Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

Algeciras and Tarifa

When we walked out on the terrace of our hotel at Algeciras after breakfast, the first morning, we were greeted by the familiar form of the Rock of Gibraltar still advertising, as we had seen it three years before, a well-known American insurance company. It rose beyond five miles of land-locked water, which we were to cross every other day for three weeks on many idle and anxious errands, until we sailed from it at last for New York.

Meanwhile Algeciras was altogether delightful not only because of our Kate–Greenaway hotel, embowered in ten or twelve acres of gardened ground, with walks going and coming under its palms and eucalyptuses, beside beds of geraniums and past trellises of roses and jasmines, all in the keeping of a captive stork which was apt unexpectedly to meet the stranger and clap its formidable mandibles at him, and then hop away with half-lifted wings. Algeciras had other claims which it urged day after day more winningly upon us as the last place where we should feel the charm of Spain unbroken in the tradition which reaches from modern fact far back into antique fable. I will not follow it beyond the historic clue, for I think the reader ought to be satisfied with knowing that the Moors held it as early as the seven hundreds and as late as the thirteen hundreds, when the Christians definitively recaptured it and their kings became kings of Algeciras as well as kings of Spain, and remain so to this day. At the end of the eighteenth century one of these kings made it his lookout for watching the movements of the inimical English fleets, and then Algeciras slumbered again, haunted only by “a deep dream of peace” till the European diplomats, rather unexpectedly assisted by an American envoy, made it the scene of their famous conference for settling the Morocco question in. 1906.

I think this is my whole duty to the political interest of Algeciras, and until I come to our excursion to Tarifa I am going to give myself altogether to our pleasure in the place unvexed by any event of history. I disdain even to note that the Moors took the city again from the Christians, after twenty-five years, and demolished it, for I prefer to remember it as it has been rebuilt and lies white by its bay, a series of red-tiled levels of roof with a few church-towers topping them. It is a pretty place, and remarkably clean, inhabited mostly by beggars, with a minority of industrial, commercial, and professional citizens, who live in agreeable little houses, with patios open to the passer, and with balconies overhanging him. It has of course a bull-ring, enviously closed during our stay, and it has one of the pleasantest Alamedas and the best swept in Spain, where some nice boys are playing in the afternoon sun, and a gentleman, coming out of one of the villas bordering on it, is courteously interested in the two strangers whom he sees sitting on a bench beside the walk, with the leaves of the plane trees dropping round them in the still air.


The Alameda is quite at the thither end of Algeciras. At the end next our hotel, but with the intervention of a space of cliff, topped and faced by summer cottages and gardens, is the station with a train usually ready to start from it for Ronda or Seville or Malaga, I do not know which, and with the usual company of freight-cars idling about, empty or laden with sheets of cork, as indifferent to them as if they were so much mere pine or spruce lumber. There is a sufficiently attractive hotel here for transients, and as an allurement to the marine and military leisure of Gibraltar, “The Picnic Restaurant,” and “The Cabin Tea Room,” where no doubt there is something to be had beside sandwiches and tea. Here also is the pier for the Gibraltar boats, with the Spanish custom-house which their passengers must pass through and have their packages and persons searched for contraband. One heard of wild caprices on the part of the inspectors in levying duties which were sometimes made to pass the prime cost of the goods in Gibraltar. I myself only carried in books which after the first few declarations were recognized as of no imaginable value and passed with a genial tolerance, as a sort of joke, by officers whom I saw feeling the persons of their fellow-Spaniards unsparingly over.

We had, if anything, less business really in Algeciras than in Gibraltar, but we went into the town nearly every afternoon, and wantonly bought things. By this means we proved that the Andalusian shopmen had not the proud phlegm of the Castilians across their counters. In the principal dry-goods store two salesmen rivaled each other in showing us politeness, and sent home our small purchases as promptly as if we had done them a favor in buying. We were indeed the wonder of our fellow-customers who were not buying; but our pride was brought down in the little shop where the proprietress was too much concerned in cooking her dinner (it smelled delicious) to mind our wish for a very cheap green vase, inestimably Spanish after we got it home. However, in another shop where the lady was ironing her week’s wash on the counter, a lady friend who was making her an afternoon call got such a vase down for us and transacted the negotiation out of pure good will for both parties to it.

Parallel with the railway was a channel where small fishing-craft lay, and where a leisurely dredging-machine was stirring up the depths in a stench so dire that I wonder we do not smell it across the Atlantic. Over this channel a bridge led into the town, and offered the convenient support of its parapet to the crowd of spectators who wished to inhale that powerful odor at their ease, and who hung there throughout the working-day; the working-day of the dredging-machine, that is. The population was so much absorbed in this that when we first crossed into the town, we found no beggar children even, though there were a few blind beggarmen, but so few that a boy who had one of them in charge was obliged to leave off smelling the river and run and hunt him up for us. Other boys were busy in street-sweeping and b-r-r-r-r-ing to the donkeys that carried off the sweepings in panniers; and in the fine large plaza before the principal church of Algeciras there was a boy who had plainly nothing but mischief to do, though he did not molest us farther than to ask in English, “Want to see the cathedral?” Then he went his way swiftly and we went into the church, which we found very whitewashed and very Moorish in architecture, but very Spanish in the Blessed Virgins on most of the altars, dressed in brocades and jewels. A sacristan was brushing and dusting the place, but he did not bother us, and we went freely about among the tall candles standing on the floor as well as on the altars, and bearing each a placard attached with black ribbon, and dedicated in black letters on silver “To the Repose of This or That” one among the dead.

The meaning was evident enough, but we sought something further of the druggist at the corner, who did his best for us in such English as he had. It was not quite the English of Ronda; but he praised his grammar while he owned that his vocabulary was in decay from want of practise. In fact, he well-nigh committed us to the purchase of one of those votive candles, which he understood we wished to buy; he all but sent to the sacristan to get one. There were several onlookers, as there always are in Latin pharmacies, and there was a sad young mother waiting for medicine with a sick baby in her arms. The druggist said it had fever of the stomach; he seemed proud of the fact, and some talk passed between him and the bystanders which related to it. We asked if he had any of the quince jelly which we had learned to like in Seville, but he could only refer us to the confectioner’s on the other corner. Here was not indeed quince jelly, but we compromised on quince cheese, as the English call it; and we bought several boxes of it to take to America, which I am sorry to say moulded before our voyage began, and had to be thrown away. Near this confectioner’s was a booth where boiled sweet-potatoes were sold, with oranges and joints of sugar-cane, and, spitted on straws, that terrible fruit of the strawberry tree which we had tasted at Honda without wishing to taste it ever again. Yet there was a boy boldly buying several straws of it and chancing the intoxication which over-indulgence in it is said to cause. Whether the excitement of these events was too great or not, we found ourselves suddenly unwilling, if not unable, to walk back to our hotel, and we took a cab of the three standing in the plaza. One was without a horse, another without a driver, but the third had both, as in some sort of riddle, and we had no sooner taken it than a horse was put into the first and a driver ran out and got on the box of the second, as if that was the answer to the riddle.


It was then too late for them to share our custom, but I am not sure that it was not one of these very horses or drivers whom we got another day for our drive about the town and its suburbs, and an excursion to a section of the Moorish aqueduct which remains after a thousand years. You can see it at a distance, but no horse or driver in our employ could ever find the way to it; in fact, it seemed to vanish on approach, and we were always bringing up in our hotel gardens without having got to it; I do not know what we should have done with it if we had. We were not able to do anything definite with the new villas built or building around Algeciras, though they looked very livable, and seemed proof of a prosperity in the place for which I can give no reason except the great natural beauty of the nearer neighborhood, and the magnificence of the farther, mountain-walled and skyed over with a September blue in November. I think it would be a good place to spend the winter if one liked each day to be exactly like every other. I do not know whether it is inhabited by English people from Gibraltar, where there are of course those resources of sport and society which an English colony always carries with it.

The popular amusements of Algeciras in the off season for bull-feasts did not readily lend themselves to observance. Chiefly we noted two young men with a graphophone on wheels which, being pushed about, wheezed out the latest songs to the acceptance of large crowds. We ourselves amused a large crowd when one of us attempted to sketch the yellow facade of a church so small that it seemed all facade; and another day when that one of us who held the coppers, commonly kept sacred to blind beggars, delighted an innumerable multitude of mendicants having their eyesight perfect. They were most of them in the vigor of youth, and they were waiting on a certain street for the monthly dole with which a resident of Algeciras may buy immunity for all the other days of the month. They instantly recognized in the stranger a fraudulent tax-dodger, and when he attempted tardily to purchase immunity they poured upon him; in front, behind, on both sides, all round, they boiled up and bubbled about him; and the exhaustion of his riches alone saved him alive. It must have been a wonderful spectacle, and I do not suppose the like of it was ever seen in Algeciras before. It was a triumph over charity, and left quite out of comparison the organized onsets of the infant gang which always beset the way to the hotel under a leader whose battle-cry, at once a demand and a promise, was “Penny-go-way, Penny-go-way!”

Along that pleasant shore bare-legged fishermen spread their nets, and going and coming by the Gibraltar boats were sometimes white-hosed, brown-cloaked, white-turbaned Moors, who occasionally wore Christian boots, but otherwise looked just such Moslems as landed at Algeciras in the eighth century; people do not change much in Africa. They were probably hucksters from the Moorish market in Gibraltar, where they had given their geese and turkeys the holiday they were taking themselves. They were handsome men, tall and vigorous, but they did not win me to sympathy with their architecture or religion, and I am not sure but, if there had been any concerted movement against them on the landing at Algeciras, I should have joined in driving them out of Spain. As it was I made as much Africa as I could of them in defect of crossing to Tangier, which we had firmly meant to do, but which we forbore doing till the plague had ceased to rage there. By this time the boat which touched at Tangier on the way to Cadiz stopped going to Cadiz, and if we could not go to Cadiz we did not care for going to Tangier. It was something like this, if not quite like it, and it ended in our seeing Africa only from the southernmost verge of Europe at Tarifa. At that little distance across it looked dazzlingly white, like the cotton vestments of those Moorish marketmen, but probably would have been no cleaner on closer approach.


As a matter of fact, we were very near not going even to Tarifa, though we had promised ourselves going from the first. But it was very charming to linger in the civilization of that hotel; to wander through its garden paths in the afternoon after a forenoon’s writing and inhale the keen aromatic odors of the eucalyptus, and when the day waned to have tea at an iron table on the seaward terrace. Or if we went to Gibraltar, it was interesting to wonder why we had gone, and to be so glad of getting back, and after dinner joining a pleasant international group in the long reading-room with the hearth-fires at either end which, if you got near them, were so comforting against the evening chill. Sometimes the pleasure of the time was heightened by the rain pattering on the glass roof of the patio, where in the afternoon a bulky Spanish mother sat mute beside her basket of laces which you could buy if you would, but need not if you would rather not; in either case she smiled placidly.

At last we did get together courage enough to drive twelve miles over the hills to Tarifa, but this courage was pieced out of the fragments of the courage we had lost for going to Cadiz by the public automobile which runs daily from Algeciras. The road after you passed Tarifa was so bad that those who had endured it said nobody could endure it, and in such a case I was sure I could not, but now I am sorry I did not venture, for since then I have motored over some of the roads in the state of Maine and lived. If people in Maine had that Spanish road as far as Tarifa they would think it the superb Massachusetts state road gone astray, and it would be thought a good road anywhere, with the promise of being better when the young eucalyptus trees planted every few yards along it grew big enough to shade it. But we were glad of as much sun as we could get on the brisk November morning when we drove out of the hotel garden and began the long climb, with little intervals of level and even of lapse. We started at ten o’clock, and it was not too late in that land of anomalous hours to meet peasants on their mules and donkeys bringing loads of stuff to market in Algeciras. Men were plowing with many yoke of oxen in the wheat-fields; elsewhere there were green pastures with herds of horses grazing in them, an abundance of brown pigs, and flocks of sheep with small lambs plaintively bleating. The pretty white farmhouses, named each after a favorite saint, and gathering at times into villages, had grapes and figs and pomegranates in their gardens; and when we left them and climbed higher, we began passing through long stretches of cork woods.

The trees grew wild, sometimes sturdily like our oaks, and sometimes gnarled and twisted like our seaside cedars, and in every state of excoriation. The bark is taken from them each seventh year, and it begins to be taken long before the first seventh. The tender saplings and the superannuated shell wasting to its fall yield alike their bark, which is stripped from the roots to the highest boughs. Where they have been flayed recently they look literally as if they were left bleeding, for the sap turns a red color; but with time this changes to brown, and the bark begins to renew itself and grows again till the next seventh year. Upon the whole the cork-wood forest is not cheerful, and I would rather frequent it in the pages of Don Quixote than out; though if the trees do not mind being barked it is mere sentimentality in me to pity them.

The country grew lonelier and drearier as we mounted, and the wind blew colder over the fields blotched with that sort of ground-palm, which lays waste so much land in southern Spain. When we descended the winding road from the summit we came in sight of the sea with Africa clearly visible beyond, and we did not lose sight of it again. Sometimes we met soldiers possibly looking out for smugglers but, let us hope, not molesting them; and once we met a brace of the all-respected Civil Guards, marching shoulder to shoulder, with their cloaks swinging free and their carbines on their arms, severe, serene, silent. Now and then a mounted wayfarer came toward us looking like a landed proprietor in his own equipment and that of his steed, and there were peasant women solidly perched on donkeys, and draped in long black cloaks and hooded in white kerchiefs.


The landscape softened again, with tilled fields and gardened spaces around the cottages, and now we had Tarifa always in sight, a stretch of white walls beside the blue sea with an effect of vicinity which it was very long in realizing. We had meant when we reached the town at last to choose which fonda we should stop at for our luncheon, but our driver chose the Fonda de Villanueva outside the town wall, and I do not believe we could have chosen better if he had let us. He really put us down across the way at the venta where he was going to bait his horses; and in what might well have seemed the custody of a little policeman with a sword at his side, we were conducted to the fonda and shown up into the very neat icy cold parlor where a young girl with a yellow flower in her hair received us. We were chill and stiff from our drive and we hoped for something warmer from the dining-room, which we perceived must face southward, and must be full of sun. But we reckoned without the ideal of the girl with the yellow flower in her hair: in the little saloon, shining round with glazed tiles where we next found ourselves, the sun had been carefully screened and scarcely pierced the scrim shades. But this was the worst, this was all that was bad, in that fonda. When the breakfast or the luncheon, or whatever corresponds in our usage to the Spanish almuerzo, began to come, it seemed as if it never would stop. An original but admirable omelette with potatoes and bacon in it was followed by fried fish flavored with saffron. Then there was brought in fried kid with a dish of kidneys; more fried fish came after, and then boiled beef, with a dessert of small cakes. Of course there was wine, as much as you would, such as it was, and several sorts of fruit. I am sorry to have forgotten how little all this cost, but at a venture I will say forty cents, or fifty at the outside; and so great kindness and good will went with it from the family who cooked it in the next room and served it with such cordial insistence that I think it was worth quite the larger sum. It would not have been polite to note how much of this superabundance was consumed by the three Spanish gentlemen who had so courteously saluted us in sitting down at table with us. I only know that they made us the conventional acknowledgment in refusing our conventional offer of some things we had brought with us from our hotel to eat in the event of famine at Tarifa.

When we had come at last to the last course, we turned our thoughts somewhat anxiously to the question of a guide for the town which we felt so little able to explore without one; and it seemed to me that I had better ask the policeman who had brought us to our fonda. He was sitting at the head of the stairs where we had left him, and so far from being baffled by my problem, he instantly solved it by offering himself to be our guide. Perhaps it was a profession which he merely joined to his civic function, but it was as if we were taken into custody when he put himself in charge of us and led us to the objects of interest which I cannot say Tarifa abounds in. That is, if you leave out of the count the irregular, to and fro, up and down, narrow lanes, passing the blank walls of low houses, and glimpsing leafy and flowery patios through open gates, and suddenly expanding into broader streets and unexpected plazas, with shops and cafes and churches in them.

Tarifa is perhaps the quaintest town left in the world, either in or out of Spain, but whether it is more Moorish than parts of Cordova or Seville I could not say. It is at least pre-eminent in a feature of the women’s costume which you are promised at the first mention of the place, and which is said to be a survival of the Moslem civilization. Of course we were eager for it, and when we came into the first wide street, there at the principal corner three women were standing, just as advertised, with black skirts caught up from their waists over their heads and held before their faces so that only one eye could look out at the strangers. It was like the women’s costume at Chiozza on the Venetian lagoon, but there it is not claimed for Moorish and here it was authenticated by being black. “Moorish ladies,” our guide proudly proclaimed them in his scanty English, but I suspect they were Spanish; if they were really Orientals, they followed us with those eyes single as daringly as if they had been of our own Christian Occident.

The event was so perfect in its way that it seemed as if our guiding policeman might have especially ordered it; but this could not have really been, and was no such effect of his office as the immunity from beggars which we enjoyed in his charge. The worst boy in Tarifa (we did not identify him) dared not approach for a big-dog or a little, and we were safe from the boldest blind man, the hardiest hag, however pockmarked. The lanes and the streets and the plazas were clean as though our guide had them newly swept for us, and the plaza of the principal church (no guide-book remembers its name) is perhaps the cleanest in all Spain.


The church itself we found very clean, and of an interest quite beyond the promise of the rather bare outside. A painted window above the door cast a glare of fresh red and blue over the interior, and over the comfortably matted floor; and there was a quite freshly carved and gilded chapel which the pleasant youth supplementing our policeman for the time said was done by artists still living in Tarifa. The edifice was of a very flamboyant Gothic, with clusters of slender columns and a vault brilliantly swirled over with decorations of the effect of peacock feathers. But above all there was on a small side altar a figure of the Child Jesus dressed in the corduroy suit and felt hat of a Spanish shepherd, with a silver crook in one hand and leading a toy lamb by a string in the other. Our young guide took the image down for us to look at, and showed its shepherd’s dress with peculiar satisfaction; and then he left it on the ground while he went to show us something else. When we came back we found two small boys playing with the Child, putting its hat off and on, and feeling of its clothes. Our guide took it from them, not unkindly, and put it back on the altar; and whether the reader will agree with me or not, I must own that I did not find the incident irreverent or without a certain touchingness, as if those children and He were all of one family and they were at home with Him there.

Rather suddenly, after we left the church, by way of one of those unexpectedly expanding lanes, we found ourselves on the shore of the purple sea where the Moors first triumphed over the Goths twelve hundred years before, and five centuries later the Spaniards heat them back from their attempt to reconquer the city. There were barracks, empty of the Spanish soldiers gone to fight the same old battle of the Moors on their own ground in Africa, and there was the castle which Alfonso Perez de Guzman held against them in 1292, and made the scene of one of those acts of self-devotion which the heart of this time has scarcely strength for. The Moors when they had vainly summoned him to yield brought out his son whom they held captive, and threatened to kill him. Guzman drew his knife and flung it down to them, and they slew the boy, but Tarif a was saved. His king decreed that thereafter the father should be known as Guzman the Good, and the fact has gone into a ballad, but the name somehow does not seem quite to fit, and one wishes that the father had not won it that way.

We were glad to go away from the dreadful place, though Tangier was so plain across the strait, and we were almost in Africa there, and hard by, in the waters tossing free, the great battle of Trafalgar was fought. From the fountains of my far youth, when I first heard of Guzman’s dreadful heroism, I endeavored to pump up an adequate emotion; I succeeded somewhat better with Nelson and his pathetic prayer of “Kiss me, Hardy,” as he lay dying on his bloody deck; but I did not much triumph with either, and I was grateful when our good little policeman comfortably questioned the deed of Guzman which he said some doubted, though he took us to the very spot where the Moors had parleyed with Guzman, and showed us the tablet over the castle gate affirming the fact.

We liked far better the pretty Alameda rising in terraces from it with beds of flowers beside the promenade, and boys playing up and down, and old men sitting in the sun, and trying to ignore the wind that blew over them too freshly for us. Our policeman confessed that there was nothing more worth seeing in Tarifa, and we entreated of him the favor of showing us a shop where we could buy a Cordovese hat; a hat which we had seen nourishing on the heads of all men in Cordova and Seville and Granada and Ronda, and had always forborne to buy because we could get it anywhere; and now we were almost leaving Spain without it. We wanted one brown in color, as well as stiff and flat of brim, and slightly conical in form; and our policeman promptly imagined it, and took us to a shop abounding solely in hats, and especially in Cordoveses. The proprietor came out wiping his mouth from an inner room, where he had left his family visibly at their almuerzo; and then we were desolated together that he should only have Cordoveses that were black. But passing a patio where there was a poinsettia in brilliant bloom against the wall, we found ourselves in a variety store where there were Cordoveses of all colors; and we chose one of the right brown, with the picture of a beautiful Spanish girl, wearing a pink shawl, inside the crown which was fluted round in green and red ribbon. Seven pesetas was the monstrous asking price, but we beat it down to five and a half, and then came a trying moment: we could not carry a Cordovese in tissue-paper through the streets of Tarifa, but could we ask our guide, who was also our armed escort, to carry it? He simplified the situation by taking it himself and bearing it back to the fonda as proudly as if he had not also worn a sword at his side; and we parted there in a kindness which I should like to think he shared equally with us.

He was practically the last of those Spaniards who were always winning my heart (save in the bank at Valladolid where they must have misunderstood me), and whom I remember with tenderness for their courtesy and amiability. In little things and large, I found the Spaniards everywhere what I heard a Piedmontese commercial traveler say of them in Venice fifty years ago: “They are the honestest people in Europe.” In Italy I never began to see the cruelty to animals which English tourists report, and in Spain I saw none at all. If the reader asks how with this gentleness, this civility and integrity, the Spaniards have contrived to build up their repute for cruelty, treachery, mendacity, and every atrocity; how with their love of bull-feasts and the suffering to man and brute which these involve, they should yet seem so kind to both, I answer frankly, I do not know. I do not know how the Americans are reputed good and just and law-abiding, although they often shoot one another, and upon mere suspicion rather often burn negroes alive.

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