Updated: Aug 1
Driving through some amazing parts of Lleida
I’m writing this in the 5th week of lockdown here in Sydney. Australia, a country that had become a fortress against Covid, by introducing a hotel quarantine system for returning citizens and restricting international travel to safe ‘bubbles.’ Unfortunately, the Covid nightmare of 2020 continues well into 2021, with the new Delta variant really changing the rules of engagement. It looks like it will be another month under lockdown before things can start returning to normal. Australia is getting a real taste of what was happening in the world last year, and it isn’t pleasant. Nowhere is safe, it seems. I have been through a 3 month ‘hard lockdown’ in Spain, not being able to move from the house apart from essential food shopping and taking out the rubbish. I've also done a 14 day quarantine alone. I will be ok in Sydney, like we all will be in the end, but we must stay strong and stay in touch with family and friends – but from a distance. Too many people think it is ok to see family – they’re family, I trust them – but this just isn’t the case; in Sydney a few days ago 18 people were infected during a family gathering. If only these people had resisted the temptation and thought about the risks. Young people are dying here as well; not in huge numbers, as the cases are still relatively low compared to other nations, but it is something that affects everyone. Also, if it doesn’t kill you, it often leaves long-lasting health ramifications, like breathing problems and loss of smell, symptoms of long-Covid. I want to focus on the good things that happened last year and continue to find good things that are happening in 2021. One way for me to do this is to think about the cool places I visited, with friends and my partner. These times, when we can go out and be ‘normal’ will come again, but until then, stay safe, protect yourself and your family, and know it will be ok.
Back in October, I had already lost my job and my whole life in Spain was starting to look like it was coming to an end. Many people were finding it tough, I know, but it’s hard to see everyone else’s situation when yours seems so dire. A good friend of mine, Juan, suggested a short, weekend road trip - just the two of us, just the boys. How could I say no? It had been tough for both of us, Juan more than me, so I felt that we both needed this. We may not have jobs at the time (we do now!), but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t enjoy our lives a little. Let me also get this straight – this wasn’t running away. This is simply a great way to look at problems, take a step back, clear your mind and refocus. It helped. Well, Juan had just about everything planned it seemed; where we were headed as well as places to stop along the way, which I appreciated very much – I like someone planning a trip for me sometimes. We’d be doing a tour through some amazing parts of Lleida. Our first stop was a city called Cervera; which to be honest, I never even knew existed. We were taking our separate cars, so we didn’t have to wear masks and also so we could both decide how far we wanted to go before heading home, just in case. I arrived at about 10am, ready for my second coffee, and Juan wasn’t that far behind me. Before getting to the centre, I had a great view of the city from the highway, as Cervera sits high atop a ridge. I turned off and headed up a curvy road up the hill to the city, and had to stop for a panoramic photo. The city was founded in the early 11th century, as was at that time on the border of the Christian and Muslim kingdoms in Spain, explaining the large walls that still surround Cervera. Being in Lleida, a dry part of Catalonia but also very much the ‘wheat belt’ of the country as well, the grass and shrubbery was a dull hay colour, but the buildings matched that exactly. The church stood out from the rest of the terraced-style houses, as impressive as they were, its strong, stone tower reaching for the sky, topped by what looked like a blue-tiled dome. I was already excited about exploring this new place.
We met up in the centre and grabbed a coffee, which was at this stage, take-away only, as Catalonia was still enforcing restrictions. We decided to walk around and see a few of the sites, mainly the university, walls and the church, before moving on to our next stop. It was a road trip after all – can’t stay too long at one place. The university, which is still a functioning high school (yes there were kids there while we walked around and took photos), was founded in 1717 after a petition to the new King of Spain, Filipe (Philip) V. After the War of Succession, the city was nearly destroyed, and to rebuild it, the city’s leaders wrote to show their full support of the new king, even though the city was split in its opinion. This worked out well as they were granted funds for the university, which revived Cervera. The university was moved to Barcelona in 1842, which wasn’t great for the Cervera, and only because of the local wine trade, and the new train station in 1860, did it remain a place of any sort of local importance. The school is a grand old building, with arched walkways, bell towers and stone courtyards, full of history and now school children; it seemed quite the contrast though. We walked down and along the walls, noting that there was a large monument here, which looked like stone dominoes falling onto each other. It turned out that this structure was a monument to the Catalan Generalitat (government). Although the modern-day government has only existed since 1931, formed during the Second Spanish Republic (as has been dissolved and reformed numerous times), in 1352 the courts of different realms came together to create the Deputation of the General of the Principality of Catalonia – the state’s first real recognition. We made our way over to the church, the Basílica of Santa Maria de Cervera, which we were lucky to get in and see. The caretaker was just about to the lock the doors, but he was impressed by our Catalan and so let us wander around for a bit and take some photos. Outside the church, in the oldest parts of the city, there were stone houses on the cliff with a great view – but nobody to appreciate it. Everything was closed, even the park was cordoned off because of Covid. It was only us and a few stray cats in the streets. We walked back to the centre and back to the cars, ready for the next stop on our tour of Lledia.
Not far down the road is the town of Panelles. This is another town that I’d never heard of before, but glad that I was now getting the chance explore. You wouldn’t say that this place has anything special – it’s in the middle of Lleida, surrounded by farms, nothing of real note to stop and look at… but the residents have done something to change that! Right from the “Panelles” sign at the start of town, nearly every wall has been turned into art, with graffiti truly adding life and colour to this otherwise run-of-the-mill town in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to sum up all of the artwork, as there is so many and such a variety; from photo-like images of people to realistic animals. There is also some quite out-there stuff, like snails with cars, tractors and crowns as shells, one even having a skull as his ‘house.’ There is a wall right at the entrance to the town, which would have otherwise been a boring, unfinished rough partition from the fields, but has been made into something of beauty – a cat, with extremely intense eyes, staring right back at you, almost daring you to run so he can chase you down and play with you like a mouse. There are animals personified as people, a donkey in a hoodie, a fox in a hat, and even some sheep making a satirical comment on today’s society about ‘expressing yourself’ and how we are obsessed with selfies. We walked through the town, taking photos and appreciating the art. It was very quiet though, with the tourist totalling maybe a dozen in the hour or so we were there, and due to the restrictions, we couldn’t even get a coffee. We walked past a great depiction of Alice in Wonderland, a brightly spray-painted tractor and even a house with sinister teeth and windows-for-eyes, staring down at you on the street. We went back to the car for something to eat (pre-packed sandwiches) and headed out, passing by a few more outlying buildings with cool art on them, and moved off to where we’d be spending the night.
We drove off and got to a town called Àger, just as the sun was setting. This wasn’t our stop though, so we headed up the small, curvy road that winds its way up to the Coll d'Ares, part of the Serra del Montsec. This road was amazing – hairpins, straights, a few really steep parts too, all fringed by trees, but the road was smooth and it was only Juan and myself on it… so we drove like it was the WRC and it was the last heat. Seat Ibiza vs Seat Ibiza championship, or maybe even an episode of Top Gear! My car is slightly older than Juan’s but it ran like it was still 1998 and fresh out of the factory. Yes, the car is that old, but it’s a gutsy 1.6L VW engine backed up by a 5 speed manual, and my awesome driving skills of course. It was a safe ‘race’; we didn’t really speed that much, the road was empty apart from us and we didn’t do anything silly. It was pure exhilaration though! Cars can be so much fun sometimes! We parked up the top of this rocky outcropping, looking over the plains of Lleida and the mountains in the other direction. We couldn’t have timed it better to be honest – the sun was setting and it was just beginning to give us that ‘golden hour’ light that photographers love. People were still jumping off the cliff, all wrapped up in their suits and paragliding bags strapped on. We stopped and watched them, some of them psyching themselves up before taking the plunge, while others with more experience just did their thing like it was nothing. The sky was full of paragliders, cruising around, silent as eagles. After the sun had gone down, we had dinner and a beer, then slept in our cars. It was cold overnight, that’s for sure, but doing this not only saved us money, but allowed us to enjoy the stars as well as wake up with the sun rising over the Pyrenees. Worth it.
We started up the cars, waited for the windows to defog, then headed down the other side of the mountain. We went past the famous Congost de Mont-rebei, and at this time in the morning the water was still steaming a little in the sun. The gorge is very popular for kayakers (or canoers, I always forget the difference) and is very beautiful – there are also some hiking tracks too, which would offer a great view. This area also has quite a few big dams, one we stopped at yesterday was near the town of Camarassa, which was impressive due to the blue-green water in the reservoir. Today our goal was the big dam of Presa de Escales, which straddles the Catalan-Aragon border. We stopped for coffee in a small bar just on the Spanish side, as there were not restrictions in that part of Spain at the time (but there were in Catalonia), before heading down a small dirt road to the base of the dam and the entrance to the power station. From the bottom we got a great view of this massive structure. The amount of water that this dam holds is phenomenal; the wall is 125m high, it has a surface area of 731 km², with a full capacity of 152 hm³. The last number means nothing to me, but combine the height and the vast amount of water that you can see, it must be a lot. There is something about dams that I find fascinating – maybe the construction, how they redirect rivers, making sure the wall is tall and strong enough, and the power of the design. They are true engineering marvels. We drove up to the road at the top and stopped for some photos. Unfortunately, this was where Juan was leaving me; something had come up back in Barcelona and he needed to run. Thanks for the great trip Juan – nice to have some company as well as a great tour guide! Thankfully I could continue on a little bit more and really make use of the day. I decided to drive a different way home, heading up and around to a town called El Pont de Suert and then another called La Pobla de Segur before going home. I have to mention here that I drove past a town called ‘Perves,’ and couldn’t stop laughing for a while. There was the sign with the big bold letters saying Perves, then on the other end of town there was a big red cross through the name - I was confused, were they banning perves or welcoming them? The placed seemed quiet enough as I drive through... but then again, it’s always the quiet ones.
El Pont de Suert is a small town, or even village, in the region of Lleida, right up in the mountains. You might well ask why I was stopping here, as it isn’t exactly on the tourist trail. The answer is lunch. It turned out that this place was quite interesting as well – thousands of refugees during WWII fled through this area, escaping Nazis persecution. They mainly came from Germany, Australia Poland and The Netherlands, and even though some managed to avoid getting caught while crossing the Pyrenees, many didn’t and were encamped here before being shipped to Lleida. The church in the main square was a little strange too; a fan-like entrance made of bricks, with a green domed roof that resembled an egg. The bell tower was also strange, as it was a cross shaped tower with a green, metallic roof and what appeared to be lightning rods on top. It was all a little space-age looking. I wandered around, enjoying the warm October sun, and found that this town has some very interesting little streets. I chose my route randomly, and more often than not stumbled across a load of street cats. Funny little alleyways, cats, and nobody around but me. I crossed the bridge over the small mountain river that ran past the old centre, unsure if this was the ‘pont’ from the name of the town, and walked back to the main plaza, which was very colourful and quite cosy. With not much else to do, I got back in the car and drove for a bit before arriving at my last stop; La Pobla de Segur. The first thing you see are the terraced buildings that run above what’s left of the city wall. I parked the car and heading into the centre, passing a big “Som Republica (we are a republic)” sign, just in case you’d forgotten you were in Cataonia, and walked around for a bit. Unfortunately for me, the first and best thing of this town is what you can see when you’re not actually in it. It wasn’t ugly, but it wasn’t special either, and again it was pretty much just me and some cats. I loved the view from across the river though, looking at the wall, then the tall apartments, the church tower just sticking out above them, then the mountains. Sometimes you have to be outside your own little world to make sense of it. Well, my little road trip was over, and it was time to head back to Sabadell. It had been a great weekend… and we were already planning to next one!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. October 2020.