Blue skies. Pristine snow-capped mountains. Empty ski slopes with fresh powder. Peaceful pastures full of cows and horses gently grazing, not to mention castles revealing themselves in the most unexpected places. A journey to Cerdanya in late February is nothing short of wintry bliss.
One could not ask for a more perfect family road trip, since the drive there from Barcelona is visually interesting and blessedly short. In less than two hours travel from our densely populated metropolis we reach thickly wooded forests and a vast lush valley set amid the Pyrenees.
We stay in Queixans, a tiny hillside town of just a few hundred people in peak season. Indeed we nearly miss the turn off the highway, this town is so small. While waiting to get house keys, the children goof around and make friends with a local.
Queixans offers no market, no pharmacy, no shops. No people either, it seems! Just an array of beautiful, interconnected stone homes set into the hillside around a lovely little creek... and one elegant restaurant.
We've been told we may run into a famous Barca soccer player or two here, with their families. This sleepy little hillside town is highly desirable, and just 4km away from the much larger town of Puigcerdà. In good weather it would be an easy walk.
In five days and four nights, we have only brief glimpses of a few neighbors dining al fresco with their families. In general, the modern stone village is empty... all of its temporary residents off skiing by day (as are we). It's glorious, expansive parks are vacant, no laughing children on playgyms or swings. This is a town of weekenders, city folk who drive north on Friday to enjoy the peace of their second homes in the country.
After ten minutes here though we understand. We would like a tiny second house in the country too! Why not? What a lovely dream for 'someday'! We check the real estate listings for fun... and are amazed. A brand new three or four bedroom house with such spectacular vistas for less than 200,000 euro? In this pristine spot, just moments from both ski slopes and summer river rafting?
We luxuriate in our comfortable AirBNB, enjoying five days without having to worry about bothering upstairs or downstairs neighbors (since there are none).
We teach the children how to play pool, which becomes their new obsession. "Wow Mom, you're really good," they say as I run the table and best their father; I love that I am still able to surprise my children with these tiny skills (like speaking in Italian) that they'd not known I possess. For ten entire minutes, I glory in being a 'cool' mom/pool shark.
We ski. We, who have never, ever skied before as a family, ski. We wake early, drive forty minutes through the glorious valley and along curving mountain roads, and ascend into the heavenly sky.
We find our adventure at the mountain's peak... in Aransa, a perfect quiet ski resort geared to cross-country skiing (known here as ski de fondo).
Our instructor is Jesus. He is patient; he is kind. He strikes me as highly intelligent with an impressive physical memory. He tells us that he lives nearby; he is from Aransa. Jesus gives us two family lessons, teaching all five of us simultaneously. Not an easy feat, with students ranging in age from forty-two to seven!
He watches us attempt each new exercise, individually, and then closes his eyes as though reviewing all he has seen, remembering the unique angle of our every move. He opens his eyes and fixes them upon me.
"When you were coming down the path this time, at about the midway point, your foot curved to the wrong side," he explains in Spanish. "Your ski should make this angle," he demonstrates, "But instead it made this one." He shows me how to curve my long, thin cross country ski correctly, so that I can see the word SALOMON tilted clearly toward me as it brushes through the snow.
He is especially patient and gentle with seven year-old Little Angel, who spends her first two hours on skis with a red and frustrated face, falling down over and over again. "I can't do it!" she protests tearfully after the first hour. "This is too hard!"
Jesus works calmly with her while the rest of us practice our exercises. "She lacks only confidence," he explains to me in Spanish. "Once she has the confidence, the skiing will be easy for her."
He is right. He takes her all the way down the slope, holding her hand to make sure she does not fall. She makes it down once, then twice, without crashing.
By the third time down with Jesus, she is smiling... elated. She no longer holds his hand, instead gripping her own poles with enthusiasm. "I did it! I CAN do this, Mommy!" On our second day she is racing past me joyfully. She flies, she stops, she can make turns. Her smile grows wider and more radiant.
At the end of the second day, she wins a rare compliment. "Out of all of you I am the most impressed with Little Angel," Jesus announces. "Her brothers are faster of course but they crash much more, because they take many risks and are less attentive. Little Angel's form is the best, because she really listens to the lesson and wants to get the movement exactly right."
"Great work, Little Angel!" her father exclaims. "We're so proud of you!"
After five total hours of lessons, we are energized. We attempt our first real cross-country circuit.
I am feeling proud as we start; in two days I have not yet fallen on the slopes. I convince myself that I am a badass, I was obviously born to ski. Hard? No! I convince myself. Not at all! What could be more natural?
"I'm actually pretty great at this!" I tell my husband with a smirk, seconds before I take a hard spill and land flat on my stomach with legs twisted everywhere. Señor Aventura tries (half-successfully) to suppress his laugh. I cannot hold back my own giggles, I am laughing out loud. "Oh well," I grin at him. "You know what they say... pride goeth before the fall!"
We love every single second.
The five of us ski with our instructor for two days, around five hours each day. We pay 120 euro in total, all expenses included. This breaks down to 24 euro per person. We cannot believe how affordable it is! "We should come here more often!" my husband and I nod at each other.
For less less than the cost of a single date night with babysitting, our energetic children have learned to ski and are cheerful, tired out and mellow. They make snowballs and snowmen until their hands turn red. #winning! Señor Aventura and I share a smile.
On our last morning, my husband and I awaken feeling fifty years older. We ache like a pair of ninety year olds; he moans about his tailbone, I try to stretch out my sciatica.
"Are we skiing again today?" the children pester us eagerly.
"No," we shake our heads mournfully. "Mom and Dad are too old."
Instead we take them over to La Molina, to the "pista para trineus" (sledding slope). They spend hours sledding down the empty hill, the only children there mid-week. Our boys build a snow ramp and practice trying to catch air with their sleds. Little Angel wears a golden helmet and sparkles as she bombs down the hill again and again.
Señor Aventura and I sit at a table on the opposite slope, watching them sled as we share a delicious lunch of local sausages, freshly cut fries and an incredible egg/cabbage/potato mixture called Trinxat. It's a Catalan favorite, and after one bite, we understand exactly why.
My husband drinks a beer in the sunshine and chats with the older proprietor of the bar, whose family has run the Carles Adserá Sports Bar since the 1920s. He points to show my husband where the main ski slope used to be, and tells him stories of Spanish Olympians training there long ago. He explains what happened after the Spanish Civil War, and shares how La Molina has been built up throughout the years. We love sitting in the sunshine listening to his stories while watching our children sled!
As always in Spain, it feels as though we have stepped back in time. The life here is such a good, solid one. Apart from the occasional Selena Gomez song blasting from the sports bar speaker, we are sitting at a patio table enjoying a view and environs largely untouched by the last century. We are unhurried, delighted.
...and what of the Castillo de la Torre del Río, which surprises us as we head back through the pass from La Molina toward Alp? "Is that a real castle?" Little Angel asks us, and at first we cannot be sure.
"It could be a hotel," I speculate aloud, "Or perhaps a house built to look like a castle?" It seems to have fallen straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
We drive down to inspect more closely... Señor Aventura fearlessly plunges Chico Suave the car straight down the gravel road that leads toward the castle's entrance.
The cows stare at us in confusion, as if to say, "This is not the people moving machine we are used to seeing here!"
My husband steps out of the car to read the small Spanish and Catalan placard attached to its thick stone wall.
"It's real!" he exclaims as we inhale the earthy scent of cattle mucking all around us. "It says here that first there was an old Romanesque chapel here... and that is what these thick fourteenth century walls are from. Then it became more of an agricultural property and later, at the end of the 19th century, its owner remodeled it into a France-inspired castle! Kind of sad though... It was abandoned and partly destroyed during the Spanish Civil War... so now the owners mainly live in that little house next door, and farm the land."
We are properly enchanted. We gaze in wonder and appreciation at this unexpected ancient treasure that has popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, just around the bend in the road from the nearby town of Alp. Just when we think we have begun to understand our adopted country, there is always something new to discover!
I have fallen in love with Cerdanya. With every adventure I become more attached to Spain. "The hills are alive with the Sound of Music!" we sing as we cruise home merrily through the Pyrenees. Already we feel a powerful yearning to return.
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