‘You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you’ – Leon Trotsky
The sound of the dripping shower head was my wake up call at about 6am. The low rumble of truck engines being warmed outside meant that the day was starting for others too. A quick shower and in my gear ready for sunrise. The overall route for the day would be to get back to Northern Spain via Belchite and reach Frontera de Portalet in the Pyrenees as an overnight base. However, with a headlight out I needed to get a bulb and the nearest garage was just 8 miles away so no problems there. Maybe.
As I wandered into the cafe area, 4 police walked in. Interestingly all the truck drivers seemed to look the other way and suddenly become interested in the walls, floor and anything other than them. There were several police vehicles outside and a temporary roadblock being set up. Great, traffic police and here I am with no front light and it is still before sunrise. I parked myself on a chair, nursed a coffee and watched the trucks getting pulled over for transport checks.
As soon as it was light I pulled the bike out, jumped on and rode straight through the roadblock – fully expecting to get pulled over and have some form of fine so I had my explanation well prepared. It wasn’t needed however – they paid me no attention at all and just waved me through. I had wondered whether to head straight for Belchite and get the bulb after but I’d interpreted this roadblock as a sign and decided to head straight for the garage.
It was a cool morning with the sun barely warming up the air as I headed along the minor roads to find the dealer. I couldn’t find it – mainly because they had just moved premises and not updated their website. A helpful woman in a Ford garage gave me some basic directions. It was a nice tour of the countryside but realising I was probably never going to find this garage I decided to just head for Zaragoza, bypassing Belchite and going straight to the BMW main dealer there. Main roads, 100 miles, steady right hand. Pretty dull until about 20 miles South of Zaragoza when the winds began to pick up. The bike was moving in the lane quite a bit which makes me uncomfortable – I’m happy in rain, cold, sleet but winds I do not like. I didn’t know it at this point but it was going to be a very long and very scary day.
The BMW dealer in Zaragoza were fantastic. They put the bike straight in when I arrived, gave her a full courtesy checkover, diagnostics, tyres, fluids etc as well as replacing the bulb. While I waited, the manager asked me about the trip and when I told him I was headed for the Pyrenees he pulled out maps and showed me some routes to take – one in particular he said I must not miss. He was right, it was one of the most special rides of the whole trip but more on that in the next blog post.
I left Zaragoza at lunch time – I had lost a lot of time but at least the bike was good. Despite all my planning for the trip I had forgotten to bring spare bulbs. Rookie mistake but no harm done – in fact, if it hadn’t have happened I would never have seen those places he told me to go in the Pyrenees. This was a valuable lesson for me – you can plan to a certain extent but things will change and things will ‘go wrong’ and take you down a different path. You can either embrace the new opportunities it brings or get stressed. Might be different I guess if you are there just for a week.
It isn’t too far from Zaragoza to Belchite and I took a main road which is dead straight and runs for abut 10 miles. The first thing you notice is the red rocks and dirt – looks like a desert. Then you notice the flatness of the plain of Zaragoza. You can see for miles and miles and miles. The next thing you notice is the wind turbines. Lots and lots of wind turbines. Then the wind hits you and you realise why there are so many turbines. The wind whips straight off the Bay of Biscay across the plain and onwards. Or maybe they go the other way, I am no meteorologist but my god, they were scarily strong. The gusts were huge and the bike was all over the road. I could feel myself tensing up and my arms beginning to ache. 10 miles of that and I was exhausted both physically and mentally. This, however, was the aperitif to the winds that I would be riding in later in the day.
The modern Belchite is built adjacent to the ruins of the old town which was decimated in the Spanish civil war. It’s a quiet place and there were very few people around when I arrived. I found the tourist centre which is a very small building next to the Church and is easy to miss. The ruins of Belchite are fenced off and you can only enter if you are accompanied which gave me a problem. It was 2pm and the next tour wasn’t until 4pm. This meant I wouldn’t leave until 5pm at the earliest and I still had 2-3 hours of riding to get to the Pyrenees. I settled down at a small coffee shop and waited for an hour, enjoying the sun and the blue skies before heading over on the bike to the entrance to the ruins.
The ruins are quiet, extremely quiet. There is no one around at all and as I sat in the dirt by the bike to get cover form the sun, I heard the sound of bikes approaching. Three Harleys pulled up. Now I don’t know much about back patch clubs and etiquette but I knew enough to realise that all three had top and bottom rockers and so I gave them a courteous nod as they got off their bikes. I don’t mind admitting I was a bit nervous – they didn’t return the nod and stood there looking over at me before heading to the sign and taking a photo and then sitting on some rocks having a smoke. Absolutely no one around – I have a fully laden bike and these guys don’t appear to be in the talking mood. I decided to wait it out but it was 40 minutes until the tour. After about 20 minutes, they went back to their bikes and geared up. As they were about to pull away, I jumped up and waved my arms. They stopped and I pointed down at the floor and walked forward and removed a plastic bottle that had been blown by the wind and was nestled under the front tyre of the rear bike. A big grin, a hearty gracias! and they were on their way.
The tour is run by a local guy who dresses in a typical Spanish civil war uniform. A few other people turned up and I was given a walkman with an English translation of the tour. I don’t usually enjoy these kind of tours but this was fantastic. Belchite was preserved after the war as a standing reminder of the events that took place there so that future generations could see it. It has not been touched since the battle and whilst it is not eerie, you can easily see the battle raging around you and where the combat would have been fought. There are still bombs stuck in the ruins.
The Battle for Belchite
Franco’s revolt in July 1936 triggered appalling violence by both sides in communities across Spain. In Belchite, it was directed against the Republicans: 370 of its inhabitants (around one in ten of the population) were summarily shot- including the socialist mayor and even the village idiot. (Haslam)
The following month the sacred Our Lady of the Pilar Cathedral in nearby Zaragoza was bombed.
The old village was ruined by the intense fighting between the Nationalist (Facist) and Republican (Communist) forces in the last week of August and 1st week of September 1937
1937 had seen the Nationalist forces mount a campaign to conquer the northern provinces which was fiercely resisted by the republicans. As part of that resistance the Republicans lauched a series of harrying counter attacks along areas of the Nationalist front line in Aragon where individual villages and towns were known to be weakly defended. Belchite was one such town.
Quickly occupied by the republicans, the village of Belchite was held throughout the Nationalist counter attacks but in the process the village was reduced to ruins. The strategic value as a potential jumping off point for a future attack on Zaragoza was not lost on Republican commanders and whilst surrounding villages fell to the Nationalist forces Belchite wasn’t captured until later that year. It was held at all costs.
I don’t think there is any war that is not brutal and bloody. Belchite however was characterised by close quarters hand to hand fighting.
Bill Bailey was a soldier in the fighting and he wrote :“We would knock a hole through a wall with a pickaxe, throw in a few hand grenades, climb through into the next house, and clear it from cellar to attic. And, by God, we did this hour after hour.
“The dead were piled in the street, almost a storey high, and burnt. The engineers kept pouring on gasoline until the remains sank down. Then they came with trucks and swept up the ashes. The whole town stank of burning flesh.”
Hugh Sloan also fought in the battle and he wrote:
“Belchite was a particular kind of battle at close quarters. You were seeing the person you were killing. That’s a different thing from killing people at a distance. In that respect it was a very bitter battle”
“I remember walking up what you could call the main street and I couldn’t bear the smell of death. Some of our people were digging large holes into which all sorts of remains of living things, humans but also pigs and goats, were being thrown.
“We came to the square. There was a very large heap of dead human beings piled up. And in the very hot weather the smell was completely unbearable.”
The sign reads : The old man of Belchite is no longer hanging around, we will no longer hear the songs that our fathers sang.
Belchite was sobering – a reminder of the atrocities that we inflict on each other because of differing ideology. Whatever your views on things such as politics or religion, there is never a justification for war. I remember speaking to a guy from Serbia many years ago who had been a boy when the tanks rolled past in the night and he remembers his bed and the walls shaking as they passed and aircraft roared overhead. The real shame about war is not so much that it happened but that it continues to happen despite what we have seen in the past.
I suited back up, left the jacket open as it was so hot and punched in the GPS for the hotel in the Pyrenees. I roared down the straight roads for all of a mile before the winds hit me. Even stronger than before and as my bike was blown from one lane to another, I slowed down. It didn’t make much difference, I was leaning at 45 degrees just to keep going in a straight line. The gusts were incredible and the turbines were running at full speed. Riding this straight road, through the red rocks in these winds with just turbines for company was deeply uncomfortable. My hands were gripped on the bars and as much as I tried to release my grip, I just couldn’t. I would force myself to relax, a gust would take me and I would grip tightly again, compounding the handling problems on the bike. It got no better when I hit the motorway to head towards the Pyrenees. If anything, the gusts seemed stronger and it became dangerous as I was now in a flow of trucks and cars. I remember shouting in my helmet at points as though the wind would hear me and magically stop. It didn’t and after an hour I pulled into a services. I got off the bike and just collapsed on to the floor, clutching my shoulder which had completely knotted up. It took about 10 minutes before I removed my helmet and. leaning into the wind, I staggered into the cafe. You know things aren’t quite right when the waitress asks if you are ok. I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the coffee machine and I looked like a ghost – no colour in my face at all. As i sat there nursing a coffee and a bar of chocolate, I wondered if I could do this. Maybe I should just find a local hotel, call it a day, rest up. It was going to be touch and go if I would arrive by dusk in the Pyrenees. Deep breaths, another bar of chocolate and I decided to plough on and ‘see how it goes’. I could see the mountains in the far distance and with a keen eye on the road and an even keener eye on the GPS which was set to show me miles remaining I tucked my head down and tried to relax as much as possible. This was probably the toughest ride I have ever had. It was small comfort when motorway signs eventually restricted speeds to 50kph because of winds. Better late than never since I had been contending with keeping moving at full speed while being blown around like a rag doll. Less risky to contend with wind gusts moving the bike than a HGV on your rear tyre.
The winds eventually died down as I came into the foothills of the Pyrenees and with some 40 miles remaining and the sun setting I knew I was going to make it. Relief would be an understatement. Ahead of me were mountains and I remember thinking that they didn’t look so special, surely that couldn’t be the Pyrenees? Up and up I went and then I burst into tears. After the emotions of the day, the stress and exhaustion of the ride, that damned wind, I rounded a corner and there were the snow capped pyrenees rising like giants. I felt small, really small and very insignificant. The peaks were glinting as the sun was setting behind them, bathing the mountains in a golden glow. I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. I slowed, a car was on my rear and I didn’t care. I knew I was tired and at the point of exhaustion so I started talking to myself, ‘left hand bend – take the right hand line’, ‘wet surface – slow down’. Dropping down into valleys and then tunnels to enter the mountains was tiring – I knew there wasn’t far to go but that last 10 miles was hard. My whole body was screaming and I could feel my eyes popping with concentration on the bends. 10 miles…8 miles….4 miles…and then a final turn up sharp hairpins and there I was at the base of the Pyrenees in the hotel car park. Crisp mountain air, a helmet full of sweat and tears, a broken body. I looked at the view and with a grin I punched the air.