Life in Balaguer

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September 12th 2010
Published: February 9th 2011
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Today marked my first real weekend in Balaguer. I have made it through the first week and despite the late hours I actually started to enjoy it by the end of the week. It is very different from Mexico. The easy camaraderie between teachers is missing due to a timetable that sees one class walking into the room before the previous has left and each teacher working to a different schedule so all I ever see of the other classes is a closed door. There is also the fact that I only see students once or maybe twice a week and I am struggling to even put names to faces let alone remember anything about them. Despite all this by Friday I started to feel much more comfortable with the school. It is a relief to have met all my classes and I can already see a few that I am really going to enjoy. My last class on a Friday is great' so far only two guys but I am expecting more to join. One is from the Dominican Republic and all muscles and smiles, and the other Spanish and prone to reading out his answers very loudly even when I haven't asked anyone to do so. The pair are a great comedy act and the lesson was relaxed and fun. It was really the first time this week that I felt completely at ease in the classroom. I am hoping in a couple of weeks all the classes will start to feel like that.
Today I was completely free. I finished unpacking and have decorated nearly every room with printed photos and pictures from home. Feeling more at home in the flat I decided to give myself a walking tour of Balaguer to get to know the area better.
I set off from my apartment block on the corner. I am situated near the historic centre across the river from the modern part of the city and directly opposite the theatre and what I think is the town hall. I wandered off towards the right and the older part of town as to my left lies a partially finished block of flats, a parking area and mostly scrub land. There are further houses up on the hills but from my perspective I am basically at the edge of the city. I walked along passing the very distinctive 'Xalet Montiu' a yellow house with distinctive modern architecture which serves as the cultural house and I believe is where music lessons and so are held.
Beyond is the preserved historic centre. I walked through la plaza mercadal, a large medieval plaza with an arcade. It is the largest of its kind in Catalonia, measuring around 7000 metres squared. Construction of the plaza began in the 14th century. The Jewish community was expelled from the medieval centre of Balaguer in 1333, and this led to significant development of the city aimed at seperating the Jews. The plaza served both as an ample space for the local market and clearly seperated the Jewish and Christian Quarters. Today the plaza is a social area. Benches stand under trees, the first of which were planted in 1910, and under the arches are shops and cafes and restuarants.
I walked down a small side street, the shops closed and shuttered, and caught a glimpse of Santa Maria church through the gap in the rooves before treading the more familiar path up to Sant Crist church. I walked up the sloping path framed by trees and more greenery than I have seen elsewhere in the city. I reached the top where the ruins of Cattell Formos stand to one side a few further steps to the right lead to the church complex. Sant Crist is ajoined with the convent of the Sana Clara nuns and the rectorary. The church houses the image of the Santo Cristo de Balaguer. Tradition holds that it is the first in the world. The image was made by Nicodemo, a disciple of Jesus, who having seen Christ on the cross in his head decided to create the image. The image was burned during the Spanish Civil War and what is seen in the church now is a copy of the original made by sculptor Joaquin Ros, though one foot is from the original and the only part that was saved from the flames.
I spent a relaxing time by the church which also affords views across the whole city and the farmland and mountains beyond. I walked back towards the Castell Formos which was not open. The first mention of the castle comes from an Arab document reporting a campaign against the count of Barcelona and the start of the castle's construstion. In 897-898 Lubb Muhammad defeated Guifre el Pilos and started to raise the fortifications. Under the reign of Abd al-Raham III the Castle of Balaguer was converted into a frontier fortress, while during the 11th century it ceased being purely for defense and alo became a wealthy residence. In 1046-1047 Yusuf al-Muzaffar made his palace here until with the cnquest of Balaguer in 1105, by the troops of Ermengol VI the castle came under Christian control and became the residence for the counts of Urgel until 1314 when Alfonse de Aragon took Balaguer and made the castele his permenant residence. 1413 marked the end both of the counts of Urgel and the castle itself when it was demolished at the hands of Fernando de Antequera.
There was little to see of the castle. I peered through the locked gate but saw nothing more than a few walls, and finally walked down around the outside where I could see clearly Santa Maria on the hill. I follwed the path onto the back streets of the historic centre. I had little idea where I was going and once between the houses I was completely lost. Still it was interesting to see the local houses, vastly different to the modern structures across the river and the streets were quiet and vacant but for a few feral cats hunting through their territory.
I took a long walk back through the town and then followed the road upwards through the Portal del Gel all the way to the top of the hill. Farmland spread out to one side and further houses stood on modern residential streets while a random piece of old stone wall sat between two trees overlooking a small children's play area.
In search of the church I walked to the gate in the high walls and found myself peering into the local cemetary. I walked through and finally found my way around to the front of the church. The Santa Maria Church dominates the city, standing high on the hill. As I walked around the walled area I could see across the city the jumbled rooves the the historic centre juxtaposed with the modern offices and blocks of flats with the river running between the two. The construction of the church began in 1351 and is an imposing gothic structure with a large octagonal belfry, typical of Catalan gothic arcitecture. The church now houses permenant exhibitions. I entered and was waved through by the man sitting in a makeshift reception. The interior is spacious and has a peaceful empty feeling. Displays of religious art were positioned around the edges and the sun shone through the stained glass windows filling the space with blue light. I was quite content to sit alone for some time and enjoy the peace and solitude after a hard week surrounded by lots of students.
Outside of the church I walked to the gate in the wall and stepped out onto the wooden platform where I could look along the city walls. The walls themselves are no longer walked on, but wooden walkways have been attached to one side. I noticed further on that a plastic gate barred the way further on and used that as an excuse not to walk part way along the walls. In truth the wooden walkways are very high and appear rather insubstantial. I would have been much happier walking on solid stone.
I walked back home down through the winding streets of the historic centre and across the main plaza. I have spent the remainder of the day relaxing with a brief visit to the school to use the computers (I need to get internet at home!) So my first week has come to a successful end, more or less. I am exhausted and the students are very hard work, but it can only get easier so I'll see what the next few weeks bring.

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9th February 2011

Ghost Town?
ANNA! Well written per usual, and your photos are BEAUTIFUL! How DO you do it!??! My only question to you is this: How on EARTH did you manage to get so many without getting a single person in one!? That's an amazing feat! *applause*
9th February 2011

One word - siesta! I was practically the only person out on the streets!

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