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When things fall on your head


Without warning a whoosh of dirty, soapy water gushed down from above. It was a pleasantly warm autumn day but I could have waited until I got back to the hostel for a shower. A small boy suddenly appeared to show off his kitten with pride. He asked what had happened and all I could muster in shocked, awkward Spanish was, “Agua, desde arriba”. It was comforting to have a friend in the area. Whether this incident was down to a prankster or plain bad timing on my part, I’ll never know.

One change of clothes later I ventured out again. I stopped off to take care of my hunger pangs with L’empedrat, a local dish made with white beans, pepper and cod followed by a cure for my sweet tooth – pinya catalana, pineapple with burnt caramel on top.

Suitably replenished, I went to look for postcards but couldn’t find any souvenir shops. Quite odd really when you consider that Tortosa is peppered with landmarks spanning over a thousand years of history. Even stranger when you think that the beaches of Tarragona and the Costa Dorada are only 90 kilometres away.

Tortosa is slightly off the beaten track and dominated by two features: the river; Ebre or Ebro, depending on whether your preference is for Catalan or Castilian Spanish, and the Zuda, a Moorish castle. At the entrance to the Zuda is a small Arab cemetery, claiming to be the only one in Catalonia dating from times when Tortosa was on the frontier between Muslim and Christian Spain. The capital of Baix Ebre (Catalan for Lower Ebro) has always been a melting pot, a place where cultures, religions and ideals have met and clashed. Local tourist brochures award it the grand title of ‘Mediterranean City of Three Cultures’. When most of Spain was under Islamic rule, Tortosa was an important commercial port between inland Zaragoza and the towns and cities of the Mediterranean. The Moors of al-Andalus provided Spain with cotton, sugar, spices and silk and brought expertise in the construction of irrigation systems to this fertile valley where oranges, olives and rice are all cultivated.

The view from the Zuda under an October sun was crystal clear. To the west is Els Ports – a national conservation park that spans the autonomous communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Aragon. Within the Cardó mountain range you can find Griffon vultures or the Spanish Ibex; a rare mountain goat with horns I wouldn’t want to argue with. To the east is the Delta de l’Ebre, famed for its flora and fauna, with over three hundred species of birds, including the unmistakable sight of the flamingo.

The contrasts of modern day Tortosa are evident too. The castle interior has been converted into a luxurious four-star parador containing the best accommodation in town (standard double room 120 Euros), while the decrepit buildings just below the cliffs are home largely to immigrant communities from Africa and Latin America. It’s easy to say that run down barrios add to the character of a place but some parts of town are desperately in need of renovation and investment. Old Tortosa contrasts starkly with the flourishing coastal developments of the Costa Dorada that lie to the south of Barcelona.

But history lovers will have their work cut out trying to catch up on Tortosa’s history in a couple of days. The Santa Maria cathedral has a Baroque facade but is a largely Gothic structure built in the fourteenth century on a site which had previously been home to a Mosque, a Romanesque cathedral and a Roman temple before that. A low point in the town’s long religious history happened in the early fifteenth century when Pope Benedict XIII summoned influential Jews and attempted to convert them to Christianity. His attempts failed and the furious Pope issued a bull that limited the freedom of the Jews and forbid them to mix or trade with Christians. During this time, as in other parts of Spain, Jews who had lived among the general population were gradually ghettoised, culminating in mass expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Today, the broad majestic Ebro is flanked by modern housing developments and some striking buildings such as the municipal market, a nineteenth century construction with a distinctly Arabic look to it. In the centre of the river stands a curious memorial to the dead of the Spanish Civil War. Such monuments are commonplace in Spain but this one is controversial as it features the eagle shield; a symbol that is a sinister reminder of the Franco regime.

As I surveyed the scene, a fisherman tranquilly cast his line into a river on which boats once secretly crossed the water at nightfall. A far cry indeed from the days of one of the most significant and bloodiest battles of the Spanish conflict.  By 1938, Franco’s forces had cut off Catalonia from Valencia and Madrid, splitting the Republican held territory in two. The Republicans launched a surprise counter-offensive on the Ebro in an attempt to direct Franco’s forces away from Valencia where the Republican government was based. The Republican armies crossed the Ebro at various points along the river in late July. The first unit to take positions on the other side of the bank was the 11th International Brigade. The Republican advance lasted a week, advancing some forty kilometres to the outskirts of Gandesa, a small town north of Tortosa, which became a key strategic point as Franco’s forces fought back. Even with superior firepower, including the assistance of the German Condor Legion, it took the Nationalists four months to recover the territory they had lost in two days. Gandesa is home to the CEBE, a museum dedicated to the Battle of the Ebro. Displays include weapons and supplies dropped by both sides during the campaign.

Descending from the Zuda en route to my hostel, I felt a little sorry that my finances did not stretch to a night or two at the parador. I stopped off in the shade of the Jardins del princep, a leafy palm garden featuring human figures by Santiago de Santiago – a sculptor so good they named him twice. I dozed off in these peaceful surroundings, safe in the knowledge that there were no warplanes or even water bombs overhead; the only threat came from the droppings of small birds that were hopping from branch to branch.

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