In the middle of November 2004, I had the opportunity to speak to Josep Cirera, who was the guide of the expedition that led Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer to Andorra in November 1937.The story of this expedition has been recounted in different books, among which we recommended the following:
- VÁZQUEZ DE PRADA, Andrés: "El Fundador del Opus Dei", volumen II. Ed. Rialp, 2003
- RICO, Octavio y EZPELETA, Dámaso: "Cruzando la noche". Ed. Albada, 2004
- PIFERRER, Jordi: "Camino de Andorra". Ed. Albada, 2004.
In the coming months I will share details of the conversations that I have had with Josep Cirera. I will try to be as true as possible to the information that I receive, but naturally some mistakes may appear, mainly in reference to some concrete dates or some names, that I will correct as I have more information.
Obviously these writings are simply the stories and opinions of individuals. They therefore do not represent the ideas or opinions of the people who manage the web pages of pallerols-andorra.org who have very kindly given me access to this forum that I might share with you.
I am especially thankful to Dolors Porta Moliné, heiress of Can Porredon. Thanks to her I was able to locate Josep Cirera and his brothers, which has allowed me to have a more complete vision of this type of expedition through the Pyrenees, during the years of the war of 1936. Dolors is a relative of Cirera.
I finally thank Josep Cirera for his kindness and also his wife, Maria Teresa Dalmau, for her patience and for allowing us to publish these conversations today. Without any doubt the conversations will clarify many aspects of the expeditions through the Pyrenees during the Spanish civil war years 1936-1939. Many may feel that we should want to erase this era from our memory, but in this case, it has seemed more opportune to me to describe these episodes to shed more light on the details of the journey that leads to Andorra.
II. First expeditions
In the middle of November 2004, after speaking to many people of the area of Bellestar, I finally found some relatives of Josep Cirera who gave me his telephone number, and so I was able to contact him.
Josep is now 91 years old, which validates the data that we had previously. Namely, that in November 1937, the date of the expedition, he was 23 years old.
Josep is a man of medium height but very strong. Even now, at 91 years, he is still lean and firm without one extra gram of fat. He has a very clear mind, and he speaks with clarity and strength. Being optimistic, he is open and frank, so that the conversation was animated and enjoyable. He was always punctual for the appointments that we had set and respected all the commitments that he made. In short, he is a man of his word.
In the first conversation we spoke of old times - his trips through the Pyrenees passing people and goods, of the eventful journeys that he went through, etc. Among the hair-raising adventures he recounted are the following:
Once, in 1938, coming from Andorra through the border of Mas Alins, when he was in Argolell, Republican frontier guards threw a hand bomb at him, which he luckily avoided by hiding behind a wall within the town of Argolell. He was able to flee and return to Andorra by mountain. Again, in 1939, he faced frontier guards and fled frightened to death.
On another occasion, going through the forest, he found the body of a dead guide, with a knife stuck in his chest. It seems that the guide wanted to rob someone who defended himself and ended up killing the guide. He also explains that in an expedition he had to wait three days in the forest of Lluçà, over Argolell, because he was being closely watched. Finally, tired of waiting, he crossed boldly through the middle of the town of Argolell and thus arrived at Mas Alins.
The first time he guided people to Andorra was on March 19th, 1937, his saint’s day. He wasn’t very lucky, as the militiamen shot at him, although, thank God, nothing happened to him. When he realized that they were going to shoot him, he quickly jumped into the Segre river, to escape, leaving the militiamen to think that they had killed him. And, in fact, that is what another Josep, this one of house Armenter d'Organyà, who had facilitated the expedition, told Cirera’s parents. When they heard the news though, they were not at all scared, because they knew he had faked his death as he had slept in their house that very night. This happened on the main road that goes from Organyà to the Seu d'Urgell, just as you leave Organyà. On this occasion he was guiding three people of Organyà who wanted to pass to Andorra. They were a doctor, a pharmacist and another person, who he does not remember well, but may have been the veterinarian of the town. It was at night. Josep wanted to leave Organyà through Ares, but the other three told him that Ares was very high and difficult (it has a vertical gain of 900 meters). They preferred to go along the main road hoping that in the darkness of night, they would not be seen. Still with his doubts, he agreed, but when they were in an area called “the three bridges”, where the road and the river are boxed tightly between mountainous rocks, armed militiamen appeared. The three fugitives surrendered, following the demands of the militiamen and were arrested, but Cirera rapidly threw himself into the river while they were trying to shoot him. He hid between rocks near the river. The militiamen thought he would be dead. The prisoners did not betray him and said that they did not know who the man was. As a result he remained free to continue guiding on future expeditions.
This first failure did not discourage him and he continued guiding other fugitives, reaching almost 20 expeditions throughout the war. After this first negative experience he left to work in Andorra, until a friend of his in Barcelona, a doctor who pretended to be a communist, engaged his services to guide people from Barcelona to Andorra. In this way, from May to August of 1937 he completed three or four expeditions organized by this doctor and many others organized by other people.
He picked out his route as follows: first he walked from Andorra to Sort, in order not to be seen in the Seu d'Urgell, then continued from Sort by bus to Barcelona. From Barcelona they went by car to Organyà and either the doctor or another person would drive. An armed militiaman led them, so they had no problem passing the control points – though one of the most dangerous control points was the one of the Basella. Once in Organyà he took them on foot to Baridà - his headquarters - passing through Ares. From Baridà they went down to Noves de Segre and after a few kilometres turned up the Aravell river, later going up the gorge of the Tower, down to the Civís river, up the gully of the Cabra Morta and from there, between Argolell and Arduix, up to Mas Alins, already in Andorra..
If he did not go in the car with the doctor, he did the following: he took the train from Barcelona to Manresa and then took the bus of the company Alsina Graells and got off in Palanca de Noves where he could cross on a little bridge. Another route was to go towards the house of Reula, near Noves de Segre. Here there was a metallic cable towrope that crossed the river Segre. Once on the other side of the river, he followed the same way that we indicated previously. Travelling this route he passed only one or two people, at the most, and was able to pass the control points of Ponts or Basella using forged travel documents.
After these expeditions, in August of 1937 Josep moved to France to work in the grape harvest. When he returned to Andorra he was notified by Josep of house Armenter de Organyà to go down to guide another expedition. As it happened, this was the famed trip in November, 1937 in which none other than Saint Josemaria Escrivá de Balaguer went.
III. Background and preparation of a great mountain guide
When he was young, Josep Cirera worked simultaneously in many occupations: he helped his father in the tasks of the field and of the pasture, worked some days for other people, or dealt with goods, or he guided people to Andorra. His reputation as a good worker was well-known in the area and for that reason many people trusted him and employed his services.
He learned from his father to do piecework - with wages paid per job depending on how hard he worked. The Cirera family’s reputation as excellent workers caused them to move to new houses and areas frequently, because as word spread, they were offered ever better and greater fields to cultivate. Following his family, Josep Cirera lived in or near the places mentioned below and shown on the attached map. Also shown on the map is the route followed to Andorra (blue line). One can see that he lived in many different places located throughout the route.
He was born in Can Querol, of Sallent de Montanissell (1), in 1914. His mother, Maria Fàbrega Sin, was the heiress of Can Querol and his father, Ramon Cirera Llach was from Can Mestre de Bòixols.
When he was two he moved to Carreu (2), a neighbourhood that is located over Bòixols, in the direction of Prats, and where he remained until he was twelve years old. Here he became familiar with cattle husbandry, and his family also looked after the many mules and horses that were travelling the passage from Organyà to the Fair of Salàs de Pallars.
From twelve to fourteen years he was in Can Trullar d'Asnurri (3), very close to Andorra. As he worked for two years as a shepherd in this area, he learned perfectly all the paths that led to Andorra by mountain roads.
From age fourteen to nineteen his family lived in the Vilar de Cabó (4), where he became familiar with Can Armenter de Organyà.
From nineteen and until he was thirty years old they lived in Can Roger in a “pagès” (person from a rural area of Catalonia) house over Bellestar.
In 1944 his parents moved to Borda del Riu (6), at the confluence of the Castellbò and Aravell rivers.
In 1940 when he was already 26 years old, Cirera moved to Barcelona. However, he often visited his parents in the countryside and maintained his relationships with the people of the neighbouring towns of Andorra.
When the war broke out in 1936, in order not to be sent to the front - since he did not believe in wars as a solution to conflicts between people- he falsified his identity card, making people believe he was a lot younger. He also obtained two membership cards of different organisations: one of the CNT-FAI and another one of the UGT, and depending on who was asking, he showed one or the other card.
Officially he appeared in the records as serving as a volunteer on the front. In order to give credibility to this story, he wrote letters to a girl who worked in Edra, a country house close to Can Roger, making it seem that she was his girlfriend. He also frequently wrote to his parents from Barcelona as if he was on a few days leave there. The letters were passed from hand to hand to the people of the neighbouring towns, and thus the rumor spread that Cirera was at the front. In this way, he won the affection of the republican leaders of the area.
One of the most frequent contacts that Josep Cirera had as a guide, as we previously said, was Josep of Can Armenter de Organyà. His full name was Josep Ramonet Espar and he was married to Concepció Oste Argerich, sister of Maria Oste Argerich, owner of Juncàs.
Josep Cirera and the people of Can Armenter knew each other because Josep had worked with them when he lived in the Vilar de Cabó. They were also acquainted because during those years in which the Cirera family lived in Can Roger, the people of Can Armenter bought coal or other goods and land products from them. Those of Can Armenter also had fields in Organyà, and they bought and sold coal that others manufactured; they also bought and sold animals and had a boarding-house in the town. During about four years, when Josep Cirera lived in Vilar de Cabó, he helped them during the days of the Organyà Festival, that was on the 30th of November, celebration of San Andrés. This festival, along with the one of Salàs de Pallars, was the most important one of the area. Many animals of the Festival were put together in the Can Armenter territory, and many people stayed in the boarding-house. During the Festival there was a lot more work and Cirera helped them. He was then between fifteen and eighteen years old.
As we have previously said, the people of Can Armenter and those of Juncàs were relatives, since their grandmothers were sisters. Likewise, those of Fenollet were relatives of the Cirera family. The mother of Josep Cirera was the heiress of Can Querol de Sallent de Montanissell, which is very close to Fenollet.
As he had moved from town to town several times, Cirera was very well-known in different places in the lands one crosses on the way towards Andorra. He was also very friendly with the people of Baridà, who also helped people cross the border, and of those of the Parish of Hortò. Josep also knew the area of Can Roger like the back of his hand as his parents had been tenants there, and he had lived there when he was nineteen years old, after leaving Vilar de Cabó.
Taken together, Cirera’s life had made him an expert of the entire area from Aubenç, passing through the valley of Sallent, Fenollet, the valley of Cabó, Ares, Baridà, the valley of the Aravell river, Can Roger, Argolell and up to Mas d’Alins. In addition, he had many contacts in the area of both friends and relatives.
There was, however, an area he didn’t know well. That was the area from Aubenç towards the south: Juncàs, Baronia de Peramola and Baronia de Rialb. Here he had to trust and rely on the local guides.
As it happens, he only made two expeditions from Juncàs: one of them was the one of November 1937. The other expedition he did from Juncàs was the one in which he passed relatives of Juncàs towards Andorra. The rest were all from Organyà or Baridà, a territory he knew perfectly.
Most of the time two or three guides collaborated with Josep: one was Garreta, of Can Cebrià de Espaén, but he also had good contacts with the owner of Baridà - Ciscu Bentanachs- and, especially, with his son, Jesús; There was also Domingo, of Espaén; others of the Parròquia d’Hortò; Pitarell de Montanissell; and others. When the expeditions had a greater number of people, three guides went: one ahead, another one in the middle and a final person at the back of the expedition.
Sometimes as they were making the climb up to Andorra, other guides and smugglers who were transporting great bales of wool and bags of saffron –items that were very valuable- added themselves to the expedition.
Cirera guided twenty expeditions altogether, between May of 1937 and June of 1938. He took a new expedition about every 15 days. He received 1,000 PTA. per person for his services.
In June 1938 he stopped guiding people, as he explained that during these days this activity was much more dangerous, because the government was watching everything. In 1937 the militiamen had been at the front, which was far away from Catalonia. Thus, around this area there was little vigilance. Josep explained that in 1938 things got more difficult. This is supported in "El meu diari de Guerra" (My War Diary) where clergyman Pere Tarrés tells that, from the 28th May to the 2nd of September 1938, he campaigned in the territories of the Seu d'Urgell, Sant Joan Fumat, Ars, Buró, Llavorsí, Sant Joan de l'Erm, Rubió, El Cantó, Taús, Espaén, Noves de Segre, Adrall, Montferrer and the Seu d'Urgell. So this means that in this area there were troop movements and fronts of battle. Therefore it is logical to think that everything was more watched.
Usually Cirera guided only very small groups of 2 or 3 people, at the most 7 or 8, and sometimes he even took just a single person. On just one occasion did he pass a group of 100, but half way along he separated them into groups and he continued on with only a reduced group of 15.
The guides never gave their real names, but used pseudonyms instead. Josep was known as “Roger” and sometimes “Antoni”. He tells us that he only told his real name to two people: to Saint Josemaría Escrivá and to a manufacturer of Sabadell. He recounts that in later years, he went to see this man in Sabadell who then gave him cloth to make himself a good suite.
When he was in Andorra he lived in the hotel Palacín de Escaldes. He did not want to live in Sant Julià de Lòria, because he explains that there were spies of the Spanish Republic militiamen who could give him away. When he had to pass through Sant Julià, he always did it by night or hidden.
IV. The expedition of November of 1937
In the middle of October 1937 Josep Cirera had finished working the wine harvest in France and returned to Andorra, where he had been living.
When he arrived at Andorra he received a message from his friend Josep Ramonet Espar, of Can Armenter de Organyà, alerting him that there was a group of people needing to escape from Juncàs to Andorra.
As mentioned before, the people of Can Armenter were relatives of those of Juncàs and also helped to pass people to Andorra.
According to Josep Cirera’s story, when he would receive the assignment he would go down towards Juncás, on foot during the day using the same routes he would be taking to return that night so that he could assess the situation on the route. He says he already knew the way because weeks before he had gone to Juncàs to pick up people who never showed up. So it was that he arrived at Juncàs on the afternoon of the 27th. He spent the night there and on the following day, November 28th. Around noon he went with people of Juncàs up to the Ribalera. There he found a group of 20 people, that he had to guide.
Joseps account of the November 1937 expedition blends perfectly with the descriptions of men who wrote journals of the passage: both Miguel Fisac who wrote his journal while on the expedition, as well as Antoni Dalmases.
Indeed, Miguel Fisac says: "It is mid afternoon of the 28th . We begin the first day with the guide that will take us to Andorra, who, by the way, is most competent in his trade: he orients himself with an amazing simplicity and during this and all the other days we have not seen a single hesitation of him."
In the journal of the previous day, November 27th, when they were leaving the Hut of San Rafael in direction of the House of Corb and on to the Ribalera, Pedro Casciaro says: "We set off at quarter to six. Our guides will be Pallarés and Mateo."
Antoni Dalmases, after his emotional account of the Mass of the 28th in the Ribalera, writes:
"The Madrilenos give me bread, while we wait for ours to be brought to us (we have left the package in the house) and this way we spent a while speaking, eating and repairing our equipment, until the day comes. He is a well determined young boy. We pay half of the price that had been agreed, 7,000 pesetas in old notes and he tells us to be prepared at four in the afternoon... we eat a little more and when it was more or less four o’clock the guide comes, he finds us already loaded and with canes in our hands all ready to leave."
Paco Botella, who also went on the expedition, recounted years later what happened that afternoon of November 28th:
"When it was getting dark, appearing as if by a spell, there was a strong, young, pleasant boy, with an authoritative look, who was going to be the main guide - the person in charge of the adventure to which we had committed ourselves. He said his name was Antoni. Of course, one could already see that it was a conventional name."
When I spoke to Josep Cirera, he said that he does not remember going to the cave-house of Corb, and he said he was immediately taken from Juncàs to Ribalera first thing in the afternoon where he immediately left towards the channel of the Jaça to start the expedition towards Andorra.
He also said he is sure that he did not attend any Mass during those days, neither in Ribalera nor in any other place.
Josep Boix of Juncàs, who was then 17 years old, tells us that after the Mass in Ribalera, which he attended, he went to his house to eat and met Josep Cirera there. They ate together in the house and later on returned together to Ribalera to go up the channel of the Jaça. Josep Boix was hiding in the Ribalera so that he wouldn’t have to go to war. Shortly after he also passed to Andorra. In Ribalera, according to what Josep Boix explains to us, the food was carried, like always, by a servant they had, called Juanita.
The journal states that it was Mateu who took the food, which indicates that Mateu Molleví Rock, named in the stories of the journal as Mateo "the milkman", was also one of the guides who accompanied them to Ribalera.
As we know, Cirera was not an expert in this territory, and therefore he could not easily be a guide in this area. Most probably the guides that accompanied the fugitives from Baronia de Rialb to the house of Corb were people of the area of Peramola: “El Tonillo”, Antoni Bach Pallarès; Mateu Molleví Rock; or some relative of these. Juan Jiménez Vargas also speaks of a so-called “Mora”, who could be of the house of Mora. Even Josep Cirera told me that he had heard that Mora had accompanied them to Ribalera. Obviously there would also have been somebody of Juncàs, since the lands through which they passed were their property and they were deeply involved in the organization of these expeditions, though surely they did not charge anything (neither did those of Can Armentera).
Once they arrived at the top of Aubenç, Josep Cirera knew all the land perfectly, and thus from there he became the person in charge of all the expedition.
A map, in which the areas of influence of the guides can be seen, is enclosed.
We also have to mention that Josep Cirera often cooperated with other guides: those of Baridà, Garreta of Can Cebrià de Espaén, some guides of the Parròquia d’Hortò, Perdiguès del Pitarell which is over Montanisell, Armengolet de Valldarques or of Gabarra, and others. Journals tell us that in this expedition, as with those from Baridà and of the area of the rivers Castellbò and Aravell, more guides and some smugglers joined the party. Most often Cirera guided with Garreta of Can Cebrià.
Josep Cirera states that after gathering the group, they would always go up the channel of Jaça, pass near the house of Aubenç and go down directly towards the Masías of Nargó through the trails that were used by foresters to drag out the trees they had cut. Then they arrived at the Valldarques and Sallent rivers which they had to cross. They next went up the gully that goes to Comalavall on the route of Montanissel. But long before arriving at this town they would go down directly through the forest to Fenollet, where they arrived at 6 in the morning. Remember that the people of Fenollet were Josep’s relatives. Here, he says, they ate very well. Eugeni Coll Campà of Fenollet, who at the time was 14 years old, told me that he remembers Josep Cirera and his brother Ramón very well.
That same day at dusk, they would go up the channel of the Fangueret, pass through the hill of Santa Fe and go down to the Cabó river, that runs between masías of Ametlla and Oliva. Cirera had lived six years in Vilar de Cabó and therefore he knew this area very well and also the area they would travel next: the trip to Ares. Shortly after this they would arrive at the “spoiled” Bordeta of Baridà, as they called it, which is close to Conorbau. Here he would leave the fugitives to go and greet Francesc Bentanachs Oliba, “Cisco”, the owner of Baridà who was one of the organizers of these expeditions. Near the end of the war Cisco was killed by militiamen on January 28th 1939 on the route that goes from Noves de Segre to Baridà. Alongside the path of the old road to Baridà, a pillar with a plate in remembrance of Cisco is preserved and can still be seen today. The plate reads: "Francisco Bentanachs Oliba died assassinated by the red hordes, one hundred meters away from this point on the 28th of January, 1939, at the age of 58 years. Owner of the Baridá house."
At dusk of that same day they would continue towards Andorra. Their path went down alongside the torrent of Baridà until they passed close to Noves de Segre and then continued parallel to the Segre river until reaching the Aravell river, where they traveled up the streambed. Upon leaving the river they went up directly through the hill of the Mola towards Caubella. About 200 meters north of Caubella and towards the gully of the Tower there is a great crag surrounded by many trees and a lot of scrub. It was a perfect hiding place: protected from the winds of the north, with a good vista of all the area, and from which one could easily flee in case of danger. There he would leave the fugitives and go on alone to his house in Can Roger, which was less than 700 meters to the east. Here he would find food for the expedition, greet the family and take a rest.
Josep remembers perfectly that he left them there on the Expedition of 1937, because that was where he usually left people, especially if it was a numerous group like that one. If there were only 1 or 2 people, or a few more, sometimes he left them behind Can Roger where there was also a forest. But if the weather was very bad, raining or very cold, he guided them to the corral by his house which still stands today on the west side of the house. This would be impossible to do with many people.
Paco Botella says in the journal:
"After about three hours of going up, towards six o’clock, when daylight starts to appear, they walk between trees and shrubs of an uneven forest, close to a fountain... As there is a big slope, we sleep while we rest." "From the height where we are, we again see the Seu de Urgell, that until passing to the other side of the mountain, we do not lose sight of."
Antoni Dalmases writes in his journal:
"The ascent, that gets more and more difficult, goes on until dawn. We are on a mount over a town (the Seu d'Urgell) that can be perfectly seen. We are told to form three or four groups and to encamp between the scrubs, with the purpose of spending the day underneath them, with the instruction of not getting up or moving except to maintain contact with the other groups, and to not speak too loudly. During all the day we were hearing the bugles of the border guards of the neighbouring towns and so we did not move for the time that we remained there."
Another one of the expeditionary members, Juan Jiménez Vargas, says: "When it was already getting light, we encamped very well covered between stones."
And further on he continues: "We spent the day hidden between stones and in the scrubs without being able to move so that we would not draw attention. Bugles were heard closely, because there were barracks at a short distance." (They were the ones of the Seu d'Urgell).
The last stage of the expedition began on the evening of December 1st leaving from the rocks in which they had rested, going directly up the gorge of the Tower. According to Josep Cirera, in 1937 this point was not too closely watched. He says that he never took people through the Peixader hill, but that he always went through the gorge of the tower. It was later on in 1938, and once the war had finished, that this pass became more watched.
When they arrived at the Civís river, they crossed it and went up along the Cabra Morta gully, leaving the hill of the same name. Then passing through the small forest of Yucca they went down to the Argolell river, which they crossed at a point between this town and Arduix. Once past the river, they trudged up a steep slope before arriving at Mas d’Alins, already in Andorran territory.
This is a brief summary of my conversations with Josep Cirera over the course of five days. We will continue speaking in the future and rest assured that given our pleasant conversation, he will tell us more interesting details of both this expedition and other similar ones that he led from Ribalera, in the base of Aubenç, to Andorra.
Jordi Piferrer Deu
Autor del libro "Camino de Andorra"