11 - Stories from the Pyrenees 1956 : by Michael Furstner ------------------ Previous - Next - Contents

Red wine and pink cheeks
Before setting off for Spain each summer, every geological student from Leiden would receive a free entry visa into Spain in his passport and also a Consejo, a letter of introduction from the Spanish Government including a request to the local authorities to give us any assistance required. This was a most valuable documents for us.

So when Richard Boersma greeted us after our harrowing bus journey to Cabdella in the summer of 1956, he proudly lead us to the house he had been allocated to live in by the local Electricity Commission, and including electricity completely free of charge. It was a one story brick house in good condition, quite comfortable, but without furniture, running water or a toilet. These latter two facilities were freely provided by nature outside, like it was for most homes in the area.

Cabdella, Central Pyrenees Back in those day there were (and perhaps still are) many small hydro-electric schemes in the Pyrenees.
The water from melting glaciers, perched high altitude lakes (icy cold, but which we jumped in nevertheless), rivulets and run off was collected in several kms long, narrow (less than 1 meter, 3ft wide) aqueducts. These were cut into the hard rock and followed a contour line (but for a very slight incline) usually some 300 meters or so above the valley.
The aqueduct would deposit its water into a concrete basin a quarter of the size of an Olympic swimming pool (8x25 meters, 9x30 yds). From there one or two pipelines (1 m in diameter) would shoot the water down to the bottom of the valley and energise the generators in a powerhouse.

There was just such a setup at La Torre de Cabdella in our valley 5 km to the south of us were a fellow geological student, Jaap Vink (called "Bink" by the locals) had his field base. Jaap had been given the keys to half a dozen houses around the collection basin 300 meters up the mountain. These had been occupied in the past by operators regulating the water flow down, but that was now regulated automatically from below and the houses were standing empty.

So when we visited Jaap for a week to inspect his area he each gave us a key to our own house. We had a fantastic time, swimming in the basin and running around naked as there was nobody else around. We also had our own private funicular (cable car) which ran along the water pipes straight down to the village in the valley, used by us in the evening to go to the local pub.
Running around without our pants on stopped within one day however, as we all got heavily sunburned on our "cheeks" and found it very painful for a few days to sit or to lie on our back.

Cabdella, Central Pyrenees We much enjoyed our stay in Cabdella too. Richard was perfect in both Spanish and the Catalan dialect, so he always did most of the talking to the locals, but Hauk and I had some contact, mainly while shopping in the village, and predominantly in French.

In the field we always made bets which each other for a bottle of champagne, usually about geological features we predicted. Then on Saturday evening we would have a party, playing cards and drinking all the bottles of bubbly we had won or lost during that week.

We also had a 25 liter green glass jug in a woven cane basket we filled up with the local red wine. When empty we carried this jug in a borrowed wheel barrow to the local wine shop in the village.
The wine was kept in a small dark room and stored in the sewn up skin of a whole pig (without its head), turned inside out (like a botta, with its bristles covered with tar). There were two or three of these pigs hanging upside down from the ceiling. Wine was poured from one of its forelegs through a funnel into our jug. After completion the pig's leg was folded double and tied tight with a leather string. I always loved that procedure.

There was one local, Emilio (if I remember correctly), who visited us almost every afternoon after our return from the field. He was the gigolo for a wealthy widow in Barcelona, whom he visited about once a month on his brand new motorbike with polished black leather side bags studded with large sparkling chrome buttons. Despite his questionable profession he was highly regarded in the village, owing to his proud possession, the only motorbike in the village.
One day, while waiting for us, he had crouched down and used our front doorstep as a convenient toilet. I shall never forget our complete astonishment and subsequent anger when we found the product of his effort lying there, still slightly warm. We grabbed him and threatened to push his nose into it, until he promised he would never ever do such a disgusting thing again.

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Copyright © 2010 Michael Furstner