Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ascent to Morella

I meant to go to Tarragona on the train this morning, but didn't have enough energy to make an early start, so I did some shopping and cooking, then finally broke out my my lethargy mid-afternoon with a drive up the N232, all the way over the Querol pass (1080m) to visit Morella. I stopped at the Carlos VII hotel and restaurant at the top. It was closed, but the gates were open so I went in and took some photos.
Above the restaurant on a rock platform 30 metre above is a statue of Christo Rey looking East. It was inaccessible, part of a grazing enclosure. The reason the domain had its statue of Christ was obvious, as one of the buildings had once been a chapel, now converted into an attractive dining room, with glass doors looking eastwards. No longer an Ermita, but still active in the hospitality business. 
From the escarpment behind the restaurant I got my first glimpse of Morella, illuminated by afternoon sun on the western horizon.
The town is wrapped around a mountain sitting in a confluence of valleys. It's in a strategic position in relation to two mountain passes on the route between the Ebro river valley and Valencia. At a distance the mountain looks conical, flat topped like a volcanic table mountain. This flat top is part of the huge fortress, built by El Cid in the eleventh century, commanding  heights so steep there's no need for a protective crenellated perimeter wall to shoot from. As you approach the town from the south below, the view is reminiscent of old bible engravings of the 'New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God'.
Mediaeval walls in pale golden limestone 150 metres below the fortress summit are intact and in good condition. The town buildings sit comfortably within them. I say comfortably because the streets are just that bit wider than other hill towns, it doesn't feel as cramped. It's home to just 2,800 people, but gets lots of visitors. Views of town and countryside on all sides are breathtaking. I was fortunate to find a parking place near the Torres de Sant Miquel - the north gate, one of seven.  From there I walked up as far as I could. In a cul de sac above the town's Basilica de Santa Maria la Major, is a old franciscan convent now being converted into a Parador hotel. You can access the fortress grounds from here for a few euros, but I resisted the temptation to climb the last hundred metres, as closing time was near, and this is a place to be savoured, not rushed!
The convent buildings and huge chapel will be renovated and converted to offer hospitality, modern style, as a business like the Hotel Restaurant Carols VII down on the Querol pass. There was another old church building in the town, and it has been converted into  health centre. How appropriate. I'd wager there was a time when the church authorities and town council would have worried over these buildings, no longer sustainable in use by a population which has more than halved in a century - especially as they began to show signs of neglect. It's good to see their re-purposing reflects their original values and use. There's a large empty 18-19th century school or college building on the hillside adjacent to the basilica. I wonder what use will eventually be found for it?
The basilica, named after one of the main Curial churches in Rome, is big enough to serve the town's present population, and is interesting in its own right, with a huge stone choir loft supported by gothic vaulting in the western penultimate bay of the nave.
It has a decorated spiral staircase, perfect for processions up and down. In the next bay along on the north side at loft level is a remarkable organ case. The organ console is in the choir loft. I couldn't find out anything about the church's music programme, but such a superb environment must be an inspiration to musicians. The apsidal sanctuary is covered in gold baroque ornamentation from floor to ceiling, in contrast to the thirteenth century gothic of the rest of the building. The church isn't well served for natural light, but its tranquility makes it more numinous than gloomy. I noticed rice underfoot in the plaza outside. There'd been a wedding earlier in the day.

Humans have occupied this mountain since the bronze age. Greek, Romans, Visigoths and Moors in turn occupied this mountain and built on it. On the north side are the remains of an aqueduct. In its present form it's a fourteenth century construction, but who first had the idea and built the prototype? It appears the Moors named the town Maurela, after conquering it in 714. There's so much to understand and absorb about this place, it really merits a stopover visit. Perhaps we can do that when the Parador opens.

You'll find more photos here

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