When a little over two weeks ago we embarked on a road trip, I did not know that crossing the Pyrenees would turn what for us is a routinary experience into something more nuanced and interesting, as rich in historical references as in personal references.
We had left our apartment when the Russian attack on Ukraine had not yet begun, and the news cycle showed its usual memetic cacophony; gas and other commodities, though already over the roof, were markedly cheaper north and south of a mountain range that does not represent a hard border anymore, where local things and events have a trans-Pyrenean meaning. Andorra, the tiny country squeezed in the middle of the mountain range, is symbolically governed by co-princes (a nearby bishop and the French head of State), a Carolingian arrangement that seems a by-product of the current EU construction (Andorra is not a member), while around the Catalan towns of Llívia and Puigcerdà, both French and Spanish citizens share the same doctors and socio-cultural reality.
We had planned some stops in rural mountain areas with narrow valleys of distinct personalities. Some of the areas we visited were very industrial or agrarian, while others were trying to diversify their local economy so they can learn to absorb shocks such as a pandemic, the disruption of global supply chains, or the effects on energy and commodity prices of a war between energy and grain exporters. Commodities regain their old names in ancient valleys and are not treated as transactional merchandise.
Rurality just outside the (smallish) industrial city
Such narrow valleys in between steep mountains are not exclusive of the border between Spain and France, but also shaped the culture of the whole Cantabrian Mountains, a range stretching over 300 kilometers across Northern Spain, conforming a continuum of green, steep valleys that developed similar agrarian techniques, a distinctive vernacular construction dominated by stone walls and slate roofs, and a rich patrimony of humble, small-scale Romanesque architecture whose elegant primitivist ornaments inspired medieval pilgrims from across Europe heading to Compostela, as well as artists such as Picasso (transformed by a visit to the Catalan Pyrenees). Both the Pyrenees and the Cantabrian Mountains form an intermittent natural boundary that has shaped cultures over millennia (as Roman chroniclers, or even the survival of Basque language, attest).
In an ongoing email conversation with an old university mate, now a professor in Madrid, he recently mentioned his intention to renovate an old family country home that was once a small farmhouse in Asturias, the rainy, hilly region in northwest Spain where old country rhythms and customs learned to cope with phenomena such as internal and external emigration: to mining and local industrial areas; and also to the Americas and urban centers outside the old Principality.
The house, my friend explained, sits firmly in a landscape of evergreen, sloping meadows common to the foothills of the Picos de Europa (whose name celebrates their majesty, being the first sight of Europe ships arriving from the Americas would have during the Age of Exploration) as if it belongs in it. My friend explains that it already underwent a renovation to accommodate the needs and tastes of the previous generation, which so often had wanted to part ways in Spain with rurality, favoring urban jobs and apartments over the hard life of mountain farms.
Our interpretation of middle age fulfillment
Urban professionals, sometimes descendants of previous generations who had left small family farms, try to reconnect with some rurality that is being reinterpreted through the idealized lens of social media. This is not my friend’s case, who doesn’t want to leave his current life in search of simple living, but to symbolically “return” to a house his ancestors called home.
My friend commented half-jokingly his intention is “to retire” to the old country hearth of the family “once I’m fifty, like Josep Pla [Catalan journalist and writer during the Spanish Second Republic, Civil War and Franco-era who never married and left public life to return to his parents’ Masia as a traditional duty not to be refused],” to which I replied that middle age today cannot be compared to “being fifty” in Josep Pla’s era and cosmogony.
As a second-generation urbanite who married a Californian and defines “home” and “belonging” in a much more dynamic way (more connected to, say, experience than to custom), I could appreciate his occurrence and, at the same time, define myself as another type of urbanite, one more similar to an air plant, as oppose to those plants who dig their roots deep in the soil they happen to be issued from. Air plants use their roots to attach themselves to a temporary spot, whereas they evolved to absorb the moisture and nutrients they need through their leaves.
Neither my friend, also a writer and a journalist like Pla, nor I intend to transform the country houses we dream of in mausoleums where to bury ourselves alive. The best homage we can probably do to an old house is bringing to its hearth and rooms the buzz of life across generations, from the nervous steps of children and adolescents to the brisk walk of middle-aged adults, or the sober family stays around what today we interpret as luxuries: a well-maintained fire, and time to read, contemplate, or share with others.
Middle-age (and some savings) were only supposed to pave the way to reinterpret our ancestors’ relationship with old means of production, but the current disruptions in our interconnected world and the ubiquitous internet bring more meaning to old farms transformed into second homes, some of whom evolve into experiments of self-reliance and self-actualization among accomplished urbanites (a challenged demographic) coming to terms with the uprooted character of modern life, often built around the aspiration of experimenting frictionless consumption experience as the essential precondition of fulfillment.
Florent-Claude and Aymeric
Telework, a pandemic, and the uncertainty that current geopolitics poses to global trade and supply chains have helped revive some old homes and second homes as live-work homes and farmsteads that combine local production with tourist stays often blending workshops and a loyal social media following. Such new realities are learning to coexist with old models of farming subsistence, some of whom are learning to transition from high production models reliant on intensive agriculture techniques into organic agriculture.
Michel Houellebecq, enfant terrible of contemporary French literature, explains in his 2019 novel Serotonin how our pastoral dreams are not only difficult to achieve but are legally condemned to compete in a context where produce, meat, or grains become mere commodities traded in regional and global markets, almost fully liberalized.
Serotonin tackles the viability risks of the agrarian transition some conscientious urbanites and new generation farmers want to enable, moving from a high-volume, low-quality, non-diversified production into more diverse, organic exploitations of medium and family size in a context of production quotas imposed by organisms such as the European Union.
The depressed narrator, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is an agricultural engineer who leaves the dream of promoting regional cheese (reliant on a small-scale and responsible food production) for the realpolitik of becoming a technocrat aiding the regulatory framework that undermines the long term viability of the old rural ways, assists to the demise of an old idealist college mate (Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde is a suicidal landowner of aristocratic origin unable to succeed in his Quixotic effort to keep a production based in sustainable pastoral management techniques, managing to keep the loses at bay with a rental of glamping cabins facing the sea.)
Houellebecq’s depiction of glamping and restoration agriculture carries the pessimism of his worldview and confronts the tensions between the intensive model that multiplied food production in the context of the so-called Green Revolution at the end of World War II when chemical weapons gave way to the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Serotonin explains a reality that my old college friend and I are not willing to imitate, but Florent-Claude and Aymeric are archetypes of non-conformist middle-aged people that end up falling for a cynical view of the world and their own existence, which contrasts with what the evergreen, deep valleys amid steep mountains scattered across the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains, where mining and intensive agriculture give way to agrotourism, small-scale farming (sometimes organic), and the reality of depopulation (which is trying to be exploited by fringe parties willing to point fingers at traditional politics as the main source of issues such as lack of opportunities and low fertility rates in medium-to-small populations.
An evening around the fireplace according to Bachelard
The mountain valleys of the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains not only share the Romanesque heritage of Gothic and Carolingian religious architecture, often following old pilgrim routes, but also share the remnants of old idiosyncrasies such as the importance of farmhouses as steppingstones of families and lineages.
No matter how humble, isolated or within a small hamlet, such farms developed a sense of “being at home” and sharing moments and stories around the hearth of the home, which would keep the fire embers glowing all year round, the source of heating (along with the domestic animals) and cooking.
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard traced his musings about the “poetics of space” to his own childhood experience growing up in rural Burgundy, as he would explain in his singing bourguignon accent (a rebel gesture given his status). To Bachelard, open fires by the fireplace would kindle a unique and fruitful reverie, indistinguishable from a deep feeling of “being at home.” The remnants of Ancien Regime societies, with their pre-modern domestic comfort and sense of time, defined a sense of place and belonging still alive across mountain valleys in regions such as Northern Spain.
Talking about the home in Navarre, Basque Anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja, nephew of writer Pío Baroja, describes the importance of the fireplace in pre-modern conceptions of households; as in ancient Greece and Rome, a village or valley would host as many houses that could be called so as hearths, while the ongoing fire in a fireplace is the expression of at-homeness.
Sometimes, families would trace their last name to the house of their ancestors, and old graves would usually include a sculpted primitive house. The fireplace would have retained its status as purifying medium both in life and death across Europe and beyond: Hinduist funerary rituals also relate to home hearths as a source of life and death (impermanence) within the family.
Tradition, and its historical interpretation, also rely on non-scientific modern constructions that flourished in the context of nineteenth-century idealism. British historian Eric Hobsbawm has studied the emergence of reinterpreted or outright invented tradition. Fake folklore (“fakelore” or “folklorismus”) flourished with the emergence of nationalism and a need for cohesive cultural practices in modern political entities. The “pizza effect” explains another interesting phenomenon: some vernacular elements can be transformed as they are embraced elsewhere and reimported with syncretic modifications. Hence the general praise of “Disney-looking” palaces or castles, or the renaming of the Cantabrian mountains as the “European Peaks” as the first geographical sight that travelers coming back from the Americas would experience.
Invented traditions have spread with social media, as renewal and reinterpretation of old activities and character become a source of popular interest. Conversely, new political realities and the context of war —from the prosecution of minorities to the destruction of previous realities— obfuscate realities that revision consider not worth restoring, remembering, or celebrating.
Later, artists, survivors and their relatives and descendants, and Quixotic academics try to partially recompose and celebrate what has been lost forever. German writer W.G. “Max” Sebald dedicated his novel Austerlitz to the celebration of always partial, mutilated memories, realities, and places, as Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian living in Britain, rememorates in his travels through of a Central Europe he barely remembers (as he escaped Hitler being adopted by a Welsh) that the destruction of World War II and the Shoah transformed forever with no possibility of return.
The shocks of such scattered and mutilated old memories and scars also reverberate across remote valleys such as the ones we have recently visited, especially borderlands used across the centuries as contraband passages, routes to escape prosecution or even hideaway places.
Footsteps of Huguenots and maquisards
The picturesque towns of the Aran Valley, an Occitan reality within Catalonia in the Spanish Pyrenées, evolved as a cultural entity and self-enclosed society due to the high peaks hindering their connection with the rest of Catalonia and Spain across centuries. At the same time, easy access from the Toulouse influence area also encouraged the notable families of the valley to either take advantage of neighboring areas or keep themselves away from them, as it happened with the Huguenots (French Protestants) invasion of villages such as Arties, where the family of De Portolà (the same of California explorer Gaspar de Portolà) had their fortified house.
Centuries after Philip II (descendant of the Catholic Kings) had ordered the noble families of Aran to build defensive castles against Huguenot incursions; the steep valley served as the path to freedom in both directions: defeated Republicans could escape into France after Franco’s advance, and not much later French and European Jews from France and Central Europe used the “chemin de la liberté” to flee Vichy’s France into Spain, Portugal, and then the Americas.
Spanish Republicans who had fled Spain in 1939 had been received with suspicion by French authorities fearing the “anarchists and communists” crossing the border, as Spanish writer Ramón J. Sender, in exile after the Civil War, narrates in Chronicle of Dawn (1945). Some of them would become maquis (“maquisards”), guerrilla bands hiding in the mountains and helping the French Resistance during World War II.
In October of 1944, a group of Spanish Maquis invaded the Valle de Arán from the French border in what they called the “Operation Reconquest of Spain“). The shortly lived provisory “free government” in the valley had been carried by the antifrancoist Unión Nacional Española (UNE). The episode, promoted by the exiled Communist Party, has a place in the official memory of the valley if only for the explanatory texts that visitors can read on the places where such events happened across the valley. Reading about such an incursion reminded me of the investigative novel written by the friend I mentioned in this article about a forgotten Republican militia massacred and buried by Francoists during the Civil War. The Batallón Galicia had fallen in a mountain pass connecting two narrow green valleys of Asturias and Galicia, the Alto del Acebo.
An afternoon up in Sant Vicenç
Walking the narrow paths of the Aran valley, we may stop in one of the churches or small, humble hermitages with their old, mended doors and marvel at the bare style, devoid of any artifice, and wonder (or not) about the pass of time. It’s by one little church that I recently found a little text explaining events such as the Maquis incursion. In such landscapes, we can trace with ease what becomes hidden in more populated, transited areas where the scars of war, destruction, reconstruction (and a carpet of industrial, commercial, and infrastructural non-places) erase previous vernaculars.
Even among such non-places, we can marvel at “places” by walking and observing the landscape as if it were rich quilt of civilizational stratification. Before traveling to Val d’Aran, I visited my mechanic in the outskirts of El Vendrell, in Tarragona province, Catalonia. I decided, while waiting, to walk to Sant Vicenç de Calders, a small, picturesque hamlet atop a hill, an independent village until the forties that now belongs to Vendrell and barely hold one hundred inhabitants (which multiply in summertime).
In between car shops, warehouses and vineyards lay old rustic stone walls limiting the fields; along this stretch of the southern tip of the Penedès Mediterranean valley, anybody can walk to Sant Vicenç de Calders using a Roman path nobody dares to pay attention to.
As I follow this patch the Camí Ral (the old Camino Real, built on top of stretches of old Roman roads) to climb to the soft hill where the little hamlet is perched, I hear the permanent sound of the contemporary world: a fast train covering the Barcelona-Madrid route, local trains reaching a terminus nearby, as well as the heavy traffic going down the highway and several national and local roads.
On the Roman path going from the outskirts of Vendrell to Sant Vicenç de Calders, there’s a milliarium, a stone that marked the distance between populations, set every 1,000 steps (milia passum), or 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles). Over the centuries, the milliarium had lost its inscription and become a part of the stone wall of a rustic property.
A poem on a wall
Up in the little town, I walk the few picturesque streets (most of them an aseptic, sterilized reinterpretation of the past) and find a seat by the church. There, I sit and do nothing for some time. I end up retrieving the little poem inscribed over some white tiles on the facade of a well-maintained house that may or may not be inhabited all year round (and not only weekends or during vacation). It’s from Catalan poet Josep Maria de Sagarra.
When I return to the car shop, I’m glad the time machine keeps working every time I find myself wondering whether science fiction has missed the point of what we can do by just wandering around with our eyes open, a little time, and the right predisposition.