Delta del Ebro: sublime horizontality


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Located about three hours from Barcelona, and a world of fictional distance, a Catalan region is surprised by the drastic change in its landscape before the astonished eyes of a spectator (see myself) that sees a completely flat and swampy view full of magnificent rice paddies. "I could be in Bali, " I think, but nothing is further from reality; I just arrived at the Ebro River Delta.

In a mixture of farmland, bird sanctuary and oasis for city people eager to escape the overpopulation of other coastal areas, the Ebro Delta offers a totally different world formed by isolated beaches, pink flamingos, people windsurfing and many first-line foods such as eels, oysters or their tasty mussels.

One of the largest wetlands in Western Europe is today a destination in essence where it seems that time had not passed and where, I cross my fingers, I wish it was late to pass, because the luxury here resides, precisely, in the total absence of Same: a simple return to life.

Flamencos Delta

Flora and fauna display all their magic in this place where time seems to have stopped © Getty Images

And if my first thought is related to Bali, the second one is directed more towards a lament of the type: "how is it possible that it has taken so long to come to know this place". It is the question that assails me after parking my car at the Villa Retiro hotel, a jewel of the colonial architecture that the López family acquired some years ago to convert it into a hotel.

This flirtatious mansion of 1890 was built by the Catalan Indian Jaume Martí, who after returning from Argentina invested his fortune in building this summer house in which, by the way, he only lived one year.

"This is a unique mansion designed by the architect Josep Fontseré i Mestre, one of Gaudí's masters, with a certain modernist air and surrounded by dense vegetation, which is original since its construction, " Domingo Basco, a member of the team, tells me. And so human !, of the hotel.

I am convinced that the Indian Martí would be proud that more than 120 years later, Villa Retiro is one of the most special hotels in the region that is located in the Lower Ebro area, next to the town of Xerta and something else Ten minutes drive from Tortosa, capital of the region.

Hotel Villa Retiro

Hotel Villa Retiro, a jewel of colonial architecture surrounded by tropical vegetation © Hotel Villa Retiro

Villa Retiro contrasts with the landscape of the rest of the Delta, a place of agricultural tradition where rice harvest still accounts for 75% of Catalonia's supply.

Not much happens in the interior, but on the coast it is not difficult to observe the memory of the old lifestyle of the area in the tiny white houses, known as barracks, where the harvest was processed.

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After years of decline - the flight from rural areas to cities was inevitable in the late 60s and 70s - tourism is today the real engine of change (for good) in the area.

Even so, the authentic character of the Delta has changed little, and less badly, and the tranquility, sunsets and good food continue to be some of its greatest attractions.

Good proof of this is the Michelin star and the critic and public recognition that chef Fran López has in charge of the kitchen at Villa Retiro.

This young chef has the hotel tradition installed on his genetic map and, raised in the kitchen, López elevates the signature cuisine with typical Delta products to a gastronomic proposal to suck his fingers - literally -, especially when at the table of his restaurant Dishes such as wanton pasta coca with tuna belly, citrus and black garlic mayonnaise or creamy Delta rice with duck and citrus are served .

Restaurante Villa Retiro

In front of the kitchen of Villa Retiro, chef Fran López, with a Michelin Star © Hotel Villa Retiro

And to satisfied diners, proud chef, as this young chef acknowledges that he has put this humble Catalan region on the gastronomic map.

And he has done it with honesty and discretion, a mantra that at home preaches from the first to the last member of the team. One more excuse to visit a place that although it does not catch the traveler, it manages to make it fall in love until the bars for its natural delicacy of form and substance. "And it took me so long to visit it …", I regret it again.

An offer, that of the Villa Retiro, which is completed with the nine rooms of the main building (in the complex an annex has been built with ten more modern rooms) that retain the modernist essence of the late nineteenth century, where luxury resides in the woods Nobles, the original tiles or in their spectacular British-inspired bathtubs and wrought iron that promise, and fulfill, the good rest of the traveler.

And if not, there will always be your pool, surrounded by 3, 000 square meters of lush tropical garden and even waterfalls. The impossible here is not to relax.

Hotel Villa Retiro

Signature cuisine with typical Delta products © Hotel Villa Retiro


Outside the walls of the Villa Retiro, the show continues. And it is that a considerable part of the Delta is Natural Park, declared as such in 1983.

But beyond all this paradise blessed by nature, the Delta also offers charming cities and corners where history left its mark over 2, 000 years ago … and here it continues.

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Miravet Castle, on the right bank of the Ebro © Getty Images

Tortosa is one of the best examples. Chosen by the Iberians and inhabited by Romans, Muslims, Jews and Christians, the historical legacy of the capital of the region is palpated in visits such as that of the castle of la Zuda, the cathedral of Santa Maria and the modernist buildings, dotted throughout the city.

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Tortosa: a mix of cultures wherever you look © Getty Images

And on a much more earthly and much less artistic level, Sant Carles de la Rápita (or directly La Rápita) is a good place to experience the benefits of the most local cuisine, so much so that you can even 'fish' it with your hands to enjoy it .

This is what happens at the Musclarium, a mussel and oyster farm that offers the sea food to the table to the diner within a closed gastronomic proposal that includes a snack based on seafood, rice, dessert and even a short boat trip to Access to the 'almost' floating restaurant (€ 50).

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From the sea to the table, the Musclarium mantra © Musclarium