Friday 11 November 2016

Cycling in Catalonia 2: The Mediaeval Villages

Mediaeval is a fuzzy, ill-defined term. But bumping your bicycle through a cobble-laned mediaeval village, its church, castle or fort hogging the high ground, its bell tower ringing each quarter of the clock, is an utterly tangible experience.

[A cobbled lane in the village of Peratallada]

[Lynne and Chris on foot in the village of Pals] 
After a couple of days cycling around the Costa Brava coast, we’ve been ferried inland, bikes and all, and dropped among the small mediaeval villages that dot the hills between Palamos and Girona. We’re enthralled by the depth of on-going settlement in one place; enchanted too that we can fortify ourselves for the ride, be it with a quick cafĂ© con leche and pastry, or a more leisurely menu del dia. These are not mediaeval theme parks, they are working villages.

[A wooded country lane between villages] 
As we ride between the villages we see, hear and smell the evidence of that. Cattle are farmed for both meat and milk, ‘though they’re more often smelled than seen, as they’re usually housed in barns. More pungent still are the pigs, surely the favourite source of meat in Catalonia (think jamon/ham; chorizo sausages; even galtes/pig’s ear). It’s also ripening time for grapes and figs, and their sweet tang leavens the other rural aromas. We pause and taste a few figs, with mixed results.

[Looking towards Sant Iscla d'Emporda] 
The riding is mostly easy, on undulating lanes, tracks and the occasional road. Our itinerary is loose, determined partly by the map and partly by the honey-pot pull of what we see ahead. Each distant village is given away by some grand stone edifice on a hill; sometimes a church, occasionally a castle. 

[Riding away from the mediaeval village of Pals] 
And then there’s Ullastret. On the approach to the village of Ullastret, we can see something else, low yet significant, on a hill outside the village. We’ve been told there are Roman ruins hereabouts, and Chris and I exchange “Yep, that’s where I’d build if I was Roman”-type comments. It’s uphill and a bit bumpy getting there, and we’re puffing as we dismount at the historic site’s ticket booth. The entry fee includes an audio commentary and we’re soon learning that the site is more complex and interesting than we’d anticipated.

[An ancient cistern at Puig de Sant Andreu] 
Roman occupation is just part of the story. Puig de Sant Andreu, as the site is called, turns out to be one of Spain’s most significant prehistoric Iberian settlements. The Indegetes tribe occupied the site well before the Romans, from the 6th century BC until around the 2nd century BC. Not much of their settlement remains, as it was largely constructed out of wood and mud. But we get to wander among some water cisterns and grain silos that have been excavated. And the on-site museum contains some other fascinating artefacts, including a beheaded skull pierced by an iron spike!

[Underground grain silos and other ruins] 
The old Iberians must have had the same opinion of the site as we and the Romans did. It commands views as far as the Pyrenees over the well-watered, agriculturally rich Emporda region. We learn that the flatter lands below the site, which are now fields, once had large fish-stocked lakes with small well-defended villages around them. For all of the changes at the site: whether its the demise of the Indegetes, the coming and going of the Romans, the short-lived invasion of the Moors or the rise and fall of mediaeval lords, there has always been a reason to rebuild. Crops, livestock and wine seem to have flowed from this land for as long as records have existed.

Later we sit down to a typically meaty Catalonian lunch in the “merely” mediaeval part of Ullastret. But it’s not only the food that we need time to digest. Our minds are filled with thoughts of the rich life of this place; of its 26 hundred years of continuity, productivity, disruption, invasion, warfare and recovery; of its people living, working, loving, laughing, crying, fighting, dying and giving birth.

[Time for a drink ... and a think] 

[Leaving Ullastret] 
They’re the kinds of thoughts that make history come alive, and that connect us to past lives that may not have been as different as we imagine. That said, we’re very glad to be heading back for hot showers and warm beds at the end of our “mediaeval" cycling days.

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