Roughly the area of north-eastern Spain
/Catalonia where the Battle of the Ebro
was fought in the Spanish Civil War
. It is marked on the north and east by the river of the same name: Ebro. This part of Catalonia is also known as Terra Alta.
There are numerous war-related sites all over the area, including remains of trenches (some reconstructed), ruined villages, caves, monuments and several small museums in a number of towns and villages.
The Battle of the Ebro was the longest, largest and most decisive battle of the entire war. It started as a counter-offensive by the Republicans after the Nationalists under Franco had pushed into Catalonia in the Aragon Offensive from the west in the spring of 1938.
, with the international brigades
and lots of newly conscripted soldiers (some as young as 16) and new material supplies coming over the border from France
in late July 1938
there was success
and they managed to push the Francoists back through half of the Terra Alta region. Soon
, however, the battle tuned out to be a disaster
, the element of surprise quickly evaporated and then the Nationalists' superiority in military equipment (including support from the German
Condor Legion as well as aircraft from the Italian
air force) played out again, as it had in the Aragon Offensive.
For the Republican side the Battle of the Ebro ended in humiliating defeat and ultimately spelled the death knell for the Republic. The ill-thought-out strategy of holding on to conquered territory at all costs, with a river in the back whose bridges were easy targets for the enemy air attacks so that supplies collapsed, in the end meant the Republicans lost tens of thousands of men and the bulk of their equipment, all for no gain at all. After 115 days since the launch of the attack the last Republicans retreated back across the Ebro at Flix and the battle was over. And only a few months later the whole war was lost.
The full military details of the Battle of the Ebro go well beyond the scope of this chapter. So I have to refer the reader to the numerous sources out there that can be relied on for such detail (see e.g. the book recommendation in the Spanish Civil War
Here I will concentrate less on military history but on what there is to see, in the present day, for the so-inclined dark tourists. And in addition to the background information to be gleaned from the established written and other sources there are, not least of all, all the various museums in the area that are introduced in the sub-chapters listed below.
What there is to see:
Lots! Way too much for a single chapter on this website, so the major sites and towns/villages with significant commodifications
of the war history of the area are given their own separate sub-chapters. Here's the list:
But there's loads more – some of which I will briefly introduce here, without going into too much detail. Note that I visited the area with an expert guide
) – without such a guide some of these places would not be so easy to find. In the following I've tried to concentrate on the less obscure sites and given map locators wherever possible.
My guided tour
began at the train station of Mora la Nova across the Ebro River from Mora d'Ebre where I picked up the guide from the station. We then first stayed on this side of the river and I was shown some pretty obscure locations related to the build-up of the battle of the Ebro in Marça
and even some well hidden British war graves
deep in an overgrown location (see photo
We then headed to one of the locations where the Republicans undertook their first Crossing of the Ebro, in this case just south of Vinebre in July 1938, before making our own crossing a bit further upstream by using the bridge at Asco.
The first proper “official” memorial we visited was Les Camposines. This monument commemorating the war also serves as an ossuary for remains that to this day are regularly found in the fields of the region.
Nearby my guide pointed out a German marker stone
commemorating a pilot shot down at this spot who died “den Fliegertod” (roughly: 'airman's death'). Later we also spotted similar German markers in Gandesa
and La Fatarella
We also visited various sites bearing scars from the war, such a bullet-riddled houses and old trenches, some elaborately reconstructed, bunkers and other fortifications. There was clearly lots of war archaeology and reconstruction work still ongoing. All these were too varied and too many to be described here in detail.
Similarly, we visited a couple of caves that played a role in the war, including Cova de Betlem, where there is some minimal commemoration, as well as a totally obscure cave system on a wildly overgrown hill which took some considerable effort to get to and track down. Inside, however, we were able to find some “raw” relics from the war such as rusty old tins, shells and rifle cartridges. Without a guide well versed in such war archaeology you'll never find these sites, though. So I will not dwell on their description here either.
The same goes for some private war relic collections
we were shown at a couple of houses in the area, including one not far from La Fatarella
that also offered basic accommodation. Without staying there or without a guide taking you there, you won't be able to see these.
A particular officially commodified
spot worth mentioning here, on the other hand, is a site connected to the “other” side, the Nationalists, namely an observation post
just west of Gandesa
that was used by Franco
himself during the Battle of the Ebro. It was one of the locations (cf. also Belchite
) where it was very obvious indeed that tensions going back to the war and the dictatorship are still lingering. The place was heavily vandalized, in particular with all manner of graffiti including overtly abusive language such as “fascists are shit” or “death to fascists”.
Another officially commodified site we visited was one related to the final stages of the Battle of the Ebro, namely the Camp del Xv CE at Asco. It was from this location on a high escarpment above the Ebro valley that Colonel Tagüeñas organized the final retreat of the defeated Republican army.
From the escarpment you also get a good view down to the little town of Flix (pronounced “fleesh”, not “flics”). In Flix you can also visit a former air-raid shelter that has been commodified for visitors. In addition to the usual information panels and photos they apparently also have an “audiovisual projection” with a soundtrack of sirens, planes flying overhead and bomb explosion noises to recreate the atmosphere of the shelter in which locals sought refuge from Franco's air force raids.
From the escarpment you can also see next to Flix a site that is unrelated to the Civil War but has another kind of darkish “appeal”: the nuclear power plant complex of Asco I & II. Their single cooling tower is a whopping 525 feet (160 m) high and nearly 400 feet (120 m) in diameter at the base. This makes it the most visible structure far and wide.
There are several more Civil-War
-related locations in the Terra Alta region, which we unfortunately did not have time for, including two further interpretation centres
. These are the “Voices from the Frontline”
exhibition in El Pinell de Brai
about the role of the press and propaganda in the war, and the “Soldiers in the Trenches”
exhibition in Vilalba dels Arcs
There are also various more monuments
, remains of trenches
, caves, bunkers, shelters and viewpoints
to be explored. For orientation you can get good maps
from the Consorci Memorial dels Espais de la Batalla de l'Ebre based in Corbera d'Ebre
, e.g. at their 115 Days interpretation centre
In north-eastern Spain
(Catalonia), all over the Terra Alta region (and partly just beyond), roughly between Fayon
in the north-west and Flix in the north-east, as well as Caseres in the south-west and El Pinell de Brai and Mora d'Ebre in the (south-)east, with Gandesa
and Corbera d'Ebre
roughly in the centre.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: off the beaten tourist track, thus not easy to travel around in and locate the various sites without a guide or speaking the language well; costs depend (with guide much higher than without).
Details: In order to independently tour the Terra Alta and all the various locations associated with the Battle of the Ebro you really have to have your own vehicle (or hire car). The larger towns and villages may have public transport connections, but most of the sites described here are simply too remote to be reachable that way.
Ideally you should also use a SatNav (GPS) so that you can use the map locators given above and in the other chapters for getting to the various spots.
The larger museum exhibitions/interpretation centres have some English translations, otherwise not speaking Catalan or at least Spanish well could be a major language barrier to getting the most out of a visit to this area.
When I went there (around Easter time in 2015), I hired an expert guide
for two and a half days. This helped a lot and also got me to locations I would otherwise never have known about. The guide I used is called Alan Warren, a British
historian/teacher based in Barcelona who specializes in the Spanish Civil War
and in particular the Battle of the Ebro, and as an Englishman especially puts an emphasis on the perspective of the International Brigade. (You can also follow him on his blog at Porta de la Historia – pdlhistoria(dot)wordpress(dot)com, where you can also find his email address).
Of course, hiring such an expert guide does not come cheap. I was charged 100 EUR per day plus all expenses (transport, accommodation, meals – which together pushes the price up to nearly double the amount). But I found it was money well invested. Alan not only knows his stuff (and speaks the language fluently) but is also quite involved with the local communities and is personally acquainted with all the relevant people. By the way, he is also involved with the plans for a proper Civil War Museum to be set up in Barcelona
. In short, he's the best guy to get if you really want to explore the topic on the ground to maximum depth.
There are alternatives
. Some of the organizations in the area offer guiding as well, including the Consorci Memorial dels Espais de la Batalla de l'Ebre, which also runs the batallaebre(dot)org website and several of the interpretation centres around the area and is based in Corbera d'Ebre
. They offer mainly group tours that are customizable so you have to enquire directly with them for prices and programmes. Since I did not use them for touring I cannot vouch for the quality of those tours, though. The CEBE (Centre d'Estudis de la Batalla de l'Ebre) that runs the museum in Gandesa
may also be able to help, but again I cannot say anything about their (possible) services either.
For any in-depth visit to this area you will need time, so you'll also require accommodation
. When I went we used an ecological guest house in La Fatarella
that my guide knew well and recommended (cost at the time was 44 EUR per person per night, on a dinner, bed & breakfast basis), but he can also find you cheaper options such as home stays or basic pensions. Proper hotels are a bit thin on the ground in this rather non-touristy region, though I stayed in a reasonable motel-like place in Gandesa
(called Pique) for a night before commencing my tour programme.
There are also a few pretty good-looking hotels (with restaurants) in the villages of Bot, Vilalba dels Arcs or Flix, for example.
Time required: To cover just the sites listed here you need a minimum of three or four days (with the help of a guide), for those who want to dig really deep there's enough here to keep real Spanish-Civil-War-buffs occupied for weeks if not months on end.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The nearest significant Civil-War-related site outside the Ebro area is Belchite
to the west in Aragon, south of Zaragoza. But Catalonia's capital city Barcelona
to the east of the Ebro also has to be mentioned, especially for its excellent Civil-War-themed walking tours
See also under Spain
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
This area of the Ebro, the Terra Alta
, does not normally feature much on the mainstream tourist map of Spain
, but it deserves to be better known. I really loved it, both for its varied scenery, its cuisine, its outstanding wines (that are also undeservedly little known) and also the people and the whole laid-back atmosphere.
The landscape of the Terra Alta appears surprisingly green and lush in many places – which contrasts with the descriptions and images of the area from the times of the Civil War. Indeed, it used to be much more arid than it appears today. This is due to an extensive programme of planting trees undertaken under Franco after the war. So the dictator left his mark on this land in more than one way ...
Still, the Terra Alta is a rather quiet rural area, off the beaten tourist track and without any big draws in terms of highbrow culture or Roman or Moorish architectural monuments. But its rural quietness is in a way an attraction in itself.
Naturally, the biggest mainstream attractions outside the Terra Alta are the big cultural metropolises of Barcelona
to the east and Zaragoza in Aragon to the west – see also under Spain
- Ebro 01 - green hills
- Ebro 02 - much lusher than when the International Brigades came here
- Ebro 03 - location of the Ebro crossing
- Ebro 04 - the river in flood
- Ebro 05 - remote war graves
- Ebro 06 - more overt official commemoration
- Ebro 07 - Les Camposines Memorial
- Ebro 08 - proper structure
- Ebro 09 - names, photos, flowers
- Ebro 10 - ossuary door
- Ebro 11 - looking up
- Ebro 12 - exit stairs
- Ebro 13 - downed German pilot memorial stone by the roadside
- Ebro 14 - another German marker
- Ebro 15 - this one is for a tank driver
- Ebro 16 - trench reconstruction near La Fatarella
- Ebro 17 - elaborately designed memorial plaque
- Ebro 18 - bullet-riddled house near Gandesa
- Ebro 19 - Riu d Algars
- Ebro 20 - Franco observation and command post
- Ebro 21 - Franco-era memorial
- Ebro 22 - vandalized
- Ebro 23 - the battle continues in graffiti
- Ebro 24 - Cova de Betlem
- Ebro 25 - inside the cave
- Ebro 26 - plaque
- Ebro 27 - relics
- Ebro 28 - hidden sign for the cave
- Ebro 29 - serious hillside clambering
- Ebro 30 - totally uncommodified remote cave
- Ebro 31 - me going in
- Ebro 32 - inside the cave
- Ebro 33 - cave exploration
- Ebro 34 - rusty relics
- Ebro 35 - old tin
- Ebro 36 - excavated bunker
- Ebro 37 - private collection of battlefield relics
- Ebro 38 - including a German gas mask
- Ebro 39 - Camp de Xv CE at Asco
- Ebro 40 - hillside shelter
- Ebro 41 - no cave exploring here
- Ebro 42 - Flix on the river
- Ebro 43 - nuclear power station nearby
- Ebro 44 - but renewable energy-generating is very common here too