Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Pyrenees: Vall De Nuria

After an hour or so in Rapoll, the gateway to the Pyrenees, it was time to venture to the main course of the day’s tour, the Vall de Nuria. An isolated mountain valley tucked away at the head of the gorge carved by the River Nuria, the south-facing drainage begins at the crest of the mountains on the border between Spain and France.

The valley floor lies at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and is accessible only from the southern approach in Spain by rack railway (below) or by foot, and from France by trails. Today, Nuria is a small ski resort and pilgrimage site with a hotel and chapel, as well as a stunning backdrop of snow-covered peaks most of the year.

Legend has it that St. Giles, a French priest, came to Vall de Nuria to preach to shepherds who lived in the valley. After whittling a Madonna and Child image from wood, St. Giles eventually had to flee the valley to escape the nomadic Visigoths, and hid the image in a nearby cave. More than 300 years later, a pilgrim found the carving.

The pilgrim built a church on the site of Vall de Nuria, which now houses the statuette -- the Mare de Deu de Maria. The Virgin Mary is now regarded as the patron saint of Pyrenean shepherds. During the winter, Nuria is a small ski resort with 11 short runs, allowing for skiers of all abilities, and a toboggan run for kids of all ages.

The first thing we noticed when we exited the train was the temperature, which must have dropped 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit since we left Barcelona. A cable car ride to the top of one of the ridges above the resort was included as part of the tour, and I jumped at the opportunity for an even better view of the Pyrenees.

Two women, researchers attending a conference in Barcelona on Huntington’s disease, kindly took a picture of me at the top near a Catalan flag. Walking back down the trail to the ski lodge, they both expressed surprise that I recognized their Australian accents: “You’re good,” one commented, “most Americans here think we’re British.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Pyrenees: Ripoll

First stop on our way to the Pyrenees was Ripoll, a town with slightly more than 10,000 inhabitants. Ripoll can rightfully claim to be the birthplace of Catalonia. Most signs, menus and notices are printed in Catalan. The city is located at the junction of two major watersheds originating in the Pyrenees: the Ter River and Freser River.

In the 9th century, a local autocrat known as “Wilfred the Hairy” united several counties in Catalonia after the success of Charlemagne’s quest to drive the Muslims from Spain, thereby expanding the Frankish kingdom into the southern side of the Pyrenees. Wilfred would eventually become the Count of Barcelona.

To facilitate the repopulation of the valleys in the Pyrenees, Wilfred founded the Monastery of St. Mary (Monestir de Santa Maria), the first and foremost monastery of medieval Catalonia. Wilfred is, in fact, buried in the basilica. This Benedictine monastery (top photo) is perhaps one of the best examples of Romanesque art in all of Spain.

The five-naved basilica, the spiritual and cultural heart of Catalonia in the 11th century, features a stone portal considered by many to be a classic icon of the Romanesque style. Restored after two devastating fires in the 19th century, the monastery includes an cloister (above), no longer inhabited by monks, along with a lovely flower garden.

Because of an abundance of coal and iron ore, along with water provided by the two rivers, Ripoll became a center for the production of weapons, first crossbows and later, firearms. Because of its reputation as an arsenal for Catalan warriors, the town was razed several times by the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

In stark contrast of the town’s history of building weapons of destruction, Ripoll was where the Peace and Treaty of God (Pau i Treva de Deu) was promoted in 1027. One of the document’s guiding principles was the inviolability of the ability to seek refuge in a church in time of need, a maxim that continues to stand to this day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Costa Brava: L’Estartit And Illes Medes

The highlight of the tour to Costa Brava was lunch in L’Estartit and a boat ride around the Illes Medes. Initially a fishing village, the advent of tourism along Costa Brava brought a wave of visitors to L’Estartit, which sits between the Montgri Massif (above) and the Mediterranean Sea at the southern tip of the Bay of Roses.

The community has grown rapidly since the 1960s, with houses and villas on the hills that surround the harbor, and hotels, apartments and campsites lining the beach and the floodplain of the Ter River estuary. I dined on a nice seafood lunch at a restaurant called “Blue” before meeting the rest of the group for a tour of Illes Medes.

Costa Brava near L’Estartit is as rugged under the sea as it is above, and divers can explore caves, arches and underwater sea life like few other places. Our boat tour left the dock and proceeded north along the shoreline, where we examined rock formations from above that hinted at what was below for divers.

Boarding the tour boat, a young Spanish woman snapped pictures of everybody as they came aboard. Knowing that she would try to peddle the picture, I asked Monica, our tour guide, if we were obliged to buy her product. “No,” she said, “only if you want to.” The picture turned out decent, so I plopped down the 10 euros for a print and a plate.

Ille Medes include seven craggy islets offshore of L’Estartit. Meda Gran is the largest; the rest are small. The islands presently constitute a wildlife sanctuary and marine reserve. In 1866, a lighthouse was built on La Meda Gran. Today, the island has an automated, solar-powered lighthouse.

Its history is fascinating. In the 15th century, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (think “Knights Templar”) built a fortress on Meda Gran. They eventually left and pirates took over in the 16th century. In the 18th century, the fortress became a prison, much like my vision of the Chateau d'If in The Count of Monte Cristo.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French converted the prison back to a fortress, but was ultimately overrun by the Spanish, along with a big assist from the British. The alliance landed, captured and destroyed the fort that the French had built on Meda Gran. The last military garrison left the island in 1890.

Our boat had a glass bottom viewing area where we marveled at fish and other sea life feed in ghe alrge submarine meadows of Posidonia oceanica and the underwater caves on the islands. I was amazed by the ability of the fish to avoid the propeller of the boat as the captain attempted to hover in a particular spot. Smart fish.