History of the Ampurdan
There is archaeological evidence of human activity in the mountainous parts of the region from the early Palaeolithic era (150,000 BC). The dolmens and menhirs in the Alberes Mountains are variously of early, mid- and late-neolithic origin (3,700 – 1,500 BC). During the last millenium BC Celtic people from north of the Pyrenees mixed with the Neolithic Iberian natives and a number of independent tribes developed. Although their culture was not as sophisticated as others on the Iberian Peninsula, they were competent ceramicists and produced some interesting metal artefacts. They used to trade goods with visiting Phoenician merchants. In the 8th century BC Greek traders arrived and established commercial subsidiaries near the sea, which later became colonies; the most important were Empurion, now Empúries, and Rhoda, now Roses.
The Romans arrived in 218 BC and, in the course of establishing dominion over the entire peninsula, took over Empurion, which became an important colony in the province of Tarraconensis, as did the town they named Gerunda, now Girona. They practised trading and farming and began the process of draining the lagoon and surrounding wetlands. By the end of the 5th century AD, the Western Roman Empire had collapsed. The Visigoths penetrated from the north of the Iberian Peninsula and integrated the region into the kingdom of Toledo. The Moors arrived in 716 AD. A part of the local population fled to the Pyrenees or to the empire of the Franks to seek protection and aid. Charlemagne conquered most of what is now northern Catalonia at the ends of the 8th century AD and established the Hispanic March as an extension of his domains. The new territories were assigned to Carolingian rulers as fiefs.
Castelló became an important city under the feudal Counts of Empùries, most of whom were rather confusingly called Ponç or Hug or Ponç-Hug. They frequently fought with their neighbours, the Counts of Roselló, the Lords of Peralada, the Counts of Besalu and the Bishops of Girona. Over the years, starting with Count Ponç-Hug I (1116-1154), they presented an increasing challenge to the authority of the powerful Counts of Barcelona, who had withdrawn from French control and effectively established Catalonia as a major political entity, and then went on to acquire the Crown of Aragon. As often as not they were allies. Count Hug IV (dates) participated in the conquest of Mallorca (date), and even though he was killed in battle, many of his subjects remained on the island to repopulate it. Count Ponç-Hug III (dates) took part in the conquest of Valencia (date). Count Hug V (1269-1277) became an enemy of King Jaume I (dates), and his army even besieged the royal garrison town of Figueres and took its gates to Castelló, but was finally defeated (date) at Voló. During the French invasion in 1285, the Count (who?) supported King Pere el Gran (dates). Count Ponç-Hug IV (dates) allied with King Jaume II (dates) in the Sicilian War (dates), but the relationship between them worsened when Ponç-Hug captured 65 subjects of the Sultan of Granada, with whom Jaume had an alliance, and reached unprecedented heights of tension when the Count diverted the flow of the river Ter before its passage through the royal town of Torroella de Montgrí, thus hindering the exportation of food to the royal dominion. The king threatened war against Empúries, and the Count built the castles of Bellcaire, Albons, Castell d’Empúries and El Far in response.
Jaume II ordered the construction of the fortress that now stands at the summit of Montgrí, dominating the entire region, and Ponç-Hug, outspent and outmanouvred, had to submit. Count Ponç-Hug V (dates) died without a direct descendant. A second dynasty of Counts of Empúries, bound to the royal family in Barcelona, completed the church of Santa Maria in Castelló and constructed the bridge over the river Muga. In 1402 the Earldom of Empúries finally became fully integrated into the Kingdom. The title was inherited through different marriages by the Dukes of Medinacelli, and is currently held by the Duchess of Alba.
Another very important related aristocratic family of Carolingian origin in the region were the Lords of Peralada, Viscounts Rocaberti and Carmenco and Barons of Castocucco, Anglesola, Navata, San Lorenç de la Muga, Vilademuls, Llers, Terradas, Darnius y Santa Llogaya. They tended to be called Dalmau, Guerau, Arnau and the like, plus several significant Jofres and Galcerans and a fair sprinkling of Hugs and Ponces.
Shield of the Rocabertí in Peralada Castle
There were several very powerful Rocaberti women, with names like Arsenda, Alemanda, Galcerana, Elvira and Ermesinda. The extended family included 2 cardinals, 4 archbishops, 6 abbots, 52 canonised saints, 8 army generals, 4 admirals, 3 viceroys, 4 ambassadors and 6 seneschals who presided over the Privy council of the Crown of Aragon.
There were significant Jewish communities in the larger medieval population centres, but none were nearly as important as that of Girona city. Because of their diet and hygiene, they were largely unaffected by the plagues and epidemics which decimated their Christian neighbours at intervals in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, and were thus widely suspected of causing them deliberately. There were several periods of violence against them, but when it came to the final expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, many chose to convert to Christianity rather than leave. The surnames they adopted tended to be the names of the towns where they lived or the fruit trees they cultivated, and are still widespread in the region to this day, often in combination with classical semitic good looks.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, coastal communities suffered the pillage of Algerian pirates. Using the Medes Islands as a springboard, these buccaneers were the scourge and bane of the long-suffering peasants scattered over the area. Various defensive measures were adopted, including the erection of lookout towers and the withdrawal of communities inland from the shore.
The region was destructively overrun by French troops during the uprising of Els Segadors [the Harvesters] (1640-1642), the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the Spanish War of Independence (1802-1814), known as the Peninsular War in English.
By the 18th century, nearly all the rice fields were located south of the river Fluvià. There were stormy disputes between those who were in favour of rice cultivation and those against it, who held that malaria was the inevitable consequence of the necessary stagnation of the water. A popular contemporary saying ran:
Mother’s who have daughters;
if you do not love them enough,
marry them to Albons or Bellcaire;
and if you want them dead soon;
marry them to Vilademat
From that time there is also a curious transcription that can be translated as:
“In 1835, when the fevers possessed the region and extended mourning everywhere, Creixença Vilà, after the death of her husband, her children, Paulí, Antón, Climent and Caterina, and her brothers-in-law Narcís, Jaume and Josep, and realising that the Governor of Girona was not listening to the pleas of the villages afflicted by the epidemic, began a vigorous protest against the rice crop. The inhabitants of Albons, Bellcaire and Torroella de Montgrí met in the square of the last village and decided to drain the land and thus destroy the crop. That way, the epidemic would end in all the rice areas of the Empordà. Creixença was 47 years old at the time”.
The Carlist Wars saw several battles in the Ampurdan, notably the 1874 siege of Castelló d’Empúries. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) caused major casualties on both sides in the region. Figueres played a particularly significant symbolic role in the last days of the conflict.
When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, another phase of rice cultivation began around Bellcaire and Albons, extending into the Alt Empordà towards Sant Pere Pescador and Castelló d’Empúries, and did not end until 1968. In the Pals wetlands, the paddy fields have been maintained uninterruptedly until now, producing a particularly fine short-grain variety of rice, perfect for the succulent local stewy rice dishes.
In the mid-20th century the destruction of the coastal marshes was accelerated by the building of tourist facilities. Large and interesting areas vanished to make way for marinas and housing developments. The marshlands would certainly have been lost altogether without the widespread campaign to save the remaining area, helping to alert public opinion to their value and avert possible ecological tragedy. This campaign was a great success, both in Catalonia and abroad, and culminated in 1983 when the Catalan Parliament unanimously approved a bill declaring the marshes a natural site of national interest and establishing the Natural Park of the Aiguamolls of the [Alt] Empordà. The marshes of the Baix Empordà, between Pals and Torroella de Montgrí, do not yet enjoy any legal protection.
This article was written by Francis Barrett. See also Francis' excellent guide to Ireland irelandbyways.com
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