Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Last Friday, Stefan engaged in one of his favorite vacation activities: minor home repairs for nice people. After crossing back over the Pyrenees to Spain from Niaux (yes, more curvy mountain roads, but only for a brief while), we happened into a sweet rural pension, made all the more cozy by the leisurely outdoor evening chat that quadrilingual Stefan enjoyed in Spanish and a little Catalan with the owners and other guests. So when one of the ceiling lights in our room didn’t work, instead of letting the proprietors know, Stefan got out his trusty Swiss Army knife (always be prepared), dismantled the fixture, and rewired the circuit. The next morning, he rebalanced the washing machine in the common kitchen.

We were staying in Ribes de Freser to take one last mountain hike, from Núria (a somewhat over-developed ski resort that we reached via cog train from Queralbs) to the Coll de Noucreus.

The mountainsides were covered with fuchsia azaleas:
Above the trees and into the scree, we saw numerous grazing chamoises:
The trail became significantly steeper toward the end,
which was OK going up but had the acrophobe (me) wanting to clutch the hillside on the way down. It was a quick walk from the saddle
to the top.
The ridge line is the border between Spain
and France.
We paused both ascending and descending so Elias could play with snow.
No hike in the Pyrenees would be complete, of course, without numerous waterfalls,
and cows.
We spent so much time admiring the gorgeous late afternoon light on our descent that we almost missed the last cog train from Núria back down to Queralbs. Which reminds me to mention: the early summer sun doesn't set here until ~9:30pm--and June is still the "off season." It's brilliantly light at 6:30pm, so if you're a foreigner, you might not recognize that evening is upon you and you need to hurry up to catch your train. (Tourist trains and the sun both run later during high summer). Many businesses shut down for the afternoon, then open again for the evening; if you show up in a restaurant before 8:30 or 9:00pm, you might be the only person dining.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Crossing over to the other side

Clouds and rain moved in pre-dawn on Thursday, our last scheduled day in Vall de Boí, so instead of going on another hike, we went to France. We had not planned to go to France. We went because the drive from Barcelona to Vall de Boí had taken about eight hours, twice as long as we had expected thanks to our taking "the scenic route." (Stefan, who had done all the driving, thought being in the car on curvy mountain roads for several hours was the bees knees. This made me think of all the how-far-can-you-drive-in-how-little-time vacations my family took when I was a kid, and reminded me again of the many ways in which I seem to have married my dad.) Elias and I nixed the idea of spending another long day as passengers on winding mountain roads, and our topo-maps indicated that just north of the Pyrenees, France was pretty flat and the highways pretty straight. The route was longer, but we figured it would be quicker. Thus we found ourselves in the glorious empire of highway roundabouts.

Our sojourn was limited to the Ariège valley, where medieval castles, ruins, monasteries, and cloisters abound. It was in Ariège that the pacifist, anti-materialist Cathars set up camp in the 12th century and made a heroic effort to survive the 13th before being quashed and massacred by fed-up allegiance-demanding materialist feudal lords and the Catholic Church.

The highpoint of our day was a stop in Saint Lizier. Reigning over the top of the town's highest hill is the medieval Palais des Évêques (Bishop's Palace), the walls of which enclose the church Notre-Dame de la Sède. When the bishopric of Couserans was terminated in 1801, the palace variously served as a prison, workhouse, and lunatic asylum. A relatively recent restoration of the church revealed, beneath 19th-century woodwork, a stunning spread of 15th-century paintings on the vaulted ceiling and on many of the walls. The paintings borrow the Sybils of ancient Greece to prophecy the family tree of--and thus the coming of--Christ.

Down the hill from the Palais is the 12th century Cathédrale Saint-Lizier, named for Saint Lizier's 6th-century proselytizing bishop. A stately adjacent cloister lets only a little loose with its virtuosic carved column capitals--apparently the standard way for Romanesque cloisters to keep up with the Joneses.

We stopped for the night in Foix, a town dominated by the hill-top Château de Foix. The Château's first tower was built around 1000 CE, the third tower about 400 years after that. The castle served as home to generations of counts of Foix, including Henri III of Navarre, who graduated from counthood to become France’s King Henri IV, and local hero Gaston Fébus. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the castle was used as a prison. Perhaps a prisoner was responsible for this coq graffiti in one of the tower stairwells:

Incidentally, the English-language Wikipedia entry on Foix, written perhaps by a prickly native Foixian tired of all the tourists, somewhat petulantly lists but one local point of interest: the botanical garden, with its collection of cacti succulents. The French entry, in contrasts, skips the garden and goes for the Château.

Despite these delights, what actually drew us to Foix was some even older history: the late Paleolithic cave paintings in the nearby Grotte de Niaux. The oldest and youngest carbon-datable paintings (those containing charcoal) are ~13,800 and 12,800 years old; the paintings made with red iron oxide and manganese oxide are, alas, undatable. For reasons unknown, near the end of the last ice age, over a period of at least one thousand years, Magdelenian Cro-Magnons trekked with torches and oil lamps some 900 meters into the cave into a nicely symmetric vaulted cavern with amazing acoustics, where they then executed masterful drawings of bison, horses, ibexes, and stags. In another part of the cave, not viewable by the general public, there’s a drawing of a weasel--the only known weasel among all the prehistoric cave paintings in Europe. Because the paintings are rare, irreplaceable, and fragile, cavern tours are limited to groups of 25, led by a guide. A slippery 0.9 km later, at the opening of the "Salon Noir" (Black Room), everyone but the guide turns off and sets aside their individual flashlights, to limit the light shining on the paintings. Visits in the Black Room are limited to 25 minutes at a time, so as not to overload the walls with carbon dioxide.

I've been to Europe often enough to get used to seeing 1,000-year-old art; seeing 14,000-year-old art* took my breath away.

*"Art" or "craftsmanship"? The tour guide warned against projecting modern sensibilities on prehistoric images.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Romanesque churches

Vall de Boí had its heyday during the 11th and 12th centuries, when every thriving teeny town could afford to hire expert stonemasons from Lombardy to build elegant teeny Romanesque churches, usually on the outskirts of town. (Had the teeny towns not been so bustling, there would still have been room in the center of town for a church.) The original church frescoes are gone, as is the plaster and paint that apparently once covered the tidy masonry, but the beautiful stonework and bell towers remain, and the churches continue to be used for worship. UNESCO declared the valley a world heritage site in 2000.

When we weren't hiking, we were admiring the churches, including

Santa Eulalia in Erill la Vall; and

Sant Climent in Taüll. At Sant Climent we learned that the stones of the churches would have been stuccoed and painted; there is a trace of an exterior stucco-and-paint job (presumably not original) at the top of this window:

Changes in stonework suggest Sant Climent was built in multiple stages:

The valley's most charming village--the one with the most tumble-stacked densely-packed collection of old stone houses--is Durro. Looking down at Durro from the hermitage de Sant Quirc (and squinting to fuzz up the modern apartment blocks built for skiers), one can imagine the village as the model for a medieval woodcut.

Vall de Boí

I thought I was being only a little smug last week, when I wrote about how Spanish impediments to internet access supposedly pertain to government anti-terrorism measures. Yet I have to hand it to Spain: I'd be surprised if any foreign evil-doers here manage to check in with one another online more than once a week, and then only if they're hanging out at resort hotels or in cities large enough to have cell phone stores (and only if they have time to pull themselves away from their dastardly plots to make multiple return trips to said stores--though perhaps that's why one has minions). Fortunately for us, our vacation plans involved no government-toppling, and once we were reunited with our luggage (lost somewhere between Newark, Lisbon, Barcelona, and possibly London), the lack of access didn't hold us up.

Last Sunday, we survived harrowing cultural differences in behind-the-wheel boldness and successfully navigated our way out of Barcelona in a rental car. Stefan had plans for us to go hiking for a few days in the Vall de Boí, a rugged valley in the central Spanish Pyrenees, leading into the Aigüestortes-Sant Maurici National Park.

We stayed in tiny Erill la Vall and hiked and hiked and hiked some more. We had learned in Barcelona that signage in Spain is more for locals who already know their way around than for clueless out-of-towners, so on our first hike, along a "well signposted trail" severely lacking in formal signposts, we were grateful for the...
stone cairns (can you find them in the picture?) that led us...
up assorted rivulets and water falls to...
Estany (lake) del Pessó. On the way, we found this piece of...
prehistoric petrified toast, and saw great expanses of...

Our second hike followed the rocky edge of a dammed lake, the Embassament de Cavallers...
giant chunks of granite, up to a lovely green expanse full of...
cows. Deterred by...
the accumulating clouds, we skipped going all the way to Estany Negre de Boí and instead spent the afternoon doing a more sheltered hike along the Ribera de Sant Nicolau, to...
Estany de Llebreta. This third hike was by far the easiest, with the softest paths and least elevation gain (a mere 300 meters), but the combination of wildflowers, grassy valley, rolling river, and mountains brilliantly lit by afternoon sunlight (it didn't rain) made it the loveliest hike of all. Sometimes being knave of the valley beats being king of the hill.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Stefan is giving a paper next week in Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Catalan coast, and his nephew is getting married the following week in Germany, so we're taking a pre-conference, pre-wedding family vacation in northeast Spain.

Our trip began last Wednesday in Barcelona. We stayed four nights in a little apartment at the northern end of the Eixample and walked miles and miles through Eixample, Old Town, and Montjuïc.

Although one can happily cover great distances by foot in Barcelona, cars clearly have first dibs on the roads. Drivers are remarkably good about going from 60 to 0 kph when pedestrians have the right of way, in exchange for which the pedestrians wisely stay within the crosswalks. Crosswalks are located an eighth of the way around the corner of every block to give cars room to decelerate, to make room for parking, and to give walkers 25% more exercise. At the busiest intersections, stenciled paint in the crosswalks reminds walkers that one out of every three traffic related deaths in Barcelona is a pedestrian, so atencio!, pay attention.

Like most large international cities, Barcelona boasts impressive architecture. Its most beloved architect was Antoni Gaudi, whose Catalan modernism featured undulating waves and spirals and biologically-inspired appendages. Had hobbits ever abandoned the shire for urban condominiums, Gaudi would have been their guy.

The Casa Batlló (1906): condos for the hobbit elite on fashionable Passeig de Gracia:

After designing houses and parks for the wealthy, Gaudi turned his attention to a massive church--La Sagrada Familia--a giant sand-drizzly religious effusion.

Nearly a century after Gaudi's death, Barcelona remains committed to completing the church, which means hiring other designers to work on it. Like Gaudi's east entrance, the west entrance also has four huge towers, though less drizzly, with a facade in a completely different style and designed by a completely different architect (Josep Maria Subirachs).

In elegant and austere contrast to the Sagrada Familia (1883+) and Barcelona's Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia (built primarily in the 13th-15th centuries), the gothic Basilica Santa Maria del Mar was constructed in a mere 54 years, between 1329 and 1383, which makes it the only church built entirely in the Catalan gothic style:

No such unity for La Sagrada Familia, which, for better or worse, could swallow the Basilica whole. Gaudi's megalith towers over the rest of Barcelona despite still missing its gargantuan central dome. The only other building in Barcelona that comes anywhere near La Sagrada Familia's height is a giant sparkly phallus (below, to the left), owned by the water works:

The lines to get into La Sagrada Familia were longer than our patience, so we decided to visit the Museu de la Xocolata instead. There we saw La Sagrada Familia, the organ from Montserrat abbey, Asterix and Obelix, and Michaelangelo's Pietà lovingly rendered in chocolate.

Other Barcelona highlights included a brief trip to the beach and a leisurely amble through the Joan Miró museum (Fundació Joan Miró) on Montjuïc. Mixed in were the more mundane aspects of being a tourist: learning some of the differences between Catalan and Spanish, avoiding copious puddles of dog pee on the sidewalks, recovering lost luggage, and disentangling the complexities of internet and cell phone access (the difficulty of which, according to one Vodafone employee, supposedly has to do with government vigilance against terrorism).

*Not in Southern Germany, but closer to Southern Germany than to North Carolina.