Meet Spain’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, Jurassic Park and the Grand Canyon, savour the country’s most impressive post-Islamic architecture, enjoy strolling through dramatic, unspoilt natural scenery or belting down a snowy slalom…anything is possible in this country’s smallest provincial capital.
Teruel, contrary to popular belief, does in fact exist. It is a national standing joke that it doesn’t – in fact, a stand-up on the popular TV show El Club de la comedia once stated, “It’s a myth. If Teruel existed, surely we’d know about it?”
If you don’t know about it, or have always believed it really was a figment of everyone else’s imagination, read on and find out more about this tiny provincial capital with its legends of love and tragedy, Islamic architecture, beautiful and unspoilt countryside and a tranquillity that will take you back to the days when heavy industry and hoards of Saturday shoppers had not even been invented.
It is hard to imagine anywhere in the developed world, let alone in Spain, where you won’t find a department store, university or swanky glass-and-chrome office block for more than 200 kilometres. It is difficult to imagine a city that is the capital of a province and yet has a population half that of Oliva or Gandia and that would fit nearly three times into Torrevieja. Indeed, if you are looking for designer shops and a hectic nightlife, Teruel may not be the ideal holiday destination for you – likewise if you are seeking sun, sea and sand or a good round of golf.
Yet if strolling through isolated, abandoned villages, discovering spectacular natural countryside, and truly living Spain’s Mediaeval history appeal to you, Teruel should be at the top of your list of places to explore whenever you venture outside the Comunidad Valenciana.
The southernmost province in Aragón, to the north-west of Valencia and less than two hours from the city, Teruel is an island of Arabic architecture, winding streets, moving legends and a close-knit community atmosphere in a sea of ever-changing, colourful, dramatic countryside. From the angry red mountains reminiscent of the Grand Canyon at the southern Aragonese border to the parched greenery and blue rocky formations as the highway heads north, and the snow-covered slopes and pine-trees that scale vertiginous peaks high above the city and attract skiing fans from October to April, no turn in the road brings the same picture twice.
The landscape is dramatically different throughout the seasons and, within it, time appears to have stopped as inhabitants of the tiny, crumbling, near-abandoned villages live life in the slow lane, apparently having failed to notice the passage of the last two hundred years.
Well-concealed within the remote, mountainous terrain are cave-paintings that have been declared UNESCO heritage sites, as has, in fact, the whole of the city of Teruel itself thanks to its unique and extraordinary examples of Mudéjar (post-Islamic) architecture. Even further back in time, the province of Teruel boasts some of Spain’s earliest settlers – before the Almohades, Romans or even Iberians, the countryside in what is now southern Aragón was littered with colonies of dinosaurs and their remains are on display in the open air and in an exciting theme park in the city.
A tragic tale of lost love
Tucked away between the walls of the San Pedro church is the remains of the moving tale of the love that never was. Reminiscent of the Montagues and the Capulets, Isabel, the daughter of a noble, influential local family, the Seguras, and Diego, son of the impoverished Marcillas, fell in love but were unable to marry as Isabel’s parents did not consider Diego worthy of the union. In order to secure his beloved’s hand in marriage, Diego travelled overseas to work and seek his fortune.
Many years later, Diego, having fought and won wars in distant lands and achieved the glory and fortune he had always dreamed of, returned to his home town to ask Isabel to marry him.
Yet he was just a day too late, as Isabel had been betrothed to the rich and powerful lord of nearby Albarracín, Pedro de Azagra, and was about to walk down the aisle. Diego, on setting foot in Teruel once again, heard the church bells ringing out to welcome the exquisitely-dressed Isabel as she prepared to join in matrimony with the rich lord, chosen by her parents.
After the nuptials were performed, Diego managed to speak to Isabel in private and, bidding her his final farewell, asked her to kiss him just once. However, given that she was now married, she denied Diego his last request.
Unable to deal with the pain of this last goodbye, Diego died from a broken heart at Isabel’s feet. The following day, Diego’s funeral took place in the church of San Pedro. Isabel, still in her wedding dress with her face hidden by her veil, approached the body of her old lover and gave him the kiss she denied him in his life. Isabel also dies of a broken heart, embracing Diego. So moved was the city by this turn of events that they buried the bodies of the lovers together inside the church.
They were found once again in the mid-16th century when restoration works were being carried out on San Pedro. They were moved to another building two years ago which has now become a museum dedicated to the legend and is managed by the Amantes de Teruel foundation. Alabaster sculptures of the lovers lying side by side are on display in the mausoleum, which forms part of the exhibition.
The legend has inspired artists all over Spain throughout the centuries – poems, plays, and paintings have been created based on the tragedy, as well as a sculpture that adorns the ornamental stairs in Teruel’s station.
For the last ten years, the wedding of Isabel de Segura has become a major fiesta in the city in the third week of February, during which residents parade through the streets dressed in 13th-century costume and live music, folk-dancing, a mediaeval market and open-air amateur dramatic performances of the tale take place.
Mudéjar monuments – the jewel in Teruel’s crown
Few cities in Spain are more renowned for their Mudéjar structures than Teruel. A form of architecture that developed after the expulsion of the Muslims, sculptors and builders did not have access to quality materials meaning they attempted to recreate the traditional, decorative Islamic style of construction and decoration with red bricks, wood and other inferior, less-elaborate provisions, adorned with as best they could with a scarce supply of ceramic tiles. The result was the relatively unique Mudéjar style, and despite the Muslims’ scarce presence in the north of Spain there is a wealth of monuments in Aragón and particularly in Teruel that bear witness to these times of economic struggle for Arab artists.
Such is the uniqueness of Teruel’s Mudéjar tradition that the entire city has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Its bell-towers San Martín and El Salvador and the ceiling and roof of the Santa María church are an amazing example of what the architect can achieve with few resources. The latter is said to be unprecedented in Spain and its ornamental, decorative, colourful paintings and sculptures pays lip-service to the wealth of artistic talent revealed by the Almohades and the long-standing Aragonese tradition of Islamic architectural splendour.
Moving swiftly on about half a millennium, visitors to Teruel will be overawed by the modernist architecture, a stark contrast to the Mudéjar creations but nonetheless detailed, splendid and enriching. Closely linked to the bourgeoisie and an expression of the power and wealth of the aristocracy, Teruel’s modernist buildings are pure propaganda and were commissioned from some of the most prestigious artists of the time.
One of the city’s most striking examples of modernism is the Ermita del Carmen, a chapel built at the turn of the 20th century and designed like a smaller version of a great temple, a miniature replica of those found on faraway shores that draw in visitors from distant lands.
However, the building no visitor should miss is the Casa Ferrán, a stately home whose design is influenced by Art Nouveau and crafted by Tarragona-born Pablo Monguió, who studied at the art academy in Glasgow. A stroll around the town will also give the visitor the chance to take in the stately homes La Madrileña and El Tórico, also works of Monguió that were finished between 1910 and 1912.
Other awe-inspiring structures of the early 20th century including the stairway at the station, which has clear Mudéjar influences, and the heavily Art Deco viaduct which was built in 1929. Also, look out for the attractively-designed market hall, a superb example of modernist architecture, and the former casino in the Plaza de San Juan which was constructed on the site of the former palace of the Sánchez Muñoz family. It sits in stark contrast to the modern square which has undergone a revamp recently and its architecture represents that typical of Aragón in the 1920s, a style that is unique to this northern region.
Jurassic Park in Teruel
Not everything ancient in Teruel involves buildings. Way before the Islamic or even the Iberian settlers were painting their caves or building themselves towers and castles, Dino and friends were already roaming around the mountains of southern Aragón.
An astonishing 15 archaeological digs revealing dinosaur remains have been uncovered in the region, 13 of which are in the province of Teruel. The typical species found in the area was a sauropod that grew to a terrifying 18 metres in length and resembled a giant lizard with a long, thick neck and a small head. Fortunately for smaller dinosaurs and any early humans who had pipped Adam to the post, this vast quadruped was vegetarian, despite the enormous knife-shaped teeth which Mother Nature blessed him with to enable him to rip off conifer leaves without spending a fortune on dentists’ bills. Nicknamed by historians the Aragosaurus, for ease of reference, you can find out all about these early settlers in the province by visiting the Dinópolis theme park in Teruel itself. Here, you will get up close and personal with the 125-million-year-old (but wearing surprisingly well) Aragosaurus and learn about how he and his friends were discovered in the parched sierras of the city’s surroundings.
You will hear how a team of ten people, who were on their Christmas holidays in 1996, battled against snow and blizzard to dig up what they suspected were the bones of a massive dinosaur. Perhaps, like the curse of Tut Ankh Amón, the Aragosaurus was unhappy about being disturbed from his multi-million-year slumber, as the excavation was fraught with setbacks and narrowly missed claiming a few lives. Yet a gas leak in the archaeologists’ night quarters, and half a tonne of plaster falling from the hewn-out walls of the dig and nearly flattening Dino’s remains, failed to prevent the keen explorers from unearthing almost an entire prehistoric skeleton within the space of a month. This said, it would take two more years of studying and applying for funds to reconstruct it for later display.
Like a scene out of Jurassic Park, the huge complex, modelled on the Earth in prehistoric times, brings to life this mysterious, undocumented and conjecture-laden era in our planet’s past. Later, to find out more, take a trip to one of the four dinosaur museums in the province, all within comfortable reach of the city by car – Legendark in Galve, Inhóspitak in Peñarroya de Tastavins – where the first dinosaur remains in Aragón were discovered – Bosque Pétreo (‘petrified wood’) in Castellote, and Región Ambarina in Rubielos de Mora (not to be confused with Mora de Rubielos, a village just a few kilometres away in the heart of Teruel’s skiing district).
Entry to the theme park costs in region of 20 euros for an adult ticket, and opening days and times vary throughout the year. For more information, take a look at www.dinopolis.com.
Why doesn’t Teruel exist?
Patriotic turolenses have even set up a website, www.teruelexiste.net, which organises campaigns and protests to raise the city’s profile nationally. Its main gripe is that insufficient funds are provided by the regional and central government to provide infrastructure such as decent roads, a better train service, nurseries in rural areas and a university.
Overlooked on a national scale, and yet loaded with unusual history and culture and swathed with stunning countryside, a provincial capital that feels like an outsized village, Teruel certainly deserves a better deal. As long as, of course, its inherent charm, full of the essence of bygone days and an unhurried way of life, remains intact and is not marred by the iron hand of progress.