The International Early Music Festival of Daroca

I never tire of visiting Daroca, a small city about 80 kilometers from Saragossa. Daroca’s city center is tucked deep into a natural gorge. Its medieval buildings are perched at angles within a maze of small, upwardly winding streets that end abruptly in ragged red cliffs and the remains of a ring of fortified walls constructed between the thirteenth and  the sixteenth centuries. The two enormous gates to the city still stand, evoking successive periods of its importance in Spanish history.

What is now a sleepy backwater surrounded by fields of grain and sunflowers was for centuries an axis in struggles for control of Aragon and the Iberian Peninsula. After passing through Roman hands, it was an Arab city (Calat-Darwaca) for 400 years until Alfonso I the Warrior, King of Castile, captured it in the twelfth century. Throughout the Middle Ages it was an important Aragonese point of defense against invaders from Castile. The eighteenth century brought many challenges and woes to the region. The city lost many of its privileges as a result of its support for Carlos III, the Austrian pretender to the Spanish throne, when his rival Philip, Duke of Anjou, won the crown. In the nineteenth century, it was repeatedly occupied and sacked by Napoleon’s army.  During the Carlist Wars that followed, it remained firmly in the camp of Isabella II , although it was occupied on at least three occasions by Carlist troops. Daroca was also situated on an important front during the Spanish Civil War, but since that time, it has been isolated from the world’s great events.

In summer, the thousands of swallows that swoop in and out of the city’s many deserted buildings and towers outnumber its human residents.  Its balconies are bright with geraniums. Senior citizens congregate to gossip on park benches. Visiting tourists can take a guided tour of the town’s historic buildings and the neighborhoods where medieval Christian, Jewish, and Moslem neighbors once maintained a fragile coexistence. Daroca is no longer an important regional center of commerce, but  restaurants like the charming Posada del Almudi continue to offer delicious regional dishes and Segura’s bakery still makes fabulous pastries and exquisite chocolate bars laced with saffron, ginger, and cinnamon. Before making any plans for the month of August, I always call the Institución  Fernando el Católico to know exactly what dates have been set for the annual early music festival hosted by Daroca. The institution is a major funder of this week-long event that combines master classes for talented young musicians  with public evening concerts held in several of the town’s historic churches.

This year’s  International Early Music Festival  celebrated a new acquisition: a lovely new harpsichord built by Andrea Restrelli  based on the design of an instrument created by master craftsman José Antunes  in Lisbon in 1789. We joined the attentive audience that filled the twelfth century Romanesque church of San Miguel last Saturday evening  to marvel over the perfection of Restrelli’s work. Four keyboard artists offered a distinct glimpses into the music of the 1600s. Alfonso Sebastián played several Scarlatti sonatas, Olivier Baumont sampled the repertoire of Antoine Forqueray, Javier Artigas Pina performed Antonio Soler’s Sonata in D major, and festival director José Luis González Uriol delivered masterful renderings of a selection of sonatas by Carlos Seixas.

The evening before, we had attended a performance by the Ludovice Ensemble in the same church. This group from Portugal played pieces by Couperin, Dornel, and Clérambault on replicas of Baroque instruments. It was a real treat to listen to the voice of baritone Hugo Oliveira and the delicious sounds of the theorbo. We returned once again Monday evening to hear  a program of Händel sonatas offered by the Ensemble Dario Castello. It was a rare opportunity to compare the sound of the theorba with that produced by the archlute, a hybrid instrument developed in the early 1600s that retained the bass range of the theorbo but offered the flexibility of the Renaissance tenor lute. The festival ended with a performance of Tómas Luis de Victoria’s solemn Missa Pro Defunctis, a late Renaissance choral masterpiece composed for the Empress Maria of Austria.  The 400th anniversary of the composer’s death falls on August 27 of this year.

The International Festival of Early Music in Daroca is a shining example of what the ongoing commitment of a small community and a few key institutions can achieve. For early music fans planning a summer visit to Spain, I strongly recommend a visit to Daroca and the nearby Gallocanta Lagoon, where tens of thousands of migrating cranes gather in every evening from January to March and one can observe a variety of plovers, terns, and larks all summer long. Teruel, a Mudejar jewel, and the surprising gardens of the Monasterio de Piedra are both less than a one hour drive away through a countryside of rolling hills and open fields. For those interested in the history of the Spanish Civil War, the eerie ruins of the town of Belchite are also a short drive away.

The cuisine of the “Campo de Daroca” region offers the visitor an opportunity to savor the true taste of Spain. The cured hams of Teruel have won prizes at international gastronomic fairs and have been awarded a special mention by Slow Food International. Local wines are produced from Cariñena wine grapes, a variety better known by the French name Carignan, although oenologists believe that the French stock was originally imported from Aragonese vineyards. Many restaurants offer regional dishes such as venison, wild boar, rabbit and snail casserole, and “migas,” a delicious regional treat concocted from bread crumbs and chorizo sausage, which is served lightly laced with olive oil and topped with grapes.