Spain Travel – From Madrid To Cordova

The journey from Madrid to Cordova is usually taken in the night, because the express trains run only at that time. For a considerable part of the way, the country is so uninteresting that it is as well to pass over it in darkness as by daylight. The scene at the Madrid railway station was, on a small scale, like that on the departure of an ocean steamer from a New York pier. Friends, with huge bouquets of flowers, thronged the platforms, and laughter and tears accompanied the incessant chattering of the travellers with those who had come to wish them a pleasant journey. There was but one sleeping-carriage, and as all its places were engaged, it was a matter of interest to know who were to be our companions. Two gentlemen, with a quantity of hand luggage, entered the compartment shortly before the train started, and, after establishing themselves, began to converse in Spanish, from which they gradually glided into French. After we had talked some time together, we discovered that our fellow-travellers were Englishmen, who had lived in the United States, and that we had many mutual friends. They were bound to Ronda, where they had interests in a railroad which is to connect Bobadilla and Algeciras and open some valuable mining properties to the market. A large part of the Spanish mines are superintended by English and American engineers and worked by means of foreign capital. Sometimes the Spanish owners of property throw every hindrance and obstacle in the way of new methods of work or transportation, even as we have seen opposition to steam vessels and railroads in our own country. All progress is by no means improvement, but this is a poor age for the conservative almost anywhere except in Spain.

The railroad crosses the broad plains of La Mancha, celebrated as the scene of Don Quixote’s adventures. The windmills still stand and grind the corn on these treeless hills, which seem to roll in swelling outline to the horizon. In the moonlight, as we rode along, we could imagine the mad knight on his rawboned steed, charging upon these broad-armed foes, and coming to grief, as many do who fight the wind or “beat the air.” The night was mild, and flocks of sheep could be seen in the fresh pastures, tended by shepherds. As we went further south, we passed the town of Val de Penas, which gives name to one of the best of Spanish wines, the common wine of this whole region. It is of a dark, rich color, with more body and sweetness than claret. The people mix it with water, but they rarely drink too much of it. Indeed, in all our travels in Spain, we saw no Spaniards intoxicated; and we often saw them buying water at the railway stations to drink by itself or mix with wine.

Early in the morning we crossed the Sierra Morena range of mountains. The scenery is wild and grand. This range of mountains divides the valley of the Guadalquivir from that of the Guadiana. The road is a fine specimen of engineering, often climbing along a narrow shelf of rock between precipitous mountains, winding in and out among the most rugged and fantastic cliffs, caverns, and precipices. Onward and upward we climbed, and daylight showed us a far-extending view from the top of the range, over the beautiful Andalusia. Olive groves and orange orchards, and cork-trees, and vineyards, and fields full of poppies and daisies, and multitudes of other brilliant flowers gave color to the landscape. Great aloes with their long spikes guarded the roads, and plantations of roses filled the air with fragrance. The distant country had the delicate grayish blue tint which fills our American atmosphere in August, and on the horizon rose in dim outline the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada. The change from the red-brown, treeless regions of Aragon and Castile to this earthly paradise of Andalusia was delightful. The towns seemed buried in foliage, the air was full of perfume, the birds were singing, and a11 nature was beautiful in spring attire. Under such pleasant impressions, in the bright and dewy morning we alighted from the train at a railway station in a garden, where we gathered a handful of roses before the deliberate porter had found our luggage and brought it to the carriage.

We were at Cordova. Outside of the town, along the Alameda, a few men were preparing for a fete by erecting booths and frames for fireworks; and here and there a woman and child might be seen, returning from market with a jar of milk or a few vegetables. But there was a great stillness over all things. We drove through well paved and clean streets, which were very narrow with white houses on each side, to the Fonda Suiza, a good hotel, in whose little courtyard a blindfold donkey goes round and round ten hours each day, turning an Oriental “sakia,” or water-wheel, to supply the inn with water. As we passed through the town, we caught many a glimpse through the gateways of a marble patio, or central courtyard, with palms and orange-trees and bowers of roses. Around these courtyards there are galleries upon which the rooms open, and over them are drawn, in the heats of summer, brown linen shades, which exclude the powerful rays of the sun. In the centre of many of these courts there are fountains; and the murmur of the water, the hum of insect life, the voice of a bird, and in the evening the music of a guitar are the sounds which chiefly break the stillness of the place. When the infrequent railway trains come to the far-off station, a clattering stage goes through the streets; but few wheeled vehicles disturb the pavements worn by the feet of horses and mules and asses, which do the transportation of man and merchandise upon their backs.

How different is the Cordova of today from that place of which history tells us, and which still has some memorials of its greatness! Once this was a large city, a centre of European civilization, a second Mecca to the Mohammedan, and the rival of Oriental capitals. Here the arts flourished, and hither flocked multitudes of students. The city was great before the Christian era, and when it became the Moorish capital it was unrivalled in its splendor.

It is recorded that, under the Moorish princes in the tenth century, the city and its suburbs contained 300,000 inhabitants, mosques to the number of 600, 800 schools, 50 hospitals, 900 baths, a library of more than half a million of volumes, and an annual revenue of $30,000,000. In 1235, Ferdinand took the city, and the reign of the Moors was over. Discord and faction had prepared the way for conquest and decline. From the entrance of Ferdinand, the prosperity of Cordova deserted it; the population dwindled from hundreds of thousands to seventy thousand, in the seventeenth century, and it is now said to be less than forty thousand. Even such a number seems like exaggeration to the traveller who walks through the quiet streets, often without meeting a soul, and finds in the market-place only a few hundreds of people at the most important hours of traffic in the early morning, a few beggars basking in the sun, or some dirty children making their way to the ancient mosque.

It is at once a rest and an annoyance for an American to travel in Spain and come to such a city as Cordova. The stillness and solemnity of the place are good for tired nerves and weary brains, which have been excited and worn in the atmosphere and action of American life; but there is also a reaction from the enforced slowness and moderation which characterize everything here. But it is of no use to fret and fume, to attempt to introduce Chicago manners into Cordova, to criticise customs that have existed for half a thousand years, in the hope of changing them, or to make oneself miserable because Cordova is so dead, when Theophile Gautier said fifty years ago that it was a “bleached and calcined skeleton! ”

We will go and see the Roman Bridge and the ruins of the only bath left of the nine hundred in which Cordovans used to wash, and then we will visit the wonderful Mosque.