The last morning started with a trip I had longed to make since my days at university. The old ruined village of Belchite; victim of the Civil War.
In the middle of some harsh wastelands 50km south of Zaragoza was to be found a ghost town, an overgrown pockmarked memory to a distasteful moment in Spanish history. The 1936-39 Civil War that had destroyed both lives and families and left a scar in the nation’s psyche.
It was a tragic husk. Ripped out skeletal remains of a once decent place. The churches, almost still there, had caved in roofs and walls dotted with bullet holes. Grass and wild flowers had grown up inside the blown up bodies of the old houses and added a surreal and sad beauty to a place ruined by war.
The morning sun was already razing my skin as we pressed on west past the bizarre convent on the hill - Nuestra Señora del Pueyo; quiet and empty except for a man shifted breeze-blocks. Low-quality roads took us past the birthplace of that mad great of Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya, Fuendetodos, and into the attractive and expansive wine-lands of Cariñena. As with almost all wine regions, there were large fields lined with trellises and vines with bright green grapes and then nearby low hills. So much countryside. So much to take in. But there was a prize for the day. The wine-making zone of Campo de Borja - the Empire of Garnacha.
Borja the village was a hot and sleepy place, but not unattractive. It was peculiar that its alleys were all chocolate-coloured brick in lieu of stone or pastel colours. There were a handful of squares, a handful of flags and a handful of churches. In the colonnaded market square we ate steaks and artichokes at La Bóveda del Mercado; an old 17th century bodega full of handsome brick arches, paintings and wooden tables. We drank local wine and then sweltered away its effects in the afternoon Aragonese sun.
Just out of town, along a grape-lined stretch of road, was a little mount covered in trees sheltering the Santuario de la Misericordia; a small temple of pilgrimage for the local churches. From the plains and bumps around the area, people came to see an image of Jesus Christ; although now for different reasons. Much like me. I hadn’t come to see Elías Martínez’s crown of thorns messiah; but instead it was to visit the much publicised restoration cock up of said artwork.
In 2012 a little old lady called Doña Cecilia noticed that the famous image of Jesus, painted onto the wall of the sanctuary, was faded fast. She, being sweet, decided to try and salvage it with her own paint. She didn’t so much as salvage it as turn the Lamb of God into an odd melted bear-man in a cloak. Cue media storm and internet bonanza. The irony is now the church makes a lot of money from visiting tourists - whether pious or smarmy - and the place is going from strength to strength. They even have a new ‘interpretation centre’.
It would be remiss of to leave the area without diving into the wine. The wine-lands of Campo de Borja take a turn for the idyllic as the road leaves the lowlands and pierces an area of brilliant green. Grasses flowed and waved with watery luxuriance and birch trees burst with pollen in the foreground to some attractive hills. The Sierra de Moncayo: where wine meets god and hikers.
Their wine museum is located inside a vast fortified religious bulk called the Monasterio de la Veruela. A hulking honey-coloured hiding cloisters and churches and clipped green trees. A more wonderful place to drink Garnacha with its strawberry-jam tannins and boozy flinty berriness.
Finally the trip had come to a close. We allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by the sultry streets of Zaragoza. A charming city that endeared itself to me more this time than on my first time. The silly, spired magnificence of the great basilica doubled itself up in the placid waters of the Ebro as the last fronds of daylight dropped away over the busy streets of the old town, its bars and old bodegas, and myriad sweating singing locals.
East of Madrid is where some of Spain’s greatest tropes - the sun-splashed world of beaches, white walls and pretty rice dishes - coil up together with some of its more unknown ones; vacant and desolate rough ranges dotted with remote and bashed up but beautiful villages; more castles than you can count and wine that has less than nothing in common with the tempranillos that have made the country so famous. The east is the land of old war-fostered contrasts and is definitely worth a deeper look.