La Seu d’Urgell, the small valley town where I spent three days in utter poetic peacefulness, seemed to me so remote from the rest of Spain that I thought it would be appropriate to enquire about the best way to depart. Without any planned itinerary, I was ready to accept any suitable suggestion that would give me another opportunity to stay close to the mountains where I could enjoy in seclusion whatever nature offered.
So, I made my way to La Seu’s tourist office, located conveniently inside a recently refurbished ground floor building in the arcaded passageway a stone’s throw west of the Cathedral on Carrer Major. The warm welcome given by the officer in attendance was simply the best I’ve ever received in any tourist office anywhere around the globe.
"Do you speak English?" I enquired.
"A little, but I can communicate with ease if you dare speak slowly and clearly" he responded in a manner so polite that he seemed to be versed extremely well in the skill of social interaction.
"You speak perfect English" I said without hesitation, "Have you ever lived in an English-speaking country?"
"Then you studied at Oxford or London, perhaps" I interrupted with sarcasm.
But Oxford and London were beyond his comprehension, not knowing that Oxford and London are two universities of prestige and stature. So, while I explained the significance of my statement, I stood admiring with attention his unfailing effort to use grammatically correct English, a rare occurrence in Spain.
This short introductory conversation was enough to establish a friendship that has already lasted two months. Ramon Gasch by name, he was surprisingly helpful and knowledgeable, particularly with regards to information about transport in the Cerdanya region.
"Take one of the three daily buses to Puigcerda. The earliest bus leaves at 9:00am from the bus station on Carrer del Bisbe Benlloch and reaches Puigcerda one hour later".
After he handed down a large-scale detailed map of Cerdanya and traced on it the route the bus was intended to follow, he went on to elaborate on the natural beauty of the mountain landscape that enwraps Puigcerda.
"A couple of days in Puigcerda may or may not be enough. It all depends on how many hours of countryside walking you intend to spend. But make sure to explore the hillside groves that surround the city, make sure to trek along the marked pathways that lead into winding valleys and half-drowned reedy marshlands, fertile with vegetation. Cross over to nearby mountain hamlets where city life has been kept away and time has stood still."
"What’s next after Puigcerda?" I asked.
Ramon took all the time in the world to explain that frequent trains from Puigcerda run to Ripoll, another small valley town wrapped in mountain landscape and surrounded by a handful of picturesque mountain hamlets that deserve more than a brief visit. A daily bus departs from Ripoll to Girona at 2:00pm, passing en route through Olot, a small town folded in volcanic mountain landscape that is almost within touch of the city centre.
The following morning, after bidding Ramon goodbye, I took the bus to Puigcerda. The route was a one-hour trip along verdant country roads that snaked through tight bends and passed through a handful of quaint traditional villages, each consisting of nothing more than a few minor built-up streets radiating out of a prominent church square. The bus terminated its trip on a spread of ground in front of Puigcerda train station. One side of this huge empty space is dominated by three adjacent budget hotels and quite a few bars, ideal for a quick bite or a light snack.
On the extreme edge of this park-like zone, a broad passageway leads to the lower station of a free public funicular (opening times: 6:00 to 24:00) that whisks passengers to a mid-level station from where a semi-circular glass elevator continues its vertical ascent to the uppermost terminal platform.
Once the climax of elevation was reached, I stood still like a flagpole on the observation terrace looking with awe at what stood in front of me. The view of the mountains, their peaks still capped in snow, their lower levels dressed in dappled coats of green, was a portrait-pretty panorama I didn’t want to leave behind. The lower town section cut across by the train tracks and the symmetrical brickwork of the station appeared finer and brighter from this excellent overhang.
A few steps brought me right on the Town Hall square, a graceful area where local people meet, exchange views and spend time in each other’s company. From here, I walked along Carrer Alfons I, a narrow atmospheric walkway lined on both sides with side-by-side specialized shops. Half-way on Carrer Alfons I, a byway gives access to a massive piazza, a green central square sidelined with avenues on each side. On one edge stands the thirteenth-century Church of St Dominic, a place of worship that was almost entirely rebuilt from scratch two centuries later. The façade that looks over the piazza retains some original features that are worthy of inspection. Also noteworthy are the interior Gothic murals that date back to the fourteenth century and the row of stained-glass windows that adorn the transept.
I resumed my walk aimlessly along the warren of uphill streets within the Old Town quarter, stopping here and there to peep inside a local delicatessen (try Puigcerda’s torrone – a nougat concoction of pistachio nuts, sesame seeds and ultra-sweet confections) or a buy-and-sell antiques galleria (look at the admirable collections of bronze statues and ornamental ceramic vases). I finally reached an uncluttered space that seemed to be the most popular spot in town. Consisting of two adjoining irregular squares sitting on the topmost spot in the city, it is a place busy with activity, sidelined as it is with restaurants, bars and food stores. With several wooden seats scattered around, it is entirely pedestrianized and allows for an easy hour’s rest in an ambience of fresh air and lingering passers-by.
On one edge of Placa de Santa Maria, the remaining bell tower of the former Church of Santa Maria is a predominant attraction. Well-preserved, its four-faced clock still striking the hour, it stands as a symbol of the majestic opulence of the former church that was the pride of the inhabitants of Puigcerda. Devastated during the Spanish civil war, it was considered as a Gothic masterpiece, an extreme example of Gothic architecture in the region.
Any northbound street leads to Puigcerda’s park-like grassland, a sanctuary of thick foliage, clear water and wildlife. The medium-sized artificial lake, known as the ‘estany’, created in the fourteenth century for irrigation purposes seems as natural as the old weeping willows that encircle its border. Several young residents were casting out for trout, going into ecstasy whenever a big one was hooked in. Along the park’s pathways, billboards with information and pictures of the creatures that hang out amidst the greenery were set up in convenient locations to guide visitors in their attempt to spot on the booty. On one edge of the park, a sheltered look-out point allows for great views of the mountain landscape, the spectacular views stretching out further away than the Spanish-French border.
Near the park’s enclosing hedgerows, a number of mansion-like villas were constructed in the twentieth century by wealthy Catalans in a bid to stay away from urban life. Their landscaped gardens and Art Nouveau architecture are still spectacular today, although the three most fashionable chalets are now converted into luxury five-star hotels.
My last day in Puigcerda took me on a peripheral trip around the city’s hillside groves. With a detailed map of the area in hand, I made my way northwest along Rondo del Torreo, a leafy boulevard on the edge of Placa de l’Estacio. A ten-minute walk brought me near a side track that delved deep down into a lush valley, a fiord-like abyss cut through steep mountain edges. Following the marked trails, I walked amidst fertile terrain, skipping here and there streams of water splashing out of the mountain walls. For one hour or so, I walked along sloping winding pathways that ran around reedy wetlands, forested patches or rugged rock surfaces. A high-gradient uphill track, hard to climb up and definitely not for the inexperienced, gave access to a country road from where I reached Latour de Carol train station in a few minutes.
A trip on the ‘train jaune’ from Latour de Carol to Bourg-Madame is a short excursion along a high-gradient mountain slope. The views from the train window are great; the experience although short-lasting is unforgettable. The walk from Bourg-Madame station back to Puigcerda is a one-mile feat of utter exertion since the road climbs uphill and downhill several times before one crosses the border back into Spain and reaches Baixada de Bourg-Madame. Carrer des Escoles Pies climbs up from here to the city centre.