Teruel existe

One of the wonderful things about Spain is the concept of the puente. Now, by puente I don’t mean “bridge” in the typical sense of the word. I mean, the Spanish puente: the long weekend, mini-break, what have you. I’m talking about several days of vacation thanks to a Tuesday or Thursday holiday “bridged” to a weekend by calling Monday or Friday off as well. In the States they’ve avoided those midweek holidays by moving many major holidays to a Monday. In Spain, they aprovechar (take advantage) of any excuse not to work.

The month of December was very kind to us working people of Spain. In addition to the Christmas holiday, the 6th and the 8th of Spain are national holidays: Constitution Day and then Immaculate Conception. This year those dates were a Wednesday and a Friday, and we got a lovely five-day break stretching from Wednesday through Sunday.

Knowing that we’d be traveling to the United States during Christmas and running around seeing dozens of people, Alex and I decided to use the puente de diciembre to get lost, literally, where we would know no one and where, in fact, there would be few people at all.

We decided to go to Teruel, a province northeast of Madrid, in the southern part of Aragón, a region that stretches all the way north to the Pyrenees and the French border. There’s a joke about Teruel that says, “Teruel no existe” (Teruel doesn’t exist). The provincial capital, also called Teruel, is the only one in Spain without a direct train connection to Madrid. The whole province suffers from depopulation and is generally considered one of the more remote and isolated places in Spain–it also normally registers the lowest temperatures.

But we were intrigued. There must be something there, we thought. For the first part of the trip, we weren’t too convinced. We had rather blindly picked to stay in a town that, as we soon discovered, had very little merit. It wasn’t pretty, it was tiny, and the whole area was not very picturesque. At least our lodging was decent and we did manage to do some hiking.

Our impression changed completely when we continued to our next destination–deep in the heart of El Maestrazgo, a beautifully wild and inaccessible part of Teruel. The scenery suddenly became stunning: hills and valleys, deep gorges, rock spires reaching to the sky. This area, especially, has decreased dramatically in population in the last century. It was common for us to drive through towns with half the houses abandoned.

Our destination was the Hostal de la Trucha — the Trout Hostel. The approach was fantastic. We headed through a gorge, hugging the cliff walls in Alex’s Clio and then arrived at the closest town to our hotel–Villarluengo. Perched on a rocky outcrop where the gorge opened, it was a truly spectacular sight. We had to wait an hour to eat at one of the town’s two completely packed restaurants before descending a wildly curvy road to first a piscifactoría (fish farm) nestled among the trees and then to the eagerly anticipated Hostal.

The place is styled like an old-fashioned hunting lodge. You enter into a huge wooden-beamed room with a small bar on your right, the reception desk straight ahead, several couches, and lots of tables and chairs. On each side of the great room are enormous fireplaces. Each iron chimney hangs from the ceiling over a wood-burning platform. Taxidermist’s stuffed animals are perched and mounted throughout the hotel. Our room had antique-looking furniture and red- and black-patterned wool curtains and bedspreads.

I was extremely curious about the history of the place–seen from the road above we thought it was a bunch of abandoned buildings. The weekend receptionist happened to be from the neighboring and tiny village of Pitarque and told us quite a bit. She explained that what is now the hotel had first opened in 1789 as the first banknote paper factory in Spain. Later it was a successful textile factory, among whose buildings included a church and a school for employee’s children. In the post-Spanish Civil War era, the factory ceased production as bands of robbers roamed the countryside and robbed the factory’s goods. This was accompanied by a general flight of people from the mountains of the Maestrazgo to the cities. The towns in the area became shadows of what they once were.

In those years, some entrepreneur took interest in those abandoned factory buildings and the clean waters of the Río Pitarque to establish the Hostal de la Trucha there around 1970. Together with the Pitarque-fed fish farm that sends kilos and kilos of trout to Zaragoza daily, I imagine the hotel owners don’t do too badly for themselves.

In addition to getting some nice hikes in (the area is full of beautiful, well-marked trails and breathtaking scenery, like the Organos de Montoro, seen below), Alex and I visited a tiny town that the woman in Pitarque’s tourist office had recommended. The town, Montoro de la Mezquita, has ten inhabitants. We got out of the car to look around and encountered virtually complete silence. A boy played with a ball in the street; we could see two men tending to their fields below town. On the way out, however, we noticed that a municipal bus stop.

We asked Inma, the receptionist at la Trucha, about Montoro and she explained that the population has gotten so low that Villarluengo had to adopt the town. The public bus stops in Montoro twice weekly. Oddly enough, but perhaps because it has such a tranquil and removed setting high at the head of a valley, it is home to two casas rurales (similar to country bed-and-breakfasts), which probably more than double the town’s population when they’re busy.

Inma herself went to school in Pitarque until secondary school, when she had to go to Teruel capital. Of the school in Pitarque, she told me, “It won’t last even five more years. It will disappear.”

The schools and inhabitants may continue to disappear, but the tourism infrastructure appears to be alive and well.

2 Responses to “Teruel existe”

  1. 1 Raymond Friday, 11 January, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I hope that one day I would be able to visit Teruel. I love Spain so much- I’m dreaming of the day I can finally go. Thanks for the article.

  1. 1 La vida rural « España Profunda Trackback on Tuesday, 18 December, 2007 at 4:54 pm
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