History and Culture

Catalonia has had a long and at times turbulent history, much of which is evident in the Pallars Jussà in the form of the numerous castles that dot the landscape. The reminders of more settled periods are reflected in ecclesiastical architecture as well as in the development of larger towns which were founded during Catalonia’s medieval epic period of expansion during the XIII to XV Centuries. From the ‘reign’ of Jaume the Conqueror (1213-76, NB Catalonia never was nor ever will be ‘Kingdom’ in its own right) Catalonia rose to be one of the great Mediterranean naval and mercantile powers, even rivalling Venice, whose peak period was yet to come. This ‘Golden Age’ coincided with the emergence of Gothic art and architecture, so well represented by Barcelona’s wonderful Barri Gòtic. But following the demise of the House of Barcelona in 1412, the nomination of Ferdinand of Antequerra as King of Aragon-Catalonia in 1412 meant that Catalonia was irrevocably linked to the Kingdom of Castile and, at least with the benefit of hindsight, its glory days were numbered.

The XII Century hermitage of Santa Maria d’Arbolo near Gerri de la Sal

The importance of the Pallars region predated this period, however, to the days of the reconquista, the long struggle to eject the Moors, who had overrun much of the peninsular during the VIII Century. The Moorish conquest did not penetrate the mountainous regions of the Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantabrica, however, and it was from here that they began to be slowly driven back by a loose federation of kingdoms which would eventually unite to form modern Spain. The Pallars was on the frontier of the reconquista during the X and XI Centuries and its importance in terms of architecture is due to the fact that many of the castles, including Fígols’ own Castell de Montllobar and especially the Castell de Mur, which lies a few miles along the sierra from Casa Rafela, have almost uniquely been preserved in their original state. Meanwhile, religious communities had been established in the hidden valleys, where monasteries were founded from the IX Century onwards. The important legacy of Romanesque church architecture, whose global importance is recognised by UNESCO in nominating the nearby Val de Boi as a World Heritage Site, is in fact evident over the whole region. One of the major sites outside of the Val de Boi is the former Benedictine Monastery at Gerri de La Sal. Founded in 807 the present building dates from the XII Century, as well as being an excellent example of the genre, with a splendid three tier belfry, its riverside location opposite the village over a beautiful single span arched stone bridge makes it part of a lovely short excursion from Casa Rafela.

Between pre-history, the time of the Celt-iberian civilisations, the passage of Hannibal though the region (yes, he and his elephants came this way en route to Rome!), the Roman period and much more, there is simply too much history to appear here! We’ve complied an extended essay on the subject in one of our Guides that we leave at Casa Rafela. Our research is ongoing and more and more comes to light, some of it controversial or at least contradictory. For example, the birthplace of the likes of Gaspar de Portolà i de Rovira, credited with ‘discovering’ and becoming the first governor of California; local sources indicate he was born, or at least descended from, Castellnou de Montsec, just a few miles way from Fígols! Or XVIII Century political intrigues that occured when, in 1794/5, one Francisco de Zamora, a ‘magistrate’, journeyed around Catalonia, including the Pallars, secretly recording what is now believed to be military intelligence! Furthermore, there were some wonderful swashbuckling characters like Arnau Mir de Tost, who figured during the early days of the Pallars, and it’s no surprise to find them well documented. What did surprise us, and all of our neighbours, however, was the existence of the record of the actual founding of our village! On January 31st, 999 AD to be precise, the church of San Pere (St. Peter) was consecrated with all due ceremony and witnessed by not only members of the local nobility but the actual people themselves, whose names were duly recorded!

A Living Cultural Heritage

The most obvious, and accessible, manifestations of popular culture are the numerous fiestas that take place throughout the year and especially during the summer months. These fall into two broad categories; national fiestas usually associated with major events in the Christian calendar, such as Easter, the Assumption, etc. which also include holidays pertaining to Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions, each of which has its own unique ‘national’ day, which may well be secular in origin. Catalonia’s ‘La Diada‘ (September the 11th) is a good example of this. Secondly, local fiestas celebrated by particular towns and villages are usually associated with the parish patron saint’s day. Fiestas are not necessarily linked to the these dates, however, as there are far too many other places that share them, so often a completely arbitrary day is used for the annual Festa Mayor. In Fígols this is the penultimate Sunday of September. Another notable feature of the saint’s day business that all of Spain shares is that people celebrate not only their birthdays with a party, but also their saint’s day. Thus, on April the 24th everyone called George (Jordi in Catalan), throws a party! These are the reasons why it is often said that every day there is a fiesta in Spain!

Village fiestas are a fabulous asset to sustaining life in rural areas, and everyone is welcome to join in the fun. Throughout the summer months there will be several within a short drive away from Fígols. They vary enormously; larger town fiestas may last for several days and include popular traditions like, Dancing Devils, Human Castles and parades of Giants or Caps Grossos! All will include lots of eating and drinking! Children are never forgotten, many fiestas include entertainment for them too – inevitably noisy and often very messy! No matter whether they are big or small, all fiestas are geared towards the whole family; even ‘serious’ rock bands break up their ‘set’ to include waltzes, etc. so that everyone can join in with the dance. Attending one of these fiestas is an unmissable experience – but don’t expect to get to bed before dawn!

‘High Culture’ manifests itself both in live events like recitals, theatre or exhibitions, often associated with popular fiestas. More useful to visitors to Casa Rafela, however, are fixed installations like museums and galleries and the fantastic array of architecture. The range of museums and centres cover all aspects of life and art in the region; from country crafts to vintage cars to natural history – including our favourite: the Museu Nacional de les Papallons de Catalunya (Cat.), or National Butterfly Museum! The world of fine arts has recently gained an important centre in Lleida, the provincial ‘capital’, with the re-opening of the Diocesan and ‘Comarcal’ (regional) Museum (Cat.) whose collection includes artefacts dating from pre-historic times through to the Twentieth Century. During the Romanesque period Lleida had its own school of artistic representation of religious themes and the Museum complements the world-renowned collections at Catalonia’s National Arts Museum (MNAC) in Barcelona. This is very much the tip-of-the-iceberg, however, as there are numerous lesser-known sites which are often included in our Locality Guides or are featured as destinations for our Guides to Walking routes or Eating al fresc! Whether it’s high culture or street life, there’s definitely something for everyone staying at Casa Rafela!

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