Spain - The Castiles, Leon, And Estremadura
( Originally Published 1920 )
THE great central plateau of the peninsula is bounded on the north, east, and south by ranges of mountains extending from the Cantal rian Pyrenees to the Sierra Morena, and slopes down in the west towards Portugal and the Atlantic. The uplands through which the Upper Duero, the Tajo (Tagus), and the Guadiana take their course are thus a region apart, and if the waters of the ocean were to rise 2,000 feet, they would be converted into a peninsula attached by the narrow isthmus of the Basque provinces to the French Pyrenees. The vast extent of these plateau'—they constitute nearly half the urea of the whole country—accounts for the part they played in history, and their commanding position enabled the Castilians to gain possession of the adjacent territories.
The Castiles can hardly be called beautiful, or rather their solemn beauty does not commend them to the majority of travellers. Vast districts, such as the Tierra de Campos, to the north of Valladolid, are ancient lake beds of great fertility, but exceedingly monotonous, owing to the absence of forests. Others are covered with small stony hillocks ; other. , again, may be described as mountainous Mountain ranges covered with meagre herbage bound the horizon, and sombre gorges, enclosed between precipitous wails of rock, lead into them. Elsewhere, as in the Lower Estremadura, we meet with vast pasture-lands, stretching as far as the eye can reach to the foot of the mountains, and, as in certain parts of the American prairies, not a tree arrests the attention. Looking to the fearful nakedness of these plains, one would hardly imagine that a law was promulgated in the middle of last century which enjoins each inhabitant to plant at least five trees. Trees, indeed, have been cut down more rapidly than they were planted. The peasants have a prejudice against them; their leaves, they say, give shelter to birds, which prey upon the corn-fields. Small birds, nightingales alone excepted, are pursued without mercy, and a proverb says that "swallows crossing the Castiles must carry provisions with them." Trees are met with only in the most remote localities. The hovels of the peasantry, built of mud or pebbles, are of the same colour as the soil, the walled towns are easily confounded with the rock near them, and even in the midst of cultivated fields we may imagine ourselves in a desert. Many districts suffer from want of water, and villages which rejoice in the possession of a spring proclaim the fact aloud as one of their attributes. Huge bridges span the ravines, though for more than half the year not a drop of water passes over their pebbly beds.
The Sierra de Guadarrama and its western continuation, the Sierra de Gredos, separate this central plateau of Spain into two portions, lying at different elevations. Old Castile and Leon, which lie to the north, in the basin of the Duero, slope down from eas to west from 5,600 to 2,300 feet ; whilst New Castile and La Mancha, in the twin basins of the Tajo and the Guadiana, have an average elevation of only 2,000 feet. In the tertiary age these two plateaux were covered with huge lakes. One of them, the contours of which are indicated by the débris carried down from the surrounding hills, originally discharged its waters in the direction of the valley of the Ebro, but subsequently opened itself a passage through the crystalline mountains of Portugal, now represented by the gorges of the Lower Duero. At another epoch this Lake Superior communicated with the lake which overspread what are now the plains of New Castile and La Mancha. The area covered by these two lakes amounted to 30,000 square miles, and Spain was then a mere skeleton of crystalline mountains, joined together by saddles of triassie, Jurassic, and cretaceous age, enclosing these two fresh-water lakes, and bounded exteriorly by the ocean. This geological period must have been of very long duration, for the lacustrine deposits are sometimes nearly a thousand feet in thickness. The miocene strata which form the superficial deposits of these two lake basins of the Castiles are geologically of the same age, for fossil bones of the same great animals—megatheria, mammoths, and hipparions—are found in both.
The Cantabrian Mountains hound Leon and Old Castile towards the north-west and north, but broad mountain ranges run out from these immediately to the east of the Pena Labra, and form the water-shed between the basin of the Duero and the head-stream of the Ebro. These ranges are known by various names. They form first the Paramos of Lora (3,542 feet), which slope gently towards the south, but sink down abruptly to the Ebro, which flows here in a gorge many hundred feet in depth. The water-shed to the east of these continues to the mountain pass of the Brujula, across which leads the road (3,215 feet) connecting Burgos with the sea. Beyond this pass the so-called Montrs of Oca gradually increase in height, and join the crystalline Sierra de Demanda, culminating in the Pico de San Lorenzo (7,554 feet). Another mountain mass lies farther to the south-east. It rises in the Pico de Urbion to a height of 7,367 feet, and gives birth to the river Duero. The water-shed farther on is formed by the Sierra Cebollera (7,039 feet), which subsides by degrees, its ramifications extending into the basins of the Ebro and Duero. The Sierra de la Moncayo (7,905 feet), a crystalline mountain mass similar to the San Lorenzo, but exceeding it in height, terminates this portion of the enceinte of the central plateau. The broad ranges beyond offer no obstacles to the construction of roads, but there are several rugged ridges to the south of the Cebollera and Moncayo, which force the Duero to take a devious course through the defile of Soria. N umantia, the heroic defence of which has since been imitated by many other towns of the peninsula, stood near that gorge.
The average height of the mountains separating the basin of the Duero from that of the Tajo is more than that of those in the north-east of Old Castile. The mountains gradually increase in height towards the west and south-west, until they form the famous Sierra de Guadarrama, the granitic rocks of which bound the horizon of Madrid in the north. It constitutes a veritable wall betty een the two Castiles, and the construction of the roads which lead in zigzag over its passes of Somosierra (4,680 feet), Navacerrada (5,834 feet), and Guadarrama (5,030 feet) was attended with difficulties so considerable that Ferdinand VI., proud of the achievement, placed the statue of a lion upon one of the highest summits, and thus recorded that the " King had conquered the mountains.” This sierra forms a natural rampart to the north of the plains of Madrid, and many sanguinary battles have been fought to secure a passage through them. The railway to Madrid avoids them, but the depression of Avila, through which it passes, is nevertheless more elevated than the summit of the Mont Cenis Railway.
The mountains to the south-west of the Peak of Penahara (7,870 feet), which is the culminating point of the sierra, sink down rapidly, and at the Alto de la Cierva (6,027 feet) the chain divides into two branches, of which the northern forms the water-shed between the Duero and the Tajo, whilst the more elevated southern chain joins the Sierra de Guadarrama to the Sierra de Gredos, but is cut in two-by the defile excavated by the river Alberche, which rises to the north of it.
The Sierra de Gredos is, next to the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada of Granada, the most elevated mountain chain of Spain, for in the Plaza del Moro Almanzor it attains a height of 8,680 feet, and thus reaches far beyond the zone of trees. Its naked summits of crystalline rocks remain covered with snow during more than half the year. They country extending along the southern slope of these mountains is one of the most delightful districts of all Spain. It abounds in streams of sparkling water ; groups of trees are (lotted over the hill-slopes and shield the villages ; and Charles V., when he selected the monastery of St. Yaste as the spot where he proposed to pass the remainder of his days, exhibited no mean taste. In former times the foot of the sierra was much more frequented, for the Roman road known as Via Lab' (now called Camino de la Plata) crossed immediately to the w est of it, by the Puerto de llanos, and thus joined the valley of the Duero to that of the Tajo.
The Sierra de Gata, which lies beyond this old road, has a course parallel with that of the Sierra de Gredos, and this parallelism is observable likewise with respect to the minor chains and the principal river beds of that portion of Spain. The Sierra de Gata rises to a height of 5,690 feet in the Pena de Francia, thus named after a chapel built by a Frankish knight. Within its recesses are the secluded valleys of Las Batuecas and Las Hurdes.
In the eastern portion of New Castile the country is for the most part undulating rather than mountainous, and, if the deep gorges excavated by the rivers were to be filled up, would present almost the appearance of plains. The most elevated point of this portion of the country is the Muela de San Juan (5,900 feet), in the Montes Universales, thus called, perhaps, because the Tajo, the Jucar, the Guadalaviar, and other rivers flowing in opposite directions take their rise there.
The Sierra del Tremendal, in the district of Albarracin, farther north, is said to be frequently shaken by earthquakes, and sulphurous gases escape there w here oolitic rocks are in contact with black porphyry and basalt. Several triassic hills in the vicinity of Cuenca are remarkable on account of their rock-salt, the principal mines of which are those of Minglanilla.
Farther south the height of land which separates the rivers flowing to the Mediterranean from those tributary to the Tajo and Guadiana is undulating, but not mountainous. We only again meet with real mountains on reaching the head-waters of the Guadiana, Segura. and Guadalimar, where the Sierra Morena, forming for 250 miles the natural boundary between La Mancha and Andalusia, takes its rise. Seen from the plateau, this sierra lias the appearance of hills of moderate height, but travellers facing it from the south see before them a veritable mountain range of bold profile, and abounding in valleys and wild gorges. Geographically this sierra belongs to Andalusia rather than to the plateau of the Castiles.
In the west, judging from the courses of the Tajo and the Guadiana, the country would appear to subside by degrees into the plains of Portugal ; but such is not the ease. The greater portion of Extremadura is occupied by a mountain mass consisting of granite and other crystalline rocks. The sedimentary strata of the region bounded in the north by the Sierras of Gredos and Gata, and in the south by the Sierra de Aroche, are but of small thickness. In former times these granitic mountains of Estremadura retained pent-up waters of the lakes which then covered the interior plateaux, until the incessant action of water forced a passage through them. Their highest summits form a range between the rivers Guadiana and Tajo known as the Sierra of Toledo, and attain a height of 5,115 feet in the Sierra de Guadalupe, famous in other days on account of the image of a miracle-working Virgin Mary, an object of veneration to Estremenos and Christianized American Indians.
Geologically the series of volcanic hills known as Campo de Calatrava (2,270 feet) constitute a distinct group. They occupy both banks of the Guadiana, and the ancient inland lake now converted into the plain of La Mancha washed their foot.
From their craters were ejected trachytic and basaltie lavas, as well as ashes, or negrizales, but acidulous thermal springs are at present the only evidence of subterranean activity.
The rivers of the Castiles are of less importance than might be supposed from a look at a neap, for, owing to a paucity of rain, they are not navigable. The moisture carried eastward by the winds is for the most part precipitated upon the exterior slopes of the mountains, only a small proportion reaching the Castilian plateaux. Evaporation, moreover, proceeds there very rapidly, and if it were not for springs supplied by the rains of winter there would not be a single perennial river.
Of the three parallel rivers, the Duero, the Tajo, and the Guadiana, the latter two are the most feeble, for the supplementary ranges of the Sierras of Gredos and Guadarrama shut off their basins from the moisture-laden winds of the Atlantic. Yet, in spite of their small volume, the geological work performed by them in past ages was stupendous. Both find their way through tortuous gorges of immense depth from the edge of the plateaux don n to the plains of Lusitania. The gorge of the Duero forms an appropriate natural boundary between Spain and Portugal, for it offers almost insurmountable obstacles to intercommunication. The more considerable tributaries of the Duero—such as the Tormes, fed by the snows of the Sierra de Gredos; the Yates ; and the Agueda—likewise take their course through wild defiles, which may be likened to the canons of the New World. The Tajo presents similar features, and below its confluence with the Alberche it enters a deep defile, hemmed in 1)y precipitous walls of granite.
The Guadiana passes through a similar gorge, but only after it has reached the soil of Portugal. The hydrography of its head-streams, the Giguela and Zancara, which rise in the Serranio of Cuenca, offers curious features ; but, as they arc for the most part dry during summer, the bountiful springs known as the ojos, or "eyes," of the Guadiana are looked upon by the inhabitants as the true source of the river. They are three in number, and yield about four cubic yards of water a second. These springs are popularly believed to be fed by the Ruidera, which, after having traversed a chain of picturesque lakelets, disappears beneath a bed of pebbles ; but Coello has shown that after heavy rains this head-stream of the Guadiana actually reaches the Zancara.
The climate of the Castilian plateaux is quite continental in its character. The prevailing winds of Spain are the same as in the rest of Western Europe, but the seasons and sudden changes of temperature in the upper basins of the Duero, the Tajo, and the Guadiana recall the deserts of Africa and Asia. The cold in winter is most severe, the heat of summer scorching, and the predominating winds aggravate these features. In winter, the norte, which passes across the snow-covered Pyrenees and other mountain ranges, sweeps the plains and penetrates through every crevice in the wretehed hovels of the peasants. In summer a contrary wind, the solano, penetrates through breaks in the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Morena, scorches the vegetation, and irritates man and animals. The climate of Madrid t is typical of that of most of the tow ns of Castile. The air, though pure, is exceedingly dry and penetrating, and persons affected with diseases of the throat run considerable risk during their period of acclimation. "The air of Madrid does not put out a candle, but kills a man," says a proverb, and the climate of that city is described as " three months of winter and nine of hell.” True, in the time of Charles V., Madrid enjoyed the reputation of having an excellent climate, and it is just possible that its deterioration may be ascribable to the destruction of the forests.
The greatest variety of plants is met with if ce ascend from the plains to the summits of the mountains, but taken ns a whole the vegetation is singularly monotonous, for the number of plants capable of supporting such extremes of temperature is naturally limited. Herbs and shrubs predominate. The thickets in the upper basin of the Duero and on the plateaux to the east of the Tajo and the Guadiana consist of thyme, lavender, rosemary, hyssop, and other aromatic plants ; on the southern slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains heaths with small pink flowers predominate ; vast areas in the mountains of Cuenca are covered with Spanish broom, or esparto ; and saline plants abound in the environs of Albaeete. These regions are generally described as the "Steppes of Castile," though "deserts" would, perhaps, be a more appropriate term. For miles around the village of San Clemente not a rivulet, a spring, or a tree is met with, and the aspect of the country throughout is exceedingly dreary. The interminable plains of La Mancha —the " dried-up country " of the Arabs—adjoin these steppes in the west, and there corn-fields,vineyards, and pasture-grounds alternate with stretches of thistles, and the monotony is partly relieved by the windmills, with their huge sweeps slowly revolving overhead. Estremadura and the slopes of the Sierra Morena are principally covered with rock-roses, and from the summit of some hills a carpet of jarales, bluish green or brown, according to the season, extends as far as the eye reaches, and in spring is covered with an abundance of white flowers resembling newly fallen snow.
Woods are met with only on the slopes of the mountains. Oaks of various species and chestnut-trees occupy the lower zone, and conifers extend beyond them to the extreme limit of trees. These latter likewise cover the vast tracts of shifting sands which extend along the northern foot of the Sierra de Guadarrama, and are the analogue of the French landes.
The remains of the ancient forests still shelter wild animals. In the beginning of this century bears were numerous on the southern slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains; the thickets of Guadarrama, Gredos, and Gata still harbour wolves, lynxes, wild cats, foxes, and even wild goats. Deer, hares, and other game abound. The oak forests are haunted by wild boars of immense size and strength. Before the downfall of Islam it was thought meritorious to keep large herds of pigs, and a traveller who visits the remote villages of Leon, Valladolid, and Upper Estremudura w ill find that this ancient custom still survives. The black hogs of Trujillo and Montanchez are famous throughout `pain for their excellent hams.
The country offers great facilities for the breeding of sheep and cattle; there are, however, several districts which are admirably suited to the production of cereals. The Tierra de Campos, in the basin of the Duero, is one of them. It owes its fertility to a subterranean reservoir of water, as do also the mesa of Ocana and other districts in the upper basins of the Tajo and the Guadiana, which are arid only in appearance. The vine flourishes on stony soil, and yields excellent wine, and the same may be said of the olive-tree, which constitutes the wealth of the Campo de Calatrava. Agricultural pursuits would thus appear to offer great advantages; and if thousands of acres are still allowed to lie fallow, if nomad habits still predominate, this is owing to sloth, force of habit, the existence of feudal customs, and sometimes, perhaps, to discouragement produced by seasons of drought.
Most of the herds of merinos are obliged to traverse nearly half Spain in search of the food they require. Each herd of about 10.000 sheep is placed in charge of a mayoral, assisted by rabadanes in charge of detachments of from 1,000 to 1,200 animals. The shepherds and sheep of Balia, in Leon, are reputed to be the best. In the beginning of April the merinos leave their pasture-grounds in Andalusia, La Mancha, and Estremadura for the north. where they pass the summer, returning in September to the south. It may readily be imagined that these wandering herds do much damage to the fields through which they pass, even though the privileges of the sheep-breeders were abrogated in a large measure in l836. Spain, however, in spite of every advantage offered by nature, is obliged now to import sheep from abroad to improve its flocks. Mules, too, which are almost indispensable in so stony a country, are imported from France. Camels, llamas, and kangaroos have been introduced, but their number has never been large, and the fauna as well as the flora of the Castiles bears the stamp of monotony.
As is the land, so are its inhabitants. The men of Leon and the Castiles are grave, curt of speech, majestic in their gait, and of even temper. Even in their amusements they carry themselves with dignity, and those amongst them who respect the traditions of the good old time regulate every movement in accordance with a most irksome etiquette. The Castilian is haughty in the extreme, and Yo soy Castellano ! cuts short every further explanation. He recognises no superiors, but treats his fellows on a footing of perfect equality. A foreigner who mixes for the first time in a crowd at Madrid or elsewhere in the Castiles cannot fail of being struck by the natural freedom with which rich and poor converse with each other.
The Castilian, thanks to his tenacious courage and the central position he occupies, has become the master of Spain, but he can hardly he said to be the master in his own capital. Madrid is the great centre of attraction of the entire peninsula, and its streets are crowded with provincials from every part of Spain. This invasion of the capital, and of the Castiles generally, is explained by the sparseness of the population of the plateaux, a sparseness not so much due to the natural sterility of the country as to political and social causes. There can be no doubt that the Castiles formerly supported a much denser population than they do now, but the towns of the valleys of the Tajo and the Guadiana have shrunk into villages, and the river, which was formerly navigable as far as Toledo, is so no longer, either because its volume is less now than it used to be, or because its floods are no longer regulated. Estremadura, at present one of' the poorest provinces of Spain, supported a dense population in the time of the Romans, who founded there the Colonia Augusta Emerita (Merida), which became the largest town of Iberia. During the dominion of the Moors, too, Estramadura yielded bounteous harvests, but the old cities have disappeared, and the fields arc now covered with furze, broom, and rock-roses.
The expulsion of the Moors no doubt contributed towards the decay of these once fertile regions, but the principal cause must be looked for in the growth of feudal, military and ecclesiastical institutions, which robbed the cultivator of the fruits of' his labours. Subsequently, when Cortes, Pizarro, and other couquistadores performed their prodigious exploits in the New World, they attracted the enter-prising youth of the province. The peaceable cultivation of the soil was held in contempt, fields remained unfilled, and 40,000 nomadic shepherds took possession of the country. It is thus the Estremenos became what they are, the " Indians" of the nation.
This decrease of population w as unfortunately attended by a return towards barbarism. Three hundred years ago the region on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama was famous for its industry. The linen and cloth of Avila, Medina del Campo, and Segovia were known throughout Europe; Burgos and Aranda del Duero were the seats of commerce and industry ; and Medina de Rio Seco was known as "Little India," on account of the wealth displayed at its fairs. But misgovernment led to the downfall of these industries, the country became depopulated, and its ancient culture dwindled to a thing of the past. At the famous university of Salamanca the great discoveries of New ton and Harvey were still ignored at the close of last century as being " contrary to revealed religion," and the lower classes grovelled in the most beastly superstitions.
In this very province of Salamanca, close to the Pena de Francia, exist the "barbarous" Batuecas, who are charged with not being able to distinguish the seasons. Nor are the inhabitants of other remote mountain districts of the Castiles what we should call civilised. Amongst these may be noticed the charms of Salamanca and the famous maragatos of Astorga, most of them muleteers. They only intermarry amongst themselves, and are looked upon as the lineal descendants of some ancient tribe of' Iberia. The suggestion that they are a mixed race of Visigoths and Moors is not deserting of attention, for neither in their dress nor in their manners do they remind us of Mussulmans. They wear loose trousers, cloth gaiters fastened below the knee, a short and close-fitting coat, a leather belt, a frill round the neck, and a felt hat with a broad brim. They are tall and strong, but wiry and angular. Their taciturnity is extreme, and they neither laugh nor sing when driving before them their beasts of burden. It is difficult to excite their passion, but, once roused, they become ferocious. Their honesty is aboie suspicion, and they may be safely trusted with the most valuable goods, which they will defend against every attack, for they are brave, and skilled in the use of arms. Whilst the men traverse the w hole of Spain as carriers of merchandise, the women till the soil, which, being arid and rocky, yields but a poor harvest.
The vicissitudes of history explain the existence of numerous towns in the Castiles which can boast of having been the capital of the country at one time or other. Numantia, the most ancient of all those cities, exists no longer, and the learned are not yet agreed whether the ruins discovered near the decayed town of Soria are the remains of the walls demolished by Scipio AEmilianus. But there are several cities of great antiquity which possess some importance even at the present day. Leon is one of these. It was the head-quarters of a Roman legion (septima gemina), and its name, in reality a corruption of legio, is supposed to be symbolized by the lions placed in its coat of arms. Leon was one of the first places of importance taken from the Moors. Its old walls are in ruins now, and the beautiful cathedral has been transformed into a clumsy cube. Astorga, the "magnificent city " of Asturica Augusta, has fallen even lower than Leon, whilst Palencia (the ancient Pallantia) still enjoys a certain measure of prosperity, owing to its favourable geographical position at the Pisuerga, which has caused it to be selected as one of the great railway centres of the peninsula.
Burgos, the former capital of Old Castile, points proudly to its graceful cathedral and other ancient buildings, but its streets are nearly deserted, and the crowds which congregate occasionally in the churches, hotels, or at the railway station are composed, for the most part, of beggars. In the cathedral are preserved numerous relies, and the Cid, whose legendary birthplace, Bivar, is near, lies buried in it.
Valladolid, the Belad Walid of the Moors, at one time the capital of all Spain, enjoys a more favourable geographical position than Burgos. It lies ou the Lower Pisucrga, where that river enters the broad plain of the Duero, at an elevation of less than G00 feet above the sea. There are numerous factories, conducted by Catalans, and the city boasts, like Burgos, of many curious buildings and historical reminiscences. The houses in which Columbus died and Cervantes was born are still shown, as is the beautiful monastery of San Pablo, in which resided Torquemada, the monk, who condemned 8,000 heretics to die at the stake. The castle of Simancas, where the precious archives of Spain are kept, is near this city.
Descending the Duero, we pass Toro, and then reach Zamora, the " goodly walls" of which proved such an obstacle to the Moors. Zamora, though on the direct line between Oporto and continental Europe, is an out-of-the-way place at present, and the same may be said of the famous city of Salamanca, on the 'Tormes, to the south of it.
Salamanca, the Salmantica of the Romans, succeeded to Palencia as the seat of a university, and during the epoch of the Renaissance was described as the " mother of virtues, sciences, and arts," and the "Rome of the Castiles." It still deserves the latter epithet, because of its magnificent bridge built by Trajan, and the beautiful edifices dating back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its intellectual superiority, however, is a thing of the past.
Arevalo, and the famous town of Medina del Campo, to the north-east of Salamanca, carry on a considerable trade with corn. Avila occupies an isolated hillock on the banks of the Adaja, to the north of the Sierra de Gredos. Avila still preserves its turreted walls of the fifteenth century, and its fortress-like cathedral is a marvel of architecture. There are also curious sculptures of animals, which are ascribed to the aboriginal inhabitants of the country. Similar works of rude art in the vicinity are known as the " bulls of Guisando," from a N illage in the Sierra de Gredos.
Segovia the " circumspect " is situated on an affluent of the Duero, like Avila, and in the immediate vicinity of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Its turreted walls rise on a scarped rock, supposed to resemble a ship. On the poop of this fancied ship, high above the confluence of the Clamnres and Eresma, rise the ruins of the Moorish Alcazar, whilst the cathedral, in the centre of the city, is supposed to represent the mainmast. A beautiful aqueduct supplies Segovia with the clear waters of the Guadarrama. It is the finest Roman work of this class in Iberia, and far superior to the royal palace of San Ildefonso or of La Granja, in the neighbourhood of the city.
Toledo is the most famous city to the south of the great rampart formed by the Sierras of Guadarrama, Gredos, and Gata. This is the Ciudad Imperial, the " mother of cities," the coronet of Spain and the light of the world, as it was called by Juan de Padilla, the most famous of its sous. Tradition tells us that it existed long before Hercules founded Segovia, and, like Rome, it stands upon seven hills. Toledo, with its gates, towers, Moorish and medieval buildings, is indeed a beautiful city, and its cathedral is of dazzling richness. But, for all this, Toledo is a decayed place, and its famous armourers' shops have been swamped by a Government manufactory.
Talavera de la Reyna, below Toledo, on the Tajo, still possesses some of its ancient manufactures of silk and faience. Puente del Arzobispo and the other towns on the Tajo are hardly more now than large villages. The bridge of Almaraz crosses the river far away from any populous town, and the old Roman bridge of Alconétar exists no longer. Alcântara,—that is, the bridge,-near the Portuguese frontier, still remains a monument of the architectural skill of the Romans. It was completed in the year 105, in the reign of Trajan, and its architect, Lacer, appears to have been a Spaniard. Its centre is at an elevation of 160 feet above the mean level of the Tajo, the floods of which rise occasionally to the extent of a hundred feet.
All the great towns of Estremadura lie at some distance from the Tajo, and its great volume of water has hitherto hardly been utilised for purposes of irrigation or navigation. On a fertile hill nearly twenty miles to the north of this river, the old town of Plasencia may be seen bounded in the distance by mountains frequently covered with snow. Caceres is about the same distance to the south, as is also Trujillo, which received such vast wealth from the conquerors of Peru, but is now dependent upon its pigs and herds of cattle.
The position of those towns of Estremadura which lie on the banks of the Guadiana is more favourable. Badajoz, close to the Spanish frontier, has lost its ancient importance as a fortress since it became a place of commerce on the only railway which as yet joins Spain to Portugal. Merida, on the same railway, is richer in Roman monuments than any other town of Spain, for there are a triumphal arch, the remains of an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, a naumachy, baths, and an admirable bridge of eighty granite arches, 2,600 feet in length ; but in population it is far inferior to Don Benito, a tow n hardly mentioned in history, higher up the Guadiana, at the edge of the vast plain of La Serena. It was founded in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and together with its neighbour, Villanueva de la Serena, derives its wealth from the fertility of the surrounding country. Its fruits, and particularly its water-melons, are much esteemed. The plains on the right bank of the Guadiana abound in phosphate of lime, which is exported to France and England.
The towns of La Mancha are of no historical note, and the province owes its celebrity almost exclusively to Cervantes' creation, the incomparable "Don Quixote." Ciudad Real, an industrious place formerly ; Almagro, known for it, point-lace ; Daimiel, near which stood the principal castle of the military order of Calatrava; Manzanares ; and other towns are important principally because of their trade in corn and wine Almaden,—that is, "the mine,"—in a valley on the northern slope of the Sierra Morena, has become famous through its cinnabar mines, which for more than three centuries supplied the New World with mercury, and still yield about 1,200 tons annually.
Eastern Castile, being at a considerable elevation above the sea-level, and having a rugged surface, cannot support a population more dense than either La Mancha or Estremadura. There are but few towns of note, and even the capital, Cuenca, is hardly more than a third-rate provincial city. Picturesquely perched upon a steep rock overhanging the deep gorges of the Huecar and Jucar, it merely lives in the past. The only other towns of note in that part of the country are Guadalajara, with a Roman aqueduct, and Alcalâ, the native place of Cervantes and seat of an ancient university, which at one time saw 10,000 students within its walls. Both these towns are situated on the Henares, a tributary of the Tajo, and either would have been fit to become the capital of the kingdom.
Indeed, at the first glance, it almost appears as if Madrid owed its existence to the caprice of a king. It has no river, for the Manzanares is merely a torrent, its climate is abominable, and its environs present. fewer advantages than those of Toledo. the ancient capital of the Romans and Visigoths. But once having been selected as the capital, Madrid could not fail to rise in importance, for it occupies a central position with respect to all other towns outside the basin of the Upper Tajo. Pinto (Punctun), a short distance to the south of Madrid, is popularly supposed to be the mathematical centre of the peninsula ; and thus much is certain, that the plain bounded in the north by the Sierra de Guadarrama forms the natural nucleus of the country, and is traversed by its great natural highways.
Toledo occupies a position almost equally central. It was the capital of the country (luring the reign of the Romans, and subsequently became the capital of the ecclesiastical authorities and of the kings of the Visigoths, and retained that position until it fell into the power of the Moors. During the struggles between Moors and Christians the latter shifted their capital from place to place, according to the varying fortunes of the war, but no sooner had the former been expelled from Cordova than the Christian kings again established themselves in the plain to the south of the Sierra de Guadarrama. They had then to choose between Toledo and Madrid. Toledo no doubt offered superior advantages, but its citizens having joined the insurrection of the comuneros against Charles V., the Emperor-king decided in favour of Madrid. Philip III. endeavoured to remove the capital to Valladolid, but the natural attractions of Madrid proved too strong for him, and the schools, museums, public buildings, and manufactories which have arisen in the latter since then must for ever insure it a preponderating position. The railways, which now join Madrid to the extremities of the peninsula, countervail the disadvantages of its immediate neighbourhood ; and although the purest Castilian is spoken at Toledo, it is Madrid which, through its press, has insured the preponderance of that idiom throughout Spain. Madrid has long been in advance of all other cities of the peninsula as regards political activity, industry, and commerce, but its growth having taken place during a period devoid of art, it is inferior to other towns with respect to the character of its public buildings. The museums, however, are amongst the riche t in Europe, and make it a second Florence. Immediately outside the public promenades of the Prado and Buen Retire we find ourselves in a desolate country cot ered with flints, and this must be crossed by a traveller desirous of visiting the delightful gardens of Aranjuez, the huge Escorial built by Philip II., or the villas in the wooded valleys of the Sierra de Guadarrama. These latter supply Madrid with water, as the neighbouring mountains do with ice. Formerly one of the most secluded of these valleys became the seat of a mock-kingdom, nominally independent of the Kings of Castile. During the Moorish invasion the inhabitants of the plain of Jarama had sought shelter in the mountains, and the rest of the world forgot all about them. They called themselves Patones, and elected an hereditary king. About the middle of the seventeenth century the last of the line, by trade a carrier, surrendered his wand of authority into the hands of a royal officer, and the %alley was placed under the jurisdiction of the authorities at Uceda.