Go with the flow in Catalonia
A walk-on part in a documentary and a flock of flamingoes were among the surprises awaiting Mick Webb in the mountains and plains of Catalonia
Saturday 15 March 2008
You could call it a break of two halves: a four-day stay on Spain's eastern coast, two of them walking in the mountains of Els Ports before a descent to the watery plain of the Ebro delta. To underline the contrasts of this Catalonian adventure, our first two nights would be in a humble hostal and the others in the luxurious surroundings of the parador at Tortosa, a prospect made even more attractive still by a low-season discount and a cheap flight to Reus airport.
That evening's destination was a hillside village called Vallibona, a couple of hours' drive away, which I'd liked the look of because it was right at the end of one of those mountain roads which are so bendy that they look like an illustration of the large intestine and would be better placed in a medical book than on a map. Driving along it wasn't made any easier by banks of swirling fog; with some relief we pulled up outside the hostal in the square at the top of the village. Its name, La Carbonera, is a reminder of the historically important occupation of charcoal-burning in this area.
A crew from Valencia's regional broadcasters was here to film a programme about mountain-biking in Els Ports and proved to be convivial company during a meal of pork chops and peppers which was punctuated by power cuts and frequent bottles of dark red wine. Our walk the next day was delayed by the unmissable opportunity of a starring role in the documentary – well, a very brief supporting appearance. After our 40 seconds of fame we strode out in the autumn sunshine along one of Vallibona's several trails.
This was a stretch of the GR7 – one of Europe's longest footpaths, running from Tarifa, at the southernmost point of mainland Spain, all the way to Athens. It took us on a gentle climb up a river valley, past overgrown and untended olive groves. As the wet vegetation dried in the sun, crickets began to chirp and grasshoppers started to whirr. Bushes were covered in berries and the poplar trees had turned a beautiful golden yellow.
At lunchtime we reached the top of the valley with a wide view over grassy downlands towards the medieval town of Morella, built on a round hill and topped by a fortress. The way was barred by a kind of gate, secured by a cunning system of interlocking barbed wire loops, and we were saved from probably irreparable damage to the fingers by the arrival of a shepherd. While giving me a lesson in barbed-wire gate opening, he asked if we'd seen a group of his sheep which had decided to abscond from their pen the night before. He also showed us an alternative route back to the village, which took us through a forest of old oaks, dappled in the sun, and led us back in a couple of hours to Vallibona.
We'd arrived at the bottom of the village, and the walk up through steep, narrow streets revealed a collection of classic Spanish mountain houses, well-kept and whitewashed with particularly striking wooden balconies. There was only one obvious shop – a chemist's that was open only on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays – and a remarkable shortage of inhabitants.
Lack of work has led to massive migration from villages like Vallibona to the coastal cities and resorts, although many families have kept their houses and return here for holidays. The number of permanent residents has dwindled to 40, and that evening most of them gathered for a birthday party at our hostal. Again, we were included in the celebrations and treated to glasses of cava and plates of chocolate birthday cake, while the hoteliers, three young Valencians, took advantage of our presence to play their collection of Clash CDs.
The next morning, a Sunday, as a group of elderly local chaps enjoyed their ritual breakfast brandy and cheroot, we tried the GR7 in the other direction. It followed the dried-up riverbed of the Barranco de la Gatellera between sandstone cliffs sculpted into elegant decorative patterns that a master stonemason would be proud of. After an hour or so we reached the head of the valley and were treated to a spectacular panorama of the forested peaks and intricate valleys of Els Ports which stretch over 800 sq km.
I'll draw a veil over the return journey, which was characterized by wrong turnings and dead-end tracks, and accompanied by the worrying sound of none-too-distant gunfire from wild-boar hunters, before we found ourselves back at the beautiful view and had to retrace our steps down the dry river bed, whose rocks had by now become unaccountably sharper.
After farewells from our hosts, which made us feel more like old friends than transient guests, we set off on stage two of our break, descending gradually to the coastal plain by way of dusty olive groves and increasingly drab villages and small towns. At dusk we arrived at the river Ebro and joined the queue of traffic which seems to be a constant feature of Tortosa. Known as the "city of three cultures" in homage to its historical roots (Moorish, Jewish and Christian) Tortosa hasn't quite come to terms with the culture of the car.
Eventually we worked out the confusing one-way system and found our way to the hill which rises from the medieval quarter and is crowned by the 10th-century Castle of la Zuda, where the parador is now located. From our room's balcony we watched the sun setting behind the mountains we'd recently left, painting the the broad river with silver and gold streaks; a huge flock of starlings performed one of those extraordinary aerial displays normally reserved for Bill Oddie.
I was looking forward to dinner, because the parador at Tortosa, like the rest of this government-run chain of luxury hotels, prides itself on its menu of regional dishes. We had smoked eels and other fish from the Ebro, pigeon soup, a stew of chicken, prawns and prunes. It was all very good, the service was faultless and the dining room, with its massive ceiling beams, was certainly impressive. Yet it wasn't long before the civilized, sotto voce conversations of our fellow-diners, mostly elderly Americans, and the accompanying middle-of-the-road background music made me long for a loud burst of The Clash's "London Calling" or a power-cut.
The cold, grey light of the next day revealed contrasting sides of Tortosa. Down the hill on one side of the parador are the Jardins del Príncep (the Prince's Gardens) whose crumbling terraces are populated by different varieties of palm trees and by 24 groups of life-size naked figures. Sculpted in bronze by Santiago de Santiago, they show metaphorical scenes from human history, the most striking of which is a writhing column of people called The Struggle of Humans. On the other side of the hill, in Tortosa's old town you can see at first hand a telling example of Santiago's theme. Around the squat Cathedral of Santa Maria, with its splendid baroque façade, is a bizarre patchwork of buildings that are falling down, being knocked down and/or being restored. Beautiful examples of medieval and Renaissance Catalan architecture rub shoulders with a ghetto of condemned and houses filled with poverty-stricken immigrants.
We drove down beside the Ebro to its delta and experienced more stark contrasts as the heavy industry and thick plumes of smelly smoke gave way to the wild and windswept landscape of rice-paddies and lagoons. We couldn't believe our eyes when we spotted a flock of pink-tinged flamingoes, which are just one of the notable bird species that are found here. With the help of a powerful telescope belonging to a group of serious birders we also saw a purple gallinule.
Intent on a swim, we stopped off at Sant Carles De La Ràpita. As it began to rain we plunged into the water, much to the amazement of the local passers-by, who were sporting their winter wardrobes. Fortunately, the water turned out to be much warmer than the air. Equally fortunately, the swim gave us a healthy appetite which was to stand us in good stead. One of the few restaurants open on a Monday evening in Tortosa was a Basque sidrería or cider bar, in the modern district. The menus were labelled A, B, C and D, and included limitless quantities of cider and numerous dishes which I'd assumed would be tapa-sized portions. Except they weren't. The chorizo was enough for a main course, the blood pudding ditto, then the omelette with green peppers... and still the main course hadn't arrived.
We survived the blow-out, no doubt helped by the cider, and even found room next morning for a serious assault on the paradore's buffet breakfast. Four days: short, sweet and satisfying.
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