Hot baths and Hemingway: Forgotten Legendary Hotels from Madrid

Hotel Florida (on the left, clearly) and the Hotel Gaylord’s (right). Photo: Kallmeyer y Gautier, Gaylord’s picture unknown.

Subs, Mops and Lollipops: Spanish Inventions 3

The Ubiquitous Chupa Chups

Subs, Mops and Lollipops: Spanish inventions 2

Washing the floor in the 1950s – Jerez (Foto by me of a Ramón Masats’ picture)
The Fregona makes mopping a pleasure beyond your wildest dreams!

FIGS OF STEEL: 24 Hours in La Mancha 23

The very top of Cebolla is on the edge of what seems like an endless plain of farmland broken in the very far distant horizon by the Gredos Mountains. They are a solid and majestic range, often snow-capped even into June. To the left we beheld some of the nicest and most modern homes in town. Some are somewhat standard run-of-mill semi-detached units, but others are quite elegant. Handsome porches; plush gardens; a refreshing pool. A stroll through their streets might give the impression that Cebolla was a community undergoing a period of true bonanza. Wealth and ostentation. Somehow, the hard times Spain had endured the previous years had passed over the town, as if someone had painted a mark of lamb’s blood over every front door. That might have been true for some, but not for most. The harsh reality would be found elsewhere. Not far off at all.

Like Scrooge’s speechless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Fernando pointed silently to the unfinished remains of a massive Almazara housing development which had been abandoned years ago when the economic bottom fell out. There must have been easily one hundred condos on the cusp of being occupied and owned by excited families hopeful to start a new life. Instead, they had turned into a monolith to disappointment and broken dreams. This went far beyond just letting a few dozen people down. This was pulling the rug underneath nearly half the town and ruining whole lives. It was tantamount to canceling the Olympics two weeks before the opening ceremony and telling athletes who had devoted their lives to preparing for them that they can no longer go. Thanks for your efforts. Screw you. Go sell running shoes at a sports outlet. You just don’t do it. You just don’t do those things. But there are those who do, and we saw the work wrought with our very own eyes.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, the units themselves were nothing to write home about. Sharp, square structures cemented together with millions of bricks, the building material par excellence in that region and American high schools alike. Their design sorely lacked proper illumination, a defect so very rampant in homes in the center of the country. It’s a question of tradition, I reckon. In the past, this made sense when houses could resort to little else when trying to combat the intense summer heat; but in today’s world of air-conditioning, there seems to be no excuse. All that light. All that beauty. Closed out. It was an utter shame. But that wasn’t the point, here. They were homes. I kept thinking about this over and over as we walked around the edges of the complex. Homes for people eager to say were theirs.

Fernando rubbed his belly and scratched his head, which is what he always did when he was overcome with despair. “Doesn’t this just suck! Imagine all those people who got screwed over.”

“It’s just awful,” agreed Laura. 

“Where are they now?” I asked.

“Who knows? Some are gone. Others, I couldn’t tell you. These,” he walked up to me so close I could smell his aging breath. “are the people no one talks about. These are the nameless victims. Living people living in a living common grave known as poverty and anonymity. No one cares about them. They don’t give a crap. A living memory of a living history. A living death with no gravestone. Where are the politicians now?”

“How many of these goddamn corpses are there?” I asked.

“Here? Who knows! But in Spain, it runs into the thousands. Tens of thousands. These are all over the country. Not just Cebolla. How many? A lot,” replied Fernando frankly.

A lot, indeed. You see, what we were staring at was not an isolated example of a town paying the price for its own private foolishness. This wasn’t a one-off case of some naïve community suffering the embarrassing consequences of a breakdown in a fragile system bound to crash at any time. This had nothing to do with a local group of greedy individuals with euro symbols in their eyes hoping to make a killing on the real estate market. Nor was it just some gang of regional banks taking advantage of young couples and families who were desirous to call themselves homeowners. It was all of them put together; and not just in Cebolla. It had happened all over the country, spreading like an uncontrolled virus; like the flu of 1918 or the plague of 1348. A virtual scourge. It became known as the Great Spanish Real Estate Bubble, and by the time it reached a breaking point in 2008, it was a humongous but delicate sphere about the size of a planet just waiting to explode. But it’s a far more complex story than just rampant speculation. It’s not just about understanding a crisis. It’s about understanding Spain.

You see, possessing property in Spain is a tradition that goes back a long way, and it became especially popular during the latter years of the Franco dictatorship. The regime promoted home-owning and prices were accessible. Very accessible. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were giving them away, but they were as close as you could get. Units back then went for 200 euros a square meter, which meant a lovely-sized 150m2 place in downtown Madrid could be acquired for a laughable €30,000. On top of that, the government offered incentives, like tax breaks and subsidies, to encourage private ownership.

It worked. Not only was it possible to buy and own an apartment or house, purchasing more than one was not unthinkable. I can personally vouch for this. I can’t think of a friend in Spain whose parents from that generation didn’t own more than one property. Some were proud proprietors of half a dozen, snatching up a flat in Madrid for their kids, a condo in the Sierra de Madrid, grabbing a beach apartment for next to nothing in order to flee the sweltering summer city heat. And you didn’t have to be a millionaire. A taxi driver might be the owner of two apartments. A fishmonger, three. 

The most amazing thing was that, in most cases, families pulled it off on just one salary per household, as many women did not have steady employment and many more were stay-at-home moms. Just how was this possible might you ask? I struggle to put my finger on one sole explanation, but I can think of a number contributing factors, in addition to all the governmental enticements; they mostly have to do with how the Spaniard thought and behaved back then. 

First of all, though salaries were lower, life was cheaper too. Schooling and university were practically free; socialized medicine made paying directly for private healthcare an afterthought; supermarket food was (and still is relatively speaking) economical, and people tended not to engage in the intensive social life that they have for the past 30 years. This last point cannot be stressed enough. People worked long hours and for the most part stuck to dining at home and saving money. Utilities like phones and electricity were used with a frugality that would have made Scrooge moan with pleasure. If you left a room, you turned off all the lights. And if you could get by with just one lamp where you were sitting instead three, then all the better. People saved, scrimped, economized and optimized to near OCD levels. It was admirable the way they could expel superfluous waste from their lives; consistent with those who have suffered the hardships of war and post-war scarcity. But kind of sad, too. It never hurt to live it up now and again.

The systematic penny-pinching went on throughout the year, even at times when people generally splurge, like summer vacation. As August rolled around, the height of the holidays, the Spanish would close their shops and offices, jump into their miniature automobiles, regardless of the size of the family, join interminable miles of the worst traffic humanity has managed to bestow upon the lowly vacationer and, in hordes, head for one of two main destinations: the “pueblo” or the “playa”. The former was normally the hometown where one of the spouse’s family was originally from. This could have been just about anywhere, but I have reached the conclusion that for some paranormal reason an inordinate proportion of them came from the province of Avila. I don’t know why, it just happens to be that way. 

Hanging out in the pueblo may not have compared to sipping a caipirinha poolside, but it had its enviable advantages, there is no doubt. Accommodations were generally larger and better and, more importantly, free. People stayed in for most meals and costs were often shared with the family who lived there year round. The food was tastier and the nights were cooler. Any special events, like joining in the festivities at the local fiestas, or a dinner at the finest restaurant in town, were often a far cry from what you’d shell out back in the capital. The savings literally ran into the thousands every year. It makes for one damned cheap summer vacation, I can assure you.

Then there were those who substituted it for a beach apartment. Purchasing a place on the coast may sound extravagant, but much less so than one would think. Game shows would give away flats valued at $20,000 in the 80s. And because the consumer’s taste for owning grew more and more insatiable, developers kept building at an insane rate. Today there are so many available that you can practically pick one up at a supermarket cash register next to the power drinks and chewing gum. 

Traditionally holiday habits at the beach were no different from how the Spanish conducted themselves at home or in the village, but were in stark contrast to the way foreign visitors’ were used to spending their cash. For the British, Germans, Swedes and the rest of mainly northern Europeans, it was no holds barred when it came to living it up along miles of beach along exotically named shores like the Costa del Sol, the Costa Blanca, and the Costa Brava. They celebrated life in a way they could rarely do back home, a habit that has carried on to this day. 

Many holiday-makers are families enjoying the most of their break through plenty of harmless fun in the sun. This includes swimming and tanning, mixed in with low-cost shopping and easy dinners at friendly pizzerias or tapas bars, and capped off with a little flamenco music before retiring. But other visitors have plans in mind that are decidedly more hedonistic in nature. Activities that fall into this category include: extended meals out, drenched with liters of Spain’s seemingly endless supply of beer, wine and sangria; late night clubbing ‘til dawn; passing out on anything that supports your weight and engaging in different forms of extreme raging like leaping from balconies into a pool below. Resort towns like Magaluz, on the island of Mallorca, have earned a dubious reputation for allowing, almost fostering, unfettered moral conduct. It brings in plenty of cash, mind you, but a good deal of trash too, not to mention your fair share of tragedies. Google “Brit killed in Spain” and chances are some recent item of news within the last month will satisfy your search, and usually in a way related to boneheaded behavior. 

Decades ago, this conduct was associated almost exclusively with foreigners, while Spanish families continued their parsimonious ways. They ate all their meals at home, and if they spent a day at the beach, they would pack sandwiches, beer and fruit for a sandy midday lunch by the water. On special occasions, they might indulge in a paella at a chiringuito, wash it down with the house wine and gaseosa, or order a Rioja if they were going all out. Evenings featured turning the lights off to a minimum, opening the windows to encourage a draft, complaining about the heat and the mosquitos, batting hand fans, sitting in front of the blue hue of the TV and watching variety shows or track and field championships, playing cards or Parcheesi on the terrace table or going for a stroll along the boardwalk and getting an ice cream at one of those seasonal plastic kiosks. 

And that was about it. Families had invested enough in the apartment. The rest was business as usual. Kids were told they should be lucky they had a place to go to in the summer. And kids of all ages understood that. They splashed and screamed in the water, patted down their sand castles, buried their siblings up to the neck, hunted for crabs, snorkeled around the coves, kicked around the soccer ball, hung out with their gang of summer friends, fell in love, and worried little about anything else. 

But it was this very same generation of youngsters who, once grown up, no longer shared their parents’ liking for austerity. They liked the idea of owning property, but they were also keen on enjoying the coast the way the foreigners did. Unfortunately for them, the world was changing. 

The first sign of trouble came in the late 1980s when housing prices increased notably. Far faster and higher than the economy could keep up with. The asking prices tapered off during the Spanish recession of the early 1990s, but then the real big hike kicked in almost immediately afterwards, between 1996 and 2007. During this eleven-year period, the cost of a humble abode in Spain utterly skyrocketed. Apartments that had gone for €120,000 in 1995 were being signed away for €600,000 12 years later, just months before the markets crashed. Yes, that’s a 400% mark up. Salaries, as you can imagine, didn’t even come close to that, and the switch in 2001 from the peseta to the euro raised the standard of living even higher. Suddenly becoming a homeowner, despite two incomes, was looking like a near insurmountable challenge. But since the new generations wanted to emulate at all cost what their parents had done, they had to find a way to finance their dreams…at all cost. 

That’s when the banks got in on the fun, and made things worse. A lot worse.

In order for families to take on overpriced properties with underpaid jobs, huge amounts of money had to be dished out, often with nothing down, and for horrifically long-term loans, some reaching 30, 40 and up to 50 years in duration. Do the words “indentured servitude” come to mind? In some cases, the mortgages were gobbling up to 50% of a household’s monthly income by the first day of the month. They practically imprisoned people financially. Common sense dictates that no sane person would take such risks, but the Spanish’s need to own a home was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that people took the dive and hoped for the best, which, of course, did not come. In fact, the exact opposite entered the scene.  

On top of that, consumer habits changed radically in Spain. Saving, never an easy thing, became next to impossible as the Spanish ate and drank out more than ever, and spent bundles on lavish vacations, expensive electronics and ever-fancier cars. Should times get hard, what would be left to tide people over?

Then came greed. Many individuals started investing in up-and-coming properties for speculative reasons. Flipping, in short. Property developers were more than happy to provide the goods for the voracious appetite to buy and sell and make a quick buck, so they started ripping up land all over the country and building condos and communities at a frightening speed. Immigrants from developing countries flocked to Spain to accept the menial construction work that no one here wanted. All this unbridled construction led to a boost of employment and, as a result, cranked up Spain’s economy to a dizzying pace. At one point, GDP growth stood at nearly an astounding 6%. The country was enjoying a degree of prosperity it had not known since its return to democracy. “¡España va bien!” was Prime Minister José María Aznar’s catch phrase during his eight-year tenure.  Spain is doing great.

But there was another catch: the economy had swelled thanks to the good fortunes of one very volatile sector that was sustained by tens of thousands of workers whose employment situation could not have been more precarious, and was financed with a ton of money no one really had. And all to build and sell units no one really needed or had any intention of buying. Spain had added some 5 million units to its arsenal of real estate between 2003 and 2007, a delirious increment that translated into more homes than Germany, Italy and the UK combined. I’ll leave the ensuing disaster for you to envision. All it would take was for something to go wrong and the house of cards would tumble to the ground. That something took place in the fall of 2007 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Wall Street.  

Though things began to fall apart very quickly with the stock markets, Spain continued with the delusion that it would somehow resist collapse, unable to accept the impending catastrophe that awaited it. It took about a year for the true effects to be felt, but once they came, they proved devastating. By 2013, housing prices had plummeted by an average of 37%, and in the areas with less demand, even more. Spain still leads all Eurozone nations with unoccupied units, over 3.4 million (at least) are vacant. And that’s not counting the ones that were half-finished, or nearly completed, like the forlorn Almazara Apartment complex of Cebolla.

The developer of the Almazara homes, I might add, was so up the yin-yang in debt, rumor has it he basically had to flee before they lynched him. He had already been working on his own home, a fancy three-story corner building in the center of town. It’s been rotting ever since. On the plywood board of the first floor window is another slice of memorable poetry in the form of graffiti that in a word sums up how much he is missed: ¡¡¡ADIO$!!!

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 21

7:15 Death and Dying

We hung out to dry the towel with care on a clothes line in the patio. With the extreme heat and the low humidity, most homes don’t bother with a machine dryer. The climate does it for you and for a lot less, as long as the government doesn’t concoct a way of coming up with a tax. While I tended to the clothes, I listened to the local radio blare out over the garden, giving tips on how to keep holiday beach homes sand-free. That kind of radio talk, I thought, most certainly would discourage birds from feasting on the fruit. So, relieved to know that the food was safe from flying vermin, we sat down at the table for an evening beer and a chance to plan the rest of the day. The craft beer fad that had taken the world with money to spare by storm had now established itself firmly in Spain. Just about everyone I knew with five gallons of water on hand, a boiler and a handful of hops lying about had suddenly become a master brewer.

          “Try my new beer! Try my new beer!” It was so annoying. I’m surprised I haven’t keeled over from alcohol poisoning by now. On really hot days, I still preferred the mass-produced Madrid brew, Mahou, served ice cold. Most people from outside of Spain have never heard of it, and yet ironically it is the most widely sold lager in the country. Mahou (pronounced as in Chairman “Mao”) comprises about a third of all the beer consumed. The national total is around 40 million hectoliters, or about 8.5 billion pints of beer. That’s a 177 pints for every man, woman, child and infant. We should probably throw in the dogs too. And this is a wine-producing country, mind you. Drinking is big business, needless to say.

          After that advertising spot for which I will receive no remuneration, let’s move on. As Victoria sprayed down the terrace floor with water and cooled the air, we looked at our options for next couple of hours. Basically two came to mind: stay home and continue to drink beer or walk around the town to see what’s up. The former was tempting, but the latter was what we wanted to do. Cebolla may not have the stunning beauty of places like Santillana del Mar, Medinaceli, Urueña, Pedraza, Vejer de la Frontera, Albarracín, Morella, Ribadeo, Alberca, Viana, Ronda, Besalú, or Cudillero, to name just a few, but nor did a lot of places in Spain. In Cebolla’s case, other than its curious name, there is very little that would lure a visitor in from a strictly touristic point-of-view. It doesn’t take a seasoned traveler to reach this conclusion; the locals themselves will tell you the same. “Pero no hay nada aquí!”

          But in the end, that is exactly why I am inextricably drawn to them. I have a soft spot for them. Their plainness, their ordinariness, their thrill-less, frill-less world. Their quiet desperation. Small town life. It is what most places in Spain tend to be like. It’s what most places in the world tend to be like. Everyday worlds. Everyday living. Towns like Cebolla have managed to survive every major period in Spain’s history since the days the Emperor Hadrian –who happened to be from Spain, I’ll have you know. Didn’t that fact in itself make them deserving of our greatest respect and admiration? Well, that depended mainly on the weather.

          “I don’t know.” I pondered for a second. “Naw. It’s too hot. I think we should hang out.”

          “Come on!” urged Laura. “It’ll be fun.”

          “Honey, your understanding of what defines entertainment never ceases to amaze me. I don’t get a kick out of heatstroke.”

          “And your ability to sit on your butt for extended periods of time never ceases to amaze science. I thought you loved the Deep Spain?”

          “I do, but not in the deep heat.”

          She took my beer away and poured it down the sink. “We’re going. It’s decided.” Well, that battle was lost.

          “I don’t want to cause a rift,” intervened Fernando. “You can take it out to the pillory, if you’d like.” The pillory, or picota, as it is known in Spanish, was a large stone column usually placed in the center of town to exhibit punished individuals and, in passing, give the locals a taste of just what the full force of the law is capable of doing when it put its mind to it. In other words, in addition to showing off dangling bodies and rotting limbs, it also served as a deterrent for future crimes. Saying you had a pillory in your town was a major status symbol statement. That also may explain its phallic shape. Nowadays your town can do the same by opening a high-profile museum or hosting a tennis tournament, but back then, owning a granite post for public sanctioning did the talking.

          As one of the few surviving historic monuments adorning the town, the elders have gone to great lengths to preserve it. They just can’t think of the ideal place to put it, so it gets moved around every now and again. Currently it’s located on the side of one of the roads that lead out of town, where no one will ever notice it again. Someone, I tell you, needs to get into the tourist board and shake things up a bit.

          Anyhow, despite Fernando’s suggestion, I figured the dispute could be settled peacefully at home, so I replied.

          “Not necessary. I guess we can go around and catch up on the latest.”

          “There’s no such thing as the latest here,” chuckled Victoria. “But you go ahead. I have to stop in my niece’s house; don’t worry, dinner is ready, so when you come back, we can eat.” True to the standards of most Spanish mothers, the meal had been prepared hours in advance and was on standby for consumption at the snap of a finger.

          We walked out the door and looked around. Life began to stir in the pretty main square. Young kids gathered, hung out, hovered over smartphones, joshed and giggled. The youngest ones booted around a soccer ball, using the low wall that formed the periphery of the square as the boundaries of the pitch. The older ones shared Instagram pictures and videos and remarked on whatever was going on in their world. An older couple melded into a bench and quietly observed. Three retired couples had picked up a game of petanca (bocce ball) on the other side. The town was emerging and gearing up for the night, the same way every town in Spain was doing at that very moment.

          “You see that?” Fernando pointed to the damaged street sign high up on the wall in front of us. “What do you think of that?”

          “Vandalism,” I replied.

          “Nope. That’s history in the making. And it happened today. On this very day.” He went on to tell us about the now infamous Battle of the Law of the Historic Memory and the fall of one of the last symbols of Francoism in a tiny, forgotten street of La Mancha. He provided some details about the skirmish that morning between David and the workers, though doubtfully with the same intensity as the events themselves transpired. When he finished recounting the tale, he summed up with a “Now, don’t tell me nothing happens here.”

          “But you’re the one who always says that!”

          “But now we know I’m wrong!”

          “You’ve got me there,” I conceded. “Maybe I’ll take a picture of it. I’ll probably just delete it in a few weeks, but what the hell.”

          “Let’s take a selfie,” suggested Laura, revealing one of her favorite hobbies.

          “You want to take a selfie of a broken street sign?” I asked.

          “Of course. It says we were here at a historic moment in this town.”

          “It says that we’re bored out of our minds, that’s what it says.”

          “She has a point,” said Fernando. “This doesn’t happen often.”

          “Well, damn,” I cried out. “Now that we’re at it, why don’t we do a boomerang, or whatever they call it.”

          “Honey, you don’t take boomerangs of things that aren’t moving.” She looked at Fernando then back at me with pity. I sensed that would be on the receiving end of that gaze as I get older. “He wants to be with the times but he gets confused about these things.”

          “I’m very much on top of what’s in!” I protested. “I have a Google Drive cloud account and everything.”

          “If you want, Laura, I can do a surfing pose in front of the sign and sway back and forth. Would that work?” suggested Fernando.

          “That would be hysterical!”

          “What are you talking about?” I cried. “What does that have to do with the Franco period?”

          “It’s conceptual art, my friend. It has nothing to do with it. You decide what it means.”

          “Listen,” I balked. “We’ve taken just two steps from the house and I’m ready to go home. There’s a six of beer in the fridge.”

          They weren’t listening. Instead they were scrutinizing the picture and laughing with approval. “I have to post it,” said Laura.

          “Sounds great!” I agreed impatiently. “Now, can we go? I don’t want to miss anymore historic moments in this town. Apparently, they are a dime a dozen.”

          “Lead the way, sir. Lead the way!” He bowed.

          “It’s your town. You lead the way.”

          We took a left at the corner and headed up the street towards where the church was. The road has earned a degree of fame locally for its steepness, and I can personally assure its veracity. As you climb, there is a sense that you are performing severe penitence before mass. “Fernando, you don’t happen to have a cross,” I asked as I panted. “Just so I can get the full Calvary effect.”

          “Nope. But if you want to carry me, I wouldn’t mind.”

          “I’ll pass.”

          Half way, I paused to catch my breath and take a look around. My chest heaved as I looked down the hill to admire the distance we had progressed. At least 150 feet.

          It was at that very point that my eyes fell upon a message scrawled on the wall of a house to our right.

          “Now, take a look at that.” I was very pleased by my discovery.

          I’m a sucker for graffiti. I really am. I get a real kick out of wandering through the streets, especially the towns and villages of this country, and checking out what is going down on the murals and shop shutters. And not just the work of some local Banksy, but rather the everyday Juan García, normal kid, scribbling thoughts with poor penmanship and shaky spelling. They tell us a lot. These used to be local social networks of yesteryear, the ones that shared information before the days of internet. They may not have the impact they used to, but their presence persists. They’re probably the work of mostly young males, posting their opinions on the walls and roll-up shutters on the storefronts. Some want to rebel, others decry injustice; some demand passion, others bemoan unrequited love; some call a neighbor out for screwing them over, others simply engage in primitive trolling; then there are the artists, the creative ones who just can’t seem to find a canvass big enough or a gallery spacious enough to harbor their visualized emotions. All of them live out a longing to be anonymous and visible at the same time.

          They can be poetic and creative, but also just plain base. Crude. Short and to the point. Lacking finesse. But it’s their brevity, their terseness, their stark honesty that enthuse me. They are urban haikus. Rural epithets.

          I remember one day walking at the edge of a town in the province of Madrid, along an ancient wall separating me and a stunningly beautiful field of wild flowers and shivering white poplar trees with the proud Carpetano Mountains in the background. My eyes suddenly zeroed in on a harsh metal lamppost and spotted a word painted on it. Dried streams of paint slid down the tips of the letters. The paint was not designed for that surface. But there it was in all its glory: “Puta”. A word as isolated as an atoll. Incredible. “Puta” has a whole array of meanings. From “Bitch”, and “Whore” to even an exuberant “Awesome!” or an exasperated “Fuck!” It’s such a versatile word that it’s hard to judge from the context just what the author meant. That’s what good poetry is all about.

          As I caught my breath I read this new piece of literature to add to my collection. It was a real jewel:

Mi mejor amiga Lucía

(My best friend, Lucía)

That was the original text, at least. But it wasn’t exactly how it was worded anymore. More recent corrections had been made.

Mi mejor amiga guarra Lucía

(My best slutty friend Lucía)

Clearly there had been developments in the relationship between the author and subject from the original draft to the revised one. The change of heart not only added depth to the text, it raised a number of questions. Just why, for example, “amiga” was kept in but “Lucía” crossed out is a mystery whose answer I don’t have. Intriguing. Who wouldn’t find this tiny bit of street poetry worthy of a few minutes of observation and analysis?

BEYOND THE RUNNING OF THE BULLS

Photo by San Fermin Pamplona from Pexels

Pamplona is not the only place in Spain where you can see the running of the bulls. In summer, bulls are chasing brave and crazy people all over Spain! Find out a little more about the the San Fermin fiestas and some other “encierros” on this Spain Domain podcast. Enjoy!

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 19

So, if Cebolla’s name comes from Arabic, does that mean the town was founded by the Moors? It certainly would follow, but the fact is, life there goes back much further. Cebolla as a human settlement probably started during the Roman occupation of Spain, known as Hispania at the time. It seems there existed a fairly prosperous villa nearby known as Los Merillos, which was located along a major road between the urban centers of Toletum and Emerita Augusta, today Toledo to Merida respectively. Roman roads were, as Robert Graves put it without a hint of ambiguity, “the greatest monument ever raised to human liberty by a noble and generous people.” Yes, that is, they were both admired and certainly built to last. The current national highway that traverses the zone today is essentially the same thoroughfare.

          The newcomers constructed their home near the Tajo River and chose this spot because the land was ideal for farming. It was also during this period that the foundations for what would later become the Castillo de Villalba (Castle of Villalba) were laid. Standing on high ground with an enviable east-west view of their beloved highway below, the fortress made perfect sense from a strategic standpoint. It would be both useful and used for centuries to come.

          The Romans stuck around for several hundred years until they eventually relinquished their grip on the Iberian Peninsula. That doesn’t mean, however, that they fully departed; undoubtedly, some may have returned to what was left of their collapsing empire, but it wasn’t as if there was anything back home to look forward to. Indeed, by the end of the 5th Century most were Hispanic-Romans, that is, inhabitants whose roots went back to the Eternal City but who were born and raised in the province of Hispania. These people generally stayed on. The only difference now was that there was no army available to defend them if things turned sour. And, believe me, they would.

          The power vacuum that arose in Roman Spain was filled by wave after wave of Germanic tribes. The Alans, Vandals and Suebi were among the first to make themselves at home. It would appear no Barbarian was left behind when it came to invading. Basically, if you were Teutonic and had an itching to occupy a distant land, Hispania was the place for you. Eventually the Visigoths, after being evicted from France by the Franks, muscled out the competition and turned most of the peninsula into their permanent residence, making Toledo their capital.

          That meant the power hub of these people was but a stone’s throw from our town of interest, partly explaining why the former village of Aldehuela, now a part of Cebolla, is believed to be of Visigoth origin. It also accounts for the valuable archeological remains from that period unearthed in Los Merillos.

          The Visigoths failed to dominate Hispania the way the Romans had (in all fairness, it was a tough act to follow) mainly because their leaders were constantly bogged down with internal fighting and busy staving off assassination attempts, often unsuccessfully. Despite more or less running the show for nearly two hundred years, their historical footprint on this land has often been overlooked, which is odd because they did contribute a couple of extremely important concepts that would have a lasting effect on this country: Catholicism and a primitive attempt at national identity. 

          Aside from those minor details, Visigoth control was destined to come undone and it ended the day the Muslims invaded in 711 and took over most of what is now present-day Spain and Portugal in pretty much a jiffy. Predictably, the conquest was the result of a civil war between feuding factions among the Goths. Before anyone could do anything about it, the Moors were thrusting into southern France and threatening to swallow up the rest of Western Europe. A veritable blitzkrieg. The only exception to the otherwise utter and complete subjugation at the hands of the Moors was a few enclaves in Asturias and the Basque Country in the north. It was from these tiny pockets of resistance that a slow (and I mean very slow) but steady comeback by Christian forces would be mounted. 

          In the meantime, the Muslims went virtually unchallenged for what must have seemed like eons. Pleased by the new and fertile land they had conquered, they began to make themselves at home, often occupying existing towns. Just like the Romans and Visigoths before them, the invaders settled in and around the lands of Cebolla, presumably gracing the town with what would become its definitive name. But that wasn’t all: they also provided valuable technological and agricultural knowhow, like hydropower, irrigation, Arabic numerals, math, medicine, improved techniques on leather and steel manufacturing, to name just a few. The contributions were vast and profound.

          Unlike other parts of Spain, little physical evidence of their presence can be found in Cebolla, at least above ground. Down below, beneath some of the homes, the town hides tunnels and caverns and ancient wells. And it is generally believed the current church of San Cipriano stands on top of the crushed remains of original structure: a mosque. The Muslims are also said to have reinforced the fortifications the Romans had built centuries before and turned them into the full-fledged castle it is known by today. They too saw the obvious strategic pros of owning a military base from that vantage point.

          As the Christian forces licked their wounds up in the impenetrable mountains of Asturias after the crushing defeat by the Moors, they swore vengeance, but making that a reality proved a more daunting task than they could have imagined. Pushing back the Muslims would require several hundred years and a lot of patience to achieve. King Alfonso VI, for example, would not liberate nearby Talavera de la Reina and its surroundings, including Cebolla, until 1083, a whopping 372 years after the Islamic invasion. Toledo, the former capital of the Visigoths and symbolic hub of pre-Islam Spain, was retaken two years later. Clearly, generations of local residents hoping for a swift response from the Christian strike force must have gone to their graves sorely disappointed.

          As the Reconquista (Reconquest) progressed, soldiers and inhabitants from the northern kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Aragon and Navarre began to move into the lands further south and either installed themselves in the existing towns or started new ones up all together. The newly arrived became, in effect, the frontiersmen of their day and for several decades were still helplessly susceptible to attacks by their eternal enemies. Little by little, though, the northern kingdoms secured the territories.

          The land around Cebolla came under the jurisdiction of the king of Castile, Alfonso VIII, but it fell locally under the protection of the members of the religious military Order of Calatrava in 1205, who occupied the Castillo de Villalba. Excellent timing by anyone’s standard since. Just ten years before, the Christian forces had been taken to the cleaners by a huge army of fierce Almohad Muslims from Morocco in the Battle of Alarcos, in the present-day province of Ciudad Real. It was an embarrassing loss. King Alfonso VIII had sent his cavalry into the heart of the Muslim line of defense. They were following by the king himself, who led the infantry. They initially met success, but the going was slow and the enemy was gradually forming a ring around the Castilians. Soon enough, they were surrounded by the enemy and swarms of arrows rained down on them, forcing them to hack their way out for dear life. It also didn’t help the fact the battle took place in the middle of the day on July 18th, when the insufferable summer La Mancha heat wore them down to mere companies of wilting warriors. You’d think someone would have thought of that before fastening on the armor and slapping the helmet on their head.

          Alfonso VIII managed to escape to Toledo, but much of his army had been obliterated. The ragtag remains negotiated its way out of a nearby fortress through the mediation of Alfonso VIII’s enemy, Pedro Fernández de Castro, yes, a fellow Christian and Castilian, who mingled with the Moors to obtain a political advantage over his rival. Such were the complicated twists of the Reconquista period.

          With the Christians in the midst of major internal fighting, the orders of knights in tatters, and much of La Mancha exposed, the Moors once again threatened to expel the Castilians from of central Spain. Fortunately for the king, the Muslim leader, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur, failed to capitalize on the victory and returned to Andalusia to recover from his own losses. Nonetheless, many castles and major towns surrendered, including nearby Talavera (and presumably Cebolla), but the big prize, Toledo, held on. For how long, no one knew. The potential for a cataclysm loomed. Should the Muslims return soon, the results could spell disaster for Spain as a whole.

          Sixteen years later, which is not a very long time in medieval warfare terms, Mohammed al-Nasir crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to finish the job. He didn’t get very far. At the Battle of Navas de Toloso, in the Andalusian region of Jaen, a consortium of Christian kingdoms, which this time managed to put aside their differences for once and pool together a sizable force to face the invader. This time, Alfonso opted for slyness as a tactic rather than a full-frontal launch, a sensible decision given the fact the Muslims were reported to have three to four times more troops. To do this, he counted on the services of a local shepherd named Martin Alhaja to lead the warriors through the rugged Despeñaperros hills and thus take the enemy by surprise. It worked, and the Spanish forces emerged victorious. For his excellent skills as a local guide, Martin Alhaja, was awarded the title of nobility “Cabeza de Vaca” (Cow’s Head) and his own coat-of-arms. It was an honor and form of compensation which probably requires some historical context to really appreciate because if it had been me, I’d be like, “WTF!”

          The Muslims would never again be a serious menace to the La Mancha or most of Spain for that matter.