It's Time To Put Teruel In The Spotlight

Mari Zipes Wallace

© Copyright 2022 by Mari Zipes Wallace

Image by meipakk from Pixabay
          Image by meipakk from Pixabay

How would you feel if you were told that your town didn’t exist? Confused? Lost? Angry?

Well, that’s been the plight of Teruel, a city in Aragon in eastern Spain. It’s the capital city of the Province of Teruel - with the smallest population of any provincial capital in the country - and without a direct railway or road link to the Spanish capital, Madrid. Its rather remote and mountainous location (more than 3000 feet above sea level) has led to relative isolation. In an attempt to remedy Teruel’s non-status, a campaign group, founded in 1999, came up with the slogan Teruel existe (‘Teruel Exists’). They pressed for greater recognition of the town as well as investment in the province. Transport connections improved but Teruel is still pretty much unknown.

Encouraged by the reduction of Covid rules and regulations, we felt pretty confident in venturing forth to visit some of the places on our Spanish bucket list. From our base near Alicante, we decided upon those two well-known tourist attractions, Valencia on the coast and Zaragoza, inland and further north. Wanting to break up our car journey between these two ‘big hitters’, we poured over our map and saw, in much smaller print, the name Teruel.

Although both Valencia and Zaragoza ticked all the boxes, it was the much-neglected Teruel that was the big surprise. Yes, it had the usual splendid cathedral and churches one expects to find in this Catholic country. And the plethora of restaurants serving the usual Spanish food and drink.

But if you’ll be patient, I’ll tell you what we found in Teruel that made it so special.

The city’s name, Teruel, is possibly derived from a cherished legend concerning a bull. The story goes that one night a group of wise and important people observed a bull mooing from a place high above them, with a bright star shining down on it. They interpreted this as a sign that they and their town were blessed. If you put the Spanish word for bull, toro, together with the name of the star, Actuel, that these men supposedly saw, the resulting word would be Toroel. This, over time, evolved into Teruel. The fountain in the main square celebrates this ‘bullish’ connection. Atop its central column is a very small bull, giving the fountain the affectionate nickname of ‘El Torico’ – the small bull. Not surprisingly, the city’s flag and coat of arms both feature a star and bull.

Teruel suffered hugely during the Spanish Civil War. It was fought over by both sides and, as a consequence, much of the city was destroyed. The combination of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment took its toll. The Battle of Teruel (December 1937-February 1938) was one of the bloodiest of the war, with more than 140,000 casualties. Ultimately, it was the Nationalists – General Franco’s supporters – who scored a decisive victory, with their superiority in men and material. The Battle of Teruel is often seen as the military turning point of the Spanish Civil War. Ernest Hemingway, whose love of Spain is legendary, was among the reporters accompanying troops entering the city at this time.

Teruel is blessed with impressive examples of Mudejar architecture, a fusion of Gothic and Muslim styles that flourished from the 12th through to the 17th centuries. Among the must-see edifices in Teruel are the tower of San Martin and the Church of San Salvador. After the Second World War a restoration program took place to return the city and its iconic Mudejar architecture to its former glory. The entire region of Aragon, in which Teruel is situated, is a World Heritage Site for this distinctive style of architecture.

Dinosaurs also figure in Teruel’s history. In rocky outcrops around the city are some of the oldest dinosaur remains in the Iberian peninsula. In 2021 a five-meter long neck-bone was unearthed, dating back about 145 million years! If dinosaurs are your thing, then you can visit Dinópolis, a combination dinosaur museum and theme park only a few kilometres from the city centre.

But what really put Teruel on the tourist map is the tale of the two lovers, Diego Martinez Marcilla and Isabel reminscent of those famous star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Get your handkerchief ready for this real weepie of a story!

Once upon a time – in fact, way back in the 13th century – there lived Diego and Isabel, childhood sweethearts. They wanted to marry but Isabel’s father would not allow it because of the great disparity in wealth between the two families - Diego’s family being much poorer. Isabel persuaded her father to delay marrying her off to someone else, giving Diego five years in which to venture forth into the world to make his fortune. He became a celebrated warrior and gained wealth and fame, readying himself to return to Teruel and claim his beloved Isabel as his bride. As we know from Shakespeare, the course of true love never does run smoothly – and so it was for Diego and Isabel. Rumours came to her ear that he’d died in battle...and so, after five years and a day, she married a man whom her father deemed a ‘suitable suitor’. Poor Diego was caught out on a technicality: he was one day late because he had not considered the day of the agreement as part of the five-year limit. On the night of Isabel’s wedding, Diego slipped into her bedroom begging for a kiss. Out of loyalty to her husband lying right in the bed beside her, she refused to grant Diego the longed-for kiss. And so, in true melodramatic fashion, he immediately fell down at her feet and died. Poor Isabel! Poor Diego! His funeral was the very next day, and Isabel was there, perhaps to make some sort of amends. She proceeded to walk to the front of the church where Diego’s body was laid out, and gave him the kiss she’d denied him earlier. And again, in true melodramatic fashion, she fell onto his prostrate body, she, too, was now dead.

The story of Diego and Isabel spread throughout Spain. The citizens of Teruel demanded that the two tragic young lovers, who could not be together in life, should at least be buried together. In 1560, two mummies were exhumed, purporting to be Diego and Isabel, and were placed in the tombs in the Mausoleum in the Church of San Pedro where they have been ever since. On top of each tomb is a sculpture, one of Diego and one of Isabel, beautifully carved out of marble. There we see the two lovers, frozen in time, as created by sculptor Juan de Avalos, with arms extended across the gap between the two effigies, reaching out to one other, their hands so close but not touching, their fingers just a whisker apart. How could anyone not be moved by this vision and this sorrowful tale?

Of course, there are always the ‘naysayers’ who say the story is a fake, and that the mummies that were exhumed were just random bodies. Nonetheless, the market value of these Spanish star-crossed lovers was not lost on those wanting to redress the notion that Teruel did not exist. In 1998 a foundation was set up to publicise the story as part of a wider tourism strategy – to achieve status for a small city that could not even claim a direct railway line to Madrid! They realised they had what’s called in marketing jargon a ‘USP’ - a unique selling point. In 2005 the Mausoleum to Los Amantes de Teruel, the lovers of Teruel, was opened to the public.

Having almost by accident found my way to this formerly non-existent Spanish city, I commend it to you.

Vive Teruel! Teruel existe!

Mausoleo de los Amantes de Teruel/ Calle Matias Abad 3/ 44001 Teruel, Spain

Driving time from Alicante to Teruel: 3 l/4 hours, 320 km

Driving time from Valencia to Teruel: l l/2 hours, 145 km

Driving time from Zaragoza to Teruel: l hour, 40 minutes, 171 km

I’m an ex-pat American, living in England. I worked in publishing both in New York City and in London as a picture researcher – never as a writer! Later on, while raising a family, I taught English to the English! My husband and I spend a fair amount of time in Spain which was the catalyst for this story...and how we found our way to Teruel.  It was really in retirement that I at last had the time to write. I’ve had a few pieces published in some UK magazines: ‘Sussex Life’, ‘The Oldie’, ‘Countryfile’, ‘Best of British. I’ve had 2 stories published in 2 different ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ volumes. Just glad I don’t have to support myself by writing as I’d starve to death!

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