Saturday, 4 August 2012

Tortosa city - layers of history

Today we drove to to the ancient city of Tortosa, up the Ebro river valley, about fifteen miles away from the Delta. In mediaeval times the agricultural wealth of this fertile region was controlled from here. It is a cathedral and university city - like Oxford. We concentrated our attention on the mediaeval heart, with a fortress on a promontory overlooking the river, dominating the river plain and conurbation. We parked on the opposite side of the riven and walked across an imposing high road bridge across the river into the old town.

We soon discovered the restaurant Paiolet in one of the ramblas of the barrio and treated ourselves to a menu del dia for lunch - our last opportunity before Clare's return home. The meal was as Catalan as the language used to describe it. The setting was superb, just across the road from the river bank, with air conditioning to relieve us from midday heat and humidity outside. Those who served us were friendly  charming and patient with our linguistic puzzling. The cuisine was superb with a bottle of local wine and an apertif glass of gaspachio on the rocks thrown in for good measure, at a reasonable price. 

Then we got some exercise by making the steep half mile climb 180 feet up to the fortress to enjoy breathtaking views in every direction of town and countryside. 

There was an iron age settlement up here first. The Romans fortified this high vantage point, but it was when the Moors ruled much of Spain that the present buildings were constructed. Today fortress has been transformed into an attractive Parador hotel welcoming guests from around the world. During hotel redevelopment work a mediaeval islamic cemetery was uncovered on the site. Inscriptions on tablets written in arabic are embedded in the walls, not only up here but also in some walls of the old town below. In 1148 the city fell to Christian conquerers, who found a sophisticated urban environment, after 400 years of muslim rule - a place long active in regional trade thanks to the immense river Ebre.

By the time we'd walked back down to the old town, the Cathedral was open to visitors, with an attractive modern welcome area and gift shop. We paid €3 to get in and were given a map and an explanation of the building's complexities. We could have walked straight in through the entrance in use if we'd simply wanted to attend the Saturday night Mass, but this was a building with so much to see apart from its main 14th century gothic sanctuary. The first part of the tour took us around a large section of the brick built undercroft, used in ancient times for archive storage, rather than for the dead. 

It was plain, mostly uncluttered, not all that interesting if you didn't recall from the introductory talk, that this crypt was a place of refuge during the 1930's Civil War air raids. Dull if you didn't recall that the Cathedral was built on the site of a mosque, demolished after conquest. Maybe these brick arches were a Moorish foundation for a Christian building. But it doesn't stop there. There was Christian basilica on this site during the late Roman Empire. The line of Bishops of Tortosa goes back to the time when the New Testament was still being compiled. Visigoths invaded and controlled the region prior to the Moors. The Christianity of the Visigoths was Arian rather than Orthodox. So many layers of history still hidden. Who knows what was here in pre-Christian times?

The visit then took us up into the sacristy/treasury above ground, with a goodly collection of images, sacred vessels and vestments and wonderful illuminated manuscripts on display, carefully conserved in the right environment. Then, it was on to the Chapter House complete with original furnishings, wooden choir stalls in semi-circular array, then the cloister, before entering the nave of the Cathedral. The priest saying Mass in a large side chapel had just started the Eucharistic prayer, so we stopped and joined in prayer for a while, before quietly walking around the sanctuary ambulatory, and taking our leave. Each great church building of this period is unique, even if the essential gothic layout does make them all look much the same superficially. What makes Tortosa Cathedral special is the story of how to comes to be the way it is, much more than how it looks and functions today.

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