Alta Garrotxa, a rugged land for the intrepid explorer. Where Nature hides itself.02 Nov 0 Likes
Even though it is currently considered a biodiversity reserve, one has to remember that it remains a land that has been deeply humanized. This area, made up of little valleys between high hills and mountains of considerable height, has always been singularly and widely inhabited going right back in time. At its most populated, during the 18th century, there would have been some 4,000 people living here.
The general sweep of the area is very rugged, as the name 'Garrotxa' indicates, meaning just this, a 'rough land where it is not easy to walk'. Its unique topography and diverse landscapes ensure any settlements were few and far between and, except for Oix, in La Garrotxa, and Beget, in the county of El Ripollés, otherwise tiny. The present day sees a land made up by 11 municipalities, Albanyà being the largest, with 9,000 hectares, not forgetting Camprodon (5.000 hectares), Montagut, la Vall de Bianya or Sales de Llierca, some of which had been the most populated 100 years ago, or Bassegoda, Beget, Oix, la Vall del Bac or Sant Salvador de Bianya, which have been annexed to larger communities and thus gained more significance.
The resident population, traces of which can be followed right back to the 12th century and before, scratched a living from the land, with grazing animals, wood cutting, and wood charcoal production thanks to the forests of evergreen or Holm oak. The people lived in farmhouses, tenant farms, and farm settlements close to one of the many Romanesque hermitages found in the area, that were organized into parishes, a late medieval ordinance that was previous to the later administrative division of municipalities. All the ethnographic wealth has been researched and recorded by Ramon Sala and Josep Mª Melció (father Mel) in 'Caminant per l’Alta Garrotxa', or 'Walking through La Alta Garrotxa', a guide that certainly deserves a new edition. Despite this, the present day inhabitants still living here are generally from afar and strive to blend into the challenging landscape via share effort and perseverance.
We cannot begin to understand this area without taking into account the history and signs that our predecessors left behind, deeply entangled in a way of life that evolved as a self-sufficient economy right into the modern era when it could no longer guarantee a livelihood to the extensive population as it had done previously. The topographical make up has meant that communication was never easy, often only assessable on foot or on horseback, linked by paths that even carts and carriages could not travel. The situation helped to shape the territory over time transforming the landscape into what we now see and find pleasant to the eye: a mosaic of fields and farms, forests of different tree species, depending on the height and sunlight where they choose to flourish.
Thanks to the conservation and restoration of ancient buildings by the 'Amics de l’Alta Garrotxa or Amics de Sant Aniol' (Friends of Alta Garrotxa and Sant Aniol), the landscape conserves the footprint as evidence of this human evolution that we find in the shape of hermitages still standing and the remains of farmsteads that are deterred from crumbling too quickly into ruins as time goes by, as well as the fields and terracing that were part of this bygone life. But what stands out most in this area is Nature itself, valued thanks to the positive attitude by the people in the past to this natural wealth at a time when there was the greatest human pressure, and later, as the population receded, due to the recuperative capacity of the ecosystems themselves.
The geology is again unique, the morphology is karstic and therefore tends to give way to caves and cavities that were used by the very first inhabitants in the area and where many important archaeological excavations have taken place. The unusual relationship between the running water and its landscape is also down to this geological make up, whereby it tunnels underground disappearing from sight and reappearing unexpectedly, as if the rivers and streams were playing hide and seek together, with gorges and ponds carrying deep blue water giving way to sections of bone-dry river-beds only to spring forth again as a stream in full flow a little further down.
What is magnificent is to take a look, anyday, at the area from any of the high points and contemplate the immensity of this territory, with its peaks, and further peaks, cut out by torrents and streams that make it sublime and unique, covered with colour in Springtime in all the possible greens on an artist's pallet and where in Autumn, it turns the greeny blue of the holm oak added to the yellows, reds and ochres of the deciduous trees.
Look up when you pause for a moment and you might just register the magnificent flight of a golden eagle, or appreciate the effortless movement of the wings of a vulture using the thermal current to be lifted far up to places unknown to us. These are incredible experiences.
Just as wonderful is the feeling of peace and tranquillity that one breathes in, with no jarring human noise to spoil it; here one can perceive silence in its most natural form, hear uninterrupted birdsong, the playful tune of water and the crunch of our footstep on dry leaves. If one is still and alert enough, one may be lucky to make out the sound of the shy scurrying of the big mammals that inhabit this territory: the wild boar or the deer.
The grandeur of this area changes dimension at night, when, due to next to no light pollution, means one can appreciate truly magnificent night skies. The sight of a moonless night here is a spectacle hard to forget.
There are more than 1,400 species of plants in this territory, a significant number that show up the immense diversity of subsets of different communities in the ecosystems here. Hence we have unique habitats such as forests approaching maturity, healthy riverbank communities, cliff and scree landscapes that support unusual animal and plant life. It is not unknown in these circumstances to come across native species at the limit of their geographical allocation, both Central European as well as Mediterranean.
All in all it is an area where it is lovely to walk and to tune into the feelings and awareness that being in close contact with Nature allows. This adventure is easy and with little risk thanks to the network of pathways that cross and meet up here, designed and kept up by 'Itinerànnia'.
There is an ever greater range of tourist options on offer in this privileged natural area: hiking, walking, canyoning, hill racing, and other activities that are or can be organised here. Having said that one needs to take into serious account both the fragility of the territory and the consequences caused by excessive use or crowds.