DEAD TOWNS OF THE LAKE
The Yesa Lake shines shines a bright unworldly cyan under a cerulean sky. The waters flirt with turquoise and the banks are dry and bone-chalk. Fields of furry yellow reeds peel back from the shore to rolling green hills. This was a place of dead towns and broken walls sitting juxtaposed with intense, pastoral beauty.
Soaring high above everything is the Leyre monastery: a big multi-styled bulk that has been expanding and evolving since the year 842. Named after San Salvador, this grand old girl also sits as a customary stop on one of the many strands of the Camino de Santiago. You can feel history pulsating whenever you chance upon the pilgrimage.
The building and extension of the lake in 1960 caused the drowning or de-peopling of certain smaller settlements. Tiermas used to have natural hot springs; in fact there is still a rough pool of rocks where locals can simmer in lakeside hot waters once full of Romans. Nowadays it sits abandoned atop a small mound with no eyes looking out.
Further driving around the lonely lake brings the visitor to Escó. From the road it looks quite idyllic. A small church and some somewhat empty-looking brick houses. All sandstone-coloured. The lime green fields lead up to it and ruddy prehistoric-looking cliffs back the scene. On closer inspection nothing is as it seems.
I traipsed up alone. Steep rubble inclines followed what would have been cute country lanes. Many of the stone facades were still intact, but often lacked walls, roofs, guts. The insides were full of life however, vegetation growing out in every possible space. Nature reclaiming the village. Apparently Escó limped on living until the 70s. My thoughts harked back to Belchite, a ghost village racked by the horrors of the Guerra Civil; but here the destruction was time.
There was however a power line overhead. I followed it, making my way steeply up, trying not to twist an ankle on the shrub-covered bricks, to the church. Pretty, caved in, and full of birds. At the top of the town on a nameless street there was the sound of a TV coming from one undamaged, or kept as it was, or renovated, house. I wanted to knock and see what hermit lived there. But I was scared. To this day I still wonder who was there, watching the gossip shows in that blasted away village on the lake.
Having had our fill of dead places, we instead pushed on deep into the hills south of the lake until we arrived at the wondrous honey-coloured town with the grandiose name of Sos del Rey Católico; a village just asking you to spend a high end romantic weekend away.
The hills here were mossy and multi-coloured in various hews of green. The Convento de Valentuñana sat, huddled in a fold of field and only visible from the town heights.
In Spain the majority of small places worth visiting seem to be designed as steeply as possible. Sos was no different. It swept up in a sequence of tightly-packed cobbled strips that gave way here and there to a small square or medieval archway. Children ran amok, as usual for Spain, and a farmer enjoyed a well earned rest as his flock grazed the grass at the base of the old town.
The road petered out and the named dots on the map began to spread out by the time we arrived at little Ujué. This village represented the reason I adored travelling in Spain. It was so easy to find space, quiet, isolation, beauty. Deep Spain. Ujué was just 1hr 40mins from Pamplona, the nearest major city, but I might as well have been in the depths of China for the feeling of separation.
A diminutive little place, Ujué followed the Aragonese template of absurdist location - hilltop/defensive/steep - combined with pretty tiled roofs and ochre stone. The airy church showed off a little with a miniature sidebar cloister sporting graceful columns and expansive views. The town hall was essentially a stone house with some flags attached above a coat of arms.
A small dog wandered aimlessly around a small square and a small shop with small people sold local products. The only thing open and seemingly the only sign of life. My mother bought some village honey and roasted nuts. You could shout ‘hello’ here and never get a response.
I was once asked if all these places were deserted. I don’t know the answer but I enjoyed the fact that they seemed so.