A picture is worth a thousand words, and whether you’re a fine artist or simply a keen employer of emojis, there are times when an image says it all. This desire for artistic expression runs deep within the human consciousness and can be traced back across the millennia to a time when humans lived in caves and killed animals with their bare hands. The rock art of the Iberian Peninsula is testament to this and also to the lifestyle of our predecessors. From Granada to the Pyrenees, there are 757 rock art sites that date from between 10,000BC and 3,500BC, 50 of which lie within Catalunya. Collectively, they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as ‘Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin’, and are the best insight we have into how our ancestors lived and thought. Through this imagery we can learn about myths, hunting rituals, beliefs about the afterlife, war strategies, political structures and internal hierarchies, proving that art is a universal language that crosses cultural barriers, and can communicate with future generations.
The Serra de Godall mountains, near the town of Ulldecona and the Valencian border, boast an impressive 386 figures distributed across 14 rock shelters, the first of which was found in 1975 by a young speleologist (a cave specialist). This area is considered to be the best place to view rock art in Catalunya for the extraordinary number of preserved paintings and the diversity of the representations. Over half of the paintings depict archers or various animal species, while the rest are mainly hunting-related (footprints, animal prints, arrows etc.). Due to the iconography present, and the natural refuge provided by the rock shelters (shallow, cave-like formations), experts have deduced that the groups responsible for the paintings would have been hunter-gatherers, rather than those who relied on agriculture. From examining the different species of animals represented, the images are thought to have been created between 7,000 and 2,000BC. The imagery is mainly Levantine—a style of painting characterised by human and animal forms portrayed in moments of drama, thought to date from the Neolithic period (10,000-5,500BC). This eventually led to the Iberian Schematic style, which is more abstract. Examples of the latter can be seen in the ‘Dark Cave’ at Ulldecona. In general, cave paintings indicate that a site was once an important gathering place where rituals were performed. The images also give us a glimpse into the collective imagination of the time, as they include representations of mythic hunting tales, legendary characters and gods.
LES MUNTANYES DE PRADES (Tarragona)
The sweeping peaks and gullies of the Prades mountain range provide the stunning backdrop for 15 rock art sites. The art clusters, dating from 9,000-2,000BC, are mainly schematic representations. However, two of them—the Mas d’en Llort and Mas d’en Ramon d’en Bessó—are in the more naturalistic Levantine style, showing representations of hunting as well as human figures.
ROCA DELS MOROS DEL COGUL (Lleida)
The area around the county of Les Garrigues has been continuously inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic period. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they’ve left their mark. This is a site where we can connect with millennia of humans and try to interpret the messages that they left. The first group were the last of the hunter-gatherers, whose Levantine paintings date from 8,000 to 5,000BC, while the second group’s Schematic drawings date from 5,000 to 1,000BC. There are Iberian and Roman inscriptions mixed in amongst the older paintings, proving that the rock shelters have been in constant use throughout history. The Roca dels Moros features a mixture of paintings and rock carvings and is the site of the famous (and somewhat amusing) ‘Phallic Dance’—an image of women in long skirts and naked bodies, grouped around a man with exaggerated genitalia—which identifies the rock shelter as a place of worship.
ELS VILARS (Lleida)
This small cave tucked into the mountains to the west of Os de Balaguer has also been in use for thousands of years. Its smoke-blackened ceiling stands as testament to the cave’s historic role as a shelter to shepherds, though it is also the reason why the 4,000-year-old rock paintings lay undiscovered until 1970, when one was spotted beneath the soot. The clean up that followed revealed a total of 28 images adorning the 60-square-metre cave. Three images have been identified as particularly significant. One represents a typical Levantine dance scene, in which a man has his arms draped around the waists of two women. Another depicts a hunting scene incorporating a variety of animals, including goats, wolves and foxes. The third is a schematic image that appears to be a tribute to the sun. The cave is worth a visit if only for the stunning views across the River Farfanya valley.
ULLDECONA. A historic town in the south of Catalunya with a quaint old quarter, several Modernista buildings and a tourist office housed in a former olive oil mill.
- Train. Barcelona Estacio de França-Ulldecona (2 hours 45 minutes)
Visiting the rock art sites
- Abrics de l’Ermita Interpretive Centre for Rock Art. Centre with photographic and audiovisual resources offering visitors an in-depth explanation of the site. The interpretive centre is located in the Ermita de la Pietat, a rustic hermitage built into the side of the Serra de Godall. The oldest part of the building dates from the 12th century.
- Tours of the rock shelters take place at 10am, 12pm and 5pm Tuesday to Saturday, and at 10am and 12pm on Sundays. Booking is recommended. www.turismeulldecona.com
- Albergue Ermita de la Pietat. A basic but historical retreat providing breathtaking views across the mountain range.
- Medieval castle in Ulldecona. Perched on a hilltop above the town, this castle tells the story of Catalunya, from the Iberian period through to the ‘reconquest’ during the Middle Ages.
- La Farga de L’Arión. Ulldecona is home to the world’s oldest olive tree—a 1,701-year-old, gargantuan specimen.
EL COGUL. A tiny village with just 200 inhabitants, located 22 kilometres south of Lleida. El Cogul boasts houses dating from the 16th and 17th century and a Renaissance-style church.
- Car. Barcelona-El Cogul (2 hours, 164km)
Visiting the rock art sites
- The sites are located a kilometre outside the village, on the Camí d’El Cogul a Albagés. An interpretive centre, built into the landscape, helps visitors to understand the paintings and historical context of the rock shelters. The paintings can be viewed from Thursday to Saturday 10am-5.30pm and Sundays from 10am-3pm. To visit outside these hours, call 672 445 990 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Tombs of Saladar. Rectangular structures of Arabic origin carved into the rock, located about a kilometre from the rock paintings. They are quite hard to find so it’s best to ask a local.
- Mas de Melons nature reserve. Home to many bird species, such as the pin-tailed sandgrouse and stone curlew, who inhabit the moorland, barley fields and olive trees in this area.
- El Cogul doesn’t have many accommodation options. However, the Alberg Municipal (Plaça de la Vila 10) provides bright, clean and simple dormitory rooms. Tel. 97 312 0110.
Muntanyes de Prades
MONTBLANC. A medieval walled town in the Muntanyes de Prades region with a charming and well-preserved historic quarter.
- Train. Barcelona Sants-Montblanc (2 hours).
Visiting the rock art sites
- Tours to the rock shelters start at the stone village of Rojals, 13 kilometres from Montblanc. The tour lasts three and a half hours, during which time you will learn about the area’s flora, fauna and historical buildings. Reservations are necessary. The Rock Art Interpretation Centre in Montblanc (Pedrera 2) provides an in-depth look at the region’s cave paintings. www.montblancmedieval.cat
- Plaça Major. At the heart of the old town, this plaça is surrounded by the town’s finest mansions and displays a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
- Església de Santa María. Gothic church in Montblanc dating from the 14th century.
- Convent of Sant Francesc. Romanesque-Gothic convent established around 1238.
- La Mussara. This town was abandoned in 1959 under obscure circumstances, and its ruins lie in the Muntanyes de Prades region. Today it is encircled with mystery, with many believing the town was doomed.
- Mas Carlons. Hotel situated in a rural house just outside of Montblanc. The rooms are light and airy with beautiful views of olive groves and vineyards.
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Village of Rojals
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OS DE BALAGUER. A small town that sits on the River Segre, Os de Balaguer has a winding medieval quarter complete with city walls. The town was the birthplace of Gaspar de Portolá (1716-1784), explorer and founder of San Diego and Monterey.
- Train. Barcelona-Lleida (1 hour), then catch the bus to Os de Balaguer (50 minutes).
- Car. Barcelona-Os de Balaguer (2 hours,163km).
Visiting the rock art sites
- There is a guided tour of the Els Vilars rock art site on Sundays at 10.30am, though other times can be arranged depending on group size. To book call 973 43 82 32 or visit www.lleidaitu.com.
- Wander the medieval streets of Os de Balaguer and the portico-lined Plaça Mercadal.
- Malignum Castrum. Dating from 1035, the town’s castle is of Arabic origin and dominates the skyline. It origanally formed part of a network of defensive castles in the region.
- Santa Maria de Bellpuig de les Avellanes. Located just outside the town, concerts often take place in this 12th-century monastery.
- The Santa Maria monastery is also a three-star hotel surrounded by rolling greenery and vineyards.