Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Slate roofs

Not much time to write this morning but here are some scribbled points…

Leaving Barbastro to the NE bring you to quite different countryside – a charming, semi-green undulating landscape, which sets up a good mood. We were heading for the sierra and it surprised me how much I was pleased to see the hills getting higher. Why should that be? No doubt it would have been different if I was walking or biking but the car did all the work. What it culminated in was a sort of silent but powerful announcement by the rocks which said … ‘ You think you know about mountains? Well, just get this! What you saw before was nothing. I! I! am a mountain!!’ because as we headed towards the French border, at the end of each successive distant gorge we could see something even higher, and higher, and higher…..

Two years ago we made our crossing from Spain to France having stayed in Ainsa, and then taken the Bielsa tunnel which straddles the border, so you go in in Spain and come out in France and it was quite a striking change – road-signage, tone, culture. This time, the main tunnel is fully inside Spain and the border will be on the road. Vielha is our stopping point and we knew nothing of it, except that our hotel claimed to be giving us a cabin on a boat which seemed extremely unlikely – reminiscent of Mount Ararat and Senor Noah.

As you get up into the mountains – certainly at this time of year – you start to get far more colours – the blues of the sky, the brushes of gold and bronze on the trees, the rocks themselves which are crazy mad for colour – greys and whites, blacks, reds, oranges, greens, in streaks and swirls. Sometimes the strata in the rocks are unsullied, still horizontal. Sometimes everything’s been squished into folds and bends. Some areas look as they are completely composed of pebbly detritus. And there are lakes up here, some apparently natural, left over from the ice age, and some are reservoirs. We stopped to look at one of these and found a sweet old Spanish couple poring over a mass of maps spread out on the bonnet of their car (the maps, not the people). They were almost in tears, spoke no English, but wanted to know how to get to Ainsa… We showed them the way, using our own maps and they noted everything down and followed us for a while….They were heading for the Parador up in that valley and assuming they made it, they will have had a beautiful drive.

We stopped at Graus (even the name looks Austrian) for coffee – again, a small river which must once have been the life-life of the pueblo now runs along the backs of the newer houses. A side-street goes to the school and traffic is barred because it’s a road for scholars. The bridge is high up over the water – we see rocks, swirls, eddies, some landscaping along the banks to create a patch of slower water. The loo in the cafe (like all we have seen in Spain) is a work of art. You get there by way of gleaming marble steps down in the basement, with ankle-level lighting, and that comes on without you having to touch a switch. You get into the ladies, and as the door swings open, once again the lights come on. In my cubicle, the lavatory flushed (with joy?) the moment I stepped inside. However it was more reluctant to perform when I wanted it to….. The funny thing is that the top of the stairwell, in the cafe itself, is guarded by thick dado-height marble walls, and these start very very close to the main wall of the room so you have to sidle, twiddle quite sideways to actually get onto the stairs. If you were disabled in any way, or had a child or used a stick, it would be awkward and quite impossible if you were in a wheelchair. You have to go and pee by the river I suppose.

The entry to Veilha is through a spectacular gorge (name to be supplied when I see the map again), absolutely thrilling stuff… Not unlike the journey we made on foot in the Roman goldmine a week or so ago but this time on a colossal scale – between parallel cliffs of dark and looming rock, with a rushing river on one side and barely room for the traffic on the heroic road engineered beneath the towering sides of the valley. It’s really dark down there, because it’s so deep.

Vielha is a shock – totally different from anything else we’ve seen – slate roofs, tall apartment blocks with wide eaves, really very Alpine in appearance. It has several rivers in the town, very little signage about which hotels are where, and some of the streets in different parts of town have the same name which is a bit confusing. We did spend a long time trying to find Calle Major, which is in any case spelled differently on the various satnav map databases… The Tourist Information is also in a pedestrian area of the town so not visible from the road, and it’s all very silly. The room in our hotel (booking.com) had been on a special offer but that did not explain the consequence – the view from the window was of the arse-end of next door, a shed mounted on a wall, filled with old junk and plastic cleaning stuff. Horrible and not ok for our last night…. ‘We didn’t come all this way…...’ etc. The girl on reception was very kind and took pity on us, gave us a more expensive room for the same price, with a balcony. The whole hotel (Riu Nere) is modernised with amazing wooden cladding and huge numbers, but doesn’t have a boat or a cabin as the website promised.

The town has a good and complicated history, centred in the Val de Aran, which has over the centuries belonged to (or paid tax to) Spain, France, Aragon, and is now Catalonian. The languages are unbelievably complicated – Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Aranese, Aragonese, Occitan….. One useful starting point is that ‘eth’ means ‘the’. And ‘aran’ means ‘valley’ in Basque. But it’s very hard to understand anything which is said. There was no direct road to Spain till 1924, and the first tunnel wasn’t made till 1948. They had to use mule trains for most their history – carting stuff out and bringing food back – they never grew enough to feed themselves and the population has been small and vulnerable till the last 30 or so years when skiing has been promoted and then less seasonal activities – walking, gourmet visits, nature, hiking, biking, etc. It is now pretty well a pure tourist-trap.  It is popular with Israelis, who perhaps remember that the locals here did them good service rescuing Jewish families during the Holocaust.  

The church is gorgeous – lavishly restored – with a 12th century nave and 16th century domes – very small and sweet. The army had its ski-training base here – the site of the barracks is now a huge carpark. It was embarrassing when the generals tried to take over the government – the locals had to tell the army they weren’t wanted…… The rivers head off in various directions – two to the Med, but the Garona goes north, into France where it becomes the Garonne, and we will follow it today to my sister’s house north of Toulouse.

Last night (boo hoo) we met a cheerful group of English people – he and she have been coming here for 35 years. He is in television…. They love skiing. Her sister and bro-in-law were here for their first visit in 16 years, and they were on the town’s pub crawl which is called Pintxo Pote, organised by the civic authorities.

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