Aravell, La Seu d’Urgell, Catalonia. Que Bella Esta. ~ A Travel Writer’s Journal

My “travel writer’s journals” are my actual, personal journals and offer a voyeuristic glance into my life as a full-time travel writer and blogger in Barcelona… and beyond.

On Retreat in Aravell, La Seu d’Urgell, Catalonia

Ben Holbrook Travel Writer Barcelona

“I am a very spiritual person and I was looking out over the mountains here and I decided to start writing,” Sergi told me as he took tiny tokes through his slender lips from a cigarette.

I could feel the tops of my toes burning in the sun, only a gentle breeze that rose occasionally offered momentary relief. The horizon was a layered collage of celery green fields that grew darker as they stretched out into the distance and were bordered by old ferns and pine trees.

And behind the fields were small hills where skinny trees grew from dusty soil, lumpy like the snout of a crocodile breaking the surface of a muddy river. And behind the lumpy hills was a lump of rock, a mountain that looked like it had fallen out of the sky and never moved from where it had landed. It glowed with a purple halo that turned pink where it met the midday sky. It was topped with what I thought was snow, although Sergi assured me that it was rock.

He lived there naked for the most part, as close to nature as he could be.

“I wanted to write about myself,” Sergi continued. “It is about myself, but the main character is a girl called Meritxell. She lives here in this house and she works in the school in the village. It’s set in the present, but at night, once she has finished work, she enters the village and travels through time, to the past, to a different time.”

His eyes were wide and his hands became animated as I encouraged him to tell me more.

“I wanted the character to be a girl because then you can be more sensitive. And in the story she lives here alone. It’s also about him,” he said, pointing and looking down at his dog, Legaña.

Sergi had already told me the story of how he gave Legaña his name. He was living on a beach in Menorca, an idyllic paradise Balearic Island off the coast of Spain. When I say living on the beach, I mean he was actually living on the beach, on the sand.

“I would sleep when the sun went down and I would get up when it came back up,” he’d told me.

He lived there naked for the most part, as close to nature as he could be. And when he met this little puppy for the first time his eyes were full of what we in English call ‘sleep’. In Spanish, they call it ‘legaña’, and this is what Sergi called him from that moment on.

Sleepy Happy

Legaña was comatose in the shade of the table and Sergi’s eyes softened as a smile took over his chiseled face.

“To separate the body from the mind, to be as your spirit, you have to be alone,” he said. And then, looking back towards Legaña, “He is so happy here, so free. I watch him sometimes, standing with his face in the breeze, with his eyes closed.”

He stopped to demonstrate, staring into the horizon with his nose twitching like a rabbit. “He can smell everything here, he can smell the river, the animals, the plants. And he’s so happy. He doesn’t worry about the past or the future. He is always in the moment. He’s always connected to the present. I want to get this into the book, you know?” he said as he re-lit his skinny cigarette.

I moved my chair, desperately looking for shade, but it was a hopeless attempt and I sat back down and began to the pick olives out of the salad that was left on my plate. I rolled them around my mouth, nibbling off chunks of the meaty flesh and saw them away with greedy glugs of cold beer. I felt I should say something, but all I wanted was for him to tell me more, so I waited. He continued.

“After being here for a month, I feel I am more sensitive to nature, like him. I was sitting here the other day and I could smell the river,” he laughed. “It’s just behind that hill,” he said as he stood to point it out to me.

“Another time I could smell that it would rain, I could feel it, you know? And then it rained and I could smell the grass.”

We sat in silence for moment and I let the sounds of bird-song and Legaña’s deep slumber calm me.

You have to be alone to be as your spirit, I reflected.

Rusty Bikes and Broken Legs

“The problem is that the gears jump sometimes,” Sergi explained as he wheeled an old mountain bike into my hands. It was a size or three too small for me and the breaks were twisted upward towards the sky so that I had to push my elbows and raise my wrists back to use them.

The frame was blue and had a big logo that was half scratched off and said “Wheelers”. The forks were white and faded after being left in the sun for year after year, and I found a sticker on it with an address, somewhere in Castelldefels, back at home, near Barcelona.

I wondered for a second or two about what it had seen, where it had been. The miles of hard work and all the untold stories.

But he was enjoying it every bit as much as we were and he didn’t want to let us down. We were a pack. A motley crew.

Sergi crouched into a ball with his chest almost touching the crossbar of his bike as he sped down a hill and I could hear him whooping and hollering with joy as he hit top speed. I did the same, revelling in the cooling sensation of the breeze as it buffered my bare feet and rumbled over my ears.

As we hit the bottom and came up next to each other, Sergi said, “We call this route like ‘romper las piernas’ – ‘break legs’ – because it goes up and down and up and down.”

Suddenly we were both frantically trying to change gears, almost coming to a complete stop as we struggled up the first hill. Legaña finally managed to catch up with us and we cheered him on and patted him on the head. The roads were empty and we snaked our way up the steep hills and tucked ourselves into rocket shapes to go as fast as possible down the other side. I felt ten all over again.

The wind slicked my sweat-soaked hair back up over my head and we let out yelps of joy, like two school boys alone in the wild for the first time. I’d over take him as we plummeted down some hills and on other hills I liked to follow closely behind him, watching his bike twitch and wobble as he swerved to avoid lumps of cow shit and dusty craters in the road. I was blown away by his sense of fearlessness, by his carefree sprit; just him and his dog and a rusty old bike. It made me feel contrived and stiff, old and cautious.

We stopped to sip water and wait for Legaña to catch his breath. He was slowing now, panting heavily with his bright pink tongue dragging along the ground as he hobbled along. But he was enjoying it every bit as much as we were and he didn’t want to let us down. We were a pack. A motley crew.

We past a field where the grass had been grazed to the root and a huge water sprinkler rotated slowly, gushing and spraying out a jet of water that was at least 20ft long. At one point of its rotation it was shooting over the fence and into the road and I stopped there and waited for it to come and get me. It was a fine spray at first, light and gentle as the breeze carried it. And then a heavier, nerve-shocking jolt of cold water stung me and made me grip the handlebars tightly.

I turned and saw Sergi and Legaña climbing up the embankment so that they could get closer to a herd of cows that were resting in one of the higher fields. Legaña ran in and teased them with happy barks, but they didn’t fear him and they came together as a herd to chase him away with their heavy hooves hammering at the ground and their cowbells bongling away.

They stopped and stared at Sergi, who was now only two or three metres away from them, and all of us stood still and silent for a moment. Without moving a muscle, channeling his inner cow, Sergi let out a single and completely uninhibited “moooooooo” that was surprisingly sonorous as it rang out from his tiny frame. I joined him, the two of us locking eyes on the cows and mooing with our most sincere efforts.

“Only two of them have bells,” Sergi said, turning and smiling at me with the widest grin on his face. And as he stumbled back down the bank I saw the dust rise behind him as the cows ran up behind to watch him leave.

“I think they like you,” I said. But he didn’t hear me.

“When we first came here, we met a man. I asked him, ‘What does Aravell, which is the name of this village, mean?’ And he told me that the count of the area was coming through and all of the locals came here to watch him arrive. They were excited, you know, and they were yelling, ‘Ara vell, ara vell’, which means ‘he’s coming now, he’s coming now’. And in the next village they yelled, ‘Que bella esta, que bella esta’, which means ‘How handsome he is, how handsome he is!’ And that village is called Bellestà.”

The hills continued, as did the blazing heat of the sun, and my legs began to throb and burn. They were breaking. Sweat dripped from my hair and stung like acid as it mixed with the sunscreen and seeped into my eyes. I stopped outside of an old house to wipe it away with the sleeve of my t-shirt and heard someone calling me, “Hola, hola!”, “Eh, eh!”, “Guapo, guapo!” I froze for a moment. It definitely wasn’t Sergi. He was at a fountain spraying water over Legaña and himself, trying to cool off.

A stream of black-cherry blood trickled from a wound on one of his front legs and he whimpered like a puppy as Sergi scorned him.

I followed the voice to the house, to the balcony that looked out of the celery green fields and the purple mountain and the curious cows. It was a bird in a cage, clawing its way up the side of the metal walls, whistling and chatting away like a mad old lady in the hot sun. I tried to respond, first in English and then in Spanish, but I was interrupted by a blood curdling cry.

It was Sergi. He was shouting in Catalan and I couldn’t understand. He was running and there was the sound of hooves thumping against the hard sun-baked soil, the low growl of Legaña and the scuffle and aggressive neighing of horses. Then a sound, the sound that stops you in your tracks for fear of what you will see if you look, a loud and hollow thud that thumped through the air.

It was one of the horses kicking Legaña with a bolt of power that connected against his body with uncompromising force. He shot out of the dust that was rising from the ground beneath the horses and he stopped in the middle of the road in front of the house, looking up into the sky and letting out long howling cries, high pitched and unrestrained.

Sergi ran to him like a parent: horror, anger and fear somehow taking over his face all at once.

“Claro, claro!” (Of course, of course!) he said, as he picked him up like a child in both arms and carried him over to the grass to lay him down in the shade. A stream of black-cherry blood trickled from a wound on one of his front legs and he whimpered like a puppy as Sergi scorned him.

“In a way I wanted this to happen,” he told me, “so he would realise that it is not OK. He won’t do it again.”

Legaña stopped squealing and looked at us both apologetically as he lay on his side, the blood still flowing freely as if he had been punctured to the core.

“He is fine,” Sergi said, relieved and confident in his prognosis. “He will be in pain for a few days, but he will be fine.”

We sat on our bikes and watched to see if Legaña would follow. Slowly he got to his feet and hobbled along behind us at snail’s pace, his tongue now stretched out at a length that seemed to be as long as his body. The sun was even hotter now and we stopped at the top of every hill to wait for him to catch up.

“The thing is, I didn’t want him to come. But he wanted it so much that I couldn’t say no,” said Sergi.

I watched him cycling with one eye on the road and the other behind him, watching and waiting for Legaña. It wasn’t owner and pet, but two beings living side-by-side. Two friends, each willing each other on. Willing each other to keep moving, to keep living. To be free.

We all need someone to do that, I thought.

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