Olives and olive oil is what brought the Greeks and Romans to the Iberian peninsula some 3,500 yrs ago and it has been a crucial commodity ever since. The south of Spain produces the quantity with thousands of hectares cultivated in the poorest soils where nothing else will survive the extreme weather, but around Lleida in the western part of Catalonia there are also extensive plantations.
Industrial history has always interested me and when it is concentrated in a remote and wild area as is the Priorato region, tucked behind mountains and until recently cut off from the outside world by a good access road, the story is worth telling for all communities dependent on one major industry for employment and wealth creation.
The Romans discovered galena (the ore which produces lead and sometimes silver) several thousand years ago and also the method of extracting and melting the ore to produce tubes, gutters and roofing. This only became an industry in the 1870′s when various lead mines started to be commercially exploited around the Priorato area.
Until the end of WWII everything went well, the small farming villages expanded and sucked in labour from all over, fluctuating with the international price of lead. The major decline came when plastic was increasingly used as a substitute to make all the tubes and pipes in both housing and industry.
From then on it was just a question of time before the mines shut down, especially once all the easily available ore was extracted. At the Eugenia mine in Bellmunt they went down to a depth of 630metres (over 2,000 feet) and took a century before abandoning the business.
In the last 20 years a new industry has grown up in these barren hills, planting grapes for wine. As mentioned previously the number of wineries (bodegas) increased from roughly a dozen to over eighty in this time and once again encouraged the younger generations to stay or even to return from Barcelona, Reus and the Costa Daurada to find work.
Because of the extreme climatic and favorable geologic conditions (brown slate) the vines here produce very small quantities but the quality is very high and as such this area has very quickly become a byword for big, powerful but complex red wines sought after all over the world.
After all booms we are currently undergoing a bust which will reduce the number of bodegas and hopefully keep the survivors on the path of quality and elegance at affordable prices. We are only part way through this economic cycle, but it is fascinating to stand on the ruins of an old lead mine and see across the valley whole mountains planted with young vines.
Empuries is only some 30 minutes drive from Girona and is right next to l'Escala on the coast in a beautiful setting of sand dunes and pine trees. This area was first settled by Iberian tribes but it is really with the arrival of the civilizing Greeks in approx 300BC that both building and commerce began. Empurion, as it was known, was connected to many other trading ports around the Mediterranean, all eventually supplying the main markets of Greece and Italy with wine, olive oil, nuts ( almonds and hazelnuts), hides and wheat.
This trade became so important that the Romans decided to take over the whole Iberian peninsula to guarantee their supplies for an expanding empire. The remains we see today show a very sophisticated and prosperous community which enjoyed saunas, cultural entertainment, gymnastics and music which even today we can feel envious of.