The train from Latour de Carol to Barcelona tracks its way through verdant rugged landscape as it cuts diagonally across the Montgrony mountain range. I boarded the train at Puigcerda, the next station after Latour de Carol. Almost completely deserted with only a handful of people on board, the train meandered along fertile valley corridors, stopping en route at quite a few minor stations, some consisting of nothing more than a small sheltered platform and a ticket booth. At one point along the route, the outstanding peaks of La Molina alpine ski resort, rising abruptly out of the valley floor, overshadowed the train tracks as the sheer majestic height of the mountains shuttered off the propagation of natural light.
Half-way along the route, the train stopped at Toses, a palpable rural village set at the foot of a one-thousand-metres high ‘collada’, a stunning mountain spot with shady footpaths ideal for amateur hiking and biking. At Toses station, the train suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a noisy school bus when a countless number of school children accompanied by their teachers invaded the carriages.
Two young girls sitting on the seat facing me were actively absorbed, sending messages on their mobile. I waited patiently until our eyes met and then I interrupted them inquisitively.
"Hola, por Barcelona?"
"No, Ripoll" one girl answered with the air of an expert.
"Yo no entiendo Catalan. Hablas ingles?"
"A little. We learn English at school" they answered back together, wishing to flash out their limited knowledge of English to any stranger who comes their way.
"Why are you going to Ripoll?" I enquired curiously.
"In Ripoll, we learn history. We come here often" the expert girl answered promptly.
"But why in Ripoll?" I asked again.
"Ripoll has a history museum, a big… esglesia and an old monestir" the expert girl answered with a giggle, unsure whether her English was comprehensible.
"And history exhibitions" the other girl added immediately.
I thanked them for the information and pledged that I would sightsee Ripoll today before proceeding on my trip to Girona.
The train soon reached the Ribes valley, an authentic cradle of virgin land, shimmering streams and gently undulating countryside. The sloping valley walls, erupt with profusions of blooming flowers that alternated with leafy patches of woodland or swathes of spiky tangled bushes, displayed a melange of natural hues, so enthralling that I wished the view could last for ever.
The train stopped for a few minutes at Ribes de Freser station from where I could see at a distance the remains of a ruined castle, its half-collapsed tower standing as evidence to the region’s past Iberian civilization. The Church of Santa Maria rising out of a typical central piazza in the village was partly hidden by thick overgrowth. A narrow-gauge train, a veritable remnant of a bygone age, was ready to start its northbound trip to the Nuria valley, offering on its way up impressive views of the mountains as these become higher and steeper on getting closer to the border with France.
The train took a sharp turn south before it proceeded through mountainous terrain, staggered here and there with patches of cultivated land, corn fields and fruit orchards. The main thoroughfare between Ribes de Freser and Ripoll runs close to the train tracks for most of the way, making it possible to view through the train’s window a number of little countryside hamlets comprising nothing more than a score of farmhouses where a farming community conveniently dwells. The Romanesque stone bridge, Pont d’en Cabreta, popular with scholars of history, was likewise within sight.
As the train reached Ripoll, the school children were the first to depart, stepping out so hastily that I had no time to bid them goodbye. Once out of the station, I found myself on the city’s main thoroughfare, Carrer del Progres. Heading northeast towards the medieval city centre, this busy road is a haven of activity, lined as it is with commercial and trading outlets of all sorts. Alongside the usual food stores, all kinds of traditional shops offer everything, from croissants and sweet confections to herbal concoctions made in convents, from nuts and nutted pastry to chocolate truffles filled in with a choice of flavoured liquorice.
I soon reached the graceful iron footbridge that stretches out over Riu Freser. A sharp turn left on Carrer Pont d’Olot placed me at once in the heart of the Old Town quarter. Wandering aimlessly without a city map, I wended my way through a number of quaint winding passageways, all filled in to capacity with centuries-old timber-framed shop entrances. At a glance, I observed the shop window displays: handmade embroidered bed linen and tablecloths, colourful ceramic vases and glazed pottery, silver-filigreed jewellery and eye-catching knickknacks and souvenirs made by local craftsmen.
Hidden somewhere in the midst of this old-world ambience, a small square was the venue of a popular fruit-and-vegetable market. A colourful banner tied across the square to a pair of electricity poles decoded the noisy activity: ‘Mercato de Santa Maria de Ripoll’. Wasn’t this manifestly obvious? Anyway, the market was nonetheless a grand open-air display of colours. Everything was fresh and tempting, so tempting it was impossible not to participate in the experience. So, I approached one of the market stalls and after being handed over a plastic bag, I picked my share of cherries from the display. In my country, fruit and greens are untouchables; in this part of Spain, you’ll never get your bag filled unless you use your hands to sort out your requirements.
Out of the market square, I nibbled cherries as I made my way along Carrer dels Hortolans, a long winding alleyway that opens onto Carrer dels Pirineus. A short stroll brought me right on Placa de Santa Maria, Ripoll’s largest and most popular square. Being the throbbing heart of Ripoll, it is the spot where all the historical attractions are located.
After asking for directions, I made my way straight to the tourist office, located on the ground floor of an old building on Placa del Abat Oliba and barely a stone’s throw from the basilica. The huge arched hallway where the friendly and kindly officers in attendance painstakingly exercise their multi-lingual skills with visitors is a meticulously restored place with lots of exposed stones and a cloister-like appearance.
"I am looking for a hotel where I can spend the night. Can you help me, please?"
An English-speaking lady who was absorbingly engaged with her computer stood up in a jiffy, gave me a warm welcome and handed over a dozen or so brochures of the region. On a street map of the city, she marked the location of three hotels, conveniently tracing out the shortest route to each.
"These are the three best hotels in the centre. There are cheaper ones outside the centre but they are not easy to reach unless you have your own wheels. ‘Ca La Paula’ is just a stone’s throw from here on the opposite edge of the square. It is a clean place with refurbished rooms and new furniture. Give it a try".
I thanked her for the assistance and walked across the square to the recommended hotel. It was a real gem, sparkingly clean and right in the centre of the city’s active scene. Having deposited my backpack, I hastened my way to the ticket office from where I bought a combined entry ticket for the basilica and the monastery.
Protected with black-tinted sheets of glass, an artistically-great stone portal allows entry to the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria. It is entirely invisible to outsiders and without an entry ticket you cannot get the least inkling of its refined artistic beauty. Dating back to the twelfth century, it is an extreme example of pure Romanesque art. Heavily sculpted with a combination of several Biblical and rural scenes, it is a great exposition of old Catalan art and craftsmanship. The details of what you see are conveniently displayed on a poster near the entrance, but… alas, no English translation.
On entering the basilica, I was shocked to find an austere gloomy place of huge proportions devoid of ornamentation. But on climbing down a few steps to the Benedictine cloister, the aspect of austerity changed to one of awe as I was faced with an extraordinary place lined with colonnaded stone arches, embellished with richly sculpted capitals. The pantheon beneath the cloister is a place of great historical importance, containing a fair share of tombs where nobles of the Catalan dynasty are interred.
A short stroll from the monastery, Ripoll’s Ethnography Museum has recently opened its doors after years of renovation. Presenting a wide range of items related to the customs and traditions of this mountainous region, it is a modern place having new exhibition spaces and an orderly labelled display of exhibits one can follow with ease.