A Castle in Spain
The GR2 from the Montseny Mountains to l'Avenc
Hiking along the GR11 from Nuria in the High Pyrenees
The first chapter recounts how Matthew found l’Avenc in its isolated cliff-top setting whilst exploring a new walking route. It captures the essence of the region, as well as the central theme of the book.
From a mountainside at daybreak when it has rained in the night, you look out across land bathed in cloud. What is solid and dark swims in what is pale and insubstantial. An unremarkable heap of rocks emerging from the mists enjoys its moment of prominence as an Ararat after the Flood. A line of trees stands out as though it were alone, floating in unreal isolation between sea and sky. Rags of cloud fold themselves between the ridges, interleaving hard silhouettes with strips of soft white, layering the landscape. Each dark edge seems cut in cardboard, packed in cotton wool.
To a man walking alone in the bright morning air above this sea of vapours, every perspective is new. He pauses here above the swirl. Steam rises from the woods and flecks of fog are draped across lake and marsh below. He stares and stares in wonder. When it is time to walk on, he resolves to return.
L’Avenc was not ours when, on such a morning thirty years ago, I first stood at the great arched entrance to the ruined house. As yet unacquainted, l’Avenc and I looked out across the forested valleys and gorges of the River Ter 2,000 feet below.
With these words, Matthew Parris introduces his book on “A Castle in Spain”. He discovered the ancient manor house of l’Avenc on a walk when on holiday in Catalunya, exploring the clifftops between the villages of Tavertet and Rupit.
The Pyrenees were not far away, and around their skirts hundreds of square miles of wild, wooded cliffs, gorges and flat-topped hills dropped away to the coast and the Mediterranean Sea. This strange and distinctive landscape is called the Collsacabra (mountain pass of the goat). It was made for walking…..
I had risen very early and parked in Tavertet. It was after Easter. The alzines (evergreen oaks) were fresh-leaved, the juniper bushes were pale grey-green, the sloe had come into leaf, and along the rocky edges of the cliffs tiny hyacinths and wild dwarf daffodils shone their purples and yellows up from the thin soil. Rising from an undergrowth of box bushes came a warm smell: savoury with just the hint of rankness about it. The fragrance was to become so familiar to me.
Where the track almost touched the edge of the cliff I stopped and, lying on my stomach, shuffled forward until I could peer over.
I lay in the morning sun. Far below, birds wheeled in the gentle upward draught. Into the cloud dropped the bare, sheer rock face, grey streaked with red. Through the cloud you could glimpse dense undergrowth at the cliff’s feet. It was another country down there beneath the mists: here in the sun on this flowery shelf between the hills behind and the cliffs below, I could have been on a magic carpet….
I walked on. The track was muddy and led gently uphill with no sign of other human hikers or of habitation. It seemed a secret world. A mile or two after leaving Tavertet, rounding a corner and resting under some oak trees, I looked up at a broad, shallow fold in the hillside across which my track would wind next, still climbing. And there, at the top of a gentle rise, with the hills behind, stood l’Avenc.
I knew this was the house’s name because, curiously and unlike most of the other isolated homesteads which dot rural Catalunya, it was marked on the map….Even from this distance I could see that the place was derelict. Yet it had majesty…..
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Impressed by the dignity, distinctive shape and stature of the house, he looked around it. He remarks on its isolation and the magnificent views, not unlike other places in Catalunya..
But there was something different about this place: something enchanted. It hit you between the eyes. There was something striking in this solitude, too. Rounding that bend in the track, I had stumbled upon a sort of domain.
I swung round and looked where l’Avenc looks: southward, out over the Ter valley and Montseny mountains. You could see into the heart of Catalunya: to the east, where the river flowed out of the mountains and through the walled city of Girona, on its way to the Mediterranean. Was that the sea, fading into a horizon? To the west, past the small city of Vic, I recognized the mad silhouette of Montserrat, the holy mountain, all Gothic jagged rocks, the spiritual home of not just Catalan Catholicism but the Catalan identity itself.
Only the ridges and peaks of the Montseny mountains, breaking through the clouds, hid the city of Barcelona, hot and humid on the coast to the south. To the north the land behind me rose towards the snowy ridges of the Pyrenees and France. I could see as far as the mountains above Andorra.
And almost at my feet – just down the meadow which sloped away from where I stood – was the cliff’s edge. The cliff over which the valley dropped away was sheer, brutal, magnificent. It looked like something from a science-fiction movie. Dark green Mediterranean oak forest frothed from the mist at the cliff’s foot. A waterfall from the night’s rain splashed over the rocks.
Cliff, mountain, lake and river; forests of oak and beech; Barcelona, the ski-slopes of the Pyrenees and – just out of sight – the Costa Brava; variously busy or serene, these worlds lay not far away, all around the points of our compass. L’Avenc was at the still, silent centre of this compass.
Matthew knew that he would return.
The rest of book concentrates mainly on the story of how, more than twenty years later, he and other family members took on the massive task of restoring the house, and how they achieved this despite many difficulties along the way.
The context for this central story is set by a number of diversions into the history and culture of Catalunya, and the natural surroundings. Several walking stories convey the special characteristics of the area and its appeal for hikers.
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The GR2 from the Montseny Mountains to l'Avenc
The following section is edited from Chapter 10 of A Castle in Spain – pages 145-162
It was by coincidence that we had found ourselves beside one of Spain’s and Catalunya’s great national walking paths, but the discovery triggered in my mind an idea which in time was to become one of the most straightforward parts of our plans, and the most easily realized: converting the ruined cowsheds attached to l’Avenc into a line of stone cottages for walkers and tourists.
Right past l’Avenc’s front door ran a road which was as old as any in Spain. Excavating around the house we scraped clear the big flagstones which once paved it. Beneath the cellar…we found traces of what an architectural historian told us was probably a Roman track. It was hardly surprising that there would have been a road running along the top of these immense cliff-systems for as long as there had been human beings there, but this one was important: it was the continuation of a commercial and trade route up from the valleys and plains into the mountains.
Iberia, where distances are large and towns and villages often sparse, is criss-crossed by the ghostly traces of what was once an immense network of packhorse routes, whose habit is to take the most direct line between settlements – any path, however steep, up which a horse or mule can pick its way – where modern highways will take the long way round. Some of these old routes have found a new incarnation in the form of walkers’ trails, called (in the world of hiking and rambling) Grandes Rutas….L’Avenc is on the GR2.
The path climbs up through a gap in the cliffs by Tavertet. It has come from the other side of the Montseny mountains to the south, wound its way over the mountains, down into the valley of the River Ter, and then, after scrambling up over the cliff-system’s edge and into Tavertet, it turns right and heads for Rupit, running along the clifftops and beneath l’Avenc. After that it winds down another cliff-system on to the plain of Olot, and heads for the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenees.
It is a popular route – but so are most of the GR paths. Catalans love outdoor walks and nature-trails, and town and city people are especially keen. They take their pastoral pleasures rather gravely, buy the right walking gear, get the necessary information and are proud to behave as responsible hikers. To Catalans, excursions (the word is the same in Catalan but has a more derring-do ring) are more than a pleasant day out in the country: they are felt to be a sort of homage to the natural heritage of Catalunya….
In the Collsacabra the fences are usually pretty rudimentary, and higher up in the Pyrenees there are no fences or boundaries at all. But Catalans are rule-conscious people and (unlike some of their militant rambling English counterparts) would feel uncomfortable to be off the beaten track. So the set walking routes are hugely popular, ancient tracks and bridleways with a history of their own, and a range of maps and guides direct walkers down them, advising on flora, fauna and history, and the places to stay along the way.
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The routes, almost all off-road, are well marked with small red and white bands painted on to rocks and trees and kept up by members of the enthusiastic Federaciò de Entitats Excursionistes de Catalunya. A modest hundred miles in length, our GR2 is one of the country’s shorter routes, but only a few of the long-distance ramblers who pass l’Avenc would be walking the whole thing.
If I had a fortnight to spend on an ambitious GR itinerary, I would combine two routes: the GR11 and the GR2. The route takes us right through the hinterland of l’Avenc and into the stupendous mountain range which frames Spanish Catalunya, the Pyrenees. Let’s follow it for a while.
The GR2 begins at an altitude of only about 1,500 feet in the village of Aiguafreda (which means “cold water”) on the extreme western tip of the Montseny mountains. With a population of some 2,000 inhabitants, this was originally a tourist centre for middle-class Barcelonins and has many second residences. Not least because the Barcelona to France train has stopped here for over a hundred years, Aiguafreda and its neighbouring staging posts were among the first villages in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for Catalan excursionists to flock to from Barcelona at weekends, when the idea of getting back to rural basics – walking in the mountains and drinking the spring water – first caught on.
Here you are at the foot of the western slopes of the mountains – just over the top (as it were) of the skyline you can see from l’Avenc, and down the other side. The Montseny mountains are a natural park of more than a hundred square miles and include three substantial peaks just under 6,000 feet….
The Montseny massif was declared a natural reserve of the biosphere by UNESCO in the 1970s, on account especially of the varied mix of plant life which its wide range of micro-climates at varying altitudes produces.
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He writes of the wooded, closed nature of the Montseny in contrast to the open, rocky and snowy Pyrenees. It is not as wet as the Pyrenees, but the abundant wildlife knows where to drink. He thinks of the Montseny mountains as a kind of secret not noticed by the holidaymakers flooding to the Costa Brava and Barcelona.
Walking there a couple of years ago, we parked beside the only road which goes over the top and took the path running to the highest point, up the ridge called Matagalls. You start in steep beech forest. The smooth, grey, twisted roots, closed canopy above and bare leafy round beneath give the feeling of an enchanted wood. You climb hard through beech until you are almost at the top. Then you suddenly emerge on to the long strip of bare ground which follows the ridge. From here you can see l’Avenc across the great valley or the River Ter to the north; and behind it the whole Collsacabra, the foothills of the Pyrenees, and among the Pyrenean peaks on the horizon, the enormous massif of Mont Canigou, which is visible from across a huge area of coastal south-eastern France.
We stopped at the beacon on the top for a while, then carried on towards the other end of the ridge of Matagalls. Our path petered out. Soon we were back among the trees, stumbling down a precipitous slope and close to being lost. We saw through the undergrowth what looked like a little chapel on the edge of a cliff – and it was: and extraordinary place, built into the side of the rock, sheltering a shrine, and apparently abandoned. We stumbled on – and came upon a sort of alley. It led to a half-ruined monastery with a stone spire, where some kind of restoration seemed to have been underway, but there was nobody there. I saw from a rough sign that the place was called San Segimón. It was another half-hour before we reached a proper road. This was a day which in recollection feels – felt to all of us – like a kind of dream. That is the quality of the Montseny mountains.
The GR2 (from which we have just made that temporary detour) does not go right over the top of the Montseny: for this you could take any one of many smaller hiking paths. A company called Editorial Alpina publishes good detailed maps and guides. Divert along one of these side paths if you want to get into the heart of the Montseny. I would.
The GR2, meanwhile, sidles up the western slopes, passes a reddish stone village called El Brull on its way over, then, after crossing the ridge, descends through pine, brambles and evergreen oak to the lower slopes. You could stay here awhile in the pleasant little town of Sant Julià de Vilatorta.
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Then the path climbs again, up to the top of a ridge where the most amazing castle, Sant Llorenç del Munt, sits on top of the world. This ridge takes you above Vilanova de Sau. The old town was transported here to create two enormous lakes, the upper about seven miles long, the lower closer to ten, both snaking round the corners cut by the old gorge of the River Ter.
High above here sits l’Avenc: you can just see it on top of the red gritstone cliffs, distinguished until recently from the surrounding woods by the huge piles of rubble and earth created by our building work but now, thankfully, blending back in as the greenery returns. At night from the house we can see the occasional flash of a car’s headlights as someone returns home to Vilanova or a late visitor searches out the remote Parador de Vic-Sau, a traditional hotel on the water’s edge deep in pinewoods at the end of a dirt road.
On foot, though, you take the path crossing the big concrete dam holding back the upper of the two lakes, the Pantà de Sau. From June to September it is hot and humid, almost tropical, down here, utterly different from the mountain air on the cliffs above.
He laments the loss of the valley settlements beneath the two reservoirs.
Down here by the Pantà de Susqueda everything has reverted to nature. Trees clothe the steep hillsides and crowd the shores, and in summer the valley is alive with butterflies. The only trace you will see of its human history is the occasional glimpse of stonework, throttled by roots and trees; or an unexplained copse of flowering cherry trees, apples, walnuts, figs or sweet chestnuts, once tended but now gone wild….
It was sad. We are very used in our era to bewailing the spread of humanity, the retreat of nature and the advance of all the works of man. But…men and women had a place down here by the Ter. They made their gardens, their habitations and their fields here. It was not the kingdom of rats, ants, foxes and snakes alone. They cut back the throttling ivy and cruel brambles; they kept the nettles down.
I regret their departure. The earth is ours also. Those who deify nature with a capital N should reflect on the paradox that just as surely as it is in the nature of a cat to hunt or a bird to fly, so it is in the nature of man to keep “nature” at bay….
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But again we have digressed from the GR2, which, as it crosses the dam wall, switches from the southern half of this landscape – all those hills, valleys and mountains to the south of the River Ter – to the northern half. South of the Ter is called Les Guilleries, dominated by the ridges and peaks of the Montseny. This is steep but flowing land. North of the Ter is the Collsacabra, characterized by cliff-systems, platforms of meadows and sharp, small flat-topped mountains. This is more abrupt, broken, geometric. This is where l’Avenc is built. Further north the Pyrenees begin. That is where our path is heading.
First it must climb the cliffs to Tavertet. Pause before that ascent at the friendly La Riba hotel, which overlooks the lake, drink a beer or a lemonade in the shade on the lawn, and then set out on a little concrete road which the path soon leaves, heading for the foot of the cliffs. Look up at those huge flanks of grey and red rock – layered like a Liquorice Allsorts – and you may see 1,000 feet above you, perched on the edge, Tavertet’s 1,000-year-old church…..
On horseback or on foot, you follow a path which marches up to the cliff’s bottom, at first incredulous at the map’s claim that the GR2 climbs it. But it does. The path finds a way to zig-zag up a sort of gully, and you emerge breathless on the shelf where Tavertet sits.
He then describes Tavertet, “our village, a relaxed, loose-knit little place…on the road to nowhere” with its historic church, stone houses and choice of attractive restaurants – their walls adorned with the obligatory boar’s head – and places to stay.
Stand in the stone yard in front of the Hostal El Jufré and you find yourself in the very place I started, thirty years ago, on that first hike to l’Avenc. Walk, as I did, eastward along the clifftop track out of the village (abominably rough; it is the GR2).... Then pass the village’s big round water tank. And within a hundred yards Tavertet is behind you.
You are heading for l’Avenc. You will reach the house as I first did, though perhaps by the time you read this they will have paved the track. The GR2 follows it all the way, through after some open scrub and box-bushes close to the cliff’s edge, another track veers off to the right among the groves of oak trees you walk beneath. You can take either – they meet up again on the other side of l’Avenc. The lower track hugs the cliff’s edge, passing close to the circular concrete cap which guards and closes off the top of the avenc – the natural vertical shaft of unknown depth after which we think our house was named.
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Walking along the GR11 from Nuria in the High Pyrenees
There’s another enjoyable section on walking, in Chapter 12, which provides a marvellous picture of the varied mountainous territory beyond L’Avenc, including a walk to an isolated little mountain ridge near the regional capital of Olot, and a description of the volcanic region of Garrotxa. Matthew compares the Pyrenees with the Alps:
If the Alps did not exist, the Pyrenees would be the best range in Europe, and every child’s idea of what a mountain range should be…. But though they have their towering peaks and vertiginous faces of bald rock, they do not soar as the Alps do. Most peaks have a shoulder you can climb; most slopes, though they are relentless, are the kind you can cling to; and everywhere there are passes through to the other side or ways up to the tops of the ridges and down again, if you are prepared to scramble over crumbling granite.
There’s a delightful description of his overriding impression of the high Pyrenees - one of exposure on a bare hillside - and he details the plant and animal life. Then he describes his favourite walk, along the GR11, and it really captures the sights and sensations of a walk through the high Pyrenees.
..my favourite walk is classically simple, and follows a long stretch of the GR11. It goes up to the top of the ridge, along it and down, and takes all day.
To start, we had to get to a place called Nuria. Nuria has a rather basic ski-station, a church and place of pilgrimage, a grey stone barracks of a hotel, and the top terminus of a most unlikely electrical funicular railway built in the 1930s and still served by some of the original wooden carriages manufactured in Switzerland by the Brown-Boveri company.
The line begins at Ribes de Freser, a pleasant riverside stop on the main road from Barcelona, goes over the Pyrenees by way of Ripoll and Pugcerda, Bourg Madame, Ax-les-Thermes, then down to Toulouse in France. The mountain-route international railway I described, running from Barcelona to Toulouse, goes this way too, stopping at Ribes de Freser before disappearing into the side of a mountain, to corkscrew up and out. This way it makes it up to the well-know ski-station of La Molina, before heading into France and through a monumental tunnel.
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But if you get off at Ribes you can catch the little funicular to Nuria. It takes about an hour and the journey is stunning, running beside the tremendous rock flanks of the mountain, with cascades of mountain streams foaming into the gorge below. Nuria sits at more than 6,000 feet, in a wide bowl formed by arms of the high Pyrenees, along whose tops there is snow for most of the year. In winter Nuria too is deep in snow.
We wasted no time there, but set out along the banks of a river rushing down from the ridge. After a few clumps of stunted pine, we were on open mountainside, little blue trumpets of flowers almost iridescent at our feet. We reached the head of the valley and climbed the scree – there is a path – up to the ridge.
We were on the border. You could see France, almost, it seemed, to Toulouse. You could see Catalunya almost to Barcelona. You could see the coast. It was windy up there – we were just below 10,000 feet – and you could feel the altitude when you tried to run. We ate some chocolate and marvelled at the view.
Then we set out along the ridge. It was like walking along the ridge of a snaking roof. Below on the Spanish side there were pastures, quite dry, and ant-like cows whose bells we could just hear. It looked as though we could run all the way down to Barcelona. On the French side the landscape was darker, more wooded, with lakes and tarns. And all you had to do was keep to the ridge and walk east, towards the rising sun.
On the ridge, which undulated and wound its way between rotting, needly turrets of rock with names such as Pic del Gegant (Peak of the Giant), there was no water and the landscape up there looked more Martian than Earthly, scraped by snow with hardly any vegetation, and weird patches of red-coloured, grey and yellow shale – sometimes a whole mountainside. From here I was later to walk all the way down into France. There is a wonderful path to the little town of Mont Louis, passing a primitive but welcoming French youth hostel and then picking its way through a theatrical gorge which it crosses and recrosses on narrow iron bridges, and finally reaching what the French call the “Little Yellow Railway” which runs from the coast up the French side of the mountains to Bourg Madame. I’ve come up that way too, and you can do it easily in two days.
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This time we were not diverting to France. After a while the path swoops down a wide mountain flank past a stream and pastures, then over another ridge and plunges into a secret valley, thick with pine at the bottom, past screeching marmots, and into the village of Setcases. Setcases means “seven houses” but this pleasant mountain resort has grown. We ate entrepans de pernil (baguettes of country ham), drank a few beers, crossed the river, and carried on west.
You climb and climb, at first through pinewoods, but then out into the clear again, following the red and yellow paint markets for your path. After a couple of hours we were back in open pasture – occupied, to our surprise, but fat carthorse-style horses, left there to graze free in summer. Then the path wound itself on to a long, descending arm of a hill, and we staggered weary but content into the old stone village of Molló.
Turn left on a main road which passes below this town and you climb back over the top, past the frontier, and down into the French town of Prats de Molló (prat means field in Catalan, and is a common surname with none of the English connotation). But turn left and you can hitch-hike, as we did, down into the old-established mountain town of Camprodòn with its famous, high, medieval stone bridge, its dark, narrow streets, its chocolate shops and its hotels.
Not so far to the west, quite close to Andorra, is the Pic d’Estats – and a more dramatic mountain (though not so high) called Pedraforca (Forked Rock) which does literally consist of a 2,000-foot-high rock, about a mile in circumference at its base, split vertically into two, like a couple of peach halves. Pedraforca can be seen for fifty miles: it is visible from the rock promontory above l’Avenc, about five minutes’ scramble up from the house.
The book finishes, as it began, with a story about a walk – this time a shorter account about the discovery of a new route through the cliffs below l’Avenc, and more reflections about the house itself.
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Reproduced with permission from Matthew Parris - January 2006