Pyrénées – No Barrier to a Cultural Cauldron

With Basques to the west and Catalans to the east the Pyrénées are a physical but not a cultural barrier to centuries of Franco-Spanish intermingling.

Mural a Vilassar de Mar, El Maresme, Catalunya.

Mural a Vilassar de Mar, El Maresme, Catalunya. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This vast mountain range – Pirineos or Pirineo in Spanish, Pyrénées in French, Pirineus in Catalan, Pirenèus in Occitan, Perinés in Aragonese and Pirinioak in Basque – is a daunting 491 km natural border between two nations which nevertheless nurture languages and dialects that in turn share common Latin roots.

As travel writer and blog owner Nancy Todd notes “Catalonia and Navarre have historically extended on both sides of the mountain range, with small northern portions now in France and much larger southern parts now in Spain.”

In gathering material for The Spain Scoop Nancy Todd, who originally hails from Asheville, North Carolina, today straddles the Franco-Spanish border dipping into both Barcelona and Toulouse to write and publish photo essays about two neighbours with Pyrenean strongholds that shelter fascinating cultural affinities.

Explaining her cross-border existence Nancy, who co-edits and co-owns The Spain Scoop with Regina Winkle Bryan, says that “with a passion for both France and Spain and after five years in Barcelona, I now go back and forth between Toulouse and Barcelona seeking and finding inspiration for our readers.” She and co-owner Regina first found their common interest in a writer’s group and and Regina suggested they write a blog about Spain. “Four years later, it has evolved as a travel guide with specifics on festivals, food, transportation, etc. and also a host of personal stories and interviews,” says Nancy.

Nancy recently captured these colourful images of the artists’ resort of Collioure, 30 kms south of Perpignan on the Languedoc-Roussillon coast and is preparing a feature on the village for French News Online.

For more on the fascinating historical intermix of languages and culture on both side of the Pirenèus read on after the images (kindly provided by Nancy Todd of

Nancy Todd

Collioure an artist’s hideaway

Nancy Todd

Colourful Collioure tucked away in Roussillon

The languages and dialects of the region – including Occitan (the Gascon and Languedocien dialects in France and the Aranese dialect in the Aran Valley) reflect centuries of historical twists and turns that moulded modern day Spain and France, countries whose border while permeable over time has not always been as rigidly settled as now.

Occitan was from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modern times, one of the great cultural languages of Europe. According to Wikipedia: “Occitan known also as Lenga d’òc (Occitan) (French: Langue d’oc) is a Romance language spoken in southern France, Italy’s Occitan Valleys, Monaco, and Spain’s Val d’Aran: the regions sometimes known unofficially as Occitania.  It is also spoken in the linguistic enclave of Guardia Piemontese (Calabria, Italy). It is an official language in Catalonia, Spain (known as Aranese in Val d’Aran). Occitan’s closest relative is Catalan.Since September 2010, the Parliament of Catalonia has considered Aranese Occitan to be the officially preferred language for use in the Val d’Aran.”

While there is no significant political autonomy, nor recognition of the language in the historical Catalan territories belonging to France (Roussillon, in the French département of Pyrénées-Orientales) the same observation does not apply in Catalonia where the language is a fervent nationalist banner.

The history of Catalunya (Catalonia) dates back to the Christian reconquest in Europe under Charlemagne says Wikipdia: “Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne created the Marca Hispanica in 790 CE, which consisted of a series of petty kingdoms serving as buffer states between the Frankish kingdom and Al-Andalus … In 987 the count of Barcelona did not recognise the French king Hugh Capet and his new dynasty, which put Catalonia effectively beyond Frankish rule. In 1137, Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona married Queen Petronilla of Aragon, establishing the dynastic union of the County of Barcelona with the Kingdom of Aragon that was to create the Crown of Aragon …

“It was not until 1258, by means of the Treaty of Corbeil, that the King of France formally relinquished his feudal lordship over the counties of the Principality of Catalonia to the King of Aragon James I, descendant of Ramon Berenguer IV. This Treaty transformed the region’s de facto autonomy into a de jure direct Aragonese rule.”

The disputed concept of Països Catalans is used by the supporters of full independence for Catalonia to describe the Catalan area linguistic territories running deep into southern provinces of Spain as well as into neighbouring France. There has long been turmoil dissent, terrorism and identity politics in the Spanish regions that border southern France and some commentators like this one  have openly speculated whether “after 500 years, Spain might be on the brink of falling apart – with the pragmatic Catalans, not the rebellious Basques, leading the way to the exit”

Nancy Todd (

Toulouse last winter (one of the worst in the past 20 years) the city’s university offers courses in Occitan.  (Credit:  Nancy Todd

Països Catalans is a controversial term because many non-Catalans see the concept of the Països Catalans as regional exceptionalism, counterpoised to a centralizing Spanish and French national identity. Others, according to Wikipedia, ” see it as an attempt by a Catalonia-proper-centred nationalism to lay a hegemonic claim to the historically Catalan regions in southern France or in Spain, to Valencia or to the Balearic Islands, where the prevailing feeling is that they have their own respective historical personalities, not necessarily related to Catalonia’s, as the Països Catalans term would suggest. The term was both challenged and reinforced by the use of the term ‘Occitan Countries’ from the Oficina de Relacions Meridionals (Office of Southern Relations) in Barcelona by 1933. Another proposal which enjoyed some popularity during the Renaixença was ‘Pàtria llemosina’ (Llemosine Motherland), proposed by Victor Balaguer as a federation of Catalan-speaking provinces; both these coinages were based on the theory that Catalan is a dialect of Occitan.”

France is a repository of a rich language heritage. In a 1999 report, for the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Bernard Cerquiglini compiled a list of 75 languages throughout France, including its overseas territories (the Dom-Tom) while within France itself he counted 24 regional languages. These include l’oil, l’occitan which in turn includes the dialects le gascon (Gascon), le languedocien (Languedoc), le provençal (Provencal), l’auvergnat-limousin (Limousin-Auvergne), l’alpin-dauphinois (Alpine Dauphine), and le corse (Corsican). Others are Hmong (French Guiana), Tahitien, the Melanesian languages, Gaul, the regional languages of Alsace and Moselle, l’oil, Occitan, which includes those above as well as minority languages such as Berber, Arabic dialects, Yiddish, Romani Chib, Western Armenian, Judeo-Spanish and sign language. Existing school curricula in France offer regional language teaching in schools, high schools and colleges and for the baccalauréat, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Creole, the Melanesian languages, Occitan, Tahitian, Gaul, the regional languages of Alsace and Moselle and Berber can be taken for examination credits. In 2006, there were more baccalauréat candidates taking Berber than Occitan.

On the western end of the Pyrenees the Basques have a similar cultural impact as this slide presentation shows. You can also view it here in your browser.

A Wiki in French with many language resources can be accessed here.

Story: Ken Pottinger


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