It’s getting towards the end of March and just like every year, Albert, from Cal Sabater (Cobbler’s Farm) is ready with his flock to repeat the arduous journey of the transhumance. He is to take his sheep all the way from the hamlet of Sords in the low lying Pla de l’Estany region up to the Nevà meadows in the Ripollès region high up in the Pyrenean mountains for the summer. So, just as his father before him and just as his ancestors from time immemorial have done, he is about to set off on this seasonal migration to fresh pastures. He will walk almost a hundred kilometres from the plains to the mountains following the traditional transhumance route. Through forests, fields and villages, over mountain passes, fording rivers, crossing roads and train tracks and fighting what is probably the worst enemy of all; the rain and floods which are typical of this the month of March in this inhospitable region.
The sheep, of the local “Ripollesa” breed, are freshly shorn. The flock is looking good. All the sheep have a green mark resembling the figure of a man painted on to their backs. Albert proudly explains that this is the “Cal Sabater” brand and has been used for many years.
As usual, Albert is accompanied by his brother Carles, together with a Romanian hired shepherd, Juan. Josep “El Cibelles” is in charge of supplies and there are a couple of hangers on who will probably just get in the way. This is quite an event and nobody wants to miss it. Albert explains that two more shepherds, friends of his, will be joining them later. “Valenti” from the village Vilafreser and the famous “Pipa” who had been a long distance transhumance shepherd for many years. Other faithful followers are “El Fura”, “El Moro” and “Xispa”, Pyrenean sheepdogs who will be driving the flock and “Dana”, a young Pyrenean Mountain dog who will protect the sheep and everyone else from danger.
The journey will take six days to complete. The sheep have to travel at their own pace and stop from time to time. Albert says it is important for them to feed well and rest. We are not in any hurry. They nearly always stop at the same places at night. The route is full of memories from other years and they often remember things that have happened in the past. Here is where a sheep was lost or there a serious rainstorm, here, a memorable meal. There is a general air of nostalgia when they arrive at a place which is marked by some special event that took place in the past.
The sheep also experience an unusual air of excitement too. Albert explains that they know they are going to the mountain meadows. They intuitively know which paths to take from other years. They possess a special force which pushes them on, ever higher until they reach the pastures where they jump with joy at being there.
The journey starts with the tranquillity of the plane, the temperature is fine although it is a little hazy. Everything is going smoothly when we realise that we are crossing the Fluvià river. Farewell to the Pla de l’Estany region and welcome to the Garrotxa!
Stops are made so the sheep can eat a few blades of grass, to rest at midday when it becomes too hot or for the shepherds to drink a mouthful of wine from the leather wine pouch. This lazy rhythm allows to appreciate the countryside. Sometimes we chat and sometimes we keep quiet but we are always on the lookout to see if a sheep is straggling or in trouble.
When we stop, the shepherds milk the ewes so they don’t become ill and Juan, the Romanian shepherd drinks the fresh milk straight from the udder. They also comment amongst themselves about whether one is lame or can’t keep up. The road surfaces are no good for their hooves.
After a steep upward slope we reach a picture postcard pretty place. The 14th century Romanesque bridge at Llierca. It is very narrow and the stream of sheep is endless, the image is incredible and evokes times gone by.
The next day we pass Sant Martí de Toralles and the Mercer. Now, as is the yearly tradition, when we pass in front of Sant Isidre, is the time to dig into our pockets and make an offering to protect us from the rain and to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
In the afternoon we reach the Hostal de la Vall del Bac, a stopping place and important inn in the past, where the shepherds rested and could buy all they needed: from traditional shoes, tobacco, wine etc. Sadly, this place is now closed.
It looks like it is going to rain tonight as it has been drizzling during the evening. We decide to have dinner at Coll de Carrera, another farmhouse nearby. Halfway through dinner “Pipa” appears which livens things up no end! Finally, after having paid for everyone’s dinner, he decides to do the farm owner a favour by shearing his four sheep for free. That night Sant Isidre protects us and it doesn’t rain.
We reach Colònia Estevanell first thing in the afternoon. Here we have to follow the main road from Sant Pau de Segúries to Camprodon for a few hundred metres, so we have to be on the lookout as there are plenty of cars. If necessary we will have to stop the traffic as we have preference. Everything goes just fine, we stop the traffic using both sides of the road. The shepherds can’t hide their grins as they are the centre of attention and everyone has to wait for the flock to pass.
By mid-afternoon we realise that we have left Sant Isidre’s area of influence as it starts to rain hard. This region is like that. Change of plans for spending the night. The usual place is not safe with so much rain. when it rains at night the sheep don’t want to keep still and they have to be watched constantly. The shepherds look worried as they realise they will be up all night. At last morning comes after a night which is better forgotten. Everyone looks tired. “Cibelles” has found something though. It seems that the wild boar have been very near the tents during the night and the marks of their trotters can be seen in the mud.
The Collada Verda is an incredible place, we go through the Ogassa area where there are no trees and there are grassy plains as far as the eye can see. The view is splendid, there is nothing in the way and you can see a long way into the distance. Nearly everyone has fun collecting little wild mushrooms and Valentí gives us lessons. Suddenly the sun clouds over and the fog blankets everything.
We get to the Coll del Pal and the fog has cleared. This is also a place of strategic importance. Lots of flocks came through here on their migrations. Now, it is full of cows and Dana, the Pyrenean mountain dog fights with them so persistently that in the end she gets a thump. At lunchtime it rains again. The scene is comic, protecting the fire from the rain with our umbrellas we manage to cook our lamb cutlets although they are little underdone.
We gradually go down into the Vall de Ribes. That night we have to reach the pretty village of Pardines and go through the village square as this is where the transhumance route runs. Albert comments that the people in this village still like the flock to come through as it reminds them of when there were plenty more. He remembers arriving here with his father, leaving the flock in the square where a shepherd would keep an eye on them and they could have dinner in a restaurant and then find somewhere to sleep.
The final leg. Last night it rained again and it has been very difficult to control the flock. We leave before dawn and everyone is fed up with being wet and the sheep don’t want to wait any longer. We go down the main road to Ribes de Freser where the cars still with their headlights on illuminate the sheep. Some of the sheep are lame because of our long journey. It is important to get through Ribes before sunrise while everybody in town is still in bed. We walk through quickly seeing the surprised faces of the early risers going to work. We cross the railway line looking carefully both ways although we have right of way even on the rack and pinion track to the Núria valley. Up we go to Campelles where a good lunch is waiting for us.
It takes a lot of effort to get started again in the afternoon as we have been through many tiring days walking and this is beginning to show. We walk through some amazing pine forest until we reach Coll roig where before us we can see the meadows of Nevà. At last, we have made it. I remember what Albert said about the sheep jumping with joy when they get home but the truth of the matter is that after looking at them I can’t really be sure their mood is exactly joyful. Perhaps they are just too exhausted to jump with joy.
The shepherds are content. The work has been done for another year and everyone is smiling and making jokes. We let the sheep pasture for a while and suddenly I realise that Albert isn’t smiling any more. His brother says he is worried about shutting the sheep in the enclosure and also he is very tired after so many sleepless nights. Such is the life of a droving shepherd. And so we say goodbye.
The reason Albert continues this tradition, the transhumance, is not just a question of whether it makes economic sense to move the sheep on foot or by lorry. It is a sentiment he can’t avoid. Like the farmers who need to grow crops, he continues doing what he saw his father doing in his day and his father before him. Perhaps it is not easy to understand why a young man like him wants to continue in this tough, undervalued profession. He is the only long distance transhumance shepherd in these parts and if things don’t change he will probably be the last. So it seems we are about to lose not just another tradition or skill which has lasted since the 10th century in Catalonia but also a way of life.