hidden europe 31

Paths of history: transhumance in Spain

by Diego Vivanco

Picture above: Cattle en route to the Ebro delta in northeast Spain. The cows are following the route of a traditional cañada,but one which has been sacrificed to modernity by being asphalted for motor traffic (photo © Diego Vivanco).


Southern Europe is criss-crossed by old drove routes that served the pastoral economies of yesteryear. In Spain, these routes are called canadas. They are still used by herders who practice transhumance, spending summer in the hills with their cattle and returning each autumn to the coastal lowlands. Guest contributor Diego Vivanco joined Lionel Martorell and a herd of Avilena cattle on a five day trek down to the Ebro delta.

The traveller exploring rural regions of southern Europe will sooner or later stumble upon one of the old drove routes that were for many centuries so critical to pastoralists. These are in the main well marked routes, trails that are bounded by walls and are easy to follow. Sheep and cows like it that way.

These routes are Europe’s legacy road network, a web of connections that once defined not just the pastoral economies of entire regions but also the rhythm of the lives of those who tended the sheep and the cattle. These old trails are more than merely routes for sending livestock to market. These routes are the toll motorways of yesteryear, the infrastructure that sustained transhumance — the pastoral practice whereby livestock spent the winter months in the lowlands and moved up to hill pastures for the summer.

hidden europe guest contributor Diego Vivanco follows pastoralists on their journey down from the hills in his native Spain, where these ancient drove routes are called cañadas.

I was so looking forward to meeting Lionel Martorell. He is one of the last farmers in Spain who still practices transhumance, each spring taking his cattle up to the hills, and then accompanying them back down to the plains in the autumn. “Be in Fortanete tomorrow,” Lionel had said.

Fortanete is a village high in the hills of the Maestrazgo. It is a neat place of just two hundred folk. Life at over thirteen hundred metres is not easy in winter, so it is no surprise that Fortanete’s population has been dwindling for the last century and more. Cast back three or four hundred years and Fortanete was a hub in the web of cañadas that criss-crosses Spain. In its heyday, that network of rural trails stretched over a hundred thousand kilometres, four times as long as Spain’s national rail network today.

Hardly had I stepped off the bus from Teruel when I was ushered into a nearby bar and told that Lionel would be along shortly to meet me. The locals who acted as interim hosts all spoke from the same script. “Transhumance is dying a slow death, its end is inevitable,” said one man sadly, going on to recount how not so long ago thirty families in Fortanete were still involved in seasonal movement of livestock. “Not so nowadays,” explained the man. “Just Lionel and one other family,” he said.

It was not long before I was being introduced to Lionel and the rest of the team that would take part in the journey. “So you and I, of course,” said Lionel, “plus four stockmen on horseback and two more on foot.” Any illusions I had about the romance of the journey were put on hold when Lionel went on to explain about the back-up truck that would carry all the supplies needed for the journey. This was clearly transhumance with a modern twist.

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