A poet’s walk to war: act of heroism or the height of folly?
Laurie Lee’s walk across the Pyrenees in December 1937 to join the Spanish Civil War has always provoked mixed views. Relatives and friends, notably Wilma Gregory with whom Lee had been evacuated from Spain the year before, were concerned for the effects of the walk on his generally poor health. Indeed he later blamed two epileptic fits he suffered in Spain on the rigours of the journey.But later generations have come to see his winter crossing of the mountains, alone and in the teeth of a blizzard, as part of a noble response by writers and artists to the Republican cause at a time when our elected governments were shutting their eyes to the growing fascist threat. Lee was not always a reliable witness to his own movements and exact details of his route may have been contained in the diaries he later lost.
We do know, however, that he started out from Céret, a medieval terracotta and stone town sheltering under the sacred mountain of Canigou in French Catalonia. Our plan was to use local knowledge, historical record and existing paths to recreate his journey over the Pyrenees to the Spanish border village of La Agullana. We would stay true to the words of another poet, Antonio Machado, the Catalan writer who died shortly after escaping Franco’s advancing army: ‘Hay camino, se hace el camino alandar’ (Walker there is no path, you must make your own).We left Céret at dawn, passing the blue and white house where Picasso once lived as the clocks struck seven. From there to our first destination, Font Frede (cold spring), was a steady climb of about 3,000 feet mainly through sweet chestnut woods, or chataigneraies.
Our path was dotted with wild mushrooms one of which resembled a black chanterelle and is known locally as the ‘trumpet of death’. The gathering thunder clouds only added to the atmosphere of foreboding.
But the sun won through and after lunch on the Spanish border at the Col de Pou de la Neu, the highest point on our route, we risked a short siesta.
We know that Lee was poorly equipped for his journey and famously had to contend with a snowstorm, an experience recalled in his poem The Return:
And the day I observed that I was a lover
crossed the frontier to seek a wound
And fell with a fever above the Bahia de Rosas
Letting the mad snow spit in my eye
The landscape, though forbidding in winter months, is a fascinating one as much for the richness of its culture and wildlife as for the pivotal role it played in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. As we walked we could not but hear echoes of the thousands of refugees who had trodden this and similar mountain paths to escape their homeland in ‘La Retirada’ or great retreat (nearly half a million of them in the 10 days the border remained open in February 1939). Towards La Vajol our route took us close to the Lli pass across which key figures in the Republican government fled Spain as the news of Barcelona’s fall to the fascists came through. Just days before, a team of men and donkeys had brought the nation’s greatest art treasures, including several paintings by Goya, out by the same route.
The memories of those times are kept alive by a series of plaques, monuments and “memory spaces” on either side of the border. A statue in La Vajol recalls one of the most recognisable images of the retirada, depicting a father and daughter, her left leg replaced by a crutch, hand in hand as they struggle over a mountain pass. It was now late afternoon and, by our estimate,
we were still two hours’ walk from La Agullana. We headed back up the road to pick up the path to the church of Santa Eugenia, midway between La Vajol and our destination that evening. Sometime later, as we hacked our way through briars in search of a path worthy of the name, the words of Machado came back to us with new force. We eventually arrived in La Agullana in the early evening as celebrations were getting under way for the Feast of the Assumption. Leaving Céret some 11 hours earlier we had passed Picasso’s depiction of La Sardane, the folk dance which has come to symbolise Catalonia’s struggle for independence. Now we saw the real thing, enacted by villagers in the main square, young and old holding raised hands in a touching show of community. We drank a beer and toasted two poets – and the thousands of ordinary people driven over those mountain paths by fear and desperation with whom they shared common cause. Some perhaps were ancestors of the dancers in front of us; others joined the Catalan diaspora and have never returned.
• Gerard Hastings, a distinguished academic and Céret resident, and Ian Hamilton, co-author of the book Walking the Literary Landscape: http://www.vpublishing.co.uk/books/categories/walking/walking-the-literary-landscape.html, are writing a walking guide to this part of Catalonia.