Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/4 posted by hidden europe on

Walkers heading for Spain on the footpath over the 2,500 metres col at Vallcivera come up the Madriu valley during the summer season, but few notice the remains of the old forge on the bank of the river that, with its characteristic Catalan design, tells a tale of smelting that goes back over seven centuries.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

There are the landscapes of the living and there are landscapes which tell a thousand histories. The Madriu river valley in Andorra contrives to do both. It is outstanding for the continuity of settlement there. The upper portion of the Madriu and its tributary, the Perafita-Claror, is high mountain country, draped in deep snow at this time of the year. In the summer, the local shepherds used to take their sheep high into the hills that surround the valley hamlets of Ramio and Entremesaigues. The landscape is dotted with bordes, small stone vaulted buildings with turf roofs that once provided some rudimentary shelter for the shepherds. Nowadays the sheep have gone, but in the summer months horses and cattle still graze the more accessible pastures, and the farmers still use some of the bordes as a refuge from modern Andorra.

Walkers heading for Spain on the footpath over the 2,500 metres col at Vallcivera come up the Madriu valley during the summer season, but few notice the remains of the old forge on the bank of the river that, with its characteristic Catalan design, tells a tale of smelting that goes back over seven centuries. It fell into disuse over two hundred years ago, and sits silent in a valley where the slopes tilt ever steeper as you move up the river. In a principality that is more commonly associated with skiing and shopping, it is good to find the cultural history of the Madriu valley has not been compromised by modern development. The meticulous terracing on the valley sides dates back hundreds of years, and on the upper slopes old vines, now being encroached on by forest, hint of a mediaeval period when the climate was more clement than today. Places like the Madriu valley need protecting, and happily it now benefits from its inscription on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites. It was listed in 2004, the first and still the only such site in Andorra. So now the Madriu valley can claim parity of status with Venice, the historic centre of Kraków and with the Alhambra in Granada as an emblematic piece of Europe's cultural heritage.

uncertainty in Montenegro

Cetinje, the onetime capital of Montenegro, always has a slightly uncanny feel to it. Old diplomatic missions and embassies line its leafy avenues, and one gets a sense of a town that somehow was left behind by politics. But we are sure that today in Cetinje's improbably named Yellow Moon café - not a translation, for it really is called that - everyone is speculating on the upcoming government announcement, due tomorrow, on the referendum that could spell the end of the uneasy alliance between Serbia and Montenegro.

Naturally in Cetinje, as elsewhere in Montenegro, there is much talk of the fate that befell other parts of erstwhile Yugoslavia that sought to secede from the Belgrade fold. It was three years ago this month that the EU brokered an agreement between Serbia and Montenegro that gave either party the chance to opt out of the arrangement in 2006. An opinion poll last month suggested a pretty even split in Montenegro between those favouring independence and those inclined to retain the association with Serbia. Over the coffees and beers at the amiable Yellow Moon, however, it is unlikely that many will be inclined to speak up for any link with Belgrade. For Cetinje has something of the soul of Montenegro haunting its empty avenues, and there must be many here who cherish the notion that, were the country to emerge from the referendum as Europe's newest independent nation state, Cetinje might stand a chance of once again becoming a capital city. This is not an affectation that greatly pleases the inhabitants of Podgorica, a gritty industrial city just forty kilometres away, which nowadays has a population eight times larger than the erstwhile capital in the hills. Podgorica (formerly Titograd) was always the administrative centre of Montenegro in the days of federal Yugoslavia and it is certainly not going to let Cetinje's retro appeal eclipse its own aspirations to assume capital city status.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.