Thursday, June 24, 2010

Castelldefels: A Wonderful Little Spanish Town Faces Tragedy

It's not what you'd call a pretty little town, and probably not one where very many wealthy people live. Dry and flat, the gravelly soil makes me think this land must once have been the beach, many eons past. People often have tiny backyard gardens behind walls, where they grow tomatoes that look like they could use a little more water. The sidewalks are often narrow and cracked, or not there at all. Its castle is that building up on the hill in the center of the photo below. From a distance, it looks rather nondescript.

I came across this wonderful watercolor of the castle, though, and thought you might like to see it. It's by Nancy Laberge Muren, who has graciously given me permission to post it here. She also spent time in Castelldefels, and remembers it fondly. And now that I see prints of this wonderful watercolor are available at only $24.50, I know I must have one.

I didn't know at first why we decided to stay in this little town. There was just something about it that drew me. But not too long before we went, my brother reminded me he had lived there, and I'd written him a number of letters, before he moved on to Mallorca, and later, Madrid. So perhaps my affinity began there.

Castelldefels is a good 20 miles from Barcelona and perhaps 10 miles southwest of the airport. And we were told the castle for which the town is named is too run down for tourists. I would have gone anyway, but the hotel owner told us we would be disappointed and to go see the castle in Barcelona. That we did, and yes, it was wonderful. But now, I really wish we'd seen the little castle too, run down or not. As my brother said, "Well, all castles are run down." Let's face it, castles by definition are old, so why shouldn't they be?

The beach at Castelldefels is terrific, we were told, but we never got to it, for four days is not enough to do such laid-back things. I had hoped we could go down to Tarragona where a ruined Roman amphitheater faces the sea. But the train connections are too poor and would have taken up most of a day, first in to Barcelona, then wait, then back south, just to get there. So for our four days there, we confined ourselves to hiking the mile to the train station, and then riding the train into Barcelona. It was a stark, bare train, meaning to do its job well. And that, it did, very inexpensively.

We loved Barcelona. But there are so many things about Castelldefels that linger in our hearts and echo in our minds. The people we met, from the people at the hotel to the friendly older couple we met on the train, were always kind, helpful and pleasant, and patient even with my clumsy Spanish and lack of knowledge of local customs.

I will never forget that couple on the train. Although the husband gave up, his wife was so worried that we would get off at the right place. And their Catalonian accent created a stumbling block for me that I couldn't seem to surpass. Finally as they were getting off at their stop, she said, "Sants. Sants." At first, I wondered what saints could have to do with it. A church? "Recuerda Usted," she said. "Sants." So I repeated "Sants," and nodded. She left the train sighing and shaking her head, but with a smile. Sants was the short name for the station in Barcelona. Immediately when I saw the sign, I was sure, and no matter what my hubby said about it being wrong, we got off, right in the middle of Barcelona, just where we wanted to be.

On our last night, a fierce storm hit just as we were getting off the train. Taxis had lined up on the opposite side of the tracks, beyond the station, but all the locals knew where they were and got to them first. We stood in the pouring rain, which seemed oddly warm for late September, and soon we were rewarded by a returning cab. Again, a very pleasant man, who like the others wondered why we would stay in this backwater town instead of Barcelona. I said, because we loved it, and he smiled. Then he rushed quickly away in the rain, for, no doubt, the rain makes his business good.

And I remember another cabbie who took us from the hotel to the dock in Barcelona for our cruise. He had pleasant Spanish music playing softly, and I absently began to pick up the melodies and hum along. He was so thrilled that I knew "their" music that I couldn't bear to tell him I'd always had a talent for picking up tunes quickly. I just told him the truth: the music was just so beautiful. And besides, with my limited Spanish, that was about all I could say.

Today there's been a tragic accident at one of the two stations in Castelldefells.

It's not the one where we got on and off, but both stations are similar. When you get off the train, you walk along the platform until you reach a staircase that leads to an underpass, to walk beneath the tracks. There's also a walkway above the tracks. Not all of the trains stop. High speed express trains roaring up from southern cities barrel through Castelldefels at speeds that frightened me. And they come along very frequently. I remember thinking how someone could so easily fell in front of a train, and I backed away to be sure that someone wasn't me.

No, there was no way I would have crossed those tracks. Yet today thirty people who had come from Barcelona to celebrate the solstice (known there as Noche de San Juan) and to party on the beach, did exactly that. And that bullet of a train came roaring through, completely unable to stop when the people on the tracks were spotted. Not until the remains of the victims were studied did the authorities realize there were 13 instead of 12 who died.

Perhaps people don't realize how fast 87 miles per hour is. Some said the doors to the underpass were closed so they had no choice. Yet I'm pretty sure there are no doors. The stairs to the underpass are maybe 8 to 10 feet wide, and the underpass is maybe 20 feet wide. Sometimes it was very crowded. But it's open all the way. Maybe the doors are hidden- somehow? But I don't think so.

Perhaps the crowd was so great that it seemed like the passage was closed. Perhaps everyone was so drunk, they couldn't think. Or afraid of getting trampled in a crowd? Who can tell? Most of the victims were very young, immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. Had they been from rural areas and were not accustomed to fast trains? How can we know?

After our time there, though, I feel an affinity for the people of Castelldefels. And of course I feel sad for the families of the victims. But most of all I feel sad for the people of Castelldefels who are dealing with the tragedy. I know they are helping, in whatever ways they can.


  1. I have been to Castell de Fels with my husband and we had a more relaxing time than Barcelona. We did take a train to taragona from the station there an I also wondered about the tracks. I am sorry for their families. Castell de fels is a place where you can get to know the people and they do not all speak english and they were very patient with my spanish it was fun.

  2. Beautiful post. And your prose is beautiful. How awful for the deaths of those people.

  3. I read today that the passageway at Playa Castell de Fels was re-built in 2009, a year after we visited, and that the upper walkway, the overhead bridge had been closed off, but that the lower underpass was open. Some said it was poorly marked, but others said it was plainly marked.

    I've been in crowds like this, for special events. The people at the front of the crowd get there first and get to pick the best spots. And sometimes on crowded beaches there aren't all that many good spots anyway. I can understand the impatience frustrating those who couldn't get through. And it is amazing how people who can't see ahead to know where they are going will simply follow those ahead of them. I suppose there is a necessity to that.

  4. What an awful tragedy to have happened in such a delicately beautiful place. I visited so many out of the way, quiet places like this in my years in Europe and each one had something to teach me about what is important in life and what makes life important - not the destinations, but the journeys.

  5. That's so true, Louisa. So true!


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