A Homage to

Far from the Costa Crowds

The Valley of Tor

Almost as far as you can get in Catalonia from the outcry of the coast is the Valley of Tor, where practically nothing has been built for the last one hundred years. This remote mountain valley is an offshoot of the Vall Ferrera, or Valley of Iron, part of the comarca of Pallars Sobirà, at the western end of the Catalan Pyrenees. In the year 2000, when Catalonia celebrated its millennium, the one thousandth anniversary of the country's existence, signs went up at the entrance to towns and villages all over Catalonia with the message that 'Catalonia is 1,000 years old'. For the people who live in the mountains of Pallars Sobirà this statement didn't do justice to their homes' real age, so beneath it they added the laconic reminder that their village 'was already there'.

The Vall Ferrera is a narrow, flat-bottomed valley in the north-east corner of Pallars Sobirà that winds its way up towards the mountain passes leading over the Pyrenees and into France and Andorra. The entire valley, including the offshoot of the Valley of Tor, has a total population of about 250 people, scattered around seven villages. These seven villages form a single municipal district covering a surface area of 70 square miles. This is almost twice the size of Barcelona, but for every one of the valley's inhabitants the Catalan capital has about 6,000.

Until the second half of the 20th century the village of Tor could only be reached on foot or by mule along a path perched on the edge of a cliff. The path has been preserved and is signposted but it's not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. At one point it gets so narrow and the drop is so sheer that mules had to be blindfolded, otherwise they would refuse to go on. For centuries these ancestral tracks were the only way of getting around these valleys and played a vital role in the life of the local communities. The inhabitants of the valley didn't live out their existence within the confines of their village limits but made frequent trips to other villages. They had to travel to distant markets every now and then, they had to take grain to the mill to grind into flour, and the very fact of their 'subsistence' style of living called for constant exchanges and collaboration between far-flung communities.

Other important events were religious feast days and the summer fairs and balls each village held. These were the main opportunity for the people of the valley to mingle and they were well worth an early start and a few hours' walk along footpaths and mule tracks to be in time for the day's events. There would be the inevitable mass, followed by skittles, cards, drinks and dancing. In some villages the high point came with the cucanya, a vertical pole some 25 feet long with a live cockerel tied at the top. The challenge was to climb up and get hold of the poor struggling fowl, in which case you got to take it home for the pot.

These social gatherings were also a chance to find a mate. Brides were carefully chosen and had to be approved by the parents on both sides. Courtship was often helped along by a go-between who in return for free meals and other gifts would walk long distances between villages trying to persuade desirable in-laws of the virtues of a certain young man or girl he happened to know of. According to a traditional rhyme, the girls in each of the villages in the Vall Ferrera had distinct characteristics. In Tírvia they were pretty; in Araós not so much; in Ainet they were angels; in Alins the pick of the bunch; in Àreu there were plenty; in Norís plenty more; in Tor they were perfumed and liked to tease the boys.