Through the time tunnel

The "Shire" of Sobrarbe in the Pyrenees is a Tolkien-esque mythical world

You have to pass through a time tunnel to reach the lost world. It's called the Cotefablo tunnel, a 683-meter long tube excavated into the rock over 1,400 meters up, which separates (or unites, depending on how you look at it) the locations of Biescas and Broto in Huesca province. To pass through it is to enter a new dimension where space-time coordinates become out of joint. And just as hobbits lived in The Shire in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings , this spot in the heart of the Pyrenees on the border with France is also called The Shire - in this case, of Sobrarbe (La Comarca del Sobrarbe) - and leads right into Monte Perdido (or, Lost Mountain) and the national park of Ordesa. Here in this green place crossed by the rivers Ara and Cinca and teeming with legends, you might be forgiven for thinking hobbits once lived.

There is quite a history to this portal into a natural paradise. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997, this borderland has always been a site of obscure battles, conquests small and large, and flight and exile. There are still unwritten laws at work in Sobrarbe. And the locals say the Pyrenees is becoming depopulated as a result of one of them: families, mostly stockbreeders around here, leave their entire inheritance to the eldest child, forcing the younger ones to move to the city to earn a living. It's a story told by Miguel of Asín de Broto, a retired widower whose veins carry the sap of the mountains and who still views the chore of moving his herd to a different pasture as a wonderful event. He walks alone with his dog, Reina, along paths and trails without fear of getting caught by nightfall, a man eternally in love with the land.

The people of "the land" don't like to talk about it, but nearly 50 percent of the 400-odd hamlets in this beautiful and remote mountain shire are abandoned. And they don't like to talk about it because many of these locations have been looted or ill-kept by squatters of all types. The locals - many of whom crossed on foot to France during the Civil War, carrying few possessions, and returned carrying even fewer - feel the pain of these mountains as if they were their own legs. They know each peak, pool, cave, pass and meadow like the palm of their own hand, and each has their favorite secret nooks. Those who stayed behind are trying hard to maintain their way of life while getting some profit from the land. Rural tourism has become the best business around here and there are entire villages such as Torla or Broto that attract visitors from Spain and France. The film industry has also discovered this place; rumor has it that the Wachowski brothers (of The Matrix fame) will shoot a few scenes for their new movie Cloud Atlas , featuring Halle Berry, in the area.