Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Gleanings from Spain - Part 2

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Illustrated by Percival Skelton

Part 1Part 3



From Gerona to Barcelona, the line of rail passes through a prosperous and well-cultivated plain, well-wooded, and watered by rapid mountain streams, whose banks are fringed with gigantic reeds, which supply thatch to the cottages and fences for the fields. It then coasts along the shores of the Mediterranean, so close that the tide washes at times over the lines. Precipitous rocks, on the other hand, rise so near to the sea, that there is scarce room for the road, and the single line of houses, which, extending miles along the shore, forms one never-ending street. The numerous stations involve a perpetual trial of patience to the traveller, as the villages are painfully like one another, and offer nothing of interest. At times the cliffs recede, and, embosomed among orange-groves and olive-yards, you see the summer retreat of some wealthy citizen of Barcelona. But beautiful as is the scenery, and grand as must be the views commanded by some of these villas, they have not the fascinating beauty of our English homes. The dryness of the air and soil is prejudicial to grass and verdure, irrigation is immensely expensive, and even then nothing like turf can be made to grow. The bare earth under the olives is parched and tawny, and beautiful as are the orange-trees, they look stiff and formal. Barcelona has an opulent appearance: it manufactures largely, and its port is crowded with shipping. Were it not for the sight of a villager here and there, wrapped in his “manta,” one might fancy one’s self at Marseilles. The Rambla, or long promenade bordered by trees, on either side, was filled with a gay multitude: it was All Saints’ day, a universal holiday; booths were erected in double file under the trees, and a brisk trade was going on in splendid bouquets and white lilies, fit for the hand of some glorified martyr. This wealth of flowers was destined, according to the custom of the district, to adorn the tombs of the departed.

The Fonda del Oriente was the focus of an excited crowd: the large court-yard of the building was covered in like a tent. In the centre stood a large table, laden with provisions of all kinds, fowls, hams, pies, custards, cakes all glistening with sugar devices, and turreted castles, carefully concocted with the seed of the stone pine, and surrounded with a moat of red jelly. To obtain admission to this scene of enchantment, the gaping crowd had only to purchase a lottery-ticket to the value of a few pence, which entitled them to draw for prizes. It was amusing to watch the excitement with which a small boy struggled off, laden with the gifts of fortune, in the shape of a ham, fowls, and a bottle of wine, while a stalwart labourer slunk off disappointed with a paper of comfits in his hand. Spaniards are positively infatuated about lotteries. However small the village, at some window is a board with the sign “Hay Billetes.” They are under government direction, and I believe government does not lose in the transaction. It is a most demoralising influence in social life, keeping up perpetual excitement among the poor, leading them to trust in fate and the Virgin, and to neglect the most ordinary precautions of economy and foresight. They dream of lucky numbers, and pray for success with the greatest fervour.

Barcelona has of course a “plaza di toros,” or circus for bull-fights; it seemed in a most neglected state, and I was glad to hear from a shareholder that it had never paid a dividend. It looks as if, in the busy stir of commercial life, such savage amusements were disregarded. The excellent picture by Leech of a bull-fight with the tinsel off, which came out in “Punch,” is but too true and real. Even poetised by the pencil of Goya, it is a most disgusting performance.

Barcelona boasts of one of the most splendid cathedrals in Spain; its internal beauties one can merely guess at, so dim is the religious light which pervades it. The style is pure Gothic; the cloisters are quite perfect, and have curious little chapels, whose painted altar-pieces are fast crumbling away. The stillness, vastness, and darkness of these grand old buildings, impress one with a feeling of awe and reverence. On the uneducated, accustomed to noise and stir, this must make a powerful impression, and the mysterious influence of the place must have much aided scheming confessors who wished by all means to exercise control over the minds of their fellow-creatures. Only one faint light glimmered through the darkness; it proceeded from a side chapel, where a sacristan held a long waxen taper, by whose light an old priest was writing a baptismal certificate. His white robes and benevolent countenance stood out in relief on the dark background of groined arches with Rembrandtesque effect. Bending over his shoulder, and watching the writing, stood the father, and in the shade could be just faintly traced the outlines of a smart peasant nurse, and the small white bundle which had just been admitted into the communion of the Holy Catholic Church, by the disgusting process of having salt and oil put in its mouth, and its eyes, ears, and mouth, spat upon.

A diligence goes from Barcelona to Valencia in forty-eight hours, and, in an evil hour, we preferred it to going by rail to Madrid. Who, that has not endured the same, can picture to himself the fustiness when the windows are shut, the draughts when they are open, the jumbling, the jolting, the rumbling, and the din of perpetual tinkling. It takes sixteen or twenty mules to drag one of these lumbering machines, and to manage them is required a post-boy, a conducteur, and a nondescript, who sometimes runs alongside to keep the poor cattle from the precipices, sometimes shies stones at the lazy ones from the box.

The Catalan villages through which we passed were gay and cheerful, and spoke well for the industry of the province. As the cottages seemed all alike, one description will suffice for all, taken from the works of Fernando Caballero, the only Spanish lady who has ventured on a literary career. She says:—“The interior is one long narrow chamber; in the foreground as you enter is the hearth, where over crackling logs is cooked the simple dinner of the peasant: this is both kitchen and living room; on either side of the fire-place are alcoves, which serve as sleeping places. Beyond are stalls for the patient mules and oxen, and perches for the fowls; also piles of fresh straw and hay for the animals, who are the constant benefactors of ungrateful man.”

All go in at one door—men, women, mules, oxen, pigs, and fowls; therefore the peasant’s wife deserves no small credit for the cleanly appearance the cottage presents. Blessed with a charming climate, they really hardly use their houses for anything but shelter at night, and from the rain. They have no windows, so all the needful household work is carried on out of doors. On the stone benches outside we observed the young and bright-eyed damsels, working at the pillow lace, so well known as Barcelona blonde; the mothers stitching diligently at clothing for the numerous mischievous elves, sporting about; and the old women busily engaged in husking the maize, keeping carefully the broad crackling leaf to stuff mattrasses with, and hanging up the ears in garlands to ripen. Old crones, who might have sat as models for the Fates, were spinning diligently with the distaff. In a black pot, half full of charcoal, frizzled a huge pumpkin, destined for the family dinner. The little gardens, carefully cultivated and irrigated, were divided from each other by hedges of aloes and prickly pears.

Past the eccentric, jagged peaks of Montserrat, over mountains redolent of lavender, wild rosemary, and thyme, along the shores of the sparkling blue Mediterranean, on we went, sometimes too weary of the jolting and jumbling to be able to admire the wild mountain passes and pine-clad ravines. Except to change horses and mules every three or four hours, the diligence stopped but once in the twelve hours to let the weary travellers eat. In haste the various occupants deserted the rumbling coach. Down from the banquette scrambled the third-class passengers, and all together, generally in a loft, partook of homely fare, cooked according to national ideas. The conductor, in a green baize surtout, gobbled with surprising voracity, urging the passengers to haste, and rejoicing at seeing them tumbling into their places, when he roared out “à coche.” Then to add. to our miseries of fatigue and myriads of flies, to say nothing of the fleas left as a legacy by previous occupants, it came on to rain. The roads, which look beautiful in fine weather, became like the Slough of Despond. Bump, bump; roll, roll; on we went; heavy clouds hiding the mountain tops, and the rich Valencian plains wearying the eye with their endless monotony of olive-yards and orange-groves. Every now and then we passed peasants enveloped in their huge cloaks, jogging along on their patient mules, and presenting the most ludicrous appearance, as the ample cloak, flowing over the mule’s back, concealed his tail, so that his hind legs appeared as part of the figure of the peasant. Night was the time of the greatest misery; cramp beset the legs, and any attempt at dozing was cut short by unceremoniously bumping up against an equally miserable neighbour.

At last Valencia was reached. The Fonda, arranged entirely for coolness, was repulsively cold and unattractive; the blue and white tiled floors struck a chill to the soul; the balconies were mere receptacles of rain; drip, drip it fell from the moist matting blind, on to the balustrades, and trickled slowly off, to be succeeded by endless drops. A poor sleepy little boy disturbed our grumblings by walking into the room.

“What do you want?”

“I am the postilion who came from Barcelona, and beg the Señor for a few maravedis.”

“Do you mean to say you rode all the way?”

“Yes, Señor.”

“Why, how old are you, child?”

“Twelve years old, to please God and your worship.”

“And have you long been a post-boy?”

“Three years. I go twice a week between here and Barcelona.”

“Do you never sleep on horseback?”

“Oh, yes, Señor; a little at a time, when there are no precipices.”

We offered him wine, which he rejected with contempt, saying he only wanted sleep, and would sleep twenty-four hours “right away.”

A few silver pieces amply satisfied him, and he staggered off to bed, leaving us in amazement at such unnecessary fatigue being imposed on so young a child, but supposing it to be one of the Cosas d’Espana, which “no fellah could be expected to understand.”

The rain, much as we abused it, gave us a good opportunity for seeing the gay mantas worn by the Valencians. It is a brighter and more picturesque covering than a Scotch plaid; one end, sewn up so as to form a pocket, is adorned with variegated tassels. It is worn in every conceivable way, and has a most picturesque effect, as the bright colours are artistically combined in stripes on a white ground.

Profiting by the first glimpse of blue sky, we set off in the carriage peculiar to Valencia, called a tartana. It is like a long market cart, covered with an arched black tarpaulin, and lined inside with chintz. It has no windows, save at each end, one over the door, and the other at the horses’ heels. It has no driving box, the coachman sitting on a pad which is attached to the right hand shaft. Strong cobby horses drag these clumsy vehicles at a slow pace; if you insist on going quick, the shaking is torture, as springs are a luxury unknown.

The smoothly paved streets are beautifully clean, but very narrow and winding. The houses are eastern in appearance, on a level with or three or four steps lower than the street: below are large open shops, guiltless of windows; above, balconies shaded from the sun by strips of gay matting, gay with hoyas and convolvulus, where all day the women sit sewing, and watching their neighbours. Valencia is well off for gardens; the public walks round the town are all beautiful, adorned with immense orange trees, oleanders, myrtles, and a beautiful flowering tree whose name I know not, but whose blossoms are like hollyhocks, and grow of every shade, from the deepest crimson to pure white, on the same plant. A road, sheltered by magnificent oriental planes, leads to the busy port. On either side are villas, stuccoed and painted bright blue, yellow, and red. The land is like a garden, so well and carefully is it cultivated. It is still irrigated by the canals dug by the Moors, and water raised by the creaking noria, or waterwheel, which they introduced. Water is wealth, under this burning sun; with its aid ten or twelve crops may be raised on the same land in the year. The earth never lies fallow, summer or winter. Immense prices are given for irrigated ground, the general value being 300l. an acre. Without water, the very same land would be worthless: so, while one mocks at the empty dry bed of the Toria, on which the cavalry of the garrison find exercising ground, one should remember that its diverted streams are enriching the whole country, and causing the wealth and opulence of the Valencians.

The peasants are here most simply attired; a shirt, thrown open at the throat, and white linen knickerbockers bound round the waist by a sash of brilliant hue; no stockings, but sandals made of hemp or straw, bound on to the feet round the ankles with bright blue or red strings. On the head a bright handkerchief is the only protection from the heat. The Valencians are a handsome, attractive race, very different from the Catalans; the men are active and well-proportioned, the women slight and gracefully formed, with soft mischievous eyes and luxuriant tresses. The “grao,” or port, was full of feluccas and small craft, driven in by fear of what the angry horizon might portend. Several steamers which were to have started that day remained in harbour, rather than trust to the fickle Mediterranean, which had exchanged its sparkling blue for rolling amber waves, streaked with deep purple stripes, reflected from the gloomy clouds.

Gate of Valencia, on the Road to Madrid.

The heavy rain, which had been falling unceasingly, had swollen the mountain torrents, and the railway bridges, as a matter of course, were swept away, so that all chance of proceeding to Madrid for several days was over. It does really seem an extraordinary oversight on the part of the railroad contractors in Spain, that the bridges are so slightly built that the unavoidable result of rain is that half-a-dozen give way, and all traffic is interrupted. Dire necessity having thus compelled us to remain in Valencia, we roamed up and down its picturesque streets, stopping to admire the many quaint old buildings which adorn them. Of the old convent “Del Carmen” we shall always retain the most grateful memory, as in examining the omnium gatherum of pictures there huddled together, we passed a most pleasant day. There are to be seen the spoils of many secularised monasteries; the long corridors are hung all over with saints, virgins, and martyrs, treated in every imaginable variety of style; over the glassless windows pictures are hung, which, thus cruelly neglected, are fast rotting, the paint cracking and falling off, from both canvass and panel. Some originals of Juan de Joanes, the chief of the Valencian school, are worthy of all admiration; his style is Raphaelesque, and his productions have the same monotony, as those of that great master; endless are the representations of “Christ holding the wafer,” and “The Last Supper,” which hardly differ from each other in the minutest particular. Borras, whose imagination and handling were freer than his master’s, has here some splendid pictures, of which in a short time not a trace will remain, though we vainly tried to instil some respect for them into the minds of the guardians, by offering 1000l.. all round. The monastery itself is a grand old building, built in quadrangular form round a fine old garden, where a group of old palms tower over a ruined fountain, overgrown with ferns. The many palms, aloes, and prickly pears which grow about Valencia, together with its blue and white tiled mosques, give it an Eastern look. The view from the cathedral tower is very curious: the town lies so compactly together, that it seems like a child’s toy packed in a box. From the height, whence you survey it, the streets are scarcely discernible, and it appears a mass of red tiled roofs. Rich plains stretch on every side down to the sea, and to the not very distant range of mountains, enlivened by white houses, sparkling among mulberry and orange groves. The cathedral itself is not very attractive. Like all other Spanish churches it has no chairs, and it was amusing to watch the different worshippers when the time came to kneel down: plump on the hard pavement knelt the devout peasant; the dandy carefully spread a handkerchief before him to preserve his cherished pantaloons from contact with the dust and mud, and then knelt cautiously down, resting his hands on the handle of his cane, while the prudent Senoras, preceded by a servant with a Persian rug, prayed in comfort. The crucifixes, here as elsewhere, have petticoats, sometimes of muslin, sometimes of crimson silk, fringed with gold.

There is one old Gothic building, called the Silk Hall, of which Valencia may well be proud, where the merchants meet to discuss the prospects of the trade. It is an immense high hall, the roof supported by twisted pillars; the windows were once filled with most delicate tracing, vestiges of which can be seen from the romantic garden, full of orange and lemon trees, which being then laden with golden fruit, contrasted well with the snowy trumpet-blossomed datura.

Travellers are wont to proclaim that in Spain no antiquities can be found, that the all-pervading Israelite has swept away everything worth having. But this is really not the case. The genuine lover of antiquities pursues his search with all the greater zest, the more difficulties obstruct his path. To go into a well-stocked “Magasin d’Antiquités” is a true delight to him; but greater still is his pleasure, when by dint of invading uninviting pawn-shops, strange cellars, and dusty garrets, he unearths some treasure, unvalued by its possessor, and priceless in his eyes, its merits being enhanced to him in proportion to the difficulties he has conquered in possessing himself of it. The ardent antiquarian has, as it were, a new sense, a perpetual source of pleasure, unknown to the vulgar crowd who revel in the “last novelty,” or esteem old porcelain and the thousand-and-one quaint legacies of past centuries by a vile monetary test. He is never at a loss for occupation and interest; he defies “Ennui,” and her attendant goblins of Discontent and Worry. In the most out-of-the-way hamlet where he is storm-stayed, he finds some trace of by-gone years, either in the peasant’s cottage or the ancient church. Not only has he all the present interests of the age, but he is “en rapport” with the past, and is familiar with the works of the noblest spirits of each age. In his researches he invades alike princely halls and peasants’ cottages, and has thus an immense insight into the modes and habits of life of a nation. It becomes more interesting and exciting than hunting, which it resembles, in details of action; as first comes the drawing of coverts, then the find, the chase, and the trophy. Bloodless trophy, with no stain of cruelty to mar the triumph of success.

Drawing the covert is the first point: innkeepers, drivers, shop-people, are all interrogated in turn as to who are the possessors of curiosities in the place. Often and often the covert is drawn in vain, and disappointed with the sight of horrid daubs, broken modern china, and rubbishy Chinese novelties: the antiquarian turns away, to search again. Then comes the find: who, that has not known it, can tell the joy of seeing in some dusty corner what looks suspiciously like a majolica vase or Venetian goblet? Then comes the chase: first diplomatically veiling your surprise and delight, then misleading the wary owner by praising some other article, and finally obtaining it on your terms, and going off triumphant with your precious canvas or crockery, whose well-known mark has quickened the beating of your heart.

In this pleasing pursuit the three days of detention at Valencia passed pleasantly away, but I will not betray all we saw nor what we left, lest Wardour Street should send immediately a deputation to ransack the town.

The evenings we beguiled by visiting the pretty theatre, as good in its way as any in London. The boxes all belong to abonnés, who go to them as a matter of course every evening, and entertain their friends during the entre actes in the little salons which open off each. The divisions between each box being very low, the occupants of the back row of seats do not, as in our theatres, run the danger of suffocation. We watched with much amusement a little girl of eight or nine years old, evidently a regular habituée of the place. She had her little opera-glass, and used her tiny fan with as great dexterity and adroitness as any grown-up lady present, flashing it open and shutting it up again in a moment. In the comparative silence between the scenes, rustle rustle go the fans, with a noise like wind fluttering among the crisp leaves of autumn. Our little Senorita was up to every dodge with hers, made signals to her friends far and near, kissed her hand, winked, and bowed with a gaiety and liveliness perfectly irresistible. The acting was much above mediocrity; the women threw themselves into their parts, too conscious of their own merits to be always looking out for admiration.