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The church was locked. No surprise, really. It was late afternoon in a small village that has only a handful of full-time residents and no full-time clergy. Still, I was disappointed. Not because of any sudden need to pray. I was simply struck by the elegance of the stone construction, the classic bell tower, and the way the building sat both in the middle of Llagunes and on the edge, overlooking the green folds of the Siarb Valley. Even with no one around, the centuries-old church was clearly the heart of the village, which has no stores, no restaurants, no cafés.
From a distance, Llagunes, which we hiked to on day three of our trek, looks like it’s painted red, so colorful are the rocks used to build the village. The 8-mile trail from the riverside town of Sort to Llagunes ascends modestly along a creek, skirts crumbling stone walls, and passes through the forests and agricultural fields that dominate the foothills of the Pyrenees. In truth, it wasn’t very dramatic scenery—which is exactly why I loved it.
Don’t get me wrong: I like alpine terrain as much as the next hiker, and I was glad our route took us through the high country on the previous two days. But one of my favorite things about trekking in Europe is walking the in-between zones—the obscure trails used only by locals, and which weave in and out of villages that were established when footpaths were the main form of travel.
Nowadays, of course, people here mostly get around by other means, just like anywhere else. For most of the daylong hike, we felt like we were the only people in Catalonia. That feeling didn’t change much in Llagunes. A light snow started falling after we arrived, and the narrow walkways were deserted. Which made it even more surprising when a black-haired man of about 30 materialized and said, “You want to see the church? No problem, I’ll go get the key.”
And just like that, we got a private tour. Our host had grown up in the village and was visiting his parents for the weekend, and was happy to come to the aid of a few curious visitors.
Inside, the church seemed barely big enough to accommodate 20 people, with a brightly colored angels-in-the-clouds painting behind the altar. The tour included a trip up the steep spiral stairs to the top of the bell tower.
Afterward, we learned the village wasn’t quite as deserted as it seemed. About a dozen people—apparently most of the population—had gathered to watch El Clásico, a soccer game between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Llagunes doesn’t have a bar or café, but it does have an unmarked, street-level door that opens into an oversize living room stocked with cold beer and a big screen. Call it a clubhouse for grownups. They waved us in.
When you make it to Catalonia, you should definitely hike in the high mountains and the deep canyons. But don’t miss the villages in between. And if it seems like no one is around, just knock on a few doors.
The dolmen stands alone, as it has for centuries, on a windswept rise over the small village of Valls d’Aguilar. It has two upturned rocks supporting one large slab that would take many, many hands to lift. Altar? Shelter? Tomb? Perhaps the latter by design, our guide Jordy says. The story goes that a king of England was killed in battle here and was interred beneath this monument. Archaeologists determined the dolmen is part of a larger structure, perhaps 25 feet across, and beneath it, found human bones. But that’s all that’s known—and you’ll never find it without a guide.