Spain – In Old Castile

THE journey from Bilbao to Santander is a continuous glory of mountain views. The train runs saucily along under beetling crags, whence the gods of the hills may well look down in wonder and displeasure on this noisy invasion of their solitude. We almost saw those ancient majesties folding themselves grandly in mantles of purple shadow, but hardly less royal in bearing were the muffled figures of the lonely shepherds tending their flocks on the very summits. The modern Province of Santander is the renowned Montana, the mountain lair which nourished the chivalry of Old Castile, and from which they made wild sallies to the south, troop after troop, generation after generation, until the Moorish standards were beaten back from the plains about Toledo to the Sierras of Andalusia. Its capital city, Santander, named from St. Andrew, was one of the four coast towns which rendered signal service to Fernando in the conquest of Seville. These towns, lying as they did over against the Cinque Ports of England, came into so frequent conflict with British mariners as to be made in the days of Edward III the subject of a special treaty. A summer resort, however, is a summer resort the world over, and we found the historic city, which has gracefully fitted itself to the curve of its beautiful bay, crowded with idle people, elaborately dressed, who sat long at the noonday breakfast, and longer yet at the evening dinner, and then longest of all on the benches in the park, where bands clashed and fireworks flared, until the very stars began to blink for sleepiness. Spaniards have a veritable passion for pyrotechnics, and our dreams until the dawn would be punctuated by the airy report of rockets, as if, so Galdos suggests, ” the angels were cracking nuts in the sky.” Every now and then in those soft warm nights there rose a shout of song from the street, and peeping down from the balcony, we would see half a dozen lads and lasses leaping along through the middle of the road, all abreast and hand in hand, in one of their boisterous peasant dances. There are no fewer dangers and sorrows for girls in Spain than in the other Latin lands. In the low-vaulted, mighty-pillared, deep-shadowed crypt under the old cathedral, a crypt that is the very haunt of religious mystery and dread, we came upon a penitent kneeling before the altar, a bit of written paper pinned to her back. In a stir of the chill air this fluttered to the ground, and as she, unconscious of its loss, bowed herself before another shrine, we picked up the paper with a half thought of restoring it ; but seeing in the first glance that it was a rudely written prayer, entreating the Virgin’s pity and pardon for her lover and herself, we let it fall again at Mary’s feet. All manner of thank-offerings, waxen limbs, eyes, and ears, were hung in these candle-lit recesses, little spaces of gold amid the gloom. We had grown accustomed to such fragments of anatomy in the shop-windows, where even votive stomachs are displayed for sale. Although Santander is a dawdler’s paradise, the residents of the city to whom we had letters were no holiday makers, but Spaniards of the earnest, thoughtful, liberal type, busy with large tasks of their own, but never too busy, being Spaniards, to show unstinted kindness to the strangers within their gates. Our brief stay did not admit of a tithe of the excursions they had in mind for us, but my comrade achieved a trip to Santillana del Mar, birthplace of the doughty Gil Blas. In the latest version of her adventures, she set forth from Santander under the bluest of skies, in company with the most bewitching of senoritas. They left the train at Torrelavega, where the shade of Garci Laso, one of King Pedro’s victims, would doubtless have welcomed them, had not their attention been taken up with a picturesque coachman, who was standing dreamily on the station platform. This Adonis proved a complete paragon, who, as they took their romantic course over the hills, delightedly pointed out ivied tower, broken portcullis, and the like, as tidbits for the kodak. Santillana is the shrine of Santa Juliana, a Roman martyr, whose body is said to have been carried thither in the ninth century. Her devotees among the mountain wilds built her in this green valley, overhung by a rude old fortress, a precious church, a jewel of the early Romanesque, about whose walls a thriving community soon gathered. Santillana was throughout the Middle Ages the most important place between Burgos and Oviedo, and gave name to all that part of the Montana. The successive Marquises of Santillana were then great personages in Spain, playing a leading part at Court. One of the proudest families of Old Castile, they claimed descent from the Cid, and cherished the memory of another heroic ancestor, who, in 1385, sacrificed his life to save his king. “‘Your horse is faint, my King, my Lord ! your gallant horse is sick, — His limbs are torn, his breast is gored, on his eye the film is thick ; Mount, mount on mine, 0 mount apace, I pray thee mount and fly ! Or in my arms I’ll lift your Grace, — their trampling hoofs are nigh ! “‘ Nay, never speak ; my sires, Lord King, received their land from yours, And joyfully their blood shall spring, so be it thine secures ; If I should fly, and thou, my King, be found among the dead, How could I stand ‘mong gentlemen, such scorn on my gray head ?’ ” So spake the brave Montanez, Butrago’s lord was he ; And turned him to the coming host in steadfastness and glee ; He flung himself among them, as they came down the hill, — He died, God wot ! but not before his sword had drunk its fill.” The city of Santillana, whose lords once laid claim to the sovereignty of Santander, has shrunk to a forgotten village, and the neglected church is dropping into ruins ; but the inhabitants have abated not a jot of that fierce local patriotism which blinds the provincial Spaniard to all defects of his birthplace and to all excellences of rival towns. A graybeard told the stranger ladies that Santillana was the oldest city in Spain and its cathedral the most beautiful. This latter statement they were almost ready to accept, so richly carven was the yellow stone and so harmonious the proportions of nave and aisle. When they arrived at this miniature Durham they found it closed and silent, with three little boys sleeping on the steps. Through the benevolence of the ever present Spanish loafers, the sacristan was sought out and a ragged escort formed for their progress from chapel to chapel, where rare old pictures and frescos glowed across the dusk. Best of all were the venerable cloisters, weed-grown and tumble-down, but lovely as a mediaeval dream with mellow-tinted arch and column, and with capitals of marvellous device. This crumbling church still keeps a dazzling hoard of treasures. All the front of the high altar is wrought of solid silver, the reredos is a miracle of art, and the paintings of old masters that moulder here unseen would long since in any other land than Catholic Spain have been the spoils of gallery and museum. The cathedral stands just outside the town, whose narrow, crooked streets daunted the carriage ; but these enthusiastic sightseers were all the better pleased to foot the flagging that many a clinking tread had worn and to touch on either side, with their extended hands, the fortresslike houses built of heavy stone and dimly emblazoned with fierce armorial bearings. These grim dwellings were gladdened by the grace of vine-clad balconies, where children frolicked and women crooned quaint melodies over their needlework. ” Will no one tell me what she sings ? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow For old, unhappy, far-off things And battles long ago.” The inn was merely the customary Spanish yenta, rough and poor, the darkness of whose long, low room clouds of tobacco smoke from clumps of gambling muleteers were making blacker yet ; but lemonade was served to the ladies in the open porch with a charm of cordial courtesy far beyond Delmonico’s. As they quaffed this modest refreshment and watched the shifting groups about the venta, which seemed the centre of the social life, there suddenly appeared upon the scene a ghost from the modern world, an everyday gentleman in a straw hat, as citified and up to date as if he had that moment stepped out of a Madrid cafe. All the loungers within and without the yenta sprang to their feet, bared their heads, and bowed low to this anachronism with so profound a deference that the tourists began to wonder if the irrepressible Gil Blas had come alive again. Not he ! This was the Marquis of Santillana, bearing under his arm instead of a sword a bundle of newspapers. The first Marquis of Santillana had been a famous warrior and troubadour. This latest “inheritor of old renown,” seating himself in the midst of his thronging vassals, graciously proceeded, much like a University Extension lecturer, to read aloud, with simple explanations, the news of the day. Such is the final form of noblesse oblige in the feudal valley of Santillana. We were tempted to hunt out other nooks and eyries in the mountains of Santander, to see something of the famous sardine fisheries, to drive along the many-storied coast all the way to Gijon, paying our respects in passing to a noble oak of Asturias, one of the three largest trees of Europe; but always the uplifted sword of St. James drove us on. If we would reach Compostela in season for the annual fiesta de Santiago, there was no time to lose. So, in default of a nearer railway connection, we started due south for Palencia. Our route ran at first through a land of hills, maize, and stone walls that might have been New England, except for the women scratching away in the hay-fields, and politely saluting the train with a flourish of their pitchforks. Then more and more the landscape became Spanish. Little stone hamlets dozed in ever shallower valleys, mule trains and solitary horsemen moved slowly down poplar-bordered high-ways, white as chalk ; there was a slumbering peasant for every speck of shade. But while the men took their siestas, often sleeping where the drowsiness had befallen them, with arm thrown about the wooden plough or with head pillowed on the thrashing roller, there were always women at work — figures clad in the very colors of the harvest, red and gold and purple, binding sheaves, sweeping the fields with stout brush brooms, tending flocks and herds by the rivers, following stray sheep over the hills, with only a handkerchief at the most to protect their heads from the terrible noonday sun. As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves in the melancholy reaches of brown Castilian plain, with the adobe towns, the miserable mud villages, open-air threshing floors, and arid, silent, Oriental look. The only cloud in sight was that which rested for a moment on my comrade’s face. She had so newly tome from our clean and wholesome fatherland that certain features of the Spanish inns still shook her high serenity of soul, and she had suddenly discovered that Baedeker significantly characterized the Palencia hotel as ” an indifferent Spanish house.” In the discreet language of our excellent guidebook this was no less than a note of warning, a signal of alarm. But even Baedeker is fallible, and on arriving at the Gran Hotel Continental, we were met by all the Castilian dignity and grave kindliness of greeting, and led to rooms whose floors shone with oil and scrubbing, whose curtains, towels, and sheeting were white as mountain snow, and whose furnishings were resplendent with two dozen chairs upholstered in orange satin. We seated ourselves in rapture on one saffron throne after another, drank fresh milk from polished glasses, and slept, for this only night of all our Santiago pilgrimage, the sleep of the unbitten. A sweet-voiced sereno intoning the hours set our dreams to music. The following morning we spent in the cathedral, which, though of plain exterior, except for the many-imaged ” Door of the Bishop,” is all lightness, grace, and symmetry within. The organ was pealing and women were kneeling for the mass as we went softly down the high-vaulted nave, our spirits played upon now by the dignity of pointed arches and of clustered columns and now by delicate beauties in tracery and carving. Only here and there were we aware of a jarring note, as in chancing upon a great crucifix whose Christ was decked out in two elegant lace petticoats and a white silk crinoline embroidered over with silver thread. When the chant had died away, an affectionate old sacristan, in a curious red and black coat, delivered us with sundry fare-well pats and pinches over to the charge of a subordinate, who proceeded to display the hidden treasures. These are far from overwhelming, after the glittering hoards of Burgos, Seville, and Toledo, but they are as odd an assortment as sacristy ever sheltered. There was an absurd portrait of Charles I, a freak of foreshortening. At first sight it seemed to be the skeleton of a fish, but on viewing it through a peephole the creature had become a human face. Even so, it was hardly a flattering likeness of the founder of the Austrian line; but as it was Charles I who stripped Palencia of her original powers and dignities, one would not expect to find him complimented here. We turned our attention to the vestments, which, though few, are peculiarly artistic, with devices, stitched in gold thread and in jewel reds and greens, of pomegranates, roses, ecclesiastical coats of arms, angels, Maries, Nativities, and Adorations. These were appropriate enough, but even our reserved conductor, a monastic youth who wore a white, openwork tunic over his black suit, smiled disdainfully as he put before us a time-yellowed ivory box arabesqued with men and lions, the jewel casket of some pet sultana. “But why should it be here?” He shrugged his shoulders. “In truth, it is not holy— a woman’s thing ! Nor do I know how it came to us, but what we have we keep.” The sacristy certainly seems to have kept more than its share of custodias. Our guide first brought out a dainty structure, where grieving angels uplift the cross, and the Sufferer’s halo is wrought of pearls and gems. This was replaced by another, a marvel of goldsmith’s craft, turreted and crocketed with. fine gold, while all about the base are figured Annunciations, Visitations, and other mysteries. Rich as they were, neither of these could compare with that famous pyx of the Escorial, inlaid with ten thousand precious stones. Then our conductor took us with a mighty turning of monster keys, pulling of rusty bolts, and fall of clanging chains, to see the supreme custodia of all, one great dazzle of silver from fretted base to dome and pinnacle, save as among the Corinthian columns of the first stage glisten golden forms of the Apostles, and of the second, winged shapes of cherubim and seraphim. This shining tower, some three or four centuries old, is beheld by Palencia only on Corpus Christi Day, when, holding at its heart the golden monstrance which holds the Host, it passes as a triumphal car throughout the city. Priests walking on either side make a feint of drawing it by tasselled cords, but ” little would it budge for that,” said our guide, in high disdain, opening a door in the frame beneath to reveal the benches where strong men sit concealed and toil at a motor crank. He had much more to show us, including precious old tapestries of the Netherlands, and a St. Katharine by Zurbaran, with a light on the kneeling figure as pure and bright as a moonbeam; but we had to press the fee on his Castilian pride, when at last the vulgarity of luncheon summoned us away. For the historian, basking in this last smile of civilization, the afternoon passed blissfully among the orange chairs, but I sallied forth once more, attended by our benignant landlady. The rays of the sun flashed down like deadly arrows and I had pleaded for a carriage, but longed to beg its pardon when it came, so faded, rheumatic, and yet august was that fat old chariot, groaning and tottering as it rolled, but lowering the pomp of a velvet-carpeted staircase whenever we desired to alight. Our progress made a grand sensation in those drowsy streets and squares, a retinue soon gathered, and nobody seemed surprised when, after a round of Jesuit and Dominican churches, we drew up before the madhouse. I had wished to look upon this building, because it is reputed to have been a dwelling of the Cid ; but the hero of Castile was as unknown to my gentle escort as to the medical priest whom she must needs call forth to meet me, or to the hapless lunatics whom he, in turn, insisted on my seeing. A town which had forgotten its chief citizen naturally fails to keep on sale photographs of its cathedral, so we packed our memories in default of anything more substantial and took the evening train to the northwest. Four hours of hushed, moonlit plain, and then Leon ! This is a name of thrilling memories, and we stepped out into the midnight silence of that once royal capital whose kingdom ” stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rhone,” so awed that even a rickety ‘bus, and a smuggler who tried to hide his trunk behind our honest luggage, hardly broke the spell. My comrade, still new to Spanish ways, had fears that the illustrated card which I had forgotten to stamp would not have reached the hotel. She asked me why I did not telegraph ; but some days later, when we sent a telegram at noon, took a way-train at five, and reached our destination at ten, simultaneously with the telegram which I might as well have brought in my pocket, she was set free from New World prejudices. The unstamped card went through without question, a picture of a pretty mountain maid being quite as acceptable to the postal clerks as the portrait of their young king. We were expected at the hotel, the best in town, but so dirty and malodorous that we would better have camped under the stars. There had been some attempt to sweep the floor of our dingy chamber, as we could see by comparing it with stairs and corridors. Sour milk and sour bread were served with a compensating sweetness of manner, but the experiences of that night belong to oblivion. The joy of the morning ! Guided by a shy little scullery lad, smooched of face and ragged of raiment, but with all the instincts of a cavalier, we stepped out into those stately streets, with their haughty old houses, balconies, coats of arms, arches, and battlements, as into an animated picture book. It was Saturday, and the town was all astir with peasants come to market, every peasant as good as a romance. Such brightness of figured kerchiefs, homespun petticoats, trunk hose, jackets, sashes ! The little girls were quaintest of all, dressed precisely like their mammas, even to those brilliant skirts edged with one color and slashed with another. Many of the women were carrying loads of greens, others plucked fowls, and some had indignant chickens, in full possession of chicken faculties, snuggled under the arm. As the chief city in a far reach of luxuriant plain, Leon becomes the focus, every Saturday, of flocks of sheep, droves of pigs, and herds of cattle, together with innumerable mules and donkeys bringing in grain, fruit, and all manner of garden produce. We chanced upon the market itself in the arcaded Plaza Mayor, under shadow of the towered court-house, with the tapering spire of the cathedral overlooking all. The great square hummed like a beehive and sparkled with shifting color like a field of butterflies. We found ourselves first in the bread market. Under wide umbrellas of canvas set on poles women were perched high on wooden benches, with their gayly shod feet supported on stools. Beside each woman, on her rude seat, was a brightly woven basket heaped with the horny Spanish loaves. Close by was the fruit market, with its piles of red and purple plums, pears, grapes, green peppers, lemons, and, beyond, patches of melons, cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes, beans, and that staff of Spanish life, chick pease, or garbanzos. The meat market appeared to be itinerant. A man in blue blouse, short brown breeches, and dove-colored hose adorned with green tassels, was leading a cow by its crumpled horn ; an old woman, with giant silver hoops in her ears, a lavender shawl knotted about her body, her scarlet skirt well slashed so as to show the gamboge petticoat beneath, and so short for all its purple frill as to display the clockwork of her variegated stockings, was carrying a black lamb, nestled like a baby in her arms; another walking rainbow bore a live turkey; and a lad, whose rosy-hued kerchief, shawl, and sash floated like sunrise clouds about him, balanced on his erect young head an immense basket of eggs. There was a pottery section, too, — square rods of cups, plates, and jars in all manner of russet tints and graceful shapes. The various divisions were intermingled and blent into one great open-air market, the cheeriest sort of neighborhood picnic, where gossip, jest, and laughter were accompanied by the cackling of fowls, braying of donkeys, and cooing of babies. Here fluttered a colony of bantams cast, their legs well tied, down on the cobble-stones ; there stood carts laden with bunches of the yellowish dried heather; here two patient oxen had laid themselves out for a snooze ; there a wicked little ass was blinking at the greens; here squatted a damsel in gold kerchief, garnet bodice, and beryl skirt, weighing out fresh figs ; there sat a cobbler pegging away at his stall, his patrons waiting with bare feet while he mended their shoes ; stands of cheeses, coops of chickens, children sleeping among the sacks of grain, a boy waving a rod on which was strung a gorgeous assortment of garters; loitering soldiers, limping beggars, bargaining ladies attended by their maids, all gave notes to the harmony. Yet with all that trampling, small weeds were growing green amid the slippery stones that pave the square. The Leon peasantry is said to be the finest in all Spain, and surely no concourse of people could have been more honest, courteous, and dignified than this. The women wore ornamented wallets beneath. the skirt, and warned us gravely against carrying money in exposed pockets ; but we moved freely among the press with notebook and kodak, always the centre of curious groups, and our purses were not touched. Indeed we found it difficult to spend even a peseta, so modest were the prices. For as large a jar as our little squire could well carry we paid the value of three cents. The men often rebuked the children for staring and questioning, but stood themselves at gaze, and asked us frankly what we were about. When we replied that we had never seen so beautiful a market, and were taking notes and photo-graphs that we might not forget, the peasants smilingly passed the word from one side of the plaza to the other, and all, even to the chief of police, who was strutting about waving an unnecessary staff, were eager to offer information and to point out picturesque subjects. But the morning was slipping away, and we had almost forgotten the oracle of a Spanish gentleman in Palencia : ” Leon has three sights for the visitor, and only three — the Cathedral, San Isidoro, and San Marcos.” We proceeded to take these illustrious churches in order. The Leon Cathedral, closely analogous to the Gothic masterpieces of northern France, is far beyond all poor praises of mine. Now in process of repair and stripped of the garish shrines of modern worship, it may be enjoyed purely as architecture — a temple of high beauty. Let artists tell of its towers and finials, flying buttresses, gables, cornices, galleries, piers, facades. Yet one need not be an artist to delight in the glow of its great rose windows, or to spend fascinated hours poring over the chiselled story book of portals, stalls, and cloisters. Such inimitable glass, burning still with the fervors of the mediaeval faith ! And such a world of divinity and humanity, even down to childish mischief, in those multitudinous carvings ! The Passion scenes are repeated over and over, creation and judgment are there, the life, death, and ascension of the Virgin, hero legends, animal fables, and folk-lore. Gothic energy is abundantly manifest. St. George smites the dragon, St. Michael tramples the devil, Samson splits the lion’s jaws, and Santiago, carved in ebony on a door in the mellow-hued old cloisters, is riding down the Moors with such contagious fury that the very tail- of his horse is twisted into a ferocious quirk. On angel-guarded tombs pictures of ancient battle, murder, vengeance, are graven in the long-remembering stone. But marble birds peck at the marble fruit, the ivory peasant drives his pigs, the alabaster shepherd watches his flock, the lad leads his donkey, the monk feeds the poor at the abbey gates, and plump stone priests, stowed away in shadowy niches, make merry over the wine. If we had revelled overmuch in the art values of the cathedral, San Isidoro administered a prompt corrective. This Romanesque church, dating from the beginning of the eleventh century and a forerunner of the Escorial in that it was founded by the first Fernando of Castile as a royal mausoleum, is excessively holy. Not merely are the bones of the patron saint kept on the high altar, but the Host is on constant exhibition there. Unaware of these especial sanctities, we were quietly walking toward the choir, when an angry clamor from behind caused us to turn, and there, stretching their heads out over the railing of an upper gallery, was a line of furious priests. In vain the sacristan strove to excuse us, ” foreigners and ladies,” who did not know that we were expected to fall upon our knees on first entering the door. We had been guilty of no irreverence beyond this omission, and even under the hail of priestly wrath did our best to withdraw correctly without turning our backs to the altar. But nothing would appease that scandalized row of gargoyles, whose violent rudeness seemed to us the greater desecration. Thus it was that we did not enter the frescoed chambers of the actual Panteon, said to be imposing yet, although the royal tombs were broken up by the French in 1808. Very wrong in the French, but unless the manners of San Isidoro’s bodyguard have degenerated, the soldiers of Napoleon may have had their provocation. It was now high noon, and the market-place had poured all its peasants out upon the streets. Groups of them were lying at luncheon under the trees, passing the pigskin bottle of wine from mouth to mouth. Beggars were standing by and blessing them in return for scraps of the coarse and scanty fare. “May God repay! May the saints prosper thy harvest ! ” A woman riding home, sitting erect on the red-striped donkey-bag, handed a plum to her husband, who trudged beside her in gray linen trunks and green velveteen waistcoat, with a white square of cloth set, for ornament, into the middle of the back. He divided the fruit with a pleading cripple, who called after them as devoutly as a man with half a plum in his cheek well could, ” May the Blessed Virgin ride forth with you and gladden all your way ! ” We had, because of the increasing heat, conjured up a carriage, a species of invalid stage-coach, and were therefore the envy of little schoolboys in blue pinafores. Their straw satchels bobbed on their backs as they ‘gave chase to our clattering ark and clung to steps and door. This mode of locomotion did not save us time, for our coachman had domestic cares on his mind and drew up to bargain for a chicken, which finally mounted with a squall to the box seat ; but in due Spanish season we stopped before the plateresque facade of San Marcos. This is a still unfinished convent, rich in artistic beauties and historic memories. Here, for instance, is a marvellously human head of St. Francis, a triumph of the polychrome sculpture, and here is the little cell where the poet Quevedo, “colossal genius of satire,” was imprisoned for over three years by Philip IV, the patron of Velazquez. It is not so easy to cage a mocking-bird, though the satire-pencilled walls have been well whitewashed. But San Marcos was originally a hospital for pilgrims on the road to Compostela, and conch shells are the central ornamentation of arch and vault and frieze. We accepted the rebuke ; we would loiter no more. Early that afternoon we took train for Coruna, after which some agency other than steam must transport us to the medieval city of St. James.