Puicerdà, Llívia and Catalonia on both sides of the French Border

September 8, 2023

I’m walking down a dusty path in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Dark clouds are building overhead, whipped up by the heat.

A breeze whispers past, bringing the smells of fresh-mown hay, distant rain, and – when the direction suddenly changes – lots of manure.

The map has promised a secret crossing into France, and I’m curious.

How secret could it be, out in the open like this?

The path follows the train tracks leaving Puigcerdà, three hours north of Barcelona, where I’m staying for a few days. I’ve been walking for a while – the border must be here somewhere. But when I pull out my phone, Google maps tells me I’ve already passed it… it was about two hundred meters ago.

I turn back to see if I missed something, and all I find is a stone marker hidden in the brambles, with a number, and a line across the top that may indicate the direction of the border. Is this it?

The map says I’ve got one foot in Spain and one in France.

Otherwise nothing indicates an international border. Not even the hayfield is broken into a Spanish and a French side. The path just stretches off towards the next line of mountains. I guess that’s the secret.

A gunshot cracks through the quiet air, followed by its booming echo a second later. Hunters, somewhere.

So now I’m in France, and the town on the side of the hill is Latour-de-Carol.

camino de santiago outside llivia
The Camino de Santiago outside Llívia.

Across the border in France

There’s not much happening on the French side here. An old guy in a pink polo shirt has leaned his bike against a stone wall. He’s picking blackberries and dropping them into a thermos. He mumbles something to me in Catalan as I walk by.

In town, I see one house with a quaint little sign next to the door saying Aquí hi viu un català – “a Catalan lives here”. The public signs are all in French. Pharmacie, chambre funéraire, poste.

Latour-de-Carol doesn’t have a bar, apparently. Doesn’t have a single open business on a Sunday afternoon. Even the bar outside the train station – Bistrot de la Gare – is closed.

Meanwhile, It’s starting to rain, so I take shelter in the station building. A few pairs of backpackers are coming down from the hills, waiting for trains to Barcelona or Toulouse or Paris. There’s also a family of Sikhs hanging out.

After a few minutes, the rain stops, and I walk back to the hotel, along the same dusty path.

This region is called Cerdanya, not to be confused with the Italian island of Sardinia. And it’s divided in two by the French border – like Catalonia itself.

(Not many people are talking about the French region of Northern Catalonia, otherwise known as Roussillon. I didn’t find out about it myself until I saw a bunch of Catalan flags on a visit to Perpignan several years ago.)

Back at the hotel, I do some research into the stone I saw.

The numbered stones are called mojones, it turns out, and there are a lot of them around here, marking the line between France and Spain.

What is a border, anyway?

This border was set down in 1659 by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, officially ending the Franco-Spanish War begun in 1635. Peace was signed by Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain on Pheasant Island, on the river between Irún and Hendaye, in the Basque Country – today the (uninhabited) island is shared by France and Spain with a joint-sovereignty agreement officially known as a condominium.

Conditions of the treaty: Philip sent his daughter María Teresa off to marry Louis; a bit of northern France changed hands (Spain had dominions around Europe at that time – Belgium, Naples, Sicily, the aforementioned Sardinia and more); the French gave up their claim to Barcelona; the Franco-Spanish border would be drawn across the Pyrenees.

I guess things got busy for the monarchies of Europe afterwards, because the final border line wasn’t drawn until two centuries later, as part of the Treaties of Bayonne in the late 19th century. That line is now marked by the mojones.

There are around 600 mojones, set down along a line in the Pyrenees between the Cantabrian Sea over in the Basque Country and the Mediterranean in Portbou. And then some more surrounding Llívia, a Spanish town across the French border. (The final number in the sequence is 602, but some are doubled up. There’s a full map here.)

Upon drawing the line, some villages changed hands. But the town of Llívia wasn’t a village. Declared to be a “villa” – a small town – centuries before, it retained that status as the former capital of Cerdanya.

Since the treaty only stipulated that “villages” on the French side would pass over to France, Llívia stayed with Spain – and there it is today, a Spanish exclave just 6 km across the French border.

The Spanish exclave of Llívia

“Exclave”. That’s a word I’d never heard before.

Apparently it’s pretty similar to “enclave” – maybe you could say that Llívia is both exclave and enclave, depending on your perspective. In any case, Llívia is where I head the next day, leaving the hotel a bit after 7 in the morning.

I first cross the border (right after the kiddie playground a few kilometers outside Puigcerdà) and walk through the town of Ur, where I get a coffee and a pain au chocolat – because France – at the only open business, a small bakery. Then a walk between bucolic farms out toward Llívia.

mojón border stone outside llivia
The mojón on the trail entering Llívia.

The town of Llívia is cute, like a tiny Andorra – an even tinier Andorra. It’s got a main street, a historic center, a Plaça Major that’s about the size of my Barcelona living room, and a large hill with the ruins of a castle on top.

Like many Spanish towns, it was founded by the Romans. A Roman forum was found there in 2017, and I may have walked right past it in my search for further coffee in the neighborhood of the church.

The church has graves from the 1620s in its floor – graves of people with Catalan-sounding names, who died 400 years ago.

In the end not much is open in Llívia at 10 in the morning, and I decide to head back to Puigcerdà – it’s getting hot, and if I stick around for lunch, I’ll be caught in either heat or rain later on.

Soon I’m across the Llívia border and back in France.

The landscape sure is nice – a green valley between rows of mountains, dotted with farmhouses. There’s another very small French town, Onzes, and another cemetery with more French and Catalan-sounding names on the tombs, this time from the 1950s.

About 400 meters from the border I stop at a bar with not one but two waitresses who, despite the location, don’t speak a word of English or Spanish. Just French. Oh well. I get a Free Damm and move on.

Walking back through the French town of Bourg-Madame, which is connected to Puigcerdà by a small bridge, I come to an unused border checkpoint.

The border, at this point, is a small river called El Raür.

hispano french border puigcerdà
The border Hispano-French border at Puigcerdà.

There’s a guy in a bright yellow vest from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística standing there, perhaps counting the cars going across. The last thing open on the French side is a shop selling oysters. First thing open on the Spanish side, a gas station and tobacco shop.

Gas and tobacco might be among the few things that change prices right across the border – most products are protected by the EU and the Schengen zone these days.

Oysters? I’m not sure.

Bourg-Madame has a sign on the bridge between the two countries, explaining a bit about the Spanish refugees who crossed during and after the Civil War.

There were plenty of Spanish people who emigrated during the war and the dictatorship – some just picked up and did it on foot across the mountains. Tough times.

Catalan cuisine in Puigcerdà

Across the border, back in Spain – or Southern Catalonia, if you prefer – there’s a steak place that looks good, but when I sit down, the waiter tells me they haven’t gotten their meat delivery yet.

So no steak. How about chicken?

Yes, they have that, but it’ll take 25 minutes.

What do they have that’s quicker?

Pigs’ feet.

Peus de porc are common in restaurants in Catalonia. They’re a bunch of tiny bones wrapped in skin, with some fat and cartilage you can chew on. It’s actually better than it sounds, but it leaves me hungry – still craving steak. Guess I’ll try again at dinner.

That afternoon, there’s a massive rainstorm, and I’m stuck standing under an umbrella on Puigcerdà’s town square for about half an hour.

I end up eating a mixed grill for dinner at some Brazilian restaurant. Lots of protein this time, both beef and pork. Not bad. Contented, I head back to the hotel and sleep.

Habsburgs vs Bourbons

The Franco-Spanish War was a conflict between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons.

I don’t have a strong opinion about monarchies, per se, but it seems pretty ridiculous that we’re still talking about – and being ruled by – that same Bourbon family 400 years later.

But we are: the descendants of the French Bourbons of those days were eventually guillotined – you’re probably familiar with the story. Spain, however, hasn’t managed to rid itself of the monarchy quite yet. Although, as you may recall from my recent articles about the Civil War, they certainly have tried.

The current king, Felipe – AKA Philip – VI, is a Bourbon. The first Bourbon king of Spain was actually Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV, who took the throne in 1700. More about him later. He’s key in the Catalan national myth.

puigcerdà landscape
Farmhouse and field outside Puigcerdà.

In any case, it’s depressing that a whole lot of the history of Europe can be boiled down to power grabs among a handful of families. The rest of us have been scraping by to little fanfare in the meantime – for centuries, or millennia. My family of poor potato farmers – or whatever they were – would have emigrated to America in the 1800s. Now I’m back in Europe.

Nobody’s building statues of us, on either side of the Atlantic.

Guess I should have been born a Bourbon.

What does it mean to belong to a people?

Catalonia was never actually an independent nation – at most, it was a recognized cultural or geographical area, and a principality subject to the Crown of Aragón.

But the basic premise of the Catalan independence movement is that there is a “Catalan People” which is distinct from (and allegedly oppressed by) a “Spanish People”.

What does it mean to belong to “a people”, in that sense?

Un pueblo, as they call it in Spanish. The word means not just village, but also the capital-p People of a region or country. It’s used four times in the preamble to the 1978 Constitution, and then again in Article 1 – el pueblo español, los pueblos de España, la voluntad popular, etc.

But what does it really mean?

I suppose I’ll never know. I grew up in a patch of Arizona desert where all the buildings were just a few years old. Nobody was rooted to the area. It wasn’t a community. It wasn’t even really a neighborhood. I got out as soon as I could.

And that’s not unusual for American people. (There’s that word “people” again.)

My parents are from faraway places they don’t go back to, or speak of fondly. My grandparents were as well. Pick a spot, hang out for a few years, move on as soon as you get a better opportunity somewhere else. It’s an American tradition.

I sometimes hear about these families that have owned the same business in the same town for several generations and I can see the appeal… Fifth generation bakers of pain au chocolat in a town with a name like Ur. I don’t have anything like that. It’s not very common, where I’m from.

Also, technically, you can own a bakery for five generations without being a part of “the People”. Just ask the Sephardic Jews, to give you just one example: they were expelled in 1492 – presumably, for not fitting in to the new all-Christian Spain after the “reconquista”.

Is “the People” a religious group, then? I guess sometimes it is.

Then again, a Marxist friend once told me that some people were actually enemies of “the People”. Successful business owners, I think it was. In other words, the dreaded bourgeoisie.

In that case “the People” is a social class, presumably. And I think anybody using these types of nearly-meaningless abstractions probably has a really ugly ideology they’re trying to sell you on. 

But what if the People – as in the Catalan case – is an ethic and linguistic group?

In other words, how are you going to defend the linguistic and cultural purity of your tiny ethno-state in these times of mass migration and “tolerance” for other cultures without sounding, at times, a bit racist?

Seems like it could be a problem.

What is the Catalan identity?

Giles Tremlett, in Ghosts of Spain, goes to some length to try to find what makes Catalan people (allegedly) different than the Spanish.

In the end, he doesn’t find much: a few silly customs – like stacking themselves into human towers at festivals and putting pigs’ feet on restaurant menus – plus a general “feeling”, and a regional government willing to throw money at almost anything that’s done in the Catalan language.

None of which is particularly convincing to me: almost every region of Spain could say the same thing – could claim to be a separate people, if they wanted to. So could the various regions of France, Germany, Italy, etc, etc. And then what would we have? A Europe made up of micro-states. Principalities, dukedoms and despotates, like in the Middle Ages.

The Catalan Pyrenees in Cerdanya.

At the time Tremlett was writing, of course, the Catalan government had been run by a Catalan nationalist named Jordi Pujol for virtually the whole time since Franco’s death. Pujol had constructed quite a cult of personality over his quarter century in power, and had done a lot to build up the “feeling” of Catalan nationalism – but his career and reputation came crashing down some years later when it was revealed that he’d been hiding millions of euros in bank accounts in Andorra – and possibly elsewhere.

He claimed it was an inheritance from his father that he’d never found the right moment declare on his taxes. Allegedly, he was also getting kickbacks from the companies doing work for the government. His son Oriol was implicated in something similar, and both retired from politics due to the scandal.

And so, the mastermind behind the modern Catalan “nation” spent a few months in prison – and might spend more, if the trial ever gets going. A judge has said there’s evidence that the whole family works as a criminal organization. On the other hand, Jordi Pujol, born in 1930, is currently 93, so it might not matter soon.

The Catalan national myth

Every country has a national myth – and so does every “People” with aspirations towards nationhood.

So of course, there are some important historical moments the Catalans like to talk about. The siege of Barcelona in 1714, for example. That was part of the Spanish War of Succession, pitting the Bourbon Philip V (grandson of Louis XIV, remember) against the Austrian Habsburg Charles VI (also Holy Roman Emperor) for rule of the Spanish Empire.

Those same two families again – Bourbons and Habsburgs – fighting another war a few decades later. Succession laws turn out to be pretty complex, and I don’t want to get into it. Suffice it to say that most Spanish nobility supported Philip, but the Catalan nobility supported Charles.

Philip’s troops laid siege to Barcelona, and were eventually victorious, beginning the Bourbon rule which has lasted (with some interruptions) up until the present day. Philip was also big into centralizing the Spanish government, so that was the end of the Catalan courts – the end of “independent” Principality of Catalonia.

Catalan history in Born, Barcelona.

There are monuments to the Siege of 1714 near my house in Barcelona. They portray the War of Succession as part of Catalonia’s long struggle against totalitarian regimes, but I have my doubts. In any case, the monuments are obviously new, as if they were constructed a couple of decades ago as part of someone’s nation-building exercise. How many Catalans have a family tree going back to 1714? How many would know about the Siege of Barcelona at all, if it weren’t a key part of their national myth?

Then, of course, there’s the Civil War and the dictatorship – during the latter, the Catalan language was suppressed – which may have given the locals a bad feeling about belonging to Spain. Then again, people from Valencia and the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Majorca, etc) speak virtually the same language, and want nothing to do with the independence movement.

Catalan independence today

These historical articles have a tendency to spiral out of control if I let them. Do I need to know more about the Franco-Spanish war? Read a biography of Louis XIV or María Teresa? Get my Catalan up to a level where I can read about the Reaper’s War of 1640 in original version? Unfortunately, I considered doing all these things in the process of writing this article.

Also, the Catalan issue is controversial – and important to the future of Spain.

These days, several years after their (illegal, unconstitutional) referendum for independence, most Catalans have mentally checked out of the movement, and gone on to other concerns. But the leader of the independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, is still hanging out in Waterloo – outside Brussels – and demanding amnesty for everyone involved in the referendum in exchange for his party’s votes in parliament. This may be necessary to seat the new government, after the recent election ended in a virtual tie between right and left. We’ll find out soon.

But speaking of amnesty, as I write this, many of the top headlines in La Vanguardia contain the word amnistía, with pictures of Puigdemont or left-wing politician (and pardoned former prisoner) Oriol Junqueras looking sadly away from the camera: “Amnesty isn’t enough, we need to think about self-determination”.

Junqueras apparently wants not just amnesty for everyone involved in the 2017 referendum, but he wants the crimes of sedition and misuse of public funds to be stricken from the books so that they can’t be used against anyone in the future. Then he’ll talk about maybe supporting the socialist party.

I’m not sure how many countries go around removing the laws prohibiting the overthrow of the government when asked, but I’m guessing it’s not common.

Back to the dusty heat of Cerdanya

The next day I decide to go uphill.

Wikiloc shows me a route through the nearby towns of Saneja and Guils de Cerdanya, and again I start early to avoid the worst of the heat. I’m not sure who – if anyone – lives in these tiny stone villages year round.

outside guils de cerdanya
Sweaty outside Guils de Cerdanya.

The sun gets hotter and hotter, and the climb outside Guils is steep, but finally I make it to a reasonable turnaround point where a sign marks the various directions. Niula, Cabanella, Bosc de Guils. I pick a nearly-invisible sheep trail to go back to town, and stop for coffee and water at the bottom of the hill in Guils. In the town’s one restaurant, the proprietors speak Catalan to each other, and Spanish to me.

That’s pretty typical: nobody looks at me and sees someone fluent in Catalan, and it’s usually easier to start the conversation in Spanish rather than English.

Guils de Cerdanya has an English Wikipedia page that’s two sentences long. The second sentence is “Attractions include the Romanesque church of Sant Esteven (12th Century).” What else they include is not mentioned. Although to be fair, the Catalan wikipedia article is several sentences longer, and goes so far as to claim that according to legend, Pontius Pilate was from the town, and returned there after having Jesus crucified.

(The Catalan wikipedia page for Pontius Pilate says he was from Abruzzo in the south of Italy, and doesn’t mention Guils de Cerdanya at all, so maybe they should cross-reference their sources.)

From there, it’s a few more dusty trails and old stone churches back to Puigcerdà, where I hydrate and start – once again – my search for a good steak.

Hungrily yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Nobody likes hearing their national myth called a myth, so I apologize to any of the three or four Catalans who might read this and be offended by it. On the other hand, if you’re an American living abroad for any length of time you develop a pretty thick skin about people pointing out your country’s failings. Anyway, hit me up with your comments, as usual, right here…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Catalonya never was independent. It was always part of Spain, except in the time of the Carolingian empire when part of Catalonya belonged to France (it was called “Marca Hispánica”) and the rest belonged to the Córdoba caliphate. It never was a Kingdom, It was a “Condado” that belonged to the Aragon Kingdom. Even Asturias has more history than Catalonya, but that is not a problem for them because they invent it. Catalonian independentists are always crying to get more and more money from the central goverment.

  2. Great article. I agree with a lot of your points about the Catalan myth. I think the French have done a better job than the Spanish of maintaining local traditions without allowing a lot of regional nationalist movements to spring up. Partly this has been done by renaming and cutting up the traditional regions. The area known as “Catalunya Nord” is in the “Pyrénées-Orientales department” for example with no mention of anything remotley Catalan in the name. In fact the only area of France that does have a strong independence movement is Corsega which for Geographical reasons is seen as a seperate entity, although they have obvoulsy tried splitting it up into two administrative departments.
    I often wonder if in fact when Spain was split up into the autonomous communites, the old Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre were split up precisely to quell nationalist movements in those areas.

    1. Hey Lucie, thanks for commenting! I guess the split between País Vasco and Navarra probably has some political significance. It’s interesting that the Catalans of all people are making a big fuss about their independence, because it seems like they have exactly the same historical case as probably 400 other regions of Europe – regions where people are mostly going about their lives and not clamoring for independence from whatever other country.

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