“To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming.” -George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
As we stood on the Rambla and listened to this passage, I tried to imagine the scene as Orwell encountered it in 1936. The throngs of tourists were not quite the revolutionaries and anarchists he described, but just a short while earlier a protest march for Catalan independence had blocked our crossing, giving us a glimpse of the spirit of ‘36. (We wondered whether our tour guide had planned this.) It was our first full day together and we were touring the old centre of Barcelona with Nick Lloyd, local British ex-pat, historian, and guide. Nick had greeted us the previous evening at one of his recommended restaurants, where we enjoyed the first of many feasts together. Now he was teaching us the context for understanding Orwell’s story.
Nick Lloyd in full flow with Richard Blair and Tim and Laysrin Thorpe
The tour began in the Plaza Cataluña, where workers and police successfully put down a military coup early in the morning of July 19th, 1936. We were fascinated to learn that they were joined by the first international volunteers, who were in Barcelona for the anti-Nazi People’s Olympics, memorialized in posters advertisements but fated never to occur. Athletes and French families on their first state-sponsored holidays were caught in the uprising, and many supported the Republicans. During the months that followed, workers collectivized many industries and created the revolutionary atmosphere that greeted Orwell when he arrived in December 1936. Nick took us to the Ramblas to see the Hotel Continental, where Orwell and Eileen first stayed. We wandered through the Gothic Quarter of the city and saw evidence of the war: an old sign dedicating a plaza to the “Unknown Militiaman” and a shrapnel-scarred wall nearby where schoolchildren died from a Fascist bomb. We looked terribly out of place when we ventured into the Stradivarius fashion store, where Georges Kopp spent 18 months in a makeshift Communist prison in the basement. The blaring pop music clashed with the sombre sense I felt while looking at the old stone arches and imagining the suffering that had happened there.
Before going to the Science Academy, popularly known as the Poliorama, we had a well earned break from the heat and humidity with beers and a slideshow at an old Republican cafe in the Raval. The efforts of the Republican armies, plagued by disagreement regarding revolution and suffering from a lack of international support, were not enough to fend off the fascist forces. Orwell left Spain in June 1937, after having returned to the Aragon front with the POUM but being shot in the neck and forced to recuperate back in Barcelona just as the POUM were officially banned. POUM members and fighters like Georges Kopp were thus arrested and Orwell was lucky to escape. In the end, Barcelona fell in January 1939 and hundreds of thousands of Spanish Republican refugees ended up in makeshift camps in soon-to-be-Vichy France. Nick ended his presentation with the story of a local guy who joined the militia, fled to France, was sent to Mauthausen, took photographs for the Nazis, smuggled the photographs out, and finally used them to convict those responsible at the Nuremberg Trials. Sadly, Francesc Boix did not live much longer, dying from ill health at age 30 in 1951.
Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp with the President of the Academy of Science on the roof of the “Poliorama”
The highlight of the tour was the Science Academy, across the Ramblas from the POUM headquarters, where Orwell spent three days on duty in the fight against the local government and Communist party. Access to the roof was unusually granted, and we were joined by reporters for the occasion and the view. Nick summarized the “May Days” fighting and made sure that we understood the different Republican factions and their goals. On the left, favouring a socialist revolution, were the anarchist trade unions and the POUM, an anti-Stalinist Marxist party. On the right, dedicated to fighting the fascist coup and definitely not supporting revolution were the Catalan government and the Communist party. (While this may seem counterintuitive, the Communists, under Stalin, were keen to build an alliance with Britain and France in the European fight against fascism, and therefore would suppress any attempts at revolution from the Spanish left.) Orwell belonged to the POUM militia, due to his affiliation with the socialist Independent Labour Party of Britain. He came to Barcelona in late April 1937 for some R&R and to try to join the Communist International Brigades, whose superiorly-armed fighters saw more action on the front near Madrid. The infighting between the right and left in Barcelona led Orwell to defend the POUM, and the propaganda from the Communists against the POUM and other revolutionaries led Orwell to rethink his plan to join the International Brigades. His disgust with the Stalinist Communist party also led to his general mistrust of abuse of power which in turn led to his most famous novels: Animal Farm and 1984 .
That evening we toured the former Sanatori Maurin, currently the administration building for the Benjamin Franklin International School. Our guide was unsure which room Orwell would have recuperated from his gunshot wound in, perhaps this computer lab or maybe the finance office? The view from the roof included the whole city of Barcelona and Mediterranean beyond- was this a comfort to the men who once rested here?
The rooftop view through the haze towards the sea
Richard and Quentin gave a presentation and answered questions from students and community members in the school library. A fascinating discussion of Orwell’s life and opinions ensued. (As a teacher at the school, I can say that the students who attended were thrilled and likely won’t forget the experience!) The next day we piled into two hired vans and began the long drive out to Aragon.
Quentin and Neil battled fierce winds to take us east, roughly following parts of Orwell’s journey with the POUM militia. Stopping for lunch near Lleida, we enjoyed artichokes, sausages, and snails (local seasonal specialties). Our next stop was Alcubierre, where Orwell’s militia stayed in the barracks before trekking to the nearby front. Standing in a field next to an old building, we listened to Richard read of his arrival and description of the town.
These readings brought the story to life as we imagined the scene on the road in front of us. We drove on over the Sierra de Alcubierre mountains to the Nationalist side, where we encountered our amazing hotel looming on the hillside.
The Albergue Santuario Monegros and some of the views
The Albergue Santuario Monegros served as a barracks for fascist soldiers during the war. The owner showed us graffiti from that era, as well as 16th-century graffiti in a hall upstairs. The church and hostel had been restored since it was largely destroyed during the 1808 War of Independence from Napoleon. (There was some confusion as to which war the owner was referring to when he said, “La Guerra,” as opposed to “La Guerra Civil.”) We spent most of our time at the hotel admiring the surrounding scenery (better on day two when the wind died down a bit) or socialising at the hotel bar. Spanish gin and tonics never fail to impress! Meals at the hotel were fantastic and the company even better.
On Saturday morning we crossed back into previously Republican-held territory to tour the trenches on the Ruta de Orwell. Victor, our guide, explained that the local conservative government did not prioritize upkeep of the POUM trenches, and seemed a bit surprised to see fresh sandbags piled up on the recreated trenches. Clearly they expected us.
The view through a firing position towards the Nationalist trenches
Richard gave another reading describing his experience near that spot. The warm sunshine was not quite the winter weather of January, but the wind gave the place a desolate feel nonetheless. Next we crossed to the opposite ridge to see the restored Nationalist trenches. A huge battalion of Falange faithful and unfortunate conscripts camped in the valley beneath the ridge, with better supplies and sheltered dugouts to protect them. The freshly-painted Nationalist monument at the top represented the freshness of the debate between right and left in today’s Spain.
Huge platters of roast lamb and potatoes awaited us in Alcubierre. We wined and dined and then walked it off with a short amble up to the Moorish-style church nearby.
Next we were off to Robres to visit the new museum of the war in Aragon. Victor and his wonderful translator Elena explained each exhibit, full of photos and propaganda from the war. At the end we sat down to watch a film on the subject, but quickly ran out to the street when we heard there was a local bagpipe festival parade marching by.
About six men with instruments clad in frilly dresses walked by, rather out of tune but seemingly enjoying themselves. Apparently that was the whole of the Robres Bagpipe Festival.
After a final wonderful evening of gin and tonics and Spanish food, we arose the next morning and packed to leave Lecinena. Several people took the opportunity for one more hike or run in the hills around the building. Ruined shells of buildings dotted the hilltops, perhaps destroyed in 1808, perhaps 1937. Gorgeous tiles could still be seen on the weed-covered floors. A memorable place to spend the weekend, indeed.
We crossed back into Republican territory and drove north to where Orwell was transferred in February. Our first stop was La Granja, a farm near Huesca where Orwell and POUM militiamen endured the “rats as a big as cats” and desecrated the small chapel.
Richard presenting a bottle of Jura in thanks to Pedro the owner of La Granja with Anne and Victor our guide in the background
The current owner, who confessed he never thought he’d own a church, had done a good job restoring the building. A few more readings from Richard enlightened our group as to Orwell’s time on the farm. From there it was on to the village of Monflorite, where Orwell had a hand wound bandaged at a makeshift hospital. Eileen visited him here and was appalled by the sanitary conditions and practices of the “doctor.” We likely doubled the population of the hamlet and made the local cafe happy when we stopped for a mid-morning break.
The POUM militia and others encircled the city of Huesca that winter and hoped to take it in due time. That April Orwell left the front for Barcelona, but due to his May Days experience (described above) he decided to return to the Aragon front. It was there, somewhere in the hills above the city, that he was hit by a bullet in the neck on May 20th, thus ending his stint as a soldier. The exact location of the sniper attack is unknown, but Victor took us up to the impressive ruins of a medieval castle on Mount Aragon, where Richard read to us of the experience of being shot and we looked out across the city and wondered if this could have been the hill where it happened.
A view of the ridge with the Tierz trenches just below from the Castle of Mont Aragon
Our final stop was Huesca, a city which Orwell never visited, though he said he’d hoped to one day enjoy a coffee there (as a Republican commander had once promised his troops). Richard and Quentin were the stars of a gathering in a very crowded independent bookstore. Local news media and Orwell fans asked them questions of their fathers and of our tour. Spanish copies of Homage to Catalonia sold out before any of us could purchase one, but we were thrilled to be gifted little notebooks full of Orwell quotes. The bookstore owner and some friends then joined us for our last lunch at a wonderful asador (Spanish grill) restaurant near the bookstore. The food and wine induced drowsy naps on the long bus ride back to Barcelona.
As a historian and teacher of the Spanish Civil War, and of course a fan of Orwell’s, I was thrilled to participate in this Homage to Catalonia tour of Barcelona and Aragon. Seeing the places where he went and meeting Richard, Quentin, and a wonderful group of knowledgeable people was an incredibly worthwhile experience.
“Coffee in Huesca”
This report was written by Ali Jessie one of the Tour Members.