Llivia: The Spanish city stranded in France
(CNN) – The view from the castle is so great that it is easy to understand why warring empires refused to admit this rolling green valley between the snow-capped peaks of the Catalan Pyrenees.
Although from that point of view it is difficult to say why this piece of land was once the last missing piece in a geopolitical puzzle of continental proportions.
Welcome to Llívia, a small piece of Spain stranded in France and one of the oldest enclaves in Europe.
A continent in conflict
At first glance, today’s border between France and Spain appears to be defined by obvious natural features, with the imposing Pyrenees Mountains – including several peaks over 10,000 feet – forming a clear division between neighboring countries.
The history of this frontier owes to war and diplomacy, as well as geology.
Almost 400 years ago, Central Europe was embroiled in a decades-long conflict known as the Thirty Years War. The Franco-Spanish War lasted from 1635 to 1659.
When the Principality of Catalonia, which had spanned both sides of the Pyrenees for centuries, came under the rule of the Spanish monarchs, so did his country in the north.
This was a challenge to France’s long-term goal of securing what it perceived to be its natural borders. Discussions wouldn’t be easy.
A royal wedding
After all, France and Spain were on the verge of an agreement, and even a royal wedding was supposed to seal the agreement: Louis XIV of France was to marry a Spanish princess.
There was only one subject left on the table: the demarcation of the common border.
The negotiations dragged on for months, and yet the resulting Treaty on the Pyrenees, signed in November 1659, resulted in a general agreement, but left a few open points regarding the border. It would take a long time and take some creative precautions to fully fix it.
Let’s take Pheasant Island first, the piece of land in the middle of the Bidasoa River on which the treaty was signed. For centuries it was a kind of “no man’s land” where international treaties were signed and royal bridegrooms and brides exchanged between the two kingdoms.
This remained the status of this uninhabited island in the westernmost part of the border, which was only 6,820 square meters until it became an island known as a “condominium” in international law in 1866. It changes sovereignty between France and Spain every six months, with Spain owning it from February to July and France taking over from August to January.
France built the citadel of Mont-Louis in the 17th century to protect the new border.
How green was my valley
A controversial case was that of the Cerdanya Valley, several hundred miles to the east. The absence of obvious natural barriers in this section of the border posed a dilemma for the Spanish and French negotiators.
“Contrary to what is often assumed, the border in the Cerdanya region was not set by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, but a little later because France and Spain could not agree on where the border should be,” explains the historian and author Michel Bougain, an expert on the period. “Both sides wanted to keep the whole valley to themselves.”
The water floor division is actually north of the present-day border, but this was not an option the French preferred. They wanted a line much farther south that would have left most of the Pyrenees in France. And this was an assertion that France was ready to step back with the sizeable armed forces it had on the ground at the time.
The negotiations went so far that the Spanish delegate Luis Méndez de Haro threatened to break off the upcoming wedding between Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Theresa, the eldest daughter of the Spanish king, if no agreement could be reached on the Cerdanya border .
After the falcon De Haro was replaced, the two delegations – the locals were of course not consulted – were able to work out a formula for the division.
But that was far from the end of the story.
What’s in a word?
Diplomats took a King Solomon-style approach to dividing up the territory.
The problem was that the text of the final agreement referred to “33 villages” in the disputed area that would go to France.
In the middle of this part allocated by France was the old settlement of Llívia, which, as the Spanish side argued, was not a village but a city, as Catalan law gave it this status, a step in the urban pecking order.
It was a small detail that would have permanent consequences.
The French negotiators wept badly while the Spanish side held on to their weapons. Ultimately, the King of Spain would keep Llívia on the back of this technique, but this settlement, which originated in Roman times, would remain an enclave surrounded on all sides by French territory.
To appease the French, Spain in turn gave them the adjoining Carol Valley of strategic importance as it controls the road to Toulouse.
It was a solution worthy of King Solomon: to divide the area in half. It sounds simple, but it overlooks the local complexity.
The new frontier divided communities that still share a common language and identity to this day.
How Llívia was cut off
“It wasn’t clear at the time that Llívia would become an enclave,” explains Bougain. “The maps the delegations used were not as accurate and it wasn’t until later, when the border was established, that they realized that a narrow strip of land belonging to two nearby villages ceded to France was Llívia from the rest of Spain section “.
These limits were ratified in the Treaty of Bayonne in 1866. The road that connects Llívia with mainland Spain has also been known as “free passage”. Little did they imagine that a century later this special status would lead to the so-called “War of Stops”.
In the early 1970s, France built two roads that intersected with the international road and gave them right of way. The residents of Llívia reacted indignantly and began to tear down the “Stop” traffic signs installed by the French authorities, as they were seen as a violation of the international treaty.
The situation was resolved years later with the construction of an overpass and a roundabout. However, until the implementation of the EU’s Schengen Agreement in 1985, only cars with Spanish license plates could drive on this road. The main access road to Llívia is considered part of the Spanish road network, even if part of it goes through French territory.
Another more serious conflict reached Llívia in 1939.
In the final stages of the Spanish Civil War, when the Francoist army reached the border, they had to ask the French government for permission to march on to Llívia. Photos of the period show soldiers traveling a mile and a half through French territory under the watchful eye of French gendarmes lined along the road.
Membrane, not a barrier
This photo was taken in Spain, but France is beyond the border marker.
A slightly different panorama greets visitors today. With the EU’s internal borders largely gone, links between the two sides were re-established (if they ever went away). Locals may have different passports, but many share their Catalan language and culture.
“The border has also become part of the local identity,” explains François Mancebo, professor of sustainability and urban planning at the University of Reims and an expert on the region’s cross-border relations. “It’s an obstacle, but it was also often a way of making money for those who could play the system, for example through legal or illegal trading.
“People on both sides kept close ties, often getting married … I’d define it as a kind of membrane rather than a barrier.”
Another crucial moment for the entire region was the inauguration of the Cadí tunnel in the 1980s, which runs under the Serra de Moixeró and greatly improved communication with the Barcelona region. An influx of visitors and money followed.
“When the hard line was gone, there was initially a certain lack of orientation,” says Professor Mancebo, “but both sides soon benefited from new economic opportunities.
“The French side, for example, has moved south. It has attracted a lot of private investment, and Catalan identity has also grown again.”
Perhaps the most tangible symbol of this coming together is the opening of a new modern cross-border hospital in 2014. It is almost literally on the border and is the first hospital facility in the EU designed to seamlessly treat patients from two different Member States.
Today the valley is a holiday destination whose tourists are attracted by the numerous ski areas and mountain trails. Cottages, shops and businesses have sprung up seamlessly on both sides of the border, revitalizing the rural villages that languished not so long ago.