Spain – Santander, The Asturias And Galicia

THE Atlantic slope of the Cantabrian Pyrenees is a region completely distinct from the rest of Spain. Mountains, hills, valleys, and running waters succeed each other in infinite variety, and the coast throughout is steep, with bold promontories and deep inlets, into which flow rapid torrents. The climate is moist and salubrious. The Celto-Iberian inhabitants of the country have in most instances escaped the commotions which devastated the other provinces of the peninsula, and the population, in proportion to the cultivable area, is more dense than elsewhere. This region, being very narrow compared with its length, has been split up into several political divisions, in spite of similarity of physical features. The old kingdom of Galicia occupies the west, the Asturias the centre, and Santander the east.

The mountain region of Santander begins immediately to the east of the Sierra Salvada and the depression known as Valle dc Mena. The Cantabrian Mountains slope down steeply there towards the Bay of Biscay, whilst their height above the upland, through which the Ebro has excavated its bed, is but trifling. The Puerto del Escudo attains an elevation of 3,241 feet above Santander, its southern descent to the t alley of the Virga hardly exceeding 500 feet. The Pass of Reinosa (2,778 feet), farther west, through which run; the railway from Madrid to Santander, is even more characteristic. An almost imperceptible height of land there separates the plateau from the steep declivity which leads down to the coast, and by means of a canal sixty feet deep, and a mile in length, the waters of the Ebro might be diverted into the river Besaya, which enters the Atlantic at San Martin de Suances. This height of land forms the natural outlet of the Castiles to the sea, and its possession is as important to the inhabitants of the plateau as is that of the mouth of a river to a people dwelling on its upper course.

Immediately to the cast of this pass the aspect of the mountains changes. They rise to a great height, piercing the zone of perennial snow, and their southern escarpments are of great steepness. The Pena Labra (8,295 feet) dominates the first of these mountain masses. Rivers descend from it in all directions : the Ebro in the east, the Pisuerga in the south, and the Nansa, or Tinamenor, in the north-west. Farther west the Pena Prieta rises to a height of 8,295 feet, its snows feeding the Carrion and Esla. It is joined in the north to a mountain mass even more considerable, which bears the curious name of Penas (le Europa, or ” rocks of Europe,” and culminates in the Torre de Cerredo (8,784 feet), covered with snow throughout the year, and boasting even of a few glaciers, due to the excessive amount of precipitation.

The valley of La Liebana, at the eastern foot of the Penas (le Europa, resembles a vast caldron of extraordinary depth. Shut in on the west, south, and east by huge precipices rising to a height of 6,500 feet, it is closed in on the north by a transversal chain, through which the waters of the Liébana have excavated for themselves a narrow passage. The village of Potes, in the centre of this valley, lies at an elevation of only 981 feet above the level of the sea. In Santander and the Asturias, even more frequently than in the Basque country, we meet with secondary chains running parallel with the coast. These are composed of triassic, Jurassic, and cretaceous rocks, and rise like advanced walls of defence in front of the main range of the mountains, which consist of Silurian slates upheaved by granite. It results from this that the course of the rivers is most erratic. On leaving their upper valleys, where they frequently form cascades, their farther progress is arrested by these parallel ranges, and they twist about to the east and west until they find an outlet through which they may escape.

The two funnel-shaped valleys of Valdeon (1,529) feet) and Sajambre are enclosed between spurs of the Penas de Europa. Their torrents drain into the Bay of Biscay, but they are most readily accessible from the plateau. Farther west the mountains decrease in height, and their main crest gradually recedes from the coast. They are crossed here by the Pass of Pajares (4,471 feet), which connects Leon with Oviedo.

The Asturian Mountains are objects of veneration to every patriotic Spaniard. Beautiful as they are, their lower slopes being covered with chestnut-trees, walnut-trees, and oaks, whilst higher up forests of beeches and hazel alternate with meadows, their beauty is enhanced by the fact of their having worded a refuge to the Christians whilst the Moors held the rest of the country. Mount Ansena sheltered St. Pelagius and his flock, and at Covadonga he built himself an abbey. These ” illustrious mountains ” do not, however, merely boast of historical associations, delightful villages, herds, and pastures; they hide within their bowels a rich store of coal, one of the principal sources of wealth to the Asturias.

Galicia is separated from the Castilian plateau by a continuation of the (Cantabrian Pyrenees, which here swerve to the south, and through which the Sil has excavated its bed. To the north of that riser they culminate in the Pico de Miravalles (6,362 feet), and are crossed by the Pass of Predrafita (3,000 feet), through which runs the main road from Leon to Galicia.

In Galicia the hills rarely form well-defined chains, and mostly consist of primitive rocks or small table-lands, with peaks or summits rising a few hundred feet above the general level of the country. The disposition of the small manges generally corresponds with that of the coast. The Sierra do Ranadoiro (3,612 feet), a spur of the Cantabrian Mountains, forms the natural boundary between the Asturias and Galicia. West of it, the Sierra de Meira (2,982 feet) runs in the same direction, but the chains which terminate in Capes Estaca de Vares and Ortegal (i.e. Nortegal, “north cape “) run from east to west, and are dominated by the pyramid of Monte Cuadramou (3,342 feet). The hills to the west of the river Mino (Minho) terminate in the famous promontories of Torinana and Finisterre. or ” land’s-end.” This latter, a steep cliff rising boldly above the waters to the west of the wide Bay of Corcubion, formerly bore a temple of the ancient gods, since replaced by a church dedicated to the Virgin.

The coast of the Asturias abounds in small bays, or rias, bounded by steep cliffs. In Galicia these rias assume vast proportions, and are of great depth. They may fitly he likened to the fiords of Northern Europe, and their origin appears to be the same. The marine fauna of these Galician rias is Britannic rather than Lusitanian, for amongst two hundred species of testacea collected by Mr. MacAndrew there are only twenty-five which were not also found on the coasts of Britain. Moreover, the flora of the Asturian Mountains is very much like that of Ireland; and these facts go far in support of the hypothesis, started by Forbes, that the Azores, Ireland, and Galicia, anterior to the glacial epoch, were connected by land.

The climate, too, resembles that of Great Britain. The rainfall on the exterior slopes of the mountains is abundant, whilst to the south of them, in the arid plains of Leon and Castile, it hardly rains at all. There are localities in the Asturias where the rainfall amounts to more than six feet annually, a quantity only again met with on the western mountain slopes of Scotland and Norway, and on the southern declivities of the Swiss Alps. There is no season without rain, and droughts are exceedingly rare. Equinoctial storms are frequent in autumn, and render the Bay of Biscay dangerous to mariners. The temperature is equable and fogs, locally known as bretimas, are as frequent as in the British Islands. These fogs exercise a strong influence upon the superstitious minds of the Galicians, who fancy they see magicians, or nuvairos, ride upon the clouds, expand into mists, and shrink back into cloudlets. They also believe that the bodies of the (lead are conveyed by the mists from cemetery to cemetery, these fearful nocturnal processions being known to them as eatadeas, or extadhinas.

In spite of an abundance of running mater, the Cantabrian provinces cannot boast of a single nav igable river. In the Asturias the littoral zone is too narrow, and the slope too considerable, to admit of torrents becoming tranquil rivers. Nor are the Tambre and Ulla, in Galicia, of any importance ; and the only true river of the country is the lino, called Minho by the Portuguese on its lower course, where it forms the boundary between the two states of Iberia. The Mino is fed from both slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains, the Mino proper rising on the western slope, whilst the Sil comes from the interior of the country. The latter is the main branch. The Mino has the reputation,” say the Spaniards, but the Sil has the water.” The Sil, before leaving the province of Leon, passes through the ancient lake basin of the Vierzo, now shrunk to a small sheet of water known as the Lago (le Carrocedo. It then passes in succession through a wild gorge, a second lake basin, the tunnel of Monte Furado (“pierced mountains “), excavated by the Romans to facilitate their mining operations, and finally rushes through a gorge intersecting the Cantabrian Mountains, and one of the mildest in all Spain, with precipitous walls more than 1,000 feet in height. Immediately below the confluence with the Mino a second gorge has to he passed, but then the waters of the liter expand, and flow into the sea through a wide estuary. Below Tuy, for a distance of about twenty miles. the river is navigable. But though of small sort ice to navigation, the Mino is nevertheless one of the eight great rivers of the Iberian peninsula, and proportionately to the extent of its basin it is the most copious.

The water of this and other rivers is not needed for agricultural purposes, for it rains abundantly in Galicia and the Asturias, and the emerald meadows of these provinces are as famous as those of England. The flora, however, is upon the whole more southerly in its features than that of the countries to the north of the Bay of Biscay. The orchards produce not only apples, chestnuts, and walnuts, but also oranges, and in a garden at Oviedo dates ripen in the open air. The great moisture, however, prevents certain plants from attaining the commercial importance they would otherwise possess. The mulberry flourishes, but the culture of silk-worms has only yielded indifferent results, and even the grapes, except in a few favoured localities, yield but sour wine of disagreeable flavour. Cider, on the other hand, enjoys a high reputation, and is even exported to America.

The Asturian boasts of having never submitted to the yoke of Mussulmans. Some of the mountain districts preserved their independence throughout, and nowhere could the Arabs maintain themselves for any length of time. Oviedo was called the “city of bishops,” from the great number of prelates who found a refuge there. The Galicians were equally successful in their resistanee to the Moors, and the blood of the Celtic inhabitants of these remote provinces is thus purer than anywhere else in Spain.

In some districts the customs are said to have remained unchanged since the time of the Romans. The herdsmen, or raqueros, of Leitariegos, on the Upper Narcea, form almost a distinct tribe. They keep apart from the rest of the Asturians, and always marry amongst themselves. Old dialects maintain their ground. The peasants ou the coast of Cantabria talk their bable, and in Galicia the dialects differ even from village to village. The gallego, especially as spoken near the Mino, is Portuguese rather than Spanish, but a Lusitanian is nevertheless unable to understand a Galician, owing to the curious sing-song intonation of the latter.

The country supports a dense population, but there are few towns. Many of these consist merely of a church, a town-hall, and an inn. The homesteads are scattered over the whole country. This may be due to an innate love of nature, or perhaps, as in the Basque provinces, to the security which the country has enjoyed during centuries. Foreign and civil wars have scarcely ever affected these outlying provinces of Spain. The manners are gentle, and the bloodthirsty bull-lights of the Castilians unknown. The isolation and peace in which the Cantabrian.; were permitted to exist did not, however, prove of advantage in all respects. Elsewhere in Europe, nobles, priests, citizens, and the peasantry, when threatened by danger, felt constrained to make concessions to each other. Not so in the Asturias, where the peasants were reduced to the condition of serfs, and sold with the land. At the commencement of this century nearly the whole of the land in the two Asturias was in the hands of twenty-four proprietors, and in the neighbouring Galicia the conditions were not much more favourable. Matters have changed since then. The lords have grown poor, the monasteries have been suppressed, and the industrious Asturians and Galicians have invested their hard-earned savings in land. Formerly the feudal Iords leased the land to the cultivators, who rendered homage and paid a quit-rent, the lease remaining in force during the reign of two or three kings, for a hundred s ears, or even for three hundred and twenty-nine years, according to the custom of different districts. These leases, however, frequently led to disputes ; the leaseholders, on the expiration of their leases, often refused to surrender possession, and in numerous instances the law courts sustained them in this refusal.

The Galicians on the coast divide their time between the cultivation of the land and fishing. During the season no less than 20,000 men, with 3,000 or 4,000 boats, spread their nets in the Bays of La Coruna, Arosa, Pontevedra, and Vigo, where tunny-fish and sardines abound. The local consumption of sardines is enormous, and La Coruna alone exports about 17,000 tons annually to America. These pursuits, however, are not capable of supporting an increasing population, and thousands of Galicians emigrate annually. Thrifty and clannish, they usually succeed in amassing a small competency, and those among them who return exercise a civilising influence upon their less-cultivated countrymen. Ignorance and poverty, with all their attendant evils, are great in Galicia, and leprosy and elephantiasis are common diseases.

One great hindrance to the development of the resources of the country consists in the paucity of roads and railways. A beginning has been made, but, looking to the financial condition of Spain, progress will hardly be rapid.

Most of the towns of the Asturias are close to the coast. Castro-Urdiales, Laredo, and Santona, immediately to the west of the Basque provinces, have frequently served as naval stations. The roadstead of Santona is one of the most commodious and best sheltered of the peninsula, and when Napoleon gave Spain to his brother Joseph he retained possession of that place, and began fortifications which would have converted it into a French Gibraltar.

The great commercial port of’ the country is Sant alder, with its excellent harbour, quays, docks, and warehouses, built upon land won from the sea. Santander is the natural outlet of the Castiles, and exports the flour of Valladolid and Palencia, as well as the woollen stuffs known as sorianas and leonesas from the places where they are manufactured. It supplies the interior with the colonial produce of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and its merchants keep up regular intercourse with France, England, Hamaburg, and Scandinavia.* The ship-building yards at the head of the bay have lost their former importance, and the manufacture of cigars is now the great industry of the country. Sardinero, a bathing-place to the north of the town, and the hot springs of Alcedo, Ontaneda, Las Caldas de Besaya, in the hills to the south, are favourite places of resort.

Along the coast to the west of Santander, as far as Gijon, we only meet with villages, such as S in Martin de la Arena (the port of the decayed town of Santillana), San Vicente de la Barquera, Lianes, Rivadesella, and Lâstres. Nor is Gijon, with its huge tobacco factory, a place of importance, though formerly it was the capital of all Asturias. It exports. however, the coal brought by rail from Sarn (Langres), and with Aviles, on the other side of the elevated Cabo de Penas, enjoys the advantage of being the port of Oviedo, situated in a tributary valley of the Nalon, fifteen miles in the interior. Oviedo has flourishing iron-works, a university, and a fine Gothic cathedral, said to be richer in relics than any other church in the world. The mountain of Naronca shelters the town against northerly winds, and its climate is delicious. The environs abound in delightful spots. At Camps de Onis, which was the first capital of the kingdom, founded by St. Pelagius, but now merely a village in a charming valley, are the caverns of Cavadonga, in which the ashes of the saint have found a last resting-place, and which are consequently objects of the highest veneration to patriotic Spaniards. Trubia, the Government gun and small-arms factory, lies seven miles to the west of Oviedo.

Cudillero, Luarca, Navia (a place said to have been founded by IIam, the son of Noah), Castropol, and Galician Rivadeo are mere fishing villages, and only w hen we reach the magnificent rias opening out into the Atlantic do we again meet with real towns. The first of these is Ferrol, which w as only a village up to the middle of last century, but has since been converted into a great nasal station and fortress, bristling with guns, and containing dockyards and arsenals.

La Coruna, the Groyne of English sailors, depends rather upon commerce, manufactures, and fishing than upon its military establishments and fortifications. It is one of the most picturesque towns of Spain, and its favourable geographical position will enable it, on the completion of the railway now building, consider-ably to extend its commerce, which at present is almost confined to England.* On a small island near it stands the Tower of Hercules, the foundations of which date back to the Romans, if not Phoenicians. It was from the ria of Coruna that the ” Invincible Armada ” set out upon its disastrous expedition.

Each of the rias of Southern Galicia has its port or ports. That of Corcubion is sheltered by the Cape of Finisterre ; on the ria of N o3 a are the small towns of Noya and Muros; that of Arosa is frequented by vessels which convey emigrants from the ports of Padron and Carril to La Plata; the ria of Pontevedra extends to the town after which it is named ; and farther south still, the towns of Vigo and Bayona rise on the shore of a magnificent bay, protected by a group of islands know n to the ancients as “Isles of the Gods.” Vigo, with its excellent harbour, has become the great commercial port of the country, but is, perhaps, better known on account of the galleons sunk by Dutch and English privateers.

Three of the principal inland towns of’ Galicia—viz. Lugo, Orense, and Tuyrise on the banks of the Mino. The old Roman city of Lugo (Lucus Augusti) is enclosed within median-al walls, and has warm sulphur springs. Orense, with its superb old bridge, is likewise celebrated for its hot springs, or burgas, which are

said to raise sensibly the temperature of the plain in winter, and supply the whole town with water for domestic purposes. Tuy, opposite the Portuguese town of Valença do Minho, is important only as a frontier fortress. Santiago de Compostela, the famous old capital of Galicia, on a hill near the winding banks of the Saria, is the most populous town of North-western Spain. It was here the grave of St. James the apostle was discovered in the ninth century. The attraction which it formerly exercised upon pilgrims was immense.