Familiar Spanish Travels – William Dean Howells
In this book of travels Mr. Howells relates the incidents and impressions of his trip through Spain. In a leisurely, discursive fashion he notes what most appealed to him as he journeyed from San Sebastian through Burgos, Madrid, Toledo, Cordova, Seville to Granada, Ronda, Algecirus, and Tarifa. Like a glorified cinemacolor film, he passes in review Spanish scenery, the architecture of cathedrals and palaces; theatres and hotels; picturesque street-scenes, Moorish remains; the King and Queen; beggars and guides; gypsies and donkeys. And back of all this living present, adding richness to the scene like a figured tapestry, is the romantic history of Spain’s past.
Familiar Spanish Travels.
Excerpt from the text:
Even at Irun, where we arrived in Spain from Bayonne, there began at once to be temperamental differences which ought to have wrought against my weird misgivings of my whereabouts. Only in Spain could a customs inspector have felt of one tray in our trunks and then passed them all with an air of such jaded aversion from an employ uncongenial to a gentleman. Perhaps he was also loath to attempt any inquiry in that Desperanto of French, English, and Spanish which raged around us; but the porter to whom we had fallen, while I hesitated at our carriage door whether I should summon him as Mozo or Usted, was master of that lingua franca and recovered us from the customs without question on our part, and understood everything we could not, say. I like to think he was a Basque, because I like the Basques so much for no reason that I can think of. Their being always Carlists would certainly be no reason with me, for I was never a Carlist; and perhaps my liking is only a prejudice in their favor from the air of thrift and work which pervades their beautiful province, or is an effect of their language as I first saw it inscribed on the front of the Credit Lyonnais at Bayonne. It looked so beautifully regular, so scholarly, so Latin, so sister to both Spanish and Italian, so richly and musically voweled, and yet remained so impenetrable to the most daring surmise, that I conceived at once a profound admiration for the race which could keep such a language to itself. When I remembered how blond, how red-blond our sinewy young porter was, I could not well help breveting him of that race, and honoring him because he could have read those words with the eyes that were so blue amid the general Spanish blackness of eyes. He imparted a quiet from his own calm to our nervousness, and if we had appealed to him on the point I am sure he would have saved us from the error of breakfasting in the station restaurant at the deceitful table d’hote, though where else we should have breakfasted I do not know.
One train left for San Sebastian while I was still lost in amaze that what I had taken into my mouth for fried egg should be inwardly fish and full of bones; but he quelled my anxiety with the assurance, which I somehow understood, that there would be another train soon. In the mean time there were most acceptable Spanish families all about, affably conversing together, and freely admitting to their conversation the children, who so publicly abound in Spain, and the nurses who do nothing to prevent their publicity. There were already the typical fat Spanish mothers and lean fathers, with the slender daughters, who, in the tradition of Spanish good-breeding, kept their black eyes to themselves, or only lent them to the spectators in furtive glances. Both older and younger ladies wore the scanty Egyptian skirt of Occidental civilization, lurking or perking in deep-drooping or high-raking hats, though already here and there was the mantilla, which would more and more prevail as we went southward; older and younger, they were all painted and powdered to the favor that Spanish women everywhere corne to.
When the bad breakfast was over, and the waiters were laying the table for another as bad, our Basque porter came in and led us to the train for San Sebastian which he had promised us. It was now raining outside, and we were glad to climb into our apartment without at all seeing what Irun was or was not like. But we thought well of the place because we first experienced there the ample ease of a Spanish car. In Spain the railroad gauge is five feet six inches; and this car of ours was not only very spacious, but very clean, while the French cars that had brought us from Bordeaux to Bayonne and from Bayonne to Irun were neither. I do not say all French cars are dirty, or all Spanish cars are as clean as they are spacious. The cars of both countries are hard to get into, by steep narrow footholds worse even than our flights of steps; in fact, the English cars are the only ones I know which are easy of access. But these have not the ample racks for hand-bags which the Spanish companies provide for travelers willing to take advantage of their trust by transferring much of their heavy stuff to them. Without owning that we were such travelers, I find this the place to say that, with the allowance of a hundred and thirty-two pounds free, our excess baggage in two large steamer-trunks did not cost us three dollars in a month’s travel, with many detours, from Irun in the extreme north to Algeciras in the extreme south of Spain.
But in this sordid detail I am keeping the reader from the scenery. It had been growing more and more striking ever since we began climbing into the Pyrenees from Bayonne; but upon the whole it was not so sublime as it was beautiful. There were some steep, sharp peaks, but mostly there were grassy valleys with white cattle grazing in them, and many fields of Indian corn, endearingly homelike. This at least is mainly the trace that the scenery as far as Irun has left among my notes; and after Irun there is record of more and more corn. There was, in fact, more corn than anything else, though there were many orchards, also endearingly homelike, with apples yellow and red showing among the leaves still green on the trees; if there had been something more wasteful in the farming it would have been still more homelike, but a traveler cannot have everything. The hillsides were often terraced, as in Italy, and the culture apparently close and conscientious. The farmhouses looked friendly and comfortable; at places the landscape was molested by some sort of manufactories which could not conceal their tall chimneys, though they kept the secret of their industry. They were never, really, very bad, and I would have been willing to let them pass for fulling-mills, such as I was so familiar with in Don Quixote, if I had thought of these in time. But one ought to be honest at any cost, and I must own that the Spain I was now for the first time seeing with every-day eyes was so little like the Spain of my boyish vision that I never once recurred to it. That was a Spain of cork-trees, of groves by the green margins of mountain brooks, of habitable hills, where shepherds might feed their flocks and mad lovers and maids forlorn might wander and maunder; and here were fields of corn and apple orchards and vineyards reddening and yellowing up to the doors of those comfortable farmhouses, with nowhere the sign of a Christian cavalier or a turbaned infidel. As a man I could not help liking what I saw, but I could also grieve for the boy who would have been so disappointed if he had come to the Basque provinces of Spain when he was from ten to fifteen years old, instead of seventy-four.
It took our train nearly an hour to get by twenty miles of those pleasant farms and the pretty hamlets which they now and then clustered into. But that was fast for a Spanish way-train, which does not run, but, as it were, walks with dignity and makes long stops at stations, to rest and let the locomotive roll itself a cigarette. By the time we reached San Sebastian our rain had thickened to a heavy downpour, and by the time we mounted to our rooms, three pair up in the hotel, it was storming in a fine fury over the bay under them, and sweeping the curving quays and tossing the feathery foliage of the tamarisk-shaded promenade. The distinct advantage of our lofty perch was the splendid sight of the tempest, held from doing its worst by the mighty headlands standing out to sea on the right and left. But our rooms were cold with the stony cold of the south when it is cooling off from its summer, and we shivered in the splendid sight.
The inhabitants of San Sebastian will not hesitate to say that it is the prettiest town in Spain, and I do not know that they could be hopefully contradicted. It is very modern in its more obvious aspects, with a noble thoroughfare called the Avenida de Libertad for its principal street, shaded with a double row of those feathery tamarisks, and with handsome shops glittering on both sides of it. Very easily it is first of the fashionable watering-places of Spain; the King has his villa there, and the court comes every summer. But they had gone by the time we got there, and the town wore the dejected look of out-of-season summer resorts; though there was the apparatus of gaiety, the fine casino at one end of the beach, and the villas of the rich and noble all along it to the other end. On the sand were still many bathing-machines, but many others had begun to climb for greater safety during the winter to the street above. We saw one hardy bather dripping up from the surf and seeking shelter among those that remained, but they were mostly tenanted by their owners, who looked shoreward through their open doors, and made no secret of their cozy domesticity, where they sat and sewed or knitted and gossiped with their neighbors. Good wives and mothers they doubtless were, but no doubt glad to be resting from the summer pleasure of others. They had their beautiful names written up over their doors, and were for the service of the lady visitors only; there were other machines for gentlemen, and no doubt it was their owners whom we saw gathering the fat seaweed thrown up by the storm into the carts drawn by oxen over the sand. The oxen wore no yokes, but pulled by a band drawn over their foreheads under their horns, and they had the air of not liking the arrangement; though, for the matter of that, I have never seen oxen that seemed to like being yoked.
When we came down to dinner we found the tables fairly full of belated visitors, who presently proved tourists flying south like ourselves. The dinner was good, as it is in nearly all Spanish hotels, where for an average of three dollars a day you have an inclusive rate which you must double for as good accommodation in our States. Let no one, I say, fear the rank cookery so much imagined of the Peninsula, the oil, the pepper, the kid and the like strange meats; as in all other countries of Europe, even England itself, there is a local version, a general convention of the French cuisine, quite as good in Spain as elsewhere, and oftener superabundant than subabundant. The plain water is generally good, With an American edge of freshness; but if you will not trust it (we had to learn to trust it) there are agreeable Spanish mineral waters, as well as the Apollinaris, the St. Galmier, and the Perrier of other civilizations, to be had for the asking, at rather greater cost than the good native wines, often included in the inclusive rate.