Saturday, 16 July 2016

Tale of two wells and a castle

More dreadful news this morning of an attempted military coup in Turkey, and how it was thwarted by an appeal to the population to take to the streets in protest against the army, made by president Erdogan, broadcasting from a tablet or smartphone, as public broadcasting channels were hijacked by the conspirators. It reminded me of the way the Russian military coup against Boris Yeltsin was made known to the world via the early internet used by the international scientific community back in 1991, robbing the army of a news blackout behind which it could do its worst.
In a way this was almost too good to be true, like a modern movie plot, translated into real life. It seems to me that Erdogan was gambling in a crisis. Banking on popular support is a huge risk to take, when public opinion can be so fickle. Opinion pollsters can misread the mind of the masses, although in this case their findings are supportive. The Turkish people have had to endure so much violence, internally and just outside their borders. Past military coups never served the people well, so the public protest expresses 'Enough is enough - army stay out of politics, and stick to your job', whatever the people really think about their president.

So, another morning of TV news watching, but n spite of this I got my Sunday sermon finished and printed, and went for a drive inland in the afternoon. I headed for Ulldecona, but not for the town, but rather its castillo on a prominent hill top outside, overlooking the riu Senia to the south. I saw it from a distance previously, but failed to find the side road up the hill for a visit. 

Now, with time in hand, it was easier to find my way up to the car park. The castle was closed and the lower access gates locked. There was no indication of visiting hours, but it was easy to circumvent the gates on foot and walk up to the castle entrance. There's a modern visitor centre up there, stocked with literature, so evidently in use and open some time or another.
Apparently the Moors built the first castle on the site of an ancient settlement in the ninth century, and it was conquered in 1142 by an international company of knights on their way to the Holy Land for the second crusade. It was given to the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John. Its mediaeval walls, church and large keep were constructed as a place for local inhabitants to settle. Only after a couple of centuries did the town develop which now fills the plain below.

From there, I drove across to the mediaeval hill town of Traiguera, and discovered a side road that revealed the place from a different side, and in addition took me to St Vincent's Well, which I had seen signs for on two previous visits, but not followed, as I didn't know what I was looking for. At the bottom of the north side of the ridge on which the ancient town is built a freshwater source fills a series of large washing troughs, enclosed in this white painted structure. 
Similar ones I've seen in other places are attributed to Moorish water engineering, but this carries a dedication to St Vincent, the fourth century deacon and martyr of Valencia. In a neighbouring wall is a shrine chapel to St Vincent, and  below it, a five spouted drinking water outlet. This area of the town has clearly had some attention in recent years, renovating and tidying it up to attract visitors. A project well worthwhile, in my opinion, even if the inhabitants of Traiguera now have running water and modern appliances in their hilltop homes.
As I was leaving Traiguera, I recalled seeing a signpost to a nearby Ermita, called the Sanctuario Reale de Nuestra Senora de la Fuente de la Salud, which I'd not had opportunity to follow. I re-found the sign, and followed its direction, driving south through olive groves. At the roadside each kilometre there was a cross on a tall pillar, marking the way, four altogether. I was surprised at what I found at my destination.

In a wooded valley, a large church with a cupola, flanked by substantial buildings, whose purpose was to offer hospitality to pilgrims. One is a modern restaurant, the other a heritage visitor centre. The wide open area in front of the church forms an arena, great for outdoor ceremonies. Along the south flank, on a raised terrace, a series of half a dozen fireplaces, arranged for outdoor cooking. A place for pilgrims to come and picnic. It's a royal sanctuary because the original St Mary's Well, as we'd know it in Britain, had been patronised by fourteenth century Spanish royalty and eighteenth century Bourbon rulers of Spain, to whom the present baroque countenance of the interior is owed.
The restaurant had clients, and there were a handful of visitors like me, just looking around. I went into the empty visitor centre and was greeted by a man on duty. Once he'd established that I was OK with Spanish, he started to describe the history of the sanctuary and its royal connections, and offered to show me around the church, which was otherwise locked. The interior was covered with fine baroque frescos, all in excellent condition, likewise all the buildings. It's clearly regarded as a key piece of local heritage. 

Then I learned that the place had suffered badly during the Civil War, as the region was in republican hands, and its was, of course a place with royal history. It had been completely and authentically restored in the fifties and sixties, which explains how it should still be in such good condition. The frescos, apparently were re-painted by two artists from Vinaros, and all the external walls and terraces were done by apprentice stone masons from Traiguera.
The small original fourteenth century shrine and its well, were established after the region's reconquest. They are still preserved, easily accessible to all who pass by. Everything else in this complex has been built around this.

This was in every way a memorable afternoon of catching up on discoveries I might have made on earlier visits. I was also very pleased to have a half an hour's real conversation, all in Spanish, about things that interest me.

It was a treat to return to another excellent episode of 'Beck' in BBC Four Scandinavian TV crime drama series. This was special because characters conversed in a mix of Swedish, English and German, making it even more interesting to follow than usual.

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