The Val d’Aran was one of the main entry routes for refugees, both via the customs office of Pònt de Rei and following the mountain paths leading from the French departments of Haute-Garonne and Ariège to Es Bòrdes, Bossòst, Bausen, Les, Canejan and Montgarri. They then headed southward, through the Bonaigua pass, or walked to L’Alta Ribagorça.
ITINERARY A: Pònt de Rei – El Pont de Suert
Pònt de Rei
Following the natural course of the Persecuted and Saved route, the stage starts at Pònt de Rei. It enters the valley via the small French village of Fos, a settlement where it seems that time has stood still for the past 20 years. There, walkers will find the new customs offices between France and Spain, which stand right next to the old ones.
1.4 km from customs lies the border, with a stopping space to the left, where it is possible to find the first marker for the Persecuted and Saved route. It is just at this point that the River Garonne passes from the right-hand side to the left-hand side of the path. This was the place where refugees who wanted to enter Spain legally used to have their documentation checked. It was also the place where the Spanish police used to hand over to the French Gendarmes, and subsequently to the German police, anyone trying to escape. They had to be returned to France under the terms of the agreement made between the Spanish authorities and France’s Vichy regime.
Continuing along the N-230, the route reaches Pontau, where it is necessary to turn off and follow the road towards Canejan. The road up to this hamlet is steep and narrow and it is not possible to go up it in a coach. Along the way, it is even possible to come across herds of goats. Canejan is a “Vila Florida” (part of an association that is proud of its ornamental plants).
Once at Canejan, it is possible to leave vehicles in the small car park at its entrance. From there, visitors are recommended to continue along the cobbled streets on foot. From the vantage point, it is possible to enjoy panoramic views over the Era Lana de Les and the La Maladeta massif. There are 2 restaurants in this hamlet of 45-50 inhabitants, but innumerable places at which to take some truly incredible photographs. Nearby, there used to be an iron foundry, which explains why Canejan once had over 500 inhabitants.
The importance of Canejan on the Persecuted and Saved route is that hundreds of refugees arrived there by different paths leading from the French department of Haute-Garonne. In 1943 alone, around 500 refugees were detained by the Guardia Civil, with many of these being Jews.
Other places of interest:
- The Church of Sant Sernilh: this temple has been subject to various reforms. According to tradition, Sant Sernilh was one of the first people to preach Christianity in this area. It is said that he was a healer, with curative powers, who dedicated his life to doing good.
- The braying of the deer: the braying season begins in mid-September and ends in the middle of October. During this period, the stags fight over the does and create their own harems. They do this while constantly braying and marking their territory with glandular secretions and urine and also by scratching tree trunks with their antlers.
Returning to the N-230, visitors will reach Les, which is one of the main stopping points on this route. This settlement was the main point of arrival for escaping Jews, whether they came via the customs point at Pònt de Rei, or secretly crossed through the neighbouring (Còth de Fontfreda and Passada de Tres Corts) mountain passes to get there. Les was also the location of the police station responsible for checking passports and monitoring the movement of merchandise.
Escaping Jews received the help and solidarity of the local people, some of whom took them into their homes; other Jews were allowed to stay at the Hotel Franco-Español. This former hotel is no longer open to the public as the building is now privately owned. Even so, its original name is visible on the façade. It can be found about 50 metres from the Tourist Information Office of Les, heading towards France. On the western side, it is possible to see the name of the hotel. It is worth stopping in front of the building, which has been quite well conserved over the last 80 years, for a few minutes in order to remember those tragic events.
(Paquita Sitzer) was born in Paris in 1937. Her family, who were of Polish and Jewish origin, had to escape from Germany following the rise of the Nazi party. During their stay in Paris, her father was detained and sent to a concentration camp from which he managed to escape a few months later. They subsequently sought refuge at Pau (France), where they lived for 2 years. Then, in 1942, following the Nazi invasion of France, they were forced to cross the border into Spain and were detained at Les. From there, however, thanks to the help of the local inhabitants, they managed to flee first to Barcelona and then to Vigo, from where they set sail for Venezuela.
The village of Les provides one of the clearest examples of the importance of acts of collective solidarity. The relative isolation of the valley, particularly during the winter months, impeded the rapid transfer of detainees to Lleida. This made it easier for refugees to be taken into private homes and, at times, protected them from efforts of the police to deport them to France; this was what happened in the case of Paquita Sitzer.
Other places of interest:
- Chapel of Sant Blas: located just a short distance from the former residence of the barons of Les and below the old feudal castle, which dates from the 12th-15th century. This chapel could have occupied what was once the apse of a much larger building that was either left unfinished or had been partially demolished.
- Parish church of Sant Joan: a baroque-style temple (17th century). Its belfry, however, is Romanesque style, albeit with a number of subsequent restorations. It has a quadrangular base and was constructed in a style similar to those of the other Romanesque churches in the valley.
- Plaça deth Haro: this is the square, where they celebrate the burning of the “Haro“, a trunk that, having previously been opened up using wedges, is then erected in the middle of the square. It is set up on Sant Pere’s (Saint Peter’s) Day and adorned with a garland of flowers and then set alight on Sant Joan’s (Saint John’s) Eve.
Continue along the N-230 as far as Bossòst, which is a very commercial village with cobbled pedestrian streets. This was where those fleeing through the Port de Portilhon and Coll de la Baretja passes and following other routes from the French town of Luchon used to arrive. Visitors are recommended to visit its Romanesque church and to observe a minute’s silence inside.
Other places of insterest:
- Romanesque-style church of Santa Maria dera Purificació: the stylistic unity of this building – which has a basilica floor-plan, two portals with tympana, columns and decorated capitals, and a majestic bell tower – makes this church a magnificent example of the Romanesque art and architecture of Aran.
- The legend of the hermitages of Bossòst: in the area around Bossòst, it is possible to find 6 (at one time 7) hermitages. According to tradition, they were constructed to protect the local population from epidemics of cholera and the black death.
Port del Portilhon
On leaving Bossòst, there is a turn off towards the Port de Portilhon pass. Here, there are 10 km of tarmac track in good condition surrounded by woodland and small waterfalls with crystal-clear waters. This famous mountain pass forms part of the itinerary of the Tour de France, which is held in July each year. Throughout the trajectory, it is possible to enjoy marvellous views of the Pyrenees. Half-way along, visitors will find the entrance to the Aran Park, where the barracks of the “carbiners” (precursors of Spain’s Guardia Civil) used to be located. There is also a hotel, 3 km from highest point of the Port de Portilhon, on the border with France. The barracks used to be divided in three parts: the stables (for the cavalry), the living quarters (for the guards) and the house of the commander. It was here that those who had been detained were interrogated and their affiliations established. In 1943, over 600 Jewish refugees were detained at the Port del Portilhon.
The next stop is at Es Bòrdes. Refugees arrived here via various different routes from Haute-Garonne, passing through the Benasque, Dera Picada, Escaleta and Montjòia mountain passes. These paths between France and Aran had been used for centuries and were also used by smugglers.
Following the narrow road, travellers will reach L’Artiga de Lin. At this village, it is possible to find the chapel of the Mair de Diu dera Artiga (Our Lady of Artiga), where refugees remained hidden in order to escape the attention of the Guardia Civil. According to legend, this Virgin was found by a shepherd who took her to the village, but then returned to the same point in the mountains the next day. For this reason, it was decided to dedicate a hermitage to her at the place to which she always returned. The layout of the hermitage is very curious, because from the main road visitors pass by one of its façades, but it is not possible to see the body of the building because it remains buried at a lower level.
Other places of interest:
- Church of Era Mair de Diu deth Roser: dating from the 19th century,it has a curious slab on which it is possible to see a knight praying.
- Cemetery of Es Bòrdes: on leaving Es Bòrdes and heading in the direction of Artiga de Lin, it is possible to find a cemetery with a lot of history; it includes a trench containing the bodies of 5 republican soldiers.
- Ulhs deth Joeu: the headwaters of the river known as “Uelhs deth Joeu”. These waters disappear from the Aneto glacier and, after flowing underground for about 4 km, re-emerge at this marvel of nature.
Continuing along the route followed by the refugees, visitors will arrive at Vielha, the capital of the Val d’Aran. Here, captives from the whole of the valley were imprisoned in the small judicial district jail. This was a small deposit where prisoners who were placed at the disposition of the court of first instance of this town, which had jurisdiction for the whole of the Val d’Aran, were locked up. In those years, the jail was conditioned to receive refugees fleeing from the Second World War, but it was never able to cope with the constant flow of evaders who were held there. The prison was located in the centre of the town, in a building of municipal property, located just in front of the parish church. It is estimated that it only had capacity for eight people. The building was demolished in the 1960s as part of an urban planning action to extend the town’s Plaça de l’Església square.
Some refugees were housed in establishments such as the Internacional (which no longer exists) and the Fonda Serrano and Turrull hotels, which continue to offer their services to those visiting the town.
The Hospital of Vielha treated injuries caused by accidents suffered in the mountains or resulting from frostbite caused by the cold and snow. Nowadays, the Hospital of Vielha continues to attend to thousands of skiers and trekkers every year, but its location has changed. Although the former hotel can still be recognised, it now serves as an old-people’s home.
Remaining at this town, the second obligatory stop is the Museu d’Aran. This museum has a small exhibition space which explains the role played by the Val d’Aran in the evasion of hundreds of Jewish refugees who fled to the Iberian Peninsula from France in order to escape from the war. At the museum, it is also possible to find a short synthesis of the history of the local district, covering the period from the formation of the Pyrenees through to our time.
Other places of interest:
- Church of Sant Miquèu: It is possible to visit the spectacular Gothic altarpiece and, above all, the fascinating Romanesque-style carving of the Christ of Mijaran. The latter is a product of the workshop of Erill and originally formed part of a monumental representation of the Descent from the Cross. The portal and bell tower are also of considerable interest.
The Vielha Tunnel
Following the N-230, and leaving behind the Val d’Aran, visitors now head on into L’Alta Ribagorça. Once through this long tunnel, they will find a marker to the left. It is worth underlining the difficulty of access for those heading on towards Aragon. The totem pole signpost is located next to a small wooden hut.
Although the Vielha tunnel was officially opened in 1948, it was already possible to move between its two mouths in 1941. As a result, some of those fleeing from France managed to secretly cross the tunnel with the help of those working on it. Although the route taking detainees to Lleida ran through the Port de la Bonaigua pass, the Guardia Civil sometimes forced groups of prisoners to cross the tunnel on foot in order to go to Vilaller and then continue on to Lleida.
Following the N-230, visitors should turn off towards Senet. Some groups of refugees reached this point after secretly abandoning the Val d’Aran on foot via the Vielha pass.
Senet de Barravés is a small group of buildings associated with the municipality of Vilaller. It stands at an altitude of 1,340 m, on the left-hand side of the River Noguera Ribagorçana, and is just a few kilometres from the southern mouth of the Vielha tunnel. It is relevant to highlight the Senet Reservoir and dam and the Central de Moralets power station.
Other places of interest:
- Church of Santa Cecília: this Romanesque church is surrounded by the crosses in its cemetery, which is located in front of its entrance door. The building dates from the 11th and 12th centuries and is dedicated to Santa Cecilia. It has a single nave with a barrel vault ceiling and semi-circular apse, to which two side chapels and a sacristy were later added. The apse, which is undecorated, has an axial window; this was the only window in the original building. The portal conserves two capitals and is sheltered by a porch. The square-based belfry, which is incorporated into the church, conserves two bells dating from the 19th century.
Returning to the main road, visitors will reach Vilaller. In this village, of 400 inhabitants, the Guardia Civil used to hold groups of detainees who had crossed the tunnel on foot. They were subsequently transferred to Tremp and then to Lleida. This was also a meeting place for refugees saved by the Ribagorçan guides. The village, whose name means “rock country”, is the capital of the Barravés Valley. This municipality also has an enchanting, walled, medieval, historic centre. Here, it is still possible to see the remains of the old prison where people were held before they were sent to Lleida or Tremp; it was the oldest in Lleida (dating from the 17th century).
It also forms part of the Viles Florides (flower village) route and it is possible to find original plant pots in its streets.
Other places of interest:
- Church of Sant Climent: this is a baroque-style building, dating from the 18th century, with three naves and a large, eight-sided, bell-tower.
- Enclosed medieval village: this has an old quarter which has many elements of interest, including the remains of a wall with arcades and a medieval tower, the remains of the oldest prison in Lleida province (17th century), and the arch of the old stone bridge (17th century).
- Juanjo Garra vantage point: from this point, visitors can enjoy marvellous views of the Barravés Valley. This vantage point is dedicated to the memory of the Lleida mountaineer, Juanjo Garra, who died on an expedition to Dhaulagiri (Nepal), in 2013.
- Gothic Bridge: it also conserves part of a 17th century Gothic-style bridge over the River Noguera Ribagorçana, which was destroyed by a flood in 1963
- Old Flour Mill: this was recently restored and dates from the 16th-17th century.
El Pont de Suert
This route ends at El Pont de Suert, the capital of L’Alta Ribagorça. The refugees who were detained in this local district, and those who were transferred here from the Val d’Aran, used to be taken to El Pont de Suert, from where they were transferred to Lleida by a regular coach service that used to cover the route. The capital of L’Alta Ribagorça is rich in cultural, ethnological and natural heritage. Its strategic location facilitates trips to mountain locations in Catalonia, Aragon and France, including: the Boí Valley, the Barravés Valley, the Llevata Valley, the Vall Fosca (dark valley), the Val d’Aran, the Benasque Valley and the Isàvena Valley. Since the mid-20th century, the hydroelectric industry has been the most important factor for the economic development of La Ribagorça and its power stations have contributed to the increase in population of this mountain zone.
The former prison of El Pont de Suert can be found next to the Old Church, although it can no longer be identified.
Altres indrets d’interès:
- Old Church and Abacial Palace: this building was the parish church of the village until the company ENHER built a new church in 1955. This was associated with the pronounced increase in population that accompanied work on the hydroelectric power station in this local district, and particularly in El Pont de Suert. Originally named in honour of the Assumption of Maria, this baroque building dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and is built upon the base of an older Romanesque church dating from the 13th century. During the baroque period, the building was remodelled and its plaster mouldings and barrel vault were added. Coinciding with its restoration, the upper part of the building was removed and left empty in order to leave the barrel vault and dome visible.
- Church of L’Assumpció: work on this building started in 1952, as a consequence of the sharp increase in population that accompanied the arrival of the hydroelectric company ENHER. The architectural project was designed and executed by Eduardo Torroja. The temple group is complemented by a 16-metre-high bell-tower.
- Monastery of Lavaix: the Monastery of Santa Maria de Lavaix stands on a site which is usually submerged beneath the waters of the Escales reservoir. To arrive there, it is necessary for visitors to follow the N-260, to a point about three km from El Pont de Suert, until they pass the Lavaix tunnel. The first historic references to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Lavaix date from the 10th century and the presence of a Romanesque-style monastery belonging to the Benedictine order. At the original site of the Monastery of Lavaix, there only remain vestiges of the church walls.
ITINERARY B: Vielha – Baquèira
Following the route of the refugees, visitors will arrive at Vielha, the capital of the Val d’Aran. Here, those detained in the valley were imprisoned in the small judicial district jail. This was a small deposit where the prisoners who were at the disposition of the court of first instance of this town – which had jurisdiction for the whole of the Val d’Aran – were locked up. In those years, it was conditioned to receive refugees fleeing from the Second World War, but it was never able to cope with the continuous flow of evaders who were captured and kept there. This prison was located in the centre of the town, in a building of municipal property, just in front of the parish church; it is estimated that it only had capacity to hold eight prisoners at a time. The original building was demolished in the 1960s as part of an urban planning action to extend the town’s Plaça de l’Església square.
Some captives were housed in establishments such as the Hotel Internacional (which no longer exists), or the Serrano Inn and Turrull Hotel, which still offer their services to visitors to the town.
At the Hospital of Vielha, the injuries caused by accidents suffered in the mountains or resulting from frostbite caused by the cold and snow, were treated. Today, the Hospital of Vielha continues to attend to thousands of skiers and trekkers every year, but its location has changed. The original hotel can still be visited, but it is now used as an old-people’s home.
Remaining in this town, the second obligatory stop is at the Museu d’Aran. This museum has a small exhibition space which explains the role played by the Val d’Aran in the evasion of hundreds of Jewish refugees who fled to the Iberian Peninsula from France in order to escape from the war. At the museum, it is also possible to find a short synthesis of the history of this local district, from the formation of the Pyrenees through to the modern day.
Other places of interest:
- Church of Sant Miquèu: it is possible to visit its spectacular Gothic altarpiece and, above all, the fascinating Romanesque-style carving of the Christ of Mijaran. This work, by the workshop of Erill, originally formed part of a monumental representation of the Descent from the Cross. Other items of great interest are the portal and the bell tower.
The hamlet of Betren, with its 483 inhabitants, is just on the way out of Vielha, in the direction of the Port de Bonaigua pass. Here, it is possible to find a number of very pleasant sights to photograph. Betren has two churches. The Church of Sant Sernilh dates from the 12th-13th century and marks the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles. It still conserves the bases of its perimeter walls and its 16th century square bell tower. The other church can be found a just few metres from Sant Sernilh. It was built in the Romanesque style (in the 12th century) and is dedicated to Sant Estèue de Betren and forms part of the Romanesque Route of the Val d’Aran.
Immediately after Betren visitors will find the settlement of Escunhau. Here, there is another church which reflects the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic style. It forms part of the Romanesque Route of the Val d’Aran and is dedicated to Sant Pèir. On its Romanesque door, there is a representation of a crucified Christ dating from the 12th century. Other features to highlight include the Romanesque-style holy water baptismal font, which is decorated with vegetation and geometrical motifs with highly symbolic figurative representations.
Just a few metres from Escunhau is the small settlement of Casarilh, a hamlet with second residences, which has an officially registered population of 71. Here, visitors will find the Romanesque Church of Sant Tomàs whose 18th century façade has been restored.
On returning to the main road and heading in the direction of Baquèira, visitors will arrive at the enchanting settlement of Garós. It has only 136 inhabitants but is full of charming spaces which are well-worth investigating. This settlement is crossed by the Camin Reiau (ancient transhumance route). Its most outstanding references are the Romanesque-style Church of Sant Julià, some very well conserved paintings and a carving of Christ. It is also relevant to highlight the Renaissance-style ironwork door of the church, which is one of the most artistic in the Val d’Aran. According to legend, the church tower once sheltered the 3-metre long skull of a warrior called Giant Mandrónius who fought against the Roman invasion at Betlán.
Following the same main road, after 4 km, visitors will reach Arties. This is a very touristic village with a Parador Hotel, various types of accommodation, and several quality restaurants.
It is possible to visit the Gothic-style Church of Sant Joan, which has been reconditioned as a space for temporary exhibitions from the Museum of the Val d’Aran (Vielha). It is also possible to visit the former family residence of Gaspar de Portolà, the discoverer and first governor of Upper California. Today, this building, which has bene converted into a Parador Hotel, still conserves its robust 16th century tower and 17th century chapel.
Its most outstanding element is the Romanesque-style Church of Santa Maria of Arties, which forms part of the Romanesque Route of the Val d’Aran. This became the first national monument (BCIN) in the valley in 1978. It is the most complete element on the Aranese Romanesque Route and includes part of one of the two old castles to be found in the village (including a recently recovered turret and walls). Inside the building, there are a series of Renaissance-style (16th century) mural paintings and Gothic and Baroque-style altarpieces.
Other places of interest:
- House of Gaspar de Portolà: a house belonging to the family of Gaspar de Portolà, the discoverer and first governor of Upper California. It is possible to visit the bronze sculpture (1994) and the private chapel of the Portolà family, which is dedicated to Sant Antoni of Portolà (1608). In the bar of the Parador Hotel, there is a famous painting of Don Gaspar de Portolà, the man who gave it his name. It is also possible to find the entrance to the old tower of the Casal Portolà, which dates from the 15th century.
Just a few kilometres away, on returning to the main road, the route reaches Salardú. In this settlement, it is possible to visit the Church of Sant Andrèu (for free). This contains the best Renaissance period mural paintings in the valley, which have been conserved in good condition. The church, which is a transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles, also houses the carving known as the Christ of Salardú, which is a masterpiece of Romanesque imagery, dating from the 12th century.
Returning to the Persecuted and Saved route, visitors will arrive at the village of Tredós. In this small Aranese settlement, they will find the Romanesque style church of Santa Maria de Cap d’Aran, which forms part of the Romanesque Route of the Val d’Aran. It has a small crypt and the frescoes from its walls can now be found in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Before the fork in route B, visitors will arrive at Baquèira. This ski resort has been declared a Centre of National Tourist Interest and is arguably the best in the whole of Spain. It has over 150 km of skiable slopes in mountains that rise to heights of above 2,500 m. It is also possible to enjoy trekking and snowshoe routes, with a number of different routes starting from the Pla de Beret plain, the second most important nucleus of population.
Itinerary B1: Pla de Beret – Montgarri
Pla de Beret
The Pla de Beret plain is a wide, high mountain plateau, which stands at a height of 1,860 m. It can be accessed via a 6-km-long tarmac track which abruptly zigzags up the mountainside.
Numerous legends from the Pla de Beret locate a meeting place for witches and wizards in the local district during the medieval period. There is also the legend of Les Tres Monedes (The Three Coins). In fact, the Sabbats of the Pla de Beret were known in almost all of the neighbouring valleys.
The wealth of its pastures has been an attraction for neighbouring shepherds since prehistoric times (dating back to the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE). Proof of this can be seen in the necropolises, monoliths and other archaeological monuments that can be found here. At the entrance to the plain, visitors will find the Pèira deth Uelh deth Garona, a 190-m- all, minor Neolithic anthropomorphism. This marks the point where two rivers rise: the Garonne, which runs down to the north-west, across the slopes of the Beret massif; and the River Noguera Pallaresa, which flows from the Hont dera Noguereta, and towards the south-east and El Pallars Sobirà.
This route finishes at Montgarri, which is located at an altitude of 1,645 metres and is cut off for much of the year. This small settlement and its Romanesque-style shrine used to have a small hostel where those escaping from France could rest and regained their strength, after long days walking through the snow and suffering from the cold and the persecution of the German police.
Access to Montgarri is from Beret, following an unsurfaced 6-km-long forest track. The countryside surrounding the old shrine is of a spectacular beauty, with it being located amongst meadows and woodland and near the peaceful River Noguera Pallaresa. There are two mountain shelters here, where it is possible to eat and sleep.
Montgarri was a place where many expeditions of Jewish refugees arrived following paths leading from Ariège. In 1944, various groups of young Zionists arrived here having crossed the mountains through the area around the Mont Valier peak.
Itinerary B2: Port de la Bonaigua
Port de la Bonaigua
The only road that leads out of the Val d’Aran heading south runs through the Port de Bonaigua pass. It was along this route that detainees were transferred to Lleida, stopping at Sort along the way.