Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Gleanings from Spain - Part 1

Illustrated by Percival Skelton

Part 2



Railways are fast invading the old haunts of ignorance, superstition, and prejudice. Even Spain, that stronghold of intolerance and conceit, is having civilisation thrust upon her. Relentlessly the iron roads eat their way into the heart of the country, remorselessly the telegraph stalks round and round the land, encircling it by sea as well, and as if by a galvanic shock awakening the slumbering nation. If anyone wishes to see the land of Cervantes ere it has become stale, flat, and prosaic, haste, haste—let them fly, for day by day Progress marks her triumphs, and soon the Spain of chivalry, the Spain of our romantic imagination, the Spain of the Inquisition, will be no longer recognisable, tricked out in nineteenth-century ways, manners and opinions, which it has acquired second-hand with the gloss off. Madrid is already shamming to be Paris, widening its streets, building monotonous, glaring houses, without balconies, dooming its picturesque water-carriers to extinction by the introduction of modern water-pipes, and actually waging war on time-honoured dust by perpetual watering of the streets. The nobles are beginning to be startled by the ominous sound of “nouveaux riches,” and see encroaching on their prerogatives men who own to no blue blood in their veins, and who yet surpass them in wealth, magnificence, and dignity. Spain has awoke at last, after many fevered dreams, many oppressive nightmares; the day is before her, and she will be as the giant refreshed, strong to toil and to take her place among the other nations of Europe. It matters comparatively little who are her rulers; the people are now aroused, and this is no age of dynasties, but of nations.

There are two lines of rails by which the Peninsula is now traversed: to reach the one, you enter by the Basses Pyrenees viâ Bayonne; by the other, after passing a night at Perpignan—which must be the model of the little fortified town described in “Somebody’s Luggage,” so sleepy and strongly fortified is it—you ascend the not very frowning barrier of mountains which separates you from Spain. A zig-zag road ascends the French side of the Pyrenees, smooth and well kept, with strongly built walls on the side of the precipices, and at every kilometre tall white posts, bearing inscribed the distance to the frontier and to Perpignan. The frontiers of France and Spain, guarded by wild douaniers, present a singular fact to the mind. As you approach you see two white pillars on either side of the road; mark well! that is the outward and visible boundary between the two countries, but how comes it that the dwellers on one side of the Pillars, not a hundred paces from the inhabitants of the village on the other side, are as different as though a wide sea rolled between them? On one side are tight dapper little men,—women in mob caps of spotless purity, who speak not one word nor understand one syllable of Spanish; while on the other side there is the Spanish costume, Spanish language; the very air is Spanish, being redolent of mules and garlic, and French is as unintelligible as Arabic. At the very next stage the horses put into the diligence are of a new race—bony, skinny, ill-used creatures, galled and chafed by the ill-contrived harness, and bruised by the stones thrown at them by the driver from time to time to urge them on their way; decidedly inferior animals to the close-shaven mules, their companions, whose multifarious tinkling bells remind one at each moment one is in Spain. The scenery, though less wildly picturesque than that of the other passes into Spain, is pleasantly diversified, the road winding in and out narrow defiles, once robber-haunted. To the right is the splendid peaked outline of the Pyrenees, and an occasional glimpse of the blue Mediterranean is caught at the left. On almost every eminence may be seen ruins of some old keep or tower, around which many a tale of horror still lingers. The road traverses several beds of mountain streams, that are occasionally swollen by autumn and winter rains so as to be impassable.

The little villages, exposed for so many centuries to perpetual invasion, would have had, under any other circumstances, a ruinous and desolate appearance, but the newly gathered maize hanging in golden festoons from window to window, and filling the very balconies to overflowing, together with the bunches of crimson capsicums also hung out to dry, lent them a gala-like appearance. It was high holiday, All Hallows Eve; all the inhabitants of the hamlet seemed wending their way to Gerona in festive attire. There were waggons drawn by patient oxen, with their heads cruelly fastened together, and under the waggon cover might be seen a cluster of merry faces all bent on holiday-making. Troops of mules jingled along, each bearing two or more riders, and we passed hardy pedestrians swinging the staff characteristic of the district, and shouting out wild national airs in chorus. The hills were clothed with olives and cork trees, whose cinnamon-coloured trunks lent a singular and pleasing effect to the landscape.

At last we reached Gerona, and the diligence rumbled through the narrow streets, so narrow that it seemed at first sight impossible for so lumbering and bulky a vehicle to pass, without damaging the bales of goods exposed at the doors of the open shops. The Fonda di Diligencies was by no means inviting; the dark, sloppy, mule-smelling covered courtyard, was full of the quaintest vehicles, and treading on it was much like walking over a Scotch “sappy midden.” Up the dark staircase we wandered, the host being far too much occupied to pay us any attention; and discovered, to our horror, that the inn was full to overflowing—as all the world and his wife had come to Gerona for the fair. We next applied for admittance at the Fontana di Oro. The entrance was as filthy as that of the other, but the rooms over it had that peculiarly clean bare look incident to red tile floors and spotless white curtains. Here, again, the same difficulty; the inn was crowded, only one room remained. The hostess—a pretty, bustling little body—was loud in her astonishment that we were not contented. What could people want more? Madre di Dios! were there not curtains? to say nothing of the magnificent Virgin dressed in white satin, under a glass case! To the amazement of the Señora, we were not convinced, and the gentlemen of the party insisted on permission to bivouack in the “Comedor,” or large draughty salle à manger.

“But the beautiful curtains,” she still rejoined.

Leaving her to cogitate over the unreasonableness of the stranger, we sallied forth to see the quaint old town. The streets were all silent and deserted, and many of the houses crumbling into ruins: it looked as if the town had just been evacuated by an enemy. A narrow winding lane led us to the summit of the hill, graced by the glorious cathedral. It is approached by a flight of eighty-six steps, broad and easy of ascent. Service was over, but a faint smell of incense still lingered—that odour of sanctity which in Spain, above all other countries, the priests did well to adopt. A side door leads to the grand deserted old cloisters, built round a garden, which no doubt was once adorned by choice blossoms, under the care of the departed monks. The abandoned monasteries all through Spain are sad to see: though no country has gained more by the secularisation of monks, still the antiquarian mourns over the grand old buildings given up as habitations for the bats and the owls, and gradually sinking into decay.

Imagination peoples the cloisters again with solemn slow-pacing forms. Under their sober garbs what restless hearts must have beaten, chafing against the solemn sham of their lives. How often must the novice, who had been at first carried away by enthusiasm and excitement, have felt crushed by the daily monotony of his life, and have pined for the joys and pleasures of common humanity; the heavy masonry, shutting him out from the busy stir of life, must have grown hateful to his eyes, and suggested to him the thought that his was a death in life—that he was entombed. Others, doubtless, rejoiced in the barriers which shut out from eye and ear the successes of rivals, and the favours of fortune lavished on their foes: like the ostrich, who buries her head in the sands, that she may not see the approach of her enemies, they found peace and tranquillity in forgetting that such things as ambition and worldly success were, but belonged not to them. Others, again, of elevated intellect, of peculiarly ecstatic and devout natures, attained to a spiritual communion so complete and perfect that they detested the body for imprisoning the soul, and dwelling with passion on the thought of death. Such lines as the following were penned by the “Commendador Escriva,” or Warden of one of these religious houses.

Come, Death, ere step or sound I hear,
Unknown the hour, unfelt the pain,
Lest the wild joy to feel thee near
Should thrill me back to life again.
Come sudden, as the lightning ray,
When skies are calm and air is still,
E’en from the silence of its way
More sure to strike where’er it will.

Leaving the cloisters’ shades, we emerged into the quiet streets, down which peasant girls were bringing home flocks of goats from the hillside, where they had browsed all day: each goat seemed to know its own habitation, and quietly walked in at the open door of its master’s house. We now bent our way to the market-place, the focus of animation: all the people of the town were there—laughing and shrieking at the top of their voice with true Spanish shrillness.

Spanish Frontier.

As in most of the Spanish towns, the principal square had arcades all round, in which were the shops; the numerous tents and booths were pitched in the centre of the place. The women looked picturesque in their white lace mantillas, which, however, were by no means so becoming to them as their black ones. The men seemed all to have put on their new winter caps, so brilliant were their hues—brightest crimson, purple, and brown. The proper adjusting of the said caps, which in shape resembled that of an old-fashioned nightcap, seemed of the highest importance. We saw a group surrounding a handsome lad of sixteen, arranging his brilliant carmine cap in half a dozen different fashions ere they were satisfied with the general effect. Some wear the cap with the long end, hanging on one side of their faces, others let it fall at the back, or turn the end over their heads, so that the general effect resembles the head-gear of an Italian peasant woman. There were cakes and fritters of all sorts frizzling over charcoal fires, ears of maize being roasted in queer black pots, and innumerable vendors of iced drinks and lemonades, all praising their wares with discordant cries, which speedily drove us from the scene.

The Catalans are not handsome: they are a sturdy, strong-built, robust race. They have ever been a rebellious, independent people: at one time they were almost a province of brigands and smugglers. Within the last few months they have shown their determination and power of will, by sending up a strong deputation to Madrid, to obtain the repeal of an Act they considered injurious to their trade, and, in spite of court and cabinet ministers, gaining their point.

On our return to the Fonda, we found the Señora, undeterred by our arguments, and determined to have her way, busily occupied in arranging two extra beds in the small sleeping-room. We momentarily acquiesced, and proceeded to partake of a most homely dinner—puchero, or bread floating in greasy soup, with fish stuffed with garlic, consumptive fowls, and omelettes full of saffron. Having concluded this elegant refection, we resolved to test the merits of the Opera, which we saw advertised all over the town. Considering the size and small importance of Gerona, we expected to find a booth and a performance much on a par with what is to be met with at a Sunday fête at St. Cloud. What was our surprise to find a really pretty and tasteful little theatre, got up with the minimum of expense and the maximum of taste. The decorations were of the simplest nature, mere tastefully painted boards, panelled with a simple beading, which was gilt. The merit consisted in the general fresh and gay appearance. The boxes contained but straw chairs, and the seats in the centre of the building were of rough, unplaned wood, more like perches than seats.

A well-painted drop-scene hid the stage from view. While the impromptu orchestra was trying our nerves to the utmost with its twanging and squeaking, we had time to look at the audience. All round the house was one tier of boxes, if they could be so named, as the divisions were low enough to admit of talking to neighbours on either side. In the centre, facing the stage, was a gorgeously decorated box, with the royal arms painted over it, and, by a pleasing fiction, reserved for majesty. Pretty faces adorned the balcony, and the dresses were so clean and fresh they would not have disgraced any Madrilenian belle. But the most attractive part of the audience were seated in the pit. Peasant women in all their finery—beads encircling their necks, heavy gold drops in their ears, and their thick glossy black hair coiled round and round at the back of their heads, and ornamented with silver filagree pins enriched with bottle-glass, or emeralds, as they call them. The men, with their gay Phrygian caps, further enlivened the scene. They took their places with the greatest order and decorum, and waited with exemplary patience for the rising of the curtain. It was indeed a pleasant sight to see the joyful, expectant faces all around, and to reflect on the quiet, harmless nature of their amusements, so different from the uproarious diversions of a Dutch kermis and the coarse brutality of an English fair. It is a great advantage to peasants where the costume is retained, as their good plain clothes give them an air of respectability which the poor in this country never have; tawdry bonnets and battered hats stand out ill in comparison with mantillas, clean bright handkerchiefs, and sombreros.

The “Ballo in Maschera” was given most creditably. The tenor had a rich oily voice; the bass was not very base; and though the prima donna shrieked at the top of a cracked voice, and behaved throughout more like a galvanised eel than a woman, still the little page had a true clear pipe like a throstle, and the general result was most creditable. The dresses were admirable, and the acting, if occasionally grotesque, was by so much the more amusing. Between every act a general rush out of the theatre took place to the neighbouring cafe, and great was the pains taken by the attending José that his Dulcinea should have her own place on her return. The peasants thoroughly enjoyed the whole performance, and encored rapturously, frowning indignantly at the strangers who allowed any occasional incongruity to betray them into laughter. The conclusion came all too soon, to judge by their faces. But the fun of the fair was not over. All night through, parties paraded the streets, singing ballads and love ditties with a vigour which did more credit to their lungs than their ears, and which elicited many an anathema from the gentlemen who, in spite of the landlady, had taken possession of the draughty “comedor” for the night.

Early the next morning we bade farewell to the grand old cathedral, where a priest was droning through matins. Crowds of working men, and women with picturesque white serge hoods on, were kneeling on the pavement, commencing the day with thanksgiving. From the top of the high steps was a splendid view of the Pyrenees, their grey peaks contrasting with the crimson streaks of early dawn. The prayers seemed soon ended, and men and women, as they ran down the long flight of stairs, exchanged friendly greetings. On their homeward way the women stopped at the baker’s and slung on to their arms one or more large bracelets of loaves, which is the shape in which the staff of life is there manufactured.