Simon has been exploring Spain's secrets for almost two decades after falling in love with the country and its people as a young man.
A winter night's walk through Moncofa
In many ways, Moncofa is a microcosm of Spain as a whole. Its history stretches back millennia, encompassing every period from neolithic prehistory and the Roman era to the present day. During the property boom of the early 2000s, sweeping plans were put in place for the reinvention of the town as a major resort. This is far from unique for this stretch of coastline, but Moncofa stands out because of how catastrophically those plans failed.
As with many Spanish towns, the demarcation between town and countryside is marked. Urban streets will end abruptly, leaving the pedestrian to step, or even climb, from one level to another. Artificial lighting will leave you blind as you find yourself unexpectedly bereft, having left its sphere.
I lived for two months in one of the few completed apartment complexes at the southernmost limit of the town, that limit being decreed by the river that once gifted the surrounding countryside with an incredible variety of rare flora and fauna.
All around me stood monuments to the ambitions of politicians and developers. Skeletons of concrete and steel surrounded the pristine complex in which I lived. Fully-paved roads lined by palms, and dotted with regularly-spaced utility points, marked out rectangular plots of land, already half-reclaimed by nature.
I should make it clear to my reader that the area I’m describing is mostly confined to the land closest to the sea, although the phenomenon extends in every direction from the original town.
I may have painted a bleak picture thus far, but let me now take you on a night-time walk through this town of paradoxes.
The wind is bitter; snow is in the air. The concrete of the buildings still retain much of the heat of the day’s sun, however, so the cold doesn’t hit you until you reach the exposed foundations of long-abandoned developments.
Once there, you pull your collar as high as it can go, and hunch into the winter wind. In the distance, entire forests of lights illuminate mazes of streets leading nowhere. They conjure up images of fairy lands or dream cities.
From here, you can either skirt the border between the imagined urban sprawl and the countryside, or head towards the brook that holds more life than the entirety of that abandoned future.
Let us do both.
Ancient Rome carved the Via Augusta through these landscapes more than two thousand years ago, and when travelling between towns, your feet are treading the same path that those Roman conquerors walked. The remains of that ancient road also mark many of the boundaries between orange groves and residential areas. This is the case in Moncofa.
Heading north from our starting point, there’s a strange fusion between the very modern highway and the groves that border it. It’s clear that a complex system of irrigation used to exist, and that the old road was designed to accommodate it. Now, however, the irrigation channels seem to exist in order to spite the asphalt, and numerous workarounds have been devised.
As we walk, glaringly-bright lights to our right, dark trees and shadows to our left, the air from the West brings with it an entirely new set of scents and textures. An earthy moisture can be felt on the skin; a scent of orange and wild grass subtly intrudes on the senses.
Before long, the sound of rustling undergrowth starts to echo your own path. You stop to peer into the dark groves, but the sounds stop with you, and you see nothing.
Minutes later, a crude concrete access-ramp joins the road to the fields, and into the light emerge two cats, scrawny and fight-scarred. They’ll follow you until you reach the borders of the old town, never coming closer, escorting you from their territory.
The outskirts of the town resemble those found in the American Midwest – wood-framed houses set slightly back within small fenced-in plots of land. The night calls of African birds, though, leave you in no doubt that you are in a very different world.
It’s here that you encounter people for the first time – a car driving past, someone taking their dog out for a late-night walk. And because these are the only signs of life on a winter’s night, we’ll turn back, not the way we came, but into the warrens of streets that form the heart of the Grau.
This entire region of coastline once consisted of marshes. Its biodiversity was astounding, and recent efforts have succeeded in protecting those species which still remain. Although much damage was done, even those areas which are highly-urbanised retain characteristics of the land’s past.
Throughout this part of town, brooks and rivulets twist their way down to the sea, often dictating the paths of major roads and even entire neighbourhoods. Late at night, they throng with life. Come summer, frogs, toads and even rare turtles will emerge, but now in the dead of winter, these refuges are dominated by waterfowl and the small carnivores upon which they prey.
We follow one such rivulet on its course, passing through neighbourhoods abandoned and shuttered until summer. These are ruled by the urban cousins of the orange-grove cats. Safe from predators other than their own kind, they congregate in the early hours, holding court in marble terraces, their collective gaze turning unconcernedly as they watch you pass by.
By now the sounds of the sea have returned, almost overwhelming those of the waterways. The crashing of waves against rocks ricochets between the deserted streets.
An enormous iron lock appears, more suited to an industrial canal than to this quiet backwater. As we round the corner, the reason for its existence becomes clear. A channel as wide as a major thoroughfare ploughs through to the sea.
The sheer force and volume of water that would have made this necessary is staggering. Even now, when miniature parks and arboreta span the divide, this channel effectively cleaves the surrounding districts in two.
The walk from here back down to the sea is downhill and accompanied by the calls of the many birds disturbed by our passage. The arboreta constructed over the old causeway house different species at different times of the year, but they’re continuously inhabited – another tribute to the growing realisation that nature must be allowed to return to this millennia-old haven.
We follow the path until we reach the beginning of the protected bio-reserve. Here the endangered plants grow so high that they muffle the sound of the surf. Even in the moonlight, purples, greens and blues shimmer on either side.
Ropes tethered by wooden stakes guide us firmly on our way from here. Within minutes, artificial lights will become sporadic, and our steps will lead deeper into what was once a coastline as wild and alien as any found in Africa or the Americas.
Amidst what remains of that wilderness, the lights of a lone apartment burn in the night, beckoning us home.
Later, sitting on the terrace, we watch the sun rise. Even now, there’s not a single human sound, just the birds, the waves, the river, and the wind.