It was fully dark by the time I entered the village, small knots of people sat on steps and kitchen chairs outside their doorways and, to my amazement at this late hour, groups of very young children were charging up and down the street. I had been moving for over twenty four hours and my senses were dulled by engine noise and snack food so I was not able to fully understand what I was seeing. My young hosts put me smartly to bed and it was not until the following morning that I was able to see the village and surrounding landscape. Phrases like stark beauty and rugged grandeur are overused so they are out. The word beige did come to mind but that would not be fair. It is a rugged, stark and beige place but it is also so much more.
The houses of the village seem to climb on top of each other, each new one welcomed to share a wall, to shield its older neighbour from the unremitting pounding of the sun. Few of these houses would look out of place in a Roman landscape, indeed, I think it’s a fair bet that some of the founds under these houses go back at least that far. With pan tiles, cypress trees and ancient figs one could easily imagine Maximus Decimus Meridius striding the landscape, running his hands through his crops. Him or Clint Eastwood anyway.
This village and many others like it sit on small patches of high ground, islands in the seas of bare honey-coloured stubble and the odd deep green patch of sunflowers. The farms here are alien to me. In Britain, we sit as kings surrounded by our lands. Here the houses are usually in the villages, farmers commute to their land in the early mornings, work until the heat drives them home and then again in the evenings, even deep into the night at busy times. The farming is less intensive and more varied too. The patches of arable are interspersed with almond orchards and olive groves, small jewel like gardens of vegetables and odd rough areas with black and white signs ‘coto de caza’. The only livestock is housed in buildings, barring a few depressed looking sheep. The pig industry is strong round here but what conditions must be like in those low buildings and in this heat I dread to imagine. One might mistake this dry climate for an almost desert-like condition but there is no shortage of water. A huge construction project has ensured massive amounts of water and hydro power for the area, courtesy of the snow melt and thunder-storms of the Pyrenees.
There is more new construction hereabouts too, somewhat at odds with the tales of doom and gloom in the Spanish economy. A vast road building project is snaking it’s way down from the mountains, past towns with shopping developments, hi-tech industrial parks and large areas of housing, which actually appears to be occupied. Rather to my amazement I even passed a shiny new Land Rover dealership.
For a resident of the Highlands of Scotland however, all of the landscape and infrastructure becomes insignificant before one crowning feature. The heat of summer. Yes, I know other places get hotter, but not by much. I have seen the temperature gauge here top forty four. It was outside Ikea in Zaragoza, an unlikely place for the traveller I know. It is this kind of heat which bleaches the landscape and bows down the people, causing them to become, crepuscular, even nocturnal. But none the worse for that and why would it be? Just because it is not my norm to see kids (well behaved, polite, friendly ones I might add) scootering at midnight, does not make it weird. Just sensible.