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