The Tagus, River Of Romance
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Tagus was always the great natural charm of the town. Like the Arno, it takes on every hue; some mornings just after dawn, it is the palest blue, again is a still sleepy jade, or silver like a curled mirror, and as stirless as it gives back the ardent flash of the sunrays; or after sunset, when all the rich hues have faded from sky and earth, and crimson and russet gold have waved into an indigo dusk, you will see a white mist rise and travel in flakes from the bosom of the enazured water over the dim landscape. Capricious as these cold or fervent hours may be, the permanent color of the tranquil untraveled Tagus is yellow. All poets and writers see but the yellow in it, as in the Tiber, tho its blue and green and silvered hours are much more beautiful.
The most witching element in the enchantment of this river is its stillness, its unfathomable, unbroken quietude. In the sixteenth century it was navigable as far as Toledo, but the mills upon its banks are now for ever silent; no traffic has deflowered its legendary charms; neither boat nor barge cuts a way along its inactive waters. In an age when every resource of nature is feverishly applied to the service of commerce or luxury, there is something majestic in such uselessness. When the wherry that plies sleepily from bank to bank floats into view, the sight is a positive shock of artistic sensibilities. It seems an idle desecration. Only the gold-seekers—symbol of eternal illusion, ever nourished and ever elusive to the grasp of man, who builds fresh illusions of the ashes of past deceptions—may continue to trouble its wild untamed depths.
So from time to time these children of tradition, believing in the tale of its golden sands, go down to the reedy banks, after an inundation, with sifters, and industriously gather up the sand the river has flung from its bottom. They pour water over it, shake it well, and then hungrily examine the grains that remain in the vain hope of finding gold. Before Ponz's time the dean of the Church of the Infantas was said to possess a piece of gold cast up by the Tagus, and the complaint then was that many another piece had been carelessly broken and scattered by the silversmiths. But Ponz doubts the golden legend even so early as the last century. To explain the undoubted fact that the river had at different times cast up treasure, he assumes that in each reversal and exodus of race brought about by the evolution of Toledo's history, Roman, Gothic, Moorish, Hebrew, and Christian, the fugitives had the habit of burying near the river treasure in provision for the expected return. Even this is no supposition to be scorned, and adds to the romantic interest of the deserted Tagus.
Garcilaso de la Vega has chanted the golden charms of the Tagus, and Cervantes writes of "the delicate works wrought by the four nymphs who, from their crystal dwelling, lifted their heads above the waves of the Tagus, and sat on the green meadow to work at those rich stuffs which the ingenious poet paints for us, and which were fashioned of gold and silk and pearls." Now, as then, like Lope the Asturian, aquadores descend to the river-brink with their donkeys laden with water-jars, which they fill below, and bridge the upward rocky paths shouting: "Fresh water." The plays of Cervantes were acted at Toledo, which permitted Lope de Vega, who lived then in the royal city, to make an ill natured reference to the great biographer of the ingenious Hidalgo in his correspondence, and jeering at his plays, call him a "nescio." Lope little dreamed in his bitterness and jealousy that the "nescio" would forever stand before posterity as the sole representative of Castillian genius, and that the miserable little inn he dwelt in at Toledo would be forever a spot of pious pilgrimage.
Toledo's finest hour is at sunset, especially in the month of October. Nowhere have I seen the setting sun cast such a rich and lovely flush over the earth. The brown visage of the town for one intense moment is made radiant by the deep crimson flames, and the red light sheds a glorious beauty upon empty hill-sides and river-washed plains. Magic enfolds city and land, and space is so abridged by the matchless purity of the atmosphere that the eye is tricked into the belief that distant objects are quite close. Painters complain of this singular deception, which makes it so difficult to seize and reproduce the features of town and landscape. But the mere observer will naturally rejoice in an attraction the more.
Sunset is the hour for a divine walk along the jagged and broken precipices above the river. You follow the steep Calle de la Barca behind the Cathedral down to the ferry, where a few lazy oar strokes take you across the narrow Tagus. The effect midway is surprizing. Looking toward the bridge of Alcantara and San Servando, the waters seem to force their way between the immense brown rocks from the castle ruins, and lie steep and still like a mountain tarn. Little splashes of green and flowery bloom high up among the rocks give a pretty touch to the grim picture, and over the harsh remains of the city walls you will note a common but bright little suggestion of garden life. On the road above, rounding the superb curve of Antiquerela, a boy on mule-back is a slight silhouet of vanishing grace, and the evening bells in the upper air sound thin and ethereal above the sealike roar of the water breaks below the silent Moorish mills. Not even the modern hint of existence and the squalid little galleries, with linen hanging out to dry over a broken bit of castellated wall, will disturb your feeling of reverie among the forgotten ages.
Nor will the living light upon the trees, flashing rose and yellow through their branches and across the reeds along the river, nor the quaint figures moving lazily up the mule-path that cuts its crooked way over the naked rocks to the Valle, in the least disturb your bemused sensation of enchanted negation. The beauty of the hour and scene will trouble you less than its strangeness and quietude. Go further up, until you reach Nuestra Senora de la Valle, and from this point the old city will show you its most admirable grouping. At your feet, far down the precipitous shore line, a broken mirror of jade or muddy gold, zig-zagged by lines of foam along the breakwaters, and above the opposite bank, mapped upward, roof against roof, in pale brown, with spaces of green here and there where the gardens show, the town reveals itself in all its magnificent eccentricity.
Here some notion of the Cathedral from out-side may be gathered. The Gate of Lions directly fronts you, and the apse stands out from its crowd of buildings, while the bell-tower dominates the scene in all its majestic isolation. From the flat roofs rise a mass of upper domes and mudejar towers that add an Arabian note to the great Alcazar with its three towers, bold, undecorated, and monotonous, is perched in odd supremacy above the girdling path that now runs under the mutilated wall. The hills lie backward, reddish-purple, silent, perfumed, and somber, and the Vega with its broad bright smile of verdure and bloom travels beyond the famous bridge of San Martin. Between the rocky shore and the ruins of a Roman bridge are big sandy reaches, and every step you take among the brushwood scents the air with strong aromatic odors of the herbs.