Toros en Lledo

Every village in Matarraña has them: Fiestas Mayores, the yearly fiesta week which consists of drinking, eating, dancing, chasing bulls (or being chased by them), and more eating and drinking. And depending on the size of the village, there might be expositions, workshops for children, parades, competitions and much more.

With only 170 inhabitants, our local village Lledo (also called “Lledo d’Algars”, not to be confused with its neighbour Arens de Lledo) is one of the smallest villages around here. Still, they take their fiestas seriously, and everybody was looking forward to the “toros” (bulls) on Saturday. We’re not big fans of most things they do with animals in Spain; nothing can ruin my appetite more than having a corrida on TV at the restaurant. But since we missed last year’s fiestas alltogether (we were off to see our families in the North), we decided to give it a chance… and I’m quite glad we did!

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Every local farmer lend his trailer to a makeshift arena that was set up in front of the brand new bar. Those trailers were then provided with temporary benches (a few stones with a piece of wood on top), so everybody could sit while enjoying the entertainment: very young bulls (not quite calves anymore, but definitely no bulls yet) being encouraged to run around and “catch” one of the many boys who would make a show of not getting caught… jump over it, climb up the fence, crawl up a pile of hay bales in the middle of the arena, or just run really fast.

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The men in the arena were mostly boys looking to be between 14 and 24 years old… although there were a few “real” adults, the eldest one in the ring was 77 – and he seemed just as fast as the young ones. They had prepared for this event and for the many other bull-related games this summer; most were wearing t-shirts from their village – the orange ones for Lledo, yellow for Cretas, red for Horta de Sant Joan. Spectators were everything between between 0 and 99 years old, families and friends, from Lledo and other surrounding villages. There were a few carts loaded with young girls, cheering at the technical prowess of the studs in the arena…

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Much of the time consisted of the young bull standing or walking around, confused by the many people trying to get his attention – and trying to decide what to do next. Until he spotted the one waving the most exciting jacket, jumper or other piece of clothing – by the time he got there, most guys would have found their way to safety. There were lots of close calls though – and one guy who got a blow to the stomach (probably not serious though – the ambulance standing by didn’t go anywhere).

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Every 20 minutes or so, the bull would be led away to a shed (the people in charge had a formidable big ox with them to lure the young bull in), and a new one would be ushered into the arena.

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To be fair, we didn’t sit on a bench and look at bulls all afternoon – there was just as much activity around the ring as in it.  There was the band, the bar, people who brought their own drinks and home made food. The bigger part of the village was there, and brought their relatives from all over; we were introduced to many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews – not sure we’d recognise them all if we met them now.

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And after the bulls, the party went on; when Axel, Ruby and Mario left around 1:45 (I was fast asleep at home by then), the dancing had just begun, the orchestra was still setting up, and the upbeat Spanish Latin music would probably go until morning.

I know what you’re doing this summer

We’re having quite a lot of guests this summer, and people often ask me about possible activities around here in the next few weeks… so I thought I’d put a few on my blog. This list is not exhaustive, as I’m not listing the many exhibitions, open air cinema,  workshops for children (in Spanish as well),… Those can all be found in the (free) Matarranya newspaper in most local shops.
And I’m probably not aware of many more fiestas and fun things to do! What I love most about the area is the beautiful countryside…

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A walk around the Embalsa de la Peña, between Valderrobres and Beceite

Nature: hiking, biking, swimming, horse riding and much more

The countryside is the main attraction here. The start of the first trail at Els Ports national park is only 15 minutes away by car, and there’s trails for everybody; the prettiest one is probably El Parisal near Beceite (about 30 mins from here), which can be a refreshing hike in the mountains on a hot day (you’ll follow the river through a gorge).
In the morning around 9 o’clock, you can go see vulture feeding time at Mas de Bunyol; or you can go for a photography workshop or look for baby ibex with Geopixel Beceite.
You could also rent a bike at Matarranyaventura or Montsport, and bike down the Via Verde (the old railroad); it’s mostly a gentle slope down towards Tortosa, and the rental agency will come and pick you up wherever you want.
If you prefer to explore the hills of Matarranya on horseback, there’s the Hipica in Cretas and the Establo de Crystal (ran by our friends Malcolm & Tamzin) near Valderrobres.
Chances are that most days in August will be scorching hot though, and all you’ll want to do during the day is hang out near water… there are enough opportunities for that here as well: there’s the natural swimming area L’Assut at the Rio Algars; Les Olles where the water has made several pools (some deeper than others) in the rocks; several swimming spots at the river Algars in Arens de Lledo; El Salt, with waterfalls from the river Tastavins in La Portellada; the Embalsa de la Peña, where the water is very clear and shallow (perfect for children)… or you can go for one of the many smaller rivers, totally off the beaten path (and a bit further away).

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Bruno Duran at Geopixel knows where it’s at: he can take you on the most beautiful tours – just to see the wonders of Els Ports, or for a very special photography workshop

Eating & drinking

When most people think of Spanish food and drinks, they think of paella, sangria and churros; alas, none of these are very typical for this area though. We love the Aragonese cuisine; it features mostly local produce in all seasons.

We recommend eating out at lunch time, so you can have some time off (siesta) after lunch; it’s too hot to do anything else anyway – and most shops and activities will be closed for lunch until about 17h. Most restaurants serve a nice 3 course meal for less than 20 euros (and it includes wine & water). There are quite a few restaurants around here we recommend: or favourites are Ca la Serreta in Cretas, Fonda Angeleta and Baudilio in Valderrobres; Venta la Parra on the road between Horta de Sant Joan and Prat de Comte; El Sitjar in Calaceite; or Miralles in Horta de Sant Joan… and there are many, many more.

At night, it’s fun to go out for tapas around or just after sundown. Every village has at least one bar, and every bar has its own tapas; the 3 bars in Cretas are excellent (very different from one another), the bar in Arens has the best fish, there’s a brand new bar in Lledo,… but most of all, we like going to Valderrobres where the many bars in the Calle de Santiago Hernandez Ruiz (yes, that’s one street name) leading up to the Plaza de Espanya have a unique atmosphere and excellent tapas. Going out for tapas and drinks is remarkably cheap as well, if you compare it to prices around the coast or in other countries.

Activities and excursions

The good thing about living here is that we’re in the middle of nowhere, but you can be everywhere in no time: you could go to Portaventura (the big-ass adventure park in Salou) for the day. See castles in Valderrobres (15 mins), Miravet (45 mins) or Morella (1h). Visit a city like Alcaniz or Tortosa, which have historical buildings, some nice shopping (mostly smaller shops, no big malls there), cathedrals and much more. In Horta, there’s a new agency (ran by a fellow Belgian couple) that offers Picasso & knights templar tours in many languages.
If you don’t mind spending some time in the car, even big cities like Zaragoza (2h), Barcelona (2h30) or Valencia (2h30) could be an option. Or you could just go for a day at the beach (less than an hour)… If you like the sea but don’t want your standard beach, the Ebro Delta is a must-see: there’s rice fields, flamingos, kite surfing and much more.
Do keep in mind that many things (castles, shops, activities) are closed during lunch time, on Saturday afternoon and on Sundays.

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Vulture feeding time (safely from behind glass) at Mas de Bunyol in Valderrobres

Fiestas & ferias

There are many cultural events in the summer here as well; between the beginning of August and the end of September, every single village will have its own week of fiestas. Traditionally, there’s bulls running through the village streets (sometimes it’s just a cow – and in some instances children carrying fake wooden bulls), firework artists, competitions and of course loads of food and drinking. Apart from that, there are many smaller events – for instance there’s jota (the local traditional dance) festivals – in Calaceite on the 6th of August, or Cretas on the 10th. There’s a tomato exhibition (with jamon and drinks as well) in La Portellada on the 6th, open air opera on the 8th and open air jazz on the 10th (both in Calaceite), a spectacle called “freak show” in Beceite on the 13th, musical nights at the Sant Salvador convent in Horta every Friday night – and let’s not forget the “noches de estrellas” where you get to observe Jupiter, Saturn and moon craters through a telescope. Although if you just want to see the Milky way, constellations and the occasional shooting star, you can probably see those from your bedroom balcony if you’re staying with us this summer (or living closeby and in the middle of nowhere as well)…

 

 

From wine to grapevine

We celebrated the last days of official winter by immersing ourselves in “the wine experience”.

First, there was the annual wine festival in Cretas. Dozens of wine makers from all over Matarranya, Bajo Aragon and Terra Alta (and even a few from further away) congregated in the little town to compete for various prizes – and for the attention of lots and lots of visitors (writing this I realise I have no idea if there were hundreds of thousands… lots and lots, ok?).

The concept was simple: at the entrance you could buy a ticket with 10 vouchers, which allowed you 10 consumptions. This could be cheap or expensive wine, white or red (and some rose), very chemical or completely organic, and you could either drink it all or taste it and spit it out later… not sure many people were doing the latter. Oh and you’d get a free wine glass with your ticket as well.

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We made our way there after work on Saturday – a little too soon apparently, many people were still at lunch. Very soon, it got very busy, and we made our way through several of the stalls. There were so many nice wines to remember – the Naturalis from Cellers Batea (ecological wine), the Merlot 2009 at Venta d’Aubert, the Chesa Crianza 2012, the red wine from the cooperativa in Cretas, and my personal favourite – the Gewurztraminer from the vineyards between Cretas and Calaceite (forgot the name, shame on me! I do remember the fruity taste though). We had a great tasting experience at the Crial stall as well – will need to go back there for more tasting and choosing wine for our B&B though. They are our “neighbours” from the nearby village of Lledo – and the vineyards at the beginning of the road to our house are all going into Crial wine bottles… 

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Sunday, we went to help friends to prune their vines. This needs to be done between January and March, and (o no!) March is approaching its end already… so it was time for them to call in the cavalry. With promises that the cavalry in question would get wine out of it in the end, the cavalry came running. The cavalry even brought their cavalry; in our case, our 3 Workaway volunteers (helped a lot!) & 2 dogs (helped a lit less).

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The trick to cutting grapevines seems to be this: you cut / saw / break off everything you possibly can, and leave only 3 to 4 “arms” for each plant, and one little start of a twig for every arm. It takes the vine so much energy to feed all of its branches; the less different branches they have to provide for, the better quality everything will be.

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I will try to post updates with pictures for every stage; in May we’ll need to go back for more pruning (leaves), in August for even more (making sure the grapes get enough sun) and then in October or so, it will be time for harvest. I’m very much looking forward to the finished product, but in the mean time I’m so excited that I’m learning how to do this… I even had a go at pruning our own grapevines, which have been neglected for years and are very hard to find in between the grasses and weeds now. But we’ll see, maybe we will get a bit more grapes out of them now!

Women’s day

This week, I discovered a new local tradition – and one I turned out to really like. But first, let me tell you a (very short) story.

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Santa Agueda de Catania (Saint Agatha of Sicily) was a woman born from a rich Catholic family. She lived in a time of Christian persecution by the Roman emperor Decius. She was taken prisoner and tortured for her faith; her breasts were cut off and in the end (after many humiliations and epic conversations with her torturers, please google it if you’d like all of the details) she died and was declared a martyr.
Now here in Spain, Santa Agueda is a very important saint. She is the patron of women and of breast cancer patients, and every year around her birthday (February 5th) she is remembered and her martyrdom is celebrated as “women’s day”.  A few weeks ago, some friends from Arens convinced me to come and join them for Santa Agueda in their village…

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And that’s how I found myself on a Saturday morning in the village square of Arens, surrounded by only women. There were delicious cakes (made by the wonderful Otti, wife of the shopkeeper Jose Ramon whom I blogged about a few months ago) and mistela (a kind of sweet fortified wine) to warm up with. Meanwhile, the organising committee declared the day of Santa Agueda open from the balcony of the ayuntamiento. From there, there was a procession to the village church; I had only seen it from the outside before (it’s beautiful from the outside, and there is a fantastic view of the river and surroundings from the church square) – it turned out it’s one of those things that’s bigger on the inside, and just as simple, elegant and beautiful as the outside.

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After mass, we all got a “boob cake” (mamelletes). Delicious, funny and very filling 🙂

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12 o’clock, time to dance the jota (the local traditional dance) on the village square. I’ll put a video on our Facebook page (it’s got the music as well). But also time to all hurry to the warmth of the Sociedad (the village bar / cultural center) and get some tapas and Vermuth (again, a kind of fortified wine). Upstairs, there was a photography exposition of views of the Matarranya; we all knew we are living in a breathtakingly beautiful region, but the pictures made it all the more clear. It was quite cold in the exposition room though, which made us need some more drinks to warm up.

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So after all this eating, drinking and dancing, you’d think that was it for the day – on the contrary, the fun was just beginning. The procession carried on to the restaurant of Laure and Maria Jose, who prepared us a delicious 4 course meal; between courses, our lottery tickets provided us with lots of merriment and small gifts (some silly, some handy, some both). I got a very handsome wig (just what I needed for Carnaval / Mardi Gras in 2 weeks!) and 2 very small dustpans. Other people got towels, home decorations, handbags, more cleaning accessories and I’m not mentioning the “ladies only” stuff.
2015-02-07 16.58.22 bAround desert, we were joined by “La Tuna Folk“, 5 young guys from Tortosa playing traditional Spanish songs. And “happy birthday” to Helen. The alcaldesa and organising committee all got personal (funny & naughty) poems recited to them – sadly most of those were in Catalan, which will one day be my 6th language. Maybe. Not now anyway. Despite their (apparent) young age the band was very entertaining and funny, and got almost everyone to dance the conga. Maybe the wine with the food, the cava for the toast and the whisky in the coffee had something to do with that as well.

2015-02-07 20.40.12 bAt our leaving the restaurant, we were provided with a small flowerpot, and a paper flower to dance with; we proceeded to the Sociedad again, where a live band was starting to play in the cinema. By then, the men were finally allowed to join us – if there was to be more dancing, at least we would have men to dance with now! Some time in the evening, we all got to light the candles in the paper flowers; it was a beautiful sight! Another raffle (in which a friend won a fancy dinner for 2!) and a bingo closed off the night – although we stayed until closing, having a wonderful time.

Santa Agueda is definitely one of the most special festivals of the year – a day to celebrate all women of all ages.

Of hunters, prey, and the ones caught in between

There is a saying in Dutch: “Een ongeluk komt nooit alleen” – literal translation is “An accident never comes alone”. After Jabba hurt his eye 10 days ago, we thought we’d come off easy; Saturday, we had a new misadventure (although this time it was worse).

Since we’ve been here, we had noticed a lot of hunters around in the weekends, especially in the mornings and just before sunset. From our house in the village we could very clearly hear them shouting, the dogs barking, and shooting of course.

In the last 3 weeks, we’ve also been on our finca (our piece of land about 1,5 km from the village) every single day, in the morning and usually also after lunch (until it’s really too dark to work), we never saw or heard hunters in the proximity of our finca. We never thought of our land as hunting ground either; it’s mostly almond and olive grove, not a place for big game to hang around. (of course I know nothing about hunting, I don’t really understand hunting as a sport to be honest, as opposed to hunting for food).

Saturday, we were working at our finca (Axel was picking almonds, I was looking for “cerises del pastor”). As the sun began setting, we heard some hunters, far away; I decided to go read a bit on a lookout point on the land. This way I would be sitting in the sun until it completely disappeared behind the hill – and maybe I would be able to get a glimpse of the hunters, who were probably behind the next mountain or so. Jabba (our big future guard dog, who’s now 4,5 months old) and Jinx (our little mutt, almost 8 years old now) were playing about 50m from me.

Suddenly, Jabba started barking in an alarming way; I got up just in time to see 2, then 3, then a lot of dogs running towards us. By the time Jabba and Jinx were back with me, we were suddenly surrounded by a dozen of hunting dogs. Jabba was barking and howling, I was yelling and waving my arms to hold them off, while Jinx was hiding between my legs. The dogs were clearly targeting little Jinx, yapping and snapping at her, but I managed to hold them off for a bit… Until suddenly everything happened at once: I made a wrong movement (not sure what), really hurt my knee, started screaming in pain instead of rage (I think the dogs picked up on that); some of the dogs tried to get to Jabba who ran to higher ground and fought them off from there; Jinx tried to run off as well but was soon overtaken by 4 or 5 of the dogs, who bit her, shaking her, and every time I caught up and managed to get the dogs off, Jinx ran off and the dogs got to her again… This lasted for an eternity (it couldn’t have been more than a minute or 2, I think), until Axel came running from the other field, and one of the hunters caught up with the dogs at last.

Axel got Jinx to safety (he actually picked her up and held her high until the dogs were gone, and as soon as he put her down again she speared off towards the car), and he was so full of blood that I was sure she wouldn’t survive… the only other dog fight incidents I had ever witnessed were with Staffords, who could have broken her neck and caused fatal internal injury within seconds. Thankfully, those were (crossbreed) Podenco’s (Spanish hunting dogs) – really fast dogs with a strong hunting instinct, but not as strong-jawed as your average power dogs.

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One of the hunters trying to get the last dog into the trailer

It took Jabba and myself ages to get back to the almond grove, where the car was. Not only was I in pain and walking very slowly, we also regularly encountered a few of the hunting dogs again – Jabba held them off barking, and the hunters were doing their best rounding them up. It turned out they just parked their car at the border of our finca, probably minutes before the incident; they were planning on using the road that goes through our land, to get the dogs back into the car’s trailer after the hunt…

The hunters were really sorry about the incident, immediately provided us with their information and lots of advise – on how to treat Jinx (my Spanish isn’t so good yet, but I think they were talking about superglue), how to fight off the dogs a next time (throwing stones), and where to go with a claim (the local bodega / wine dealer, apparently).

Jinx being supercool while the vet is checking on her

Jinx being supercool while the vet at Nexo animal hospital is checking on her (and shaving her)

As soon as I got to the car, I checked on Jinx, who was in shock and in pain; she had a few big bite wounds (several smaller ones), and I was fearing for internal bleeding as well. So we immediately set out for the animal clinic in Tortosa (3rd time in 3 weeks!), where she was shaven, checked, cleaned up, sedated, shaven a little more and stitched up where possible… thankfully, the internal bleeding was not too bad and we were able to take her home that same night.

Now, 2 days later, I’m just happy because things could have been a lot worse. What if I hadn’t reacted the way I had (if I had picked up Jinx, the dogs would have teared her apart), what if Jabba hadn’t managed to keep them off (the blood we found on Jabba turned out to be all Jinx’s, Jabba seemed to have a few sore spots but no bite marks), what if Axel and the hunter had been there only 30 seconds later,…

Jinx and I are now spending our days at home, getting fed (food, drinks & medication when necessary) by Axel, and being entertained by Jabba. Jabba even gave up his bench so Jinx could sleep in peace (he now sleeps on Jinx’ tiny bed, which is far too small for him, but he seems content with it). Although Jinx is far worse off than I am (she’s all black and blue all over, with stitches here and there), she has already gone on walks and seems to be recovering just fine. This afternoon though, Axel took me to the doctor in Calaceite and we got me a pair of crutches so I can accompany Jinx on her walks from now on 🙂

3 things I’ve learned in a very short amount of time now:

tablillas-para-cotos-de-caza-37027912_31. When buying land in inland Spain, make sure you get a sign to keep the hunters of your land (I think nobody wants a group of hunters with a dozen hunting dogs on their land without warning, even if you don’t have a dog yourself!). Once there’s a house on your land, the hunters will probably avoid the place, but as long as there’s nothing, how are they to know they shouldn’t go there?

2. When confronted with a bunch of Podenco’s who’re going for the kill, throw stones to keep them off. Not very animal friendly, but believe me, when you see them you don’t want to be friendly.

3. Never say no to a course in First Aid for Pets – you never know when you’re going to need it. Oh and those 10 years working at a pet clinic probably helped as well 🙂