Photo by Susanna Jacobs
Emita de la Mare de Deu de la Pietat
Like many towns in Catalunya, Ulldecona in the southern comarca (county) of Montsià has been a coveted location for various groups throughout history. Ulldecona is a relatively small town, but in and around this small community there is a surprising amount of historical diversity. Although the presence of former inhabitants has been well documented, it was just over 30 years ago that an amazing discovery was made, which showed that the first settlers in the area had come much earlier than previously thought.
On a March day in 1975, a 12-year-old boy was out exploring in the Serra de Godall, just north of the town and came across a tiny cave just 2.5 metres wide and 1.5 metres high. When he looked further inside he noticed some red figures painted directly onto the walls. The discovery prompted thorough searches of the area and over the next seven years, 13 more abrics (shelters or caves) were located in the Serra de Godall, containing over 400 images. Exhaustive archaeological studies have revealed that these paintings are prehistoric, dating back to between 6,000 BCE and 4,000 BCE. Some are examples of Neolithic Levantine art painted in a naturalist style and others are more schematic or abstract indicating they were painted slightly later. Collectively, they provide an invaluable insight into how people lived during these times.
Whilst some have eroded through thousands of years of exposure to the elements, leaving only partial images, an outstanding number of the paintings remain practically intact. The main subjects are hunt scenes painted in shades of deep red, brown or black, which include detailed images of archers shooting at deer and other animals frantically trying to escape the onslaught of arrows. A number of artefacts have also been found in the area, such as flint arrowheads and tools, as well as fragments of ceramic and necklaces.
The majority of the paintings are located in small, shallow caves ranging from one to 10 metres in length, with heights between one and five metres. A few of the larger caves are open to the public and those that are situated above the natural pathways are accessed by metal ladders permanently fixed into the mountain side and protected by barriers. Ulldecona’s cave paintings form part of the Ruta de l'Art Rupestre (Cave Painting Route) of southern Catalunya, along with sites at Montblanc and El Cogul. The importance of their discovery has not only been recognised by local and national bodies but also at an international level and in 1998, these three and all other prehistoric cave painting sites on the Mediterranean side of Spain were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
The Ermita de la Mare de Déu de la Pietat (Sanctuary of the Virgin of Sorrows) in the foothills of the Serra de Godall, houses a visitor centre for the 11 Abrics de l'Ermita (just south of the sanctuary). The centre first opened a couple of years ago and includes a comprehensive exhibition detailing the history behind the paintings and their discovery with photographs of individual images and scenes.
The sanctuary—named after Ulldecona’s patron saint—is in a beautiful and peaceful location, surrounded by lush vegetation and is also overlooked by the taller peaks of El Montsià. As well as the present church, the site also contains former chapels of Romanesque and Gothic origin. The sanctuary is easy to spot even from a distance of a few kilometres, as the white buildings really stand out against their green backdrop. The more recent additions of a bar and extensive terrace make it a popular stopping off point for hill walkers, as well as others passing by. In the evenings the Ermita is also sometimes used as a venue for cultural activities, such as concerts of different styles of music including flamenco, jazz, bossa nova and traditional Catalan.
To the south of the Serra de Godall stands another important historical monument which is a legacy left by settlers from different eras. The hilltop Castell de Ulldecona was built during the Moorish era on the site of a former Iberian settlement, and in 1148 was conquered by Ramón Berenguer IV. In the late 12th century, it became the property of the military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, who built the characteristic square and round towers, which still remain today and have recently undergone restoration. The square tower offers great vantage points for views of Montsià and Ulldecona to the east, and looking west to El Maestrat just over the border into Valencia. When the first charter of Ulldecona was passed in 1222, the town was still situated within the castle grounds and it was not until 1274 that it moved into its current location on the plains of la Foia. The castle is now owned by the Ajuntament, and is often referred to as the ‘castell medieval’.
Within the town centre, there’s a whole collage of architectural styles, and just walking around for a few minutes takes in buildings from many different centuries. The historic centre with its narrow medieval streets was surrounded by a wall up until the 19th century. One of the most interesting buildings in the centre is the 14th-century Catalan Gothic Església de Sant Lluc (Church of Saint Luke) in the Plaça de l’Eglésia. Located just a few feet away, is the Modernist Casa de la Feligresa, with its decorated façade, the work of Cèsar Martinell who also designed the old stone Molí de l'Oli (olive oil mill)—in a less desirable location next to the railway line. A number of religious buildings have been converted from their original use such as a Dominican convent that houses the Ajuntament and the old Església del Roser, now home to the Casa de Cultura, the municipal arts centre.
Spring is a good time to visit Ulldecona as there’s a lot happening. On every Sunday in March and April, the town hosts performances of La Passió d'Ulldecona, a medieval dramatisation of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. The play is staged in the town’s municipal theatre, with performances in both Catalan and Castilian. During Setmana Santa, the people of Ulldecona take the play out into the open as part of their Divendres Sant (Good Friday) procession, which starts from the town centre in the morning. The procession then slowly makes its way to the summit of Calvari one kilometre outside of the town, where actors perform scenes from the Passion.
In short, Ulldecona offers plenty of diversion in addition to the pleasure of walking in the footsteps of prehistoric Catalunya’s residents.
Direct services run from Barcelona Estació de França, Passeig de Gràcia and Sants to Ulldecona. (Approximately three hours.)
Round trip: €23.50
Hife run a direct service from Barcelona to Ulldecona. (Approximately three hours.)
Round trip: €32.60
Take the C32 heading southwest until the end and join the A7/E15 at junction 31.
Continue south until 42. Then follow signs to Ulldecona.
Distance from Barcelona: About 200 kilometres