The Spain I grew up with was summed up in four words: sun, sea, sand and sangria. It was Del and Rodney on the Costa Blanca. Soap stars on Thomas Cook package holidays, swapping the cobbles of Wetherfield for the high rises of Benidorm. I never went, but you didn’t need to. In late 80s Britain it was a cultural keystone. As much a part of life as fish and chips.
The image of Spain as a fun-loving, sangria-soaked holiday destination was deeply ingrained, and, yet, deeply superficial. A little more than seven years before the Trotters visited Benidorm, General Franco was personally signing death warrants of political prisoners. It was details like these which, unsurprisingly, were lacking from the Spain adverts sold us. Or, sadly, the lessons school taught us. The mainstream British culture I experienced had, the odd jokey reference in Only Fools and Horses aside, forgotten the Spanish Civil War and the reign of Franco that followed.
In Catalonia it’s much harder to forget. The five-month long Battle of the Ebro claimed up to 30,000 lives in 1938, and the effects of the conflict are still apparent today. At Miravet, the 800-year old fortress-monastery has never recovered from the shelling it received. The fittings in the church at Fontcalda are now replicas of those burnt during the Civil War. And Mora d’Ebre has a damaged castle, and no old bridge.
But nowhere is the war more vividly, poignantly evident than at Poble Vell. Perched above the town of Corbera d’Ebre, Poble Vell is the shell of a village devastated by aerial bombardments and street fighting in the war. After the fighting stopped, residents rebuilt their lives further down the hill, leaving the village much as the combatants left it. A Baroque-style church stands crumbling at the centre of long-deserted streets. Packs of cats move in and out of bullet-riddled houses. Olive trees grow untended.
It is a hugely affecting place. A brain-wobbling walk through a brutal past. We visited twice and on both occasions it took time to fully rejoin the here and now. A stillness lay over us as the Baroque church got ever smaller in our rear view. Words or even pictures are woefully insufficient to truly convey the experience. And the relatively low profile of Poble Vell means few have even tried in the English language. Fortunately, some have managed far more elegant and succinct accounts than these words. For me, Joan Antonio Montaña of the Associació del Poble Vell de Corbera d’Ebre, comes closet to capturing the essence.
“It concerns our own history. A history testified in the stones.”