Spain Travel – Tarragona And Poblet

WE found the station of Tarragona almost on the water’s edge, with the town above it on a height overlooking the sea. It was well along in the afternoon, but the sky at last was clear and the mellow light on the sea and distant ships was wonderfully fine. The water itself was a pleasant thing after weeks of dry and sterile upland, and the waves lapped softly at the rocks beneath our feet. The railroad yard was busy with much traffic, and among the locomotives that puffed to and fro I noticed with a feeling akin to homesickness two of outspokenly American build, albeit very ancient, with ” cowcatchers” and with bells that, alas, were not provided with any means for ringing. How odd and friendly they looked amid the array of European engines ! I could not but be glad that there were two of them ; for one alone must infallibly have been forlorn indeed !

A long, zigzag road led by easy stages up the abrupt height to the city, but foot passengers were to be seen making a short cut, as at Toledo, up long flights of stone steps that gave a more immediate access to the bluffs on which the close-set buildings clustered, gleaming white in the sunny afternoon.

Capping it all were the golden towers and lantern of the cathedral.

With the usual impetuosity we cast our baggage into the hotel of our choice and hastened off up the steep street toward the cathedral to get a glimpse of it before dark. It was not far away, and the usual band of tattered urchins insisted on bearing us company even to the doors of the church, which were very wonderful doors indeed. They opened from a deep Gothic portal, inclosed by massive buttresses of stone, while directly above them was a stone tracery of indescribable delicacy. At either hand were the usual statuettes of prophets and apostles. The doors themselves were huge and stout, iron-mounted, heavy-hinged, adorned with great knockers and enormous copper nails. A pilgrim like ourselves was emerging, guidebook in hand, and the children happily followed him, leaving us to our own devices. Thus we entered.

It was our first Catalan church, dark and sombre within, but grandly impressive. A muttered service was going on in the deep inclosure of the marble choir. Over the great main door the afternoon light came in gloriously through a huge rose window, probably as fine as any in northern France. The transepts boasted rose windows too, quite as splendid, and the glass was fortunately both old and exquisite. On the whole, without being actually vast, the effect was still one of ample spaces and solemnity, to which latter element the monotone of the priests in the obscurity of their carved stalls contributed its full share. It gave the same impression of great age that Avila and La Seo had given, especially in the depths of the cavernous apse, which, as at Avila, was actually the oldest portion of the building.

It is now very generally recognized, I gather, that there is a definite type of Catalan church architecture possessing a quaint individuality of its own, entirely distinct from the florid Gothic of the centre and north of the kingdom. Its chief characteristics appear to be dignity and gloom, coupled with a curious predilection for fanciful and even grotesque sculpture, such as one finds in riotous abundance in the cloisters of this cathedral of Tarragona. Inside the building there was little but Spartan severity, save where the rose windows glowed like jewels through the dusk, their heavy tracery subtending little patches of rich coloring, through which light was filtered rather than poured. It was not as dark as Barcelona cathedral a few days later, but nevertheless all the depth of the church was lapped in an awesome obscurity.

A mercenary and altogether disagreeable sacristan, or rather priest, insisted on accompanying us through the cloisters, which we had much preferred to see at leisure and alone. He denied us at first even the poor pleasure of attempting photographs in the failing light, being obviously concerned to sell us some stupid, glossy prints of his own making.

Decidedly, thought we, the statement that the Catalan is first of all for business is true ! The alertness for which the race is celebrated had not impressed us unduly at the Hôtel de Paris, where terms were reasonable and accommodation poor; but here in the shadow of Holy Church we ran full upon the thrift which has made Catalonia the mercantile leader of Spain.

Such photographs as he finally did permit me to make were but faintly satisfactory. The cloisters were vast in their extent, and the day far advanced, — too far to give sufficient illumination to those ancient arches with their quaint carvings. In the midst was a garden of pleasantness, and here and there deep dells of cypresses manifested themselves. Overhead towered the steeples of the massive church and the curious cimborio, adding to the effectiveness of the picture, but not to be compared in interest with the splendidly foliated arches of the mossy cloisters, which are said to be the finest of their age to be found in Spain.

Down obscure side streets lying toward the setting sun we found our way to the outer gates of the city, — plain but massive portals cut in what remains of the ancient wall. A considerable portion of the latter is intact, especially on the northern side of the city, and in almost as perfect a state as the walls of Avila, although far less interesting to see. The lower blocks, rough hewn, or not hewn at all, certainly merit their name of ” Cyclopean,” and are said to date far back of the days of ancient Rome ; but the upper courses are of an obviously later time, and make well-defined strata where they join the more ancient work. There were, as we discovered, no such regular turrets as those which had distinguished the massive cincture of Avila, but the gates, buttressed as they were with massive towers, were almost as fine as those of the inland city.

Out through one of these we strolled boldly toward the north, along a white and dusty road which we could see winding for miles around and over the shoulders of inland hills. It led us past a little cemetery with its quadrangle of pigeonhole graves and dusky cypresses, and up a steep declivity beyond, whence the view back upon Tarragona was especially fine. Our avowed destination was an ancient Roman aqueduct which we knew lay some-where off in the adjacent country, and we made frequent inquiry for it of the multitude of peasants who were walking townward. None of them had ever heard of it, apparently. They showed us other aqueducts of hopelessly modern appearance that lay in full view, but of the antique one they had no knowledge. Their invariable conclusion was that we had taken the wrong road. At last, however, a skeptical peasant showed us a cart-track leading off obscurely to the left down through a rocky pasture, high-walled and distressingly hard to the feet, — but he was by no means sure we should find what we sought by taking it, and was only positive of the fact that we were wasting our valuable time and daylight. Nevertheless we plunged into it and followed its devious course for a mile or so, eventually meeting a coterie of intelligent natives who knew at once what we meant. It seemed that we should have asked, as at Segovia, for the Puente de diablo!

Whether there is a legend about this aqueduct like that attaching to the building of Segovia’s, I did not learn; but it would be surprising if there were not. It is not nearly as long as that at the Castilian city, but in its way it is just as fine, spanning a narrow ravine which makes up for its lack of breadth by being surprisingly deep. This necessitates a double row of arches, built of huge stones which time has mellowed to a rich golden-brown. Almost all of it is still intact, and we discovered that the flat layer of stones that formed its top afforded a practicable bridge for the steady-headed pedestrian to cross the valley on. We did not venture far upon it, however, as the day was far spent and we hesitated to be caught after dark on those lonely roads. The dregs of Tarragona’s population had not looked at all reassuring, even on such casual inspection as we had then given them, —and later when we had seen them quarreling over the public soup kettles on the outskirts of the town we were glad that prudence had driven us early homeward from the Devil’s Bridge. Nor was this the only benefit, for as we went down the long hill toward the city the sun went down in a perfect blaze of glory which touched the walls and towers with a rosy enchantment, glowing bright against the deep evening blue of sea and sky, while here and there a distant sail was tipped with the reflected splendor of the west.

But it was not Tarragona alone that we had come down to the coast for to see, — Tarragona with her crooked streets, her prehistoric walls, her wine shops marked as of old by green branches and bushes hung over their doors, her cathedral, and her incomparable situation on a rock by the ocean. We had come fully as much in the hope of making the pilgrimage to Poblet, the ruined monastery of Espluga. Flow it ever came to pass that the guide-books mentioned Mont Blanch as the proper station for alighting on that journey, I have never yet been able to comprehend. For Espluga is not only enormously nearer the site, but also is fully as old as the monastery itself. It was the proprietor of the hotel who gave us this valuable hint when we broached the subject of Poblet that same evening.

Now this excursion had been in our minds ever since we had set sail from home, and owing to the extant body of literature on the subject we had conjured up a sufficiency of difficulties. If one might believe the indefatigable Hare, whose description of the expedition and of the monastery is easily one of the best ever written and will probably remain so, a visit to Poblet meant a six-mile ride from Mont Blanch in a crazy and decrepit tartana (two-wheeled native-cart-without-springs -covered-with-canvas) behind a perfectly uncontrollable mule, and over the most outrageous of roads. Who, then, would have believed that in reality it was nothing more than a two-mile walk over a gently rising ground, with a most affable woman to carry the lunch basket and point out the road? Such we found the trip to Poblet ! And any subsequent visitor who craves this experience has only to buy his ticket from Tarragona to Espluga, take the morning train, and on arrival be escorted to the very heart of the monastery. He may ride thither in a tartana if he wishes, for there is always one at the station, and the road is very good, after all. But if he is wise he will hire a local guide — generally an able-bodied woman — to carry his traps, and walk. For it is not fatiguing, and a walk in that fine country air does one good.

We had some doubt of the necessity of hiring the guide and porter above mentioned, whom the hotel proprietor described as petites femmes, but he assured us that it was much better to have one of these convenient ladies for company ; and when we jumped from the train in the station at Espluga and saw one coming toward us with expansive smile and friendliness radiating from every pore, we surrendered on the spot. She said we might pay her whatever we thought the service worth —a dangerous trade, always. I do not remember what we finally gave her, but as usual in such cases it was probably much more than she would have dreamed of demanding. At any rate, she blessed us heartily as she left us at the monastery gate.

On the whole, it was an attractive walk, once we had gotten clear of Espluga. The latter, it must be confessed, was a filthy hamlet, and like Kipling’s regimental camel, it “smelt most awful vile.” That, however, was for but a brief distance. Soon we were bowling merrily along a good road through fields of waving grass, the petite femme proving herself a better pedestrian than we and making light of her burden as she chatted gayly in a mixture of Catalan and Spanish. The gray ruin of the monastery lay always above and to the left, but by no means on any such height as we had imagined. In-deed, it seemed to be on the verge of the plain. A wayside cross was the first positive indication that we were drawing toward it, and shortly after we turned into a gently ascending avenue lined with trees, beside which pleasant rills danced musically down from the hillside above. All about lay a fair and fertile upland valley, as different as possible from the Spain we had known hitherto.

What mind pictures we had made of Poblet were utterly shattered and dispersed when we finally reached it, despite the vividness of Hare’s account. It was not a deserted spot, for a very considerable settlement had grown up around its gates, and a trim little park of pleasant shade graced the spacious quadrangle that lay before the main entrance of the monastery. The petite femme halted not, but marched stoutly through the frowning portals that pierced the outer wall, on through a long fore-court, and up to a portentous turreted gate in the thick walls of the main inclosure. She thundered at the knocker. When no voice replied she thundered again, more vigorously. Still no response. A third belaboring of the gate and shrill cries finally elicited a faint halloa far inside, and soon a grizzled custodian came clattering down the echoing corridors to let us in. The petite femme went away rejoicing in the possession of much silver, and we entered. The gate clanged behind, and the bolts shot back into their sockets.

Once again we were forced to alter our mental picture of Poblet. From the description in the books, we had fully expected to give one glance at it and burst into tears, such was the tale of its desolation. Instead we gazed around upon its Gothic courts, bright with balmy sunshine which fell in warm bands through arches of incredibly airy grace, and asked the custodian if we might eat our lunch there in the shade. He said we might, brought us rush-bottomed chairs, found us a nook that was neither too sunny nor too cool, and left us to our meal with a courteous good taste that the thousand sacristans of Spain would do well to emulate.

We were in the great main cloister of Poblet. It was indeed sadly ruined, as we began to perceive, although it was not nearly as lamentable as Hare had made us expect. The beautiful foliation of the arches was cruelly marred here and there, and one knew at once that the insensate fury of a mob had done this thing, — certainly not the kindly hand of destroying Time. But it made no appreciable impression on our appetites, sharpened by that brisk walk, and the luncheon provided by the landlord at Tarragona proved a most excellent one, neatly packed in a handsome basket, and graced with a wicker-covered bottle of tinto that even the abbot and his monks might well have envied. Indeed, if that once potent prelate and his order had been content with the modest fare we had spread in their desolated courts, they might have escaped the fate that befell them. Unfortunately they were not so ; and it remains to tell the story of the downfall of this prodigious institution, once the proudest monastery in Spain, at the violent hands of the out-raged poor of Espluga.

Less than a century ago it was in full career. The magnificent buildings were tenanted by a select body of religious brethren, recruited from the no-blest blood of Spain. To be chosen a member of the community of Poblet one must show the caste of Vere de Vere in good earnest. The whole chapter of monkish grandees sat in solemn conclave on the question of new admissions, and the pedigree and quarterings of every applicant underwent the severest scrutiny. It was no mean privilege to be a brother of this order. The surroundings, while nominally monastic, were luxurious to an absurd degree. The cloisters were surrounded by palaces, — no less ! If they had cells — which they had — they were no narrow habitations of monks given to austerity ; rather were they spacious chambers, with fireplaces; and they opened on an entrancing court where nature and art combined to make monastic life a thorough pleasure. Each monk had two servants and white mules of purest breed. In their separate quadrangle was a community of trades-men in such variety that the monks need not go beyond their cloister to supply any ordinary want. Kings were glad to be guests here, and many were so enchanted with it that they decreed their bones should be laid here when they came to die. One built him an enormous palace just west of the cloister which it adjoined. In short, life at Poblet was the acme of luxurious monasticism, and the austerities that were practiced seem to have been such in name only.

Naturally this order of haughty grandees grew arrogant. They increased their revenues by levying tribute on the countryside. It began to be noised abroad that the brethren put innocent folk to the torture. This was the last straw, and the thrifty Catalans, angered by this long reign of lazy luxury, rose in wrath and marched in a vast mob to the gates of Poblet.

Why it was that the guilty friars were allowed to go free and why the mob wreaked all its insensate vengeance on the poor, unoffending cloisters, battering their stone beauties to their present state of abject mutilation, cannot be explained. Possibly it was merely the national inconsistency that thus let the guilty escape and then deliberately pounded the inanimate stones to powder. Or possibly it was thought best to make return practically impossible by ruining the place where the priests had held their orgies. At any rate, this is what happened, —and not longer ago than 1835. The monks, in terror at the violent threats of the populace, were given a scant day’s grace, and fled for dear life from the palaces and courts and libraries where they had been so happy. When the last one had gone, the flood of the mob inundated the place, — and the monastery was doomed. Fired by a perfect mania for destruction, the marauders spared not the Infant Jesus in the arms of the Virgin at the high altar, but smashed right and left with their pikes and bludgeons every breakable adornment. Tombs and sacred images fared alike. Books of priceless value were hauled forth and burned. What-ever told the tale of monkish extravagance and rapine was utterly ruined. Even the arches of those airy colonnades were defaced and battered. And when the violence of the rabble had run its course, Poblet was but a tattered remnant of its former self, a sorry shell, and nothing more.

It was indeed foolish and lamentable, but Poblet after all only shared to an exaggerated degree the common fate of many other monasteries of Spain. Even with the madness and fury of the mob, much managed to survive. The buildings were too vast and too massive to be torn utterly to bits, and before all was leveled the rage of the people abated. They retired, leaving the walls and much of the arcades, — but very little else. The exiled monks never returned, although now and then a few were wont to wander back to look upon the scene of desolation and weep bitterly for the days that had been.

The ruin has been largely cleared up and reduced to a semblance of order. The fragments have all been gathered into a warehouse and no longer strew the ground. Some little restoration has prevented further decay. It has, in fact, become a national museum, with a caretaker of sorts, — a genial fellow who does not bore you and who knows his deserted courts like a book. As we were eating he passed by, coming from the depths of an adjacent building, rubbing his benumbed hands, and re-marking that it was mucho frio inside. And indeed it was, as we speedily discovered when we had finished our lunch and set out on our explorations. For the spring sun had not yet warmed the dark depths of those stone palaces. They were clammy and cold, and the chill was penetrating.

But they were magnificent halls even in their ruin. We were led through deep kitchens, old and new, to the lofty dining-room, — a noble room, vaulted and tall, with a high pulpit of stone at one side, so that the souls of the brothers might be fed with spiritual food whilst they refreshed their bodies. And in the centre was a marble fount which tradition says used to spout iced waters to mitigate the warmth of the long summer days. But in the April chill the thought of ice-water made us shiver. We should much have preferred a jet of steam !

The great upper hall, once divided into separate cells, was now a huge empty loft with vaulted roof. The partitions were utterly gone, and only the bare traces of them remained. The vast loft of the novices apparently never had been so divided, but lay lofty and imposing, as it must have been of old. The chapter rooms, with their circle of benches, where once sat the brothers in solemn debate on the quarterings of the applicants, were deserted and bare, although tombs remained undefiled in the floor. The enormous library was devoid of even a hint of its old store of priceless books. Best of all, I think, was the great church, whose high altar still rears its stupendous marble retablo, defaced it is true, but one of the finest in Spain. The windows were staring and open, of course, and the marks of the mob’s violence were everywhere. But they did not destroy the massive piers of the building with their lofty pointed arches, and if they battered the royal tombs hey did not entirely obliterate the traces of their former beauty and grandeur.

The story is that the mob verified its fears of torture-chambers by discovering a vault filled with broken human bones. To this the custodian made no reference, and we found our Spanish utterly unequal to the task of asking him. A hurried thumbing of the well-worn leaves of ” Precious Darling” discovered no word for torture-chamber ! And it was this failure to unearth that gruesome mystery that gave me my one slight disappointment at Poblet. We did see the pavilion where the brothers drank “obligatory chocolate” in the morning lest they faint during mass — and for that I am duly thankful.

It should be said that the monastery marks the site where once lived a hermit, — Hamdushi would doubtless have called him a ” very holy man.” He managed in some way to convince the Moors — who were by no means an intolerant race, as we have seen — that he really was very holy, and they permitted him to remain in his upland retreat unmolested. From him the monastery got its name, which is distinctly Catalan.

The great belt of outer walls still incloses a vast domain, sloping down to the valley and abundantly fertile, watered by innumerable little streams that flow from the mountains above. Indeed, the gush of the waters is everywhere heard, much as one hears it in such paradises as the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. But the main buildings, one and all, are a ruin, from the desolate church to the great palace with its chambers of state, and the deep vats where once the priorato wine was made. And yet, ruined as it is, it is charming still ; and the traveler who passes through Tarragona will err sadly in omitting Poblet from his reckoning. It shows what a monastery could be at its very best, and I doubt not it was the most luxurious religious house in all the world in its halcyon day. One can easily understand, even now, when the glorious courts and palaces lie desolate and deserted, how the bluest blood of Spain — for Spain was the original country to talk of aristocratic blood as “blue “—schemed and intrigued to gain the coveted admission to this cloistered shade.