Postcards from the Ledge: Barcelona's Congost Valley
Congost. It sounds vaguely like some unpleasant genus of winged insect. In actual fact, it’s the Catalan word for canyon. There are some fine examples of congosts in Catalonia. Not least, the remarkably slender Congost de Montrebei or its more sweeping cousin Congost del Mur (both near Balaguer).
Also known as Gorg Negre (‘black gorge’) and located between the Montseny and Bertí massifs, Barcelona’s very own Congost Valley seems at first glance like many other pine-stacked gorges which pierce through the prelitoral range. But, explore further and you'll find a number of treats hidden in its pine-green skirt.
One of those treats is el Turò de Tagamanent (pictured). You might once have glimpsed a nipple-like mountain on the edge of Montseny from the AP7, and wondered what's up there. A castle perhaps? A monastery? Climb the Turó de Tagamanent (a gorgeous two-hour hike from Aiguafreda or windy 20-minute drive from the C-17) and you’ll find out.
A trail of mossy oaks leads you up the final ascent to an open meadow. Here there are rousing views of the Vallés region, across Matagalls and the horseback peaks of Montseny to the east, and over the plain of Osona to the north. In the middle of the meadow, at the highest point of the 1000m mountain, is a 18th Century church, every vestige of its original Romanesque structure now gone, but magnificent nonetheless in its commanding position, with relics of castle walls on various outcrops of the mountain. The whole conjunt del turó de Tagamanent is best viewed from the lovely masia nearby, where you’ll find a Museu Etnológic showing how rural folk up here used to live in the 19th Century (open only fri-sat, 4€ entry). There’s local grub of the pagès buffet variety on offer at the restaurant (lacalma.net; again, only open weekends). The other side of this plateau, intoxicatingly named La Calma, is a backroad descent into Montseny’s Tordera Valley.
But we’re staying in the Congost Valley. On the other side of it, to the north-west, is a uniquely inaccessible castle. The Visigoth likes inaccessible, deserted castles. The crumblier the better, in fact. This one, Castell de Sant Martí de Centelles, is a 10-minute drive along the edge of a low sierra from the town of Centelles. Centelles is famous for being the birthplace of the extraordinarily influential urban-planner Ildefonso Cerdá, who designed the lay-out of Barcelona’s Eixample – you can visit his casa natal on the edge of the town. The road to the castle has an unusually high proportion, even in Catalonia, of masias in that delicious shade of pastely ochre that Farrow and Ball might call Beauvais Lilac, backed by sweltering gold of stripped wheat fields (it’s mid-July).
To get to the castle It’s an awkward, tipsy climb through woods from the farmhousey hamlet at Les Comes. Locals say it takes 15 minutes and is an easy walk. But they’ve obviously never been up there, because it’s neither. You edge up around a series of ancient terraces, occasionally having to reach out for a tree trunk to pull yourself up a little skree. The likelihood of bumping into other ramblers is close to nil. There wasn’t a single one when I went up there. The only other visible creatures up here are some very noisy raven colonies, which live in slits in the brooding rockface supporting the extremely precarious castillo walls. The castle portico, as it would have been to curious 11th Century Moors, is locked tight, due to the flimsy state of the site. But a walk around the edge, brings you to bracing views over Centelles and the Osona plain towards Vic. The county capital, Vic has a busy medieval market on weekends and is an underrated destination for modernist architecture.
There’s plenty of that in the hillside town of Figaró, which has been cruelly dissected by the C-17 road but still has some fine turn of the century townhouses from back when it was a cosy second house option for wealthy mill-owners and indianos returning from the Americas. Nearby, up in the sierra towards the distinctive red sandstone heights of Cingles de Bertí, is the third of El Congost’s ancient fortresses, el Castell de Montmany, also known as El Castell dels Moros (Castle of the Moors).
Situated close to a waterfall and some lofty cliffs known as Sot del Bac, it’s a handsome 12th century ruin. Of the original square-shaped castle, only the eastern and southern walls have evaded destruction, but it’s a romantic, deserted pile worth the climb. Spread about this hill there also remains of an earlier Ibero-Roman settlement.
Montmany also provides the backdrop to a charming piece of Congost folklore:
There was a local man named Aleix who was said to be rich and lived in a house at Can Romani on his own. He always went about with a pair of big dogs and was incredibly strong, despite being old. The elders of the village could remember him being an old man, even when they were young. So he was suspected of being a bruixot, a wizard.
Another thing that fascinated the villagers was his appetite. He ate like a Count, even in hardy times, and never seemed to wont for anything, as he kept a store of food in the basement of his home. The villagers, however, believed he must be rich. For years he was the main source of gossip in the village, and the local men plotted to kill him and share whatever it was he was hiding.
One day Aleix went missing and did not appear again in his usual haunts for a long while. The villagers, not knowing what to think, went up to his house at Can Romani but found the house totally empty, the animals and furnitures all gone. A few days later, a shepherd spotted him in the holm oaks in the heights of the hilltop. Then another villager saw him in the sierra of Puiggraciós. Sightings of Aleix were more and more frequent, particularly in the area near the Puiggraciós sanctuary. So one day, the villagers formed a small search party and made their way up to the sanctuary.
Once they had reached the sanctuary, Aleix’s dogs appeared, followed by Aleix himself, who now had long beards and torn clothes. They were shocked by his appearance. He said he had not eaten for days and asked them for a bit of their food. They satisfied him and as he ate, he smiled, knowing that from now on they would never gossip about him again and or plot to kill him, because he had shown them that he was nothing but a poor, humble man.