Spain – The Valley Of The Ebro, Aragon And Catalonia

THE central portion of the valley of the Ebro is as distinctly separated from the remainder of Spain as is that of the Guadalquivir. It forms a vast depression, bounded by the midland platen’ of Spain and the Pyrenees, and if the waters of the Mediterranean were to rise 1,000 feet, this ancient lake, which existed until its pent-up waters had forced themselves a passage through the mountains of Catalonia, would be converted into a gulf of the sea. The Pyrenees in the north, the barren slopes of the plateaux to the south and south-west, form well-defined boundaries, but in the north-west the plain of the Ebro extends beyond Aragon, into a country inhabited by men of a different race.

Historically and geographically, Aragon and Catalonia form one of the great natural divisions of Spain, less extensive than the Castiles, but hardly less important, and far more densely populated.* The political destinies of Aragon and Catalonia have been the same for more than seven centuries, but, in spite of this, there exist great contrasts, which have not been without their influence upon the character of the population. Aragon, a country of plains surrounded by mountains, is an inland province, and its inhabitants have remained for the most part herdsmen, agriculturists, and soldiers. Catalonia, on the other hand, possesses an admirable seaboard. Its natural wealth, joined to favourable geographical position, has developed commerce with neighbouring countries, and more especially with Roussillon and Languedoc. Indeed, seen or eight centuries ago, the Catalans were Provençals rather than Spaniards, and in their language and customs they were closely related to the people to the north of the Pyrenees.

In the course of the great political revolution, the most terrible feature of which was the war of the Albigenses, Catalonia became a prey to the Castilians. As long as the Provençal world maintained its natural centre between Arles and Toulouse, the populations of the Mediterranean coasts, as far as the Ebro, Valencia, and the Baleares, w ere attracted towards it as to their common focus. Those Christian populations who found themselves placed between Provence on the ono hand and the Arab kingdoms on the other, naturally gravitated towards the former, with whom they possessed community of race, religion, and language. Hence the side range of the idiom known as Limousin, and its flourishing literature. But when an implacable war had converted several towns of the Albigenses into deserts; when the barbarians of the North had destroyed the civilisation of the South, and the southern slopes of the Cevenues had been reduced by violence to the position n of a political dependency of the valley of the Seine, Catalonia was forced to look elsewhere fur natural allies. The centre of gravity was shifted from the north to the south, from Southern France to the peninsula of the Pyrenees, and Castile secured what Provence had lost.

The plateau to the south of the Ebro has been cut up, through the erosive action of rivers, into elongated sierras and isolated muelas (molars), and its edge is marked by numerous notches, through which these rivers debouch upon the plain. The Sierra de San Just (4,967 feet), now separated from that of Gudar by the upper valley of the Guadalupe, is a remnant of this ancient plateau, as are the Sierras de Cucalon (4,284 feet), de Vicor, and de la Virgen, which join it to the superb mass of the Moncayo, in the northwest ; and the same applies to the Sierra de Almenara (4,687 feet), which rises to the west of them.

The granitic mountain mass of the Moncayo (7,705 feet) has offered greater resistance to the erosive action of the waters than have the cretaceous rocks of the plateau to the east of it. The Moncayo is the storm-breeder of the plains of Aragon, and from its summit the Castilian can look down upon the wide valley of the Ebro. To the Aragonese the plateau is accessible only through the valleys of the Guadalupe, Martin, and Jiloca, and it is these which have enabled them to obtain possession of the upland of Teruel, which is of such strategical importance. front its commanding position between the basins of the Guadalaviar, Jucar, and Tajo.

To the north of the Ebro rises the snow-clad range of the Pyrenees, which separates Spain front the rest of Europe. Several spurs descend from this master range into Aragon. But there are also independent ranges, one of which, that of the Bardenas, rises immediately to the north of the Ebro, right opposite to the gigantic Moncayo. The parallel ridges of the Castellar and of the “district of’ the Five Towns” form a continuation of these hillocks to the east of the Arba, and then, crossing the valley of the Gallego, we reach the barren terraces of the Monegros, upon which rises the insular Sierra de Alcubierra, in the very centre of the ancient lake of Aragon. A saddle, elevated only 1,247 feet above the sea-level, connects the latter with the mountains of Huesca in the north.

Several mountain niasses of considerable height occupy the centre of the country, and separate these riverine hills from the main range of the Pyrenees. They consist for the most part of chalk, through which the bounteous rivers descending from the Pyrenees have excavated their beds. These channels, with their precipices, defilcs, and cascades, form one of the most picturesque mountain districts of Spain. The most famous of these Pyrenean foot-hills is the Sierra (le la Pena, which is separated from the Pyrenees by the deep valley of the Aragon. At the eastern extremity of this chain, high above the ancient city of ‘Inca, rises the pyramidal sandstone mass of the Pena de Oroel (5,804 feet), from which we are able to embrace an immense horizon, extending from the Pyrenees to the Moncayo. The wild district which occupies the centre of this magnificent panorama is the famous country of Sobrarbe, held in high veneration by patriotic Spaniards, for it was there they commenced their struggles against the Moors.

An elevated saddle connects the Sierra de la Pena with the irregular mountain mass of the Sierra de Santo Domingo, to the south of it, whose spurs descend in terraces into the rugged plain of the Five Towns. It is separated by a narrow cleft, through which passes the Gallego from the Sierra de Guava, which extends to the river Cinca in the east, and several minor chains run parallel with it. This parallelism in the mountain ranges may be traced, likewise, as far as the river Segre.

The Monsech, thus called from its arid calcareous ravines, presents the appearance of an unbroken rampart from the south, but is intersected at right angles by the gorges of two Nogueras—the Ribagorzana and Pallaresa. The Pena de San Gervas and the Sierra de Boumort, which rise to the north of it, are much less regular in their contours, but exceed it in height.

The Pyrenees terminate with the gigantic mountains surrounding the alley of Andorra, and with the Peak of Carlitte (9,581 feet). The Sierra del Cadi (8,322 feet) belongs to a detached chain hardly inferior to them in height, and culminating on French soil in the superb pyramid of the Canigou (9,140 feet). Numerous spurs extend from this sierra towards the sea.

In this rugged mountain region we meet with geological formations of every age, from the Silurian to the cretaceous. Iron, copper, and even gold abound, and might be worked with great profit if roads and railways penetrated into the tipper valleys. A coal-field on the Upper Ter, near San Juan de las Abadesas, is being worked very sluggishly, and others on the western slope of the Cadi hate not even been touched. The famous rocks of salt at Solsona and Cardona lie at the foot of the Sierra del Cadi, and that of Cardona alone, though it has been worked for centuries, is estimated to contain nearly 400,000,000 cubic yards.

The abundance of mineral veins is due, perhaps, to the existence of subterranean lava lakes. The only volcanic hills in the north of Spain are those near Olot and Santa Pau, in the upper basin of the nutria. Immense sheets of basaltic lava have been ejected there during the tertiary age from fourteen craters, one of them, upon which stands the old town of Castelfollit, forming a huge rampart of picturesque aspect. Jets of steam issue even now from many fissures in the rocks.

The mountains along the coast of Catalonia resemble in every respect those of Valencia, from which they are separated by the gorge of the Ebro. Near the mouths of that river the rugged and mountainous region extends about thirty miles inland, as far as the Llanos del Urgel; but farther north it widens, until it finally merges in the spurs descending from the Pyrenees. The principal summits are the Mont Sant (3,513 feet), the Pnig de Montagut (2,756 feet), the Monserrat (4,057 feet), and Monseny (5,276 feet). The best-known passes are at the head of the Francoli, through which runs the railway from Tarragona to Lerida, the pass at the bead of the Noya, and the Pass of Calaf.

Of the last-named mountains that of Monserrat is the most famous, for suspended upon one of its flanks hang the remains of the celebrated monastery in which Loyola deposited his sword. Monserrat has lost its prestige as a holy place, but still remains one of the most interesting subjects for the study of geologists. It consists of conglomerate, and has been worn by atmospheric agencies into innumerable pillars, pinnacles, and earth pyramids surmounted by huge boulders. Hermitages and the ruins of castles abound, and the prospect from the highest summit extends from the Pyrenees to the Balearic Isles.

Crossing the valleys of the Llobregat and Ter, we reach the swampy plain of Ampurdan, an old gulf of the sea, and with it the northeastcrn extremity of Spain, separated from France by the Albères Mountains. The surrounding hills abound in the remains of ecclesiastical buildings. One of these, near Cabo de Creus, the easternmost promontory of Spain, and the Aphrodision of the ancients. marks the site of a temple of Venus.

The basin of the Ebro forms a huge triangle, the mountains of Catalonia being the base, whilst its apex lies in the hills of Cantabria, close to the Atlantic. The surrounding hills differ much in height, but the nucleus of all consists of granite, upon which have been deposited sedimentary strata, the silent witnesses of the gradual filling up of the old inland lake. The river itself traverses the very centre of this triangle, at right angles to the Mediterranean, and only when it reaches the mountain barrier separating it from the sea does it wind about in search of an outlet.

The Fontibre, or “fountain of the Ebro,” gives birth at once to a considerable stream, which, fed by the snows of the Peda Labra, rushes with great impetuosity past Reinosa (2,687; feet), then passes through a succession of defiles, and finally, having received the Ega and Aragon with the Argo from the north, enlarges from Navarra a great river. Below Tudela (800 feet) it is large enough to feed two canals, viz. that of Tauste, which carries fertility into the once sterile tracts at the foot of Bardenas, and the navigable Imperial Canal, which follows the valley down to Zaragoza. The ordinary volume of the latter amounts to no less than 494 cubic feet per second, but much of this water is sucked up by the calcareous soil.

The tributary rivers which enter the Ebro in the plains of Aragon compensate for the loss sustained through canals of irrigation. The Jalon, Huerva, Martin, and Guadalupe join on the right ; the Arba, Gallego, and Segre on the left. This last is the most important of all, for it drains the whole of the Pyrenean slope from Mont Perdu to the Carlitte.

The Ebro, after its junction with the Segre, immediately plunges into the coast ranges of Catalonia, and though the fall thence to the sea amounts to 18:3 feet in 95 miles, no rapids or cataracts are met with. The suspended matter brought down by the river has been deposited in the shape of a delta which juts out fifteen miles into the Mediterranean, covers an area of 150 square miles, and abounds iii salt marshes, lagoons, and dead river arms. A canal, twenty-two miles in length, connects the harbour of refuge at Alfaques with the Ebro, but is not available for ships of great draught, owing to the bar which cluses its mouth. The other embouchures of the river are likewise closed by bars.

The volume of the Ebro decreases annually, on account of the increasing quantities of water which it is called upon to furnish for purposes of irrigation, and sooner or later it will be reduced to the condition of the rivers of Valencia.

The productiveness of the irrigated fields of Aragon and Catalonia bears witness to the fertility of the soil. Even saline tracts have been converted into gardens. Tropical plants, agaves, cacti, and a few feathery palms on the coast to the south of Barcelona recall the beautiful landscapes of Southern Spain. The valley of the Ebro holds an intermediate position between Murcia and Valencia and the bleak plateau and mountains of the interior; but water, except in the immediate neighbourhood of the rivers, is nowhere abundant. On some of the hill-tops may be seen houses the walls of which are dyed red, because it was found more economical to mix the mortar with wine than to convey thither water for that purpose. This deficiency of moisture is a great drawback to certain districts in the lower valley of the Ebro. The greater portion of Bardenas, the Monegros, and the terraces of Calanda are treeless steppes. Cold and heat alternate abruptly, without reference to seasons, and the climate, in spite of the proximity of the sea, is quite continental in its character. The hot winds, so much dreaded on the coast of Catalonia, do not blow from Africa, hut from the parched plains of Aragon.

The climate of Catalonia, owing to the breezes blowing from the Mediterranean, is far more equable than that of Aragon, and to this circumstance, no less than to differences of race and greater facilities for commerce, this province is indebted for its distinct individualitv.

Catalonia, being open to invasions from the sea us well as by land, has a much more mixed population than its neighbour Aragon. On the other hand, a conqueror once in possession of the latter had but little to fear expulsion at the hands of new-comers, and the Moors maintained themselves in .Aragon three hundred years after they had been expelled from Barcelona.

The inhabitants of the valley of the Ebro are offensively haughty, of sluggish minds, given to old customs and superstitions, but they are at the same time singularly persistent, and their bravery does credit to their Celtiberian ancestors. These fine broad-shouldered men, who follow their donkeys along the high-roads, the head enveloped in a silken kerchief, and the waist confined by a violet-coloured belt, are at all times ready for a fight. Up to the close of last century it was customary to get up fights between villages in mere wantonness, and the rondallas, a term now employed for open-air concerts, scarcely ever terminated without bloodshed. In trifles the Aragonese are as stubborn as in matters of importance, and they are said to ” drive in nails with their bead.” For several centuries the Aragonese struggled with the Moors, and the kings, dependent as they were upon the support of the people, felt constrained to submit to a considerable limitation of their power. It was Philip II. of Castile who suppressed these ancient provincial privileges, and condemned Aragon to lead a life of intellectual stagnation.

The Catalans are as self-opinionated as their neighbours the Aragonese : noisy quarrels frequently take place amongst them: but they rarely come to blows. They are said to be less firm of character than the Aragonese, yet they succeeded in maintaining their provincial independence much longer. Few towns have stood more sieges than Barcelona, and fewer still have offered a more valiant defence. The Catalans are undoubtedly industrious. They have not only converted the irrigable valleys facing the sea into gardens, but have likewise attacked the arid mountains, and, by triturating the rocks and carrying thither soil from the plain, have made them produce grapes, olives, and corn. Hence the proverb, “A Catalan can turn stones into bread.” Agriculture, however, does not wholly supply the wants of so dense a population, and Barcelona with its suburbs has become a huge manufacturing centre, where cottons, woollens, and other textile fabrics, hardware, chemical preparations, glass, paper, and various articles are produced. The province of Barcelona is the chief seat of the cotton industry in Spain, and fully deserves to be called the Spanish Lancashire. The Catalans are a migratory race. They are met with not only in every other province of Spain, but in all the Spanish colonies. Everywhere they are reputed for their thrift, and in Cuba are hated as rivals or masters by creoles and blacks.

The towns of Aragon and Catalonia present the same contrasts as do the inhabitants of the two provinces. Those of the former are of solemn and even gloomy aspect, whilst the picturesque cities of the maritime province are full of bustle and mirth. The former represent the Middle Age, the latter our modern era.

Zaragoza (Saragossa) is most favourably situated in the very centre of the plain of Aragon. It has its Moorish alcazar (the Aljaferia), now used as a barrack; a curious leaning tower similar to that of Pisa ; and fine promenades, including the Coso and shaded walks. But prouder than of all these attractions are the inhabitants of the epithet ” heroic,” which was bestowed upon their city in con-sequence of the valiant resistance it offered in 1808 and 1809, when they not only defended their homes, but also their patron saint, the Virgen del Pilar.

At Zaragoza a few w ide avenues have been cut through the labryinth of tortuous streets, but the other towns of the province have preserved their physiognomy of former days. Jaca, in the upper valley of the Aragon, between the Pyrenees and the Sierra de la Pena, with its grey houses, still retains its turreted walls and ancient citadel. It is the old capital of the kingdom of Sobrarbe, but would hardly be mentioned now if it were not for its position at the foot of the Pass of Canfranc, and the neighbouring monastery of La Pena Huesca, at the base of the hills, the Osca of the Romans, recalls the dominion of the Ausks, or Euskarians. Standing in the midst of an irrigated plain, it still enjoys a certain importance. It boasts of a richly decorated cathedral, deserted monasteries, an old royal palace now occupied by the university, and the remains of a turreted wall. Barbastro, near the river Cinea, occupies a position similar to that of Huesca. The carriage road over the Somport connects it with France.

The Arab city of Calatayud, on the river Jalon, is commercially the second city of Aragon, and replaces Bilbilis of the Iberians, which stood on a hill near it.

One of its most nauseous suburbs is wholly inhabited by mendicants. Teruel, on the Guadalaviar, the chief town of the Maeztrazgo, with its crenellated walls and turrets, resembles a mediaeval fortress. The Arab tower of its church is one cf the curiosities of ” untrodden ” Spain, and its aqueduct, which crosses a ‘ alley on 140 arches, is a remarkable work of the sixteenth century.

Several towns of the interior of Catalonia are equally venerable in their aspect. ‘- Proud” Puigcerda (Puycerda), close to the French frontier, on the Upper Segre, is hardly more than a collection of hovels surrounded by a rampart. Seo de Urgel, in a fertile portion of the same valley, is no doubt of some importance as a fortress, but its streets are dirty, its houses mean, and its mud walls dilapidated.

Still lower down the Segre we meet with the ancient city of Lérida, whose origin dates back to prehistoric times, and which, owing to its strategical position, has at all times played a prominent part in military history. The gardens of Lérida supply much produce for exportation, but the place cannot rise into importance until the Franco-Spanish coast railway shall have been completed.

Tortosa, a picturesque city just above the delta of the Ebro, and formerly the capital of an Arab kingdom, commands one of the passages over the Ebro, and its commerce would increase if the river offered greater facilities for navigation.

Tarragona in the time of the Romans was the great maritime outlet of the valley of the Ebro. The city was then nearly forty miles in circumference, with arenas, amphitheatres, palaces, temples, and aqueducts, and a population of hundreds of thousands. The ruins of this ancient Tarraco have been made use of in the construction of the modern city, with its clumsy cathedral, towers, decayed ramparts, and Roman aqueduct intersecting the suburban orange groves. The manufacturing town of Reus may almost be looked upon as a suburb of it, and is rapidly increasing in population. Near it is the monastery of Poblet, in which are deposited the remains of the Kings of Aragon.

The country between Tarragona and Barcelona is densely populated. We pass through the fertile district of El Panades, the equally fertile valley irrigated by the reddish waters of the Llobregat, with towns and villages in rapid succession, until we reach the suburbs of Barcelona. The city proper lies on the sea, at the foot of the fortifications crowning the steep heights of Monjuich. There is another citadel of immense size to the east of the city, yet this latter reposes gaily beneath its batteries, which could easily reduce it to ashes. Barcelona boasts of being the great pleasure town of Spain. Its population is less than that of Madrid, but there are more theatres and concert halls. The dramatic performances are of a superior class, and the taste of the people is more refinad. The public promenades, such as the Rambla, occupying the bed of an ancient torrent, the sea-walls, and the avenues of trees which separate Barcelona from the citadel and the suburb of Barceloneta, are crowded on fine evenings. Barcelona is no doubt the ” unique city ” of Cervantes. and perhaps ” the home of courtesy and of valiant men; ” but we doubt its being the “common centre of all sincere friendships.” Barcelona exceeds all other towns of Spain by its commerce.* The harbour is exposed to southerly winds, and somewhat difficult of access. Barcelona is ever renewing itself. There are broad streets of uniformly built houses, and some quarters, as that of Barceloneta, on a tongue of land to the cast of the port, are laid out with all the regularity of an American city. The only architectural monuments of note are a Gothic cathedral and the old place of the Inquisition. But all around the town, beyond the suburbs with their factories and workmen’s dwellings, we meet with numerous villas, occupying delightful nooks in verdant valleys or the steep hill-slopes. No more charming district exists in Spain than that to the north of Barcelona and Badalona, extending as far as Masnou, Mataro, and the river Tordera. Promontories covered with Aines, pines, and cork-oaks, and sometimes crowned by the ruins of a castle, project into the sea ; the valleys are laid out in gardens enclosed with aloe hedges; towns and villages follow in rapid succession ; and the boats and nets of fishermen are seen on the beaches.

Most towns of the province of Barcelona emulate the manufacturing industry of the capital. Igualada, at the foot of the Monserrat ; Sabadell, in a valley, full of factories ; Tarrasa, the old Roman city, near which are the famous baths of La Puda ; Manresa, on the Cardoner rivulet; Vich, the old primatial city of Catalonia ; and Mataro, on the coast, are all distinguished for the manufacture of cloth, linens, silks, cotton stuffs, ribbons, lace, leather, hats, faience, glass, or paper. Manufacturing industry has likewise spread into the neighbouring province of Gerona, and notably to the city of Olot ; but the vicinity of the French frontier, the practice of smuggling, and the presence of large garrisons in the fortresses of Gerona and Figueras have hindered its development. Gerona has sustained many a siege, and Figueras, in spite of its huge citadel, has been repeatedly captured. The walls of Rosas are crumbling to pieces, and every vestige of the Greek city of Emporion has been buried beneath the alluvium brought down by the river Fluvia, but it still lives in the name of the surrounding district of Ampurdan.

The crest of the Pyrenees constitutes for the most part the political boundary between France and Spain, but there are exceptions to this rule. At the western extremity of the chain Spain enjoys the advantage, for the valley of the Bidassoa, on the French slopes, belongs to it ; but France is compensated in the east by the possession of Mount Canigou and the valley of the Upper Segre. As a rule, however, Spain has the best of the bargain, and this is only natural, as the Pyrenees are most accessible from the south, and the population there is more dense. The herdsmen of Aragon and the Basque provinces never missed an opportunity of taking possession of pastures on the northern slopes of the mountains, and these encroachments were subsequently ratified by international treaties.

The valley of Aran, in the very heart of the Pyrenees, is one of these bloodless conquests of Spain. The French Garonne rises in that valley, but the defile through which it leaves it is very narrow and. easily obstructed. Up to the eighteenth century the Aranese enjoyed virtual independence; and as they are shut off from the rest of the world by mountains covered with snow during the greater part of the year, these 21,000 mountaineers would appear to possess more claim to constitute themselves an independent republic than any other people in Europe.

Farther east there is another mountain valley which, nominally at least, forms an independent republic. This is Andorra, a territory of 23(1 square miles, with 6,000 inhabitants. A few pastures on the French slope excepted, the whole of this valley is drained by the beautiful stream of Embalira., or Valira, which joins the Segre in the smiling plain of Seo de Urgel. Most of the mountains of Andorra have been robbed of their trees, and the destruction of the few remaining forests is still going on. The vegetable soil is being rapidly washed away, and the moraines of ancient glaciers gradually slide down the mountain slopes.

The republic of Andorra is said to owe its existence to a defeat of the Saracens by Charlemagne or Louis le Débonnaire, but in reality up to the French Revolution the valley enjoyed no sovereign rights whatever. It was a barony of the Counts of Urgel and of Aragon. In 1278 it. was decided that Andorra should be held jointly by the Bishops of Urgel and the Counts of Foix. In 1793 the French republic declined to receive the customary tribute, and in 1810 the Spanish Cortes abolished the feudal régime. Andorra thus became an independent state. The inhabitants, however, continue to govern themselves in accordance with old feudal customs, which are not at all reconcilable with the principles of modern republics. The land belongs to a few families. There is a law of entail, and younger brothers become the servants of the head of the family, whose hospitality they enjoy only on condition of their working for him. The tithes were only abolished in 1842. The “liberty” of these mountaineers consists merely in exemption from the Spanish conscription and impunity in smuggling; and, to increase their revelries, they have recently established a gambling-table. Their legitimate business consists in cattle-breeding. and there are a few forges and a woollen factory.

The republic of Andorra recognises two suzerains, viz. the Bishop of Urgel, who receives an annual tribute of L25, and the French Government, to whom double that sum is paid. Spain and France are represented by two provosts, the commandant of Seo de Urgcl exercising the functions of viceroy. The provosts command the militia and appoint the bailiffs, or judges. They, together with a judge of appeal, alternately appointed by France and Spain, and two rahonadores, or defenders of Andorran privileges, form the Cortes. Each parish is governed by a consul, a vice-consul, and twelve councillors elected by the heads of families. A General Council, of which the consuls and delegates of the parishes are members, meets at the village of Andorra. But in spite of these fictions Andorra is an integral part of Spain, and the carabineers never hesitate to cross the frontiers of titis sham republic. By language, manners, and customs the Andorrans are Catalans. Exemption from war has enabled them to grow comparatively rich. They are intelligent and cunning, and well know how to assume an air of astonishment when their interests are at stake. Acting the fool, in order to take some one in or avoid being ensnared, is called by their neighbours ” playing the Andorran.” Andorra, a neat sillage, is the capital of the territory, but San Julia de Loria is the most important place, and the head-quarters of the smugglers.