A homage to Catalunya
Looking down on the peaceful river Ebre, as it meandered its way through the flat-bottomed valley, jagged hills either side, it was hard to imagine this place being anything other than the peaceful scene which lay before me. The sun-scorched soil dotted with the green of agricultural development and farmers quietly going about their business among the olive groves and citrus orchards. This river, any river, is a symbol of life but also of natural geographical division. Sadly here, in southern Catalunya, the Ebre valley witnessed scenes of huge social division too, horrifically at odds with this bucolic scene.
Immediately behind where I’d parked the little red Honda CRF250L, and where I now stood, was a chilling monument to the thousands who died in the forgotten war; the first war in Europe that was fought against fascism. And it was this hill and this valley that experienced some of the most horrendous fighting as Catalunya held out the longest against Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War over 80 years ago.
If only it was ancient history and something to remember and read about in books, but it’s alive yet, all around me. The political unrest as Catalunya – with its separate language, customs and social attitudes – is gathering pace since the 2017 referendum on independence from Spain. The recent brutality of the state forces, drafted in from the south, is a reminder for many of past battles and regional differences. The incarceration of Catalunya’s political representatives coincides with national questions of ‘repatriation’ of the remains of Republican fighters from the 1936-39 war and the exhumation of General Franco’s body from the ‘Valley of the Fallen’ in Madrid, which has recently become something of a shrine for new Far Right extremists.
As I ride around this fiercely proud region of Spain the roads everywhere are painted with the ‘yellow ribbon’ symbol and yellow ribbons adorn railings and lampposts in every village. It’s a statement of solidarity with the imprisoned politicians.
This is a very special place to visit and the current political climate makes it even more so. The weather is generally excellent, the roads, almost devoid of traffic, snake their way through the mountains providing hours of fun for any motorcyclist, and there are trails galore. I based myself just outside the town of Mora d’Ebre, at the aptly named Catalan Adventure bolt hole of Nick and Debbie Tunstill, and the trails actually lead away from the house itself in four directions. As a rule, when I travel I am very happy to wander aimlessly without GPS because I know that at some time I’ll hit a main road, but I took advantage of Nick’s local knowledge and his passion for the history of the region and let him guide me on another of his CRF250s.
Twisting between the aged olive groves and scrubby pines we climbed away from the house on a lovely rocky trail towards the 500m Mount Picosso, the last point captured by Franco’s forces at the end of the Battle of Ebro. It’s a magical place and remembering the peace and tranquillity as I write this has me desperate to go back. We popped out of the trees beside a tiny church perched on a cliff edge and looked across the remarkable vista. Strategically of course, in war any high ground is important, but this area witnessed phenomenal brutality as Franco’s frustration with the resistance of the Republican fighters coincided with Hitler’s eagerness to let his rapidly developing war machine get some aerial bombardment practise.
George Orwell – as part of the anti-fascist International Brigades – was among those who famously recorded his experiences of fighting in this area, but Ernest Hemingway was here too, further down the river and reporting for various news agencies:
“Above us, in the high cloudless sky, fleet after fleet of bombers roared over Tortosa. When they dropped the sudden thunder of their loads, the little city on the Ebro disappeared in a yellow mounting cloud of dust. The dust never settled, as more bombers came, and, finally, it hung like a yellow fog all down the Ebro valley.”
We snicked the Hondas into gear and headed off down the trails toward the valley floor and our village destination of Corbera, but not before Nick casually mentioned that lots of British Superbike and MotoGP racers use the race circuit just beyond the hill for practise sessions and that it’s often open to the public to ride what you’ve brought. I took stock of this information and gunned the 24hp single over another irrigation pipe bisecting the trail. Executing more of these little jumps and comfortably navigating some up and downhill gravelly switchbacks I felt emboldened and game-on for a couple of laps of the Circuit Mora d’Ebre, even though the CRF was sporting its finest knobbly tyres. I could see it clearly: me, the little red Honda and Marc Marquez having a dice, just for fun. Well, he is a local lad. Sadly the gates were locked when we arrived, but before we set off for fuel I made another mental note of why I should return to this area.
While topping off the tanks Nick casually pointed out a stone memorial at the edge of the forecourt. Memories of war are never far away but what surprised me was, although the road had been improved and the petrol station had been built, this engraved stone had not been disfigured. It was for a German pilot who had been brought down on the spot in 1938.
With the sun high in the sky we bimbled across the parched landscape towards Corbera, a village perched on the hillside overlooking the valley, which demonstrates the true horror of war. When Franco ordered its destruction, he also commanded that it be left in ruined state as a reminder of what can happen if the population cross him, an attitude which can’t have been great for reconciliation when hostilities ceased. Today its legacy is to remember the brutality of war, the civilians, the Republicans and the International Brigades who attempted to defend the area, until the Luftwaffe arrived from above. What’s remarkable is that those very few houses which weren’t destroyed, are still occupied, even though a new village was built in the shadow of the extensive ruins.
A couple of hours away from Barcelona and an hour inland from the Mediterranean coast over the most divine roads, the greater Ebre/Ebro Valley area is one that deserves to be explored whether you have interest in military and social history or not. There are Moorish castles, hiking and climbing routes (with zip wires!), surviving Roman infrastructure nearby, and it’s not crawling with tourists, but it may be that you just want to base yourself here to be among miles of sinuous tarmac and gravel trails.
When you stop for something to eat, as we did in the village of Benissanet, you appreciate the simple honesty of the place. The smiley proprietor of Restaurante El Casal enjoyed my perplexed look at his menu; written Catalan being quite different to Spanish. In a classic symbol of internationalism, we used mime, animal sounds and two very broken languages to communicate, to the delight of the other patrons in for lunch, a quick beer and a whirl on the ever-present slot machines. Interestingly Catalan slot machines switch themselves off if they think you’ve spent too much time on them.
We took our nice cold drinks outside to the bikes and settled down at a red plastic table and chairs in the shade of the vines, to await delivery of whatever local delicacy it may have been that we had eventually ordered. Something distinctly Catalan I hoped.
Words and images: Paddy Tyson