A father pushed his two daughters hurriedly onto the footpath and immediately sploshed his left foot into a puddle. With a sigh, he followed his children to a 50cm strip of concrete beneath an overhanging shop front, accepting the dark patch now a quarter of the way up his denim jeans. I caught his eye as I shuffled up slightly to provide room, sharing a defiant “that’s how it is sometimes” type of smile with him as his family squeezed in beside me. Now all we could do was hope the shower would soon cease. They had their weekly shopping to complete. I had 30 minutes to locate this damn stadium.
The walk from my Airbnb to the ground had seemed simple enough; round the main plaza, across the bridge over the ravine, skirt around the park and police station and then look for the floodlights. What I had not accounted for were the climb uphill and the headwind, both of which slowed my walking pace significantly, and the sudden downpour as a cloud burst over the kilometre-high provincial capital. Having enjoyed practically tropical climate down by the coast for a solid month, I was thoroughly unprepared for the volatile weather of the mountains. In my sodden canvas sneakers and shivering in just a t-shirt, I had no choice but to cower under a protruding canopy of a closed barbershop. Worse still, I still could not tell how far I was from the ground, let alone knowing where to buy a ticket.
In a word, Teruel’s existence can be summarised as “improbable”. Inland Spain has no shortage of well-fortified, pre-modern burgs hidden a world away from the coastal resorts more familiar to the country’s package holiday tourists in our day, and many medieval towns from Soria to Seville seem to share a specific set of traits. Most are beautiful, each with their own particular folklore, a 13th century cathedral, a worn-out bullring, an iron plaque commemorating the town’s recapture from Moorish hands and, if you’re lucky, an achingly rustic tavern selling local cured meats and a caña of ice-cold lager for 3.15€. These towns are also at the mercy of harsh winters, baking summers, charging and copious precipitation when the time is right. And against all odds, the rugged people of these settlements have dug in and fought against a tough existence for millennia, oblivious to the changing political landscape of the Iberian Peninsula and allowing their impenetrable accents to gloss over.
But Teruel is different. Its hills are higher. Its valleys are lower. Its nights are darker and its soil is tougher. The mountains of Aragón were never a particularly auspicious place for a fledgling community. This town was not created by the Phoenicians or by the Romans or by the Visigoths. It owes its existence to one particularly tortured bull.
I took my chance as the rain seemed to soften, dashing along the route I had memorised and eventually finding the main entrance to the Estadio La Pinilla tucked in behind a secondary school. Treading carefully between overflowing drains, I joined the end of a small queue waiting to show their tickets and have their temperatures taken in order to enter the ground. I silently observed the scene in front of me. The entry checkpoint was little more than a plastic foldaway table perched in the gap of a wire fence with two bored police officers lurking a few paces away. Beyond was a patch of concrete and a small brick building that sufficed as a clubhouse, as a storage facility and as a bar. Club members milled back and forth, undertaking the final tasks minutes ahead of kick-off. I studied the replica shirt of a young lad nearby and immediately took interest in the badge of Club Deportivo Teruel, taking particular note of the red and yellow vertical stripes found on the Aragonese flag as well as a single star shining above a lone black bull.
A Google image search of “Teruel” returns hoards of images of one specific part of town; la Plaza de Torico, a quaint and contained square shaped like a laboratory beaker lined with cafés and restaurants all facing a white marble column on which stands a sculpture of the famous Bull. This I found quite unfair, not because there is anything unpleasant about the Plaza del Torico, but because this small town of 30,000 boasts an array of sites worth photographing. But in a country whose culture has idolised the bravery and strength of the bull for so long, the importance of this bull to this town has granted this particular square its status as the centre of this provincial capital.
Fable has it that in the Autumn of 1171, a battle took place in these hills between the Islamic Almoravids and the Catholic Castillians. Having retaken the Roman city of Zaragoza in 1118, the Christians were keen to press on with their reconquest further south and recapture more land from the Muslims. But with battle confirmed the following morning, the Moorish soldiers that had travelled north from Valencia are said to have gathered a herd of wild bulls from the area. Firewood was fastened to their horns which was then set alight come the hour of battle, so that the bulls spooked and stampeded towards the Christians. The Castilians resisted the advance, slaughtered most of the bulls and then defeated the Moors in battle. During their celebration, one soldier noticed a surviving bull thrashing around on a patch of high ground in an attempt to extinguish the fire burning between his horns. For some reason, the Christian soldiers interpreted this bizarre sight as a miraculous signal, seeing a star shining brightly between the bull’s horns as a marker of its divinity and its conversion to Christianity. On this site, Teruel was allegedly built as a Christian bastion in newly conquered Almoravid territory, and the crests of both the city and its flagship Football club pay tribute to this divine Taurus.
To honour this most divine of bulls, the Castillian warriors decided to found a town on the site where it tooks its last breath. And though the Pinilla sits on the other side of a ravine from that legendary site, the club that calls this quaint sports venue home carries the name of that city. Yes, Teruel is much unlike the other provincial capitals of central Spain – far younger than any of them and with a harsh climate that tests the will of its citizens and Football players. Though 15 minutes into the pre-season friendly against Atlético Levante, the glorious Iberian sunshine peaked through the dark clouds once again to grace the scene. Most fans cheering on their team had taken shelter inside the main tribune of the west stand, but a modicum of young men chanting and beating a drum had gathered on the crumbling stone steps opposite, 20 metres along from the old boys enjoying a beer by a pokey second bar that I had not previously seen. I joined them for the second half and it did not take took long for my presence at the fixture to be questioned.
“Young man, are you a Football player?”
Part 2 coming soon.