Towards the end of November 1975 I was doing my shopping in the Boquería market off the Ramblas in Barcelona when I bumped into Bernard Loughlin, with whom I worked in an institution called the Dublin School of English. To mourn the passing of Generalissimo Franco on 20 November we had all been given ten days off. I had spent them in the city, wandering around in search of riots, old bars and potential sleeping partners. Bernard, on the other hand, had been in the Pyrenees: I listened to him carefully because his tone was full of wonder. He had been in a village full of enormous stone houses with slate roofs, most of them abandoned. They all faced south, each one a different height and shape, and the view was of a fertile valley, with rolling fields and poplar trees in the foreground, and masses of snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was spectacular, he said, awesome. It must once have been rich; but now nobody went there – it took five or six hours to get there from Barcelona. It was more than five thousand feet above sea-level – and you could rent a house there for next to nothing.
I didn’t want to rent a house there. I was having too much fun in the city. I was 20 years old and discovering the joys of cruising the Ramblas for the first time. For much of the day and most of the night I was laden down with desire. In those days if you started at Caneletes and you hadn’t hit the jackpot by Carrer Carme, then you were having no luck. I had a lot of luck.
But still I wanted to go to the mountains and see this place. I went there first with Bernard Loughlin and his girlfriend Mary Rogan on St Patrick’s Day 1976. I remember that we missed the early bus because we had the most vile hangovers. In those days, on the eve of the Irish national feast day in Barcelona, the native Irish and a group known as the Wild Geese – the descendants of the Irish earls and lords who had fled to Spain in the 17th century – had dinner together. The Wild Geese, after three centuries of hard graft, had become posh Catalans; the native Irish remained themselves and got drunk on the free whiskey which the consulate doled out. The Wild Geese grew more and more appalled as the native Irish sang songs and then forgot the words or, even worse, remembered them.
It was dark when we first arrived in the village. We were feeling fragile. I remember the biting sharpness of the cold and watching the wheels of the jeep we had hired to take us up the mountain spinning on the ice. And in the morning the pure blue sky, the snow on the distant peaks glinting in the sun, and the sound of water flowing from the hills above us down into the valley.
The village was at the end of the world; no traffic passed through it because there was nowhere else to go. In the Eighties, however, the Catalan government got control of road-building and gave us dual carriageways, tunnels and paved roads where we once had dirt tracks. Thus on a Sunday or a summer’s day, as the roads improved, an odd car would appear in the village, the driver hesitant, unsure whether he or she had reached some point of no return, the passengers looking out at the abandoned houses and the mountains with bafflement, and at the natives with caution.