Ur, Er, Ger… Cerdanya turned me into a bit of a stuttering idiot. Nothing new there, but at least this time I had an excuse. Ur, Er and Ger are all villages in this Catalan region, which stretches along the eastern Pyrenees, straddling France and Spain. The strange monosyllabic place names, which also include Urtx, Ix, All, Age, Alp, Das, Nas, Bor and Pi, can be traced back to the earliest inhabitants, who it is believed spoke a language related to Aquitanian and Basque.
The place names may sound abrupt, hard and closed, but the landscape in Cerdanya is quite the opposite. Protected by the mountains, it is an area of sprawling, green plains and is reminiscent of Austria or Switzerland. Being close to the Mediterranean in the province of Girona, it is sunnier and less rainy that other parts of the Pyrenees, but in winter it does of course get a lot of snow, and Spain’s first ski resort, La Molina, was built there at the beginning of the 20th century.
The great Catalan writer Josep Pla was a big fan of Cerdanya, which he described as ‘a big earthenware casserole, set over the course of the river Segre… sloping lightly, slightly from east to west. It is not a sunken valley, but one that is reclining. Surrounded by high mountains… La Cerdanya is not depressing, like so many other places in the Pyrenees, but instead gives a sensation of breadth, height, light and freedom.’
I really got a sense of this in Puigcerdà, the small, hilltop town that is the capital of the Lower Cerdanya area. From the viewpoint in the square by the town hall, known with good reason as the Balcony of the Cerdanya, I gazed across the meadows to the mountains of the Serra de Cadí. As many of the villages are linked by tracks, you can explore the area on foot or, even better, by bike. You can follow a lesser-known stretch of the pilgrimage route to Santiago, which crosses Cerdanya.
I got on my bike, but stopped after just a few minutes at the Estany de Puigcerdà, a tranquil lake on the edge of the village that is shaded by willows and dates back to the 14th century. It is surrounded by elegant villas, which were built at the turn of the 20th century when the area was attracting its first tourists who came to ski and breathe the fresh, mountain air.
Following the pilgrimage route – albeit in the wrong direction for Santiago – I cycled on, inadvertently crossing the border into France, towards the village of Ur. Er where? No, not Er, Ur…
For more information on Cerdanya and the Girona Pyrenees, have a look at Costa Brava-Pirineu de Girona