Las Heras

Witness to history

From the serfs who first dwelt at archetypal masía Las Heras to the determined expansionism of the Heras clan, right through to tragedy, war and the eventual dimming of the familial glory years, JJ Caballero traces the lives of the people who shaped this place and weaves its never less-than-dramatic narrative.


While the first stones were being laid to build the walls of the Masía de Las Heras, a powerful culture was developing a couple of hundred miles to the north: that of the Cathars, who harboured ambitions to spread throughout Europe. Another couple of hundred miles to the south, roughly along the natural borderline created by the river Ebro, the land was held by Muslims. And just a short distance from the masía, on this side of the Pyrenees, the counties created by Charlemagne were being consolidated, and were to give rise to what was known as the Marca Hispánica; the buffer zone between the Muslim and Frankish empires.

The Marca Hispánica may have constituted the embryo of Catalonia, but it was the large farmhouses, such as Las Heras, that defined the area’s productivity and social structure. These hefty stones acted both as protective home, and as a witness to the most important events in the history of this land.

The cultures that were developing to the north and south had very different destinies: the Cathars were exterminated in the pyre of Montsegur in 1244 while the Muslims were expelled from the Iberian peninsula five hundred years later, from 1500 onwards. Of the Cathars, nothing remains but the ruins of a few castles. The Muslims meanwhile left an extensive and valuable architectural, cultural and social heritage.

All of this happened a thousand years ago. Time has passed, but the legacy of farmhouses such as Las Heras remains.

The Birth of the Masías

Las Heras formed part of what is known as Catalunya Vella, or ‘Old Catalonia’: the land that lies to the east of the Llobregat river. It was here that a type of building known as a masía was developed, featuring certain characteristics all abundantly evidenced at Las Heras. It is only necessary to look at its south-facing semi-circular arched doorway, complete with well-defined, perfectly fitting voussoirs that have stood the test of hundreds of years to recognise it as an archetypal masía.

Entrance to original masía

The main facade was always south-facing, in order to maximise the light and warmth of the sun on its journey from east to west. For the same reason, particularly in the Empordà region and other areas close to the Pyrenees, the doors and windows on the northern façade were small, to avoid drafts created by the strong, chilly Tramontana winds that blow down from the mountains. These farmhouses were traditionally austere in appearance. Local stone was used, carved only when used around windows and occasionally, as cornerstones. Las Heras is mostly built from sandstone; a very hardy material, although it can be subject to wear and tear due to the effect of rain, cold and wind. The interior floor was paved with stone, and the monolithic original slabs are quite extraordinary in their vast proportions; some of them are one-metre long. This is one of the distinct features of the masía, which, in other respects, shares most of its other elements with other typical Catalan farmhouses.

Paving stones

Take for example, the kitchen, which becomes the focus of daily life during the cold winter months. Here the hearth becomes the centre of gravity, used for both cooking and heating. At Las Heras, the enormous fireplace even played arole in an event featuring one of the most infamous bandits of the 19th-century: an outlaw known as Boquica. During a raid on the house, he hung the owner over the fire to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the family jewels and other valuable items. Miquel Heras died twelve days later as a result of the serious burns he sutained. The masía’s first name was Can Casalins and the oldest reference to the place known as Las Heras dates back to 1274, in a land registry entry relating to an estate that “borders on the west with Mas Heras d’Adri”.

The kitchen

The uprising of the Remences

The first owners of Las Heras were remences; peasants or serfs who were subjects of a feudal lord to whom they not only had to pay taxes, but were also enslaved and from whom they would have to buy their freedom. The ‘uprising of the remences’ was a key event in the building of the Catalan nation and it was also the first uprising by serfs against feudal power in the whole of Europe.

History tells us that the epicentre of the uprising was very close to Las Heras, at the Vall d’Hostoles. it covered an area bordered roughly by Coll d’Ares, Setcases and Camprodón to the north; Besalú, Banyoles and Girona to the east; Vilobí d’Onyar, Santa Coloma de Farners and Sant Hilari Sacalm to the south and Ripoll, Collsacabra and Rupit to the west.

The origins of the conflict go back to the 11th century, when the nobility gained independence from the Counts of Barcelona and were given carte blanche to act as they pleased in their own lands. These lords were even given the ‘right to mistreat’, by the Courts of Cervera in 1202, which authorized them not only to beat their servants but also to imprison them and confiscate their assets.

The serfdom suffered by the peasants only worsened with the passage of time, their impinged rights not even granting them the right to leave their own land without first paying a considerable sum to their feudal masters. in the 14th-century, plague epidemics led to the death of many peasants and a succession of bad harvests forced them to abandon their lands, which meant that the feudal lords increased the pressure on those who remained. After the uprising of these serfs at the end of the 15th century, things began to change and feudal rights were taken away.

The effect of the Hereus

At the tail end of this process, Las Heras underwent one of its major transformations when, in 1504, it acquired the neighbouring estates that had been abandoned on account of the Black Death. The data that is available indicates that they were the farms known as Ohidà and Font. This was the first time Las Heras extended its property, but it was by no means the last. in subsequent years, the estate acquired more lands, sometimes as a result of war. This is what occurred after the Catalan Revolt or ‘Reapers’ War’ (1640–1660/70) and the Spanish War of Succession (1701–1713/15), when Mas Martí was purchased. The Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizábal, which began in the late 18th-century, also allowed the family to recuperate lands that they had ceded to the church.

The other main reason for the expansion of property was the marriage of the hereus – or heirs – of Las Heras to pubilles or heiresses of other large estates. This tradition dated back to medieval times, and dictated that the first son (the hereu) inherited the entire family estate and the daughters (pubilles) were married off to heirs from other families, the nobler and wealthier the better. in this way, families augmented their estates and their societal position. This is in contrast with what occurred in certain parts of Spain, where the equal distribution of assets and property among sons meant that the family estate was divided up and decreased in size from one generation to the next.

The Courtyard

A family history

The Heras family are the examplar of the behavioural norms of the well-established Catalan families. Their first priority was the accumulation of property. But all the important events that took place in Catalonia had their effect; a document entitled ‘Biografía o explicació del arbre geneològich de la descendencia de Casa Heras de Adri (1350–1850)’ is a very valuable aid to understanding the ups and downs of the family. it was written by Miquel Heras de Puig when he was an hereu, and is based on texts found in the family archives; the text is written in Catalan because, according to its author, it was meant for family and friends. it was later published in 1857.

The first Heras referred to in this ‘biography’ is Guillem Heras, whom it describes as the “… founder or first owner of the Heras estate, formerly known as Casalins, who bought Mas Oida on the 21st of February 1353”. The document goes into great detail of births, marriages, deaths and land purchases.

Double weddings

The Heras family tree reveal that there were many marriages that greatly benefited the growth of the estate. in 1882 the estate covered 1,680 vessanes, a unit of measurement used in some districts of Girona, the equivalent of 367 hectares. Today, the estate includes another five farmhouses and covers an area of 262 hectares; approximately equivalent to the same number of football pitches.

On two occasions, this drive to increase the family estate led to double matrimony; when the hereu was widowed, he married a widow and his son married the widow’s daughter. This happened twice: in 1636 and 1715. The first time, Jaume and his son Ponç wed Caterina Gelabert and her daughter of the same name; and the second time Joan Heras was widowed at the age of 38 and married the widow Mariana Faràs. On the very same day, sixteen-year-old Ponç Heras married her daughter, Anna Maria.

One of the duties of the heir was to find a good position for his siblings, who after signing a document renouncing any claim to the family estate, would receive a dowry. However, in some cases this inevitably meant a certain descending a rung or two on the social ladder. However, many of the younger sons did manage to marry into land-owning families and thus build up new farming estates. For others, the church was a good resort, as it afforded both a reputable social position and considerable influence. Leaving aside the six sons that became heirs, of the 23 sons born between 1670 and 1834, only two entered into wedlock: ten remained as bachelors and five became priests. Those who remained single and continued living on the estate lost any right to a dowry or to part of the inheritance and sometimes their only future lay in farm work.

High infant mortality, the desire for a son and the absence of birth control meant that wealthy families begat many children. The Heras family was no exception; from 1670, all the heirs except one had at least ten children.

Marriages were often arranged very early and young girls were wed soon after reaching puberty. A good illustration of this is the period between the 16th- to the early 17th-centuries, when the age of wedlock was most commonly below 17. This did not change much as the years went on, although it did gradually creep upward to the ages of 17 to 25.

Every effort was invested in the search for a wife for the oldest children, whether they were a pubilla or an hereu. The other brothers and sisters had to wait for this marriage to be arranged before they were able to find their own suitable spouse. Generally speaking, the Heras followed this tradition meticulously.

Wars and epidemics

Wars and those periods that immediately followed always provided and opportune time for the Heras family to expand its property. This was evidenced post the Catalan Revolt or ‘Reapers’ War’ in 1640 and during the Spanish War of Succession

Chapel's lintel

in 1701. it happened again as a result of the War of the Pyrenees (1793–1795) and, later, after the Peninsular War (1808– 1814). indeed, the ‘Reapers’ War’, which culminated in the Corpus Christi riots in Barcelona and was the inspiration for the Catalan national anthem, began in the farmlands of Girona.

Set deep in the forest, half a dozen kilometres from the closest village, Canet d’Adri, the potential impact of these conflicts on the estate was a concern. As if to underline this, when the house was extended, between 1731 and 1733, arrowslits were installed, as well as a system of trap doors and false doors in the walls and ceilings, providing an escape route, should it become necessary. If the attack came from the south, this secret labyrinth would allow the family to escape northwards to the mountains; if the attackers came down the hill, the family could flee the house from the other side.

Its isolated location did not, however, save Las Heras from being struck down by typhus in 1773. Miquel and Ponç Heras were the first Heras boys to receive a higher education and they did so at the University of Cervera (the only university that Philip V of Spain allowed to remain open after he entered Barcelona on the 11th September 1714). That summer, when the academic year was finished, they returned to Las Heras in possession it seems, of more than scholarly accomplishments. Miquel and Ponç had contracted the deadly thyphus bacteria druing their time at Cervera; whilst the brothers were carriers, they did not fall ill with the disease. instead, a short while later, four members of the household contracted the disease and died: the father, two brothers and a great uncle. Nobody nursed them. Nobody approached them, for fear of catching the disease, not even to bring them medicines. All their belongings were burned, including their jewellery.

Hung in the hearth

Las Heras was no stranger to tragedy at this time. Another calamitous event took place during the Peninsular War (1808– 1814), on the night of 11th and 12th of June 1813, when the house was attacked by the gang known as ‘the Boquica brigade’, Spanish deserters who had enlisted in the French army. They first stormed the house and then, in a vicious effort to seek out the valuables, they hung the owner, Miquel Heras i Bordas, inside the big kitchen chimney and lit a fire below him. Miquel Heras died twelve days later as a result of his injuries. His son, Pons, received 29 stab wounds and was left in a critical condition, but ultimately survived.

This was not atypical behaviour on the part of the bandits. Josep Pujol i Barraca –alias Boquica – was a dark and devious man whose life was characterised by treachery and cruelty; born in Besalú, he was a carter by trade, but when war broke out against Napoleon’s army, became a guerrilla fighter, before working as a spy for the invading troops. Finally, he joined the French army, in which he was appointed to the position of commander. He and his men committed all kinds of outrages with total impunity, and Boquica took every chance to show his terrible cruelty.

The birth of the Hacendados

Spanish society underwent a complete turnaround in the early 19th-century, concurrent with the new wave of liberalism that the age heralded. Many important property-owners turned down the chance to earn titles of nobility – up to that point the highest ambition of men of great wealth – preferring to find their niche in the social elite. This gave rise to the term hacendados, or land-owners, a title that contextualised them as the rural elite, above both crop and livestock farmers. They were both at once.

The Heras was no exception to this trend, which also heralded an era in which was absolutely necessary to live on the estate in order to manage it. in 1834 Miquel Heras became the first in his line to live away from the house, visiting only occasionally. Thence forward, no members of the family ever lived at Las Heras permanently, although some of them spent lengthy periods there, particularly in the summer.

The family consolidated and increased its assets through marriages to rich heiresses. The matrimony of Miquel Heras de Puig with the pubilla María Narcisa Viladevall put the family among the top fifty tax-payers in the province, with properties in Canet d’Adri, Flaçà, Sant Jordi Desvalls, Sant Martí Vell, Viladesens, Camós, Albons, Colomers, La Pera, Santa Llogaia d’Àlguema, Vilafant and Vilamalla.

Miquel Heras extended the farmhouse once again and built a stunning arched porch. Next to it is a still-legible inscription carved in the stone that reads “Per Miquel Heras de Puig fou feta aquesta arcada el 25 abril de 1850” (These arches were built by Miquel Heras de Puig on the 25th April 1850). He was also the author of the invaluable ‘biography’ of the Heras family from 1350 to 1850. But what is really surprising is that a person such as he, so keen on upholding the legacy of the family history, should pass away at the age of sixty without leaving a will. This oversight meant that the property that his wife had brought with her was returned to her family and consequently the Heras missed an incredible opportunity to become one of the most powerful families in Catalonia.

Miquel’s brother Narcís, who inherited the estate, managed to put the family fortunes back on track and to position himself as one of the most important members of Girona society. He also broadened the family business. A lawyer by profession, he invested in mines, in banking and in the textile industry, which enjoyed a veritable boom in Catalonia. His interest in the arts led him to organise a literary festival and create the Revista de Gerona magazine, within which was the first person to use the word excursión, in an article on the various districts of Girona. He held several political positions and became the leader of Girona Provincial Council.

Narcís Heras was an iconic figure among the land-owners of the time, because he showed them that now was the time to invest in other businesses and, above all, to take up positions to form part of the ruling classes.

‘Henry’ Heras, missionary in India

The example he set, however, made little impression on his grandson Enric Heras, who conversely, renounced all his worldly goods to join the Society of Jesus. As a Jesuit, he travelled to india and took a deep interest in the culture there, particularly that of the indus Valley.

In compensation for giving up his position as heir, Enric Heras became the owner of a large house in Barcelona, which he eventually donated to his spiritual brotherhood, the Society of Jesus. Latterly, this house was to become the headquarters of the Sarrià institute of Chemistry. the Sarrià institute of Chemistry.

Enric Heras became something of a celebrity in india and, by extension, in the United Kingdom too, and when he died in 1955, was the subject of an obituary in The Times. in india, news of his death met both with public grief and much publicity; all the Bombay newspapers covered the story. For them, he was neither Enric nor Enrique: he was Henry. That was how they knew this Jesuit, a professor of history and archaeology who looked every bit the gentleman, dressed as he was by English tailors, but who devoted his life to india.

Back in Spain the newspaper La Vanguardia devoted some special pages in rotogravure to Enric on the 22nd January 1956. The author, another Jesuit named Antonio T. Nicolás, described Enrique as “an elderly man of medium stature; a coarse white cassock; an even whiter beard that poured down his chest to his waist where it elegantly split in two; a stocky head, leonine but without the mane; thick spectacles astride a large, fleshy nose; his back curved towards the ground where his ever-slower feet shuffled gently along in his traditional indian sandals. This figure was unmistakeable in india: it made you dream of Upanishads and Aranyakas and with it, Father Heras found the way into men’s hearts”.

The recollections of María Heras

María Heras has vivid memories of ‘uncle Enrique’. At 88 years old, her memory is as sharp as a pin and she is possessed of a discreet, unostentatious elegance that is easily recognisable: the subtle confidence so natural to people who have lived in elite surroundings.

The last time she met uncle Enrique was in Madrid, in the early fifties. in 1946 she had married a veterinarian, Ángel Pastor, who had reached the rank of lieutenant during the Civil War. They were living in Ciudad Real, so could quite easily travel to the capital to see uncle Enrique, and gave him a lift in their big, expensive car; all arrived together at the Hogar Gallego.

“Imagine when they saw a priest and a young couple; they must have thought we’d come to the wrong place. When he came to Spain, uncle Enrique liked to eat all the foods he couldn’t get in india. We ordered a platter of cold meats and croquettes. Then came a pasty that filled the entire plate and, next, roast beef and vegetables. For dessert, an ice- cream the size of a mountain. The waiters were muttering: “that lot are from the provinces; they come here with that little priest and they won’t eat all that. The head waiter felt obliged to warn us: our customers tend to share the pasty, because it is very large. But uncle Enrique took no notice. We carried on eating and a group of four waiters, plus the head waiter and the chef, formed around us, watching in amazement as we ate it all. What a performance! in the end, they came up and congratulated us. They’d never seen anyone eat as much as that, they said”.

Like a prince

The ritual of eating was always very important to uncle Enrique. Before arriving in india, he had travelled in Afghanistan. indeed, he was the first-ever Spaniard to travel all around that country, so he was quite well-versed in Asian customs.

When he got to india, he visited princes and dignitaries in all the places he passed through, but he always declined invitations to dine. “instead”, recalls his niece, “he hired an impoverished prince to teach him how to follow indian table manners. He spent two years eating and discussing these matters with his royal utor! it was complicated because you had to sit on the floor and keep your hand at a certain distance from your face and then put your food in your mouth in a very specific way”.

When he did at last accept invitations, “everyone was amazed, because they found that he ate like a true indian prince. He became famous for it and earned the respect of everyone he met there”. He left a great legacy in india.

There are stamps that commemorate him and he is still a respected and much-missed character. Father Heras supported the hypothesis, which he backed up with more than 1,800 hieroglyphs that he managed to decipher, that western civilisation originated in southern india.

La Vanguardia reported that at a ceremony held in tribute to Father Heras in Bombay, the Vice-President of india, Doctor Radhakrishnan, declared him to be “one of the greatest promoters that this nation has ever had, of its best traditions, and one of the men that has most increased india’s desire to know its own history”.

María Heras has one last memory of uncle Enrique. “We said goodbye on a street corner. As we were walking away, we both turned around and looked at each other. And i thought to myself: i’ll never see him again. And so it was. He died in 1955, at the age of 67”.

Gothic window frames in turret

The last golden age

The Heras family, which had hitherto been prolific, suddenly stopped growing. Of Enric Heras’s five siblings, only one had children. The Heras family tree is full of marriages with ten or more children, although there are also a few anomalies: for example, of the twelve children born to Miquel Heras and María Àngela Bordas between 1749 and 1769, only one had any offspring.

Manuel, Enric’s only sibling with children, had three daughters, who became the last in the line to carry the paternal name of Heras. And of the three girls, only María Heras, born in 1925, begat children, the fruit of her marriage to Ángel Pastor: the oldest, Enric, died before his first birthday, in 1952; and the youngest, Manuel Pastor Heras, born in 1955, never married. María de las Heras’s youngest sister, Teresa, born in 1942, passed away, childless, at the age of 49 and her other sister, Dolça, born in 1927, remains unmarried and since 1955 has devoted her life entirely to Opus Dei.

The 20th century saw Can Heras’s final moments of glory, though even these were touched with great sadness, namely the Spanish Civil War and the decline of the farmhouses and their lands.

In the early years of the century, the roaring twenties, big parties were organised at the house. The guests would arrive in Canet in their impressive cars and elegant attire, and from there they had no option but to walk the rest of the way to the house. At times, finely-dressed women would arrive alone, and in the surrounding villages, memories of those parties remain… and of those ladies.

A unique family

María Heras does not remember those parties, but she does recall some of the happiest times of her life being spent at Las Heras. She was born in 1925 in Barcelona, in the mansion that today is the Sarrià institute of Chemistry, but she spent a whole year at Las Heras, when she was around three years old. Although she subsequently moved to Girona, from the age of four to ten, she paid frequent visits and often spent summers at the house.

“My sisters and i would run wild around the estate, constantly going from one end to the other. it stretched all the way from Santa María de Camós to Taialá, and the castle of Taialá was ours. And Sant Joan de Mombó also belonged to the family. One of my sisters inherited it.”

The castle of Taialà ended up being sold off by one of María Heras’s grand- uncles. “He was a complete francophile and he liked the good life. He was always travelling to France. He even had an apartment in Paris. But his love of the good life meant he ended up in poverty. He lost everything in the First World War.”

One of Maria Heras’s grandmothers was born in Perpignan. Her name was María Sicart i Couvert – and “she always insisted on the correct pronunciation of the surname Couvert”.

Her great-uncle was not the only one with financial problems; her great- grandfather too, the proprietor of several factories, was mortgaged to the hilt. “His son, my other grandfather, married a rather unusual multi-millionairess. She wanted no debts, and so, on the very day of the wedding, she wanted to go and pay off all the mortgages. imagine: hardly out of the church and straight off to pay his debts”.

And so the Heras seemed to alternate men of great wealth with a few crackpots, though there was one constant: “They were all very polite, very well-educated people”. inside the house was a magnificent old library and a sideboard that María Heras gave as a gift to her solicitor. There were also books published in 1700, including a Don Quixote and a treatise on geography.

María Heras has kept a photograph of her mother, Maria Coll, taken by a member of the celebrated Napoleón family of photographers who, in their studio on Barcelona’s La Rambla, captured the city’s high society in the early 20th-century. Over time the picture has acquired a slightly roseate hue, but it shows a very young, pretty and elegant woman with very short hair in the style of the twenties, wearing what looks like a sumptuous dress and a necklace that María de las Heras recalls had no fewer than 52 gemstones.

Childhood Memories

María Heras’s childhood memories remain a thriving part of her interior life. They are the recollections of a time “when everything seemed wonderful. We’d wake up with the sun and go out, barefoot and in our nightgowns, to pick fresh figs. Yes! in our nightgowns! The whole estate was ours, you see. We’d walk four kilometres from one end to the other. Sometimes we’d go and listen to a man at Can Brugada who used to tell us stories about Cuba, having spent a few years there. They used to call him ‘the godfather of Can Brugada’, and his surname was Noguer. He wore the traditional Catalan hat and red sash around his waist, and had about twenty sheep. “Ship”, he’d say. Our father saw how we disappeared every morning, so one day he followed us. it was the year of the elections, 1933, and my father asked Noguer who he’d vote for; the ‘godfather’ exclaimed: “The government papers”. Seeing the look of surprise on my father’s face, he explained: “i tell that lot in Madrid that i’ve seven ‘ship’ and they believe me and i save on taxes, but if i tell that to the lot here, those bastards from the Catalan Government will come and count them!”.

“We had tenant farmers. And a kitchen garden we called the 365-day patch, because every day of the year we could go and pick something different. The housekeepers used to make these salads that words cannot describe. With a salad like that – everything freshly picked from the kitchen garden, a cabbage and a potato – we were happy. The potatoes were exquisite. They were grown in the volcanic area… because there was a volcano mouth on the estate, did you know?”

The tenant farmers lived at Can Bailó. “That family had been at the house for 300 years. They were called Teixidó. Vicenç adored us. i remember how one day, he was carrying a barrel of wine on his shoulder and there was i, sitting atop the barrel. in those days, we did threshing, we’d go to the orchard…”

The last Heras heiress was also one of the last people to take their first communion in the house’s chapel. And she still recalls how “it was a very rainy day.

Can Bailó

My whole family took shelter in the house, so the photographs only show me with the tenants”.

And those tenants had lots of children, recalls María Heras. “One of the daughters married a boy from Can Brugada. The owner of that little property worked as a woodsman and he looked after our forest too. The girl’s husband was murdered by the reds during the war. You can imagine… the poor man had some property, went to mass, drove a horse and trap… he’d lend that trap to anyone who needed it”.

The road into exile

The Spanish Civil War had a direct effect on the house and its estate. When the conflict broke out in 1936, uncontrolled groups attacked it, setting fire to the baroque altar in the chapel and burning much of the furniture. in the winter of 1939, the retreating republican troops passed through, along with civilians fleeing Franco’s dictatorship, on their way into exile. The mayor of Canet d’Adri, Jaume Frigolé, was just two years old and came very close to losing his mother to a bullet. “She’d gone down to the river to wash and, as was usual in those days, she was carrying the washboard balanced on her head. Franco’s North African troops shot at her and a bullet pierced a hole in it. She was a hair’s breadth away from losing her life”, recounts Frigolé.

The mayor retells the stories that hewas told years later. The roads and paths were full of abandoned cars that had broken down or run out of fuel. “They thought those roads led to France”, he recalls.

In truth, those roads led nowhere. The fact that this area was so isolated was the work of María Heras’s great-grandfather, Narcís Heras, an influential lawyer and politician who had business dealings in the mining, banking and cotton-spinning industries and who became leader of Girona Provincial Council. “The road from Girona to Banyoles was supposed to pass in front of the masía, but my great- grandfather reminded everyone that ‘the Boquica brigade’ had hung his father in the chimney and, because he was head of the provincial council, he persuaded them to divert it. He wanted nothing to do with roads so, of course, we remained cut off ”.

To reach the house, they had to walk four kilometres “along a track”, as María Heras recalls. “Sometimes they’d go up by horse and carriage, but in my day we’d walk from Canet or La Mota”, she explains.

Along these roads to nowhere and these paths came the republican soldiers and their group of Francoist prisoners, who they shot en masse near the hermitage of El Collell. And it was in these woods that one of the survivors of that shooting took refuge: Rafael Sánchez Mazas, writer, Phalangist ideologist and personal friend of the founder of the far-right Spanish Phalanx, José Antonio Primo de Rivera.

It is told in masterly fashion by Javier Cercas in his Soldiers of Salamina, a true story written as a novel. Not only did Sánchez Mazas survive the mass shooting (suffering only slight injuries as a result), he was literally re-born when a young republican solider found him hiding in the woods but let him go. He stayed alive only with the help of his ‘forest friends’, three lads from Cornellà de Terri who were fleeing the war and who had found him shelter and food during the cold winter of 1939. This part of the Gironés district is very densely wooded and the tracks are hard to follow. Sánchez Mazas, father of the writer Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, found a hiding place in Palol de Revardit, a little village a short distance from the northern demarcation of Las Heras.

The post-war period

Following the Civil War, the housekeepers and their two children, Joan and Catalina, continued to live at Las Heras. Jaume Frigolé remembers how Joan used to come down to school every morning from the estate, like many other children who lived in the masías in this area; he would carry his lunchbox and eat his lunch at the inn that was run by the parents of the current mayor of Canet d’Adri. “All these hills were full of houses. There were more inhabitants than in the town of Salt”, explains Jaume Frigolé. At that time, there were three schools: in Adri, Biert and Canet. “And all the teachers at Biert were from Majorca; they’d been exiled there after the war”.

Las Heras was a self-sufficient estate: it had cows, pigs, mules, horses… they had a cart but not a trap, despite the fact that most big landowners did have one as a means of transport. it wasn’t like that at Can Heras because the owners didn’t live in the house.

On the estate there were two kinds of oak, which were used for making coal. in fact, much of the family’s income came from this source. “We were the oil companies of the day”, laughs María Heras. “Up until the fifties, we lived off the oak coal produced in our forests”, she explains. There were also plenty of olive trees and they made their own olive oil. The house still retains the main pieces of equipment in good condition: the oil press and the millstone.

Diffcult times

The main house was unoccupied after the Civil War. María Heras was 21 years old in 1946, when she married the veterinarian from Palencia, Ángel Pastor, who was second lieutenant by the end of the war and who, afterwards, remained in the army. His military career took them to the city of Palma on Majorca for three years and thereafter they spent a further three years in Ciudad Real. Ángel Pastor passed away in early 2000, at the age of 89.

The millstone

María de las Heras would spent the summer at the country house. From her bedroom windows, there was a splendid view stretching from the bay of Roses to Rocacorba mountain; from her bed, she loved to listen to the birds singing.

This large domain has some wonderful viewpoints. “From Can Blanc, one could see the entire Empordà”, recalls María Heras. “And from the veranda, which is what we called the patio in the new part, one could see the twinkling of the light from the Sant Sebastià lighthouse”. Even today, despite the fact that the forest has engulfed the walls of Can Blanc, this point still affords one of the most magnificent views of the Empordà: a panorama that stretches from Cap Norfeu to Carall Bernat, the southernmost island in the little Medes archipelago, peeking out from behind the Montgrí sierra. And between them lies the Empordà plain with its scattering of gentle hills.

Rabbits, dogs and bats

As long as they visited the estate, María Heras and her husband, having set up a rabbit farm, would come up each week with their son to feed the animals, even in the snow.

“We had around 300 female rabbits and five or six males, although by the end we had a thousand”, says María Heras. “My son built the pen out of scaffolding, and my husband and i would do the rounds wearing white lab coats, and everything” she laughs. in the end, they closed the business on account of the punitive price of animal feed.

María Heras’s connection to animals is deep-rooted. Often she’d wake up in her room in the turret to find bats on the window ledge; far from being scared or disgusted, she’d pick them up, care for them and wait for their mother to take them away. There was a profusion of bats in the house and they can still be found in some rooms. No one has ever tried to get rid of them.

Her relationship with dogs is closer still, having had up to twenty, mostly found in the woods. “You know how it is: people would buy them for their children, then tire of them and abandon them”. Every weekend she’d prepare an enormous plate of potatoes, rice, carrots and all kinds of produce. And before she left, she’d leave 25 kilos of dry dog food for them to feed on during the week.

After lunch, they’d go for a walk on the hills; María and Manuel, each with their own inseparable dog. “Their names were Drac and Bianca. And Bianca knew that she was the little mistress of the house. When we were leaving Las Heras she knew she was coming with us and she’d look at the other dogs as if to say: ‘you commoners – back to the stables’”.

The red tractor

Mayor Jaume Frigolé also remembers those visits and that María Heras “was very friendly, she’d talk to everyone”. He hasn’t forgotten how there used to be a red Massey Ferguson tractor on the estate, with a Perkins engine. “The boy loved climbing into it and putting his foot on the accelerator. it was incredibly noisy, but because he’s deaf, he couldn’t hear it”, recalls Frigolé.

Manuel Pastor, the couple’s second child (their first, Enric, died before reaching his first birthday) had been left deaf as a result of a medical error. “They gave him streptomycin and damaged his hearing system”, says his mother. María Heras did everything humanly possible in order to give her son a normal life. She became his teacher and moved heaven and earth to find a professional to teach him. Today, Manuel is a fully-functioning adult who can follow a conversation perfectly, as long as the other person is facing him so that he can lip-read. There is only a slight nuance, a subtle accent, when he speaks that, unless you know his story, nobody would attribute to deafness.

When María took over Las Heras, the house was already in a state of disrepair.

Altar in the chapel

“They’d really fragmented it, putting up walls and creating rooms to have more places for the tenants”.

The condition of the houses was deteriorating and burglaries became much more frequent. “They stole my lamps, they stole the stone from the wine press, they stole the kneading table where we used to eat. it was a huge, long table. in the month of August, it was lovely and cool there: 14 degrees. We’d always have to put on an extra layer to not catch cold”.

The restoration of the chapel

One of María’s intentions was to restore the chapel, which had been sacked during the Civil War. “Do you know what i did? Let me tell you the story. When they built the turret, the family thought of using the gothic window frames from the Castle of Taialà, which belonged to us. But they were very heavy and in the end, they decided to make them out of concrete, but still imitating those of the castle. Some of those heavy gothic windows stayed around, lying in a corner. And when we decided to restore the chapel we thought that, as they had burned the baroque altar dedicated to Sant Llorenç, a beautiful, highly decorated altar, we could build a new one using part of the gothic window frames”.

They could not have imagined what laborious work it would prove to be. “We used the tilting bucket from a digger to carry the frames in as far as we could and then we slid them along on tree trunks”. “Just like the Egyptians”, adds Manuel. Those window pieces, transformed into the base of the altar, are today the only form of ornamentation in this chapel that was built by Miquel Heras and licensed for the celebration of mass in 1771.

What stands out today are the bare walls and the enormous paving slabs on the floor, each a metre long by 80cm wide and perfectly carved and fitted together. On the back wall there is Romanesque basin with an angel carved into the stone. if one looks closely, one can find a hiding place used for concealing the communion bread to avoid it being desecrated in the event of an attack on the house. On the wall that adjoins the house, there is a door that is now closed off but that used to lead to the sacristy.

Unstoppable pillaging

As the years went on, María de las Heras could no longer afford the upkeep of the estate, which needed heavy investment. And the pillaging only became worse from 2000 on: first it was the interior and later, looters even took the stones. The main house could just about be saved, and María Heras was able to recover some pieces of furniture. Even so, she does not show excessive nostalgia for what was lost, aside from for a safari bed and a cabinet bed. These evidently unique pieces are hard to picture but María Heras describes them thus: “The safari bed was commissioned by an ancestor of mine who used to go hunting in Africa. it had nine legs and one could dissemble it completely. it was made up of sticks that all fitted together and could all be stowed away in a golf bag. The slatted base could also be dissembled and it was one metre twenty long and twenty centimetres wide”. The cabinet bed was also a unique item. “The bed was one- metre thirty-five wide and you reached it through the doors. The top was removable. in summer, they would take that section of it down to make it cooler for sleeping”.

The deterioration of Can Heras and the other four houses on the estate seemed unstoppable. All that remains of some of the buildings are a few walls and a pile of stones which would all have to be fitted back together like a jigsaw. The main house, Las Heras, was an unwelcoming place with flaky walls, bowing ceilings, unhinged doors and broken floor slabs: a place where past repairs had paid little heed to the history of the house.

Living history

The Heras family name will die out with the current generation. But the story of the Heras de Adri house will remain alive. in 2008, the estate was bought by Alexander Kurt Engelhorn with the intention of returning the house and the neighbouring farmhouses to their original splendour. He is also determined to use the land for farming once more.

Stone-by-stone, the walls are being re-built, the damaged elements are reinforced and flooring, thresholds and window frames renovated. Paths that were once hidden by the vegetation are being re-opened. Seeds are being planted. it is a slow, manual process, as befits a property that is a thousand years old.

When it comes to the main house, more recent add-ons must be removed and some ruined elements rebuilt. But of the smaller farmhouses, only a few stones are left, having been engulfed by the forest; there were even trees growing inside them. The stones are scattered all around; if there is a corner left standing, that corner will be taken down and re-built. The stones will be laid in exactly the same position they were in. This job can only be done by-hand, with the utmost respect to the legacy left by earlier generations. This way of working is a perfect example of Engelhorn’s outlook on life: “if i can’t do something extraordinary, i’d prefer to do nothing at all”.