On Ebro River Meanders

31/01/2017 10:43

In Ribera Baja shire, in Aragon, Spain, the river runs lazily on a layer of clay and limestone that forcing it to squirm on their way down to the Mediterranean, forming sinuous meanders one after another, winding among towns that live on the waters.

And so, it meanders that the straight line linking Alforque and Escatrón towns wold be not more than five miles long, while the same line drawn along the river would multiply by five the way, but, through nice river forests and mejanas, how are named the islands formed between the banks, and galachas, the old watercourses abandoned even by the river.

Ebro River was navigable up to the Roman Vareia, which shows today its ruins on Logroño city outskirts. Downstream there were river ports at Colonia Celsa and more recent but also ruined at Escatrón, where there were also some harbour facilities.

In times of Arab fiefdoms were placed the first obstacles to navigation with the construction of dams that derived the current to the banks to work waterwheels and mills. May be seen, restored, the one at Velilla and another next to the Monastery of Rueda carrying the liquid element to the abbey across the five arches bridge of a Gothic aqueduct. Thereafter navigation could only be done with flat bottom vessels powered by sails or pulled by mules from the shore. Or on barges that crossed the waters by dint of hands pulling towropes or strings stretched from shore to shore. Almost every town had its step boat and some even a shelter for the boatman and accommodation for travellers. The construction of new bridges left obsolete these steps, but there is still that of Gelsa and some old photographs of Velilla’s one.

Many of these towns were originated in Muslim period farmsteads and, in some cases, generated the place name, as Alborge from Al Burj, name given in Arabic to watching towers, or La Zaida from Al Saida, Mrs. The conquest of Zaragoza and the region by Alfonso the Battler in the year 1118 would bring changes, accompanied by Cistercian monks that would follow new settlers who still shared the territory with Jews and Moors until the arrival of the respective expulsions. The first one would arrive in 1492, year of the conquest of Granada and the discovery of America. The one of the Moors would be definitively in 1610 and its immediate aftermath resulted in a marked depopulation of the region. The return of Christianity led to the construction of new churches that saw successive styles, from the first Mudejar to baroque and renaissance, which often overlap on the same temples, refurbished and rebuilt throughout history.

During the years of the Third Carlist War, which faced the pretender Carlos, Duke of Madrid with the government of Amadeo I and the First Republic, there were frequent attacks of the Carlist troops from the Maestrazgo shire. To secure communications the General Manuel Salamanca and Negrete developed a system of optical telegraphy supported by the construction of forty-five towers between August and December 1875 covering the line from Zaragoza up to Amposta following the course of the river. Some of them were particularly reinforced, as the forts of Caspe and Sástago. In the Ribera Baja there are a two more near Escatrón: the Mocatero and Palms towers.

To the west of the region are the two most populous towns in the region, Pina de Ebro and Quinto, both over two thousand inhabitants. The latter is currently the shire capital. The name was inherited from a Roman milestone that marked the distances between Celsa Lepida and Cesar Augusta, precisely the fifth that it is what means Quinto. The political Pascual Madoz in his Diccionario geográfico-estadístico-histórico de España y sus posesiones de Ultramar (Geographic-statistical-historical Dictionary of Spain and its overseas possessions), 1845, stated on Quinto: sirvió en tiempos de los árabes de formidable fuerte conservándose todavía por el N y S de dicho cabezo los cimientos de sus antiguos torreones. (It served in times of Arabs as a tremendous stronghold still preserved by the N and S of the hill the foundations of their former towers). It is where nowadays and since the fifteenth century raises the Assumption church. The temple shown on its southern XVI century front, two heraldic decorations in the rectangular frame of the arched door: one belongs to Francisco Clemente, who was Archbishop of Zaragoza and Barcelona and secretary of Pope Benedict III of Avignon, the Pope Luna. The second coat of arms belongs to the weapons of Sicily and the houses of Luna and Aragon, possibly corresponding to Fadrique of Aragon, illegitimate son of Martin the Younger, king of Sicily, and grandson of Martin of Aragon. In the old town are three remarkable medieval gates that gave access to the town. The one of San Miguel took the road of Zaragoza, San Anton to the orchards and San Roque southwards. The latter has a Latin inscription on the niche with the image of the saint and a sundial where can be read: Dies mei sicut umbra (My days passed like a shadow). Madoz also mentioned the Baths of Quinto about which he wrote: consisten en 2 fuentes de aguas salinas, cuya celebridad nunca desmentida ha llegado en tiempos a ser hasta supersticiosa. (consisted in two fountains of salt water, which never belied celebrity has come at times to be as superstitious).

Also in Madoz Dictionary, he wrote about Pina de Ebro: cuenta con 430 casas, antiguas y de sólida construcción, en las que se incluyen la del ayuntamiento y cárcel; un palacio del Conde de Sástago que en la guerra de la independencia sirvió de fuerte a los franceses (the town has 430 houses, old and of solid construction, which includes the town hall and the jail; a palace of the Count of Sástago used as a stronghold by the French along the Spanish War). Pina was devastated on several occasions, by the flood in 1259, which destroyed it, and by the plague that decimated it in 1350 and again in 1557 and even in 1652. At the main square poke the Town Hall, located in a three-story XVI century mansion, Santa Maria Church, belonging to the former Convent of San Francisco and the Old Tower, a reminder of the parish church destroyed during the Civil War.

Gelsa inherited the place name of the Roman colony, Celsa, which although was next to the neighbouring Velilla, probably its territory got up to here. Actually, it is most likely that the population of Gelsa was created in Muslim era as still retains the layout of the so-called Moorish neighbourhood in the streets of Cubiertos, del Pilar and Ocho Esquinas -eight corners- with covered structures crossing over streets joining the houses. Gelsa was the most affected town by the 1610 expulsion because virtually all their neighbours were driven out. 

On the outskirts of Velilla de Ebro is the excavation of the ancient Roman colony Victrix Iulia Lepida, renamed Victrix Iulia Celsa after the founder, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus downfall. Currently, the Museum of Zaragoza has installed a delegation here, where the pieces discovered are displayed on the site. After the Christian settling a couple of temples were built, XVI century Our Lady of the Assumption which nave is lit by a windows row opened on the exterior buttresses. The other is Saint Nicholas shrine that used the remains of a Romanesque church which apse still is seen. It is believed this was before the site of a Roman temple. The steeple, with three openings, houses the famous miraculous bell, which, according to legend, came floating down the river to stop in front of the town and since it was installed announced misfortunes ringing alone. The last time it rang without human intervention was on 18 July 1936, the day Spanish Civil War began. However, it didn’t ring on December 3, 1940, when a telegram sent to Zaragoza by Jesus Lagunas, railway station chief, communicated: Trenes 802 y 803 han chocado aguja salida sentido La Zaida estación Velilla. Hay desgracias personales. Urge tren socorro. (Trains 802 and 803 have crashed out Velilla station to La Zaida. There are personal misfortunes. Urges relief train). Two convoys, one from Madrid and one from Barcelona, ​​collided frontally at four thirty-five in the morning. Forty-eight people died and a hundred were injured.

La Zaida also severely suffered depopulation when last Moorish left. Next to San José church there are the ruins of what once was the mansion of the Aragonese noble Ximenez Cerdan, looking like they were still overlooking the river, as certainly does from the other bank, in Alforque, the parish church of Saint Peter Apostle, located on a viewpoint with the Ebro at its feet. In one of its walls are engraved on the stone the dates when the river completely froze: 1686, 1694 and 1891. This is the less inhabited town: seventy-seven souls in the 2007 year census. Wrapped in a large meander becomes almost an island Cinco Olivas, with the smallest municipality in the shire. On the outskirts, there is a white whitewashed chapel, San Jose, not far from an old pier where a barge, the Holy Pudenciana recalls more active days.

In front, once again on the other shore, it is Alborge, just four longitudinal streets and just over a hundred neighbours. Yet it had a Muslim stronghold in time of which still resists a tower fragment with a nice sight of the town and the river bend. Constitution Square brings together the powers of the town: seventeenth century San Lorenzo church, the town hall with its 1885 year neo Moorish facade and the bar. Alborge got to have up to three mills, oil mills, one of them, built in 1775, retains some of the original machinery and presses; also there’s one of flour and a large refrigerator dug into the rock. These were used to produce ice from collecting snow in winter. On the street of Souls, with the main street there is an old house that belonged to a wealthy family who returned from America. Above the arch of the door there are half a dozen reliefs that mimic Mayan icons.

Crossing the river one more time is Sástago, an elongated population settled on the isthmus of a new meander. It’s crossed by the road, which should regulate the alternate passage of vehicles through a red light. In the nineteenth century was installed a hydroelectric plant that has a couple of modernist buildings along the road leading to La Zaida. Sástago had a movie theatre. There remains the still legible label: Cine Moderno. In the vicinity are the remains of a Muslim fortress, the Castillo de Palma, the hermitage of Montler and although closer to Escatrón, Rueda Monastery, remaining in the municipality of Sástago, belonged to the Cistercian order and was built in the late twelfth century. Sold off in 1835 its facilities have been transformed into an inn. The first iron bridge was inaugurated on July 18, 1926. It linked Sástago with Escatrón crossing the river near the monastery, but did not last long, just twelve years later, on March 11, 1938, was blown up with dynamite charges along the Spanish Civil War. Finished this was rebuilt and later remodelled in 1988.

The oldest part of Escatrón was built on a hill with a good view, from Tozal viewpoint, on the Ebro and Rueda Monastery. Main Street starts in Spain Square, where are the town hall and the Assumption church. This keeps the Renaissance alabaster altarpiece of the main altar of the Monastery of Rueda, work of masters Esteban and Domingo Borunda. On the same street, there are some examples of civil architecture, old houses one of which has become inn and others looking a certain rumpled appearance. Going up a stairway leads to the sanctuary of San Francisco Javier, today with boarded doors. It is what remains of the old convent. In the lower town, but on a smaller hill, is the Santa Agueda hermitage which seems too large with a quadrangular portico at the entrance and a three body bell tower. On one side a couple of tombstones are leaning against the wall, once lay beneath them a deceased couple, four days one after the other, in November 1690.

© J.L.Nicolas


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