Tuesday 22 September: Off to begin Part 2 of our journey. We went by bus to Stansted, and then flew to Zaragoza, in north-east Spain. This was the most convenient international airport, but we’d been there once before, several years ago, and were happy to pay another visit to the city. The architecture is beautiful, especially the ‘Basilica del Pilar’, which dominates the main square and totally dwarfs the cathedral. Ian has fond memories of being given an enormous gin and tonic on our previous visit, and he was not disappointed this time.
Wednesday 23 September: It would have been very difficult – if not impossible – to do the first part of this trip by public transport, so we hired a car from Zaragoza. Today we drove to Les, in the Pyrenees, a journey of about 175 miles. To begin with, we were on motorways with surprisingly little traffic. We had a break in the small town of Benabarre for lunch, and while there we visited the castle. After that the road became slower, but more scenic, as we headed up into the mountains. It was late afternoon when we reached Les, the village where Pa arrived after crossing the Pyrenees. We had a preliminary look round, and talked to the librarian, who was able to tell us the exact location of the hotel (no longer functioning) where Pa had stayed.
Thursday 24 September: As we wrote in our last blog but one, we decided not to attempt crossing the Pyrenees on foot, but we did go for a walk up into the mountains on the French side. Today we did the same from Spain. Pa wrote that there was no path down into Les, so they had to slide or scramble. The only path we could find took us up to the tiny village of Bausen, and from there we were able to do a loop walk higher in the hills. It was a really enjoyable day’s hike. It obviously did not correspond to the route that Pa’s group had taken – but on our return from Bausen we got good views of Les down below in the late afternoon sun, just as Pa described, although we suspect that the village was much smaller in those days!
Friday 25 September: When Pa’s group arrived in Les, they were taken to the ‘local lock-up’, where they were searched and registered, and then to the Hotel Franco- Espagnol, where they were given food (their first meal since Siradan) and rooms for the night. The hotel was easy to find; you can still read the name on the side, and we understand that it was used to house many refugees who came over the mountains. The ‘local lock-up’ was more of a mystery, especially as it was difficult to explain the term in Spanish. Our librarian friend thought that there was once a cell in the town hall, but the staff there had no knowledge of it. They thought that Pa must have meant the police station on the main road, but the librarian was not convinced it was there in 1943, and certainly the building looked later to us.
We wanted to walk to the French border, joining up this trip with Part 1 when we walked there from Marignac just 16 days ago. We found a footpath signed to the Pont de Rei (the border) and thought that would be better than walking on the main road. However, it was not an easy path, with a lot of scrambling to get over a rocky outcrop. Later we decided to detour up to the village of Canejan – a long way above us. It was a steady climb up a zigzag path. When we came back down we continued on the path to the border, but soon it petered out, so we had to walk on the road after all.
Saturday 26 September: Pa was taken from Les by bus, stopping first at Bossost, just to drop passengers and pick up others. We stopped there for a stroll round, as it is an attractive village. On to Vielha, where Pa stayed overnight. With help from ladies at the tourist information office and the museum, we located the hotel, although it has changed its name and been updated since 1943. We also found the village shop where he bought chocolates and cigarettes. But no luck with the prison: tourist info lady didn’t know of one in the town, museum lady thought there had been one near the church, but didn’t know where.
From Vielha the main road south goes through a tunnel, but that did not exist in 1943. Pa describes a ‘hair-raising’ ride in an ‘antediluvian wooden coach’ over the mountain pass to Sort. Evidently the road has been much improved since then, although we still had to zigzag steeply to the col at 2072 feet, now primarily catering for skiers. In Sort we found the town hall and the hotel where Pa had stayed overnight. Although Pa was not imprisoned there, we visited the old gaol, now a small museum dedicated to ‘escapers’ who had come through Sort. There we were shown two DVDs, which provided useful context to Pa’s journey. One also solved a mystery: in Vielha it was the church itself which had been converted to a temporary prison during the war.
At the gaol we were shown a book with a list of the names of escapers, based on Guardia Civil records. Eagerly searching through the alphabetical list, we found several names familiar from Pa’s book – but not Pa’s own name, which baffled us. Later, however, we saw the same names written on a wall, but this time in order of arrival at Sort. By looking for names which we knew were there, we found one spelt wrongly, but nevertheless recognisable: SEHOGUEN, Pieter. Nice try!
Sunday 27 September: From Sort Pa and his fellow Dutchmen were taken by bus to Lleida. The only place he mentions en route was a ‘neat and clean’ roadside café at Balaguer. We had all day for the journey, so made some other stops, including the picturesque village of Gerri de la Sal (where we walked to two sanctuaries) and La Baronia de Oisme, where a tower perches precariously on an oddly-shaped rock. We did stop at a roadside café in Balaguer, but we have no way of knowing whether it was the one. In the evening we went to get dinner in Lleida, and encountered a folk dancing display, which we enjoyed.
Monday 28 September: The main place we wanted to locate in Lleida was the ‘old seminary’ where Pa was imprisoned for two weeks. According to Wikipedia, this is now the Bishop’s Palace, but according to the lady in the tourist information office, it is now part of the university, opposite. We looked at both buildings (unfortunately closed), but could not decide. However, we spoke to two men who both confirmed that it was definitely the university, so we went back and took photos.
The only other place mentioned by Pa was the railway station, which was easy to find. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, especially the castle and the old cathedral perched high on a hill overlooking Lleida. We climbed 238 steps to the top of the belltower, to get an even better view.
When we started writing this blog, it was going to be called ‘North-East Spain’. But in the last few days we’ve learned a lot about the history, geography and culture of Catalonia. We realise now the extent to which it is separate from the rest of Spain. Having tried to brush up our Spanish, we’ve been confronted by people speaking only Catalan – who, when we looked blank, might well try French or even English rather than Spanish. The other thing we’ve some to realise is that Pa was one of many hundreds of refugees, including a large number of Jewish people, who escaped from occupied Europe over the Pyrenees. In the Val d’Aran especially, this memory is kept alive, and there are notices in every small village explaining the role played by their community in these events. For us, it provided a stark and sad contrast with the attitudes of many British people to those who today are seeking refuge from war and oppression.