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Els Aiguamolls and Malaria

Note: aiguamolls is Catalan for marsh.

The Aiguamolls or marshes of the Alt and Baix Empordà were formerly much more extensive than the few thousand hectares to be seen nowadays. Nothing remains of the large lake at Castelló, with its three islands, or the lakes of Siurana, Vilacolum, Riumors, Bellcaire, Ullastret and Pals except historical records (documents from the 17th and 18th centuries). After heavy rain and high East winds the water can again be seen to rise in their former beds, most spectacularly in the case of Ullastret as seen from Llabia.

The legend of " El bruel ", which refers to a strange mournful bellow that echoed over the lakes, is another reminder of the once vast marshes. The story goes that a wicked merchant, instead of using his wealth to help the people of Castelló during a winter of great hardship and hunger, loaded all his belongings onto a pair of oxcarts and tried to transport them by night across the marshes to a ship waiting at Empuries. He lost his way and he and his treasures were lost in the treacherous terrain. The sound of "El bruel" was the low of the one of the oxen as they drowned. Nowadays it is attributed to the boom of a bittern* .

From the 16th to the first part of the 19th centuries rice cultivation was of great importance. By the 18th century, nearly all the rice fields were located south of the river Fluvià. There were many stormy disputes between those in favour of rice-growing and those against it. The latter held that malaria was the inevitable consequence of the stagnation of the water. A popular contemporary saying ran:

Mothers who have daughters;
if you do not love them enough,
marry them to Albons or Bellcaire;
and if you want them dead soon;
marry them to Vilademat

From that time there is also a curious transcription that can be translated as:

"In 1835, when the fevers possessed the region and extended mourning everywhere, Creixença Vilà, after the death of her husband, her children, Paulí, Antón, Climent and Caterina, and her brothers-in-law Narcís, Jaume and Josep, and realising that the Governor of Girona was not listening to the pleas of the villages afflicted by the epidemic, began a vigorous protest against the rice crop. The inhabitants of Albons, Bellcaire and Torroella de Montgrí met in the square of the last village and decided to drain the land and thus destroy the crop. That way, the epidemic would end in all the rice areas of the Empordà. Creixença was 47 years old at the time".

Rice growing was discontinued everywhere in the Empordà except for Pals in the mid-19th century, although there was a resurgence for some 50 years in Bellcaire and Albons in the mid 20th century. Albons still celebrates an annual "arrosada" with rice from Pals and elsewhere in Spain.

* bittern ( Botaurus stellaris ); avetoro común (Spa); bitó comú (Cat)

by Francis.Barret

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