Andreu’s blog

Book review. Nou viatge al Pirineu (New journey to the Pyrenees) by Núria Garcia Quera

Reading this book has been like walking through a familiar landscape with an old friend.

The starting point of the book is the quest to repeat a journey that two Spanish writers made 50 years earlier. They mostly walked from village to village in the Pyrenees mountains. In the fifties, some of those villages had been connected by road for the first time. They had just become accessible and life there was still very much like before industrialization. The only sign that they where in the twentieth century were the dams and the hydroelectric power plants that were being built.

In the new journey, the author traces the same route, but instead of walking on the road, takes the old paths that use to connect the villages before the road was built. She walks with friends and collects conversations with them and with the people they find along the way. She reflects on the changes in the landscape and the lifestyle of the people that live here. Some of these villages were almost abandoned in the 60’s and 70’s. Life there was hard and people emigrated to the cities. They revived in the 80’s and 90’s with tourism and now are growing again. At the same time tourism has brought urbanization and has spoiled some landscapes.

There is no profound reflection in the book. Just an often heard lament that the region still lacks services, that tourism and construction are unchecked and that traditional ways of living are disappearing.

I was born in 1979 and my family spent at least one week in the Pyrenees each summer and each winter. I have continued to visit every summer even now that I live in Norway. I am one of those tourists that the author talks about. I have mixed feelings about the issues she raises. On one side I also despise some developments that have been made, and I can attest to the enormous change in character of many villages. On the other side, I see no real alternative if people are supposed to make a living there.

The traditional way of life is not economically viable. Should we pay for people to live like in the old days just to amuse us tourists? Should development be restricted such that only a few ultra-rich can enjoy the Pyrenees? I believe such a model is found in the Bavarian Alps, where construction is heavily restricted. Only existing houses are allowed outside the village perimeters. Since most houses are inherited, they stay in the same family for generations. It is nearly impossible to buy a house, and when one comes for sale, it goes for more than 5 million euros. People who cannot afford this prices are shut out, which means that nearly everyone is.

Even now, tax income from the Pyrenees region is not enough to support all public services and infrastructure. Is it fair to finance them from the rest of the country without having the right to enjoy them? Are laments about lack of services justified? I don’t have the answers. But I wonder if such a ting exists as the right to live where you were born.

Article 21.2 of the Universal declaration of human rights reads: Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. I believe it means that people can not be discriminated on the basis of race, sex or any other condition regarding their access to public services, not that everyone should have access to all services nearby.

Apartment construction in big clusters in the Pyrenees is ugly, but it may be more sustainable and environmentally friendly that the author gives it credit for. It is visually unappealing to see big blocks in an otherwise idyllic mountain landscape, but the alternative would be cabins spread everywhere, with access roads and other services spoiling an even greater area and using a lot more energy, like the Norwegian model of cabin building. Norway may get away with it, because the country’s area is so big relative to its population, but it is still noticeable.

I enjoyed reading this book and I liked revisiting places where I have been before. I learnt things I didn’t know about them and I remembered things I had forgotten. It felt like being there again.

The book made me reflect about the fact that people are often forced to emigrate in search for a better life. My own family story is typical for any big city. My great-grand mother emigrated from a little village in the Basque Country, my grandmother, from Cadiz, my father, from a town not far away, my wife came to study and never went back home. I was fortunate to be born in Barcelona and live there for a while, but I too had to move to Norway. If anything I am lucky that I can visit often, unlike generations before, who lost all contact with their home places.

Last updated: 2021-07-14