Spain Travel – Saragossa

THE journey from Burgos to Saragossa by way of Miranda de Ebro requires an all-day ride in the train ; but for at least half of the distance it is easily one of the finest railway journeys for sheer grandeur of scenery to be found in the whole kingdom. Almost immediately after leaving Burgos, the line begins to penetrate the mountain fastnesses to the north, following a series of rocky gorges that recall the rugged scenery on the Algeciras line, al-though the latter are hardly as magnificent as these of the northern country. Tunnels are not infrequent, but they are happily short and invariably are followed by fresh inspirations in the way of outlook on new and astonishing variations in the landscape. As in the south, the prevailing tone of the whole prospect is gray, and in the early spring there is no such profusion of wild-flowers to relieve the coloring. But there are ruined castles on almost every isolated hill and detached pillar of rock, and the mountains, if not higher than those of Granada, are certainly grander in their outline and more impressively diversified.

It was through this fascinating country that we journeyed all the forenoon, possessed of a compartment to ourselves, so that we might dash unhindered from one side of our train to the other, losing nothing of the view, as the line crossed and recrossed the narrow gorges and glens. But, as always in Spain, the mountains speedily gave way to a level plain, fertile and smiling, and the showers that had been playing in and out of the deep vales in the uplands crystallized into one tremendous deluge of rain as we glided into the great station of Miranda, — which is, like Medina del Campo, an outlying junction without being much else. It was at that moment an active place, trains from four directions having just arrived; but the fonda was equal to the occasion and a half-hour sufficed amply, as usual, to serve every one with a six-course luncheon of admirable quality. Then out into the open again, where fortunately the sun was now shining, and across a maze of tracks to the Saragossa train, which was to bear us eastward down the valley of the Ebro.

It was our first acquaintance with this great northern river, a yellow and impetuous torrent tearing its way down a deep but narrow valley with railroad speed, and hemmed in by mountains of wonderful ruggedness. For several miles, — perhaps a score, — the scenery was impressively grand ; for the rock of these lofty hills was softer than the limestone of Burgos, and had been sculptured into fantastic shapes by the wind and the rain. Here and there great fragments stood detached and alone, and occasionally could be seen thin, projecting wedges of cliff, through which the elements had worn great apertures and rents. The face of the rock was marked with deep pits and hollow caves. Our railway line, following the river’s constricted channel through the mountain wall, often clung to the merest shelf on the face of the hillsides, and now and then was forced to enter the rock itself and dash along through dusky galleries, through whose portals as they flashed past we got fleeting glimpses into the torrent below. As a rule, we were high above the stream, but it was always visible, always turbidly yellow, and always terribly swift as it raced down the narrow channel, in and out among the frowning mountains to the broader meadows and plains that form the domains of Aragon. Its upper reaches were easily the finest river scenery it was our fortune to see in Spain.

Late in the afternoon the scene changed, the river and the railway emerging together from the rugged country into a broader landscape. It was said that we should descry the distant Pyrenees on the northern horizon, but the clouds hung low, and obscured their jagged tops, as they likewise did the nearer summits to the south. And darkness came down upon us long before the train had clattered over the long bridge that spans the Ebro, and came to a halt in the ” Arrabal” station of Saragossa. There was never a porter in sight, and the train disgorged a great throng of passengers who made their way as best they might over the intervening tracks through the gloom to the rows of omnibuses outside. There was an incredible number of them, but we selected the one bearing the highly inclusive title of ” The Universe and Four Nations,” loaded our own luggage upon it, and sat down to await the driver and concierge, who had left the equipage quite unattended. It was evident on their return what they had been at, — more especially the con-cierge, whose Easter rejoicings had already begun to take the form of frequent potation. He was loquacious to a fault, and despite our frigid taciturnity persisted in an uninterrupted flow of lively conversation all the way to the hotel, toward which we jolted over what I think must be the very worst of all the miserable pavements in Spain.

Apparently the ban upon meat had been re-moved, for the late dinner included it without question, along with some most delicious Spanish lobster, — a delicacy not to be overlooked by any traveler of Epicurean taste in the Mediterranean provinces of Spain. The wine was delicious, and the hotel itself was one of the cleanest and sweetest we had yet found, — a welcome relief after the primitiveness of the heart of old Castile, quaint and delightful as that had been.

Saragossa rejoices in the unusual possession of two cathedrals, neither one of which is especially remarkable for beauty, but which together constituted a potent reason for our spending Easter Sunday in the city. The two great churches lay close at hand, and the early morning of Easter found us gravitating between them, anxious to lose nothing, and especially desirous to hear the organs, —not that they were organs of high reputation, for they were quite the reverse, but that we had found the organ music in Spain consistently hushed for so long that we craved to hear just one burst of melody from those lofty groves of pipes. As it turned out, we had our fill ; for the two cathedral services were so arranged that it was possible to hear a large portion of each.

The older of the two cathedral churches is called de la Seo, —” the See,” —while the younger and more ornate is sacred to the Virgen del Pilar, the Virgin of the Pillar, — Saragossa’s most famous religious association. The latter, as it developed, was to have the greater as well as the earlier service, and we made it our first stopping-place, so that it is well to attempt to describe it first, although of the two it is easily the less satisfactory. Its name is derived from its most celebrated relic, the sacred image of the Madonna and the pillar on which it has stood since the days of St. James. In fact, it is standing to-day, — for let us as usual become as little children and believe as many stories as we can, — on the very site where St. James erected the Virgin’s original shrine. The whole precinct is inclosed in the vast church of the Pillar, which to outward view is of a decidedly Byzantine cast. Seen from the great bridges over the Ebro or from the many streets that lead from it to the centre of the city, Del Pilar is utterly different from any other Spanish cathedral, and for a further distinction let it be said that it pleases the eye far more outside than in. At a sufficient distance the effect of its dozen domes and towers is striking, and even the embellishment of the domes with coverings of colored tiles enhances the oriental effect without making it unpleasantly garish. The body of the church is commonplace compared with the adornments of its roof, and makes no abiding impression on the beholder, save by its enormous size and its little resemblance to a church.

When we entered by its western door the organs were pealing splendidly through the vast distances of the nave, and great numbers of people were wandering up and down, or stood closely packed around the open end of the choir listening to the singing, which was supplemented by orchestral instruments as well as by the organs high overhead. There was an entire absence of the set forms of churchly architecture. The choir, walled in as usual, faced the high altar, likewise walled in, and together these constituted the actual church. But they were far from occupying the whole interior of the inclosing structure, and left a generous half at the eastern end for the special and separate shrine of the pillared Madonna. More than ever was it apparent that the external walls of the cathedral were a shell merely, and in this particular case might have sheltered a railway station quite as appropriately as a church. Hare relates that he disliked the internal decoration of the whole, the general plan seeming to him to smack of the tawdriness of a Parisian café. But to us this did not seem a just estimate. The curiously unchurchly effect of the cathedral is simply due to the fact that it is a plain, oblong building devoid of the usual forms of cathedral design, and might serve any secular building exactly as well.

The greater number of worshipers were not gathered at the main service at all, but were congregated in a compact mass in the lower half of the nave around the great shrine of the Virgin. Here was a second church within a church, consisting of a great canopy borne aloft on an elliptical row of splendid marble columns. It was entirely open toward the east end of the cathedral, and in the broad spaces there we found the most people, all devoutly kneeling. Within it was a blaze of candles, and priests were officiating at the altar with great solemnity, as befitted the super-sanctity of the spot. No attention was paid to the distant mass in the main choir, the sound of which hardly penetrated to this remote distance. The image of the Virgin was almost invisible in her niche to the right of the altar, and of the holy pillar even less was to be seen. The relic is so very holy that most of it is hidden from mortal eyes.

From where we were forced to stand, the Virgin’s image appeared to be another of those familiar black carvings dressed with extraordinary magnificence, her jeweled robes flashing back the light of innumerable candles. No other sacred statue in Spain, and there are many such, has so elaborate a wardrobe as this famous doll ; and it is constantly being changed, the priests making the alterations with piously averted eyes lest they be blinded by the Virgin’s incomparable charm. At least, such is the common story. It is further alleged that the shrine has never been deserted since the great St. James first built it here, — except when the cathedral is wholly closed. There is always some one with the Virgin, and her celebrity is great. Of course she is capable of working miracles, and the devout Cardinal Retz was willing to aver on his honor as a churchman that he once saw a wooden leg, when rubbed with oil from the Virgin’s lamp, turn to brisk flesh ; and the owner thereof leaped as the hart ! No such astonishing cure was worked while we stood there, but many are claimed to occur annually.

The potency of the statue has likewise served to keep the whole surrounding church from harm during centuries of storm and war. Lightning has repeatedly struck the domes without effecting any damage, and the cannon balls of the French invaders fell on the roof as harmless as hail. No wonder the Virgin of the Pillar is held in high esteem, even though some are skeptical enough to claim that the whole miracle and its setting were invented by Saragossans in a fit of jealousy to offset the growing celebrity of Santiago de Compostela ! If that was one of the purposes of the invention, it has served its turn admirably, for the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgen del Pilar is among the highly essential ones to be made by every devout Spaniard. Tiny reproductions of the statue in silver-gilt are to be had at every turn.

The rear of the Virgin’s shrine is walled up with solid stone, but an aperture is left for the beholding of the foot of the pillar on which she stands. There was a crowd around it, anxious persons taking their turn at kissing the holy spot. In view of the revelations of modern bacteriology it seems in itself no small miracle that so many thousands weekly salute this pillar with their lips and escape contagion, — whatever be the real power of the statue to heal developed ills !

La Seo, the other cathedral, is as different as can be from the Pillar. It is dim and obscure, — and yet when we entered there from the noonday outside it was hardly as dim as we had been led to expect. A few moments sufficed to accustom the eyes to the darkness, and revealed the fact that architecturally this was an infinitely finer church than the other. It was obviously venerable, and thoroughly dignified and stately, with broad aisles lined by huge columns of gloomy stone reaching up into the murky twilight of the lofty roof. There was an abundance of sculptured decoration which might have suffered severely had it been exposed to the searching light of full day; but in the tempered illumination from the few grimy windows high above it was far from bad. Although this building, like the other, was hopelessly removed from the commonly received forms of church architecture, being almost a rectangle and decidedly irregular in plan, it escaped the fate of its sister cathedral, and remained unmistakably churchly. It had a trifle of the mosque about it, as the other had, — at least internally. Its columns were by no means always regularly spaced, and its cimborio rose to one side of the crossing, instead of directly above it. But these digressions from strict regularity were not unpleasing, and went with the mustiness and dusk and age of the place to produce an in-describable charm. Not to be entirely outdone by Del Pilar, La Seo has a miracle of her own to show, and has set a marble-columned shrine to mark the spot where Christ once stood and conversed with Canon Funes. The evidence of the fact that this interview actually took place is the best, — to wit, the testimony of the canon himself, who reaped no little glory from it, as Ildefonso did at Toledo !

The streets of the city as a whole abound in such a wealth of characteristic architecture that it is hopeless to attempt an individual description of any of it. The buildings which date back to the stirring period of the city’s history are strikingly massive, and prove the truth of the old assertion that ” every house was a fortress.” It is unfortunate that these old buildings are beginning to disappear before the march of progress, and we found more than one ancient structure demolished to make way for broader highways, much as King’s Way has cut its swath through the heart of London. Enough remains, however, to explain with vivid clearness why the French found it so hard to take the city, despite the flimsiness of its outer walls. History relates that the latter were not more than three feet in thickness, and were so meagre that they failed to include several strategic points, — yet Saragossa held out in 1808 from June until the following February. Of course a portion of this siege was intermittent ; but when the French marshals, in December of that year, settled down to the serious business of war, their success would have seemed certain to be immediate and decisive. Yet it was not, and even after eighteen thousand seasoned troops had actually invested the city, it was necessary to take it anew, house by house ! Not only were the houses strong, but the men — and even the women — proved uncommonly valiant. It was said of the former that they were as ” hard-headed as hammers,” and as for the latter, has not Byron immortalized the Maid of Saragossa who ” shed no ill-timed tear,” but seized the match from her dead lover’s hand and continued firing the cannon? Saragossa has not yet forgotten to be proud of those memorable days.

We left Saragossa in the early morning from the station awesomely named Del Sepulcro, — and it had a far less prosperous appearance than the terminal on the north bank of the Ebro. Nevertheless business was brisk, and the throng of peasants at the ticket offices was tremendous. It was fully half an hour before I could get my kilometric coupons honored and procure tickets to Reus, — for it was impossible to procure them through to Tarragona. This did not seriously disquiet us for the moment, but later it proved alarming enough. For the line to Reus does not connect directly with the short branch that runs down to Tarragona, and the interval has to be bridged by a breakneck ride in a crazy omnibus. This fact we did not know until we had extracted it piecemeal from the conductor on the train. However, the conductor said it was not far, and our halt at Mora la Nueva at noon drove every thought of it out of our heads by introducing us to the best of all railway fondas in Spain.

Two bull-necked waiters with close-cropped hair, who would have graced any prize ring, hastened us through a marvelous table d’hôte, and at the end, beside the ordinary red wine of the country, insisted on our sampling what they called vieux vin du pays, which I think must have been a variety of the celebrated priorato made famous by the monks of Poblet. At any rate, it was delicious, and even the modest glasses of it served us sufficed to dispel every vestige of our gloomy forebodings about Reus. Besides, there were almonds, glorified almonds, — treated in some mysterious way that made them somewhat more than mere nuts. Thus we forgot our troubles.

But when we got to Reus, after a bewilderingly beautiful ride over the mountains and down to the sea, which glimmered and glittered under a warm Mediterranean sun, we found ourselves in for a strenuous twenty minutes. A hurrying porter, bellowing ” Tarragona ! Tarragona !” grasped all our baggage and staggering under its weight started on the run for a closed carriage outside, we following as fast as apprehensive legs could be induced to carry us. The coach started at once at full gallop over muddy streets, lurching around corners, bouncing over stones and ruts. The same porter clung to the rear step through it all. And in what seemed a much longer time than it really was we were dumped in a heap at the station of the other line, the porter again snatching our bags and starting, still on the run, for the train. I rushed to the ticket office, and in an agitated voice demanded three second-class tickets to Tarragona, which city we had already seen rising out of the level, tree-clad plain ten miles away.

” No hay segunda,” suavely returned the ticket agent, — to wit, There is n’t any second class.” ” No second?”

” No, señor ; only third.”

” Third, then.”

So we rode third down to Tarragona, after paying our porter several times his fee because time for disputation over trifles failed us. We had caught our train. We were gaining many hours over the Lerida route, — and Tarragona was in full view across a fertile vineyard ! Our third-class train — it was immensely long and chiefly devoted to freight — was full to overflowing with peasants who were going home to Tarragona begrimed with the day’s toil, all shouting, singing, and smoking. It was interesting, — but ten miles was quite enough.