Rendezvous on Canigou

feu de St JeanFor Catalans, the Canigou mountain is a symbol of their one-time nation which straddled the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenees. For some, it is also the emblem of a nation-in-waiting, to be reconstituted from the eponymous Spanish province centred around Barcelona, and the French département of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

A Catalan friend had invited me to the trobada which takes place on Canigou in June but was hospitalised a few days before, so I decide to go alone. I ring up the president of the organising committee. “Bring something combustible for the fire,” he says. “ It must be something which belongs to you, that’s important. And it must be labelled with where you come from.” He doesn’t question my accent and my evident lack of Catalan credentials.

I think immediately of my vineyard, now dead, strewn with forlorn vine roots. They were two years older than I am, worn out and unproductive; so I had them grubbed up. I will strap a bundle of them onto my rucksack.

I drive to Vernet on the west side of the mountain and take a little-used path to the Chalet des Cortalets 1400m higher up. The chalet is normally bustling with activity but today is exceptional. There are over 200 tents grouped in gaudy bouquets between the wild rhododendrons and broom in a clearing surrounded by pines and conifers.

Here, at 2150m above sea level, is a recipe for a rave party: ghetto blasters,  musicians with primitive sound systems, young people, drugs. And the secret ingredient which turns it into something else: a shared heritage, be it real or imaginary. There is French electro garage rock, but there are also traditional airs. There are young people, but there are older ones as well. And the drug of preference is alcohol, though I think I detect the perfume of cannabis amongst the smoke of the pinewood campfires. Although last year giant screens were erected to relay the thoughts of local politicians, there are none this time. This is not a political event. It is simply fun, escapism, an outing with friends.

I wander around asking people where they come from. Most are from nearby villages, most  speak French more readily than Catalan. A surprising number are just passing through on a walk.

As the evening dissolves into night, the musical tributaries merge and the singing coalesces around well-known songs: Les montagnards sont là, La Santa Espina, Se canto (strictly speaking an Occitan song) and Muntanyes regalades, of course.

Muntanyes regalades,
són les del Canigó
que tot l’estiu floreixen,
primavera i tardor.

Bountiful mountains
Are those of the Canigou,
Covered with flowers all summer,
Spring and autumn, too.

This is the annual Catalan rendez-vous – trobada in medieval French, and we have all become troubadores.

It is about 4 am before things begin to quieten down and I get some sleep, but I am soon woken by the sun. The chaotic sky persuades me to rise before the thunderstorm breaks.

CanigouAt the summit, 2785m above sea level, the wrought iron cross that marks the highest point is already surrounded by some thirty small bundles, brought up yesterday. As I put my contribution amongst them, I am embarrassed to realise how out of place it is. The others are all tied together with red and yellow ribbons. Mine is tied with an old tee-shirt representing my village. And yet I know how important the blood-and-gold flag is to the Catalans. Too preoccupied with my own identity, my own hopes, I had forgotten the purpose of the fire.

And here is the crux of the matter. Here the trobada derives its meaning. We are constructing a bonfire at the summit of the highest peak in Catalonia. It will be lit on midsummer’s eve, when the sun is at the height of its powers. The flame will be transported on foot, in cars, even on airplanes to the far reaches of the Catalan Diaspora. Out of the fire, will rise the Catalan phoenix, reborn. And for me? From my vineyard, wine will once again flow.

video of the 2008 event

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