Spain Travel – Granada

WE left Ronda in the morning with comparatively little regret at the parting. One might, to be sure, linger there for days without seeing anything new, and still enjoy it because of the incomparable situation of the town and the general picturesqueness of its older portions. But there lay ahead of us Granada, to which we looked forward with anticipations that easily swallowed up the reluctance we might otherwise have felt in leaving, — anticipations which before nightfall were destined to be more than realized.

With due precaution we were early at the railway station, and while waiting for the train were introduced to what I believe to be the smallest stove now extant. It resembled nothing so much as a pocket camera attached to a perfect Mississippi of stove-pipe, and its presence in the great, barnlike waiting-room of the first class was ludicrous in its contrast of proportions. It is used, I suppose, to create a comfortable delusion of warmth during the winter months, but its effect cannot be much more than psychically suggestive ; and as it was a warm April day, we had no need to rely upon it, but basked in the sunshine of the platform outside.

After leaving Ronda the railway skirted the valley for a time, the prospect from the windows becoming steadily more dreary as the line climbed to the mountain pass, —a point even higher than Ronda, and Ronda herself has an altitude of more than two thousand feet above the sea. But after crossing the line of the heights and beginning a swift descent of the other side, the train coasted rapidly to another inland plain, and the aspect of nature began to brighten once more. It was, on the whole, a pleasant forty miles to Bobadilla, where we were to change not only carriages but railroads as well. For at Bobadilla the traveler passes entirely out of the zone of British influence and trusts himself unreservedly to Spain.

Nothing of moment occurred on the way to the junction. It was a balmy spring day, but in spite of that the other occupants of the compartment insisted, in true European fashion, on having the windows hermetically sealed and on smoking occasional cigarettes, all of which soon produced an atmosphere of surpassing thickness, relieved only by the transitory visits of the conductor, who threaded his perilous way along the running-board outside, examining tickets. In Spain, as in all Europe, it is indispensable to command the corner seats if one desires any air at all. Left to themselves, the natives will have none of it, and will generally insist on smoking, too, — sometimes even in compartments marked se prohibe fumar. They may even invade compartments reserved for senoras solas and smoke there, according to some accounts ; but it is not often the case, surely. There, at least, a woman may be fairly safe from tobacco, and generally also from men of any description. But elsewhere the Spaniard expects to smoke as a matter of course, and we were told one story—it exists, I think, in all languages — about a worthy caballero who, having rolled his cigarette and having discovered by anxious inquiry that the lady next him objected seriously to tobacco in any form, remarked calmly, ” Then, madame, you are about to be exceedingly uncomfortable ! ” — and began to smoke.

The guide-book proclaimed a restaurant at Bobadilla which was deemed worthy of a ” star,” and a trial of it later led us to concur heartily in that encomium. A porter, locally known as a mozo, insisted on taking entire charge of our luggage, and disappeared amid the rows of cars, volubly pro-testing the while that we need have no fear for its safety so long as he remained unpaid ; and we, with one longing, lingering look after our retreating equipage and recalling Hamdushi’s contemptuous estimate of Spanish honesty, dismissed it forthwith from mind and hastened to the fonda, as such restaurants are universally called. It proved to be a long, narrow room, containing a long, narrow table, about which the several nations of the world, in the persons of wandering representatives, were earnestly eating against time. Before each was a mountainous pile of plates, the topmost filled with food ; and as soon as the diner finished with the course in hand, — or even ventured to look away, —the plate would be whisked off by a ubiquitous waiter and other viands substituted, the last plate always remaining, thanks to accurate calculation, for the cheese. This was, of course, a mesa redonda, for Spain vies with Italy in calling the table d’hôte a “round ” table with a high disregard of the dictates of geometry ; and it was a thoroughly excellent one, as well, as is very likely to be the case with any Spanish railway restaurant.

Ordinarily, the Spanish railway is considerate enough to allow a full half hour at the very least for the consumption of refreshments, which gives time for an imposing meal of at least half a dozen courses and the inevitable bottle of wine. The service is bewilderingly rapid, and the waiters seem to be omniscient as well as omnipresent. To turn one’s attention from one’s plate is ordinarily fatal. In a trice the tortilla, or whatever remained of it, is gone, — and you look back to find a brace of tiny chops staring you in the face ! As a result of this celerity everybody finishes his meal before the multiplicity of signals that preludes the departure of every train has even begun.

Now the departure of a train is, in Spanish usage, a matter of much greater pomp and circumstance than is the case in any other country known to man. Five minutes or so before the scheduled moment, the station master sounds a prolonged tocsin on a large bell hanging midway of the long platform, and from every side may be heard the sonorous intonation or chant of senores viajeros en tren,—the final word being spoken, or rather sung, with a rising inflection that is often almost churchly in effect. The senores viajeros obediently scamper from all directions at once and resume their seats, but the train is not yet nearly ready to go. Ultimately the same bell rings again, — three strokes, this time, — and whistles shrill from all sections of the train, doors slam, and the engineer, if he is at his post and graciously pleased to do so, blows a warning and starts — starts so gently and easily that every one is enchanted. If, however, the engineer is busy talking to somebody else, he postpones starting until the conversation is finished. And as a sort of parting benison the chief of the station blows a raucous horn. The crowds disperse, the tumult and the shouting die, and nothing more happens at that station until the next train comes along a few hours hence.

At every station there is a tiny drinking booth, legibly marked ” cantina,” to which it seems to be the regular thing for railway hands, traveling military guards, passengers, and all to repair while the train waits, to purchase a thimbleful of something, — presumably aguardiente. But although we saw the train hands repeat this dose at almost every station on the way to Granada we could not discover that it produced the slightest intoxication. Indeed, I do not now recall that I saw a single drunken man in all our journey through Spain, unless a noisy fellow outside Segovia could be set down as such, — and I incline to believe he was demented. Generally speaking, the Spaniard is temperate.

Bobadilla is nothing but a great railway junction, and a busy one. It boasted, as we discovered, two sets of station buildings on either side of a network of tracks, which were to be crossed by means of a subway. On the farther side lay our train for Granada, and true to his word the mow had de-posited every article we had intrusted to him in a proper compartment, with the important exception that it was marked for senoras solas. The presence of one mere man in that holy of holies was evidently not to be tolerated by the obdurate conductor, even when assured by the senoras that they did n’t in the least object, — and for the second time that day I had an illustration of the sanctity of the notice “Ladies Only.” I relate this simply to show the care that is commonly taken to make sure that unescorted women shall have every reasonable comfort when traveling by rail.

Just as in the morning we had crossed from one fertile plain to another by threading steep mountain valleys, so again in the afternoon did we the like, our train climbing patiently out of the levels around Bobadilla into an inspiringly rugged, rocky country given over to pasturage and olive orchards, until at last it had gained the heights and descended by easier grades to the broad and famous vega of Granada, —a tract which, for breadth and fertility, far surpassed anything we had yet seen. The climb through the mountains was interesting, — too much so to make us regret the painful slowness of the train. Before we had left the pleasanter valleys behind, the landscape was brightened by hundreds of fruit trees in full bloom, blushing pink amid the green of the fields, or royally purple against the grays of upland boulders. Owing to the height to be scaled, the railway made immense circles around the sides of a deep valley, always higher and higher, and seemingly pivoting on an isolated rock in the centre of the basin which constantly changed its rugged shape.

In due time, having reached a sufficient altitude, the train branched off into the heart of the mountains, through a district which the Baedeker de-scribed as ” savage.” It was not especially so, how-ever, for the gray-green of the olives relieved the prospect of utter barrenness. The fields were hopelessly rocky, however, and the melancholy rivers that we crossed lay at dizzy depths below the clanking, clattering trestles. There were not nearly as many flowers as we had seen on the road to Ronda, nor were the gorges as impressive.

The stations which we passed, however, bore names redolent of a stormy past, — names that Irving’s tales of Granada had made familiar from childhood. But they were peaceful enough now, and no clattering horseman spurred his way through narrow streets or across the plains with tidings of good or ill to Christian or to Moor. The platforms were invariably crowded with idle onlookers of both sexes and all ages, but all of one condition –poor. Women stood gazing at the cars, their babies slung in some wonderful manner in their shawls. Children wandered up and down the platforms, crying cakes and oranges for sale. Sharp-voiced maids shrilled their calls of water or goat’s milk for the thirsty. Ragged boys pattered up and down with aguardiente in bottles. The air at every station was resonant with manifold cries, none musical, and all monotonous. “Quien quiere agua?” –” Who wants water?” — ” Quien quiere leche?” ” Naranjas ! ” It was Babel, surely, but without con-fusion of tongues. Here for the first time we came upon the commendable custom of announcing, not only the name of the station, but also the length of time that the train was to stop. — ” Antiqueraa-a-a ! Cinco minutos ! ” thus considerately in-forming the passengers just how much time was available for the pleasures of the cantina, or for another smoke on the platform, strolling up and down.

It was late in the afternoon when we passed the last of the mountains of Loja and made a rapid descent to the vega of Granada. It was a smiling plain, fair as a garden of the Lord, dotted with villas, pleasant with trees, already green with the growing crops, in striking contrast with the rich chocolate-red of the soil. Down through its midst wandered the silver thread of the river Genil, glittering in the afternoon sun, while beyond to the eastward, sharp and keen as razor-edges against the gathering dusk of the blue, ran the pure white ranks of the Sierras. No sky could be bluer; no snow whiter.

It was seemingly at the very feet of these imposing peaks that our train came to a halt amidst a general clamor and impetuous assault of porters and hotel men. Almost without effort on our part we were borne bodily from the car, bag and bag-gage, gasping out the name of our hotel and vainly clutching at the passing throng to stay our headlong career; and ultimately we were cast precipitately into a rickety landau and whirled away from the station over a surprisingly bad road lined with plane trees, toward the city. As usual, the station lay far outside, and — equally as usual — the road to it was rutty, dusty, and unpaved. As we bumped our headlong way into town, we were too much occupied in holding on to take in the full grandeur of the view, or the beauty of the city’s situation. We had a dusty notion of an impending mass of great, white summits, rising above a tumultuous sea of tiled roofs, from which also arose the towers of many churches and the enormous bulk of a black cathedral. Just beyond the mass of dull-colored buildings we could descry a lofty and heavily wooded hill crowned with tawny towers. But the swaying of the carriage as it jolted rapidly over rut and tramway impaired this first view of the city and the Alhambra of our dreams. Ultimately we passed within the buildings of the city, rattled at a smart pace up the street of the Gran Capitan and the street of the Catholic kings, — no city in Spain is complete without these two, — and turned abruptly around a corner, through an arch, and up into a spacious park of elms. Then, and not until then, did our horses slow to a sober walk, and we sank back on the cushions to drink in what lay before and above us.

It was certainly very steep, this climb out of Granada to the Moorish citadel on the overhanging height, but the instant the carriage had crawled up through the yellow gateway in the lower wall, the surroundings became indescribably beautiful. The road ascended through a dense forest of elms now just in bud. Shady footpaths meandered here and there through the trees. Torrents of green and turbid water dashed singing by from the heights above, their color bespeaking their origin in the eternal snows. Birds twittered their vespers in the treetops and were answered from far below by the faint melody of the cathedral bells. Through the delicate tracery of the branches, not yet in full leaf, we could see the outlines of ancient wall and massive tower, ruddy in the sunset, high above us. After the heat and bustle of the long day on the train, this secluded park, with its waters and its quiet, was soothing and delightful. Let it be admitted that this approach to the Alhambra was distinctly British, that the trees were English elms, and planted by that excellent Briton who subsequently won fame as the Duke of Wellington. It surely need disappoint no one on that account, and there are few more ideally charming spots in all Spain than this glorious park of trees.

The road turned and twisted its way up the hill-side, and at last the toiling horses passed under the great main entrance of the faubourg of the Alhambra. We had left the great main Gate of Justice far below, its sculptured hand and key on successive arches still bearing mute witness to the legend of the castle’s supposed impregnability, and now were in the little hamlet that makes of the summit almost a distinct town. Within the walls a small collection of buildings has been permitted to grow up, — a few houses, a small hotel or two, and some shops devoted mainly to the sale of photographs and antiques. These dwellings and stores, together with the palace of the Alhambra and the ruined palace of Charles V, constitute what amounts to a separate upper ward of Granada. On nearly every side the hill is too steep to be accessible and it is only by long windings that the road scales it on the west and south. In reality it is a sort of double hill, its two spurs separated by the wooded ravine where Wellington planted his elms; and the lower of these hills contains other buildings as well as the more celebrated of the hotels. A squeaking tram-line has managed to scale this lower eminence. But the real precinct of the Alhambra, walled with ruddy stone, remains a tiny city by itself. There you are in a realm of your own. The city of Granada lies at your feet, its noises subdued to a confused, murmurous hum. Its squalor and dust are forgotten. To see it at all you must go to the brink of the precipice and peer down into it. One might abide long in the Alhambra without caring to visit the greater city below at all, or even thinking of it, isolated as one is from it by that abyss filled with secular elms.

Thus it came to pass that we were to live for a space in the Alhambra, — meaning thereby the walled precinct which covers the entire summit of the loftier hill, but not the famous palace of that name which most of us commonly associate with the word. We had found a tiny hotel, in a tiny street, with a tiny garden behind it in which a fountain was splashing. Just over its garden walls we could see the tops of the elm trees, harborage of numerous nightingales. Save for the birds, the plash of waters, and the rumble of an occasional cart through our narrow street, all was quietness and peace. A scant two hundred yards divided us from the obscure gateways of the Alhambra palace — and fairyland.

Nevertheless, although Granada was not essential to our happiness, we did go down through the forest to the city, — not once only, but many times. And while we had at first voted it a stupid and thoroughly unattractive town which must always suffer severely from the glaring contrast with the enchantments of the Alhambra overhead, we later found many byways that we learned to love after their own fashion, albeit nothing we found among them ever rivaled the palace of the Moors, or that glorious grove on the slanting hillside.

Most of Granada is still squalid and beggarly. Its streets, like all Moorish city ways, are narrow and tortuous where they have been allowed to remain in their native state. But the streets of more modern aspect, like that of the Catholic kings and the spacious alameda, or boulevard, that leads down to the river with its shady promenades and paseos, are fairly agreeable, and here and there even pretentious. It was down by the river-side that we wandered first, on a balmy Sunday, to see the ceremony of swearing in the new recruits. All the world and his relations were there, redolent of much garlic, but good-tempered and anxious we should see all that went on, — even offering to raise the ladies in sturdy arms that they might overlook the heads of the gathered throng !

The new soldiers were mustered in the broad paseo, bareheaded and solemn with the sense of weighty responsibility. All around stood veteran troops, cavalry, infantry, artillery. Before them had been erected an open-air altar, where, as we drew near, the archbishop or some other lofty dignitary of the Church was celebrating mass. There was no music save for the occasional blare of bugles, thin and clear, and at that distance we could hear not a word of the service. But when Holy Church had completed her ministrations, the bugles blew again and the recruits marched in a hasty single file under the extended banner, — perhaps a sort of modern sub jugum like that of the Roman captives, — kissing the hem of the flag and thus enrolling themselves as true and loyal soldiers of His Most Catholic Majesty Alfonso XIII. Then all the crowd broke up with decorous Sunday hilarity, and wandered homeward through the shady alameda, while the roadway on either side of the promenade was filled with a marching host, with prancing horses, and with rumbling gun-carriages dashing madly up the grade.

All this formed a scene of much gayety and animation, with much brilliant coloring of uniforms to offset the sombreness of the mantillas with which the women universally draped their heads. And yet, despite all this animation and bustle and movement, our first impression of Granada was disappointing. Even the older streets lacked in picturesqueness, and the new ones, furbished up as they were to make a modern appearance, were as unwelcome as tasteless adornment on a withered crone.

I think we found the cathedral rather disappointing, too. It was our first great Spanish church, for that of Ronda was but a little one. It possessed the usual characteristic of all the cathedrals of Spain, — impressive bulk, — but it lacked to an uncommon degree inspiration and grace. It was of irregular shape, and, as is common in Spain, it made no out-ward pretense to being cruciform, that being left entirely to the internal arrangement of aisles and side-chapels, and transepts that did not project. It was vast and dim within, for in Spain religion seems to demand a degree of gloom, and the few really light and cheerful churches one meets generally produce an effect of surprise. That of Granada is certainly not one of those. Almost nothing could be seen, even on a sunny afternoon, without the sacristan’s tapers.

It was here for the first time that we came upon the characteristic internal arrangement which it will be well to speak of at some length, because almost every great church in the country possesses it, and because it affords one of the few instances in which the Spanish architects and churchmen seem to have diverged from accepted models and to have devised a style of their own. With very rare exceptions, the cathedrals of Spain are really great sheltering edifices, of intricate design and vast elaboration of detail, inclosing a sort of secondary church within. The latter consists of two parts, — the choir (coro), an oblong space walled off from the nave and aisles, open only on the side toward the high altar ; and the capilla mayor, containing the high altar itself, walled off on every side from the apse, but open toward the choir. These two inclosures, whose walls are often elaborately adorned with sculpture, face each other in the midst of the church, generally on either side of the crossing, and are connected by a railed passageway for the use of the officiating priests. The worshipers congregate in the space between the two, close against the railings, and this constitutes the real church. To light it adequately, the Spanish have devised one other characteristic feature, the cimborio, or lantern, often a thing of great beauty, surmounting the crossing in a sort of low dome, or tower, filled with glass. The obvious effect of all this is to make a church within a church, like the “portiuncula” of Santa Maria degli Angeli at Assisi, vastly magnified and elaborated. From the architectural standpoint, however, it is a highly unfortunate arrangement, since the intruding screens of both choir and chapel break into the nave and apse, and thus cut off a portion of what should otherwise be a splendid vista. A great oblong section is cut out of the midst of the cathedral by implanting there two minor structures connected by an isthmus of railing. However, one grows accustomed to it, as we discovered, and in time may even acquire a taste for it, provided the effect is not too badly marred by the decoration of the screens with too many poor statues and too much baroque ornamentation, — the easily besetting sin of Spanish architects.

Such is the general arrangement at Granada ; and the gloom of the interior, relieved only by light filtered through ancient glass, we found to be excessive, making it almost impossible to see anything of the side-chapels. A voluble but rapacious sacristan helped us to see some of the features there by the aid of a taper on a long pole, — among other things two portraits, said to be accurate copies of contemporary work, representing Ferdinand and Isabella. These, with the tombs in the royal chapel close by, containing the bodies of Ferdinand, Isabella, Philip I, and Juana the Mad, form the chief lions of the church.

As is very common in the Moorish sections of Spain, this cathedral succeeded a mosque, its sacristy standing on the actual site of the old city’s principal Mohammedan shrine. It was to the door of that mosque that the valiant knight Del Pulgar affixed his scroll bearing the audacious words ” Ave Maria,” using his dagger for a nail, when the Christian host was besieging the city. The mosque itself has, of course, quite disappeared, and in size probably did not compare with the present Christian church.

Externally, the cathedral cannot be said to be especially remarkable. Its façade seemed to us commonplace. Its eastern end was semicircular and easily the most notable feature as seen either from the main thoroughfares or from the heights above. The incorporation of the sagraria and other adjacent edifices in the mass of the cathedral tends to give the ground plan an amorphous character, such as is common among the Spanish churches, even in the better examples of Spanish Gothic.

Our wanderings through the adjacent streets of the city developed nothing save a more intimate knowledge of the local propensity for begging, which is shared by nearly all the children of the southern cities. There was a general dearth of commercial activity, save among the hucksters and venders of peanuts along the curbstones, and the shops seemed dark and unattractive. The notable exception was a brass-mongery where we spent much of our time, — for Granada is famous for its brass. Nowhere else does one find it of such a color, — an unbrazen, almost silvery sheen, that gives even to the humblest vessels an air of distinction. It was here that we first came upon the Spanish barber’s basin, the original of the diminutive brass bowls which to-day the barbers of every Spanish town employ to announce their trade, hanging them in tinkling pairs from their doorposts. I imagine that the real basins are not actually used today, except possibly in very primitive localities, save as equivalents for the familiar barber’s poles of other lands ; but in days gone by they were an essential part of the barber’s equipment and one such incidentally achieved immortality as the helmet of Mambrino. In appearance they are merely shallow basins of brass with a wide and only less shallow flange, out of which a segment has been cut, resembling nothing so much as a huge bite. Into this slot, which is conveniently shaped for the purpose, the patient was accustomed to insert his neck, thus bringing his face and chin into convenient position for laving. At least such was the idea given us in pantomime by the industrious little man who presided over the shop and its fascinating wares.

By far the most interesting part of lower Granada, however, we found to be the narrow section that extends up the valley of the Darro — a tiny stream that forces its way down between the hill of the Alhambra and the loftier heights to the north, through a very deep and constricted ravine. Its northern side is the gypsy district, and below, where the ravine broadens to the vega, lies the oldest part of Granada, still known as the Albaicin. There was not much water flowing through the channel of the Darro ; but, thanks to the melting snows above, we were assured it was never dry, and its waters still serve the peasantry for irrigation, although it is not probable that much gold is now winnowed from its sands. It is a river as mysterious as the fabled Styx, for when it reaches the city proper it disappears from view into a sort of subterranean canal and thus proceeds through Granada to join the Genil on the farther side of the town. But just under the hill of the Alhambra it is a brawling rivulet in a gravelly bed, where kneeling women in gay-colored garb are continually washing their linen. Here we found it pleasant to wander on warm spring mornings, up the winding and shaded paths on the Alhambra side, under the coolness of the cliffs, meeting long trains of donkeys laden with water casks as they came dripping down from the many hydrants by the wayside. Gardens were there, and many a pleasant tree, beneath which were cool stone benches where one might sit at ease, overlooking the rippling river and the opposite hill-side dotted with the mouths of its gypsy caves.

To the latter we did not go. Gypsy life in Gra-. nada today is a very different matter from what it must have been in George Borrow’s time, — little short of civilized, in fact. At any rate, those who daily returned from explorations of the gypsy haunts told tales of neatly whitewashed caves lighted by electricity ! Gypsy dancing, however, unquestionably remains one of the characteristic sights of Granada, and commands a very considerable revenue from the curious. Gypsy ” princes,” so called, in the traditional and picturesque garb of their tattered royalty, occasionally capered nimbly in the lanes of the Alhambra while we were there, and besought us to buy their pictures. But somehow it all had too much the appearance of being a show, instead of an unstudied state of nature, and as such it lacked convincing qualities. It was partly this feeling that the gypsy life of the day was more or less artificial and theatrical, coupled, I suspect, with a desire not to run the gauntlet of any further begging, that held us aloof from the caves of the Romany. For the begging of the Granada gypsies is notoriously audacious and persistent, and forms the great drawback to venturing among the burrows of the race. We contented ourselves, perhaps to our loss, with looking down into it from the lofty hill that overhangs the ravine of the Darro, or across at it from the shady path that follows that winding stream up into the vale between the hills.

Of all our Granada memories unconnected with the Alhambra itself and the still loftier heights above it, none surpasses that of our wanderings through the district of the Albaicin and up the Darro with its little villas and gardens. It was there that we spent many careless hours idly gazing at the pleasant scene, the rugged hills, the wooded copses, the women singing over their heaps of linen by the river’s brim, the camels, — for there are camels in Granada, —being laden with gravel, in the river bed, and all the unstudied life of the peasantry as it flowed by us on the path, always with a pleas-ant nod or smile and never a word of sorrow. Beaming men rode past on their donkeys, sometimes eating placidly, as they rode, from their little bowls of puchero, — the latter a national stew made of the omnipresent chick-peas which De Amicis thought “must be ripened in heaven.” In the little shops by the wayside in the more populous portions of the Albaicin, women were weaving elaborate mantillas of white or black. Overhead, out of a wall of greenery, its trees feathery in the springtime, soared the ruddy walls and towers of the Alhambra. Hospitable women, as we passed, begged us to enter and enjoy the fragrance of their gardens, gathering nosegays for us, and — wonder of wonders ! — pro-testing as they accepted our trifling coppers in ex-change.

Yet even the Albaicin, old as it was and associated with the earliest days of the Moorish occupation, proved rather bare of architectural interest. There were a few old churches to be seen, with mossy belfries and façades fantastically adorned with carving in stone, — nowhere of great distinction. More interesting by far were the little bridges that here and there sprang across the Darro at a bound, and above all the remnant of a Moorish arch that marked the great entrance of the Moors to their citadel above. Apart from these the charm of the Albaicin lay in its villas and its people, and even these would hardly serve as attractions in and of themselves. It is always the magnificence of the Alhambra that saves Granada from oblivion and utter decay. Without these she would languish, — a hungry town, proud of her past, careless of the present, slothful in business, and much given to putting off until manana what would much better be done today.