Lerida is an interesting old city, consisting of one long street, running parallel to the river Segre, of which stream tradition records that the daughter of Herodias danced upon the ice till she broke through, and the sharp ice cut off her head, which continued to dance after the body had been whirled away by the current. Behind the town the fortress hill rises abruptly to the height of three hundred feet, and upon the top is the old Cathedral. In 1707 the French made a fortress out of the building, and it has never been restored to religious uses. The Cathedral dates back to 1203, when King Pedro II. laid its corner stone; but it was not completed till after Columbus had discovered America. It is a steep walk up the hill, under a hot sun; but if the tourist will take the walk, and then, under the escort of a soldier, go to the top of the belfry tower, a superb prospect will reward him. The Cathedral has a nave, with two aisles, transepts, and at the eastern end a threefold apse. The octagonal steeple is built in five stages, and from its position on the edge of the lofty cliff seems to be of enormous height. Soldiers sleep and eat within this ancient sanctuary, and not far off is a huge powder magazine. Here Caesar defeated Pompey, and the Goths established a university, and here French and English have fought for the mastery, to the misery and destruction of the native Spaniards. Its last disaster was during the Peninsular War, when the town was surrendered, after unexampled barbarities by the French troops under Suchet.
From Lerida to Zaragoza the ride was dreary and desolate beyond description, – a rough country, absolutely without herbage, the soil a reddish brown and broken up by clefts and fissures, treeless hills and verdureless fields, and long stretches of dry and dusty land. Where houses and villages occurred, they only added to the monotony of the scenery, because their coloring was the same as that of the soil. The people at the stations were largely composed of beggars in the raggedest of old brown cloaks, Wellington boots cracked and rent, and dilapidated sombreros. As we drew near the mountains, clouds gathered and a storm of rain, hail, and snow came sweeping down upon us. When the storm had passed, the ground was covered with snow and hail, which added to the dreariness of the landscape. At Tardienta, where there is a branch line to Huesca, a fearful wreck of humanity performed upon a guitar in front of our carriage, drawing forth sounds from its belly compared with which a cat concert on a back fence would be dulcet melody.
We implored him to cease, adding a donation of copper coin which was more potent than our prayers. Such strains in the midst of such scenery were too lamentable and depressing to be borne.
At Lerida a pleasant middle-aged gentleman entered the carriage, and, finding that smoking was not expected, was about to withdraw. A polite intimation that the ladies would not object to his cigar after dinner induced him to remain, but he took great pains to puff the smoke out of the window and to shorten the period of his fumigation. As the time passed we began to converse in French, and although it was evidently difficult for him to recall the language and he often lapsed into Spanish, we became well and pleasantly acquainted. He shared his afternoon lunch with us, and a lady of our party made tea for him, and civilities and courtesies were intercharged in the real Spanish style. He proved to be one of the editorial fraternity, the editor of three Spanish journals published in Barcelona and Madrid, and a prominent member of the Cortes. We were sorry to part with a pleasant companion when we reached Zaragoza, and lie continued on by night to Madrid.
Alighting at the railway station we struggled through the dirty crowd into a dingy room, where our luggage was examined, as it is in every Spanish town of any size. In the course of our journeying we met travellers who had been robbed at these examinations of a variety of portable articles, but we were so fortunate as to escape this kind of internal revenue in our many wanderings through Spain.
These duties over, we were conducted to a long, low, dirty omnibus, in which the passengers -were seated, all except ourselves smoking villainous cigars, while the trunks were tossed upon the roof by baggage smashers who reminded us of home. We started, only to be stopped at the gates and our hand-bags examined by the officials who collect the “octroi” tax upon edibles and goods for sale brought into the town. At last these examinations were ended, and we drove across the grand old bridge built over the Ebro in the fifteenth century, beyond which are the two cathedrals of Zaragoza, in which service is held alternately every six months.
The streets of the old city are neither regular nor clean, and the pavements are rough. In some streets it is impossible for vehicles to pass, and in others there is not room for both vehicles and foot-passen gers. From these narrow ways we emerged into the broad and open Plaza de la Constitucion, and were backed up to the door of the Fonda Europa. The “maid of Zaragoza” who showed us to our rooms was a man, and men are the usual ” domestics ” in Spanish inns. The Spanish hotels are kept upon the ” American plan ” – that is to say, a fixed price is charged per day, which includes rooms, meals, lights, and attendance. The meals are at regular times, though only the dinner is at a precise hour. The Spaniard takes a cup of chocolate and a piece of bread on rising, as the French take their coffee. From ten till one, the regular breakfast, consisting of a choice of three courses, goes forward; and the table d’hote dinner is served at different hours in different places, between six and eight o’clock in the evening. Smoking during meals, and after meals, and at all hours of the day and evening, is allowed in all hotels; and one who tries to change the habits of the Spaniards in this respect undertakes a hopeless task. The very servant who sweeps your room or brings up your morning coffee will have a cigarette in his mouth, and I have seen a smoking barber shaving a customer, who held a lighted cigar between his fingers and puffed vigorously between the cuts of the razor. The ordinary wine of the country is furnished with meals, and carafes of water are also freely supplied. The wine is strong and is said to be less acid than the French wines and more healthful. The water is sometimes very good, especially at Madrid and in Granada; but I should not care to drink much of it at Zaragoza or Seville. Bottled waters can always be had at low rates, and ice is not the unknown luxury in Spain that it is in some parts of Europe. The natives always sleep after the morning meal. The siesta is more than a custom, it is one of the conditions of life in a Spanish town. Even the beggar sprawls upon the pavement in the sun and sleeps like a dog in the highway at the appointed hour. The French cabman is not more determined to have his breakfast than is every Spaniard, from the highest hidalgo to the lowest menial, to secure his hour of sleep in the middle of the day. Whole cities seem to go to sleep when the summer sun has climbed into the zenith. We soon got into the way of resting at that hour and of sleeping when the accommodations were nice. I cannot say much for the cleanliness of the rooms or the excellence of the fare at the best hotel in Zaragoza, but when compared with the rest of the town in these respects, it might be easily considered first-class.