With more than 70 kilometres left to travel, the inhabitants of Sant Mateu had long since emerged from their afternoon siesta by the time I rode into town. One of our favourite stopovers as it turned out, I regretted getting in so late. Roz, who’d arrived much earlier, immediately set about garnering a taste of the town’s historical, cultural and artistic significance. A sucker for anything medieval, particularly walled cities, she’d only in a matter of hours, visited more 13th to 18th century buildings than I would have noticed during the entire trip. Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, 15th century dungeons and even a 14th century bakery, the small town of little more than 2,000 inhabitants seemed to have it all.
During the 14th century, Sant Mateu was recognised as the historical capital of El Maestrazgo. The mountainous region I’d been cycling through since early morning, it extends 50 kilometres further west along the eastern end of the Iberian System.
An area of major conflict during the Spanish Civil War, Republican guerrilla fighters held out in places like the mountains of Maestrazgo until the early 1960’s. Contributing to the fight against Nazi Germany and Vichy France during World War II, many returned to the mountains to continue their struggle against fascist oppression back home. Yet despite successful acts of sabotage, raids and assassinations of Francoist troops, it was just a matter of time before government tactics systematically forced rebel groups into submission. Though getting on in years, most guerilla members were made to endure interrogation and often torture. While some were fortunate enough to escape to France or Morocco over time, many faced incarceration when captured. Others were summarily tried and shot.
Distinctly less grim than it would have been during Franco’s time in power, the atmosphere in Sant Mateu’s main square later that evening, was enlivening. Too beautiful a night to be indoors, nearly all the tables were filled with young and old, some still dining, others playing games of cards and others simply engrossed in conversation. Waiting a while for our dinner to arrive, we felt content just to absorb the communal spirit that like a magic charm, seemed to touch every person who was there. Even the tête-à-tête between cheerful serving staff and their guests, evoked a collective warmth won by sociability.