This post examines a political issue. For my academic work I often write political comment but any political posts here are designed solely to contribute to readers’ understanding of a place rather than to express opinions. Therefore, in these posts I seek to comment as dispassionately, objectively and fairly as I can (insofar as this is truly possible). To avoid oversimplification they are often longer reads.
In my recent travels to northern Spain quite by chance, I came across a monument to a Catalonian nationalist right on the French-Spanish border. This post is about a border town, the Pyrenees and a hidden-away monument to Catalonian nationalist.
About Borders and Border Towns
I was raised travelling and as a small boy was fascinated by international borders and particularly border towns. These often serve as visible evidence of having crossed an invisible international boundary line, where in the space of a few yards one encounters a quite different sphere of sovereignty, marked by a different language, currency, food, road signs, car number plates, even what is sold in shops.
To be sure, globalisation has reduced the differences between countries, while Europe’s integrationist experiment has removed many of the differences starkly evident between countries across that continent just a few decades ago. Nonetheless, for me, border settlements remain mysterious and quirky.
One such border town that has retained my fascination since childhood is La Jonquera, in the province of Girona on the French-Spanish border.
Crossing the border en route to or from England during the 1970s when my family lived in Spain was always exciting for me. This was particularly as there was a real border then, with strict-looking Spanish Guardia Civil officers in their military green uniforms and slightly less strict French Gendarmes in their deep blue uniforms. For me as a boy crossing that line meant the difference between being able to speak and be understood and not. Crossing that invisible line was also the difference between being in a police state and not (during much of our time in Spain my family were watched by the secret police by virtue of my parents’ activities as Protestant clergy).
I am always struck by how a country as warm, passionate and friendly as Spain lived under a dark cloud of fear bred by autocracy that even shaped much of people’s day-to-day demeanour. It is so strange how territories on either side of a national boundary line can be so poles apart politically and the impact that has upon a population. If you ever crossed the Iron Curtain during the Cold War you will understand exactly what I mean.
So La Jonquera has always been a place that has fascinated me. Even many years later, when driving to Spain with my own children, we would always stop off at La Jonquera, either on the way into Spain to reacquaint ourselves with some Spanish food and culture, or else late at night on the way out of Spain, to stop and drink numerous strong black coffees in preparation for driving through France overnight to catch the ferry back to Blighty the following morning.
La Jonquera is a busy place, with restaurants serving food and drink to lorry drivers and tourists throughout the day and night. More recently the construction of new shopping centres to cater for French tourists paying higher taxes on many goods in their own country has made the place even busier.
The Mountain Pass Chosen by Hannibal?
It is easy to get caught up in the border town tourist trap of La Jonquera, or else see it as a mere milestone in one’s desire to reach the Spanish costas. But during my recent trip to Girona, I had planned when reaching La Jonquera to find my way somehow onto the heights overlooking the border town to get a good birds-eye view of this mountain pass. I wanted to do so principally because this is the most likely route the Carthaginian general Hannibal took across the Pyrenees en route to the Alps and his audacious surprise attack upon the Roman Empire from its rear.
I know somewhat of the area rising to the east of the pass at La Jonquera. There is a free motorhome stopover at Cantallops, right next to a restaurant, which is a lovely place to spend the night in the Pyrenees when arriving in Spain. In fact, there are loads to see around this area, old ruins, historic buildings, the odd fortification or monument, and even castles (if in the area look up the Requesens Castle).
There are even the remains of a Douglas DC6 aircraft that crashed into the mountain, killing four, in 1986 while on a fire-fighting mission (there are often destructive forest fires in the blazing summers in this part of the Pyrenees and it is not uncommon to see swathes of blackened and charred forest during parts of the year). I’ve not visited the site of the crash but it can be reached by hiking about an hour or so from Cantallops or via 4×4. Much of the destroyed aircraft is still there, though increasingly less as trophy hunters take parts of it away. More on the crash here (in French).
Sadly, we often rush through La Jonquera without realising just how much there is to see within a 15-20 km radius of the town. (I think one day I will stay here and explore the area thoroughly by car for a week or two).
West of La Jonquera
Anyway, on this visit I wanted to get onto the mountains to the west of La Jonquera because I had never climbed those heights and also when driving through from below and looking up it appears to be the best and highest place to view the valley and mountain pass. So heading west I found a road that passed through several villages and began heading north and upwards. I love to explore by car this way, with no fixed plan other than a vague idea of where I am trying to get to. One discovers all manner of things this way.
The narrow road was winding and often steep but as I approached the top I caught magnificent views of La Jonquera and the mountain pass below. I came across several herds of sheep and goats munching the lush grass that edged the road before lazily wandering across the highway, oblivious of the Englishman trying to edge his way through the herd.
Suddenly I was at the top of the mountain and the tarmac road gave way to a small, circular stretch of unpaved track. It was clearly the end of the road.
A Catalonian Nationalist Monument
On the small, rough turning circle was another car parked there. And to one side of this rough track, I found a curious sight: a relatively small and modest, triangular-shaped monument built from blocks of masonry, with a scattering of spent tea candles of different colours in their aluminium housing resting on the area in front of it.
At the monument was a woman lighting a candle. After placing the candle carefully at the base of the monument she spent a short time with her head bowed, then ritually crossed herself, turned round, glanced at me momentarily, then made her way to the waiting car and its solitary male occupant.
About Lluis Companys
The monument’s text in Catalonian indicated it was in homage to Lluis Companys and I could immediately see this was a Catalonian nationalist monument. The Spanish Civil War and the period before is full of events and names all playing a part in that bloody era and narrative and unless one is a serious student of this part of history it can all be a bit bewildering (if you are interested in that part of Spanish history and want to know more, one of the most productive historians of the topic is Paul Preston).
However, Lluis Companys, as the president of Catalonian until the end of the Civil War, is one of the more well-known actors of that period of history. At one stage he declared a Catalonian state and is thus an important figure for Catalonian nationalism. He fled to exile in France after Franco’s victory. But after France was invaded by Germany he was eventually captured and beaten by the Nazis who handed him over to the Franco regime. He was further beaten before being executed by firing squad.
While this monument is important in this area of Catalonia because it is on a route used by exiles to flee Spain after the Civil War, the main monument to Companys is in Barcelona, with at least one other monument located in Sabadell. There are also some streets and landmarks dotted about Catalonia named after him.
I pulled my car up to the open window of the other car and spoke at length with the couple, who talked in some detail about Lluis Companys, the monument and Catalonian nationalism. They clearly were on the side of an independent Catalonia and seemed genuinely moved by this quiet place and its modest monument.
I found this short excursion interesting and useful for several reasons. First, I explored a small part of the Pyrenees I did not know before, just a short distance from the town of La Jonquera which I have known for decades. I love the majestic and beautiful Pyrenees, which I have explored along the entire length of the range, which partially explains my fascination with Andorra. It is such a beautiful mountain range and it was pleasant to discover some small corner I did not previously know. The scenery in this quiet area is lovely, while the goats and sheep wandering lazily across the road added to the sense of a little-known place ready to be explored.
Second, the view of the pass below at La Jonquera from up there is magnificent and really gives one a good, topographical insight into this mountain pass and why it is likely that Hannibal chose it to cross the Pyrenees range. One can only wonder what the locals in both the valley below and on the slopes alongside it made of Hannibal’s scores of thousands of troops and African elephants as they crashed through the pass. From the road one gets glimpses of the valley below because of the Mediterranean pine and lush vegetation that partially obstructs the view. However, near the top, there are several viewing platforms constructed of rough timber for visitors to climb up and get a better view of the expansive valley below.
Third, I continue to be struck by the continued strong sense of Catalonian identity and nationalism in this part of Catalonia. The region has four provinces (Girona, Tarragona, Lleida and Barcelona) but Catalonian nationalism is at its strongest, by far, in Girona and Lleida.
This is dyed-in-the-wool nationalist territory and it is not difficult to see how a monument to Lluis Companys in this part of the region represents a potent nationalist symbol. Catalonian nationalism remains strong, despite the events surrounding the illegal referendum several years ago, and I was struck by how emotional the couple were I spoke with by the monument. It is also a potent force in the wider Spanish political scene, one which I do not think will diminish any time soon (particularly as there are people still living for whom the Civil War and Franco days remain fresh in their minds).
If you are interested in understanding more about the Catalonian issue I have written what I hope is a neutral and objective long-read elsewhere on this site.
Finally, the visit reinforced my fascination with national borders and boundaries. To reach the monument it is necessary to cross over briefly into France. There is no indication you have done so, but Google Maps indicates the turning circle next to the monument is within French territory while on the edge of this rough patch are several French road signs on the track that heads north. Indeed, Google Maps suggests the Lluis Companys monument is a few yards within France, but I doubt this is accurate.
For one, it is a monument planned by local Catalonian authorities so it makes sense for it to be in Catalonian territory or on the actual border. It is also on a route frequented by exiles who fled Spain during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Thus the monument marks an actual spot where freedom from Franco’s brutal regime had finally been reached. So I rather suspect the monument is built on or very close to the actual international boundary.
Thus, we end this post where we started, at an invisible border between two different spheres of sovereignty, a place where reaching it in 1939 meant the difference between oppression, violence and even death on the one side, and freedom on the other (at least, unfortunately for the French population, until the Nazis invaded France the following year). Thus, a boundary on a map that is often not physically visible on the ground can make a world of difference when crossing it.
My excursion that day, then, rather than diminishing my fascination with abstract borders and border towns, for me strengthened their mystique.