The many constructions around the interesting church of Sant Romà, built just atop the town of les Bons, make this historical ensemble. A stroll from Encamp to les Bons allows us to discover the history, the heritage and the specificities of life in the parish.
The Comú (City Hall) of Encamp has designed an itinerary starting in front of their administrative building, climbing to les Bons and ending in front of the iconic Hotel Oros.
Elements of the itinerary
We are standing in front of the seat of the Comú (City Hall) of Encamp, a contemporary building from 1987. Designed by Roberto Suso Vergara with the collaboration of Joan García-Borés and Jaume Viaplana, it was one of the first buildings in Andorra built with the curtain wall technique. It has seven floors. Its façade (which is a giant mirror that reflects any movement and plays around with light throughout the days and seasons) features the three colours of the Andorran flag, as well as lilac, the colour of the parish. The building, in its strictest sense, is the epitome of geometry: it has a triangular floor plan and a practically square façade. It was a groundbreaking building for its time. It is complemented by the square, which includes it in the everyday life and events that take place in it.
The Oratory of les Bons, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built in the late 19th century. It is a humble building with a barrel vault of popular style. Pilgrims would stop here and pray to the Virgin Mary; it is also the first place from which the Sanctuary of Meritxell can be seen. They would pray and rest here, as this is where the hardest part of the road begins. Inside, we find a majolica of the Virgin Mary, made in 1999 by local artist Ramon Argilés.
According to legend, three peasants from Encamp were working on the adjacent fields on a summer day, in the mid-19th century. Suddenly, there was a downpour. The men took refuge and, in their fear, they promised the Virgin Mary that they would build her an oratory if she saved them from it.
We continue our climb to les Bons by crossing the current bridge, which dates from 1948. A reproduction of the original bridge can be seen at the Prat Gran park.
A line of rocks stands atop the crag, like a wall above the guiding panels – the remains of Ca de Pont. Ca de Pont was a very wealthy house, and its owners were so proud of it that whenever someone asked them for something, they would always say that “it is more likely for the Valira to run out of water than for Ca de Pont to run out of cheese.”
The town of les Bons is very well worth a stroll. Cal Cotxa is one of the most representative typical 18th-century stately homes in Andorra. It has three floors and an attic; it faces the sun and is excavated on the rock. It is built with granite and slates and has a gable roof. The balcony on its upper roof, designed to make use of sunlight, is one of its distinguishing features. It was used by the inhabitants of the house for sunbathing, as well as to dry their laundry and also to dry fruits. Iron balconies were symbols of wealth.
The climb has been worth it, and we’ve made it to the top of the hill. The church of Sant Romà de les Bons, a Lombard Romanesque church consecrated on January 23rd 1164 according to the consecration document found inside its altar, is waiting for us there. It has a rectangular floor plan and a semi-circular apse and preserves a bell gable with two openings that spreads along the western wall. The entrance door, also located on the western wall and decorated with a frieze with saw tooth decorations, is covered by a porch built in a later time period, from which one can enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the valley. The apse features decorations in the shape of arches and lesenes.
The original altar is preserved inside, along with the remains of the original mural paintings that used to cover it. The paintings we can see on the tholobate of the apse are a reproduction of the Romanesque ones, which are currently preserved at the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Gothic mural paintings are preserved on the upper half of the apse, on the walls and on the barrel vault of the nave. A 16th-century gothic altarpiece and a 12th-century granite baptismal font are among its most noteworthy elements.
An imposing old military tower, which could have been part of a fortified enclosure, stands in front of the church. It hasn’t been clearly dated, although it could date from the late 16th century, coinciding with the raids of the Huguenots in Andorra. According to the people, when something was really old and its origin was unknown, they would say it dated “from the time of the Moors”, hence the name of the tower – “the Moors’ Tower”. The origins of the church of Sant Romà could trick us into believing that the tower is also Romanesque, but the 1278 and 1288 pareages forbade the construction of any castle and ordered the destruction of all existent ones.
It was an inhabited tower and included elements such as a sink to wash the dishes with an outer opening; the defence embrasures used to shoot projectiles; and the machicolations under the (currently non-existent) roof, used to defend the tower in case of an attack. The reddish colour of the inner walls is a testament of a fire. One can climb to the top and enjoy a magnificent view of the town, the valley and the camí ral that leads to France.
A water reservoir is excavated into the rock next to the Torre dels Moros and the Rossell dovecote. Fed by the nearby torrent of les Bons, this was the old water reservoir of the walled enclosure. Water from the torrent and the rain was collected here and was distributed throughout the enclosure through a canal excavated into the rock (which can still be seen nowadays). According to legend, the Moor queen came here for a bath every full moon, and the men climbed in secret to les Bons to see her. Her beauty was captivating, and the men who had seen her fell deeply in love with her, and they remained under her spell for the rest of their lives.
Tower dovecotes became a characteristic construction model in vernacular architecture between the 16th and 18th centuries. They were destined for the breeding of domestic doves, and can be found both inside a house and at the centre of any nearby meadow. Dove breeding had two purposes: on one hand, the consumption of these birds as part of the diet, and on the other hand, the use of its excrements as a natural fertilizer.
Not all houses had a dovecote. Some were attached to the house or the barn, with open holes on the façade; few houses had a tower dovecote, and it was a symbol of prestige – almost all of them belonged to the wealthiest houses.
The dovecote faces the sun and has two small roofs, between which there is a slab with holes big enough to let doves in and keep raptors out. We can also see other slabs on the four walls. They were used to prevent rats or crawling animals from accessing the dovecote and eating the doves. The holes where the doves used to nest are located inside the walls of these dovecotes.
The Cotxa dovecote has been declared to be of cultural interest.
The Hotel Rosaleda, which was declared an asset of cultural interest and is the current seat of the Ministry of Culture, stands proudly in front of the Comú of Encamp. The building was designed by Catalan architect Adolf Florensa, a distinguished member of the Noucentista movement. It was built between 1941 and 1943 and is one of the most emblematic buildings of granite architecture, which were designed by prestigious architects and incorporated elements from foreign expressive currents. The Hotel had originally 60 rooms and was the most luxurious in Andorra. Most of the rooms were equipped with their own bathroom (which was a real improvement at the time). It was the first hotel in Andorra with a swimming pool and a party room. Its most noteworthy elements included the reading room with its leather armchairs, the common rooms (painted with allegoric mountain motifs, as well as Hawaiian, Tyrolean, Spanish and Catalan ones, and luxuriously accommodated), the main staircase, and one of the first electric lifts in the country. The staff was select and came from the best hotels in Barcelona, although people from the country were also hired to perform other tasks. The hotel never closed, as it was oriented to customers with a high economic status. Many illustrious and rich people, as well as celebrities, some descendants of European royal families and even Aga Khan III stayed at this hotel.
We will take the camí ral to climb toward les Bons. Although Andorra has never been a monarchy, some roads were also known as camins rals (“royal roads”), as they were the main roads in the country that traversed the valleys from one end to the other and communicated them. The 46th maxim of the Manual Digest (the 1748 compilation of laws and customs), written by Antoni Fiter i Rossell, advised to “keep the royal roads clean to the best of our abilities”.
The road to the Oratory of les Bons is one of the oldest in Andorra: it was the main road leading to Canillo and France, the natural road to access the Eastern valley. This road is made with polished granite rocks, worn out by use throughout the centuries. People, messages and goods were transported through these roads. On the sides we see fields and meadows, formerly used for harvesting. As we arrive to the oratory, on the right, we can see a meadow with various hills, known as the Queralt patch; its utilization was auctioned for a year, and the obtained money went to pious causes, and also became a dowry and financial help for brides from poor houses. It was managed by the clergy house.
Les Bons is home to another one of the most important houses in Andorra between the 16th and 18th centuries, which still features remains of the original paint on the main façade. It was a strong house and competed with Ca de Pont. Its former inhabitants were prohoms and often held prominent posts in local and general administrations. A 1633 inventory states that they owned silver cutlery and a set of copper bowls, as well as old books and parchments. The burial of one of the heads of the household of Ca de Mas, which took place during the early 18th century, featured the presence of 33 priests, “all of the priests of the Valleys”, a unique and exaggerated figure. This gives us a taste of the power held by this house, which not only had to pay for the masses but also take care of the priests and their animals for days.
The stroll continues through the old washing place of les Bons, one of the remaining few in Andorra, where the women used to gather on Saturdays to wash their clothes with the ashes. Ashes were never tossed away in houses, as they were used as fertilizer and as bleach. Soap was made with oil, caustic soda and animal or vegetal fats. The clothes were then hung outside to dry, which filled the town with a very characteristic clean smell.
Let’s take a closer look at this magnificently restored stately home as we walk by.
We follow the promenade by the river as we exit les Bons. Let’s stop and look back to enjoy a wonderful perspective of the town of les Bons.
Our stroll ends by the Hotel Oros, a pioneering high-quality establishment (long before the Hotel Rosaleda). The current building is the second one, as the first one, built the 1910s, was destroyed by the 1937 flood. Its promoter was Josep Mas from Casa Oros, the first secular teacher of the French School of Encamp and an inquisitive man ahead of his time. His correspondence with many public figures such as Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States of America between 1912 and 1920, has been preserved.
As we continue, we cross underneath Cal Tona. The scarce terrain is used to its full potential. The tunnel is in fact a room in the upper floor, and the lower floor contains the street where markets or town meetings used to be held, under proper shelter.
Let’s head back to the town of les Bons and stop to freshen up by the fountain that carries the water from the torrent of les Bons. This fountain was in fact an old trough where the cattle used to stop after the long days of work at the adjacent terraces and meadows.