The trip along the Val de Zafán Greenway (Baix Ebre section) starts at the station of El Pinell de Brai, picking up where the end of the Terra Alta Greenway left off, on the tarmacked path branching off the N 230b road at Km 14.
At the abandoned railway station there is a rest area with route information panels and a kilometre stone that tells us that we are at Km 26. Perhaps this might seem odd at first glance, but there is another starting point at Tortosa station. However, here we are describing the route in the Teruel-Tarragona direction, which is the one chosen by most cyclists.
For those starting the route at Km 0 in Tortosa travelling in the opposite direction, the starting point is at the railway bridge over the River Ebro, today converted into a footbridge for pedestrians and cyclists.
At Pinell de Brai, the start of our journey will be accompanied by a landscape of reddish limestone walls that emerge from a dense Aleppo pine forest dotted with mastic trees, kermes oaks, and rosemary.
With the leisurely sensation of slowly but surely losing height, the greenway picks its way through this broken terrain
with the help of the River Canaletes, cwhich here runs fast and noisily through the deep spectacular ravine it has carved for itself.
In its endeavour to follow the course of the river, the rail bed runs on top of embankments which provide numerous places from which to view the ravine. Here is a good place to stop for a rest and gaze on the majestic landscape.
The deep cuttings that lay bare the red earth of the hillsides, together with a succession of tunnels provided with lighting (even so it is advisable to be prepared with cycle lamps and flashlights), some on curves, some straight, some short and some long (one half a kilometre in length), combine to punctuate our journey with cool underground experiences.
The highlight of this stretch, squeezed in between the ravine and the pine covered mountainsides, is the superb Riberola viaduct spanning the canyoned River Canaletes. With its eye-catching central arch, this concrete structure is high enough to act as an exceptional view point
Beyond this point we arrive at the old, now refurbished, station at Benifallet , an ideal place to stop, relax, lunch or have a snack in the restaurant in the station building or on its pleasant terrace, or simply listen to the birds singing in the trees. Benifallet station also has a hostel and a guest house where you can make an overnight stay without leaving the greenway, plus bike rental and transfer service. A must visit place on the route!
It is also possible to visit the village of Benifallet, 6 kilometres from the station, on the left bank of the River Ebro, at the foot of the Cardó mountain range. The old centre of the village, with its narrow, winding streets, harks back to its Moorish heritage.
From Benifallet, renowned for its sweet pastries (pastissets and coquetes) and fruit, we can board a catboat (laud) and sail down the River Ebro, or admire the stalactites and stalagmites of the Benifallet caves.
After leaving the station and village behind, the trail starts its move from the Canaletas ravine to the River Ebro in a pronounced turn southwards involving three tunnels separated by deep cuttings.
On exiting the eleventh tunnel we finally catch sight of the River Ebro, the real protagonist of this route, the largest river in Spain and the river after which the Iberian Peninsula is named. Flanked by pine covered mountains, with the Cardó and Boix mountain ranges to the left, the river is a calm, broad, rippling expanse of water. Reaching down to its banks is a narrow flood plain planted with orange and other fruit trees, which help keep us immersed in this world of sensations, lulled by the sounds of the river and the fragrance emanating from the trees.
Also, if we are lucky, we may hear stories about this area from the local population, which will enrich this greenway experience, while the scent of oranges awakens all our senses.
The route continues to make its way one step up from the river and its narrow flood plain along the mountainous slopes on the right bank. From this vantage point we can enjoy panoramic views of the river.
At this point the meadowland disappears as we emerge out of the “endless” fourteenth tunnel. The hilly river banks give way to vertical red rock walls that hem in the river on either side. Once again the only path the railway could take was through the mountainside, so we find ourselves plunging through a succession of tunnels interspersed with embankments bordered by vertical drops down to the waters below. Here the ruined kilns of a couple of cement works on the far bank only add to the wildness of the landscape.
The ruggedness and difficulty of the terrain appears to end at the Xerta weir, a construction of Arabic origin, which retains and channels the waters of the Ebro to irrigate the market gardens and rice fields of the downstream reaches of the river. The weir, with its unusual diagonal layout, is 310 m long and 6 m high. It has a large central spillway and sluice gates at each end which feed the left and right channels of the Ebro.
On the right bank is an old water mill, one of the few industrial examples that Catalonia has conserved from the Renaissance, while on the left bank there are the stone facades of the Harinera de González flour mill. Two structures have changed the weir’s profile in modern times: the hydroelectric power plant on the right bank and the refurbished locks to enable recreational boats to pass the weir. Another excellent tourist activity to complement the greenway!
After leaving the weir behind, the river banks open up significantly, leaving space once again for orange and other fruit trees. We have time to enjoy some panoramic views before arriving at the refurbished station at Xerta, surrounded by a busy rest area with a refreshing fountain.
Although apparently following the course of the old railway, the greenway route has been swallowed up by the new route of the C-12 road. In order to regain the original railway route travellers must leave the greenway at the station and cut through the centre of Xerta.
So at the station we will follow the signposted route to the Plaza Mayor (Village Square), where Xerta welcomes travellers wishing to enjoy the street cafés of its social epicentre. Every Saturday Xerta holds a street market which is a good opportunity to enjoy the local gastronomic offering.
The impressive village church is witness to and has survived the numerous floods caused by the Ebro repeatedly breaking its banks; water levels since the 15th century are recorded on the ceramic tiled flood-scale fixed to the church wall. From the square we continue down the Martín Martí Street until we reach the canal.
Keeping the canal on our left, we walk between orange trees giving out an unbelievable aroma until we arrive at a shady rest area. From here, on the right hand side of the tarmacked area, a concrete path passes under the C-12 road and climbs back up to the original route of the railway.
Back on the original rail bed, the Val de Zafán Greenway embarks on a long straight section through deep cuttings punctuated by viewing points over the Ebro flood plain. This long straight, the first of many, ends at the bridge on the C-12 road over the Conca Ravine. Upstream we find the natural pools at Les Olles, a rocky and spectacularly eroded place where there is water all the year round. We, however, faced with the C-12 road blocking our path, need to drop down into the gully and pass under the bridge. Fifty metres beyond the other side of the road a tarmacked path tells us we have regained the old railway route.
Once this minor interruption has been overcome, the route now runs through the heart of the flood plain, flanked by orange trees, in the direction of Aldover. The trail skirts around the village in a long, deep cutting.
However, where the trail crosses Barceloneta Street we have the opportunity go into the village to take refreshments and travel down to the riverside beach with its long sandy strand bordered by verdant underbrush.
When we emerge from the cutting we arrive at the refurbished Aldover station and its shady rest area; an invitation to relax and enjoy the landscape.
Leaving Aldover behind, the trail leaves its pedestal on the right hand slope and from now on takes a lazy route through the rich and fertile flood plain. On such a flat terrain the railway no longer needs to twist and weave and instead runs in long straight lines. The first straight section passes between copious orange trees, the second is squeezed between the red limestone slopes on the right bank of the Ebro and the river itself, and the third takes us away from the river once again between orange trees.
At the foot of the Torre d’en Corder, a mediaeval defensive structure, the mountainous slope to our right shrinks and finally disappears. Now the railway takes a long straight route through an open, undulating and varied landscape, dotted with fruit orchards, huts and farms, before we reach the Terrer Roig rest area in the village of Jesús, another good place for parking our cars and joining the greenway.
A little later, after crossing the road that links this village with the access to the natural park, the trail arrives at the information centre of the Els Ports Natural Park at Roquetes. Care needs to be taken when crossing the road. From the information centre we take a short straight journey down Val de Zafán Street in Roquetes itself until we reach a roundabout where we can still see the remains of the former railway bridge.
From this roundabout we can reach the Ebro Observatory, a research centre of great importance. A visit is practically a must; it is a one hundred-plus year old institution originally built to study the relationship between the Sun and the Earth. On Sundays the observatory is open to visitors. From the roundabout we carry straight on to the end of the street. Here the greenway recovers its rural profile and once again becomes a rural non-motorized trail which bypasses the centre of Roquetes. Once again, take care when crossing the TV-3421.
Just after crossing the right hand canal of the Ebro for the first and last time, a group of industrial workshops mark the end of the greenway, beyond which we have a view of the historic city of Tortosa. Beyond this point the rail bed, still with its rails, continues across the impressive railway viaduct over the Ebro towards what is known as the city of the three cultures. The red painted metal bridge can be used by walkers and cyclists, enabling us to cross the Ebro and reach kilometre 0 of the old Val de Zafán railway (the Tortosa to La Puebla de Híjar line) and discover the city of Tortosa, gateway to the nearby Ebro Delta Natural Park.
From Km 0 a new cycle lane on the GR-99 Ebro Nature Trail (on which motorized traffic is allowed) takes us through Campredó, l’Aldea, and Deltebre, and 50 kilometres later, to the mouth of the Ebro.