I took a little break from birding to take a tour of the old town of Belchite in Aragon Province, Spain. We where staying in the new town of Belchite, which was finished in the 1950s.
The original town of Belchite dates back to the 15th century. And it was the setting of a major clash during the Spanish Civil War. The battle took place between August 24 and September 7, 1937. The Republican and Nationalist armies fought an intense battle that included street fighting and house to house combat.
Americans took part in this battle as part of the International Brigade. About 4,000 lives were lost and the town of Belchite was destroyed.
The ruins of the town are only open to the public on a guided tour and at the local tourist office I found out that there was one today at noon. I was surprised at the large number of other people that had also signed up for the tour, it looked to be about 100 people. The guide led us through the ruined streets and squares and commented on the history and different buildings we were looking at. It was in Spanish of course but I picked up a few words like “Lincoln Brigade” and “Franco”.
While on the tour, I sketched a ruined shop front and the tower of San Martin’s of Tours church. I did all the line work in pencil and pen and planned to add words and watercolor later.
These ruins were certainly surreal and I could only imagine the horrifying scenes of bloodshed and destruction in August and September of 1937. The reason these ruins exist today is that Franco preserved the ruined town as a monument to the Nationalist dead.
The ruined main street in the old town of Belchite.
My sketch of the city gate as I waited for the guided tour to start.
The iron cross marks sight where many of the casualties of the Battle of Belchite were incinerated. The clock tower is all that remains of St. John’s church.
A quick sketch of the ruins of Saint Martin’s of Tours.
Inside the roofless ruins of San Martin’s of Tours church. This church was featured in the beginning scenes of the film Pan’s Labyrinth.
Reporters covered this brutal battle, including Ernest Hemingway but one of the most vivid descriptions of the city after the battle was written by Cecil Eby:
“[the journalist] found a town so totally ruined that often one could not tell where the streets had been. People were digging under piles of mortar, bricks, and beams pulling out corpses. Mule carcasses, cooking pots, framed lithographs, sewing machines-all covered with flies – made a surreal collage. Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell.”
After the completion of the tour I adjured to the hotel cafe/bar to add some text and paint to my Belchite spread and have a mid afternoon caña.
Being a Saturday afternoon, the bar had a constant flow of locals. One was a man who spoke no English (and I not much Spanish) who noticed my drawings of old Belchite. His eyes lit up. He proclaimed the insightfulness and brilliance of my sketches (at least that is what I would like to believe) to anyone who was within the sound of his voice. We proceded to have a one way conversation where I gathered he was asking we what I did for a living (it was certainly not sketching!) and here I replied, “maestro”. A huge grin appeared on his face and he told me that his mother, sister, and grandmother were also teachers.
And it was here that I heard some Spanish that I truly understood and it came from an older woman who ran the bar. She looked at my sketch and smiled and then said, “Muy Bien!” It was music to my sunburnt ears.
The language of sketching transcends any language.