Sant Romà de Sau: The church of the submerged town that resists the disappearing

Bojan Ivanov
Author: Josep Bracons - CC BY-SA 2.0

The big infrastructure projects which are seen as very important for the progress and the modernization of one region or country, and that are “sold” by the authorities as essential for the people’s and nation’s survival, usually are followed with “little” sacrifices. These sacrifices, often wrapped in sweet words of propaganda, can sometimes mean replacing the old way of life with a new reality.

When the water level is low, the entire church reappears/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

When the water level is low, the entire church reappears/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

Such reality might include radical changes to the landscape. Many dam projects that have been established to provide hydro-electric power or water reservoirs have sadly caused the destruction of ancient villages, towns, and historic buildings. An inevitable disaster that is presented as a perfect storm: one beauty is gone forever and lives only in memories and another beauty is born out of the disaster. In this story, the beauty is an abandoned church bell tower that arises from the waters of a man-made lake.

The valley was submerged in the 1960s/ Author: DagafeSQV – CC BY-SA 3.0

The valley was submerged in the 1960s/ Author: DagafeSQV – CC BY-SA 3.0

The ancient town of Sant Romà de Sau was a peaceful and thriving community nestled in the Sau Valley in Catalonia, Spain. Until the 1960s it was home to around 100 inhabitants. But the Spanish government decided to construct a dam on the River Ter to create a reservoir–which would slowly drown the whole town.

The church was strengthened with concrete/ Author: Francesc Ojeda – CC BY 3.0

The church was strengthened with concrete/ Author: Francesc Ojeda – CC BY 3.0

After exploring the Guilleries mountain system and its waters for the ideal location to site a new reservoir, the Catalan government selected the Sau Valley. Construction work started in 1941 and the dam was finally finished in 1962. The inhabitants were moved to a new town, Vilanova de Sau, built nearby. They took their precious items and house fittings with them, leaving nothing within the walls of their former homes. They even took the dead out of the graveyards and put them in the new cemetery. The ghost town, which was left abandoned and mostly with roofless empty shells, silently waited for the water.

The church was built in the 11th century/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

The church was built in the 11th century/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

The valley was completely flooded in 1965 and officially the Sau Reservoir was born. Since then it has been the main drinking water supply for much of the Catalonia region.

The church is successfully resisting the years under the water/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

The church is successfully resisting the years under the water/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

The artificial flood submerged the entire town, except the top of the square church bell tower of the stone church. The lonely belfry became the only visible remainder of the ancient village of Sant Romà, and in some melancholic way became its gravestone. When the reservoir is full and the water is at its highest level, only the tip of the pointed spire can be seen above the water.

Some parts of it can be enjoyed only from a distance/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

Some parts of it can be enjoyed only from a distance/ Author: joan ggk – CC BY 2.0

Historic documents clearly indicate that the Romanesque church was erected between 1025 and 1050, on the site of an older church. The documents also show that it was consecrated in 1061/ 62. In the 15th century it was seriously damaged by an earthquake. Later it was altered and enlarged. These modifications are easily recognizable on the structure.

The church reflected in the water/ Author: Amadalvarez – CC BY-SA 3.0

The church reflected in the water/ Author: Amadalvarez – CC BY-SA 3.0

On hot summer days during particularly dry periods in the Catalonia region, when the water level is low, the entire church comes into view. Other parts of the town can be seen too, like the Romanesque bridge and the foundations of several farmhouses of the former inhabitants.

Because of the construction of the reservoir, the inhabitants had to change their way of living. Instead of agriculture, forestry and cattle ranching, their main occupation became tourism.

The Sau Reservoir

The Sau Reservoir

During one extreme dry season, engineers strengthened the church with concrete, especially its foundations. It had already started to attract many tourists and the local authorities wanted to provide bright future for this historic building.