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Photo by Francesc Tur. Courtesy Arxiu Fotogràfic del Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona
The pretty town of Camprodon
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Photo by Antonio Garrido. Courtesy Arxiu Fotogràfic del Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona
The medieval Benedictine monastery in Ripoll
Ripollès is the comarca (county) where the Gironese part of the Pyrenees mountains are located, and it’s an ideal area to visit for those who enjoy outdoor activities. The landscape is spectacular, with snow-capped peaks and green valleys—the Puigmal peak is the highest in this part of the range with a height of 2,913 metres. The natural beauty of Ripollès is enhanced by the many Romanesque churches and castles dotted all over the region. These architectural gems were largely constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries during a period of local prosperity, which in turn sprang from the fact that the descriptively named Count of Barcelona, Wilfred the Hairy, made this area the heart of his efforts to increase the Catalan population in the ninth century. The three main Romanesque buildings are the monasteries of Santa Maria in Ripoll (the comarca’s capital), Sant Joan de les Abadesses and Sant Pere in the town of Camprodon, but there are many smaller examples to be explored. Ripollès is also characterised by its industrial history, as well as its landscape and role in the development of Catalunya. Iron and coal mining have been carried out here for centuries, as well as papermaking, textiles and metalwork.
Things to see
The main town of Ripollès is Ripoll, a largely industrial town, with significant local landmarks. Firstly, the Romanesque monastery of Santa Maria, which dates from the year 879, when it was founded by Wilfred the Hairy. For two centuries, it was an important European centre for the production and copying of manuscripts, and it became particularly famed for two miniature Bibles produced there. The Scriptorium is a short walk from Santa Maria and offers an interactive exhibition allowing visitors to try out the art of writing as it was done 1,000 years ago. Back at the monastery, the key features include a 12th-century portal, known as the ‘Stone Bible’, the tomb of Wilfred the Hairy, and the cloister, parts of which are over 800 years old. Not all of today’s monastery is original, however, following serious damage done to it in 1835, but a serious restoration project that took place later in the 19th century means a visit there is still worthwhile. Another attraction in the town is the Farga Palau, meaning Forge Palace, which celebrates the Catalan forge used in the development of iron-working in the 17th and 18th centuries, with items such as nails, firearms and railings being made there.
Quite apart from the beauty of its setting, in a valley on the Catalan-French border, the distinguishing feature of the Vall de Núria is that the only way to get there is on foot or by cog (or rack) train. Such railways were created to enable trains to climb steep hills; Catalunya’s only other such train is at Montserrat. The route is 12 kilometres long and climbs a total of 1,000 metres, providing a fantastic way to see the local countryside, especially the Gorges de Núria, through which the River Núria flows. Take the rack train from either Ribes de Freser (Ribes-Enllaç station, which connects with the RENFE train service) or Queralbs, a bit further up the mountain. Once in the valley itself, the view is sadly dominated by an unattractive boxy building, a.k.a. the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Núria, which is part-shrine, part-accommodation for visitors. The history of Núria is long and varied—Palaeolithic and Megalithic remains have been found in nearby caves. Legend has it that the shrine to the Virgin came into being after an ox miraculously found, in 1079, a wooden image of the mother of God carved by Sant Gil who lived in the area in the eighth century. Although the image has now been identified as being in the Romanesque style of the 1100s, the religious spirit in Núria remains strong.
In the east of Ripollès is Camprodon, a smaller town than Ripoll, but one which also has a Romanesque church worth visiting: Sant Pere, which dates from the 10th century. There are also other features that make a trip there interesting. As the point where the Ter and Ritort rivers meet, water is important locally and there are 15 fountains scattered around, many of which are over a century old. There is also, unsurprisingly, an important bridge, the Pont Nou (New Bridge), built in the 14th century. Finally, the Passeig Maristany was redesigned in the Twenties as a result of Camprodon’s popularity as a holiday venue amongst some of the elite of the time. It was made to be like Barcelona’s elegant Passeig de Gràcia: an attractive, tree-lined boulevard to stroll along.
Apart from the Romanesque monasteries in Camprodon and Ripoll, the other most important one is that in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, a ninth century nunnery (although the nuns were expelled in the 11th century for inappropriate behaviour) with the same name as the town itself. Sant Joan also has an old neighbourhood dating from the 13th century, whose style is based on classic Roman and Greek ones. As well as the three most well-known Romanesque buildings, there are almost 100 others to visit in Ripollès. See www.elripolles.com (in Catalan) for suggested itineraries in the area to take in as many monuments as possible. They include the Church of Sant Esteve in Llanars, two kilometres from Camprodon, and the four-storey bell tower of Santa Cecilia’s Church in Molló.
The whole of the Ripollès county is bursting with things to do, thanks to its amazing countryside. Obviously, the Pyrenees provide skiing and other winter sport opportunities, for instance at the Vallter 2000 resort, which has 12 slopes. At Vall de Núria, there is a great range of outdoor activities including climbing, horse riding, archery and a children’s park, as well as ski slopes. Experienced walkers may like to get off the Vall de Núria cog train at Queralbs and do the three-hour hike up through the Gorges de Núria. The Puigmal peak is another ideal objective for those who like mountain-walking—from Núria, it takes about three hours. If planning a mountain hike, extend the experience with an overnight stay in a refuge (refugi). Information on these, as well as routes (senders), is available from the FEEC, a Catalan walkers’ organisation.
For cyclists, the Vies Verdes will be appealing—this is a series of bike routes around the Catalan countryside, which hopefully will eventually be joined up. One of the Ripollès Vies Verdes is the 12-kilometre Ruta del Ferro i del Carbó (the Iron and Coal Route) running between Ripoll and Ogassa. Walkers can also use this route.
When to go
On May 20th, Ripoll celebrates a Festival of Wool and Country Marriages—this combines displays of sheep-shearing and wool-spinning, with the recreation of a typical rural wedding with traditional costumes, dancing and food. A week before, in Vallfogona de Ripollès, there is a celebration of the Roser dance, an annual event dating back to the 17th century. Springtime is also ideal for hill and mountain-walking, the time to take advantage of the fine weather, before it gets too hot.
What to eat
Gastronomes will be delighted with a trip to this area, which is famed for its embotits, game animals including wild boar (senglar), honey, cheese and other dairy products, trumfa potatoes from the Camprodon valley and locally-reared meat, especially xai (lamb). Certain towns produce special biscuits such as the Birba brand from Camprodon and coca cakes are another regional speciality.
Where to stay
The Hotel Camprodon is an inexpensive option with a Twenties' style elegance. Alternatively, many of the smaller towns and villages have at least one simple pensió, perfect for a tranquil break. The website www.pyreneesguide.com has a list of accommodation available in the area. And for an even more isolated stay there is the Sanctuary at Núria, with hotel rooms and apartments available, as well as a small campsite.
Consell Comarcal del Ripollès: Tel. 972 70 32 11, www.ripolles.cat (Catalan only)
Vall de Núria: Tel. 972 73 20 20, www.valldenuria.com
Vallter 2000: Tel. 972 74 01 04, www.vallter2000.com
FEEC (Federació d'Entitats Excursionistes de Catalunya): www.feec.es
Vies Verdes: Tel. 972 18 51 99, www.viesverdes.org
Hotel Camprodon: Tel. 972 74 00 13