rice fields. The birds are following the tractors – do they catch the worms that come out of the ground or do they find residual rice grains?

Whatever they find, it must be worth it. The birds are not afraid of the tractor and neither is the tractor caring about them.  

As always, we buy rice and olive oil at the Fusta shop. The rice produced by the Cooperative del Delta is called “Bomba”. In Swiss German we would say “är isch e Bombe”, which means, “the rice is super”.

Near the Fusta, in the lagoon de l’Encanyissada, we saw many flamingos in spring.

They were busy picking food from the lagoon (these two small spots are flamingos).

Not one flamingo now, in autumn, in the Encanyissada lagoon.

Instead, the layers of rock in the Montsià mountains behind the lagoon are very clear today.

Hunters have taken out their boats to chase ducks. Now we understand, why we do not see one duck in this lagoon.

We meet a ranger that tells us that the ducks hide in the reed (because of the hunting going on) and that there is too much water in the lagoon for the flamingos. We should look for them at the lagoon of Tancada. We drive there. The Tancada lagoon is full of ducks. They have congregated where there are no hunters. No fotos of ducks – our cameras do not look like guns.

There are no flamingos either. We give up and just enjoy, how the sun plays with the colours of the reed…

… and how the clouds reflect in the water.

In spring, the water channels were full with black-winged stilts (Himantopus Himantopus or in German Stelzenläufer) with their long red legs.

None of them around now, in autumn.

Poble Nou (literally “new village”) is located near the lagoon de l’Encanyissada, behind the reeds.

We sometimes have lunch in one of the small bars at Poble Nou, but now it is twelve o’clock and far too early for lunch in Spain. We take our way back to Hospitalet and stop in Ametlla del Mar. At the port we have fresh sole fish which is a delicious close up of another excursion to the Ebro Delta.

Discovering the Val d’Aran: The origin of the Garonne

On 1st of November 2018, while staying in the Parador of Arties for four nights, sunshine and a blue sky are waking us up. By car we drive up to the Bonaigua Pass (2072 m above sea level). From here we have a beautiful view. The bad weather is rising from the valley and will reach us tomorrow. 

There is snow around us and – languishing – I watch some skiers walking up the hills, where the chairlifts have not yet started to run. “It was great”, one of the ski tourists tells me, “why have you left your skis in Switzerland?”


Where is the source of the Garonne?

The Garonne does not have just one source, but at least three. The first source is in the south, the second in the east and the third in the west of the Val d’Aran.

The first source in the south – the Rude-Garonne :

One traveller from the 19th century contends that the Rude-Garonne is THE source: « Toutes les artigas ou affluents de la vallée d’Aran se plaisent à se considérer comme la Garonne originelle, mais celle qui au moment semble étinceler au loin sur notre gauche a plus que tout autre droit à ce titre. Appelée la Garonne de Rude, elle a sa source dans les lacs de Sabouredo, sur la bordure nord du Parc d’Aigues Tortes» (Bessons, Tomme I, p. 192).

Exactly like for the traveller of the 19th century, the valley of the Rude- Garonne is also sparkling for us on our left, when we return from the Port de la Bonaigua to the Val d’Aran.

That former traveller contends that the Rude-Garonne is more entitled than other affluents to be called the origin of the Garonne, but it seems that he is not quite right – there are more sources.

The second source in the east – the Beret-Garonne:

The Beret-Garonne originates in the Uelh deth Garona on the Pla Beret (Uelh deth Garona means “Eye of the Garonne”).

The Beret-Garonne joins the Rude-Garonne in Tredòs which was formerly the highest and last village in the valley. Above Tredòs are now located the ski resorts Baqueira and Beret, with the huge parking lot that must be filled with cars sparkling in the sun, once the winter season starts.

These are the ski pistes attracting so many tourists and even the king of Spain.

The third source in the west – from Pic Aneto and Jove’s eyes:

As Wikipedia writes, “the third thesis holds that the river rises on the slopes of Pic Aneto at 2300m above sea level and flows by way of a sink hole… (reemerging) at Uelhs deth Joèu (“Jove’s eyes”) in the Artiga de Lin.” It then joins the Rude-Beret-Garonne in Vielha.


The long way of the Garonne to the Atlantic

The Garonne starts as a Spanish (or more precisely as a Catalonian or even more precisely as an Aranese) river and crosses the border near the village Les at the Pont du Roi to become the third longest river of France (in all about 600km, from which 524km in France). I have come across the Garonne in Toulouse, near Moissac and in Bordeaux. North of Bordeaux, the Garonne joins the Dordogne and, now called Gironde, reflects the sun to warm the first-class vineyards of the Haut Médoc at sites such as Pauillac, St. Julien or St. Estèphe.


Dreaming of hiking in the Val d’Aran

I could imagine hiking in the Val d’Aran in summer or early autumn, along the Garonne, from village to village, from one 800 years old church to the next, up to the three sources of the Garonne, and up to the passes and mountain peaks, …

… to enjoy the landscape and the flora…

… that also reminds me of the Alps (here: autumn crocus found on a path along the Garonne).


The Val d’Aran is a new world that I have discovered

From how the people preserve their language, the Aranese, I understand that they have their own strong identity which differs from Catalonia. I am happy that Ursula had the idea to spend some days here. A fascinating world has opened up for me in the Val d’Aran.

In their two volumes named “sur les Chemins du Val d’Aran”, Madeleine & Françoise Besson describe their home valley that they love for the brave people and for three essential, natural riches.

The brave people they illustrate with a distant grand-mother of theirs, Maria Prades. After the first Carlist War, in 1840, her husband was imprisoned for smuggling (which was an important business then). Maria Prades was his young wife at that time. She decided to free her husband from prison. On foot she crossed the mountains, continued to Madrid, had an audience with Queen Isabel II and returned with a letter that liberated her husband.

The three essential, natural riches are the water that gives life and that has been mastered by the people; the abundant flora; and the chaplets of Romanesque churches hanging on the mountain slopes or placed in the villages that prove more than 800 years of religious verve. (« … trois richesses essentielles de la vallée… : l’eau qui lui donne la vie et que la vallée a su maîtriser ; la flore, l’une des plus abondantes des Pyrenées ; et le chapelet des églises romanes accrochées aux flancs des montagnes ou placées au cœur des villages et qui témoignent depuis plus de huit cents ans de l’élan spirituelle de la vallée» (Tomme II, p. 128).

Reading the books of Madeleine & Françoise Besson was a wonderful extension of our visiting the Val d’Aran.



Madeleine & Françoise Besson : « Sur les chemins du Val d’Aran – Voyage autour d’Arties», Lacour 2005 (Bessons, Tome I)

Madeleine & Françoise Besson : « Sur les chemins du Val d’Aran – ses habitants, ses mots, ses fleurs», Lacour 2005 (Bessons, Tome II)

Discovering the language the Val d’Aran: Some insights into Aranese

When arriving in the Val d’Aran end of October 2018, I noticed announcements along the road that had a clear Romance touch, but they were neither French nor Spanish nor Catalann – they were different. For example:

  • Restaurant and others: Eth Triton, Tauèrna Urtau, Era Coquela, Apartementos deth Camin Reiau, Musèu dera Val d’Aran
  • Street names : Carrèr dera Hònt, Carrèr des Banhs, Carrèr Espitau, Carrèr deth Centre
  • Rivers : Arriu de Salient, Arriu de Valarties, Barranc des Pales, Saut deth pish

This sign is somewhat familiar and somewhat unfamiliar. “Neighbours” are “voisins” in French, “vecinos” in Spanish and “veís” in Catalan. Obviously, they are “vesins” in Aranese.


The origins of the Aranese language

The servant at the bar of our parador in Arties is from Barcelona. “Oh yes”, she says, “I can understand the people in the Val d’Aran, they speak a local dialect of Catalan.” “No, no, the language of the Val d’Aran is not a local dialect of Catalan, it is a different language deriving from Gasconian”, Ursula replies. Our servant frowns: “Really? That sounds interesting.”

In the Musèu dera Val d’Aran in Vielha, the elegant lady at the reception desk switches seamlessly between French and Spanish. She proudly explains to us: “You will see the language tree in the video of our museum: Latin is the main trunk, the Occitan languages are one branch, then Gasconian branches off and from the Gasconian branch the Aranese language derives.” I tried to capture that tree flying by on the screen – Aranese can be seen on the very righthand side branching off from Gasconian.

“We, the people in the Val d’Aran are fluent in four languages, Aranese, Spanish, French and Catalonian”, the friendly lady at the museum reception adds. Madeleine and Françoise Besson confirm that the people here speak four languages, in former times even without having attended school: „… eux qui, pour les générations anciennes surtout, savent parler quatre idiomes: l‘aranais, le castillan, le français et le catalan. Un professeur de langue … se rappelle que sa grand-mère n‘était jamais allé à l‘école et parlait quatre langues (tome I, p. 35).“ Some speak in addition several local dialects of the neighbouring valleys.

 Let us approach the Aranese language to understand the expressions at the beginning of this blog.


Eth, era, deth, dera , des

What I first noticed were the words “eth”and “era” as well as “deth”, “dera” and “des”. They appeared in the names of streets and restaurants: Eth Triton, Era Coquela, Carrèr deth Centre, Musèus dera Val d’Aran, Barranc des Pales.

“Eth” and “Era” are the articles, masculine and feminine. They can be combined with “de” to make “of the”. Hence:

  • Eth Triton = The Triton
  • Era Coquela = The Saucepan/Casserole
  • Carrèr deth Centre = Street of the Centre
  • Musèus dera Val d’Aran = Museum of the Val d’Aran
  • Barranc des Pales = Canyon of the Shovels (Bessons, Tome II, p. 79; pales or pelles in French)

Actually “eth” and “era” derive from Latin “ille” and “illa” (Wikipedia).


About the orthography

In the past, Aranese was just spoken, but not written down. The people of the Val d’Aran had to agree, how to write their language. There were several approaches, that, if I understand correctly, were settled in 1982 (Conselh Generau d’Aran: “Normes ortografiques der Aranès”). Some rules are:

  • “lh” = Spanish or French “ll” (Vielha = Viella = central city of the Val d’Aran, calhau = caillou = pebble, familh = famiglia = famille)
  • “nh” = Spanish ñ/ni/ny or French “gn/in” (banhs = baños = bain = baths, senho = señor = seigneur)
  •  u = v between two vowels (escriuer = escribir = write, shivau = caballo = cheval = horse)
  • Final “l” becomes “u” (mau = mal = bad)

(Sometimes the Aranese word is closer to French, sometimes more to Spanish).

Now I understand

  • Carrèr des Banhs = street of the baths
  • Carrèr Espitau = street of the hospital
  • Arriu = river

Saut deth pish is composed of “saut” (= forest, related to Spanish “selva”) and “pish” = waterfall (in Spanish cascada). This must be the forest of the waterfall.


About the etymological correspondence if “f” and “h”

When I started to learn Spanish, I noticed that the Latin “f” often transformed to “h”, but remained “f” in French. Examples are:

  • formica (Latin) = hormiga (Spanish) = fourmi (French) = aunt
  • fornax (Latin) = horno (Spanish) = four (French) = oven
  • ferrum (Latin) = hierro (Spanish) = fer (French) = iron

…but not always:

  • Fons (Latin) = fuente (Spanish) = fontaine (French) = source or fountain


The Aranese language transformed “f” into “h” as well, but sometimes Spanish keeps the “f”:

  • hormiga (Aranese) =  hormiga (Spanish) = fourmi (French) = aunt
  • horn (Aranese) = horno (Spanish) = four (French) = oven
  • hont (Aranese) = fuente (Spanish) = font (French) = source/fountain
  • hum (Aranese) = humo (Spanish) = fumée (French) = smoke / fume
  • haria (Aranese) = harina (Spanish) = farine (French) = flour
  • haus (Aranese) = hoz (Spanish) = faucille (French) = sickle
  • huec (Aranese) = fuego (Spanish) = feu (French) = fire
  • hesta (Aranese) = fiesta (Spanish) = fête (French) = festivity
  • heira (Aranese) = feria (Spanish) = foire (French) = fair / exposition

but sometimes the “f” remains in Aranese:

  • forquilla (Aranese) = tenedor (Spanish) = fourchette (French) = fork
  • faucon (Aranese) = halcón(Spanish) = faucon (French) = falcon

and sometimes the Spanish word is totally different:

  • hormatge (Aranese) = queso (Spanish) = fromage (French) = cheese
  • horment (Aranese) = trigo (Spanish) = froment (French) = wheat

Now I understand that Carrèr dera Hònt is the Fountain street.


The Aranese – officially recognised by Catalonia

Since 2010, the Aranese has been one of three official languages in Catalonia, besides Catalan and Spanish. Since 1984 it has been taught at schools in the Val d’Aran. According to a census of 2008, about 80% of the inhabitants in the Val d’Aran understand Aranese and about 60% speak it s well. I do hope that the federalistic solution for the Aranese language will continue to flourish.


Discovering the Romanesque and early Gothic churches in the Val d’Aran

Discovering the Romanesque and early Gothic churches in the Val d’Aran

For end October/beginning November 2018 we had booked four nights in the Parador of Arties in the Val d’Aran. We found much to discover. Each mountain village has its own church and most of them are of Romanesque or early Gothic style.

Source: El valle de Aran

Besides Santa Maria in Arties, we have visited the churches of Vielha, Bossòst, Les, Escunhau, Salardú, Tredòs and Unha (main source: “Los caminos Pirenaicos del Arte Romanico”).


Vielha – Iglesia de Sant Miquèu

Vielha is the main town of the Aran valley. The octagonal tower of the church Sant Miquèu can be seen from far (early Gothic).

The portal is decorated with the Saint of the church, Michael who defeats the dragon-devil (early Gothic, 14th century). The five arcs of the portal contain sculptures to discover.  

Inside the church we find the most precious treasure, the Christ of Mijaran. It is the only remaining part of a larger sculpture showing the deposition from the cross (12th century). It was crafted by master Erill from the Val de Boí. The Val de Boí is not far from here and last year we have visited their impressive Romanesque churches as well.

The Romanesque baptismal font is carefully decorated.

Inside the church are furthermore a gothic altar and gothic frescos.


Bossòst – Iglesia de la Mair de Diu dera Purificacion

Bossòst is another village with narrow streets, neat houses with shingled roofs and a Romanesque church, the Iglesia de la Mair de Diu dera Puricifacion (12th century). The bell tower with its twin windows and the threefold apsis are typical of the Lombardian stlye.

I particularly like the northern portal with Christ surrounded by the sun, the moon and the symbols of the evangelists.

The weather is about to change – the clouds shaped by the south wind are hanging above the belfry.


Les – Capilla de Sant Blas

In the next village, Les, we find the small Romanesque chapel called after Saint Blasius. It could well be that once upon a time this chapel was part of a larger church.

Strolling along the cobbled streets of Les, I find this shop that sells cider.


Escunhau – Iglesia de Sant Pèir

Just neighbouring Vielha, Escunhau is another one of those pretty villages. The Iglesia de Sant Pèir is above it.

The main portal is decorated with this plain and elegant sculpture showing Christ crucified. Can it be that some architects of 20th century churches came here for inspiration? 

The cemetery has been decorated for 1st of November (All Saints).


Salardú: Iglesia de Sant Andrèu

The church of Salardú is named after Saint Andrew (13th century).

From the outside decoration, I above all like the “twinkling” face – it looks a bit like our “twinkle” emoticon.

Inside the church we find early gothic vaults.

The highlight is the wooden cross with Christ of Salardú. It is attributed to the same master Erill from the Val de Boí as the Christ in Vielha. Under the feet of Christ, Adam is about to revive from his grave.

On the back of the cross this beautiful angel looks at us.

I was so fascinated by the wooden cross that I did not notice, what Ursula noticed… this shrine…

… and the sculpture of Maria with her child.

The presbyterium is decorated with frescos showing biblical scenes; they are from the 17th century – Renaissance.


Tredòs – Santa Maria de Cap d’Aran

Tredòs is located in the upper part of the Val d’Aran. Their Romanesque church Santa Maria de Cap d’Aran from the 11th century is closed.  The inhabitants are busy decorating the tombs in the cemetery.

The paintings that once were inside this church are now in the Cloisters Museum of New York (this may sound unbelievable, but it is true).

The small window fortunately has remained here.


Unha – Iglesia de Santa Eulària

Our last church visited is Santa Eulària in Unha. The mountains make a wonderful background for the Lombardian apsis.

Under the roof, there are various small faces and figures. This figure seems to have a pain in his back.

We stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets of Unha and admire the shingled roofs.

Like all villages also Unha is still asleep waiting for the winter season to start and for the tourists to come. We find a bar open and we have an espresso on the balcony.


What a rich and well-kept culture in the rough mountains!

The Romanesque and early gothic churches are a rich and well-kept culture. The Val d’Aran is not the only valley with such a rich heritage at the border between Spain and France. To me the churches look like solid fortifications in the rough mountain valleys. The few ornaments are solemn and precious. They make the churches a wonderful place for worship.

It fascinates me to find the same style elements from Lombardy in the Pyrenées, in the Alps and even in Germany.  In the 11th century, the masters from Lombardy had exported their way of building churches throughout central Europe. Networking was successful, though the infrastructure for travelling was very, very basic.

I could imagine going back to the Val d’Aran and neighbouring Valleys and combine hiking with visiting more Romanesque and early Gothic churches.




Conselh Generau d’Aran (Elisa Ros Barbosa): Er Art Romanic dera Val d’Aran, 2007

Pauline Chaboussou et alii: « Los caminos Pirenaicos del Arte Romanico”, Synidcat mixed du Pays Couserans, Anfigraf 2008


Discovering the charming Val d’Aran: Arties and its nobleman Portola

For end October/beginning November 2018 we had booked four nights at the Parador of Arties in the Val d’Aran.

The Val d’Aran belongs to Catalonia. It is located south of Toulouse in the Pyrenees. While most Spanish valleys in the Pyrenees are oriented towards Spain, the Val d’Aran faces north. In 1659, France under Louis XIV and Spain under Philip IV agreed that the Val d’Aran is to remain with Spain. However, in winter, the snow prohibited to access the Val d’Aran from the south. For being somewhat isolated, the valley has kept its own character which is different from Catalonia. There is much to discover such as Romanesque churches, the Aranese language, hiking paths in a rough landscape, the favourite ski resort of the king of Spain and the source(s) of the Garonne.


The former castle of the family Portolá – now the Parador – in snow and ice

The Parador of Arties is a former castle of the noble family Portolà. From our room we can see the Montardo -THE mountain of the area (2883m). It is cold. All is covered with snow and the roof is icicled.

The tower reminds us of the fact that the parador once was a castle. In the background we can see the skiing area of Baquiera and Beret where the king of Spain practices skiing.

The tower reflects in the swimming pool that now does not seem to be inviting me for a swim.

Arties is proud of their noble family Portolà with Gaspar de Portolà being their most famous representative (1723-1786). Starting from what is Baja California today, he discovered California, first San Francisco and then the Monterey Bay. An area in San Francisco, a valley and a city are called “Portola” in California.

Near the Tower of the Parador, there is a statue of Gaspar de Portola…

… and in the saloon of the Parador near the fireplace we found his portrait as well.


Arties on the Garonne, first covered by snow, then green again

Walking through the village we discover neat stone houses covered with shingles, most of them with closed shutters. Many restaurants, now also closed, make us assume that this village will be busy, when the skiing season starts. The yellow autumn leaves reflect in the sun and contrast with the snow and the Montardo mountain.

The village Arties stretches along the Garonne that originates in the Val d’Aran to continue its way to France and to the Atlantic Ocean.

Every village in the Val d’Aran has its own small Romanesque or early Gothic church. In Arties it is the Església de Santa Maria from the 12th century. The threefold apsis is decorated with pilaster strips and arcades, as it is typical of the Lombardian style. The church is closed.

The second church of Arties in early gothic style is called “Sant Joan” (a day later the snow has disappeared). It is a museum now. 

The village of Arties is located where the rivers Garonne and Artigues join. 

Madeleine & Françoise Besson wrote two beautiful books about their home village Arties that starts, when the village, located between two rivers, was inundated in the 1960s after heavy rainfalls. The village was poor at that time, before tourism started. The Bessons also write about the impressions of the rough life and the brave mountain people that travellers from the 19th century reported.

I captured the overview foto of Arties from the small Ermita de Sant Jaime.

Let me keep more Romanesque churches of the Aran valley for my coming blog. 



  • Conselh Generau d’Aran (Elisa Ros Barbosa): Er Art Romanic dera Val d’Aran, 2007
  • Madeleine & Françoise Besson : « Sur les chemins du Val d’Aran – Voyage autour d’Arties – Tome I », Lacour 2005
  • Madeleine & Françoise Besson : « Sur les chemins du Val d’Aran – ses habitants, ses mots, ses fleurs  Tome II», Lacour 2005
  • Pauline Chaboussou et alii: « Los caminos Pirenaicos del Arte Romanico”, Synidcat mixed du Pays Couserans, Anfigraf 2008



On the road at Pontgibaud near Clermont-Ferrand and the volcanos

End of October 2018 we are on the road again. Our target is Spain. Clermont-Ferrand is located at about half the distance between Basel and the Pyrenées. We selected Pontgibaud close to the motorway to stay overnight. We discovered a nice small hotel and a nice small town stretched along the Sioule river. It counts some 800 inhabitants.

The Hotel de la Poste has just opened, because the owner expects spontaneous guests that get stuck in the snow announced. It snowed slightly, when we arrived.

We have dinner – I eat braised calf cheek – a plain and excellent meal.

In the morning, we find the sky covered, but there is no snowfall. We walk around the small town built using the black volcanic stones of the area . The dormant volcanos called “Puy” are not far. This is the townhall or hotel de ville ornated with the black volcanic stone.

This house with its watch tower has been built in the 15th century. 

In pre-Roman, Roman and medieval times, lead was retrieved in the area. This might have been the reason for fortifying the town and buliding  the castle (Source: Städtische Wirtschaft im Mittelalter). The inhabitants of Pontgibaud are called Gibaldipontins.

From the town fortification, the city gate is left.

Across the gate starts the park of the Castle.

The Castle was built in the 12th and 15th century. 

The park – now slightly powdered with snow – overlooks the small town with the church Saint Benoît from the 13th century.

We say good-bye to this friendly small town and leave for the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenées. After having arrived in the Pyrenées in the evening, we hear that in Clermont-Ferrand traffic had been halted by a heavy blizzard. Good for the Hotel de la Poste at Pontgibaud that might now be full of guests that got stuck in the blizzard and decided to stop their journey.