If you ask what Andalusians know about northern Spain, they might say the Camino de Santiago or Costa Brava, but almost certainly nobody will mention Lérida. So, when a ‘native’ friend invited my husband and I to explore her home province, we immediately signed up to find out more about this lesser known part of Spain.
Lérida, or Lleida in Catalonian, is one of four provinces in the disputed autonomous community of Catalonia. The interior province spreads from Tarragona in the south to the French border in the north, and though less than half a million people live there, Lérida has three official languages: Catalan, Spanish and Aranese.
A city with a crown
Most leridanos live in the city of Lérida, one of the oldest towns in Catalonia. A mere hour train-ride from Barcelona, the provincial capital is much lesser known than its coastal rival. But that is the best part – you can still explore without being overrun by other tourists.
Its name is derived from the llergetes, an Iberian tribe that lived there in the Bronze Age. The Romans finally annihilated the tribe, though many upheavals followed, such as the famous ‘Battle of Llerda’ in 49 BC, when Julius Caesar came to the city with 50.000 soldiers. Lérida was a Roman municipium of considerable importance, even minting its own coin. In the cellar of the city hall, a dock where prisoners were brought from the River into the town jail can still be seen.
Later, Lérida was under Visigoth and Moorish rule until a Catholic army re-conquered the city in 1149. Next followed a period of flourishing art and culture, when the University of Lérida, the third oldest in Spain, was founded in 1297. The city’s affluence was partly due to wealthy Jewish and Muslim communities, though the Inquisition brought this to an abrupt end.
Unless one hits their famous fog, the first thing visible when entering Lérida is the old cathedral towering over a city, with the town spreading beneath on either side of the River Segre. The pedestrian street crossing the old town must have Spain’s highest concentration of chocolate, marzipan and cake shops. The most famous is Pastelería Tugues, which is member of the exclusive Relais Dessert and produce such exquisite pastries that they occasionally supply the royal family.
A must for every visitor is the Seu Vella, Lérida’s most emblematic building. Constructed in the 13th Century, the Byzantine-Gothic cathedral was turned into a military citadel in 1714. With the adjoining Moorish fort, this republican army stronghold was bombed extensively during the Spanish Civil War. Today a museum, the lofty interior is lit up by arched windows with alabaster panes instead of glass.
Even if you do not enjoy a trip back in history, you will be overwhelmed by the majestic views that on clear days include the Pyrenees.
Needing a break from the sightseeing, we join the leridenos in their favourite afternoon activity – the vermouth hour – on the sunny outdoor terrace at Bodega Blasi. We order a glass of the local Vermú, served on ice with a lemon slice and filled up with a vintage style soda spritzer bottle. Add some local finger seafood and it doesn’t get much better.
A Gastronomic Eden
Lérida’s plains are the Catalan food basket, with fruit orchards, olive groves and undulating meadows. The province’s agricultural based economy includes food-processing, farm equipment, feed factories and breweries.
The mild climate in the south favours cultivation of peaches, apricots and cherries. The north offers rich grazing land, while the higher Pyrenees is the stomping ground of wild boars. In Lérida, you can follow your taste buds from one unique village to the next. And the leridenos do not easily push away from the table, as we discovered when we were invited to a village feast.
Mafet in the municipality of Agramunt has only 67 inhabitants. This count might include the vagrant dog ‘Negreta’ which everyone cares for. A hamlet of merely two streets, most supplies have to be brought in from outside, certainly when hosting a BBQ for fifty Catalans, a dozen children, a handful rescue dogs and 4 adopted Andalusians. So while the locals lit a BBQ large enough for three whole pigs, we went to hunt for dessert.
The Communal Catalan Sweet Tooth
The people of Lérida have an undeniably sweet tooth and Agramunt is their Mecca. The nougat, called turrón, is even copyrighted. The biggest producer is Turrón Vicens, which exports throughout Spain and receives daily tourist buses full of sugar-fanatics. Traditional turrón contains honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts, but Vicens’ repertory also includes mojito or raspberry-vinegar flavour.
Yet the real connoisseurs know that the best turrón is found at Torrons Fèlix, a small family business a few streets away where Fèlix and his daughter make everything by hand in the back room.
Our friends insist on another quick stop – in chocolate heaven. The Jolonch chocolate factory, anno 1770, displays old chocolate making equipment and their historical wrapper designs.
It is said that in 1940, when Franco’s forces were about to shoot President Lluís Companys, his last wish was a piece of Agramunt chocolate.
Following his advice, we order a cup of hot chocolate, so thick that a spoon will stand up straight in it, before return with more deserts to the party.
Village feast a la Mafet
In Mafet’s community hall a 25-meter table is filled with local specialties, including heaping trays of Catalan pizza coca de recapte. As we sit down, I take the opportunity to ask my fellow diners about local cuisine.
The first staple of any Iberian table is of course wine.
Most bottles produced in Lérida have a Denominación de Origen seal. Local whites are light and fruity, while reds have more body and zest. There are also fortified sweet varieties, one whose name certainly caught my attention – Vino Rancio (Rancid wine).
One cannot speak about Lérida without mentioning cava. If you think Freixenet when you hear the word, you obviously haven’t travelled around Lérida. Like the rest of the territory, the province has more cava producers than Rioja has wine makers. And while most of us think of sparkling wine for festive occasions, leridanos will drink it morning, noon or night, even accompanied by chocolate and churros!
Next on the menu is carne, and lots of it. Leridanos are big meat eaters for a reason, their lamb being the best we have eaten in Spain. In addition are their tasty sausages, especially the Longaniza and Butifarra varieties.
Talking of meaty bits, although snails weren’t on today’s menu, they shouldn’t be ignored. Lérida is considered Europe’s snail cooking capital, with a dedicated festival. Every May, twelve tons of snails are cooked and consumed, using only toothpicks.
Lérida cheeses are also second to none. Buttery and slightly pungent, they bring the green pastures of the Pyrenees straight to our table. Our party managed to polish off two wheels without sweating, and still there should be space for deserts…
Seven hours after arriving, our group is among the first to bid farewell, while the rest of the party continue into the night. Clearly, the slow food movement is not a new invention in Lérida.
From monks to labour unions
The Catholic re-conquest initiated the construction of many monasteries. One of these is the impressive Cistercian Monastir de Poblet, founded in 1150.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains a royal pantheon and a priceless scriptorium (library) with works from the 13th Century.
Once housing nearly 1000 religious brothers, today the enormous complex is home to a mere 25 monks. Yet the monastery is not stuck in the past.
The monastery offers tours and sells in-house fabricated ceramics, wine, honey and jam. The cloistered monks also offer spiritual guidance and organize concerts. In addition, the abbey has a retreat centre and a restaurant, where you have the option of eating the monks’ daily meal.
Lérida and the separatists
The organisational skills of the Cistercian monks were transmitted to local agriculture workers, to help them through difficult economic times. This idea promoted agrarian cooperatives, which later became the region’s agricultural unions.
Since Lérida with its strong labour movement is sometimes said to be more separatist than Barcelona, travellers might be concerned about speaking to the locals. Many people from other parts of Spain believe that Catalonia is teeming with radical independistas who hate anyone from ‘the other side’, so how do leridanos treat visitors, especially if you don’t speak Catalan?
Though the Catalan flag hangs from almost every public building, in our experience, the people are courteous and friendly. Nobody looked at us twice, let alone mistreated us for not understanding their language.
Most leridenos are bilingual and many speak English. We generally spoke Spanish to people, who automatically would answer us back in Castellano instead of their native Catalan. Even local children seem to juggle the two languages with ease, flipping from one idioma to the other.
Lower and Higher Pyrenees
Northern Léria is one of the most mountainous regions in Spain, offering adrenaline junkies an action-filled holiday. The particularly vertically inclined might enjoy the vía ferrata, a trek by steel cables discovering troglodyte dwellings while crossing Tibetan bridges and zip-lines. If this is not your thing, the Pyrenees also offers nature walks, paddling and skiing in one of many local ski-centres.
For those seeking more leisurely pursuits, there is the scenic Tren dels Lacs (Lake Trains), a pleasant vintage train-ride from the capital to the Pre-Pyrenees.
Vall de Boi – Patrimony for Humanity
The quaint villages in the Vall de Boi are dappled with hobbit-like stone houses and surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. However, the valley’s real attraction is nine Early Romanesque churches built between the 11th and 12th Centuries.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, the ensemble is unique in the world and holds Europe’s largest concentration of Romanesque art.
Perhaps the most astonishing of the lot is Sant Climent in the village of Taüll.
Inside, ancient religious frescos are still detectable and get completely revealed in a mind-blowing light and sound show, literally transporting one back to the 12th Century.
Do not forget to climb up in the bell tower, an elegant 800-year-old construction of six floors with a to-die-for vista, as Taüll perfectly demonstrates harmony between cultural heritage and natural environment.
The Aran Valley – a tribe of its own
Feeling travel weary, we turn off the main road, cross a creek, make a few sharp bends and enter one of the last villages before the French border, the Aranese town of Es Bòrdes.
Lérida’s northernmost valley, Val d’Aran has unique autonomy and its own language – Aranese. Variations of this language are still spoken in an area known as Occitania, also including Southern France, Italy’s Occitan valleys and Monaco. Though nearly all locals understand Aranese, only 65% speak it. For this reason, the language is protected and considered one of Catalonia’s official languages.
In such an isolated spot, we are lucky to find a place to eat at all, though to our surprise the local restaurant serves excellent Aranese dishes, including wild boar stew. Our friend recommends Olla Aranesa, a root vegetable soup with white and red butifarra sausage, bones, chicken feet and anything else the cooks can lay their hands on – in other words, a perfect high-energy meal after a day in the mountains.
At the next table sits a French couple that has come across for lunch on the Spanish side of the border. They are the first foreigners we meet in a week of travelling around the province. To be sure, the province of Lérida is not the tourist hotspot it perhaps ought to be, but you better hurry as it won’t remain a secret for much longer.
Heading home to Andalucía, we load the car with our communal purchases: half a lamb, several lengths of butifarra, cheeses, farm-fresh butter and three cases of sparkling wine.
It is time we introduce the lerideno tradition of ‘cava around the clock’ to the Spanish south!