Updated: Jul 31
Bring on the all-mighty mini break!
It was September in Barcelona and although the weather was looking great, job prospects weren’t. We’d just come back from going away to the Costa Brava – and what a trip that was! But as school was about to start, it wasn’t looking like we were going to open. Covid had taken its toll on the school’s finances, not to mention the teachers’. I won’t mention what private academy I worked for in Sabadell, but ours was not the only one to feel the pinch and close down. The year of 2020 was a bad year for so many people and businesses, it seemed that English teaching would be yet another victim, and so in this cloud of (certainly) uncertainty, we decided that a short weekend away would help keep our minds of the troubles, if just for a few days. It may sound like running away, not wanting to face the big problems in life, but what was sitting around the house going to solve? Better off to see new places, enjoy the sunshine and perhaps come up with a few plans or solutions to the problems. Often during good times can problems often be resolved, or at least seen more productively than when you are dwelling on them and only seeing the negative things. It’s like a good night’s sleep perhaps, but I think that’s what holidays really are – getting away and coming up with solutions while being at your best. We decided to pack the car and go on a short weekend road trip north through Catalonia and into France for a spot of hiking and camping. There is no better time for travelling here than in September when the weather is not too hot and still dry enough to enjoy. Bring on the all-mighty mini trip!
Getting in the car, ready with the tent and sleeping bags, we headed up to the town of Gironella. It sits on the C-16, between Manresa and Berga, and traditionally produced cotton and textiles; it is perfectly placed along the Llobregat river, which runs all the down to Barcelona and the coast. Nowadays it is more known as a tourist destination, and is quite often featured on Instagram posts. So yes, that’s also where I saw it first, and as it peaked my interest, and added Gironella to the road trip – the first stop and coffee break. This town has around 5,000 inhabitants, but seemed very quiet. After a coffee and something to eat in the new part of town, which was nice but looked like every other Spanish town, we headed over the river into the historic centre. From the bridge I could see the remains of the castle, its huge wall still standing and one of the towers now holding a clock. Unfortunately, the town didn’t look exactly like it does in the pictures on social media – but does that ever happen? The river was quite low and so there was no rush of water over the weir for that postcard shot, nor was the fountain working, but I really enjoyed walking up and down the steep streets and also getting a great view from the high wall. You don’t realise it walking the narrow streets, but the hill is very high and the castle was in a perfect defensive position. Even so, the castle’s Bourbon forces were defeated 1714 and imprisoned in Cardona castle until the end of the war, in which the Bourbon’s finally won the War of Succession. The town now is proudly Catalan, and has murals painted on the walls showing local traditions like El Gigants (The Giants), the Sardana traditional dance as well as people in traditional clothes. The church seemed a little out of place, or maybe out of date, as it was made of huge stone blocks mixed in with brickwork; completely out of place with the buildings around it. It was time to move on and the next stop was Castellar de n'Hug. Again, another Instagram inspired destination, but worth it.
The first thing I have to say about this place is the number of flags! Most towns and cities in Spain or Catalonia have their own flags, and are usually adorning the city hall, but this town is obviously quite proud of theirs! I thought Paris had a lot of flags waving, but Castellar de n’Hug comes close for such a small place. The second things I have to say about this place is its beauty – not only does it sit on a steep mountainside, but the buildings also appear to be made out of that same mountain. Beautiful stone work, those typical mountain orange roof tiles and cobbled streets really came together and impressed me. The range of places to eat did not impress me however. There were a lot of people in town and it was 2pm, so we expected it to be busy, but even so. One place only did the set menu, and the other places were jam packed – Covid-19 restrictions seemed forgotten. We managed to find a place to get something to eat, even though the restaurant had to shuffle some tables around. My aim here was exploration, not a 4 hour Catalan menu extravaganza. After lunch, the crowds had lessened somewhat (still eating), and so we were free to walk around town without too many people and able to take our masks off without any danger. Castellar de n’Hug, which I’m still not sure how to pronounce to be honest, is right up in the pre-Pyrenees and affords great views of the mountains – even Pedraforca! The small streets are the postcard picture of Catalan villages – u-shaped tiles on sharply angled roofs, stone houses and wooden doors, with the beauty of the mountains as a backdrop. Now the town relies on tourism, like so many of these villages, the traditional trade of raising sheep and other livestock mainly done by a few, and only older people remain as residents. Places like this are a glimpse into the past, how people used to live in small communities, before rushing off to the big cities. I’ve always thought that, although there are big metropolitan cities in Spain, it is still a country of villages – people still behave like they’re in a village, whether they live in Madrid or Barcelona. There is a closeness to family and friends, the strong hold to traditions as well as ties with nature. I guess in a place like Catalonia, where you are never far from the mountains or the sea, this link with the countryside and being outdoors is perfectly natural. I love it.
After lunch and walking around a bit, it was time to head further north, right into the Pyrenees. First, however, we wanted a quick stop at the last Catalan city before crossing the border into France. Puigcerdà is a city of around 9,000 people, and the capital of the beautiful pre-Pyrenees region of Cerdanya. Although not big, it sits on a rise above the valley, with mountains pushing up either side. The view from the valley looking up is lovely, but the best view is from the city itself, looking over the Cerdanya plains and over to the rocky Pyrenees. Normally there are big markets here on Sunday’s, but as it was Saturday, so we would have to forgo that excitement. There were still the usual artisan stalls selling local products. Besides, I still wasn’t feeling that comfortable around so many people, even outdoors. We walked around, seeing the sights of the city, which included the 12th century bell tower which is the only remains of the church that was destroyed during the Civil War. Walking past this relic, the town square is ringed by colourful buildings, slightly on the dilapidated side, with some even needing support to stay up. We continued up the main attraction of the city – the lake. It is artificial, which I found out later, as I was really curious. It’s not that small either. Apart from the lovely walk all the way around, you can hire a small rowing boat to get a different point of view. I’d rather walk and enjoy the view from the ground, and watch other people struggle with the effort of rowing. It was really peaceful up here, still waters of the lake, the green of the trees and the mountains all the way round the city. We found our way back to the car, going steeply down this time rather than up. It was parked in carrer de les beates, which someone has cunningly changed to beatles! The next stop would be our final resting place for the day; but we hadn’t decided exactly where that would be yet. We crossed over the border between Spain and France, something which I always get excited about; as an Australian, how often do you get to drive to another country? You drive for 2 hours and you're still in Sydney! Although there are no ‘hard borders’ in most of Europe anymore, there gates are still there, reminding us that it wasn’t always so easy to travel in Europe. You can get stopped and searched though, as things are often far cheaper in Spain than France (like cigarettes, booze and petrol). You still go through a checkpoint for Andorra though, as it’s a tax haven for many people, and the cigarettes and booze are even cheaper than in Spain!
The first place across the border is Bourg-Madame, and everything changed is instantaneous! Not just the architecture of the houses, but even the footpaths, parks, and of course all the signs have changed languages. There is no Spanish or Catalan spoken here (although most French people here do speak one or both if asked), it is very, very French and I love this. Europe has become far more homogeneous since the EU, but still very different thanks for proud people who hold onto their identity. We passed through the village and stopped randomly at a campsite a few kilometres down the road, at one that seemed quiet yet pretty. We’d found the perfect place without really looking at all! Camp was set up and then we quickly headed off to the little town of Latour de Carol, which was about a 20-minute walk along a quiet country road. The sun was starting to go down and the walk was very nice and peaceful. The town, or maybe I should say village as it's quite small, is mostly made up of tall stone houses with wooden shutters and gardens with lovingly tended gardens. This part of France is so French, and I love it – a single railway track over a level crossing, a lonely wooden cabin for the guard, and a few dogs wandering around, all in such a picturesque setting of the Pyrenees. Sometimes I think I could just retire here. We made our way to a cute little bar in a small square and enjoyed a glass of wine and relaxed after a long day. The bar was playing some cool music, we watched the sun go down and just enjoyed the moment. Tomorrow a little bit of hiking was on the plans – nothing too difficult, but as the weather outlook was good, it would be beautiful. We had coffee and breakfast in Bourg-Madame before driving back and starting the walk in Porté-Puymorens. The walk, the Route des Lacs, followed a gravelly track which took us up high along the side of the mountain, and gave us a stunning view of the view below. It was warm and sunny, and we made it to the big dam at the highest point of the hike. The deep blue of the water and green of the trees made a beautiful contrast against the man-made concrete wall of the dam. We made our way down, taking pictures all along the way as it was so lovely, the clouds changing every time you looked at them, flooding down into the valley and then up and over the next ridge. We stopped for a bite to eat at one of the lakes, it was the ‘route of the lakes’ after all! There weren’t many people around at all, but quite a few big, cream-coloured cows, but they were just having a snack like we were. Such a great little weekend getaway – something everyone should do more often to escape the stress of city life!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. September 2020.