Belchite: Ghost town in Spain

Posted: March 22, 2013 in Spain
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It is in Aragon, a region of Spain close to the Pyrenees. Zaragoza it’s its capital and Belchite is about 40 km Southeast of Zaragoza. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalist army was in this 3.000 inhabitants town. The Republicans were advancing, trying to reach Zaragoza. And, after being the location of a battle during the Napoleonic Peninsular War, Belchite was once again the scenario for a carnage. Only this time it was completely destroyed in the process.

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From Wikipedia:

“After failed attempts to capture Brunete, the Republican military leadership decided to try a new series of offensives to slow down the Nationalist advance in the north. A new campaign, therefore, was planned for Aragon. The decision was based on political as well as military considerations, as the government saw it as a way to decrease anarchist and Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) influence in the region by bringing in communist troops and incorporating three anarchist divisions into the newly-designated Army of the East under command of general Sebastián Pozas. Another objective of the planned offensive was to take Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, which was only a few kilometres behind enemy lines. Capturing the regional capital offered more than symbolic significance, because it was also the communication centre of whole Aragon front. The first year of the war in this part of Spain had emphasised that the possession of key town was of far greater importance than the control of wide areas of open countryside. The Nationalists had only three divisions, the Fifty-First, Fifty-Second and One-Hundred-Fifth, spread across the three hundred kilometres of front, with the majority of their troops concentrated in towns. General Pozas and his chief-of-staff Antonio Cordon set up their headquarters in Bujaraloz. Their plan was to break through at seven different points on the central hundred-kilometre stretch between Zuera and Belchite. The object of splitting their attacking forces was to divide any Nationalist counter-attack and to offer fewer targets for bombing and strafing than at Brunete.

The Republican Army of the East, together with the XI and XV International Brigades, started its offensive with eighty thousand men, three squadrons of aviation with Polikarpov I-16 (moscas), Polikarpov I-15 (chatos) (ninety airplanes in total) and one hundred five T-26 tanks in three main and five secondary directions on a hundred-kilometre stretch between Zuera and Belchite. On the first two fronts (north and centre), the Republicans managed to take only vacant territories. On the southern portion of the front, the Republican army took the village of Mediana immediately and Quinto was taken on the fourth day of the offensive. In the village of Codo, there were three Requeté companies that tied down two Republican brigades. The fiercest resistance was encountered in Belchite, where seven thousand Nationalist defenders resisted until 7 September in the surrounded town when Republicans took it. These delays allowed the Nationalists to bring reinforcements and the full-scale offensive on Zaragoza failed.

With five nationalist divisions whereof two were withdrawn from Madrid front, artillery and 65 Fiat CR.32, Heinkel He 46, Savoia Sm-49 and Messerschmitt Bf-109 nationalist counter offensive started on 30 August and ended on 6 September. The only major Nationalist success was the shooting down five I-15, but they were unable to break Republican lines.

Although the Republicans gained some initial success and managed to push the front line ten kilometres deeper into Nationalist territory, both of the main objectives of the offensive failed. The Nationalists did not postpone their big offensive in the north, as they had done before the Battle of Brunete, and the attempt to capture Saragossa failed.

The whole town was destroyed. Franco ordered that the ruins be left untouched as a “live” monument of war. A new town was constructed near the former. Filmmakers frequent the monument. The holes and caves in Lobo Hill south of Belchite from where the Spanish Republican artillery positions fired towards what is now Belchite old town have been preserved and are open to visitors.”

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So this is the story. Now, to get to Belchite you will want to take a HIFE bus from Zaragoza. There is only one at 10:30 and one back at 15:35. Ticket costs (March 2013) 4,60 Each way. Easy to find the ticket office and the platform, in Delicias main station (both to bus and trains).

Recently the local parish fenced the whole perimeter of Belchite and in theory visitors are not allowed to enter if not escorted by an authorized local guide. The tour costs 6 Eur and it takes almost 2 hours. Or you can walk around and enter. In the worst scenario you will be informed that you can’t be in the area. If you visit during “siesta” time (14-16 h) it’s unlikely that you find someone from the local parish.

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Oh this was really strange. I left home for a walk in the woods, and that’s what I was doing when I saw a structure in the middle of all that green. I walked towards it… with time I developed a gift to smell these places. So, all of the sudden I was entering an abandoned military facility. No idea what it used to be, but doubtlessly military. I don’t even know where it was. I was just wandering in the nature, you see…

So there isn’t much more I can write. The only sure thing is that this was the most awkward urbex experience I had so far. Never before did I found a site by cheer chance. There were some underground room, accessible by stairs, but I had no source of light whatsoever so I couldn’t explore them.

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I came across this place during a short distance hiking journey in the mountains of Caldeirão, a solid chain which cuts the region of Algarve off the rest of the country in most of its length. In the Summer of 2012 all this region was devastated by a significant wildfire which did the devil work around here for about endless six days. As we are quite seasoned in the difficult art of dealing with these kind of fires, not many people lost their homes. But somehow I suspect one of the houses of this abandoned village has people living in it before the fire.

When I arrived and started exploring I thought this was just another sad story of rural communities which vanish due to the ageing of population. Always the same tale: youngsters follow the call, they move out, go to the big city or to a distant foreign country. Parents stay behind, used as they are to their little world. And when they finally die, one by one, also their dear village dies. Well, I suspect there was still one person alive here. Perhaps a couple. Because all the houses but one are total ruins. Still, you find plenty of personal belongings in one of the houses. The roof collapsed and you can tell it was because of the fire. Lost amongst the debris, one will notice… those nice hand painted plates, assorted pieces of silverware, mouse traps, bowls, cooking pans.

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Outside, an old chair slowly getting rotten still has hanging a man’s hat (see picture above). Another sign of a sudden departure. In of of the rooms, obviously used as a storage space, an old motorcycle was destroyed by the fire. A pile of rusty parts, no tires as rubber went with the flames. Well, usually I wouldn’t consider this for an Urbex website, but I have to admit the place impressed me. You see, it’s these random traces of life still present there, testimonials of a past which can still be imagined with their help. The loneliness, the long winters, the wind, the rain hammering the roof. The memories of the good old times, the first son born, the successful crops. And then, slowly approaching, the idleness of old age. The empty days coming one after the other, the long wait for the by now desired end. So, all of this made me decide to publish this post. I like the pictures anyway.

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I didn’t even found the name of this hamlet. Perhaps I could knock on the door of the nearby villa, featuring a nice swimming pool and a modern car outside. I bet some crazy expat decide to settle down here. But anyway, the place has no name. At least to me. I can tell the area is called Águas de Tábuas. Or perhaps Águas de Tábuas it’s this hamlet? It’s marked as such in Google Earth, but then we all know that Google Earth is not bright labelling places. Either way, here are the coordinates of it:

37° 12.459’N   7° 49.005’W

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For 45 years, USA and Soviet Union kept a tense relationship. From both sides of Europe – western and eastern – an incredible war arsenal was positioned, ready for the was which fortunately never came. Prague was by then the capital city of Czechoslovakia, therefore, part of “the other side”. The country was an important link of the Warsaw Pact, hosting the Soviet headquarters for the Central Army. Czech foreign policy was completely subordined to Soviet Union interests.

With the end of the Cold War and reduction of Defense budgets, many military facilities were abandoned. Amongst them, a network of air defence missile bases around Prague. It was their mission to protect the city against air attacks. Miskovice was part of such system.

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We reach Miskovice, in the northern end of Prague, using a bus from the city public transportation company. It will drop us a few hundred meters from the entrance of Miskovice former base. In the short walk to the spot where once the gates were located, we will observe the way people used the withdrawn of the military to cover the area, taking grounds which used to be strictly forbidden. There now stands a multitude of small weekend houses and vegetable-gardens.

The small base was strategically placed, only a few kilometers far from the air force field of Kbely. It was here that a fair number of Soviet military units and support materials were dropped during the invasion of 1968. Nowadays Kbely has a minor operational role, operating helicopters and cargo planes. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Miskovice was deactivated.

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The area of the base wasn’t that big. A walk from end to end of the perimeter will take about 300 meters. Still, it was enough to host an efficient force of SAM (Surface to Air) missiles S-125. In the area we will find a few small bunkers, used for storing the missiles, as well as controlling and commanding the operations. We will be able to walk through some of these facilities with the help of a few torches. Although modest and vandalized, these facilities may offer us an idea of day to day life during those times marked by the tension of Cold War, when westerners were definitely the potential enemy for the Czechs.

The kind of missiles which used to be in this base.

The kind of missiles which used to be in this base.

Despite the neglected aspect, we sill can use our imagination to feel the atmosphere os past days. Crossing the asphalted tracks we almost can see the jeep of the commander passing by, heading for the main courtyard, where the launchers were disposed. One can easily imagine the exercises, the days of tension in the barracks, while Kennedy and Krutschev played their games over Cuba. Or the sentries, walking around the fence, carrying their AK-47. It could be a scene of a Bond movie.

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Entering coordinates:  50° 9.376’N  14° 33.024’E

Quinta do Casalinho, Portugal

Posted: January 24, 2013 in Portugal
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I am back to petty Urbex, but, hey, it says up there: “abandoned places with a soul”. And even small places like this have a strong soul. So I came to Porto area to spend a couple of days with a friend. Who happened to live across the street from this abandoned farm. I think he was never on the spot though. So we came together, usual partners in these explorations when I am in the region.

After walking up a partially destroyed wall, one will see a straight trail, which goes for 300 or 400 meters, leading directly to the premises. This abandoned farm had a name: Quinta do Casalinho, owned by the Bastos, a wealthy local family. There is a main house – or at least its ruins – and some attached buildings.

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Unfortunately a jungle of thorny bushes took over all the indoors (or what used to be indoors) areas, and the explorer is limited to a glance from outside. Note the palm trees, which were very popular in wealthy properties, as a status sign. Although a considerable number of palm trees died in recent years, due to a plague of lethal beetles, it’s still common to observe these noble trees standing, alive and kicking, where human enterprises collapsed.

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This visit can be combined with some nearby spots: Fabrics Factory in Crestuma and Wine Packaging Factory in Pedroso. Ah! The entry spot can be found at this coordinates. And see the following picture.
41° 4.474’N   8° 31.763’W
Important: the coordinates are aproximate. I forgot to mark a waypoint and the entrance is not recognizable on Google Earth. Check the picture for extra help.

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After some entries with petty urbex I decided to publish something out of my archives. I was in this spot in January 2011, just before flying out from Porto to Canarias Islands. Not far from the home of the friend who hosted me for a couple of nights, we found this vintage industry, which used to be called Fábrica de Fiação de Crestuma.

This whole area used to be highly industrialized, at least accordingly to the Portuguese standards of the late 19th Century. Oh… before I carry on, let me tell you something: if you were thinking about visiting this place, forget it. Actually, this is an “in memoriam” entry. The place doesn’t exist anymore. The latest news say it’s impossible to get in and anyway the whole area is under renovation (whatever it means).  Hummm now that I think about it, back in January 2011 we met some local person who told us something about the factory being bought with plans for a renovation.

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Even when I visited, there were some buildings which had been renovated and were being used as offices and workshops. It was awkward. By then, we couldn’t enter on the spot my contact indicated. So we drove the car through the main gate which had a warning of some kind – like “private” or “for service only”. That’s when we saw these small businesses laboring in some of the premises. Then we met a crazy woman who made a big fuss about our presence there. We just ignored her and proceeded with our exploration.

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Overall, it was a great day out. Not only because we also explored another spot (see the entry here) but due to the natural interest of this fabrics factory. One thing which impressed me was the chronological layers on the spot. I mean, some parts of the complex were obviously older than the others… and finally there were areas obviously built in the last times of the functioning factory. Then, because it rains so much in Northern Portugal, there was this green – the moss green – everywhere. Great colors for photography, this blend of greens with the warmer tones of the pastels painting, the yellow stone and the light provided by the overcast day.

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As it was customary by then, the factory was strategically assembled by the river, in order to use it as a natural sewage system. Well, to end this short chronic, I would like to mention the details, specially in which used to be the hospital and the management building. Ah! I almost forgot… after exploring the factory we walked a bit on the grounds of the company and we end up finding an old house, which was definitely being used – I would rather say, it used to be used – by drug addicts. Plenty of syringes, robbed staff, including piles of mail which is taken by this people in order to find some postal payment order which they can take with some of their tricks.

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As the place is not available anymore, it’s pointless to provide coordinates.

Ruined Farm – Pedrógão, Portugal

Posted: December 31, 2012 in Portugal

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This is, once again, petty urban exploration, and for that I apologize. But I didn’t want to miss the chance of sharing my found and besides, this blog also has a function of personal catalog, so…..

I bumped into this place by sheer accident. I was on the move, during a Geocaching trip, heading to the nearby town of Moura. My navigation GPS pointed me in this direction, as a way around the village, and suddenly I saw it. I just stepped on the breaks! What a hell! I had to check it out! Parked the car by the side of the road, half blocking the lane (it wasn’t a busy road, but I saw a few cars passing while I was exploring) and walked in.

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The place is open wide, so there are no specific instructions on how to get access to the ruins. Now, be aware, the whole area is surrounded by gypsies huts so keep an eye open. Usually that will not be a problem unless your provoke any of them. Then you do have a problem. When I visited I saw a group of young girls staring at me, at a considerable distance, and that was all.

The place stimulated in me the kind of curiosity we all know… what happened there? What kind of people lived in the farm? How was their daily lives? Were they educated? To which level?

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Obviously these farmers were well above average in terms of financial condition and education. The house was more than a typical farmers house. You can say by the painted walls in what I believe used to be the lounge, and by the once fancy bedroom, on the first floor. Then you have the straw bedding all over the place and you think… who the hell did this? Apparently, after the final moments of the wealthy family, someone used the whole building to host livestock. The gypsies? I don’t think so, it doesn’t sound their thing. A neighbor? Perhaps. I will never know.

There is a spacious patio in which you will notice a nice feature: part of the inner wall of the main house was built making use of a large boulder, as it’s usual in some parts of Portugal, but not that much in this region.

So, this will be all. Coordinates? Here: N 38 06.914, W 7 38.718

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This was the best urbex site I ever visited. Not that I visited a lot, I know there are plenty of truly spectacular spots out there but I cant reach them, so I have to talk out of my own experience. And accordingly to it, this is the most impressive!

Elvas is a town within walls. Actually, it was classified as UNESCO site this year under the title Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications. And it was the chosen place to spend my birthday in 2012. The weather wasn’t promising, but I really wanted to get out of my usual routine in this day. So we spent a few days with friends in Évora (another UNESCO site, geez, this small country most be the one with higher ratio of UNESCO sites per area). And it was from there that we left for this expedition. Elvas is about 90 km from Évora, good road, easy trip. Although there is much to see and do in Elvas, we took Forte da Graça first. For a single reason: weather forecast was “promising” rain in a couple of hours and this isolated fort was the major attraction for the day, so I wanted to explore it with perfect weather conditions. The light was great, with a dark sky offering a powerful dramatic touch to any picture I would take up there.

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Getting there was a piece of cake. I was on the spot a few years ago, but by then it wasn’t possible to enter the core of the fort. And I mean, a proper fort is not a place you can trespass, not without climbing skills and equipment (neither of which I possess). But I was told that nowadays the main gate is wide open. Well, it is true. I found the main gate as promised… and a police car parked just in front of it, with two officers sitting inside. I thought to myself: “Well, I am not going to pay a fine and definitely not going to spend my birthday in jail if I just walk in”. I believe in these situations a relaxing atitude is the key for success. So we got out of our car, picked the Nikon D90 from the back seat, put my rucksack on and started waling towards the gate, expecting to hear something any moment. But they just stayed there. And, as I noticed shortly after I entered the outer ring of the fort, they left for good.

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A bit of History now. Elvas, being a border town for centuries, saw plenty of action. It was involved in endless wars between Portugal and Spain, and even in the conflict with France, when Napoleon invaded – the only occasion in which Portugal was invaded since its foundation, back in the 12th Century. It’s not surprise then, that the whole region is packed with medieval castles and modern fortresses, especially from the 17th Century, when the longest war against Spain took place.

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It was during that conflict (Restoration War 1641-1668) that the Spaniards set siege on Elvas, and occupied Graça hill, with dramatic consequences for the Portuguese. A century later, another war, the same happenings. Spanish going up Graça hill, unleashing hell to the Portuguese down in Elvas. So we thought “enough is enough”. In 1763 – a year after the mentioned event – the works for the building of a new fortress in Graça hill started. It was finished in 1794 and initially named after the man who reorganized the Portuguese Army and proposed its construction: Count of Lippe.

In 1801 the last war against Spain took place, and the enemy was kept away due to the newly built fort. Ten years later, the French also failed to take the fort (poor general Soult).

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In the last decades the fort was used as a military prison but it’s currently abandoned. he city of Elvas will eventually take over and requalify the structure (I can’t imagine with which money, considered the size of the fort) but the process is still going one.

Ok, enough of chitchat. Let the images talk!

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No need for coordinates for this one. It’s pretty obvious, Google it, Google Earth around Elvas, ask in the town for directions, whatever.

All right. This one was a minor prize for a failed day. We hired a local guy hoping he could lead us to the ruins of an abandoned hospital in one of the most remote parts of São Tomé. That would be somewhere in the trail called “volta da ilha”, which completes the never ended road around the island. However I always had doubts of the ability of this guy to show us the right way. I decided to give it a try anyway. Worst case scenario, I would had spend 10 Eur for a pointless hiking in the jungle, but nevertheless, a hiking in the jungle would always be fun.

Well, that’s what happened. We walked in a circle for 4 hours or so. The GPS counted 6 km of jungle walk. Finally we were back to the car. The guy was obviously ashamed by his failure to show us the hospital. But he had something. Another hospital, not so remote, not so interesting, but equally abandoned and easier to access. So we went and found this one, not far from Santa Catarina, the last village along the National Road 1.

As so many other Santomean villages, Santa Catarina used to be a plantation during the Portuguese times. And as any considerable plantation, it had a hospital.

We left the main road, drove a couple of kilometers up hill, saw a few policemen (which made our “guide” a bit nervous) and finally the guy said I should park the car and walk the last bit. As we started walking, another fellow joined us, a young man with a friendly face, obviously a coconut tree climber. So this fellow discretely joined our party.

When we reached the hospital we immediately met a group of men preparing “aguardente de cana”. Friendly people. And from there I started exploring the abandoned hospital, always escorted by the “coconut tree climber” who explained me the little he knew about the place, amd made sure I wouldn’t miss a bit. He even showed me the church, located about 100 meters from the hospital building. The church is not in use but then it’s not abandoned. The door is locked and although the building is not in a bright shape, it’s not falling apart.

So, as a minor prize for the day it wasn’t such a bad experience. The hospital is slowly being embraced by the jungle. There are trees growing inside and bushes everywhere. Smashed bricks everywhere. Impressive spot. In our way back we stopped to wash the boots with the water of a stream and we met a woman there, doing her washing. She told us her first kid was born in the old hospital.

Coordinates:   0° 15.602’N   6° 28.124’E  (check this on Google Earth and you will see how much the structure was already taken by the jungle)

 

 

Roça de Água Izé (“roça” is the designation for a large plantation in a Portuguese colony) is the first one will find while driving from the city towards south. Some of its facilities were built near the road, namely the storage buildings, where goods would wait to be loaded into one of the ships coming to pick them, in their way to Europe.

Nowadays Água Izé is a village, which is what most of the old plantations became. A poor village with sad inhabitants. Most of the folk here, unlike in other part of the island, came from Cape Verde islands and still speak a form of Creole, although they can speak fair Portuguese. As in everywhere else in the country, kids are suckers for pictures. They will ask you for taking them a picture, and then to show them the results in the LCD of your camera.

Actually I had been here before, only I forgot to visit one of the most interesting spots in Água Izé, the old hospital. As my host in São Tomé generously handled me his car keys for the day, I took the opportunity to return to the village and look for the decadent building. In my quest I had the help of a bunch of local kids, boys and girls eager to step out of their routines, with some hope of getting a gift (candies, pens, notebooks, whatever…), but ready to help the visitor even without a reward.

The flock of “little sparrows”, flying around me, showed the way to the hospital. The location is obscure, a bit out of the village, on the top of a hill, offering great views to the buildings down and to the sea.

At this point I would like to advise you an exhaustive article about Água Izé (in Portuguese – use Google Translator if needed) here:
http://stparquitecturarte.blogspot.pt/2009/11/agua-ize-praia-rei.html

Actually there are two hospitals. The first one, built in 1914, still have people living in it and therefore I didn’t visit it. The second one, which actually comes first when you walk from the village is mostly deserted (I suspect there is still somebody living there) and was built probably in 1928. Due to the high number of workers (2500 Africans and 50 Europeans) the hospital was upgraded and new rooms were gradually built.


Well, this is it folks. Enjoy the pictures. And let me show you the exact location of the hospital:   0° 13.065’N   6° 43.498’E