ON THE TRAIL OF ANDORRA’S CHURCHES
Andorra has little to offer in the way of grand monuments or magnificent museums; what it does have in abundance, however, is spectacular mountain scenery interspersed with cute villages. Each of these villages has a church, of course, which is usually a simple stone construction built around the 11th or 12th century. Together Andorra’s 44 modest Romanesque churches represent the best of this tiny nation’s cultural and architectural heritage. We set out to see a few of these simple churches and enjoy some of the glorious Andorran vistas today with a hike through the Canillo Valley.
Like Andorra’s other vales, the Canillo Valley is a glacial landscape, characterised by high pastures, craggy cliffs, and steep wooded valleys. There are 13 villages in the valley, with Canillo itself being the largest.
The settlements of the Canillo Valley are surrounded by terraced fields, used to grow wheat and for grazing sheep. Ownership of this land continues to be communal, belonging to all the families in the village. In the Middle Ages a few small vineyards were planted here too, though now those fields have been replaced by huge ski lodges (that are currently empty but will no doubt start filling once the snow starts falling in a month or 2).
The steeper slopes of the valley have been left forested. Like the cultivated fields, these forests continue to be owned communally and are managed by the village. Since electricity only came to Andorra in the 1970s*, many villages around the country relied on their communal forests as a supply of charcoal and wood for cooking and heating.
*Basic electrical supply arrived in Andorra in the 1950s but this was limited to the larger towns and was only available during the evenings. Country-wide, constant electricity took a little longer to be establish. Today the entire country’s electrical needs are supplied by 1 power station.
Walking through the valley we could see a few stone huts dotted around the landscape. Many of these are now used as mountain huts, for people doing multi-day hikes across the Pyrenees. In years gone by, however, these were used by the shepherds who would spend their summers in the high pastures tending to their flocks of sheep and cattle. To this day lamb, wool, beef, and leather remain important products of Andorra, and the country’s cuisine features sheep’s cheese, lamb, and beef aplenty.
During our walk we stooped at Roc de Quer, a great stone wall that dominates the entrance of the Canillo Valley, for views across the whole valley.
From there it was an easy trek down into the village of Canillo itself, where we stopped for a cortado* before continuing on to the villages of Meritxell and Engolasters. Along the way we stopped in to see 3 churches: Nostra Déu de Meritxell (Our Lady of Meritxell), the church of St Joan de Caselles, and the church of St Miguel d’Engolasters.
*The Spanish version of what the French call “un café noisette” or the Italian macchiato.
The church of St Joan de Caselles was the first of our stop. This beautifully preserved 11th century chapel follows the typical architectural layout of the Romanesque churches in Andorra: rectangular nave with wooden roof, semi-circular apse and a simple, square bell tower.
Like many Andorran churches, St Joan de Caselles has a porch, where villagers used to meet to discuss issues relating to their communally owned lands, or to resolve local disputes, arrange marriages, and swap stories.
Inside the remains of the original fresco depicting the crucifixion of Christ added some colour to the tiny chapel. The character and charm of the place was in the details though – the ancient door with its massive locks, the hand-carved wooden pews, and the roughly hewn wooden struts that made up the ceiling.
Continuing on from Canillo we reached the village of Meritxell, where Andorra’s most unique and arguably most important chapel can be found. Our Lady of Meritxell was a 12th century church dedicated to Andorra’s patron saint: the Virgin Mary. I say “was” because the church unfortunately burnt down in 1972 when a kerosene lamp fell over (this was before electricity reached the Canillo Valley obviously). What was salvaged of the church has been converted into a museum dedicated to this very important chapel.
In many ways this was THE most important church in Andorra as it was on that site that the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to the villagers of Meritxell in the early 12th century. There is a legend that says that one Sunday, deep in the heart of winter, a wild rose in bloom was found by villagers from Meritxell on their way to mass in Canillo (they didn’t have their own church – hence the trek to the next village). The area round the bush was miraculously snow free and, at the base of the rose bush, a statue of the Virgin Mary, with baby Jesus in her arms, was found. The villagers of Meritxell took this as a spiritual sign and decided to build a new chapel in their town on the site. When good things started happening to the devote villagers of Meritxell, Mary got the credit and soon Our Lady of Meritxell was adopted as the nation’s patron saint and people would travel for miles to attend church in the church dedicated to her.
When the church burnt down, Andorrans were obviously upset and so a new sanctuary was commissioned. Built in 1976 the new church is as ugly as the original chapel was beautiful. It’s a hideous modern construction that just did not excite us at all, even if some of its components were interesting enough from a geometric point of view.
St Miquel d’Engolasters, a little further down the road in the village of Engolasters, was much cuter. This 11th century chapel was built into the mountainside, so that half the church is actually underground.
Inside the religious decorations have been restored and demonstrate the way images would have been used to help tell biblical stories to the largely illiterate villagers.
From Engolasters it was an easy bus ride back to Andorra la Vella where we decided to sample some of the local lamb for dinner. Shane scored with his cama de xai de llet rostit (i.e. roast leg of baby lamb), which was just incredible and puts Andorran lamb up there with Icelandic and Bulgarian lamb as one of the best in the world (that we’ve tasted). Mmmmmm lamb….
And thus ends our last day in Andorra – we’re moving on tomorrow, bound for Spain. First stop: Barcelona!