Familiar Spanish Travels, by William Dean Howells

Cordova and the Way There

I should be sorry if I could believe that Cordova experienced the disappointment in us, which I must own we felt in her; but our disappointment was unquestionable, and I will at once offer it to the reader as an inducement for him to go to Cordova with less lively expectations than ours. I would by no means have him stay away; after all, there is only one Cordova in the world which the capital of the Caliphate of the West once filled with her renown; and if the great mosque of Abderrahman is not so beautiful as one has been made to fancy it, still it is wonderful, and could not be missed without loss.


Better, I should say, take the rapido which leaves Madrid three times a week at nine-thirty in the morning, than the night express which leaves as often at the same hour in the evening. Since there are now such good day trains on the chief Spanish lines, it is flying in the face of Providence not to go by them; they might be suddenly taken off; besides, they have excellent restaurant-cars, and there is, moreover, always the fascinating and often the memorable landscape which they pass through. By no fault of ours that I can remember, our train was rather crowded; that is, four or five out of the eight places in our corridor compartment were taken, and we were afraid at every stop that more people would get in, though I do not know that it was our anxieties kept them out. For the matter of that, I do not know why I employed an interpreter at Madrid to get my ticket stamped at the ticket-office; it required merely the presentation of the ticket at the window; but the interpreter seemed to wish it and it enabled him to practise his English with me, and I realized that he must live. In a peseta’s worth of gratitude he followed us to our carriage, and he did not molest the mozo in putting our bags into the racks, though he hovered about the door till the train started; and it just now occurs to me that he may have thought a peseta was not a sufficient return for his gratitude; he had rendered us no service.

At Aranjuez the wheat-lands, which began to widen about us as soon as we got beyond the suburbs of Madrid, gave way to the groves and gardens of that really charming pleasaunce, charming quite from the station, with grounds penetrated by placid waters overhung by the English elms which the Castilians are so happy in having naturalized in their treeless waste. Multitudes of nightingales are said to sing among them, but it was not the season for hearing them from the train; and we made what shift we could with the strawberry and asparagus beds which we could see plainly, and the peach trees and cherry trees. One of these had committed the solecism of blossoming in October, instead of April or May, when the nobility came to their villas.

We had often said during our stay in Madrid that we should certainly come for a day at Aranjuez; and here we were, passing it with a five minutes’ stop. I am sure it merited much more, not only for its many proud memories, but for its shameful ones, which are apt to be so much more lasting in the case of royal pleasaunces. The great Catholic King Ferdinand inherited the place with the Mastership of the Order of Santiago; Charles V. used to come there for the shooting, and Philip II., Charleses III. and IV., and Ferdinand VII. built and rebuilt its edifices. But it is also memorable because the wretched Godoy fled there with the king, his friend, and the queen, his paramour, and there the pitiable king abdicated in favor of his abominable son Ferdinand VII. It is the careful Murray who reminds me of this fact; Gautier, who apparently fails to get anything to his purpose out of Aranjuez, passes it with the remark that Godoy built there a gallery from his villa to the royal palace, for his easier access to the royal family in which he held a place so anomalous. From Mr. Martin Hume’s Modern Spain I learn that when the court fled to Aranjuez from Madrid before the advance of Murat, and the mob, civil and military, hunted Godoy’s villa through for him, he jumped out of bed and hid himself under a roll of matting, while the king and the queen, to save him, decreed his dismissal from all his offices and honors.

But here just at the most interesting moment the successive bells and whistles are screeching, and the rapido is hurrying me away from Aranjuez. We are leaving a railway station, but presently it is as if we had set sail on a gray sea, with a long ground-swell such as we remembered from Old Castile. These innumerable pastures and wheat-fields are in New Castile, and before long more distinctively they are in La Mancha, the country dear to fame as the home of Don Quixote. I must own at once it does not look it, or at least look like the country I had read out of his history in my boyhood. For the matter of that, no country ever looks like the country one reads out of a book, however really it may be that country. The trouble probably is that one carries out of one’s reading an image which one had carried into it. When I read Don Quixote and read and read it again, I put La Mancha first into the map of southern Ohio, and then into that, after an interval of seven or eight years, of northern Ohio; and the scenes I arranged for his adventures were landscapes composed from those about me in my earlier and later boyhood. There was then always something soft and mild in the Don Quixote country, with a blue river and gentle uplands, and woods where one could rest in the shade, and hide one’s self if one wished, after easily rescuing the oppressed. Now, instead, a treeless plain unrolled itself from sky to sky, clean, dull, empty; and if some azure tops dimmed the clear line of the western horizon, how could I have got them into my early picture when I had never yet seen a mountain in my life? I could not put the knight and his squire on those naked levels where they should not have got a mile from home without discovery and arrest. I tried to think of them jogging along in talk of the adventures which the knight hoped for; but I could not make it work. I could have done better before we got so far from Aranjuez; there were gardens and orchards and a very suitable river there, and those elm trees overhanging it; but the prospect in La Mancha had only here and there a white-availed white farmhouse to vary its lonely simplicity, its desert fertility; and I could do nothing with the strips and patches of vineyard. It was all strangely African, strangely Mexican, and not at all American, not Ohioan, enough to be anything like the real La Mancha of my invention. To be sure, the doors and windows of the nearer houses were visibly netted against mosquitoes and that was something, but even that did not begin to be noticeable till we were drawing near the Sierra Morena. Then, so long before we reached the mighty chain of mountains which nature has stretched between the gravity of New Castile and the gaiety of Andalusia, as if they could not bear immediate contact, I experienced a moment of perfect reconciliation to the landscape as really wearing the face of that La Mancha familiar to my boyish vision. Late in the forenoon, but early enough to save the face of La Mancha, there appeared certain unquestionable shapes in the nearer and farther distance which I joyously knew for those windmills which Don Quixote had known for giants and spurred at, lance in rest. They were waving their vans in what he had found insolent defiance, but which seemed to us glad welcome, as of windmills waiting that long time for a reader of Cervantes who could enter into their feelings and into the friendly companionship they were offering.


Our train did not pass very near, but the distance was not bad for them; it kept them sixty or sixty-five years back in the past where they belonged, and in its dimness I could the more distinctly see Don Quixote careering against them, and Sancho Panza vainly warning, vainly imploring him, and then in his rage and despair, “giving himself to the devil,” as he had so often to do in that master’s service; I do not know now that I would have gone nearer them if I could. Sometimes in the desolate plains where the windmills stood so well aloof men were lazily, or at least leisurely, plowing with their prehistoric crooked sticks. Here and there the clean levels were broken by shallow pools of water; and we were at first much tormented by expanses, almost as great as these pools, of a certain purple flower, which no curiosity of ours could prevail with to yield up the secret of its name or nature. It was one of the anomalies of this desert country that it was apparently prosperous, if one might guess from the comfortable-looking farmsteads scattered over it, inclosing house and stables in the courtyard framed by their white walls. The houses stood at no great distances from one another, but were nowhere grouped in villages. There were commonly no towns near the stations, which were not always uncheerful; sometimes there were flower-beds, unless my memory deceives me. Perhaps there would be a passenger or two, and certainly a loafer or two, and always of the sex which in town life does the loafing; in the background or through the windows the other sex could be seen in its domestic activities. Only once did we see three girls of such as stay for the coming and going of trains the world over; they waited arm in arm, and we were obliged to own they were plain, poor things.

Their whitewash saves the distant towns from the effect of sinking into the earth, or irregularly rising from it, as in Old Castile, and the landscape cheered up more and more as we ran farther south. We passed through the country of the Valdepenas wine, which it is said would so willingly be better than it is; there was even a station of that name, which looked much more of a station than most, and had, I think I remember, buildings necessary to the wine industry about it. Murray, indeed, emboldens me in this halting conjecture with the declaration that the neighboring town of Valdepenas is “completely undermined by wine-cellars of very ancient date” where the wine is “kept in caves in huge earthen jars,” and when removed is put into goat or pig skins in the right Don Quixote fashion.

The whole region begins to reek of Cervantean memories. Ten miles from the station of Argamasilla is the village where he imagined, and the inhabitants believe, Don Quixote to have been born. Somewhere among these little towns Cervantes himself was thrown into prison for presuming to attempt collecting their rents when the people did not want to pay them. This is what I seem to remember having read, but heaven knows where, or if. What is certain is that almost before I was aware we were leaving the neighborhood of Valdepenas, where we saw men with donkeys gathering grapes and letting the donkeys browse on the vine leaves. Then we were mounting among the foothills of the Sierra Morena, not without much besetting trouble of mind because of those certain circles and squares of stone on the nearer and farther slopes which we have since somehow determined were sheep-folds. They abounded almost to the very scene of those capers which Don Quixote cut on the mountainside to testify his love for Dulcinea del Toboso, to the great scandal of Sancho Panza riding away to give his letter to the lady, but unable to bear the sight of the knight skipping on the rocks in a single garment.


In the forests about befell all those adventures with the mad Cardenio and the wronged Dorothea, both self-banished to the wilderness through the perfidy of the same false friend and faithless lover. The episodes which end so well, and which form, I think, the heart of the wonderful romance, have, from the car windows, the fittest possible setting; but suddenly the scene changes, and you are among aspects of nature as savagely wild as any in that new western land where the countrymen of Cervantes found a New Spain, just as the countrymen of Shakespeare found a New England. Suddenly, or if not suddenly, then startlingly, we were in a pass of the Sierra called (for some reason which I will leave picturesquely unexplained) the Precipice of Dogs, where bare sharp peaks and spears of rock started into the air, and the faces of the cliffs glared down upon us like the faces of Indian warriors painted yellow and orange and crimson, and every other warlike color. With my poor scruples of moderation I cannot give a just notion of the wild aspects; I must leave it to the reader, with the assurance that he cannot exaggerate it, while I employ myself in noting that already on this awful summit we began to feel ourselves in the south, in Andalusia. Along the mountain stream that slipped silverly away in the valley below, there were oleanders in bloom, such as we had left in Bermuda the April before. Already, north of the Sierra the country had been gentling. The upturned soil had warmed from gray to red; elsewhere the fields were green with sprouting wheat; and there were wide spaces of those purple flowers, like crocuses, which women were gathering in large baskets. Probably they were not crocuses; but there could be no doubt of the vineyards increasing in their acreage; and the farmhouses which had been without windows in their outer walls, now sometimes opened as many as two to the passing train. Flocks of black sheep and goats, through the optical illusion frequent in the Spanish air, looked large as cattle in the offing. Only in one place had we seen the tumbled boulders of Old Castile, and there had been really no greater objection to La Mancha than that it was flat, stale, and unprofitable and wholly unimaginable as the scene of even Don Quixote’s first adventures.

But now that we had mounted to the station among the summits of the Sierra Morena, my fancy began to feel at home, and rested in a scene which did all the work for it. There was ample time for the fancy to rest in that more than co-operative landscape. Just beyond the first station the engine of a freight-train had opportunely left the track in front of us, and we waited there four hours till it could be got back. It would be inhuman to make the reader suffer through this delay with us after it ceased to be pleasure and began to be pain. Of course, everybody of foreign extraction got out of the train and many even, went forward to look at the engine and see what they could do about it; others went partly forward and asked the bolder spirits on their way back what was the matter. Now and then our locomotive whistled as if to scare the wandering engine back to the rails. At moments the station-master gloomily returned to the station from somewhere and diligently despaired in front of it. Then we backed as if to let our locomotive run up the siding and try to butt the freight-train off the track to keep its engine company.

About this time the restaurant-car bethought itself of some sort of late-afternoon repast, and we went forward and ate it with an interest which we prolonged as much as possible. We returned to our car which was now pervaded by an extremely bad smell. The smell drove us out, and we watched a public-spirited peasant beating the acorns from a live-oak near the station with a long pole. He brought a great many down, and first filled his sash-pocket with them; then he distributed them among the children of the third-class passengers who left the train and flocked about him. But nobody seemed to do anything with the acorns, though they were more than an inch long, narrow, and very sharp-pointed. As soon as he had discharged his self-assumed duty the peasant lay down on the sloping bank under the tree, and with his face in the grass, went to sleep for all our stay, and for what I know the whole night after.

It did not now seem likely that we should ever reach Cordova, though people made repeated expeditions to the front of the train, and came back reporting that in an hour we should start. We interested ourselves as intensely as possible in a family from the next compartment, London-tailored, and speaking either Spanish or English as they fancied, who we somehow understood lived at Barcelona; but nothing came of our interest. Then as the day waned we threw ourselves into the interest taken by a fellow-passenger in a young Spanish girl of thirteen or fourteen who had been in the care of a youngish middle-aged man when our train stopped, and been then abandoned by him for hours, while he seemed to be satisfying a vain curiosity at the head of the train. She owned that the deserter was her father, and while we were still poignantly concerned for her he came back and relieved the anxiety which the girl herself had apparently not shared even under pressure of the whole compartment’s sympathy.


The day waned more and more; the sun began to sink, and then it sank with that sudden drop which the sun has at last. The sky flushed crimson, turned mauve, turned gray, and the twilight thickened over the summits billowing softly westward. There had been a good deal of joking, both Spanish and English, among the passengers; I had found particularly cheering the richness of a certain machinist’s trousers of bright golden corduroy; but as the shades of night began to embrown the scene our spirits fell; and at the cry of a lonesome bird, far off where the sunset had been, they followed the sun in its sudden drop. Against the horizon a peasant boy leaned on his staff and darkled against the darkening sky.

Nothing lacked now but the opportune recollection that this was the region where the natives had been so wicked in times past that an ingenious statesman, such as have seldom been wanting to Spain, imagined bringing in a colony of German peasants to mix with them and reform them. That is what some of the books say, but others say that the region had remained unpeopled after the first exile of the conquered Moors. All hold that the notion of mixing the colonists and the natives worked the wrong way; the natives were not reformed, but the colonists were depraved and stood in with the local brigands, ultimately, if not immediately. This is the view suggested, if not taken, by that amusing emissary, George Borrow, who seems in his Bible in Spain to have been equally employed in distributing the truths of the New Testament and collecting material for the most dramatic study of Spanish civilization known to literature. It is a delightful book, and not least delightful in the moments of misgiving which it imparts to the reader, when he does not know whether to prize more the author’s observation or his invention, whichever it may be. Borrow reports a conversation with an innkeeper and his wife of the Colonial German descent, who gave a good enough account of themselves, and then adds the dark intimation of an Italian companion that they could not be honestly keeping a hotel in that unfrequented place. It was not just in that place that our delay had chosen to occur, but it was in the same colonized region, and I am glad now that I had not remembered the incident from my first reading of Borrow. It was sufficiently uncomfortable to have some vague association with the failure of that excellent statesman’s plan, blending creepily with the feeling of desolation from the gathering dark, and I now recall the distinct relief given by the unexpected appearance of two such Guardias Civiles as travel with every Spanish train, in the space before our lonely station.

These admirable friends were part of the system which has made travel as safe throughout Spain as it is in Connecticut, where indeed I sometimes wonder that road-agents do not stop my Boston express in the waste expanse of those certain sand barrens just beyond New Haven. The last time I came through that desert I could not help thinking how nice it would be to have two Guardias Civiles in our Pullman car; but of course at the summit of the Sierra Morena, where our rapido was stalled in the deepening twilight, it was still nicer to see that soldier pair, pacing up and down, trim, straight, very gentle and polite-looking, but firm, with their rifles lying on their shoulders which they kept exactly together. It is part of the system that they may use those rifles upon any evil-doer whom they discover in a deed of violence, acting at once as police, court of law, and executioners; and satisfying public curiosity by pinning to the offender’s coat their official certificate that he was shot by such and such a civil guard for such and such a reason, and then notifying the nearest authorities. It is perhaps too positive, too peremptory, too precise; and the responsibility could not be intrusted to men who had not satisfied the government of their fitness by two years’ service in the army without arrest for any offense, or even any question of misbehavior. But these conditions once satisfied, and their temperament and character approved, they are intrusted with what seem plenary powers till they are retired for old age; then their sons may serve after them as Civil Guards with the same prospect of pensions in the end. I suppose they do not always travel first class, but once their silent, soldierly presence honored our compartment between stations; and once an officer of their corps conversed for long with a fellow-passenger in that courteous ease and self-respect which is so Spanish between persons of all ranks.

It was not very long after the guards appeared so reassuringly before the station, when a series of warning bells and whistles sounded, and our locomotive with an impatient scream began to tug at our train. We were really off, starting from Santa Elena at the very time when we ought to have been stopping at Cordova, with a good stretch of four hours still before us. As our fellow-travelers quitted us at one station and another we were finally left alone with the kindly-looking old man who had seemed interested in us from the first, and who now made some advances in broken English. Presently he told us in Spanish, to account for the English accent on which we complimented him, that he had two sons studying some manufacturing business in Manchester, where he had visited them, and acquired so much of our tongue as we had heard. He was very proud and glad to speak of his sons, and he valued us for our English and the strangeness which commends people to one another in travel. When he got out at a station obscured past identification by its flaring lamps, he would not suffer me to help him with his hand-baggage; while he deplored my offered civility, he reassured me by patting my back at parting. Yet I myself had to endure the kindness which he would not when we arrived at Cordova, where two young fellows, who had got in at a suburban station, helped me with our bags and bundles quite as if they had been two young Americans.


Somewhere at a junction our train had been divided and our car, left the last of what remained, had bumped and threatened to beat itself to pieces during its remaining run of fifteen miles. This, with our long retard at Santa Elena, and our opportune defense from the depraved descendants of the reforming German colonists by the Guardias Civiles, had given us a day of so much excitement that we were anxious to have it end tranquilly at midnight in the hotel which we had chosen from, our Baedeker. I would not have any reader of mine choose it again from my experience of it, though it was helplessly rather wilfully bad; certainly the fault was not the hotel’s that it seemed as far from the station as Cordova was from Madrid. It might, under the circumstances, have, been a merit in it to be undergoing a thorough overhauling of the furnishing and decoration of the rooms on the patio which had formed our ideal for a quiet night. A conventionally napkined waiter welcomed us from the stony street, and sent us up to our rooms with the young interpreter who met us at the station, but was obscure as to their location. When we refused them because they were over that loud-echoing alley, the interpreter made himself still more our friend and called mandatorially down the speaking-tube that we wished interiores and would take nothing else, though he must have known that no such rooms were to be had. He even abetted us in visiting the rooms on the patio and satisfying ourselves that they were all dismantled; when the waiter brought up the hot soup which was the only hot thing in the house beside our tempers, he joined with that poor fellow in reconciling us to the inevitable. They declared that the people whom we heard uninterruptedly clattering and chattering by in the street below, and the occasional tempest of wheels and bells and hoofs that clashed up to us would be the very last to pass through there that night, and they gave such good and sufficient reasons for their opinion that we yielded as we needs must. Of course, they were wrong; and perhaps they even knew that they were wrong; but I think we were the only people in that neighborhood who got any sleep that night or the next. We slept the sleep of exhaustion, but I believe those Cordovese preferred waking outdoors to trying to sleep within. It was apparently their custom to walk and talk the night away in the streets, not our street alone, but all the other streets of Cordova; the laughing which I heard may have expressed the popular despair of getting any sleep. The next day we experimented in listening from rooms offered us over another street, and then we remained measurably contented to bear the ills we had. This was after an exhaustive search for a better hotel had partly appeased us; but there remained in the Paseo del Gran Capitan one house unvisited which has ever since grown upon my belief as embracing every comfort and advantage lacking to our hotel. I suppose I am the stronger in this belief because when we came to it we had been so disappointed with the others that we had not the courage to go inside. Smell for smell, the interior of that hotel may have harbored a worse one than the odor of henhouse which pervaded ours, I hope from the materials for calcimining the rooms on the patio.

By the time we returned we found a guide waiting for us, and we agreed with him for a day’s service. He did not differ with other authorities as to the claims of Cordova on the tourist’s interest. From being the most brilliant capital of the Western world in the time of the Caliphs it is now allowed by all the guides and guide-books and most of the travelers, to be one of the dullest of provincial towns. It is no longer the center of learning; and though it cannot help doing a large business in olives, with the orchards covering the hills around it, the business does not seem to be a very active one. “The city once the abode of the flower of Andalusian nobility,” says the intelligent O’Shea in his Guide to Spain, “is inhabited chiefly by administradores of the absentee senorio; their ‘solares’ are desert and wretched, the streets ill paved though clean, and the whitewashed houses unimportant, low, and denuded of all art and meaning, either past or present.” Baedeker gives like reasons for thinking “the traveler whose expectation is on tiptoe as he enters the ancient capital of the Moors will probably be disappointed in all but the cathedral.” Cook’s Guide, latest but not least commendable of the authorities, is of a more divided mind and finds the means of trade and industry and their total want of visible employment at the worst anomalous.


Vacant, narrow streets where the grass does not grow, and there is only an endless going and coming of aimless feet; a market without buyers or sellers to speak of, and a tangle of squat white houses, abounding in lovely patios, sweet and bright with flowers and fountains: this seems to be Cordova in the consensus of the manuals, and with me in the retrospect a sort of puzzle is the ultimate suggestion of the dead capital of the Western Caliphs. Gautier thinks, or seventy-two years ago he thought (and there has not been much change since), that “Cordova has a more African look than any other city of Andalusia; its streets, or rather its lanes, whose tumultuous pavement resembles the bed of dry torrents, all littered with straw from the loads of passing donkeys, have nothing that recalls the manners and customs of Europe. The Moors, if they came back, would have no great trouble to reinstate themselves. . . . The universal use of lime-wash gives a uniform tint to the monuments, blunts the lines of the architecture, effaces the ornamentation, and forbids you to read their age. . . . You cannot know the wall of a century ago from the wall of yesterday. Cordova, once the center of Arab civilization, is now a huddle of little white houses with corridors between them where two mules could hardly pass abreast. Life seems to have ebbed from the vast body, once animated by the active circulation of Moorish blood; nothing is left now but the blanched and calcined skeleton. . . . In spite of its Moslem air, Cordova is very Christian and rests under the special protection of the Archangel Raphael.” It is all rather contradictory; but Gautier owns that the great mosque is a “monument unique in the world, and novel even for travelers who have had the fortune to admire the wonders of Moorish architecture at Granada or Seville.”

De Amicis, who visited Cordova nearly forty-five years later, and in the heart of spring, brought letters which opened something of the intimate life of that apparently blanched and calcined skeleton. He meets young men and matches Italian verses with their Spanish; spends whole nights sitting in their cafes or walking their plazas, and comes away with his mouth full of the rapturous verses of an Arab poet: “Adieu, Cordova! Would that my life were as long as Noah’s, that I might live forever within thy walls! Would that I had the treasures of Pharaoh, to spend them upon wine and the beautiful women of Cordova, with tho gentle eyes that invite kisses!” He allows that the lines may be “a little too tropical for the taste of a European,” and it seems to me that there may be a golden mean between scolding and flattering which would give the truth about Cordova. I do not promise to strike it; our hotel still rankles in my heart; but I promise to try for it, though I have to say that the very moment we started for the famous mosque it began to rain, and rained throughout the forenoon, while we weltered from wonder to wonder through the town. We were indeed weltering in a closed carriage, which found its way not so badly through the alleys where two mules could not pass abreast. The lime-wash of the walls did not emit the white heat in which tho other tourists have basked or baked; the houses looked wet and chill, and if they had those flowered and fountained patios which people talk of they had taken them in out of the rain.


At the mosque the patio was not taken in only because it was so large, but I find by our records that it was much molested by a beggar who followed us when we dismounted at the gate of the Court of Oranges, and all but took our minds off the famous Moorish fountain in the midst. It was not a fountain of the plashing or gushing sort, but a noble great pool in a marble basin. The women who clustered about it were not laughing and chattering, or singing, or even dancing, in the right Andalusian fashion, but stood silent in statuesque poses from which they seemed in no haste to stir for filling their water jars and jugs. The Moorish tradition of irrigation confronting one in all the travels and histories as a supreme agricultural advantage which the Arabs took back to Africa with them, leaving Spain to thirst and fry, lingers here in the circles sunk round the orange trees and fed by little channels. The trees grew about as the fancy took them, and did not mind the incongruous palms towering as irregularly above them. While we wandered toward the mosque a woman robed in white cotton, with a lavender scarf crossing her breast, came in as irrelevantly as the orange trees and stood as stably as the palms; in her night-black hair she alone in Cordova redeemed the pledge of beauty made for all Andalusian women by the reckless poets and romancers, whether in ballads or books of travel.

One enters the court by a gate in a richly yellow tower, with a shrine to St. Michael over the door, and still higher at the lodging of the keeper a bed of bright flowers. Then, however, one is confronted with the first great disappointment in the mosque. Shall it be whispered in awe-stricken undertone that the impression of a bull-ring is what lingers in the memory of the honest sight-seer from his first glance at the edifice? The effect is heightened by the filling of the arcades which encircle it, and which now confront the eye with a rounded wall, where the Saracenic horseshoe remains distinct, but the space of yellow masonry below seems to forbid the outsider stealing knowledge of the spectacle inside. The spectacle is of course no feast of bulls (as the Spanish euphemism has it), but the first amphitheatrical impression is not wholly dispersed by the sight of the interior. In order that the reader at his distance may figure this, he must imagine an indefinite cavernous expanse, with a low roof supported in vaulted arches by some thousand marble pillars, each with a different capital. There used to be perhaps half a thousand more pillars, and Charles V. made the Cordovese his reproaches for destroying the wonder of them when they planted their proud cathedral in the heart of the mosque. He held it a sort of sacrilege, but I think the honest traveler will say that there are still enough of those rather stumpy white marble columns left, and enough of those arches, striped in red and white with their undeniable suggestion of calico awnings. It is like a grotto gaudily but dingily decorated, or a vast circus-tent curtained off in hangings of those colors.


One sees the sanctuary where the great Caliph said his prayers, and the Koran written by Othman and stained with his blood was kept; but I know at least one traveler who saw it without sentiment or any sort of reverent emotion, though he had not the authority of the “old rancid Christianity” of a Castilian for withholding his homage. If people would be as sincere as other people would like them to be, I think no one would profess regret for the Arab civilization in the presence of its monuments. Those Moors were of a religion which revolts all the finer instincts and lifts the soul with no generous hopes; and the records of it have no appeal save to the love of mere beautiful decoration. Even here it mostly fails, to my thinking, and I say that for my part I found nothing so grand in the great mosaue of Cordova as the cathedral which rises in the heart of it. If Abderrahman boasted that he would rear a shrine to the joy of earthly life and the hope of an earthly heaven, in the place of the Christian temple which he would throw down, I should like to overhear what his disembodied spirit would have to say to the saint whose shrine he demolished. I think the saint would have the better of him in any contention for their respective faiths, and could easily convince the impartial witness that his religion then abiding in medieval gloom was of promise for the future which Islam can never be. Yet it cannot be denied that when Abderraham built his mosque the Arabs of Cordova were a finer and wiser people than the Christians who dwelt in intellectual darkness among them, with an ideal of gloom and self-denial and a zeal for aimless martyrdom which must have been very hard for a gentleman and scholar to bear. Gentlemen and scholars were what the Arabs of the Western Caliphate seem to have become, with a primacy in medicine and mathematics beyond the learning of all other Europe in their day. They were tolerant skeptics in matters of religion; polite agnostics, who disliked extremely the passion of some Christians dwelling among them for getting themselves put to death, as they did, for insulting the popularly accepted Mohammedan creed. Probably people of culture in Cordova were quite of Abderrahman’s mind in wishing to substitute the temple of a cheerfuler ideal for the shrine of the medieval Christianity which he destroyed; though they might have had their reserves as to the taste in which his mosque was completed. If they recognized it as a concession to the general preference, they could do so without the discomfort which they must have suffered when some new horde of Berbers, full of faith and fight, came over from Africa to push back the encroaching Spanish frontier, and give the local Christians as much martyrdom as they wanted.

It is all a conjecture based upon material witness no more substantial than that which the Latin domination left long centuries before the Arabs came to possess the land. The mosque from which you drive through the rain to the river is neither newer nor older looking than the beautiful Saracenic bridge over the Guadalquivir which the Arabs themselves say was first built by the Romans in the time of Augustus; the Moorish mill by the thither shore might have ground the first wheat grown in Europe. It is intensely, immemorially African, flat-roofed, white-walled; the mules waiting outside in the wet might have been drooping there ever since the going down of the Flood, from which the river could have got its muddy yellow.

If the reader will be advised by me he will not go to the Archaeological Museum, unless he wishes particularly to contribute to the support of the custodian; the collection will not repay him even for the time in which a whole day of Cordova will seem so superabundant. Any little street will be worthier his study, with its type of passing girls in white and black mantillas, and its shallow shops of all sorts, their fronts thrown open, and their interiors flung, as it were, on the sidewalk. It is said that the streets were the first to be paved in Europe, and they have apparently not been repaved since 850. This indeed will not Hold quite true of that thoroughfare, twenty feet wide at least, which led from our hotel to the Paseo del Gran Capitan. In this were divers shops of the genteeler sort, and some large cafes, standing full of men of leisure, who crowded to their doors and windows, with their hats on and their hands in their pockets, as at a club, and let no fact of the passing world escape their hungry eyes. Their behavior expressed a famine of incident in Cordova which was pathetic.


The people did not look very healthy as to build or color, and there was a sound of coughing everywhere. To be sure, it was now the season of the first colds, which would no doubt wear off with the coming of next spring; and there was at any rate not nearly so much begging as at Toledo, because there could not be anywhere. I am sorry I can contribute no statistics as to the moral or intellectual condition of Cordova; perhaps they will not be expected or desired of me; I can only say that the general intelligence is such that no one will own he does not know anything you ask him even when he does not; but this is a national rather than a local trait, which causes the stranger to go in many wrong directions all over the peninsula. I should not say that there was any noticeable decay of character from the north to the south such as the attributive pride of the old Castilian in the Sheridan Knowlesian drama would teach; the Cordovese looked no more shiftless than the haughtiest citizens of Burgos.

They had decidedly prettier patios and more of them, and they had many public carriages against none whatever in that ancient capital. Rubber tires I did not expect in Cordova and certainly did not get in a city where a single course over the pavements of 850 would have worn them to tatters: but there seems a good deal of public spirit if one may judge from the fact that it is the municipality which keeps Abderrahman’s mosque in repair. There are public gardens, far pleasanter than those of Valladolid, which we visited in an interval of the afternoon, and there is a very personable bull-ring to which we drove in the vain hope of seeing the people come out in a typical multitude. But there had been no feast of bulls; and we had to make what we could out of the walking and driving in the Paseo del Gran Capitan toward evening. In its long, discouraging course there were some good houses, but not many, and the promenaders of any social quality were almost as few. Some ladies in private carriages were driving out, and a great many more in public ones as well dressed as the others, but with no pretense of state in the horses or drivers. The women of the people all wore flowers in their hair, a dahlia or a marigold, whether their hair was black or gray. No ladies were walking in the Paseo, except one pretty mother, with her nice-looking children about her, who totaled the sum of her class; but men of every class rather swarmed. High or low, they all wore the kind of hat which abounds everywhere in Andalusia and is called a Cordovese: flat, stiff, squat in crown and wide in brim, and of every shade of gray, brown, and black.

I ought to have had my associations with the great Captain Gonsalvo in the promenade which the city has named after him, but I am not sure that I had, though his life was one of the Spanish books which I won my way through in the middle years of my pathless teens. A comprehensive ignorance of the countries and histories which formed the setting of his most dramatic career was not the best preparation for knowledge of the man, but it was the best I had, and now I can only look back at my struggle with him and wonder that I came off alive. It is the hard fate of the self-taught that their learning must cost them twice as much labor as it would if they were taught by others; the very books they study are grudging friends if not insidious foes. Long afterward when I came to Italy, and began to make the past part of my present, I began to untangle a little the web that the French and the Aragonese wove in the conquest and reconquest of the wretched Sicilies; but how was I to imagine in the Connecticut Western Reserve the scene of Gonsalvo’s victories in Calabria? Even loath Ferdinand the Catholic said they brought greater glory to his crown than his own conquest of Granada; I dare say I took some unintelligent pride in his being Viceroy of Naples, and I may have been indignant at his recall and then his retirement from court by the jealous king. But my present knowledge of these facts, and of his helping put down the Moorish insurrection in 1500, as well as his exploits as commander of a Spanish armada against the Turks is a recent debt I owe to the Encyclopedia Britannica and not to my boyish researches. Of like actuality is my debt to Mr. Calvert’s Southern Spain, where he quotes the accounting which the Great Captain gave on the greedy king’s demand for a statement of his expenses in the Sicilies.

“Two hundred thousand seven hundred and thirty-six ducats and 9 reals paid to the clergy and the poor who prayed for the victory of the army of Spain.

“One hundred millions in pikes, bullets, and intrenching tools; 10,000 ducats in scented gloves, to preserve the troops from the odor of the enemies’ dead left on the battle-field; 100,000 ducats, spent in the repair of the bells completely worn out by every-day announcing fresh victories gained over our enemies; 50,000 ducats in ‘aguardiente’ for the troops on the eve of battle. A million and a half for the safeguarding prisoners and wounded.

“One million for Masses of Thanksgiving; 700,494 ducats for secret service, etc.

“And one hundred millions for the patience with which I have listened to the king, who demands an account from the man who has presented him with a Kingdom.”

It seems that Gonsalvo was one of the greatest humorists, as well as captains of his age, and the king may very well have liked his fun no better than his fame. Now that he has been dead nearly four hundred years, Ferdinand would, if he were living, no doubt join Cordova in honoring Gonzalo Hernandez de Aguila y de Cordova. After all he was not born in Cordova (as I had supposed till an hour ago), but in the little city of Montilla, five stations away on the railroad to the Malaga, and now more noted for its surpassing sherry than for the greatest soldier of his time. To have given its name to Amontillado is glory enough for Montilla, and it must be owned that Gonzalo Hernandez de Aguila y de Montilla would not sound so well as the title we know the hero by, when we know him at all. There may be some who will say that Cordova merits remembrance less because of him than because of Columbus, who first came to the Catholic kings there to offer them not a mere kingdom, but a whole hemisphere. Cordova was then the Spanish headquarters for the operations against Granada, and one reads of the fact with a luminous sense which one cannot have till one has seen Cordova.


After our visits to the mosque and the bridge and the museum there remained nothing of our forenoon, and we gave the whole of the earlier afternoon to an excursion which strangers are expected to make into the first climb of hills to the eastward of the city. The road which reaches the Huerto de los Arcos is rather smoother for driving than the streets of Cordova, but the rain had made it heavy, and we were glad of our good horses and their owner’s mercy to them. He stopped so often to breathe them when the ascent began that we had abundant time to note the features of the wayside; the many villas, piously named for saints, set on the incline, and orcharded about with orange trees, in the beginning of that measureless forest of olives which has no limit but the horizon.


From the gate to the villa which we had come to see it was a stiff ascent by terraced beds of roses, zinneas, and purple salvia beside walls heavy with jasmine and trumpet creepers, in full bloom, and orange trees, fruiting and flowering in their desultory way. Before the villa we were to see a fountain much favored by our guide who had a passion for the jets that played ball with themselves as long as the gardener let him turn the water on, and watched with joy to see how high the balls would go before slipping back. The fountain was in a grotto-like nook, where benches of cement decked with scallop shells were set round a basin with the figures of two small boys in it bestriding that of a lamb, all employed in letting the water dribble from their mouths. It was very simple-hearted, as such things seem mostly obliged to be, but nature helped art out so well with a lovely abundance of leaf and petal that a far more exacting taste than ours must have been satisfied. The garden was in fact very pretty, though whether it was worth fifteen pesetas and three hours coming to see the reader must decide for himself when he does it. I think it was, myself, and I would like to be there now, sitting in a shell-covered cement chair at the villa steps, and letting the landscape unroll itself wonderfully before me. We were on a shore of that ocean of olives which in southern Spain washes far up the mountain walls of the blue and bluer distances, and which we were to skirt more and more in bay and inlet and widening and narrowing expanses throughout Andalusia. Before we left it we wearied utterly of it, and in fact the olive of Spain is not the sympathetic olive of Italy, though I should think it a much more practical and profitable tree. It is not planted so much at haphazard as the Italian olive seems to be; its mass looks less like an old apple orchard than the Italian; its regular succession is a march of trim files as far as the horizon or the hillsides, which they often climbed to the top. We were in the season of the olive harvest, and throughout the month of October its nearer lines showed the sturdy trees weighed down by the dense fruit, sometimes very small, sometimes as large as pigeon eggs. There were vineyards and wheat-fields in that vast prospect, and certainly there were towns and villages; but what remains with me is the sense of olives and ever more olives, though this may be the cumulative effect of other such prospects as vast and as monotonous.

While we looked away and away, the gardener and a half-grown boy were about their labors that Sunday afternoon as if it were a week-day, though for that reason perhaps they were not working very hard. They seemed mostly to be sweeping up the fallen leaves from the paths, and where the leaves had not fallen from the horse-chestnuts the boy was assisting nature by climbing the trees and plucking them. We tried to find out why he was doing this, but to this day I do not know why he was doing it, and I must be content to contribute the bare fact to the science of arboriculture. Possibly it was in the interest of neatness, and was a precaution against letting the leaves drop and litter the grass. There was apparently a passion for neatness throughout, which in the villa itself mounted to ecstasy. It was in a state to be come and lived in at any moment, though I believe it was occupied only in the late spring and the early autumn; in winter the noble family went to Madrid, and in summer to some northern watering-place. It was rather small, and expressed a life of the minor hospitalities when the family was in residence. It was no place for house-parties, and scarcely for week-end visits, or even for neighborhood dinners. Perhaps on that terrace there was afternoon ice-cream or chocolate for friends who rode or drove over or out; it seemed so possible that we had to check in ourselves the cozy impulse to pull up our shell-covered cement chairs to some central table of like composition.

Within, the villa was of a spick-and-spanness which I feel that I have not adequately suggested; and may I say that the spray of a garden-hose seemed all that would be needed to put the place in readiness for occupation? Not that even this was needed for that interior of tile and marble, so absolutely apt for the climate and the use the place would be put to. In vain we conjectured, and I hope not impertinently, the characters and tastes of the absentees; the sole clue that offered itself was a bookshelf of some Spanish versions from authors scientific and metaphysical to the verge of agnosticism. I would not swear to Huxley and Herbert Spencer among the English writers, but they were such as these, not in their entire bulk, but in extracts and special essays. I recall the slightly tilted row of the neat paper copies; and I wish I knew who it was liked to read them. The Spanish have a fondness for such dangerous ground; from some of their novels it appears they feel it rather chic to venture on it.


We came away from Cordova with a pretty good conscience as to its sights. Upon the whole we were glad they were so few, when once we had made up our minds about the mosque. But now I have found too late that we ought to have visited the general market in the old square where the tournaments used to take place; we ought to have seen also the Chapel of the Hospital del Cardenal, because it was part of the mosque of Al–Manssour; we ought to have verified the remains of two baths out of the nine hundred once existing in the Calle del Bagno Alta; and we ought finally to have visited the remnant of a Moorish house in the Plazuela de San Nicolas, with its gallery of jasper columns, now unhappily whitewashed. The Campo Santo has an unsatisfied claim upon my interest because it was the place where the perfervid Christian zealots used to find the martyrdom they sought at the hands of the unwilling Arabs; and where, far earlier, Julius Caesar planted a plane tree after his victory over the forces of Pompeii at Munda. The tree no longer exists, but neither does Caesar, or the thirty thousand enemies whom he slew there, or the sons of Pompeii who commanded them. These were so near beating Casar at first that he ran among his soldiers “asking them whether they were not ashamed to deliver him into the hands of boys.” One of the boys escaped, but two days after the fight the head of the elder was brought to Caesar, who was not liked for the triumph he made himself after the event in Rome, where it was thought out of taste to rejoice over the calamity of his fellow-countrymen as if they had been foreign foes; the Romans do not seem to have minded his putting twenty-eight thousand Cordovese to death for their Pompeian politics. If I had remembered all this from my Plutarch, I should certainly have gone to see the place where Caesar planted that plane tree. Perhaps some kind soul will go to see it for me. I myself do not expect to return to Cordova.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56