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George Orwell route map
For those who might like a dose of Spanish history through English eyes, a day spent following in the footsteps of the writer George Orwell is a day well spent. Orwell, the writer of 1984, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, came to Barcelona in 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He wound up in the front-line trenches of Aragon, in the Monegros mountains, fighting for the Republicans. Today, all that’s needed to follow him is a bit of imagination and a car.
The road stretches northwest, past Montserrat and into the flat lowlands of Lleida. Seventy kilometres west of Barcelona, it feels like another world: small clusters of houses surrounded by massive fields of wheat stubble. Suddenly, on reaching the border between Catalunya and Aragon, the landscape undergoes a dramatic, almost theatrical, transformation. With the Pyrenees still visible on the horizon, the road forks forward, slicing through red and orange sand-sculpted mountains, outlined against enormous skies. Although far from any town or city, graffiti is sprawled over ruined buildings and farm huts along the roadsides. On closer inspection, this is not just random abuse but politicised messages: ‘España Una’ (‘One Spain’) jumps out from a wall, and ‘Viva La Falanje, Viva General Mena’ (‘Long Live the Falange, Long live General Mena’—a right-wing general who expressed interest in attempting a political coup in 2006).
After a three-hour drive, a small village looms up out of nowhere: Alcubierre. This was where Orwell began his stint as a soldier, and supplies were loaded onto armoured vehicles from this town and taken to the front-line trenches every day. Although Orwell describes this town as “a fortress, a mass of mean little houses of mud and stone huddling round the church,” his war-coloured perceptions do not ring completely true today.
The road winds along towards the Sierra de Alcubierre, a mountain ridge that crosses Aragon. Approximately three kilometres from Alcubierre is where the frontline between Franco’s troops and the Republican troops was positioned. Orwell was based on a mountaintop called Monte Irazo, which looked down over the road from Zaragoza to Alcubierre, and was separated from the enemy hilltops by a ravine that is about 700 metres wide. He wrote: “On every hilltop, Fascist or Loyalist, (was) a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering round their flag and trying to keep warm…the scenery was stupendous, if you could forget that every mountaintop was occupied by troops and was therefore littered with tin cans and crusted with dung.”
The trench itself has been reconstructed by the Aragon government, from pictures of the ruins and testimonials from locals who were part of the war. A narrow passageway carved into the hilltop, and framed with wooden fences, leads into small hut-like areas. Inside these caverns, sand-bags fortify openings that face the enemy hilltops. Troops were positioned in these areas, pointing rifles down at the roadside, as well as into enemy territory. The frontline was maintained until 1938, when an attack by Franco’s troops succeeded in breaking through the line. Subsequently, they continued east and took Catalunya.
In addition to the Orwell trench, on Monte Irazo, there are also Nationalist trenches, cave dug-outs, an underground hut with bunk beds and a war memorial monument erected by the right-wing Falange. The reconstruction project is part of a bigger Civil War interpretation centre, located in the nearby village of Robres, founded by cultural journalist Victor Pardo. “The whole idea was inspired by George Orwell, and renovating the trenches where the writer was positioned was done in order to commemorate 100 years of his birth,” he said.
“Really though, the figure of Orwell was used as a socially legitimate way of investigating and talking about the Civil War in Aragon, and Spain. Now people are beginning to talk more about their experiences.”
That the figure of George Orwell should be necessary for legitimising exploration into the Spanish Civil War is due to the ‘pact of forgetting’ that was introduced throughout Spain during the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy which ended in 1978. Essentially, this pact was an agreement by everyone to focus on the future by not looking back at the previous 40 years, nor hold people responsible for their actions during this time. Since then, the Civil War has been largely considered a taboo subject. The Aragon recuperation project of the front line trenches, named the George Orwell Route, is another step in recovering that history.
An hour away from the George Orwell Route lies the ruined town of Belchite, another key location during the Civil War. In 1936, a 10-day battle was held in this town resulting in the deaths of over 6,000 people. Initially won by Republican troops, Franco later came back to recapture Belchite in 1938. Instead of rebuilding the town, Franco ordered that the ruins be left as a testimony to his victory and political prisoners were ordered to build a new town next to the old one. Walking through these ruins is at once fascinating and immensely sad. Every year the ruins are less intelligible as the piles of rubble grow higher and the original inhabitants pass away.
But more disturbing than the ruins themselves is the complete lack of desire by the local council to preserve this important heritage from the Civil War. “Recently plans to preserve certain aspects of the town have been approved,” according to Prado. “Hopefully these projects will start shortly, although the impetus hasn’t come from Belchite or the local council.”
Perhaps this journey under open skies will be melancholic, with the circling buzzards and Spaghetti Western mountains, and the walk among the sad, hollow ruins that were once people’s lives, which have been left to crumble into dust. While it will not be the most entertaining of trips, it may well be one of the most powerful.
To get there:
George Orwell Trenches: A2 in direction Lleida, Zaragoza, at Bujalaroz follow signs to Sariñena, Lanaja and then Alcubierre. From Alcubierre follow the main road and then look for wooden sign posts along the road.
Belchite: Follow signs from Alcubierre to Leçiñena and then Zaragoza. At Zaragoza, take the A68 in direction Castellón and then follow signs to Belchite.
Robres Interpretation centre: Tel. 974 24 14 86; www.redaragon.com/turismo/orwell/rutaorwell