This afternoon, with Sunday preparation behind me and weather that was cooler and cloudy, I drove inland to explore the countryside to the west of L'Ermita de Vinaròs, following minor roads first alongside the riu Cervol, and then following roads on impulse, only vaguely sure where they would lead, into territory where olive groves are more common than orange orchards and the soil appears more pink than brown. I wandered for ages in the general direction of the mountains. Villages, and signposts to villages seemed few and far between, away from the main highways, I hardly saw another soul, driving for three quarters of an hour. The roads and landscape generally give the impression of being well cared for. All is given over to farming, with the exception of the Cala Montero golf resort, which appears a gleaming new urban complex surrounded by manicured greensward in the midst of this vast agricultural plain. The incongruity is quite striking. I wonder if it profits more per hectare of land occupied than traditional farm land? Eventually I came to an intersection with a battered old sign pointing southwards to Canet lo Roig, and I took the road, not knowing what to expect. I stopped to look at the map and with difficulty located the place. A team of cyclists came in the opposite direction, up a long road, giving me time to get out my camera and snap them, which brought a thumbs up from one of the riders.
Before arriving at the village, astride a hilltop, the road crosses a deep barranco flanked by a spectacular sand coloured cliff. Although I'd lost it several times in my meanderings, this was still the riu Cervol I'd started out following.
These ancient dry water courses can be broad and deep, filled with rich vegetation. The largest contain orchards, but most partly, cultivation with exposed bedrock is impracticable, although it does provide a source of stone for attractive dry wall enclosures. There are more dry ravines closer to the mountains, feeding into the larger river beds, like veins supplying an artery. They bring elements of rough texture and dramatic wildness into an otherwise ordered agrarian landscape.
Canet lo Roig is a farming village of less than nine hundred souls, set on a low hill against a backdrop of mountains. Streets are still decked with festive bunting from their week long Assumption fiesta. As well as olive trees, almond and carob trees are cultivated hereabouts. Like many similar places it suffered de-population, and its homes sold for holiday accommodation. Recently however has seen an influx of Romanian settlers to work on the land. Even a modestly poor standard of living here is an improvement on peasant life back home.
As elsewhere throughout the region, the village church has fortress like high walls, domed nave with tiled roof and tall steeple, surrounded on all sides by four storey houses, packed into narrow streets, unusually without opening out directly to the main square and the Ajuntament.
From here I drove north across the plain to find La Senia, a town seven times larger than Canet lo Roig, located a few kilometres from foot of the limestone massif of Ports de Tortosa-Beseit which rises dramatically a thousand metres above the plain, presenting a marvellously jagged western skyline as a backdrop to the town.
The riu Senia which gives its name to the town rises in the mountains and the dry river bed runs at the foot of the cliff on which the town is built. The approach from the south is quite spectacular. Sitting on the north bank of the river, La Senia is the southernmost town of Catalunya.
The typical mediaeval church here does open on to the main square. Preparations were under way to stage an evening festive event there. Because of its location the town has since ancient times been a stopping place in the movement of people and animals between mountains and plain. There was even a strategic aerodrome here during the Spanish Civil War, built by the Republicans, later it was taken by the Nationalists and used as a base for the infamous 'Condor Legion' of Luftwaffe volunteers. I imagine the town was fought over and suffered much. Olive trees now cover the site of the airfield, as they did for centuries before its construction. It's not so easy to cover the painful memories of that era, however.
The return journey to Vinaròs only took half an hour on the quiet main road. It rained briefly, only the second time since I've been here, conveying the blessing of fresh cooler air to moderate the heat of the day. A new series of 'Inspector Montalbano' started on BBC4 - one of my must-watch entertainments, exploring the lighter as well as the darker side of Sicilian life with restaurant and cuisine cameos as a regular plot features. Preparation for my forthcoming Advent locum duties I call it.