Travelling women


In the Lavansa valley and other places from l’Alt Urgell (at the Catalan Pyrenees) the figure of the trementinaire is still alive in the collective memory. As it happens with so many other trades and occupations, the trementinaires are the product of a certain time and economic conditions, but also of a model of relationship with the environment and of the social role women had as a bridge between the house and the forest.

By the end of the 19th century, the economic conditions and the demography of some parts of the south end of the Pyrenees forced a lot of women to create a profession from the knowledge inherited from their mothers and grandmothers. Women who had habitually used remedies for illnesses, colds, insect and snake bites, etc. in the domestic sphere, took their handkerchiefs and filled them with all kinds of herbs and natural products that could be sold and went farmhouse by farmhouse up to the doors of Barcelona, Girona or Reus, all the way through Lleida’s plain. An example of transfer of the knowledge of the forest environment, which would take much longer for other modern media to acquire. The star product was, without a doubt, the one that gave a name to the profession: the turpentine (trementina in Catalan), a product extracted from the purified resin of firs and red pines which «took pains away from the inside to the outside». Bruises, sprains, ulcers and serious infections were treated with turpentine patches over a cloth or brown paper. This remedy had always been of high value, and, by the early 20th century, an ounce (33g) of turpentine cost 80 pesetas. But this profession was more than the making of the turpentine jars: aromatic and medicinal plants and dried mushrooms completed the catalogue of healings sold at the farmhouses. We are not only talking about the selling of non-manufactured products, trementinaires used to carry with them many ointments and oils. Collective memory says that trementinaires followed a marked route, with a customer base that expected their visit year after year. Very seldom they entered into the big cities or sold their products in marketplaces, although there are reports of trementinaires selling their products at the Sant Ponç market in Barcelona. Oral tradition not only gave them the keys to their profession but it has made their memory to survive to this day, since there is very little written about these women who «went around», as they say in the Lavansa valley. There is no memory of the departure of the trementinaires before 1875. What it is known for sure is when the last departure of one of these women took place. It was Sofia de Ossera, escorted — as an exception— by her husband, Gorratorta, in 1982. Never again did the popular wisdom go out to sell products taken out from a handkerchief.

Obviously, times have changed, and in the online sale era it would make very little sense for a woman to travel on foot from a village in l’Alt Urgell to Barcelona. Nowadays, there is a Wi-Fi service in their village that connects them to the world without roads. Modern medicine has replaced the old formulas. Maybe trementinaires make no sense in our current society, but their remembrance does. Fortunately, the last trementinaires stopped their activity not so long ago and there remain testimonies like the one of Emília Llorens, who went with her grandmother, Maria Mayoral, in some of her routes.

Nowadays, the traditional knowledge of the natural resources is a tool for the interpretation of our environment that must not be undervalued. The historic figure of trementinaires joins together culture, tradition and an interesting outlook on the natural environment. It has been decided this way all along the valley where the Lavansa River flows, and this is the way it is presented.

This valley of l’Alt Urgell is too far away from the axial Pyrenees. Forests here are not made up of deciduous trees, nor is the picture of their mountains in our collective imagery. Barcelona is too far away for everyday life. Stockbreeding barely survives and agriculture is used for self-consumption. While in other areas plans for public use have to be made so as to avoid the spoiling of their natural resources by excessive frequentation, here the battle is against depopulation. And in this battle our wit has to be active. The figure of the trementinaires has been made the object of a museum in Tuixent, where the story of these women is explained. And there is also an annual festival that attracts domestic tourism in Catalonia. Women are praised for their itinerant trades of remedies, products from this valley are exhibited and rural hotels and restaurants are fully booked.

This way, the trementinaires that got the domestic economy up by the end of the 19th century are now collaborating in the economy of the whole valley. All resources are not enough if we talk about the problem of the preservation of these lands. Without stockbreeding, meadows are reforested spontaneously with the double loss of a type of habitat and a fantastic managed firebreak. The old potato fields will have similar luck without labourers. All resources are few when it comes to preserve a landscape. In places like this, both public and private initiatives work together in order to get resources so as to maintain roads, restore shepherd huts, make a new viewpoint or promoting snow tourism, unrelated to Alpine ski resorts, similar to Nordic ski runs, with forest slopes owned by the towns. It is worth taking advantage of the protection measures as an attraction, the Natural Park of Cadí is nearby, the network of areas of the PEIN (Plan for Spaces of Natural Interest) barely verges on this area an the Natura 2000 network justifies a grant to preserve the landscape. It is worth visiting the artisanal cheese shop and the aromatic herbs shop. Rural accommodation is not at odds with comfort.

In this case, the management of natural resources needs a new model in which tourism has to become the new source of income so as to tie people to the region. And for this source to flow attractions are needed, like the ones that revolve around a time in which people lived connected to plants, mushrooms and turpentine. With a quite romantic and excessively idyllic view of the hard times of a subsistence economy, if you wish. In any case, today the trementaire stays home.


FRIGOLÉ REIXACH, J., 2007. Dones que anaven pel món. Estudi etnogràfic de les trementinaires de la Vall de la Vansa i Tuixent. Generalitat de Catalunya. Barcelona.

© Mètode 2011 - 68. Online only. After the Crisis - Winter 2010/11

Biologist and nature photographer.