Panoramic view of the town from the old road to Benabarre

Montañana is a town in the Ribagorza to the south of Arén, in the valley of the Noguera river, and standing at 616 m altitude. It lies just 2 km to the north-east of the Puente de Montañana and the N230. It was declared a Site of Cultural Interest in 1984. Montañana is a whole world. A universe going back to the Middle Ages.

Wander around its streets, enter the town through the first street that ends in a passage, after which you reach the San Juan ravine, bordered by a row of houses and mediaeval bridge crossing it, and then go through several alleyways under the houses to other streets leading off to the hillside, where houses are still standing to reveal their almost mediaeval origins and take you back to other times.

The mediaeval character pervading the whole town emanates from the two Romanesque churches, the remains of various defence towers on the hilltop, ruined walls, ramps leading up to stout doors recalling the various times in history when they were needed, to a promontory almost vertical on three sides with the early castle and the church of Nuestra Señora de Baldós.

The origins of Montañana

Detalle escultórico del ayuntamiento recuperado de la ermita de San Miguel

The first source comes from the 10th century, around 990, when the chartulary of Alaón holds documents referring to the Christian castle in Montañana. Located below the place called San Martín, the monastery obtained land donated by the Biator y Menosa family, and shortly afterwards, received more lands and villages scattered in the area around the castle, a gift from the presbyter, Barón.

The name San Martín certainly refers to the site of the early castle, part of which was the cylindrical tower your can still see today, behind the present-day church of Santa María or Nuestra Señora, whose floor must have been the base for the church dedicated to San Martín by Bishop Borrell of Roda in 1026, and was built on the order of Count Ramón of Pallars, the owner of the manor.

Furthermore, when the tower with its adjoining chapel, which always went together as a pair, was substituted for the current one, they were the origin of Montañana, the first buildings there, on the top of a rocky promontory to better defend the surrounding area and, with the passage of time, to give rise to the new town.

However, it did not begin to become important until the 11th century, when it formed part of the defence line running from one end to the other of the Pyrenees, to bring about and consolidate the Reconquest. The line mainly consisted of an endless string of watchtowers and beacons, and the Mora tower, so-called because it stands at the start of the road leading to the abandoned village of La Mora de Montañana, formed part of it.

The bishop of Roda had more rights in Montañana than the purely episcopal jurisdiction, at least the tenth from the manor house of Guillermo Guillén, a donation from Rodegario, his mother, Sicardis, and wife, Sancha, in May 1132. It was purely circumstantial that the fortress of Montañana should belong to the counts of Pallars, although it was later taken back by Ramiro I of Aragon, same as with that of Tor, since they appear as part of the Crown of Aragon in 1068, during the reign of Sancho Ramírez, whose overseers of his estates included Bertrán Ato de Montañana./span>

A new place for the population to settle in, which down the centuries enjoyed the favours are many highly influential people, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries. These were the times whose historical path was controlled by the counts of Pallars and, later, by the Crown of Aragon. During this time, it was heavily dependent of the monastery of Alaón, not forgetting the strong presence and influence from the Templar orders, the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers.

The centuries of power

Ermita de San Juan (siglos XII-XIII)

Under the monarchs of the Crown of Aragon, the fortress of Montañana played an important role, due to the fact that the estate overseers, Berenguer de Montañana and his wife, Felisa, were granted Lumberre (or Lumbier), near Graus by Alfonso II in 1177, declaring themselves its protector, although the reason why the king laid siege to the castle in 1190 is not known.
When Jaime II re-established the county of Ribagorza as a feudal estate for his son, Prince Pedro, Montañana castle, together with the most important ones in the county (Fantova, Fals, Viacamp, Arén and Estupiñán), were mortgaged and at the mercy of the king’s will, and so came into the possession of Arcadio de Mur, with those of Arén and Chiriveta.

The knights of Montañana had to pay homage and provide the usual service demanded by the nobles of the realm, that is to say, a horse and arms in times of war, and as such, Gombaldo de Montañana took part in one in near Pons in 1278; and Bernardo de Montañana was called up by royal order of Pedro III to fight off the next invasion by the French. This custom continued until the 16th century, when the people of Montañana acknowledged the right of the count to use the horses in times of war, together with the obligation to guard the tower with a mastiff. Montañana continued as a fortress for a long time, and the keepers of the castle were mentioned in 1321 and numbered four in 1549, but were disbanded in 1718.

The presence of the Templars throughout the 13th century seems to be confirmed by the name of William of Montañana, grand master of the order in Provence, Aragon and Catalonia from 1258 to at least 1260, and it is certain that the residence of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John, who acquired rights in Arén, Castigaleu and Montañana under the will of Arnaldo Mir de Pallars, set up a commandery containing the towns of Chiró and La Almunia de San Lorenzo, six houses in Luzás and the stable in Vives near Tamarite.

In Montañana, the prior of St. John receive a tithe from all the fruit harvested, and half of the lez dicalt of the place. In a visit from commissioners of the Hospital to Montañana on 12 March, in 1662, their knight commander, Miguel de Caldas, endorsed the right of conferral and presentation that corresponded to it to provide a church for the priory i.e. the church of San Juan.

Apart from the many types of power that the military orders exercised in the area, episcopal jurisdiction fell to the bishopric of Urgell, which withheld the program of dissolving ecclesiastical enclaves until 1956, agreed by the Holy See and Spanish government, and transferred the parish to the Lérida seat, but it is currently attached to Barbastro-Monzón.

Lastly, although there is no documentation that helps clarify the origin and circumstances of Montañana’s two churches, the upper one was dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Baldós, and the chapel in the valley to St. John the Baptist, the chronology suggested by their shape and technical quality seems to place them at the time of feudal splendour mentioned.

From decline to abandonment

Restos de la torre de la Mora (siglo XI)

The days of glory were highly important and lasted until the late 15th/early 16th century, meaning to the very end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Modern Era, as shown by the buildings that are still standing today. From then on, the daily life in Montañana was olives and vines, with a slow decline that continued to the mid-20th century.

Montañana managed to keep going for centuries until the times of severe depopulation spread. Although dramatic depopulation took place in several towns in Upper Aragon and other mountain areas, it was particularly hard here. Apart from the general causes that are all too well-known, here it was due to the hydro-electric works finishing, which had extended the life of the town while the inhabitants could earn a wage.

At the same time, they had mostly moved to the new town by the river, Puente de Montañana, which ended by giving the town its name, and the original one was left almost uninhabited. The street that had bustled with the ups and downs of life since the Middle Ages, were now plunged into deep silence.

It was only a few years ago that this painful exodus was forced upon the inhabitants. And yet, at the end of the 1970s, it already had the characteristic patina, a sign of the inexorable passage of time and ungrateful neglect. But, despite this, from its decline, the inevitable – in these times – and marked decay, emanated an unforgettable image, the romantic vision which some buildings or villages have always offered.


Gothic paintings from the interior of the Nuestra Señora de Baldós church

Protecting the town as a Monumental Site was the first step in restoring and saving it. First, directly by the regional government of Aragon, and since 2014 by the Mediaeval Montañana Foundation, an organisation in which the executive promotes and highlights the town, together with Ibercaja, the bIshopric of Barbastro-Monzón, the town council of Puente de Montañana, the Ribagorza district and the European Union.

Work started in 1997 with underpinning the church of Nuestra Señora de Baldós and the chapel of San Juan, and continued in 1999 with complete restoration of the chapel, and starting work on the town as a whole, which still continues.

About twenty years following its gradual depopulation and the inevitable ruin, work began on recovering the original appearance of the town, so that this fossil from the Middle Ages can be seen as it used to be, as it reached the 21st century with hardly any changes made since those far-off times. Work done so that Montañana returns to life and stops being a semi-inhabited village, and recovers its mediaeval layout and appearance, as well as the buildings from that historic era. So that Montañana is once more a wonderful mediaeval enclave for all to enjoy.

José Luis Acín, “Montañana, mediaeval enclave”. Prames, 2014