OK, I confess I stole an orange. Stealing oranges in Valencia, Spain wasn’t really on the itinerary. But after seeing the majestic Cathedral, Plaza de la Virgen, the Fallas Museum with artistic papier-mache figurines, the massive, exciting City of the Arts and Sciences, a visit to watch the trading of coins and stamps at the Silk Market, it seemed that a side trip out of the third largest city in Spain, would be a good idea. However, with all the luscious orchards along the way, it was difficult to restrain my desire for an orange. I just had to have a freshly picked clementine for a taste test to see if there really is a difference between freshly picked or the store-bought variety. So, the accommodating van driver pulled over and I have to admit, I stole only one, off the tree. My Barcelona born friend told me that there is a rule in this colourful country, “ you can eat all you want as long as you sit under the tree where you helped yourself to the fruit.”. I’ll never forget that wondrous explosion of this sensuous taste, a new experience for my palette and taste buds.
But that wasn’t my only new discovery. Nor for that matter, was it for new found friends, fellow journeymen whom I happened to meet . I knew where I was going. They had become lost on the small roads. It seems all roads on this evening did lead to Morella.(pronounced Mor-eh-a).
Morella with a population of only 3,000, is filled with history, historic buildings, a once impregnable fortress and a passion for producing ham and cheese. As it happened the detoured couple were the producer and artistic director for the then, soon-to-be-opened play, Notre Dame de Paree, in Barcelona. (It got good reviews.) And the coincidences get better. The producer was from Quebec which, was a great entré into a conversation about our mutual discovery of this gateway to the Mediterranean for the ancient conquerors. However, with the Mayor of the city waiting at a pre-arranged appointment, to show off the 15th century City Hall (Casa Consistorial) and the newly completed addition which houses fossils and dinosaur parts, I had to leave the laughter, wine and the great food that Hotel Cardenal Ram, had prepared.
Mayor Puig, born and bred in this 11th century walled-town with the picturesque main street of Romanesque columns, narrow cobblestone roads and a castle perched at the top of the over 1000 metre mountain, and his directive now, is to get the word out about Morella.
Walking about with a smile on my face, my glee and enthusiasm amused the shop owners who were trying to be indifferent to us funny, amusing tourists. But since tourism is becoming a serious industry, this church-going Catholic town decided in a most rational, commercial minded way, was to stay open on Sundays and close their shops on Mondays. It seems to work and the travellers enjoy last minute shopping.
However, I was here to learn about the history and to see the wealth of monuments. So bombarded was I with dates, that my grey matter just turned off. I know that invaders included the Carthaginians, Romans, Celts and the Arabs, all leaving their imprint on history. The mercenary, Rodrigo Diaz de Vicar a.k.a El Cid, (no, not Charlton Heston), conquered the town for a Moorish King, rebuilt the fortress and made it his winter palace.
Early the next morning, I awoke to an usual cold snap that had all but emptied the streets. Knowing that with the predicted wind, I would be miserable and aware of the Merino sheep bred here, I put two and two together and sure enough there’s a great hand made knit wear industry. I was delighted to find an early morning shopkeeper with the perfect wool cardigan.
The day got even better as I climbed the hilly, bumpy cobblestone streets to reach the cloisters of the 13th century Royal Convent of San Francisco. The gardens surrounding the majestic trefoil arched arcade captured my attention. Although most of the colourful flowers that the guide told me about, were now long gone, there was a wonderful eerie verging on haunting element in this now desolate oblong space. Near by in a cave-like room, was a large 15th century fresco, amazingly still with some of the original coloration. It’s from this Convent that the only entrance to the castle is located. But since the castle was under renovation, all I could do was stare from below at the lofty remains of the splendor of the fortress on a colossal crag.
Next on the schedule was the grand 13th Iglesia Arciprestal (Archpriest’s Church of Santa Maria La Mayor) said to be “the most beautiful Gothic church in all the old kingdom of Valencia”. The steep hill climb warmed me but unfortunately, the timing was off. On this freezing day, a 102 year old local woman was being buried and it seemed the entire town was in attendance at the services. So feeling that this wasn’t the time to sightsee, I descended to a local café known for their warming cup of very thick hot chocolate. “If the spoon stands, it’s perfection,” my Spanish friend told me. It stood straight.
Now comfortably heated by the drink, it was up the high hill again to perhaps one of the most ornate churches I’ve ever seen., totally unexpected. And this too, was yet another surprise in Morella. The introduction of what was inside, were the two fine 15th century doors. The larger is decorated with carved Apostles and the smaller is known as Virgins’ Doorway. The high altar insider is so spectacular, even the dome is covered with heavy gilt moldings and Baroque sculptures. This gem of the Baroque period features art from the 17th century. Two other outstanding and unique features are a wooden arcade with carvings in alabaster powder representing the Last Judgement and the spiral wooden steps with Old Testament figures wind around the column which leads to the arcade. There was so much to absorb that I almost missed the rare and highly decoratively painted and gilt wood Torull organ.
And just when I thought the tour of the church was finished and I could search for more knitwear and the famed cecina (cured meat), I was led into The Archpriest’s Museum where again, there were treasures from the 15th to the 17th century. A silver and gold woven liturgical garment purported to date from the 15th century, was used by Pope Benedict X111, one of the members of the notorious Borgia family.
Among the winding, small streets with stucco houses and wrought iron balconies, I had come to Morella, had seen and the city had conquered me. It was a fine way to spend a few days in a most unexpected little, unknown historic town.