The places we desire are only times…
1955, midsummer. In the small town of Arles-sur-Tech at the foot of the French Pyrenees, Francesc Pujades looks south towards the Canigou massif. His life has been lived in the shadow of these hills, and he has walked them into his bones. He has lost count of the number of times he has climbed the Canigou itself.
On the other side of the massif lies Catalonia. Like many in the Roussillon borderlands, Francesc can trace a family line across the mountains, back to a time before they became a political as well as a topographical frontier. He knows the history. He knows that the Treaty of the Pyrenees, signed in 1659, saw the Spanish crown cede control of Northern Catalonia to France, in exchange for which Louis XIV renounced his claim to the southern lands, the County of Barcelona. He knows too that a little over three centuries later, the Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer wrote his epic foundational poem of Catalonia, Canigó, in which the medieval war between Christians and Saracens for control of the Iberian Peninsula is the backdrop to a tragic tale of forbidden love drawn from folk mythology.
Gentil, the son of a nobleman, falls in love with a shepherd girl, Griselda, during the celebrations to mark the Feast of St. John. His father disapproves, and Gentil, who that very day has been made a knight, is dispatched to defend a strategic castle on the northern side of the Pyrenees. There, one night, as he gazes up at the snow-capped peak of the Canigou, his squire tells him that what appears to be snow are in fact the ermine cloaks of the mountain faeries draped over the mountain. Legend has it, the squire says, that any mortal who acquires such a cloak may have whatever he most desires. Dreaming of Griselda loved and lost, Gentil abandons his guard post and heads for the summit.
Francesc Pujades gazes up at the Canigou and begins to dream. Tomorrow, he thinks, is the 24th, the Feast of St. John. He knows the centuries-old tradition whereby vigil fires are lit to mark this day in June. A cleansing of spirits, a celebration of light as we turn once more toward winter. He has often helped with the building of these St. John’s fires in Arles-sur-Tech, but this year, he decides, he will go his own way. He gathers a bundle of firewood and sets off towards the mountain. By early evening he is at the summit, and as night begins to fall he lights a bonfire whose flicker can be seen across the Roussillon plain. The following year he does the same, and this time the towns and villages below wait for the mountaintop signal before lighting their own St. John’s fires.
An idea had been kindled in the wider imagination. In the years that followed, the flame lit at the summit, la Flama del Canigó, became a mother flame used to light countless other torches that were then relayed to towns across Catalonia. At first this chain of belonging was limited to the Catalan lands on the French side of the mountain, but in 1966 it stretched across the border into Franco’s Spain and was used to light a St. John’s fire in the town of Vic, just 70 kilometres north of the Catalan capital, Barcelona. Nine years later the dictator was dead. A tradition had been born.
The choreography of the event today is a work of communal imagination. On the Sunday before the Feast of St. John, small bundles of firewood are carried to the summit of the Canigou by volunteers from towns across Catalonia. Each is tied with a ribbon, striped yellow and red as the Catalan flag and bearing the name of its place of origin: Vinaròs, Lleida, Perpignan, the length and breadth of the land. Like wishing trees, some of the bundles have stuffed within them little notes, the handwritten desires of those who have laid them on the mountain. There they remain in readiness for the fire to come.
On the day before St. John’s Eve, a short ceremony takes place in Perpignan. Once a fortified gate to the medieval city, El Castillet is now home to the Catalan Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions, and there, in a small alcove, the mother flame has burned continuously since 1965. Three bearers stand at the ready, each holding a storm lantern. A wick is passed from source to lamp, the flame leaps, the bearers depart. That evening they reach the summit in the company of many, guided by head torch and song. At midnight an unlit torch is brought towards a lantern that has been carried from Perpignan. The flame catches, the torch is raised, and a short manifesto of belonging is read aloud. The incantation ends, the torch is lowered and the bundles ignite, warming the faithful and casting countless desires into the cold night air. La Flama has been renewed. Now, other lanterns are brought close to the fire, and once lit are carried back down the mountain. By dawn they will be on their way — relayed on foot, by bike, by car to hundreds of towns across the land. A thousand fires will burn that evening, each traceable to a single source.
I have failed twice to climb the Canigou. One time the car died halfway through the four-hour drive from my home just south of Barcelona. The second time I got as far as the Cortalets hut at 2100 metres before turning back. Seven hundred metres for another day. The memories of that time have yet to settle. Not because I failed to climb a mountain, but because of those I met along the way.
Personally I have little time for epic poetry in praise of homeland and identity, but I am drawn to another kind of story that is easy to find along the eastern tail of the Pyrenees. Stories of separation and loss, of borders crossed in the hope of holding on to something of a life. Stories that show us what we have to lose. So take the train from Barcelona and alight at the border, at Portbou. From there the Canigou is a six-day hike and the approach is arduous, but it brings its own rewards.
The hills which separate Portbou from France are passable in places. Most of the paths, however, are barely discernible, and the maquis scrubland offers only the barest shelter from relentless summer sun and bitter winter wind. You would not choose to walk here, but people don’t always have a choice. During the winter of 1938-39, thousands took to these hills and sought refuge across the border as Franco’s rebel troops pushed deep into Catalonia. One war ended, another began. Eighteen months later, in September 1940, the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, followed a path in the opposite direction as he fled Nazi-occupied France. When he reached Portbou he was told that his Spanish transit visa was no longer valid, and hence, the following morning, he would be handed over to the French authorities. Later that evening, in room 3 of the Hostal Francia, he swallowed a large dose of morphine.
The dead can bring new life to a place. These days it is Benjamin who draws strangers to Portbou. They come to see the memorial sculpture, or to read his name engraved in stone on the wall of what was once the Hostal Francia. A few come to walk the hills along a waymarked trail that is named in his honour. Follow his footsteps into Spain, or do as I did and trace them back to France.
Half an hour after setting off from Portbou I reached a fork in the road. The waymark was clear — I should take the rising path to the right. The way, however, was barred by a gate, and strapped to its ribs was a sign, hand-painted in Catalan:
Walter Benjamin did not come this way. This is no memorial, because there was no path here before 1965. Private property. Keep out.
I clambered over the gate and began to climb towards the ridge along a path that became progressively thinner and steeper. After a while I no longer saw any waymarks, and I began to wonder if I had veered off. But from what? Genuineness, as Benjamin once wrote, is beyond reproducibility. Did it matter whether his footprint was pressed deep into the ground beneath my feet? I felt him at my shoulder, contemplating what had been created in his name. Consider the path, I heard him say, not as a forgery but as a translation, one that is faithful to the spirit of a lost original.
Eventually I emerged onto the ridge and stopped to rest in the shade of a solitary holm oak. I had met no-one since leaving Portbou, and no-one was waiting for me at the border. I ate a handful of walnuts and drew long on my water bottle. Then I stepped across an invisible line and began my descent into France. In Banyuls-sur-Mer, I found a cheap hotel just off the seafront. The receptionist waved away my passport.
Early the next morning I set off inland from Banyuls along the GR-10, the long-distance trail that runs the length of the Pyrenees along the French side. Up, up, up went the path, from time to time cutting across the zig-zag road that winds its way out of Banyuls. I tried to pace myself, stopping for a few minutes as I reached the marker post at each pass between ever higher lines of hills: the Col de Llagostera, the Col de Gascons. By the time I reached the grassy flat top of the Puig de Sallfort, I was a thousand metres above sea level. In the midday sun and seen from high above, the waters of the Mediterranean were iridescent, a shifting collage of greys and greens and blues. Cornish is the only language I know which can capture this in a single word: glas. Imagine the early settlers of a place we now call Cornwall. What lies in the foreground of their imagination, along whose roads do they come and go? The sea. So first a word for the colour of the indivisible sea. Grey, green, blue. Glas.
Facing west once more, I saw far in the distance the telecommunications antenna atop the rounded summit of the Puig Neulós, the final peak I had to traverse before reaching a bed for the night in the Chalet de l’Albère. Four more hours the signpost said.
Before supper that night in the Chalet I went out on to the wooden terrace and looked towards the setting sun. There it was, the silhouette of a mountain, four days walk away. I thought of Gentil, gazing at the summit and dreaming of Griselda, dreaming of finding what most he desires.
Famished and exhausted, I went back inside and made for a small corner table where I could eat alone. I was about to sit down when I heard his voice for the first time.
‘Assieds-toi avec nous’
It was more insistence than invitation, but said with a gentleness that made me want to accept. His name was Jean-Jacques, and he had set off that morning from Banyuls in the company of his brother, Pierre. Over supper, I shared with them my stories of Portbou and the Canigou, and I learned that they were planning to walk the GR-10 as far as Mérens-les-Vals, a week beyond my own destination.
‘Nous monterons peut-être au Canigou ensemble !’, said Jean-Jacques.
Or maybe I’ll need to be alone, I thought.
The following morning we left the Chalet together, but I was soon lagging behind and eventually lost sight of them as the path descended through woodland. It was there I came across one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen, a tree that existed only for an instant, in a moment of perfect light. The skin of the cork oak had been stripped from its lower limbs, revealing flesh of burnt sienna, ochre, the tone shifting as sunlight flickered through the leaf cover, mottling the sheen of the naked trunk with darker spots the colour of Grenache. It was as if what flowed through the tree were not sap but wine from the Roussillon, drawn from the earth into which its roots sank. The light shifted, the colours faded. I gathered three small strips of cork from the ground and placed them carefully in my backpack. One for myself, two as a gift at supper tonight.
Around mid-afternoon I reached the hamlet of Les Illes and made my way to the Hostal dels Trabucayres. There on the wall to the right of the door was a marble plaque, like a fragment of an imaginary guest register from February 1939.
As the Spanish Civil War approached its grim conclusion, the country’s elected leaders gathered one final time in a farmhouse on the outskirts of La Vajol, an end-of-the-line village in the frontier hills. Lluís Companys, the president of Catalonia was there. So too was his Basque counterpart, José Antonio Aguirre. And then there was Manuel Azaña, president of a now fractured Spain. There were no choices left. In the company of others whose names elude history, the three presidents followed a path that led from La Vajol to the Col de Lli, and from there down into France, to Les Illes. Relations between the three were strained, and it is said they walked apart, but they are together on the marble plaque.
Par ce lieu le 5-2-1939 passerent
par l’agression Nazi fasciste international
de la Republique, Manuel Azaña
de la Generalitat, Lluís Companys
de Euskadi, José A. Aguirre
La France leur accorda le droit d’asile
The right to asylum. What did they feel, those defeated presidents, as they stood at the Col de Lli that cold February morning, the whole of Spain at their backs? A sense of having failed their country? Relief at the possibility of refuge? What would it have done to them had they known that Franco’s dictatorship would persist for almost four decades? None of them would live to see democracy return to Spain. Azaña and Aguirre both died in exile, in 1940 and 1960, respectively. In August 1940, Lluís Companys was detained in Brittany by the German military police, who handed him over to the Spanish authorities. Two months later, he was taken from Madrid to Barcelona and shot by firing squad in the fortress atop Montjuïc, the city hill on which an Olympic stadium would be built fifty years later. They called it the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys.
On the door of the Hostal a handwritten note told me I would have to wait: Fermé jusqu’à 17 h. I rang the bell in hope and heard an upstairs window opening. Looking up I saw Jean-Jacques beaming down at me.
‘Go round the side,’ he said, ‘and I’ll let you in.’
The owner was running an errand, but he’d already asked her to save me a bed. That evening I told my two companions about the ephemeral tree and gave them each a piece of cork. We filled our glasses time and again, and went to bed heady on Grenache.
The next two days followed a similar pattern. Although we would set off together, I was unable to keep pace, my creaking frame no match for their lean and wiry bodies. Once they were out of sight I slipped into my own quiet rhythm, savouring the slow approach to the mountain. On the long descent into Arles-sur-Tech I looked towards the Canigou massif and thought of the poet Verdaguer, of Francesc Pujades, and of what they had spawned. Without the stories it was just a mountain hewn from granite and gneiss, but the stories matter.
When I reached the valley floor I stopped to look at a tourist information board by the bridge across the River Tech. A black and white photograph, taken in 1910, showed iron ore being transported by cable car down from the Batère mines, high above the town on the western flank of the valley. To the right of the photograph, three paragraphs of text in French, a brief synopsis of the history of the mines. Across the bottom of the panel, in black marker pen and capital letters, someone had written: EN CATALÀ. SOM PAÏSOS CATALANS. Write in Catalan. These are our lands.
The iron mines closed in 1987, but part of the building where the miners once lodged and ate has been transformed into a mountain refuge, reachable from Arles-sur-Tech along a path that climbs for over ten kilometres to an altitude of 1500 metres. Late that afternoon I limped along the tarmac in front of the refuge and saw Jean-Jacques and Pierre outside on the covered terrace. I joined them in a beer and showed them my problem, the sole of my right boot hanging loose at the toe. Jean-Jacques took the boot and told me to wait. I had been walking for five days, and now, just a day from the Canigou, the summit seemed further away than ever. As I was finishing my beer, Jean-Jacques reappeared, the sole of my boot glued and bound with duct tape.
‘Leave it taped until morning,’ he said. ‘It should hold as far as Cortalets.’
We walked together that final day, my flapping boot marking time, and I was glad of their company. For five days the skies had been clear, but the weather was changing, a storm was building. As I looked up at the sky I heard the voice of my Catalan father-in-law as clear as when he last spoke to me in this life: Cielo de panza de burra, agua segura. Rain for sure when the sky’s the colour of a donkey’s belly. Jean-Jacques smiled at the image.
‘If we had a donkey, you wouldn’t have to walk any further.’
At the Cortalets hut we ate lunch together, and then went outside to say our goodbyes. I glanced towards the summit, then down at my ragged boot. Spots of rain began to fall.
‘Remember,’ said Jean-Jacques, ‘it is just one time. Le Canigou t’attend !’
I reached into my backpack and took out a tiny bundle of sticks, tied with a black and white ribbon.
‘In case you climb the mountain,’ I said, handing them to Jean-Jacques.
The jeep taxi was waiting, one place left. Thirty minutes down a pitted access road, back to the valley below.
At home again I soon slipped back into work and routines, and a month went by before I realized that I hadn’t shared with my two French companions the few photographs I had of our days together. I sent them off, but heard nothing for a while, until one day I received an email reply from Pierre, only from Pierre. He had, he said, some terrible news. Jean-Jacques, suite à un accident de vélo très grave, est décédé.
In one of the photographs, taken on our final morning together, I am standing with Jean-Jacques by a marker post at the Col de Cirère, an altitude of 1731 metres. We have been following the rise and fall of the same path for almost 90 kilometres, and we have climbed, all told, over 4500 metres. In the photograph, exhaustion shrouds me like an aura. As for Jean-Jacques, he is smiling, strong, ready for more. There is not a hint of death in his eyes.
Looking at the photograph I remembered something from a story by John Berger in which he encounters and converses with his long-departed mother. She speaks to him on behalf of the dead, and asks of him just one thing. Write down what you find, she says, and do us the courtesy of noticing us.
One day soon I will return to the Cortalets hut and spend the night in preparation for an early start the following morning. The weather will be fine, my boots robust, and I will climb the Canigou. From the summit I will look, first south towards the place that has become my home, then north towards Arles-sur-Tech. But I will not dream as some Catalans do from here. The place they desire is a time when this mountain was a feature of home rather than an emblem of what has been lost. And while something of their land has become my home, and I have been welcomed by most with open arms, the place I desire is far away on an Atlantic coast. It is granite and gorse, bladderwrack and kelp. It is the taste and smell of salt and sardines. And it is a boy scampering down the dunes and out across the wet sand towards the tidal sea, still cold despite the summer. A boy oblivious to the fact that this is only time, and that one day it will be lost. Oblivious to the fact that there is a word in Cornish for the longing he will feel years later as he sits atop a far-off mountain. Hireth.
June 23, 2020 at 14:44
Inspiring. Thank you
June 23, 2020 at 14:47
Thank you, Nigel. So glad it connected with you.
June 24, 2020 at 15:09
As I read this dear brother, from an unusually hot West Cornwall, I see in my mind one of the places you took us 2 years ago, on what has become our yearly and much longed for ritual of complete mindful relaxation in your welcoming home & adopted family & friends.
Looking back over many years in our beloved County I picture that young boy running across the golden sands towards the sea closely followed by one of his much older siblings just in case he would be engulfed by the strong Atlantic breakers, clasping his little hands to lift him sailing across the foamy white ripples.
I hope dear brother that it won’t be too long before we can revisit those places which hold such memories but this time the role will be reversed as I feel your gentle hands grasp mine to lift me above the rippling waves.
June 24, 2020 at 17:11
Thank you for these sweet words. And yes, let’s find those waves.
June 24, 2020 at 18:28
A lovely piece, Alan. I love the way you weave all these elements altogether. One day I must come to Portbou to pay my respects – maybe walk a little.
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June 24, 2020 at 20:24
Thank you, Laurence. Would be great to walk some of these paths with you one day. Stay well, and keep walking!
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June 25, 2020 at 17:45
This is a beautiful piece Alan. One to sit with quietly, savour and reflect. Thank you.
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June 25, 2020 at 18:52
And thank you, Murdo, for these kind words. You’ve made my afternoon!