Photo by Susanna Jacobs
La Seu d'Urgell
La Seu d'Urgell
Alt Urgell is a land of mountains, valleys and water, situated in the centre of the high Pyrenees. Bordered to the north by the tiny principality of Andorra, the comarca occupies an area of 1,446 square kilometres, but with around 20,000 inhabitants it is one of the least densely populated counties in Catalunya. The region is characterised by small rural communities nestled in valleys, next to rivers and surrounded by green fields, pines and firs. Some mountain villages are no longer inhabited, leaving small clusters of rustic stone houses, partly ruined, while other communities have been displaced by the creation of reservoirs in the 20th century. Remains from earlier times include many examples of Romanesque architecture (mainly churches, but there are also some bridges). Although some traditional trades such as basket-weaving, lace-making and stone-cutting still survive, tourism is playing an increasingly active role in the local economy, which is mainly based on agriculture, dairy farming and fishing.
Things to see
The comarca’s capital, La Seu d’Urgell, lies in a northern plain just beside the meeting point of the region’s two principal rivers, El Segre and La Valira. La Seu has a charming historic centre of colourful façades and streets lined with centuries-old arched walkways. On Tuesdays and Saturdays it doubles up as a market, with stalls selling everything from clothing and bags to hand-made food products. It is also the location of some of the most important buildings in La Seu, such as the 19th-century Palau Episcopal, the official residence of the Bishop of Urgell, who is also co-Prince of Andorra (a position the bishops of Urgell have held since the late 13th century).
La Seu’s Catedral de Santa Maria is held to be one of the grandest Romanesque buildings in the Alt Urgell. The cathedral has three naves and was constructed in the 12th century. It was restored at the beginning of the 20th by Catalan Modernista architect and politician Josep Puig i Cadalfalch. Other places to visit in the area include the Museu Diocesà d’Urgell, which houses a collection of religious art like Romanesque virgin statues and murals, as well as a Gothic altarpiece and a number of silver artefacts.
To the west of the historic centre, past the chalet-style houses of the main residential area, is the small green space of the Parc del Valira, by the river of the same name. Built in the late 20th century, the park presents a more modern representation of the cathedral in its shady cloister (a replica of the one adjoining the cathedral) with the rather unusual addition of sculptures of influential 20th-century figures like Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso.
Romanesque architecture is a recurrent feature of the rural landscape with a dozen or so churches spread across the region. Those worth a visit include the hilltop Santa Maria de Castell-llebre in the south and Santa Maria d’Organyà slightly further north, where the 12th-century Homilies d’Organyà—the oldest existing document in the Catalan language—was discovered in 1904.
Alt Urgell is home to a number of fascinating museums which collectively make up the Ruta dels Oficis d’Ahir (Historic Trades Tour). The Museu dels Raiers (Rafters’ Museum), in Coll de Nargó, is dedicated to the trade of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when huge log rafts were used to transport timber and other large items along the rivers.
The village of Tuixent, just south of the Serra de Cadí in the east of the region, is the location of the Museu de les Trementinaires. The trementinaires were local women who produced medicinal remedies from herbs and turpentine extracted from trees, to treat all sorts of ailments, from aches and pains to infections and insect bites. The trementinaires travelled around Catalunya selling their wares during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the museum details their history and the routes they followed and provides information about the different concoctions they made. Some of the other local trades are still practised today, as is the case with the Fabrica de Llanes (Wool Factory) in Arsèguel.
This family-run business operates on hydraulic energy, powered by the Segre River and specialises in the production of thick winter woollies and climbing socks. Some machinery and tools from the 17th and 18th centuries are still fully functioning, whilst others are kept for display purposes. Other interesting sights in Alt Urgell include the Museu de la Vinya i el Vi (Vineyard and Wine Museum) in El Pont de Bar in the north east, Oliana’s Pou del Gel (Ice Well) and the Motorbike Museum in Bassella, both in the very south of the comarca.
What to do
The region’s many rivers—particularly the Segre and Valira—are great for water sports such as canoeing and kayaking. Alternatively, there’s the Parc Olímpic del Segre, just outside La Seu’s historic quarter, which was built for the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992. The park is divided into two sections and offers a range of individual and group activities; the 800-metre calm-water canal is used for canoeing, kayaking and boat trips, and the 500-metre course of purpose-built rapids for rafting, hydrospeed and other white-water activities. The park also has a BTT (mountain biking) centre where cyclists can pick up route maps of the area and mountain bikes can be hired by the hour, half day or full day.
Active tourism company Excursions Baridana, based in La Seu, organise a variety of guided walking, cycling and four-wheel drive tours around the Alt Urgell. Among the themed routes on offer are Pyrenean gastronomy, Romanesque architecture and mountain wildlife.
Being so mountainous, the county presents plenty of challenges for rock climbers, like the Pic de Salòria in the very north, which at 2,789 metres is the highest point in the region and the Serra del Cadí in the pre-Pyrenees. The Cadí range forms part of the Parc Natural del Cadí-Moixeró (one of the largest protected areas in Catalunya), which is just one of the region’s many landscapes to be enjoyed by nature lovers and walkers. There are also two cross-country ski resorts; one is located at Sant Joan de l’Erm (www.santjoandelerm.com) in the north west and the other Tuixent-La Vansa (www.tuixent-lavansa.com) in the southeast.
When to go
During the summer months, La Seu is the setting for the Festival Internacional de Música Joan Brudieu, and in October is the Fira de Sant Ermengol, which includes a trade fair for traditional cheese-makers from all over the Pyrenees. Depending on the weather, November can be a good time to go for the start of the winter sports season.
What to eat
Dairy products like milk and butter are the speciality of Alt Urgell. Among the locally-produced cheeses are formatge de l’Alt Urgell i La Cerdanya which has DOP (denominació d’origen protegida) status and mató, which when served with honey makes a delicious dessert. Embotits (dried meats) on offer include bull, and the rivers provide truita (trout). During bolet (wild mushroom) season each autumn, pickers are spoilt for choice in the comarca’s woods.
Where to stay
There’s a sprinkling of campsites, small hotels and pensiones around the region, as well as a multitude of rural tourism establishments. If you feel like a little pampering you might want to head to the El Castell de Ciutat in La Seu. This four-star hotel, situated at the foot of the castle, belongs to the Relais & Chateaux chain, and has a spa, swimming pools and other leisure facilities.
Consell Comarcal de l’Alt Urgell: Tel. 973 35 31 12, www.ccau.cat (in Catalan)
El Castell de Ciutat: Tel. 973 35 00 00, www.hotelelcastell.com
Excursions Baridana: Tel. 973 36 05 43, www.baridana.com
Historic Trades Tour: www.alturgell.org (in Catalan and Castilian)
Parc Olímpic del Segre: Tel. 973 36 00 92, www.parcolimpic.com
First published in September 2007.