A ghost town
south of Zaragoza, in north-eastern Spain
, which has served as a war memorial since it was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War
in 1937. It's an eerie walk through streets lined by shell-scarred ruins and rubble, as if the war had taken place just recently.
Belchite suddenly found itself on the front line when the Republican side launched an offensive in August 1937 to halt the advance of the Nationalists/Francoists in the Aragon region of Spain
While they did make good advances in the area, Belchite itself was fiercely defended by the Nationalists. It wasn't until the 7th of September that the Republicans were finally able to take the town. However, by then the town was destroyed and the offensive in general had stalled.
The battle of Belchite eventually proved the turning point in the Nationalists regaining ground in the region, and the Republican campaign ultimately failed. The territorial gain was only temporary and the main goal of taking Zaragoza was not achieved.
The town of Belchite, meanwhile, was the loser in any case. It had been more or less completely destroyed in the fighting. Franco thus ordered a new town to be built next to the ruined old one and the old one to be left in its derelict ghost town
state to serve as a memorial after the end of the war in 1939.
The propagandistic value to him was that he could show his people: “see, this is what communists do! But I gave the poor inhabitants new homes.” (Even though some inhabitants apparently still stayed in the old town for a while too.)
Its role as a Francoist memorial changed somewhat after the dictator's death, slowly and gradually. You can still see evidence of opposing opinions in the from of graffiti battling this out in spray paint to this day. Vandalism is also in evidence.
In the past, the memorial was silent and totally uncommodified; visitors were free to roam around the ruins at will. But since 2014, a new regime has restricted access to the site. Now visitation is only possible in the form of a guided tour.
That way, the provincial town now gains at least a bit of tourism revenue from its history, which is only to be welcomed. And the fact that the ruins are now fenced in and access supervised means that vandalism should also be less of a problem now. However, the new arrangements detract a little from the previous “rawness” of the experience of wandering the devastated ghost town alone without a guide. But it is still pretty much unique.
Given the atmospheric drama of the ruins of Belchite it is perhaps no surprise that they were also used as a film set, e.g. in Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" in 1987.
What there is to see: It is close to walking straight into the devastation brought by war, except that it is eerily quiet and the grass growing amongst the ruins has replaced the smoke and smouldering.
It probably used to be even eerier when you were still allowed to wander around this ghost town
on your own and at your own pace. But since 2014, this has changed and you now have to go on a guided tour. NOTE: there is no longer any access for individual visitors wanting to see the place independently! But the good news is that the guided tours are really quite good and informative.
So, once you've signed up for a tour (see below
for practicalities), the guide will meet the participants at the main gate to the old town (which these days remains locked at all other times). Since the tour as such is conducted in Spanish only, foreign visitors are offered an audio player with an English narration at no extra cost.
The audio recording is in a somewhat sleepy voice but in clear native-speaker British English and full of detailed historical information. I won't replicate any of that here (but see background) and instead concentrate on what there is to see.
Before entering the destroyed village as such you are invited to explore the mini museum that is housed upstairs inside the gatehouse. The “exhibition” consists of only a few text-and-photo panels (all in Spanish) and I thought it felt rather improvised and unfinished. Maybe the latter is actually the case and it's still being developed. So in future there may be more to be gained from this museum. Some of the historical photos of the town before its destruction were quite interesting.
The only other exhibit proper is a light artillery gun outside the gatehouse facing the destroyed town as if it was ready to take out the last bits still standing as well.
The tour around the ghost town
then takes visitors down the main street leading south-east, with a few shorter stops at specific buildings where you can learn a bit about their former functions.
Eventually you come to a small central village square with a metal cross in its centre. There are also some sand-bagged mock positions that must clearly have been put there more recently.
You are then led through a gate and up a new paved path that goes up a mound to the main memorial monument. By now you will already have seen plenty of competing graffiti – ranging from anarchist circled A's to Nazi
swastikas. Some are painted over, others look rather fresh.
But at the main monument the scale of vandalism is truly stunning. The memorial stone in the centre of a semi-circular wall has been smashed up and is “adorned” with yet more wild graffiti. There seems to be an older stone plaque underneath the smashed up one, so maybe there has been protest and counter-protest and some revision of commemoration.
I would have asked more about this had my Spanish been up to it, but this way I only got the rather depressing visual impression of the violated memorial. I can only guess, but I can well imagine that vandalism like this must have played a role in the decision to restrict access to the site to guided tours only (plus it gives this desolate rural town a little tourist revenue).
Back in Belchite proper, the tour then proceeds past the bell tower and towards one of the town's two churches, Iglesia de San Martin de Tours. You can walk right into the hollowed out shell of the church building. In some more protected corners you can still see some intricate stone masonry and wall paintings.
But this church's spire is perhaps the most enigmatic of the whole ghost town
. Though still standing (helped a bit by some recently applied concrete stabilizing it from the inside), it is heavily scarred by shelling and the cone at the top has a dramatically gaping hole in it.
After lingering a bit at this church (allowing for some extreme photographic opportunities) the tour then continues to the old town's other church, San Agustin, down a path that forks off from the main street to the north.
This church is also a ruin, but parts of the front facade are still quite intact and the church tower isn't quite as badly damaged as St Martin's. However, on the eastern side of San Agustin's tower you can spot an unexploded shell still embedded in the brickwork.
The inside of the church nave is less accessible than that of the other church (no roaming freely here), but you still get a good look in. There were some intricate painted and stone masonry decorative bits to be made out here too. In a niche by the church I also spotted a semi-decayed fox corpse. This gave the whole place just another element of the presence of death …
Overall, visiting Belchite is an extremely poignant experience. Compared to other war ghost towns that have become tourist sites, including e.g. Corbera d'Ebre
in the nearby Ebro
region in Catalonia, Belchite is larger, more immediately atmospheric and just much closer to the state is was left in after it suffered all the destruction in 1937.
No longer being free to wander anywhere in Belchite, however, has the drawback that there are corners of the ruined town that you do not get to see any more, including ones south and north of the St Martin church from where you could have had a very different angle of view.
Nevertheless, it is still an extraordinary experience not to be missed by any dark tourist when travelling in this part of Spain
some 30 miles (50 km) south of Zaragoza, in north-eastern Spain
Co-ordinatess and Google maps locator (entrance and group meeting point):
Access and costs: restricted, now by guided tour only; not too expensive
Details: Until recently you were still allowed to walk freely amongst the bullet-scarred ruins, piles of rubble, and the gutted village churches (only some parts where structures are at risk of collapsing, access is restricted).
NOTE that as of 2014 this has changed! The ruined village is now surrounded by a fence and the gate is normally locked and access is quite restricted, namely by guided tour only. These take place only twice a day at the following times:
One at 12 noon, the other at 4 p.m., on Saturdays there's yet another tour at 6 p.m. (night visits are apparently also possible on Saturdays at 10 p.m., according to a sign by the gate ... but I can't say anything about prices or how to obtain tickets for this).
Price: 6 EUR per person.
Tickets have to be obtained ahead of the tours from the tourist information office in the new village. It is located next to the new church. Note that the tourist info closes for lunch (like almost everything in Spain does). So either arrive well in time ... or come with plenty of time to spare.
The regular guided tours are conducted in Spanish only, but you can borrow iPods with an English narration on the history of Belchite that the Spanish guide can proviode you with. The audio recording and the live tour are not in sync, however, so you either have to repeatedly pause the playback or let it go ahead of the tour so that you can experience the remainder of the tour without having to listen to the narration over headphones. I'd recommend the latter strategy, so that you can get the proper experience of the eerie atmosphere of the place for at least part of the time.
For getting to Belchite you can use the limited bus service departing from Zaragoza Delicias station (see schedules at www.hife.es/en/). Buses go to the new village from where you can walk to the ruins.
Much more convenient is a hire car: from Zaragoza drive in a south-easterly direction on the the N-11 or N-232, then turn right onto the A-222 south straight to Belchite. (When I tried this in March 2015, however, the road leading from the N-11 to the A-222 was blocked, possibly due to the flooding caused by high water on the Ebro river, so that I had to find a much longer roundabout alternative way of getting to Belchite, namely via the A-1307, from the east.)
Time required: the guided tours these days last approximately 90 minutes, but you have to allow a little extra time for obtaining your ticket from the new town's tourist information bureau and the walk (or drive) there and back. So in total a minimum of two hours should be set aside for this (plus extra time for getting there and possibly waiting around).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The area richest in other Civil-War-related sites is not that far away, just across the border with Catalonia, in the Ebro/Terra Alta
region, a ca. 1½ to 2 hour drive to the east.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The new town of Belchite could hardly be more drab if it tried. The only real landmark is the new church in the centre, a rather functional brick edifice which has little going for it except perhaps its somewhat unusual octagonal, almost minaret-like tower.
Since I had a couple of hours to kill before the afternoon tour (having missed the noon one due to traffic diversions) I wandered around the streets a bit but found it too boring to bear. The search for somewhere gastronomic to while away the time revealed only one canteen-like establishment that was open and served some lunch. At least, though simple, it was quite tasty classic Spanish fare. I felt, though, that the locals were eyeing me somewhat bemusedly like a rare and very odd intruder into their humdrum midweek lunchtime routine …
The landscape around Belchite is rather barren too, but in contrast to the featureless new town such parched and eroded terrain has a certain kind of beauty to it in itself even if it isn't quite the appeal of proper desert scenery.
Just east of Belchite to the south of the A-1307 you can see a huge solar panel power station that is quite a sight to behold! (See the photo gallery
The nearest proper tourist hub naturally is the city of Zaragoza, with its huge Basilica (de Nuestra de Senora del Pilar) and Moorish palace (Aljaferia). In the run-up to and during Easter, the stunning processions of Zaragoza, which involve a lot of dramatic and well-choreographed drumming, are a match for Seville’s more famous Easter processions (I found the former much more impressive than the latter, to be frank).
See also Spain
- Belchite 01 - now behind a locked gate
- Belchite 02 - sign
- Belchite 03 - info for visitors
- Belchite 04 - on the other side of the gate tower
- Belchite 05 - space for peace
- Belchite 06 - old cannon
- Belchite 07 - like walking into an eerily quiet war zone
- Belchite 08 - ruins with church and bell towers
- Belchite 09 - facade
- Belchite 10 - exposed blue room
- Belchite 11 - missing stairs
- Belchite 12 - collapse
- Belchite 13 - beams still hanging in there
- Belchite 14 - pretty details
- Belchite 15 - pretty shadow
- Belchite 16 - a spark of light
- Belchite 17 - mock position on the central square
- Belchite 18 - central memorial cross
- Belchite 19 - anarchist graffiti
- Belchite 20 - graffiti by Eric the Nazi too
- Belchite 21 - lots of graffiti
- Belchite 22 - memorial shrine
- Belchite 23 - also heavily vandalized
- Belchite 24 - approaching the church
- Belchite 25 - crumbling spire
- Belchite 26 - another mock position outside
- Belchite 27 - church door
- Belchite 28 - inside the church
- Belchite 29 - delicate arches
- Belchite 30 - hole
- Belchite 31 - evocative
- Belchite 32 - ruin with eyes
- Belchite 33 - shadows of war
- Belchite 34 - rubble
- Belchite 35 - the other church
- Belchite 36 - again with a mock position outside
- Belchite 37 - church tower
- Belchite 38 - unexploded shell still embedded in the wall
- Belchite 39 - bare arches
- Belchite 40 - some wall paintings still visible
- Belchite 41 - stucco bishop
- Belchite 42 - stucco angel
- Belchite 43 - dead fox
- Belchite 44 - see-through ruin
- Belchite 45 - modern church in the new town