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Valira Torrent:   Contents | Subject index

Perforation image from Serif Art Gallery. © Serif Inc, 1996

Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 11, pp6-9 (April 1980).

Copyright notice

Andorra Revisited 1958 (Part 2)

by John Mashiter

The Hotel Bonell dominates Soldeu and was being extended whilst we were there. Besides, there is a cafe which takes travellers - a fairly modern house which sells a few fancy goods and chocolate. The rest is a jumble of old, unpainted, rough stone cottages and small farmhouses. On arrival, we were immediately taken in charge by a bullet-headed Spaniard in a vivid red shirt. He spoke only Catalan but, by signs and wonders, he urged me into a packed shed which had masons, carpenters and plumbers equipment all spread about amongst cars.

We assumed "red shirt" to be a sort of major domo or, at least, the head man of the builders. His busyness and air of authority certainly stamped him out. Later, we discovered he was really a sort of tea-boy, and really the lowest of the building gang.

The Bonells, father and son, made us welcome, but we were too cold to take much in and, after a quick wash, stampeded in to dinner which was roughish but ample. Andorra produces little, Soldeu nothing, so all has to be brought up to the heights of the inn, even the milk comes by car. The inn was reasonably warm I suppose, but we were tired and chilled and were early to bed, rather wondering why we had come. Next morning we were thrilled to wake to glorious sunshine. I resolved to try immediately the trip to the Fontargente which, for so long, had been on my mind.

A quick breakfast, and, by 9a.m., with lunch in little carriers, we were on the road which zig-zagged steeply below the inn for nearly a mile. At a bridge over the Valira del Orient the valley opened out for a brief spell - just about the only space between Soldeu and La Vella. All the rest of the way the gorge is so narrow that even road and river are cramped together. However, at the Valira bridge this space occurs, and the Valley of Incles goes off to the right following up the Riu Incles. We turned up this valley, surrounded by high peaks dusted with fresh snow. The sun beat down but the air was still cool. The way was full of flowers and the air was like wine. For a few miles we saw no living creature except a few scrubby cattle and a bell mare with a mule foal. We came to the head of the valley and found the stream dividing. I knew we should take the left fork but the bridge was down; the way ahead was lost in the grass so I turned up the right fork, following up the R. Incles. Why does one do these things, only to suffer for them?

A little further on we found a lone man repairing a log bridge over the watercourse. He had never heard of the Fontargente and claimed to have come up from Spain to do his job. I would have liked to ask him how he got to this wild place, how he ate and how he would get home again, but he was not for conversation so we pressed on to the cluster of bordes half a mile further on. In Andorra, a cortal is an outbarn or laithe; a borde is an outbarn with living accommodation, rather like the Norwegian salter. The bordes of Incles have long been famous as a refuge for smugglers. They are the first habitation after the 50 mile trip over the Pyrenees from Les Cabannes in the Ariège valley of France. Many unfortunates have been nursed back to life here and it ranks as a primitive cantina.

We went all round the half dozen buildings, to ask for directions or help, but not a soul was at home. We could go back but the ridge rising steeply behind the houses did not look too high, so we decided to go on. The track petered out in a wilderness of boulders, covered with alpen rose (rhododendron ferrugineum) in full bloom, and Muriel wisely would go no further. Leaving her perched on a rock Richard and I began to climb. Two hours later we were nowhere near the top and Muriel, far below, looked like a little blue beetle on her rock. We realised, sadly, that this thin air renders distances very deceptive, and cuts big mountains to look like little ones. By the time we reached the ridge Richard was hot and tired, so we lay in the shadow of a great rock and explored our lunch packets. Coarse bread, some butter, rank local cheese, semi raw ham, a withered apple, a huge sloshy pear and a bottle of local beer made up the total. The beer was going mad with the heat and went off in froth, most of the food we left for the ravens.

Richard had no desire for further climbing. I went on alone, up the long ridge, and was in due time rewarded, as, coming to the pinnacle I looked down on to a tiny lake, sparkling like a turquoise in the sunlight, and knew at last I was seeing the Fontargente, the Spring of Silver. Much elated, I took photographs and clambered down again to Richard. It was clear by now that we were on the Pic Negre de Jucla, one of Andorra's toughest, and far below we could see the track leading up grassy slopes to the pass of the Fontargente where really we should have been. We slowly worked our way down a tangle of loose rock and scrub until, quite exhausted, we reached the valley floor. After a rest we turned up the grass to the col. Above us we could see a ragged line of thin and bony sheep with lop- ears and little wool. Over on a pinnacle to the left, were three ruffians, complete with the usual shepherds kit and, rather incongruously, two large umbrellas. The sheep have to be taken back to the valley every night, as no free grazing is permitted. The long trek each morning must keep them thin. Several were lying about, quite done with the heat, although at that height (2252 metres - 7720 feet) I find the warmth not unpleasant. On the col we saw the full beauty of the Fontargente, with the snow peaks of the French Pyrenees behind it. It looked a bare ½ mile away but, in truth, was nearer two miles. I left Richard asleep in the sun on the col, and plunged down into a wilderness of rock and swamp where I saw more lovely flowers than anywhere else, because here no sheep could graze. Masses of Pyrenean gentian, croci soldanellas and globe flower attracted. With much labour I finally got to the lake shore. I bathed my face and arms before making the trek back to the pass and Richard. We came home the right way, but even so, the way was long and we were exhausted and dried up with the sun and the dry air. At the inn our exploit was hailed by the Bonell's with suitable deference. I downed a fino in celebration, followed by a bottle of Peralada and much Vichy Catalan. This debauch, following on the pears, gave me stomach trouble for some days but in no way crippled me permanently. Next morning, with our ambition achieved, we felt an easy day was indicated. I first found a hovel behind the hotel which claimed to be a French P.O. I bought largely of the stamps available, to the gratification of the old lady in charge, then with the car we drifted very slowly down the pass stopping to take it all in. Our first halt was the striking church of Sant Joan de Caselles (Joan is Catalan for John). Then we had a look at Canillo, noted Prats and Meritxell high up across the gorge. We went on steeply down the gorge which, at times, was too narrow to take both the river and road, so that the latter had to bore through the cliff. The surprise view of Encamp and its three separate settlements burst on us, with the ruined moorish tower of Sant Roma showing up well on its pinnacle. Coming down to Las Escaldes we found it is joined now by ribbon development to Andorra la Vella, the capital of the Principality. For old times sake we looked at the Fonda Pla where father and I stayed in 1931, but it was bad to recognise it. We walked by quiet lanes to Engordany under the Padern Peak and saw the white studios of Radio Andorre.

In the capital all was bustle and cars, and the transformation since 1931 was incredible. I got money at the Bank and we had a good look round the primitive old church and the Casa de Val, now the town museum and travel bureau as well as the Parliament house. The stiff climb of 3000 feet back to Soldeu tested us and I was much worried by a strong smell of petrol. On reaching the hotel I found petrol leaking freely from the carburettor. "Red shirt" immediately took charge and had to be forcibly restrained. A pleasant Belgian engineer came to our rescue and diagnosed a split gasket, and he and "Red Shirt", with a pair of pliers and a hammer, effected a temporary plug. Petrol only leaked when the engine was turned on.

After lunch we went up the valley in hot sunshine, contrasting oddly with our arrival two days before. At the Refugi d'Envalira we parked the car in the short grass off the road and set off across the stream to climb to the Cirque des Pessons from which the Valira flows. Up here the scenery was very parklike, with short turf and single trees of stone pine dotted at intervals. We followed up the stream with the great ridge on our left. The snow peaks, like the Pic d'Envalira and the Pic de Montmalus, were very striking.

As we climbed higher the other two tired, so I left them to scramble up to the vast plateau, ringed all round by big mountains in which are at least 15 lakes. The lakes are in tiers, flowing down to the lowest level, and I got no higher than this - but here I was at 2400 metres just 8000 feet! Picking up Muriel and Richard again we dawdled back to the car and so home for dinner. An evening stroll down the slopes to the Bridge of Incles was a wonderful experience, with the evening scents and the afterglow far away on Casamanya.

Next morning, Saturday, I felt constrained to get the car put right; once more we headed for the valley bottom. There is a good garage in Las Escaldes, and on my explaining my dilemma to the Proprietor, he called a small pale youth from the interior. He took one look at us and screamed "Dios! No! Inglese!", and fled. However, once recaptured, he took my directions in French and soon had all tight again.

It was ferociously hot in La Vella, so we took the road along the Valira del Norte, through fine gorges to the point where we had to stop to photograph the famous Pont Sant Antoni. Then, passing between Sispony and Anyos on their respective hill tops, we came to Massana. We went on to Ordino, where we looked round, before going on to Ansalonga and La Cortinada where the poor state of the road and its extreme narrowness made us turn back whilst we could. Back in La Vella we set off in fine style on the long climb home when suddenly the car came to a dead stop. I revved up and off we shot for 100 yards before we stopped again. In the heat of mid-day the petrol was vaporising before it could get to the cylinder. With great trouble we got as far as the Barrane de Uina, the dry river bed below Canillo, where I ran all water off and twice filled up with water from the rock pool. This got us in one fine burst to the bridge of Incles where Muriel and Richard had to get out and trudge up the last fierce slope whilst I nursed the car up in short bursts. Despite "Red Shirt's" protests I put the car away in the coolest corner of the garage and we went in to a well earned lunch.

After lunch we found the builders, strewn about in all manner of strange places, having their siesta. One old man lay on the concrete edge of a large square water container fast asleep. We hoped he might fall in but he did not move. Opposite the hotel we found a very dirty track going steeply down to the river. Halfway down in a little grass enclosure, was a concrete chicken house, divided into shelves, in which the dead of Soldeu are laid before being plastered in. Presumably the ground is too hard or too precious for normal burial to be practised.

The Valira here is a mountain torrent and, with melting snow, as cold as charity. Richard and I, with some effort, moved boulders and dammed the rush of water to form a fair, if somewhat restricted, bathing pool - and very lovely it was too! I wonder if anyone has ever swum there before? At teatime we went back to the inn for tea and biscuits in the shade. Sr. Bonell joined us. Tall and slim, always immaculate despite the heat, he seemed lonely and eager to talk. He spoke only French, Catalan and Spanish and I plied him eagerly with questions about the surrounding mountains, snakes, about our adventures in 1931, sheep farming and about his own family. I realise now how much more I should have asked him, because, by our next visit, if ever there is another, he way well be dead. I took him to be the grandson of the great Jaume Bonell whose head appears on Andorran stamps. He, himself, was one of those who invited the French invasion and occupation of 1936 and, although he undoubtedly saved Andorra, the diehards tried to hang him and he had to go away into Spain for 20 years.

He told us that Benito Mas, who had the inn at Encamp in 1931, was caught by a cloudburst which washed away his inn and Benito died of shock. Of the snakes, formerly common in Las Escaldes, he said they were grass snakes which frequented the warm springs there. Vipers were only found on the high mountains and were rare there. He told me of the sheep system in Andorra. The grazing in each Parish is let out and no free range is allowed. I tried to give him an idea of our moors but he could not grasp it at all.

As the sun cooled off I left the others and climbed up behind the inn on a rough track. It passed above the Bordes of Molner and joined a watercourse which came down from the Cap del Port and ran down into the Valira. High up in the solitude the stream divided. The track followed the right fork and led over the ridge by the Port Dret, the old direct footway to Hospitalet in France. Once over the ridge the path strikes the headwaters of the Riu Sant Joseph, following them down until they flow into the Ariège river and down to Ax les Thermes. I left the track near the summit and climbed easily up to the top of the Clos d'Entignac 2485 metres (about 8,400 feet).

Up there there was no life for miles, and all over Andorra we were struck by the absence of animals, birds or insects. On the way down I came across a tiny viper, black in colour, and little thicker than a pencil 10 inches long.

After dinner in the cool darkness we again wandered down the valley with the stars, like great lamps, and the mass of Casamanya sticking up five miles away, in the sky.

Part 1 | Part 3
"My First Visit to Andorra (1929)"

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