Belchite

Many tourists and students of Spain and its history are familiar with the characteristic views of the town, which was almost completely destroyed during the Civil War (1936-39).The site has, moreover, featured in numerous films both as a subject of the war, e.g. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006), or in general as a somewhat surreal location, for instance in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). But fewer images of the new town, built alongside by victims of the post-war repression under decree of General Franco, appear in the on-line and print media, or indeed in the movies. This is not surprising as the old town ruins, left unrestored and unpampered, are both fascinating and moving enough in their own right to fill a whole visit – as happened when a ‘delegation’ of the Iberianature Forum went there at the beginning of May 2010.

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But I returned at the end of the same month with friends of a quite different stripe and briefly explored the new town. There is no doubt that its architecture was designed to serve the Nationalist political ideology, which was explicitly stated in Franco’s decree of the town’s status,  recorded on a marble plaque set on the new church (long since removed by persons unknown!), “Yo os juro, que sobre estas ruinas de Belchite, se edificará una ciudad hermosa y amplia como homenaje a su heroísmo sin par. Franco” (“I swear that on the ruins of Belchite, a beautiful and spacious town will be built as a tribute to its unparalleled heroism. Franco”

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The Town Hall’s official web site points out that, not too surprisingly, there was a degree of favouritism in the allocation of the new properties, and in fact many citizens left altogether in the interim. Equally lamentable, perhaps, is that the town council of the day opted for the rebuilding rather than an ambitious irrigation scheme, which would have brought more long term wealth to the town – but one should ask, “Wealth for whom in particular?” of course!  The contrast between the old and the new is striking to say the least:

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Nevertheless, the architecture is fascinating and, at least from a restaurant terrace, Belchite strikes one as being an attractive place to live and work. I’m drawn to return time and again – not least for the drama of the journey there across Los Monegros – one of Spain’s most wild, weird and wonderful locations!

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In Memoriam

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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!