Noticias en ‘Briefs’

April 7th, 2010

Plain tales from the hills


The only physical remains of Iberian architecture in Catalonia take some finding, way out in the seemingly featureless plains of the Pla d’Urgel in Lleida. But the fortress of Els Vilars near Arbeca is well worth the effort. The site appears as level as the ground around it, but with the foundations of its twelve dramatic towers excavated from the surrounding ‘moat’ it is no surprise to learn that the fortress was occupied for around 400 years (750 – 325 BCE). The tribe, if that’s the right term, disposed of their dead by incineration and internment in clay urns, remains of which occur at numerous sites all over the plains (the new Diocesan Museum in Lleida city has a whole floor dedicated to this civilisation). Quite what happened to them remains a mystery, however, as the site evidently fell into gradual disuse. One clue is obvious; the location is literally surrounded by higher, more easily defensible land, including the town of Arbeca itself (which gives its name to the famous Arbequino olive variety). The histories simply say that the Vilars people were absorbed into the growing Ilerdencan civilisation, after whom the city and province of Lleida were named, who caused the Romans a deal of trouble in 206 and 205 BCE – but that’s another story!

In Memoriam


On my travels lately I’ve been stopping to examine old permanent stone markers that hitherto I’d always assumed to be associated with the Civil War. But it turns out that these, like the increasingly common floral tributes, mostly commemorate victims of traffic accidents. I found a new one just last weekend, returning from a country fair. A carved stone obelisk near the quiet village of Sant Salvador de Tolo, on what was once the only highway into this remote mountain region. The inscription reads, Aqui murio despeñado con su carro y caballerias Juan Bertran de Conques, el 30 de enero 1919. E.P.D., ‘Here died Juan Bertran of Conques, fallen off the cliff with his cart and horses, January 30th, 1919. R.I.P.’ (En Paz Descanse). It’s easy to imagine the scene; the clatter and stamp of the terrified horses, the calls of the mossos, drovers mates and labourers who always accompanied the old carros, the driver frozen in horror as the cart, as its wheels uselessly locked on the black ice, traces its inexorable path towards the edge. Nervously, we peered over the fifty-metre precipice, naively expecting to see some remains of the disaster. But there were just a couple of old tractor tyres. An example of Spain’s modernity, perhaps!

Let the train . . .


Access to the Catalan Pyrenees is improving all the time, with new roads, high speed trains and, as of this winter, a new airport at Alguaire near Lleida. But perhaps the best way to get there is to take the Tren Dels Llacs, which runs from Lleida to La Pobla de Segur on Saturdays from May to October*. The train itself is composed of a rake of carriages dating from the 1950′s, restored in every detail, even down to the sepia tinted photographs of Spain’s major cathedrals!  The train also has a buffet car so it is very commodious!

Foreign passengers, especially the British, will perhaps be more interested in the locomotive aspects of the run, however, and will not be disappointed by the splendid Beyer-Garret type locomotive, nicknamed La Garrafeta by the original drivers, that hauls the train as far as the town of Balaguer. From here a pair of historic diesel locomotives take over, leaving La Garrafeta to wait for the return of the train that evening. The driver, laconic as befits his station (ouch!), told me that the diesels were used to save money, plus the smoke and fumes that accumulate in the long tunnels as the train penetrates the Sierra de Montsec, make the carriages virtually uninhabitable!

* the train doesn’t run in high summer due to the heat!

Tourist’s eye view

The popular concept of the Los Monegros region in Aragon is aptly summed up by the view from the AVE high-speed train on the Madrid to Barcelona line. In Zaragoza the view from the eponymous taxi driver was polite but clear; the ecologists had an opinion, of course, but really there was nothing in Los Monegros but ¡Quatro lagartos! “Four lizards”, slang for nothing at all. Herein lies the nub of the problem for groups opposing the Gran Scala casino development project. Despite the fact that the ‘dessert’ areas of Huesca and Zaragoza provinces do indeed host a rich environmental heritage there seems to be no way to change, reverse in fact, the popular beliefs that undeveloped, or poorly developed land is worthless and that all progress is, by definition, a good thing. He went on to say that once outside of the city, Aragon is “Todo pueblo”, that is to say completely backward. The trouble is, he’s right! Maybe the way forward for the opposition is to propose a viable alternative to the scheme?

Forever England

It’s been just under a year since the Fosser de Jans, located just behind Tarragona’s twin coastal forts, was restored for use by the British Consulate, and so far there have been no takers for its services! The cemetery was recorded as being founded to bury some 300 British troops who were killed during the siege of the city in 1817. The first recorded tomb was that of a Joan Bridgeman, who was interred there in 1849. The site is the property of H. M. Government and according to the Consul is the fourth most important of the twenty British cemeteries in Spain.

The term ‘Jans‘ has a curious origin. It appears to have been a term for foreigners in Tarragona’s slang of the time. Now it appears in the dictionaries as similar to ‘fellow’ or ‘chap’, always prefixed with ‘bon‘, as in ‘good chap’ or ‘jolly fellow’!

Although a year later the place looks a bit decrepit once more, it’s certainly in better shape than it was. Altogether not a bad choice to lay one’s weary bones – maybe I’ve found my niche at last!

Spanish hummingbird hawkmoth

Check out Lucy’s piece on a hummingbird hawkmoth,