Geographically, Spain's Val d'Aran should be part of France, but it's neither French, Spanish nor Catalan in culture, history or even language.
Borders are supposed to be simple in the Pyrenees. On the southern side of the mountain range, you're in Spain. On the northern side, you're in France. Visit Val d'Aran, though, and geopolitics takes a more complicated turn.
Val d'Aran is on the wrong side of the mountains. Geographically, this small mountain valley with its population of 10,000 people should be in France. But Val d'Aran is the only community within Spain's contiguous borders that's located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees.
Officially, Val d'Aran is within the administrative boundaries of Catalonia, but despite being caught between larger kingdoms and nation-states for centuries, Val d'Aran has never surrendered its local identity. Key to that local identity is the Aranese language, which alongside Catalan and Spanish, is officially recognised as the third language of Catalonia.
"We are Aranese because we speak Aranese," said Jusèp Loís Sans Socasau passionately, when I stepped into his office in Vielha, Val d'Aran's capital. It was early December and there was an ever-thickening layer of snow as the valley prepared for ski season.
"Aranese is the language of our valley," Sans Socasau added. "And it's the language of our culture."
Sans Socasau is the president of the Institut d'Estudis Aranese (Institute of Aranese Studies) and his office was stacked with historical manuscripts and Aranese dictionaries and novels. "Aranese is a Romance-based language," he explained, as I warmed up with a fresh coffee. "It's very close to Latin, but it's evolved very differently to Spanish and French."
Aranese is a distinct dialect of the Occitan language, which, in its medieval heyday, was spoken from the Pyrenees to Piedmont, located in what is now northern Italy. "This was the territory of the Occitan language," Sans Socasau said proudly, pointing at a historical map. "And it was the territory of the Troubadours."
In the 11th and 12th Centuries, there was an explosion of Occitan poetry across Europe. The language was spread far and wide by Troubadours, Occitan-speaking poets and writers who composed and performed medieval romances. Even Richard I of England – better known as Richard the Lionheart, and who held lands in France – spoke Occitan as a first language (his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, came from an Occitan speaking region). In later centuries, though, Occitan would be replaced by other languages, and in southern France, where there are still tens of thousands of Occitan speakers, the language has never been made official or afforded government protections.
In Val d'Aran, the Occitan language survived as Aranese, and government figures suggest that around 4,000 Val d'Aran residents – about 40% of the population – can read, write and speak Aranese. Despite being suppressed most recently during the Francisco Franco regime, which lasted until the dictator's death in 1975, Aranese received official recognition when Val d'Aran was granted autonomy by the Catalonian government in 1991. And in 2010, Aranese was proclaimed to be co-official alongside Spanish and Catalan, not just in Val d'Aran, but everywhere in Catalonia.
School children in Val d'Aran study in Aranese; there's a wealth of Aranese literature and articles; and radio shows and news programmes are broadcast in the language. "The language still lives here, in our valley," said Sans Socasau, whose daughter tours across Europe singing and songwriting solely in the Aranese language. "And this is the only place where the language is protected, where it is official."