It’s a question I get asked surprisingly often whenever I visit lower-league sides. Nevertheless, this gentleman’s abruptness caught me off-guard. I asked him to repeat himself, and he pressed on with yet more enthusiasm; “are you a Football player?”
The would-be stand-up comic in me has a stock answer reserved for this question; do I look like a professional Footballer with a belly like this? My new friend laughed and doubled down with his own quick-witted retort. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Look at this fat bastard over here” and he patted his pal’s tummy lightly. “that’s a proper beer belly”.
Some places have an inexplicable ability to stick in our cerebra. Their names occupy a space deeply rooted in our consciousness for reasons we struggle to comprehend ourselves, yet we never forget whatever obscure fact or anecdote related to them that firmly anchors them into our long-term memory bank. And overtime this familiarity morphs into a lurid obsession, an affinity with a place we cannot visualise and have never even seen that still makes us leap with excitement when the place name crops up on a news article or in a pub quiz.
For me, Teruel was one of those places.
The final rays of sunlight streaked across a barren sky as the dry, chilling wind known locally as the levante picked up pace. My new mates tucked themselves firmly into their overcoats, briefly ignoring the hometown starting XI frantically ball-chase coincidentally against Atlético Levante – essentially the reserves of Valencia’s second most famous sports club. Having seen enough of this pre-season friendly to know that Club Deportivo Teruel was once again in for a long season, the 4 pensioners were keen to natter with the unlikely foreign visitor to what is often referred to as Spain’s smallest city.
The height of its international exposure came at Teruel’s, and possibly Spain’s, lowest point. The Battle of Teruel was a brutal tit-for-tat episode of the Spanish Civil War between 1937 and 1938 that is believed to have claimed 140,000 lives. The siege took place is typically savage winter conditions as each side took casualties with seemingly no advance for months. Eventually the Fascists emerged victorious. As it had done for the Christians centuries earlier (consult Part 1), South Aragon then proved to be an excellent site for the victors of the battle to regroup and launch a final offensive against their foe – in the case of the Spanish Civil War, on the final Republican strongholds of Madrid and Barcelona. Since then, Teruel has withdrawn back into its relative obscurity on the international stage, but something very new is now festering in this inhospitable hills.
The match eventually reached its conclusion – a hard-fought draw with 44 exhausted legs. The visitors from the Valencian coast almost certainly felt aggrieved, having dominated large swathes of the game with elegant, typically Spanish possession based Football and a very favourable balance of shots on goal. But the robust and defiant turolense players proved their mettle much to the delight of the home fans. A prolonged round of applause met the CD Teruel squad at full time as the supporters walked down the terraces to get pitchside. As I made my way back around the sodden earth, I saw the extremely likeable captain volunteering to take photos with gleeful younger fans.
Back at the clubhouse bar, I sought the attention of the individual who I perceived to be the backroom manager, or the kit-guy, or the groundsman, or whatever his title would be. As gregarious and comfortable in idle chat as any other Aragonese I had ever met, he told me to wait there with my beer as he peered into the stockroom to cater for my request. Minutes later, he flung a replica scarf in my direction in exchange for a crisp red note. He stuck the note into the counter and brought out another lager for me to enjoy. “Cheers, I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Teruel!”
Compared to the hardwired classism of the sevillanos, the no-chill, fast-paced work ethic common among madrileños and the placid pragmatism of the Catalonians, the Aragonese come across an affable bunch with little pretentions in life, albeit occasionally lacking in the humour department when compared to their compartiots from other regions. The comunidad of Aragon stretches from the breathtaking Pyrenean highlands down to the rugged terrain of Teruel province with the flattened floodplains of the Ebro River in the middle where the Roman city of Zaragoza has arisen. And yet although historically speaking Aragon is one of Spain’s most prominent regions (its insignum is one of four to grace the shield section of the national coat of arms), in modern times it pales in cultural prominence compared to other comunidades such as Andalusia, Galicia, the Basque Region, Navarre and Catalonia. Economic stagnation and population decline in the region has hit hard. This draws out another characteristic commonly associated with the Aragonese – and certainly with the Turolense.
The real reason for my affinity with Teruel was due to the emergence of a unique political party in Spain; “Teruel Existe”, literally translating as “Teruel Exists”. With no clear ideological affiliation, the 22 year old Teruel Existe can best be described as a lobby group built to promote regional issues on a national level that has by pure accident become a political party thanks to the stubborn support of its followers. I first heard of the group in 2019 when viewing a map showing how each constituency had voted following a general election. Teruel was coloured an entirely different colour to the rest of the country – indicating the fact that its sons and daughters had voted for a regionalist party in droves. After a brief read up on the movement, I interpreted the existence of this political group to be an endearing exhibition of local pride delivered in a hilarious self-deprecating name serving as a reminder to the rest of the country that they exist at all. But without Teruel Existe‘s triumphant 2 seats won in the senate, I never would have visited, and you would not be reading this blog post.
The city is remarkably charming – a far greater delight to visit compared to some of the industrial hovels of Spain’s more populated and therefore better known regions. Teruel has a lot going for it as a tourist destination and potentially a place to live. But Spain’s trajectory in the past 700 years has pushed the nexus of life and trade away from the interior, when conflict between Muslims and Christians made hillside frontier towns the most important locations, to the coastal towns that connected Spain originally to its empire and now to its global markets. Had Football been invented in the 15th century, CD Teruel could have been a great, but the town’s modern image is one of decay, abandonment and, sadly, death – a deep unfairness to the kind and optimistic people of Spain’s smallest city. It can be little wonder that these stubborn people have chosen to go out of their way to remind everyone that they exist.