A short ride up into the quiet Castanesa valley made me realise the importance of relaxing now.
By being relaxed I could appreciate every second of every passing moment in all its simplicity.
High in the Spanish Pyrenees lies the Castanesa valley. Relatively untouched by tourism or main roads; a journey into this valley seems to transcend both space and time.
I first heard about this valley when reading a newspaper article about the last remaining shepherd in the valley. Along with his views on the possible construction of a large ski resort by the local government. Whilst studying google maps for a bike route into the valley, I also noticed a memorial to a local folk singer: Pau Donés.
Escaping to the sky
I began this ride from a gravelled layby just below the village of Noales, on the N260 between the towns of El Pont de Suert and Castejon de Sos. If you are looking for fresh bread for a picnic or a just sweet, after ride treat; why not try the reputable bakery just across the road? Check their Facebook page for opening times: https://www.facebook.com/panesfarredelaigua.
After changing in to more comfortable cycle clothing, I climbed on my bike and took the steep righthand road up through Noales. It seems like you are cycling into the private yard of house in Noales where the cobbled road narrows between the houses. Yet keep cycling and you will soon be out the far side and surrounded by the lush green pastures of this valley.
By chance the road had recently been resurfaced with a smooth layer of tarmac. This meant I did not have to worry about potholes or loose gravel and I just focused on the beautiful countryside views as they opened up, as I climbed away from the valley floor. The road is steep in places; yet I was not afraid to stop and catch my breath.
For a while the road is shaded by trees on either side that afforded me some relief from a hot autumn sun. After a while the road began to level as I left the forest behind me. Soon after I arrived to a T-junction and turned left towards Montanuy. If you want to see a small rural hamlet, turn right and you will soon see Escaner! There is a water fountain just after the junction so be sure to refill your water bottles in hot weather. From here, the road keeps climbing up through pastures until it reaches a ridgeline in the distance. Lookout for a gravel track on your left before a 5.5 tonne weight limit sign. It has a wooden signpost showing Ardanuy is a 1 hour 20 minute walk.
This is the route to take after visiting the nearby memorial to local singer Pau Donés and a viewpoint over the Barrabes valley. So for now, continue on the paved road for approximately 200 metres. Here the road will turn sharply to the left as the Barrabes valley opens up in front of you. At this point, if you look to the right, you will see a viewpoint behind a wooden fence. Stop here and take a moment to see the view of not just the valley but maybe your life too.
Vivir es urgente – ‘Life is urgent’.
Pau Donés was a local singer, songwriter and guitarist from the village of Montanuy which you can see in the Barrabes valley below you. Pau went on to form the Spanish rock band: Jarabe de Palo. You can listen to their songs via the YouTube link below.
In 2015, Pau was diagnosed with colorectal cancer; to which he eventually succumbed on the 9th of June 2020. In the last years of his life he returned to his childhood home of Montanuy to enjoy the fresh air and relaxing mountain valley life. Pau maintained a positive outlook on life until the end, by not being afraid of death and fear. Coming to understand, realise, relax and enjoy this one life that we are all given.
After his death, a T-shirt was designed by his brother Marc to help raise money for a Spanish cancer research organization: CRIS. With over 500,000 euros raised so far, they have been able investigate 53 lines of cancer research and conduct over 300 clinical trials. You can find out more here: https://www.lacamisetadepau.org/#
Printed on the t-shirt is a mantra of Pau’s: ‘Vivir es Urgente‘, or in English: ‘Life is Urgent’, a high priority, it is pressing, it is now!
The road less travelled
After taking a while to consider the risks of cancer and my mortality; I retraced my steps and turned right onto the gravelled path. The valley views to my left soon cheered me up and I appreciated the natural beauty that surrounded me. I never met another soul on this path; so I soon saw it as an allegory to life. I may meet people along the way; yet they may be going in the opposite direction. Nature on the other hand and its raw simple beauty will always accompany me. So I realised that appreciating just being in nature, being in the moment; is as a relaxed view of this life that I can ever hope to see.
Into the Castanesa valley
I followed the path for approximately three miles before arriving at tarmac road worn and cracked by the extremes of the mountain weather. Turning right and uphill, I steadily gained height towards the hamlet of Castanesa. With records of habitation dating back to 1015 and a twelfth century church, this small cluster of houses is a great example of mountain life that has lasted almost unchanged for hundreds of years.
There is of course all the modern amenities and a restaurant and hostelry too: https://cadegraus.com/. Yet it gave me the impression of a more relaxed life of yesteryear. The Catalans can keep the hustle and bustle of Barcelona for themselves and the beaches of Benidorm are for the British not related to me. The natural slow pace of mountain life seems natural to the rhythm of both heart and soul.
“…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost
The last shepherd and the uncontrolled future
Continuing on, the road cuts a path through a bare rock slope. Then rounding a corner by a conveniently placed bench; the upper Castanesa valley now opens up before you. The road then descends again to reach another small hamlet called Fonchanina. The last shepherd in the valley lives here, which I read about in a very interesting article in the Spanish newspaper El Diario: https://www.eldiario.es/ballenablanca/crisis_climatica/ampliacion-cerler-ultimo-habitante-fonchanina-planta-cara-esqui_1_6743808.html
As children born in the valley left to find work and experience the wider world and the elder generations have passed on; these high villages have been gradually depopulating over the last 40 years. However, a new form of resident has occurred in the form of rich Barcelonans and Madrilenos buying second homes here, to stay for just a few weeks a year. Furthermore, the ski resort of Cerler in the next valley, is part owned by the regional government and a bank. With the sole purpose of making more money from ski tourists and the construction of any new holiday homes and hotels; they have decided to extend the chairlifts and ski area into the he upper reaches of this valley.
In the article above, the shepherd Rafael Casal explains that the access road to the upper valley is blocked almost every winter by rockfall. In addition, the slopes in this valley are mainly south facing; so any snow will soon melt under the skis. Yet, others residents further down the valley welcome the thought of year round employment and new life in these now dormant villages.
The present day
As of March 2023 a chairlift has been built to connect the adjacent Basibe valley to the neighbouring Cerler ski area. With the tall support pylons a now permanent fixture on these once virginal pastures: https://www.heraldo.es/noticias/aragon/huesca/2021/10/24/cerler-completa-las-obras-del-telesilla-a-castanesa-en-su-primera-ampliacion-en-22-anos-1528502.html
However, no connecting road has yet been built up the Castanesa valley from Fonchanina. So come and enjoy this wilderness before the views and pace of life change forever.
Another issue worthy of note is the introduction of brown bears into the Pyrenees by the French government. They claim bears are an essential part of biodiversity as an apex predator. Yet the bears know not of borders and are regularly crossing into Spain. Already livestock has been mauled to death for which shepherds are compensated. However, what is stopping these grizzly beasts from now stalking us as we concentrate on riding a bike over steep or rough ground, or relaxing at a picnic on a long walk with young children?
A viewpoint for the blind
I cycled up to Fonchanina and decided to go no further. It was late in the day and thunderclouds were building around the mountain tops at the head of the valley. Returning to the bend in the road, I looked back at the upper Castanesa valley for a moment. Even with the coming storm, the houses of Fonchanina and the narrow road; everything manmade seemed at peace and balanced with society.
From there I returned back down the valley, staying on the tarmac road all the way to the car. Not long after passing back through Castanesa; I came across a layby with a viewpoint information board. The sun had briefly broken through the clouds, so I stopped to sunbathe as well as putting on a gilet for the cold descent. My understanding of the Spanish language needs: ‘un poco atencion’. Yet when I happened to glance at the information board, I noticed the diagram was covered in a series of shapes and braille near the place names. I turned and realised the unusual number of disabled car parking spaces were for a good reason.
What can you see?
This viewpoint had been built for the benefit of the blind. The shapes on the information board represented different areas in the landscape. With triangles representing forests and squares the open pastures down below.
I was amazed and stared in stunned silence for a third time in one day. Realizing that although I am lucky to be gifted with the power of sight; I am possibly blinded by the stresses, anxieties and anger caused by modern society. Which has caused me to take simple views of nature such as this one for granted.
I swore to myself to respect the blind as well as the natural born gift of my sight. I now take every view as a precious gift from mother nature.
A sadder but wiser man
After resting for a while to understand these nuances of life; I got back on my bike to just focus on the long descent ahead of me. The road was obviously quiet for lack of people, so I used the whole width of the road to maintain a smooth line. It was evening now and I was cold, tired and hungry.
Yet I stared at the passing landscape as if I were in a dream.
Change is unavoidable, uncontrollable and like our mortality, at some time to our detriment. Yet by avoiding the reliance on social status or modern technology to make us feel relaxed; change come at a more natural pace. I think we should simply: look, listen, smell, taste and hear Mother Nature by going out and meeting her everyday.
Do not worry about tomorrow until the morning. Life is urgent, life is now. Relax and enjoy every passing moment.
“…He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn”.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Other routes to relax in this area:
I really recommend other breathtaking routes through nature in this area:
A scenic climb to the Embalse de Llauset
I touched the sky! (Ascent of Gallinero from Liri)
Còth de Varradós (Varrados pass)
A short climb to the lake of Besiberri
A winter wonderland walk in the Aigüestortes