Across the Pyrenees to France – and the discovery of the amazing Ainsa.

We squeezed Hercules the Hatchback Skoda out of his parking slot in Soria’s Fawlty Towers, and he was off, bounding along motorways and roads in his excitement at the prospect of returning to the Pyrenees.

The scenery from Soria, round Zaragoza and towards the mountains seems more like Arizona than Spain; it’s every shade of brown, orange, terracotta, with hills and escarpments and little canyons. To an English eye used to greens and blues it’s strange, but beautiful in its own way.

However, we were heading for our favourite mountains and this time we had decided to take a route up beside a long stretch of water that looks like a river valley flooded to make a reservoir. The water in reservoirs seems such a clear colour always, and this one was no exception – of course I’m vaguely aware of the scientific explanation that water largely reflects the colour of the sky, and it was a gloriously (very hot) sunny day, but your first thought when you see that turquoise surrounded by infinite shades of blue, purple and green is usually just “wow”.


The advantage of driving and taking yourself on less popular routes was perfectly illustrated by this day; it undoubtedly took us longer to reach our destination than if we had taken a motorway and/or chosen a less remote destination, but where would have been the fun in that?  There was not much traffic on this part of our route, so we were able to pull over from time to time and just let our senses become saturated with all the impressions. (This is perhaps a good moment to say that all these photos are unfiltered, they are simple snapshots of things that we see as we travel. The water really was that colour, Scout’s honour!)


We had seen that at the ‘top’ end of this piece of water was a small town called Ainsa, which we would have to go through.  What we had no idea about was that Ainsa is a beautifully preserved medieval town; actually, had there not been a bit of a bottleneck in the middle of the lower part of Ainsa where the through road narrows and traffic jams form, we would never have decided to get out of the jam in the hope that it would clear and would never have taken the road up to the left which climbs to a car park which gives you pedestrian access to this astonishing gem of a town.  How have I lived so long without knowing that Ainsa is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Spain?


It includes ramparts and a tower from an 11th century castle, as well as a complete small town dating from 12th to 17th centuries. The cobbled Plaza Mayor has pretty arcades where now there are cafés and restaurants and previously there were wine presses and vaults of bottles.


The views from the ramparts are stupendous, looking back towards the reservoir one way,


… and on to the higher Pyrenees in the other direction.


We still had a good way to go so we couldn’t stay long here; as we drove away, back down to the traffic jam crossing the river, we pondered how the medieval part of Ainsa had fallen into complete disrepair for a couple of hundred years, only being ‘rescued’ in the mid-twentieth century when the cavalry of tourism was sent in. Many years ago I read Claude Levi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques” where he points out (among many other things) the constant ambiguity of tourism – you find a beautiful, unspoilt place that needs foreign money, you make it popular so that the place receives money and within a few years the paradise is ruined as a result.  So far, I would say that Ainsa has got the balance about right, and I look forward to returning.


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