As the weather was good, I decided to take the scenic route from the South of France into Catalonia. The roads took me high up into the Pyrenees to the Col d’Ares where cowbells tinkled and cool winds blew across the mountain tops.
Descending into Catalonia, I came upon the interesting town of St Joan de les Abadesses, where a Christmas fair was taking place in the main square. I also discovered the beautiful abbey and the legend of Count Arnau.
It is believed that the story originated as a song in the 16th century, which relayed the conversation of the dead Count and his grieving widow. As often happens with oral stories, the tale changed and grew over the years incorporating other historical events and associating them with the Count.
Count Arnau was supposedly a wealthy landowner in Catalonia. One day, he decided to build a chapel in the mountains near his home. He promised the local labourers a heaped measure of grain per day in payment for their work, carving steps into the rock face to lead up to the chapel entrance. However, when it was time to pay, he only gave them a level measure and because of this fraud he was cursed by the village.
The Count was also a shameless philanderer who supposedly carved a tunnel through the mountain in order to reach the Abbey of St Joan in order to have an affair with the abbess, and possibly several of the nuns too. Because of the supposed licentiousness of the abbess and the nuns, the Abbey was closed down in 1017 and given over to monks instead, though it is more likely that this was due to religious reforms at the time rather than a secret tryst between the Count and the abbess.
After visiting the Abbey of St Joan and a wonderful exhibition about the tales of Count Arnau above the local tourist office, I decided to seek out his possible castle home and the church of Montgrony where the villagers carved the steps. They were in a remote area of the mountains, north of the village of Gombren. The church perched high up on the cliff and the castle in a valley down below. Although fenced off and locked up, I was able to gain access to the ruins of Mataplana Castle through a cow field. It was not a scary place, especially as there was a small chapel next to it, but I didn’t hang around for nightfall, as it is then that the Count is said to roam the hills on his black stallion, chased by howling hounds.