From an Andalusian enclave to a refuge during the Civil War, more than a thousand years of history in the caves of Villalba Baja.

Eloína does not hesitate when she tells how, at the age of six, she had to run away with her family to take refuge from the bombs that were falling on her village, Villalba Baja, and the surrounding area. “I remember everything perfectly”, he assures, and that more than eight decades have passed since then. The first aviation warning caught the whole family at home. On hearing the church bells, Eloína’s parents and grandparents grabbed her and her two brothers and, leaving everything behind, they took refuge in some caves near the house. “I remember that they gave my brothers and me a stick to bite on, because it was believed that even if a bomb fell nearby, you wouldn’t burst because of the noise”. When the danger had passed, the family was able to return home, but that was only the first of many hasty departures.

“Every day, a neighbour stood guard on the church tower and when he heard the noise of the aircraft, which could be heard from far away, he rang the bells to warn the rest of the village. Then the women and children who were at home would run to hide in the nearest caves, while the men stayed behind to look after the animals, if they had any, or to work in the fields,” Eloína says.

The caves – located at the back of the village, on the small mountain where the village castle once stood – became a makeshift shelter for families during the time when air raids were frequent in the area. They brought mattresses, blankets and some provisions. “We were in a large cave that we shared with two other families from the village, one of them with small children like us. We children slept there on a mattress,” says Eloína.

These caves also had an important milestone in the year 1120 because the Almoravid army that would later be defeated in the battle of Cutanda passed through here, where they took refuge before continuing on their way.

Although he does not remember how long the comings and goings to the caves lasted, he assures that it was not little. “Even the village teacher, seeing that it was going to take a long time, began to give classes to the boys in a very large cave next to the one we were in. The girls couldn’t go to school because the The teacher in the village left when the war started.

The small slopes drawn by the relief where these hollows are located became a playground for the children of the village. “They didn’t let us go far away, but we did play there when there was no danger and the older people also took the opportunity to get out of the caves and talk to the neighbours. Even so, you always had to be alert, you lived in fear”.

As the war progressed, the rebel side reached the area of Villalba Baja and a front was established around the village that lasted for 18 months. Then there was nowhere to hide, and the villagers were evacuated to places like Torremocha or Alba del Campo where the situation was calmer. It was not until the end of the war that Eloína and her family were able to return home.

Tourist attraction

Currently the caves are in good condition, with all accesses open, so the City Council of Villalba has proposed to open them to the public as a tourist and cultural resource. “The idea is to refurbish them and install panels explaining their use throughout history and the great importance they have had. We believe that with a small investment, about 3,000 or 4,000 euros, is enough, but Villalba is a district that does not have that money, so we thought it best to expedite it with the City of Teruel to help us with the issue of cleaning the caves and signage, “explains Belen Sandalinas, mayor of Villalba pedánea.

Earlier this year the consistory Teruel announced that it would take the first step to make the caves visitable, ensuring that would investigate the ownership of the same as some residents of the hamlet claimed them as theirs. “We are still in the process of registering the caves in the name of the local forestry society to transfer them to the City Council of Teruel and thus be able to begin to rehabilitate them,” explains Sandalinas.

The origin

The caves, which date back to the 11th century, were used as a habitat by the Hispano-Muslim peoples who then occupied the valley. of Alfambra. Villalba Baja is not the only place where they can be found, but the best accessibility. “Normally the caves, in the case of this valley are very inaccessible so it is surprising that here we have the possibility of entering on foot practically flat from the same town, which can become a very useful resource to explain this type of habitat,” says historian Rubén Sáez. It is believed that there may be up to 50 caves of this type in Villalba, some of them buried.

“These caves also had an important milestone in the year 1120 because the Almoravid army that would later be defeated in the battle of Cutanda passed through here, where they took refuge before continuing on their way”, explains Sáez.

Originally the caves were a single room, but during the Christian era they underwent some transformations. They were interconnected with each other giving them the appearance they have today, and for centuries they were used as corrals for livestock, cellars or the furthest from the municipality, as a shelter for shepherds and their animals. Some were even used as dwellings, with a building attached to the front.

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