Monday, 5 September 2016

Gold in tham thar hills.....

There are a series of ancient castles scattered around Asturias and Galicia. These are not castles as we know them from our Norman history but pre-Roman fortified villages or settlements. They date from three or four hundred years before Rome arrived. We saw two yesterday (at Boal and Coana), with their squat tub-like stone walls huddled close together inside containing walls or moats. These moats, by the way, were hewn out of solid rock, though now filled with soil and vegetation and not easy to see. The villages or castles are built on top of natural acropolis formations and certainly look very protected, with pastures below and the forests rising on the valley walls around them. The dwellings and store-houses are mostly roughly circular, or if more rectilinear then their corners are rounded. Some have common walls, some have narrow alleys or paths between, and some are so close together it’s hard to see how they built them. 


These structures were variously roofed with stone, thatch or tiles, and some had fires. Some had inbuilt shelves or seating. They have been enthusiastically excavated and examined for 200 years and it’s impossible for a casual visitor to say which are original and which are archaeological rebuilds. Nor could I discover whether the societies who dwelt so fearfully inside their stockades were matriarchal or patriarchal. They did howver, have saunas or hot baths, and it may be that the Romans got the idea of hot baths from Asturia. The idea had to come from somewhere. They were apparently heated with hot stones rather than using warm water from the granitic rocks beneath. In this part of Spain it really is impossible not to be aware of the plain facts of geology.

The Romans certainly had an eye for rocks, in particular the ones bearing flecks of gold. They had a gold mine just over the mountain from here at a place now called Andía, and again, because vegetation has now taken over from the scorching industrial activity, it’s not immediately obvious that you are looking at man-made features in the landscape. So we gathered in a small group of about 25 in a pleasant picnic area by the forest, and a lady who spoke no English was the tour guide. She gave us a typed sheet with basic information and then led everyone into the old gold mine. This is all inside a deepish cleft in the rocks, so open to the sky and with cliffs and slopes of various degrees and heights. Because the area is protected from the wind, it has a very special microclimate and an unusual collection of trees and plants. The combination of historic gold mining and the vegetation prompted this tiny valley to be labelled a Natural Monument and given very special protection. The light is greenish, and the air very still and cool. We picked our way down the slopes – no problem to start with, and she stopped at various points to show us the flora and fauna, the rock formations and so on. There was evidently a lot to say, and we picked out the odd word and watched as the others nodded and smiled.

The rocks at this point are revealed as partly karstone, partly metamorphic and partly granitic, and this may have drawn the attention of the Romans. In the first and second centuries, they used to set fires under the rocks to heat them up, and then pour tanks of cold water onto it all, and the thermal shock would bring the cliff face cracking down so it could be further crushed and then panned. I think the percentage of gold in the rock was less than 1% so a huge amount of material was processed to garner a tiny amount of precious metal. So, the rockfaces are a twisting and very odd shape, with pathways created from place to place, and our tourguide led us all around.

The trouble was that about a quarter of the visitors in our group were well over 70, and some were well over 80. One old gentleman looked very spruce and proper but was not very steady on his pins and actually also had dementia so he didn’t much understand what was going on. We clambered up and down the steps and slopes, looking all around, up and down, listening to the guide. The pathways got steeper and narrower.

At some points we were crouching down under great swoops of rock, bent over like circus characters. Then we had to slither down rocky slopes with the occasional hand-hold or length of rope. Everyone was trying to grab this at the same time, so it wavered wildly and jerked this way and that, offering less support than everyone hoped. It was all more or less ok while the ground remained dry, but where rock-water spilled out onto the surface, it became quite alarmingly slithery – there was nowhere reliable to step. The one child among us, a sturdy blond boy who took photos of absolutely everything, managed to fall over amid cries of ‘Oh la!’ and ‘Whoop!’ This had the general effect of cementing our esprit de corps, so that we became more of a single body instead of slightly competing one against the other.

It began to remind me of that scene in the film ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ when doomed groups of people try to make their way in the dark through the overturned liner to reach safety….. It was difficult to avoid thinking of The End of Days, Doom, Death, Hell, etc. We were in single file, picking our way through the darkish paths, down and down in this case, into an extremely narrow enfilade. There was barely enough width to place your foot, and the rocks on either side scraped at us as we pushed through. Down and down, wetter and wetter. The guide remained cheerful and upbeat, the Spanish looked grim, and we thought, ‘In England, ‘elf and safety would never allow it….’

Amazingly, with a lot of pulling and pushing, the strongest men helping everyone along, up and down over the yomping obstacles, we all got through. We were not allowed the satisfaction of self-congratulation because the guide kept on with her very detailed explanation of further items along the way – the lime-burning kiln, the rare birch tree, the crows’ nest, etc etc. She asked at the end whether we thought all the efforts of the Romans was worth it…. There was a kind of silence.

The high price of precious metals has prompted ideas of opening a new goldmine in this area. We saw posters everywhere: ORO NO.  It seems the idea has been rejected on environmental grounds. It would have been opencast. The farmers all objected.

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