Spain – The Mediterranean Slope Of The Great Plateau

IN a few hours we al e able to travel from the inhospitable plateaux to the hot valleys and plains of Murcia and Valencia debouching upon the Mediterranean.

The spurs from the Sierra Nevada, which approach the coast to the north of the Cabo de Gata, are separated by ramblas, or torrent beds, and gradually decrease in height as we proceed north. The torrent of Almanzora separates the Sierra de los Filabros from its northern continuation, the Sierra de Almenara, which for a considerable distance runs parallel with the coast. It sends out a spur in the direction of Cartagena, which terminates in Cabo de Palos. The inland ranges run almost parallel with this coast range, and are seperated by longitudinal valleys opening out into the great transverse; one of the Segura. These ranges are the Sierra de Maria, “el Gigante” (4,918 feet), with the Sierra de Espuria (5,190 feet), the Sierra de Taibilla, the Calar del Mundo (5,410 feet), and the Sierra de Alearaz (5,910 feet). The ranges to the north and east of the Segura must be looked upon as continuations of those mentioned. They attain their greatest altitude in the Moncabrer (4,54:3 feet), and their spurs form several notable promontories, amongst which are the volcanic Penon de Ifach and the Cabos de la Nao and San Antonio. Near the latter rises the Mongo (2,337 feet), which has become known as a crucial trigonometrical station.

The mountains which dominate the valley of the Jucar present the feature of a denuded plateau, above which rise a few isolated summits. The aspect of t e basin of the Guadalaviar is far more mountainous. On the west it is bounded by the sierras having their nucleus in the Mucla de San Juan (5,280 feet), and to the east rise the imposing mountain masses of the Javalambre (6.569 feet) and Pena Golosa (5,9-t2 feet). The summits of the range which extends from the latter to the great bend of the Lower Ebro, such as the Muela de Ares (4,332 feet), the Tosal de Encanades (4,565 feet), and Bosch de la Espina (3,868 feet), bear Catalan names. A range of inferior heights runs parallel with it along the coast, the interval between the two forming a strath, or vale. This coast range terminates abruptly in the Sierra de Moutsia (2,500 feet), close to the delta of the Ebro, and before the pent-up waters of the river had excavated themselves a path to the sea it extended right to the Pyrenees.

All these mountains are for the most part naked, and shru’ s appear like black patches upon their whitish slopes. They stand out clearly against the blue and limpid sky, whose transparency has won Murcia the title of the ” most serene kingdom.” The climate in the valley of the Segura is even mole African in its character than that of Andalusia. There are only two seasons, summer and winter, the latter lasting from October to January, but the temperature throughout the year is equable, owing to the mistral which blows from the cool plateau and the sea breezes.

The flora, especially along the coast of Murcia, is a mixture of tropical and temperate plants. There are trees which shed their leaves in winter, others which retain their foliage throughout the year, and by the side of wheat, rice, maize, olives, oranges, and grapes are grown cotton, sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, nopals, agaves, and dates. Tropical diseases have found a congenial soil in this country. Yellow fever has been imported occasionally from America. The putrefying substances left upon the fields after floods poison the air, and the brackish waters of the lagoons, or albuferas, are the breeding-places of fever. The salt likes to the south of the Segura, however, exercise no deleterious influence upon the climate.

Nowhere else in Spain is the rainfall so inconsiderable. Between Almeria and Cartagena only eight inches fall during the year; in the environs of Alicante and Fiche the rains are, perhaps, a trifle more copious; and at ‘Murcia and Valencia, which lie at the foot of mountains that intercept the moisture-laden winds, they are more abundant still, though even there they do not exceed eighteen inches. Moreover, most of the rain is immediately absorbed by the thirsty air, and only a very small quantity finds its way through ramblas to the sea. The quantity is altogether insufficient for agricultural purposes, and if it were not for the rivers the country would be a desert. Cultivation is carried on only along the rivers and in a few other favoured spots. Veritable steppes extend on both banks of the Segura. The campos between Almeria and V Villajoyosa, fur a distance of 300 miles, are sterile and bare. The brine and magnesia springs, which rise at the foot of the saliferous triassic rocks, fill small lakes, which dry up in summer, and in August the lagoons near Orihuela become covered with a thick crust of salt.

The beneficent rivers, whose waters are drunk by the huertas, or gardens, near their banks, are the Segura, Vinalapo, Jucar, Guadalaviar (known as Turia in its lower course), Mijaros, and several others. They all resemble each other as regards the ruggedness of their upper valleys and the savageness of the gorges through which they pass. The Segura forces itself a passage through several mountain defiles before it reaches the plain of Murcia. The Jucar and Guadalaviar Wad-el-Abiad, or ” white river “) have fewer obstacles to overcome, but some of the gorges through which they pass are nevertheless of sui passing beauty.

The volume of these rivers is comparatively small, and the husbaudmen dwelling along their banks economize the water as far as possible. Reservoirs, or pantanos, have been constructed at the outlet of each alley, whence the water is distributed over the fields by means of innumerable canals of irrigation. The irrigated huertas contrast most favourably with the cultivated campos in their neighbourhood. Irrigation has probably been practised at Valencia since the time of the Romans, but the Moors appear to have been the first to construct a regular system of canals. Eight of these, ramifying into innumerable arequias, have converted the environs of Valencia into an Eden. Carefully manured as they are, these fields are never allowed to lie fallow. Stalks of maize fifteen and even twenty-five feet in height may be seen in the gardens, the mulberry-tree yields three or four harvests annually, four or five crops are obtained from the same field, whilst the grass is mown as many as nine or ten times. This luxuriant vegetation, however, is said to be watery, and hence the proverb, ” In Valencia meat is grass, grass is water, men are women, and women nought.”

The huertas of’ the Jucar, though less famous than those of Valencia, are even more productive. Orange-trees predominate, and around Alcira and Carcagente alone 20,000,000 oranges are picked annually, and exported to Marseilles.

The oases in the great steppe which extends from Alcoy to Almeria are less fertile than those on the .Jucar and Guadalaviar. That of Alicante is fertilised by the Castalla, the waters of which are collected in the reservoir of Tibi. The huerta of Elche, on the Vinalapo, is chiefly occupied by a forest of palm-trees, the principal wealth of the inhabitants, who export the dates to France, and the leaves to Italy and the interior of Spain.

The huerta around Orihuela, on the Lower Segura. cannot boast of a palm forest like that of Elche, but is more productive. The inhabitants of Murcia, higher up on the same river, though they enjoy similar advantages, have failed to profit by them to the same extent. Their huerta, which contains a third of the total population of the province, is fertile, but cannot compare with that of their neighbours. Nor do the fields of Lorca equal them. They have not yet recovered from the bursting of a reservoir, the freed waters of which carried destruction as far as Murcia and Orihuela.

The moral and physical character of’ the inhabitants of a country exhibiting such great contrasts could hardly fail to present corresponding differences, and, indeed, we find that the inhabitants of the fertile gardens and those of the barren steppes and mountains differ essentially, in spite of their common origin.

The people of Murcia cannot be said to have issued victoriously from the struggle against barren rocks, desiccating winds, and a dry atmosphere. They abandon themselves to a fatalism quite oriental, and make hardly any effort at improvement. Lazily inclined, they take their siesta in and out of time, and even when awake preserve an aspect of impassiveness as if they pursued a reverie. They are not much given to gaiety, and, though neighbours of Andalusia and La. Mancha, do not dance. They are full of rancour and savage hatred when offended, and have exercised but small influence upon the destinies of Spain. industry with Catalans, Navarrese, and Galicians, nor in of any other part of Spain. The Valencians, on the other hand, are an industrious race. They not only cultivate their plains, but scale the barren slopes of the rocks with their terraced gardens. They are a gay people, famous for their dances. Ferocious instincts are asserted to underlie this outward gaiety, and a proverb says that ” the paradise of La Huerta is inhabited by demons.” Human life is held very cheaply in Valencia Formerly that town supplied the courtiers of Madrid with hired assassins, and the numerous crosses in and around it are evidence of so many murders committed in the heat of passion. In Valencia, however, the use of the knife is a tradition of chivalry, as are duels in some other parts of Europe. The conscience of the murderer is perfectly at ease; he wipes the blood-stained knife upon his girdle, and immediately afterwards cuts his bread with it. The dress of the Valencians consists of loose drawers confined round the waist by a red or violet scarf, velvet waistcoats with pieces of silver, white linen gaiters leaving the knees and ankles bare, a bright kerchief rapped round the shaved head, and a low hat with brim turned up and ornamented with ribbons. A many-coloured cloak with a broad fringe completes this costume, and, draped in it, even the meanest beggar possesses an air of distinction. In their customs and modes of thought the Valencians differ equally from their neighbours. They speak a Provençal dialect, mixed with many Arabic words, but more closely related to the language of the troubadours than the dialect of the Catalans.

Agriculture is the leading pursuit of Valencia and Murcia, and a few branches of industry are carried on. Many hands are occupied in making the white wines of Alicante and the red ones of Vinaroz and Benicarlo; the grapes of the vine-yards of Denia, Javea, and Gandia, to the north of Cabo de la Nao, are converted by a complicated process into raisins ; and the esparto grass growing abundantly on the sunny slopes of Albacete and Murcia is employed in the manufacture of mats, baskets, sandals, and a variety of other objects. There are hundreds of metalliferous lodes, but only the lead mines in the hills of Herrerias, to the east of Cartagena, are being worked on a large scale, and that by foreigners. Zinc has been worked since 1861, and mines of copper, lead, silver, mercury, and rock-salt abound at some distance from the coast ; but, from want of means of communication, their exploitation would not pay.

Valencia is the more industrial province of the two. Albacete manufactures the dreaded navajas, or long knives; Murcia has silk-mills; Cartagena rope-walks and other establishments connected with shipping, Jativa has a few paper-mills; but Valencia and Alcoy are now the great centres of industry. The former manufactures the plaids worn by the peasantry, silks and linens, earthenware and glazed tiles. Alcoy supplies most of the paper for making Spanish cigarettes.

The towns of Albacete and Almansa are important, as lying on the great high-road which connects the plateau of La Mancha with the Mediterranean seaboard. But they cannot vie in wealth and population with the towns situated on the coast, or within twenty-five miles of it. Lorca, the southernmost of these towns, lies picturesquely on the slopes and at the foot of a hill crowned by a Moorish citadel. The old town, with narrow tortuous streets and the remains of Arab palaces, has been given up to Gitanos, and a new town with wide and straight streets built in the fertile plain irrigated by the Guadalentin. A fine road joins Lorca to the small harbour of Aguilas, twenty miles to the south.

In descending the valley of the Guadalentin we pass Totana, the head-quarters of the Gitanos of the country, and Alhama, well known on account of its hot springs, and finally enter the mulberry and orange groves which surround the capital of the province. Murcia, though an extensive city, hardly looks like it, for its streets are deserted, its houses without beauty, and the only objects of interest are the cathedral, the shady walks along the banks of the Segura, and the canals irrigating the terrace gardens. Far more interesting is the neighbouring Cartagena, which was destined by its Punic founders to become a second Carthage in truth, and its magnificent harbour certainly affords great advantages for commercial and military purposes. The discovery of the rich lead and silver mines near the town contributed much towards its prosperity. Successive Spanish Governments have attempted to restore to Cartagena its ancient strategical importance. They have constructed docks and arsenals, and erected impregnable fortifications, but, in spite of this, the population of’ the town is hardly a third of what it was in the middle of the eighteenth century. The character of its commerce is almost local, notwithstanding its excellent port, and esparto grass, mats, fruits, and ore constitute the leading articles of export.

Alicante, though far less favoured by nature, is a much busier place, thanks to the fertility of the huertas of Elche, Orihuela, and Alcoy, and the railway which connects it with Madrid. Only small vessels can approach the quays and piers of the town, nestling at the foot of a steep rock crowned by a dismantled citadel. Larger vessels are compelled to anchor in an open roadstead. Other coast towns of Valencia, such as Denia and Cullera, offer still less shelter, but are nevertheless much frequented by coasting vessels. Formerly vessels which entered the Bay of Valencia during winter were bound to exercise the greatest caution, owing to violent easterly and north-north-easterly winds and fogs, for there existed not a single port of refuge. This want has now been supplied by the construction of a port at the mouth of the Guadalaviar, known as El Grao (strand) de Valencia.

Valencia, the fourth city of Spain in population, is the natural centre of the most fertile huertas. The ” City of the Cid ” still preserves its crenellatcd walls, turrets, gates, narrow and tortuous streets, balconied houses, the windows of which are shaded by blinds, and awnings spread over the streets to protect passers-by from the rays of the sun. Amongst its numerous buildings there is but one which is really curious : this is the Lonja de Seda, or silk exchange, a graceful structure of the fifteenth century. Gardens constitute the real delight of Valencia, and the Alameda, which extends along the banks of the Guadalaviar, is, perhaps, the finest city promenade in Europe. The commerce of Valencia rivals that of Cadiz.

To the north of Valencia the cultivable country along the coast is narrow, and incapable of supporting large towns. Castellon de la Plana, at the mouth of the Mijaros, has attained a certain importance, but farther north we only meet with small places inhabited by fishermen and vine-growers. Formerly the coast road was defended by castles. chief among which was Saguntum, famous for its glorious defence against Hannibal. Its site is occupied by the modern town of Murviedro, i.e. “old walls,” and its ruins are not very imposing.