Vineyards, olive trees and almond grooves; limestone walls, gorges, chasms, ravines and streams; modernist wine cellars, manorial mansions, stone villages, archways and gothic arched stone doors. Among historical landmarks and a surprising natural scenery, the Terra Alta and Matarranya counties, at the border between Catalonia and Aragon, are a rural peaceful haven marked by the orography of the Ports mountain range, declared biosphere reserve by the UNESCO.
It’s 7.15 in the morning. I just stopped my car at a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the vast stone wall of the Volendins ridge, on the road to la Fontcalda Sanctuary. It’s windy and there is not enough light yet to take a good photo from here. It doesn’t matter, as I had another viewpoint in mind. I’m on my way to see the sun rise over one of my favourite landscapes in the world, from the col where the narrow road starts descending towards la Fontcalda. It’s windy too, there, and bitterly cold but I wait just to see the light change over the Ports, la Falconera and Santa Bàrbara mountain on the background, with the tiny sanctuary sitting deep down at the bottom of the valley formed by a 200 million-year-old massive anticline. I woke up at 6 and drove here just to take this photo. Therefore, I wait in the cold, savouring an oddly pleasant feeling of isolation. Finally, the world lights up and I’m on my way – there are many places I want to see today, many kilometres to cover. I don’t mind, as I love driving along these lonely mountain roads. After all, this is my ancestral home.
I descend the winding and steep road into the deep valley towards the sanctuary. This early in the morning I only come across a couple that camped here last night with their bikes. The old unused railway line between Alcañiz and Tortosa was reconverted during the 90’s into a Greenway of 99km. I still remember the train track as a kid. Now it is a paved cycling road – and a very scenic one at that.
I take advantage of the morning calm to wander the gorge of the Canaletes river, trapped here between limestone walls, with the frogs croaking around me. Of course I must dip my hands in the thermal spring (28ºC) that gives its name to the Sanctuary (Font Calda meaning Hot Spring), built in honour of one of the Catalan found madonas. The story goes a young shepherd found the image soaring above the river, which serves as border between the villages of Gandesa and Prat de Comte. After some dispute, Gandesa won the honour of building the church – already mentioned in the 14thC, although the current one was built in the 18thC. Unfortunately the baroque altar was burned during the Civil War. These lands were the epicentre of the Ebro Battle, the 112 days offensive that marked the beginning of the end of the war and the Spanish Republic in 1938. By the church there is a bar, a restaurant, an inn, a camping site and a picnic area, where I come across another couple of cyclers who also slept here.
Either early in the morning or late in the evening, when there is no people around, are the best moments to see some Iberian Ibex (capra pyrenaica) coming down to the water to drink. No luck today, though, as I’ve had on other occasions.
With the sun already shining pretty high, I’m back in my car to follow the road up and out of the valley by the opposite side I came down, towards Prat de Comte –with Metallica as my soundtrack as I cross the stream of the Canaletes. I’m heading, actually, toward its source: the Ports.
Once out of the valley I reach the tiny village of Prat de Comte (population: 183 in 2019), where I stop with coffee in mind but I cannot find any establishment offering that sort of service. Not even a restaurant by the main road to Horta de Sant Joan, which kind of gives you an idea of how isolated the place is.
I go on my way then with the idea of reaching the Sotorres Fall. The old mill built inside the gorge by the waterfall there was restored and reconverted a few years back into a rural hotel and I’m curious. To get there I need to take a dirt road but it is in a pretty good condition. I find it closed to traffic half the way in though, so I have to leave my car under some trees by the road. While I am pondering my options (whether following on foot and basically trespassing or changing my plans) a van parks by my side and a bunch of guys in neoprene suits come down. They are heading towards the Ventador Fall, to descend the Canaletes river. I follow them there and I don’t regret it.
The approach by foot is amazing, first among the trees up towards a small col – from where the view is breathtaking, with the path zigzagging down towards a crack among the walls. The Canaletes has ploughed through the crack creating the ravine the group is going to follow for 750 metres (with 60 metres elevation loss).
After seeing them jump into the water, I have to walk back up the path and to my car. My next stop is going to be the Estrets d’Arnes. Different river, different gorge. That is the beauty of the Ports orography, shaped by different water courses – both permanent and seasonal. In this case the Estrets river has carved a small but breathtaking canyon 2km long that you can walk unhurriedly in around 1 hour and a half – that is without taking into account the stops to dip your feet (or yourself) in the emerald waters. It is a Wildlife Sanctuary, a Special Protection Area for birds, Site of Community Importance (SCI) and also Point of Geological Interest –its conglomerate walls are a nesting place for predatory birds and a ground for rupicolous flora and the stream is home to invertebrates and fish. It is also a great climbing site. And a beautiful spot to have my lunch.
Mid afternoon I head back to Gandesa, my base, to rest. I stop by a viewpoint before taking the road that crosses Horta de Sant Joan, the village where Picasso came to find inspiration by the turn of the 20thC. A little further I take a little detour through a dirt road to Gandesa – much more entertaining that the normal road. My little Peugeot 107 is a champion.
Though I go to bed early, by midnight I am awoken by the church bells – then I realize they are probably celebrating Resurrection as it is Easter Sunday already. It is also my name’s day – I was named after my grandma and here I am, in the house she grew up. I get up around seven to take the road again, towards the village of Beseit.
Vineyards, almond groves, the beautiful mountains in the background and the road to myself, all bathed by the early morning golden light. It is one of these little magical moments that make it all worthwhile. Just before crossing the border with Aragon I stop at a gas station. Upon looking at my credit card, the owner just exclaims: ‘You are from around here, right? With those surnames!’. Yeah, that’s the thing. I cannot hide my roots, they go deep down under the ground I’m stepping on, maybe since the repopulation of the area in the Middle Ages after it was re-conquered from the Arabs. I say maybe because actually I can only trace my genealogy back to the 16C. All official birth and marriage registers from the villages were burnt during the war. Bloody wars. We can only trace part of our family back thanks to somebody who copied some documents by hand before they were destroyed. And we can find some mentions of the surname in older documents – one relating to the marriage of the Catholic Kings in 1492.
With a full gas tank I cross the border into Matarranya county, I pass by the beautiful monumental Vall-de-Roures / Valderrobles, dominated by its 16thC castle, and accessed via a gorgeous gothic bridge, and take the bendy road towards Beseit and the Parrissal Gorges – yes, another day another gorge. In the parking lot I come across a free guided tour, which I join for a while. The guide, a young local named Bruno, introduces us to the fauna, flora and geology of the area. We see the griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) circling over the cliffs – here they need to be fed to maintain the population- before taking a trail that was opened in the 20s for coal mining (activity that ceased to be profitable in the 60s). Here in the Ports the summers are hot and we can find some plants adapted to the lack of water. But a little higher we get an alpine climate, and we can find holly (Ilex aquifolium) at 650 meters (normally found at a 1000m) due to thermal inversion. This is a natural park and everything is protected, which means NO PICKING. There is also walnut tree brought by the Phoenicians, maple, strawberry tree, hazelnut tree and pines – Aleppo pine (pinus halepensis), black pine (pinus nigra) and scots pine (pinus silvestris) – all of them relatively young; the area was deforested to build the Spanish Armadas for the glory of the Empire (note the ironic, unenthusiastic tone).
And we have the fauna: Iberian Ibex (capra pyrenaica), otters – its population in the Matarranya has benefited from the invasive American crab, which is exterminating the indigenous species-, squirrels, vultures, golden eagles – the main predator of these mountains since the extinction of the wolves in the 30s-, booted eagles, common kingfishers and white-throated dippers. And of course, fish like barbus and trout.
We also come across the very faded 5500 year old Fenellasa Cave Paintings and the Woman’s cave, a crack formed by the dissolution of the calcareous stratus. This area is formed by synclinal folds, which are responsible for the rivers of the Ports never to run dry and also for them to flow away from the sea – the Mediterranean is only 30km away, although you’d never tell.
I leave the group and the explanations to start the trail up the river Matarranya, here trapped between narrowing 100 meter high walls. The trail, equipped with walkways at some points, follows the stream up to the Gubies, the narrowest point where the walls almost touch each other. During dry seasons it is possible to walk through – as I did one August several years ago- , but with the water flowing the option, unless you have brought a Neoprene suit, is to take the diversion that goes up the Romeret Pass. This alternative trail is equipped with chains and metal steps at some points that will allow you to overcome the 100 meters up first and then down to the other side. You may need to if you’re following the Estels del Sud (Southern Stars) Trail, the 5 days hike that circles the Ports, marked by a blue star.
I’ve taken the Parrissal hike several times on different seasons, and its beauty never ceases to amaze me. The weird shaped rocky walls, the trees, the emerald blue crystal waters. You find something new every time. Today I come across a choir singing at the gúbies. Actually, I hear the voices beautifully reverberating from a distance. By the time I get to them, they have finished the song. But the effect was truly magic.
Back to my car, and back to Catalonia. I’ve decided to have a late lunch at another gorgeous spot, the Toll del Vidre (the Glass Pool), a natural pool on the Algars river – as you may have noticed, there are numerous streams in the area, all of them carving pools and natural swimming areas around. To get there I go to the village of Arnes and take a dirt road for around 7 km. It is possible to drive almost all the way there but I park 2km away and walk through the forest for half an hour. At the pool there’s a bunch of local teenagers jumping down from the top of the waterfall. It reminds me of my childhood – I came to this area with my parents every summer for a few days, but I cannot help but to feel a little envious of them. How nice it must be to grow up in a place like this – opposite to a city. I sit by a spring overlooking the pool to eat and enjoy the landscape, and the moment.
I go back home, the house built by my great grandfather in 1912, to have a shower. Obviously, the shower was not there in the early 20thC. The whole bathroom was added in the 70s, I think, on the ground floor, taking space from the room aunt Caridad used to teach the village kids in the afternoons. It is a narrow four-storey house. On the ground floor there is a bathroom and what is left of the old classroom- with a library and a table. Upstairs there is a small dining room and a tiny kitchen. Another flight of stairs and we find the main bedroom, on the 4rth floor there are two small bedrooms and then the roofed terrace. That’s it. It is like a dollhouse. The location is great though, right in the village square.
After the shower I take a walk around town. I go up to the modernist cellar (one of the 7 monumental buildings known as the cathedrals of wine and designed by Cèsar Martinell at the beginning of the 20thC). They have a little shop there were I normally buy wine (DO Terra Alta, mostly known for its White Grenache), oil and honey- a thick light coloured type, my favourite in the world. As a kid I used to dip a coffee spoon in it and lick it like a lolly pop.
The very small size of the town means everything is at walking distance. The church, the old Templar prison (the order of the Temple managed these lands until its downfall, when all its possessions were given to the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem) which serves today as hall, the manorial gothic palaces… The villages in the area were built from solid limestone and the eroded bricks give the facades a unique texture and look, very distinctive.
I walk as the sunset golden light bathes the surrounding landscape – vineyards and almond trees at the edge of town. Even in the graveyard, were so many of my relatives lay, there is a big almond tree, heavy with fruits. The almonds of the dead, I call them. A few meters away, I stumble into the grave of Kenneth Frederick Nelson (Colorado 1916- Gandesa 1938), who fought with the Lincoln Battalion. To die so young in a foreign land…
The Ebro Battle Museum
At 15 minutes past midnight, on July 25, 1938, the Republican Army – loyal to the democratically elected government of Spain- crossed the river Ebro in Catalonia in order to block the Fascist Forces of Franco and change the course of a war they were clearly loosing. 112 days of bloody combats later they would retreat back, having failed. It was the longest, crudest battle of the Civil War, which time and narrative would slowly paint in legendary terms. But the harsh reality was that it left a devastated land. The trenches and battlefields were abandoned and overgrown. Nobody wanted to talk about the war for a long, long time. On top of a small hill, 4 km away from Gandesa, we find the old town of Corbera, as it was left after days of air raiding, its destroyed houses left untouched. Today it stands as a chilling monument for peace. It is part of a network of interpretation centres and monuments in iconic spots linked to the battle spread along the whole area. In Gandesa, the epicentre of the whole battle, we find the CEBE (Ebro Battle Studies Centre), a museum housed on a repurposed school building. It was initially set years ago by a group of volunteers from the village that started gathering material and felt the need for a memorial like the ones found in WWII battlegrounds. It has evolved into a proper museum.
Easter Monday. Time to go back to Barcelona. Before hitting the road, I need to visit the Forn del Castell bakery to buy the classic local pastries filled with angelica. Scrumptious.
La Terra Alta, 743 square km and 12.000 inhabitants spread out in 12 villages, was already populated during the Iron Age – there is an Iberian site near its capital, Gandesa. Its economy is based on agriculture, mainly oil and wine, being the white Grenache the star of Terra Alta wines.
Matarranya, with 933 square km and a population of around 8000 people spread along 18 villages, was established as a county in 2002, with Valderrobres appointed as capital. Agriculture is the main activity of the area with olives trees, vineyards and cereal. It was already populated in prehistoric times, as several sites and cave paintings corroborate. It was retaken from the Arabs during the 12thC by king Alfonse the Chaste. In spite of the shameful attempts by the Spanish and Aragon governments to eradicate it, Catalan remains the main spoken language of the county.
Ebro battle Museum: http://usuaris.tinet.cat/cebe/catala/indexcat.htm