Thursday, January 27

From Andalusian enclave to refuge in the Civil War, more than a thousand years of history in the caves of Villalba Baja

Eloína does not hesitate when she recounts how, at just six years old, she had to run away with her family to take refuge from the bombs that fell on her town, Villalba Baja, and its surroundings. “I remember everything perfectly,” he assures, and that more than eight decades have passed. The first aviation notice caught the whole family at home. Hearing the church bells, Eloína’s parents and grandparents took her and her two brothers and, leaving everything behind, took refuge in caves near the house. “I remember that they gave my brothers and me a stick so that we could bite it, because it was believed that, even if a bomb fell nearby, you would not burst from the noise.” When the danger had passed the family was able to return home, however, this was only going to be the first of many hasty departures.

“Every day, a neighbor stood guard in the church tower and when he heard the noise of the aviation, which could be heard from far away, he would ring the bells to warn the rest of the town. Then the women and children who were in their houses they ran to hide in the nearest caves, while the men stayed looking after the animals, if they had them, or working in the fields “, says Eloína.

The caves – located at the back of the town, on the small mountain where the town’s castle once stood – became a makeshift refuge for families during the time when air raids were frequent in the area. Until there they brought mattresses, blankets and some provisions. “We were in a large cave that we shared with two other families from the town, one of them also with small boys like us. There the children slept on a mat,” says Eloína.

These caves also had an important milestone in the year 1120 because the Almoravid army passed through here, which would later be defeated in the battle of Cutanda, in this place they took refuge before continuing on their way

Although he does not remember how long the comings and goings to the caves lasted, he assures that it was not little. “Even the village teacher, seeing that this was going on for a long time, began to teach the boys in a very large cave that was next to the one we were. The girls could not go to school because the teacher who was in the people left when the war started. ”

The small slopes drawn by the relief where these cavities are found became a playground for the children of the town. “They didn’t let us get far away, but we did play around there when there was no danger and the older people also took the opportunity to get out of the caves and talk to the neighbors. Even so, you always had to be alert, you lived in great fear.”

Over the course of the war, the rebellious side reached the Villalba Baja area and a front was established in the surroundings of the town that lasted for 18 months. Then there was no where to hide, and the residents were evacuated to towns such as Torremocha or Alba del Campo where the situation was calmer. It wasn’t until the war ended that Eloína and her family were able to return home.

Tourist attraction

Currently the caves are in good condition, with all their entrances open, that is why the Villalba City Council has proposed to open them to the public as a tourist and cultural resource. “The idea is to condition them and install some panels that explain their uses throughout history and the great importance they have had. We believe that a small investment, of about 3,000 or 4,000 euros, is enough, but Villalba is a neighborhood peasant who does not have that money, so we thought the best thing was to expedite it with the Teruel City Council, which will help us with the cleaning of the caves and the signage “, explains Belén Sandalinas, mayor of Villalba.

At the beginning of this year the Teruel municipality announced that it would take the first step to make the caves accessible, ensuring that it would investigate their ownership since some residents of the district claimed them as their own. “The caves are still being registered in the name of the local mountain society in order to transfer them to the Teruel City Council so that they can begin to rehabilitate them,” explains Sandalinas.

The origin

The caves, which date back to the 11th century, were used as habitat by the Hispano-Muslim peoples who then occupied the Alfambra Valley. Villalba Baja is not the only place where they can be found, but it is the one with the best accessibility. “Normally the caves, in the case of this valley, are very inaccessible, so it is surprising that here we have the possibility of entering practically flat on foot from the same location, with which it can become a very useful resource to explain this type of habitat “, says the historian Rubén Sáez. It is believed that there may be up to 50 caves of this type in Villalba, some of them buried.

“These caves also had an important milestone in the year 1120 because the Almoravid army passed through here, which would later be defeated in the Battle of Cutanda, they took refuge in this place before continuing on their way,” explains Sáez.

Originally the caves were of a single room, but already in Christian times they underwent some transformations. They were interconnected with each other, giving them the appearance they present today, and for centuries they were used as pens for livestock, warehouses or those furthest from the municipality, as a refuge for shepherds and their animals. Some were even occupied as housing, attaching a building in front of it.