A Spain We Didn’t Know

Where? When it was decided that our literary society would meet in Teruel, Spain this year, Kay and I were nonplussed. The city and its eponymous province were not on our mental map. Turns out that Teruel province along with those of Zaragoza and Huesca together make up the autonomous community of Aragon, which shares borders in the country’s northeast with Catalonia and France. It is noted for its harsh climate, hot in summer and very cold during the winter months. Teruel city, with its population of 35, 675 in 2014, is the smallest of Spain’s fifty provincial capitals.

Our literary society meets for two weeks each July in a different European country, and the conference days are fully scheduled leaving precious little time to explore our surroundings. In spite of this, we did find moments to escape from our hotel and sample the life and look of the surrounding city. Our first week coincided with an annual festival called the Vaquilla del ángel. On the first afternoon, before the festival’s riotous days and nights properly began, we were treated to the sight of dozens and dozens of couples from around the region bearing infants born since last year’s festivities. They were lining up for their offspring to receive a little red neckerchief and have their names officially recorded as citizens of Teruel.

Teruel - Plaza del Torico 3

For the rest, once the festival began in earnest, all businesses except those selling food and drink closed, and the streets became crowded with men, women, and children dressed all in white wearing emblematic red neckerchiefs and red sashes around their waists.

Teruel - Fiesta 2

No main street nor square was without a drinking tent or a stage for bands to perform loudly amplified music. The music and the drinking went on day and night for a week with only short pauses in the mornings for recovery. Some nights we would be awakened at three or four o’clock by a brass band marching past our window as it played.

Teruel - Fiesta 20

I thought of the scenes in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, especially due to the aura of bulls and bullfighting surrounding the festivities.

The bull has been symbolic of Teruel for centuries, and thanks to my friend Ken in Western Australia who has sent me some photocopied pages from James Michner’s non-fiction book Iberia, I can tell you how that symbol came to be. It’s an interesting account that I think best told in Michner’s own words:

“In October 1171 . . . King Alfonso II was endeavoring to establish a defensible frontier between Christian Zaragoza and Moorish Valencia; one evening his troops decided to give battle next morning at a favorable spot marked by a hill; but the Moors offset his advantage by collecting that night a herd of wild bulls and fastening to their horns bundles of firewood which were set ablaze. The maddened bulls stampeded towards the Christian lines, with the Moors following behind. In previous battles this tactic had worked for in the confusion caused by the fiery animals the mounted Moors had overwhelmed the Christians.

But this time, Alfonso’s men stood fast, and with catapults which lobbed boulders at the onrushing bulls, with long half-moon lances that severed their hamstrings, with pikemen who formed solid walls of spear points, the onslaught was repulsed. Infidel power was broken in the area and it would now be possible to establish a permanent border between the two sides. It was crucial victory.

While celebrating, the victorious Christians saw a sight which becane the symbol of their triumph: one bull, the only survivor of the stampede, remained on the crest of the hill, shaking his head in such a way that the brand still burning miraculously between his horns shone as if it were a star. ‘He has been converted to our side!’ the Christians shouted, and the hill which the bull had chosen for his last stand became the site of Teruel.”

You might have heard the news that while Kay and I were in Teruel, a young matador died from being gored in the local bullring; it was the first death of a bullfighter in the ring in three decades.

Teruel’s main square is named the Plaza del Torico (little bull,) where the suffix –ico is a diminutive. In fact, in the center of the plaza there stands a classical column, atop which and out of proportion, sits a tiny statue of a bull. How this came to be, we have no idea.

Teruel - Architecture Mudejar 4

For me, Teruel’s greatest sight was its Mudéjar architecture, said to be the finest in Spain. Our guide on a day-long excursion away from Teruel to the beautiful hill town of Albarracin, explained that in the early Middle Ages the local grandees favored Romanesque architecture. When the cost of the artisans who worked the stone and the expense of bringing it from a long distance became prohibitive, the local rulers turned to their Moorish subjects, known as mudéjars, to build their churches and towers in a new way that combined Christian and Moorish motifs in brick and tile. These could be made using local clay. One of these motifs is an eight-pointed star arranged around a circle. It appears in a modern guise around the province. For instance, from our bus windows we saw this figure done in steel and attached to the undersides of highway overpasses.

Teruel - Architecture 6

Teruel’s other interesting historical style of architecture is early 20th-century Modernismo, the style we encountered so widely in Valencia and even more so in Barcelona where it is mostly associated with Antoni Gaudí. Although born of the same impulse as in those larger cities, Teruel’s Modernismo is an interesting variation whose Moorish influnces seem stronger. Check out the photo of the Caja Rural de Teruel building on the Plaza del Torico.

I can’t end this account without telling of Los Amantes de Teruel, the town’s greatest pride. The story of the Lovers is a centuries’ old legend that had he heard it, might have inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet.

The year was 1217. Diego and Isabel, young people from prominent families were in love. However, Diego’s family had fallen on hard times, and because he was poor, Isabel’s family refused to let her marry him. An agreement was struck that gave Diego five years to go out into the world to make his fortune so that he could return and claim Isabel. Diego went away and was not heard from. At the end of the five-year period Isabel was forced to marry a wealthy suitor from Albarracin. It was on the very day of her wedding that Diego returned bearing the riches that would allow him to marry his beloved. Alas, Isabel had just been married to another. Diego begged Isabel for one kiss that he could carry with him as he wandered through the world. She had to refuse, and Diego broken-hearted fell dead at her feet. The following day, wearing her wedding dress, Isabel came to the bier where Diego lay lifeless. She knelt and gave him the kiss she had denied him the day before. As she did so, she died in her turn, collapsing over his corpse.

Teruel - The Lovers 4

The citizens of Teruel, so impressed that these two had died for love, demanded that they be buried side by side in the church of San Pedro. Today, the lovers’ remains lie within a beautiful chapel attached to the church. They are memorialized by two beautiful effigies carved in alabaster. The effigies lay side by side with arms outstretched toward each other, hands almost, but not quite, touching.

Church of San Pedro
Church of San Pedro

I may not have done justice to the city of Teruel in this short piece. Besides those monuments I’ve mentioned, the town contains several beautiful churches. San Pedro alone has one of the lovelist interiors Kay and I have ever seen. The ceiling of the city’s cathedral is made up a multitude of individual paintings, so small they are hard to recognize, from below without binoculars. Then there are the streets themselves, some narrow with flights of steps. Teruel is a hill town, after all. An ancient aqueduct composed of graceful arches spans a deep ravine. Teruel is known for its ceramics, too, with green as their signature color. Finally, the happiest thing about Teruel from our point of view is that it is not world-famous. The other visitors we saw were Spaniards, and, once the fiesta ended, there were not many of them. It’s so pleasant to visit a beautiful city without the tourist hordes and the touts, beggars, and cheap merchandise that they attract. It’s a phenomenon all too rare these days.