Second to none in grandeur and great historic episodes, the Pyrenees have nevertheless been relegated to runner-up status behind the Alps and Himalaya. Those who take an interest in mountains are familiar with Edward Whymper’s first ascent of the Matterhorn, and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest. In comparison, little is known or told about the colourful characters and historic events that over the centuries have formed part of the history of this mountain range. Matthew Carr has rectified this injustice in a fascinating narrative revealing the past and present of the Pyrenees, which have seen the passage of great figures, from Charlemagne to Napoleon.
The Pyrenees extend almost 300 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, separating the Iberian Peninsula from the European mainland. The mountains pass between Spain and France, are high and often difficult, but they were crossed by invading armies as well as innumerable medieval (and contemporary) pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. On his travels through these mountains, it struck Carr that there had not been a book in English that looked at the mountains’ history and culture as a distinctive subject in their own right.
Carr traces the path of anarchist guerrillas, refugees, crusaders, witches and inquisitors. But this is not a quarrying of romanticism, for the author also exposes the mountains’ unpleasant face: the featureless high-rise ski buildings of Vielha and ski chalets and holiday apartments that blight the picturesque valleys of the Catalan and Aragonese Pyrenees. That aside, the book stands as a celebration of the Pyrenees as a gateway for invasion in wartime and, in times of peace, a haven and inspiration for luminaries such as Victor Hugo and George Sand.
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