Tella is an enchanting town and, according to legend, also enchanted since it belongs to a region associated with witches, magic, and covens.
A charming village resting proudly in the Aragonese Pyrenees at an elevation of 1,340 meters (4396 feet) in the Comarca of Sobrarbe, near one of the entrances to the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Parks.
This is a comprehensive guide to Tella, a lovely town that seems straight out of a Harry Potter novel. Nonetheless, it exists and welcomes visitors. Here you can learn about its history, customs and all the must-see attractions.
- Tella and the witch scaring chimneys
- What to see in Tella
- The Route of the three Hermitages protecting Tella
- A magical setting called Tella
“Nature always carries the colors of the spirit.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
For generations, this isolated mountain community told tales of witches, giants, werewolves, supernatural abilities, and magical plants. And soon, everyone had heard of them.
So much so that in the 11th century, Bishop Oliva mentioned the prevalence of witchcraft in this province in a letter to the King of Pamplona, Sancho el Mayor.
Therefore, to safeguard the settlement from spells, the Church allowed the construction of the Tella Hermitages. Three temples forming a protective ring that kept witches at bay and shielded the land from storms.
I don’t know about the witches, but I can certainly say that storms are very present in the Aragonese Pyrenees. I spent the night near Tella, hearing the clouds breaking down in a rain I thought would never end.
Tella and the witch scaring chimneys
However, it did. And the following day, the town emerged like a picture from another age, able to travel through time and touch the sky. Crowned by witch-scaring chimneys, still widespread in northern Huescan communities.
These conical structures known as “chamineras” rise over the roofs of the oldest residences. They are occasionally topped by strange items such as plain vertical rocks, cone-shaped stones, pots, crucifixes, or fearsome beasts.
These gadgets were called “espantabrujas” and intended to keep witches who flew over the houses from reaching them through the chimney.
Originally, they were humanoid, cruciform, and porous stones. They had a hole in the center that whistled when air flowed through. However, they are not crosses but rather nasty tiny dolls with extended arms, resembling someone trying to stop the passage.
They can also simulate heads, likewise incredibly hideous. In other cases, pitchers or similar clay vessels served as espantabrujas due to the cleansing role water has always had.
Before going to bed, people used to leave fire tongs open in the shape of a cross or draw a cross in the ashes after the fire burned out. They also placed a figurine called “motilón“ or “motilonot“ on the hearthside. It was a handcrafted unfired clay doll (probably mirroring the roman lares gods) who guarded the entryway against the witches.
What to see in Tella
Tella embodies the charm of the Aragonese Pyrenees like few other places. Despite its small size, it is full of surprises: churches hidden in the mountains, hundreds of witch stories, archaeological sites, and prehistoric remains…
The visit to the town itself takes about an hour. Nevertheless, you can complement your stay with the area’s two most popular hiking paths: the Route of the Hermitages and the Route of the Dolmens.
The Tella Cave Bear Museum
The Tella Cave Bear Museum is a fantastic place to start the local tour. It stands near the entrance, close to the parking lot, and serves as a tourist office for the entire region.
Inside, you will not only discover a significant amount of information on Tella’s history, but you can also buy tickets for your visit.
Furthermore, it is an interpretation point for the homonymous cave. A location that takes us 1.5 km from the town and 20,000 years into the past. During this remote time, the cave was a refuge for about 100 cavern bears and the occasional human being.
Church of San Martín de Tella
The Church of San Martín has been protecting the town entrance for ages. Dating from the 16th century, it is a small example of Pyrenean Romanesque, built with masonry and mortar.
It has a long central nave with chapels on each side (in the transept) and a rectangular chancel lower and narrower than the rest of the edifice.
On the exterior, a tower and a small cemetery that is still in use stand out.
The first inhabitant to welcome me to Tella was a dog. Or perhaps, an animagus the witches had hired as a tour guide. Who knows?
The House of the witch Museum
The friendly host accompanied me on the town tour, leading up to the Casa de la Bruja: a museum that picturesquely explains the sorceress’s practices, potions, and lifestyle.
Here you can learn about witchcraft and local tales. Discover magical plants and their uses, regional protecting aspects, and the meaning natural elements like water or storms hold for locals.
In addition, traditions regarding the origin of mountains, such as Monte Perdido and the Brecha de Rolando immerse you in the wonderful realm of the Pyrenees and Alto Aragón ethnobotany.
The Tella Dolmen
A modest structure in the northwestern part of the Tella plain transports us directly to the Neolithic era. A pleasant archaeological surprise in the form of a dolmen.
A dolmen is a megalithic construction composed of multiple slabs (orthostats) anchored to the ground in a vertical posture and one colossal slab resting on top of them as a cover.
This arrangement created a chamber encircled by a mound of supporting earth or stones that concealed the steep slabs. The result was an artificial hill that served as a funeral marker.
These Neolithic and Chalcolithic constructions extend across Western Europe, particularly along the Atlantic coast. Its ostensible goal is often collective burial. However, it can also be a method of seizing land and solidifying tribal identity.
So old, simple, and impressive!
The Route of the three Hermitages protecting Tella
Nevertheless, I think the most spectacular thing about Tella is the Route of the three Hermitages: the Hermitage of Saints John and Paul (11th century); the hermitage of the Virgin de Fajanillas (12th century); and the hermitage of the Virgin of the Rock (16th century).
Located at the gates of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, they formed a ring of telluric forces that protected the inhabitants of Tella from witches and storms.
The trail takes around an hour and a half and follows rather steep paths. Even so, it is somehow suitable for people not used to hiking (like myself).
Hermitage of Saint John and Saint Paul (11th century)
After walking through the leafy forest of Pino Rollo and Boxwood, you will find the oldest temple on the route of the three hermitages.
It was built in the 11th century close to the famed rocky outcropping known as Puntón de las Brujas, where witches celebrated their Akelarres (covens).
Given its compact size and floor design with a single nave and an ultra-semicircular chancel facing east, this church’s architecture is considered pre-Romanesque. Bishop Borrel de Roda de Isábena consecrated it in 1019.
The horseshoe form of this apse, influenced by Catalan Romanesque, is its most unusual feature. This plant is uncommon in the Aragonese Pyrenees, occurring only at the hermitage of San Aventín de Bonansa (c. XI century).
Under the apse is a tiny semicircular crypt. It is covered by a crude barrel vault and accessible from the right side of the nave.
The only entrance to the temple is on the southern front, protected by a modest arch made of tufa stone voussoirs.
The Hermitage of the Virgin of the Fajanillas (13th century)
The Hermitage of the Virgin of the Stripes is a modest Romanesque shrine built in the 13th century.
It consists of a single nave with a square floor plan and a semicircular apse covered by an oven vault. In the 16th century, its tower was connected to the north wall.
The temple was consecrated in the 13th century and served as the parish seat of the town until 1597 when this privilege was transferred to the church of San Martín.
Hermitage of the Virgen de la Peña (16th century)
The Virgen de la Peña Hermitage stands on a small slope observable from the town. Constructed in masonry, it is a late example of Pyrenean Romanesque architecture. However, town folk altered its appearance in the 16th century.
The church consists of a single nave covered by a barrel vault and a straight east-facing head shorter and narrower than the nave.
A continuous bench extends the length of the nave’s lateral walls, all the way to the doorway in the South wall and the chapel on the North side.
Its walls and vaults remain unplastered, exposing the bare stone. Additionally, large stone slabs constitute the pavement. The entryway is located at the footwall and has a semicircular arch with broad voussoirs holding above a rectangular niche with a dedication figure.
A magical setting called Tella
The three hermitages are apotropaic structures and gems of Pyrenean Romanesque architecture. However, their most striking aspect is not their design but their surroundings. It’s the breathtaking view of the Escuain Gorge, the Cinca Valley, and the great rocky mass of the Castillo Mayor.
With the enchanted valley at your feet and your head in the clouds, believing in magic, contemplating the divine, and experiencing a deep connection with Nature arise effortlessly. They are simple, like breathing or walking along the paths sketched among the trees.
Admirable and humble footprints humans left amid magnificent Nature as a refuge from it and a metaphor for it. Alongside the Puntón de las Brujas, defying the winds…