Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Solanell

Magazine article Queen's Quarterly

Solanell

Article excerpt

NOTHING we were told in Urgel prepared us for what we found. Not even in Castellbo, itself long in decline but inhabited still, was our sense of anticipation properly kindled, for signs of life there were apparent, though hardly vibrant. What I knew of abandoned places had to do with mountain regions other than the Pyrenees: in Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, the mute stone ruins of Boreraig, one small community among hundreds gutted and burned to make way for English authority and flocks of sheep; in Guatemala, the militarized landscapes of Huehuetenango and El Quiche, entire areas emptied of people in the name of anti-communism. Where we were headed, the hand of force had not been heavy, but time and circumstance had wrought an equal measure of destruction.

We crossed a bridge at the edge of Castellbo and started to ascend. The car toiled. In front, the dirt road was pot-holed and rutted, a means of access initially hewn for feet and hoofs, not rubber tires. Off to our right the ground fell steeply. Water murmured far below. We continued upwards until we reached a wide bend beyond which the huddled shape of Solanell came partly into view. That first, magical glimpse was a rite of passage into a bygone era. I remember saying to my companion, "Let's park and walk the rest," for to take the car any further seemed an unnecessary violation. A nearby clearing beckoned. We parked the car in the shade of a tree, scaled a slope, and made our way across a field, our approach allowing Solanell to rise like a lost kingdom before us. Its haunted air entered our consciousness slowly, structure by structure, bit by bit. On the outskirts of town a well, no longer cared for, leaked water onto the trail. Our path through the mud soon became a rocky, uneven street. Houses on either side, their windows shattered, their doors broken, their interiors vacant, led up towards the church. We saw no one, but noticed that sheep roamed freely, moving in and out of dark rooms where once fires were lit, meals cooked, families raised, lives lived. Opposite the church, its Romanesque features not yet dilapidated beyond appreciation, we ate lunch mostly in silence, our enjoyment of bread, wine, and sun mixed with contemplation of all that surrounded us. On that high summer day in July, when the Pyrenees were full of people no longer there, the solitude of Solanell became a sadness my heart embraced, a story my curiosity would explore.

The Setting

SOLANELL is one of 28 towns in the mountains around the Catalan city of La Seu d'Urgell that, in the course of the last 30 to 40 years, have suffered a fate of total depopulation. A dozen or so other towns in the Urgel hinterland are inhabited only part of the year, are populated by newcomers fleeing the stress of contemporary urban life, or are occupied in such a precarious fashion that their existence at the start of the next millennium cannot be guaranteed. Some towns, like Sendes or Tost, lie completely in ruins. The state of decay elsewhere, as at Banyeres, Lleto, and Llirt, is less advanced, due in part to their fields still being of some agricultural use, thus allowing passing workers an opportunity to stall the process of collapse. By the end of the century, however, one in three present agricultural endeavours is likely to disappear, so material upkeep is bound to deteriorate.

Historically, the Catalan Pyrenees have been one of the most dutifully tended regions of Spain. People have lived and farmed in these parts a long time. Something of a population climax may be said to have occurred during the ninth and tenth centuries, when Arab control of the Iberian peninsula meant that Muslim presence in the south exerted tremendous pressure on zones of Christian refuge in the north. This pressure was everywhere reflected in forest clearance, terrace cultivation, and village life at upper elevations turned to only in times of crisis. With the retreat of Muslim influence, pressure was relieved and population levels stabilized, to waver periodically, due mostly to pillage and sickness, until the nineteenth century, when another climax was reached. …

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