Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 20

Just what was shaking down in Cebolla all this time? This is never an easy matter to tackle for most small towns in La Mancha because, first of all, not all of them existed yet, and those that did, apparently kept few records of life there. The scant information represents a major obstacle for anyone trying to dig up some interesting facts about these places. It’s often necessary to latch onto a sole fact or resort to speculation based on general knowledge of the times and land.

          One thing we know is that locals eventually abandoned the former Roman and Visigoth village of Los Merillos. The reasons are unclear, but the predictable problems of inhabiting a low-lying town next to a slow-moving river in a hot region seemed to be behind the decision; i.e. flooding, pesky mosquitos and, with them, malaria. Higher ground was a more sensible and healthier idea in many ways. It also made them less vulnerable to attack.

          In 1184, Cebolla gets mentioned for the first time in writing. Hooray. Finally a little recognition. It was known as an alquería back then. Nowadays, alquería (also from the Arabic) refers to a typical farmhouse in the region of Valencia, but before the 15th century, it also denoted a group of small rural communities. In this case, there were several quite close to each other: La Aldehuela, Villalba, Sanchón and Casas de Cebolla. They would eventually meld together and became one. The first settlers were said to be a mix of Arabs, Jews, Mozarabes (residents of Hispano-Visigoth descent), Leonese, Castilians and Navarrese.

          By 1252, most of the Islamic invaders’ possessions in Spain had been reduced to a minor kingdom in Granada. The knights of the Order of Calatrava handed the castle over to the legendary Order of the Knights Temple, who took up residence there until they disbanded.

          In 1477, Cebolla earned the title “Villa”, which many readers may associate with their holiday Airbnb, but in those days was a designation of genuine honor. Only the highest authority could award a municipality with this distinction. Bonuses included special jurisdiction rights and commercial privileges, such as hosting their own market fair, the creation of governmental officials – known as regidores – and the authority to administer justice; in other words, lay down the law. In the Middle Ages, that was a big deal. The crown that tops the town seal is allowed to be there thanks to this distinctive status.

          Twenty-five years later in 1502, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (of Columbus fame) made what would come to be their farewell tour of the kingdom. Leaving Sevilla in February, they took the royal road through Guadalupe in the province of Caceres, and turned northeast towards their final destination, Toledo. There they would meet and stay with their daughter, Juana, who would go on to be dubbed “the Mad”, and son-in-law, Felipe the Handsome, before the young couple moved back to Brussels. The entourage stopped in Cebolla on April 19 and spent at least one night in the now broken-down palace next door to the Ruiz house. It was the town’s “Washington-slept-here” moment.

          Little is known about the Cebolla for the following centuries, but it continued to have brushes with history; though not always pleasant ones. In 1809, Napoleon’s troops (though not Napoleon himself) dropped by in preparation for a battle against the Duke of Wellington and nearly razed the town to the ground. It is also assumed that many of the documents associated with Cebolla went up in flames as a result, which possibly explains the dearth of historical papers. The ruins apparently remained for decades and, in some cases, generations.

          The Duke, known at the time as a more mundane Arthur Wellesley, also mentions Cebolla in one of his letters, informing of a visit the brash Spanish general and allied commander, Gregorio de la Cuesta, made to the town in hot pursuit of the French. Cuesta tended to be in hot pursuit of all his enemies, regardless of the reasonableness of his actions, but this time he found no one and departed the next day. It is even possible the future Duke himself passed through, but that has not been confirmed.

          The Battle of Talavera took place a few days later on July 27. It was a hard-fought, sweltering late-summer clash. Once again, leaders failed to take the adverse climate into account before engaging in these kinds of operations. The standoff lasted just one day, with the British and Spanish forces repelling repeated assaults by the French. What appeared to end essentially in stalemate actually spelled victory for Wellesley’s side, as the French soon backed off and retreated towards Madrid. Wellesley did not chase the opposing force down, preferring instead to return to Portugal for fear of overextending his supply lines, which were essentially inexistent by then. He accused Cuesta of not affording the provisions he claims he was told the Spaniard would give him and departed, leaving behind some 1,500 wounded British soldiers in the care of the Spanish. Rumor has it Cuesta let him down in this task too, a show of negligence that infuriated the British to no end. Wellesley seems to overlook the fact that he was the one who abandoned his sick and injured in the first place and placed the burden on the Spanish. Oh, well, let’s not go there.

          Anyway, as a result of the triumphant day, Wellesley’s rank was upgraded to the noble rank of peerage under the title “Viscount of Wellington”. Later success would promote him further to Duke. So it was but a stone’s throw from Cebolla that one of History’s greatest military minds earned his now timeless name for the first time. Not bad. Not bad, at all.

          Cebolla must have endured many years of hardship as it tried to get back on its feet after the trudging it took from the French. By years, I mean decades. Such was the setback that knowing just what life was like at that stage seemed a product of a lot of generous guesswork. The legendary Madoz Dictionary, however, published in 1845, provided extensive and comprehensive information on essentially every community in the country at the time. Just what we needed. It is here that we can come upon some insight as to what a visitor might have found in the middle of the 19th century:

          Located between two hills which slope down to the valley below; the climate is mild though a touch humid due to the abundant water around (this is still the case). It has 400 houses, a town hall, where the jail is located, a palace owned by the Duke and Dutchess of Frías, and inn, a shelter for the poor and other vagrants. This used to be a hospital. There is also a well-equipped drugstore; 2 schools with about 80 pupils in each; a church called San Cipriano with a chapel honoring the Christ of Health. It used to belong to the castle.  There are also two fountains for the residents to use and a stream that runs through the center of town. Many of the homes were destroyed by the French during the Peninsular War and many are still in ruins. The Frías family owns a large olive grove and a poplar wood, as well as a spring with excellent water. There is a castle known as Villalba which stands up on a treeless hill overlooking the valley and the town of Malpica nearby. It used to belong to the Knights of the Templar. The surrounding lands are plush with groves and fertile farmland which take on a magnificent and delectable appearance in the spring. There is also a fountain dedicated to San Illán whose waters are said to possess healing powers for certain illnesses. The hermitage next to it also honors the Virgin of the Antigua, the patron of the town. The soil is for the most part sandy, but also clayey. Mail is sent to the town post office. The roads are in average condition. Products from the town are: exquisite wine (golden color) and highly regarded, olive oil, grains, seeds and fruit; there are some sheep for wool and small game is raised. As for industry: 1 flour mill, 8 olive oil mills. Adult male population: 400. The rest: 1,400. Annual budget: 14,000 reales, of which, 3,500 went to pay for the town secretary (clerk?), and 7,000 for the local doctor.

          Well, I’ll be damned. A lot of what’s there is familiar to me. Not all. The golden wine which was so greatly admired is no longer produced there. Red can be found, but a little further away. Fruit is mentioned, but not figs, so it probably didn’t stand out for it. The jail has been done away with, too. And the stream…well, we’ll get to that in good time. But you get the sense that what Madoz mentioned in 1850 is not far off the way life existed there for quite some time.

          After that, Cebolla quite probably underwent another extended period of languishing in anonymity, surviving on its agriculture and the quiet existence that embodies life in any small town. It continued to grow, incorporating a nearby village, La Mañosa. The two keys on the seal represent the bond between these two communities. La Mañosa eventually became a ghost town. The only active vestige is the church dedicated to San Blas. His feast day is February 3, and on that day people make a procession up there and have a celebration with bonfires and everything.

          Other than that, progress was slow, excruciatingly passive. Much of the society in those parts was entrenched in caciquismo, the great blight of rural Spain at the time. Large landowners controlled the properties, the economy and local politics, thereby ensuring they always came out on top. By the end of the century, however, with the rise of the working class movements, tensions increased as more and more individuals denounced these abuses. Conflict soon led to outright violence.

          News of Cebolla from those years suggests that the town was anything but removed from these tense and abusive times. At the turn of the century, several periodicals called it out for improper management of government and misappropriations of public funds. One paper singled out the town for “existing in a state of utter abandonment, where the repeated complaints by the residents go unattended, unprotected…where not a soul, if only out of compassion, bothers to provide peace and tranquility.” Attempts to turn that around were met with resistance.

          On April 7, 1903, four days before the local elections, the former mayor of the town, Escolastico Resino, was gunned down at the train station near Illán de Vacas as he waited for an official from the Provincial Government of Toledo to arrive and supervise the vote so that all went smoothly. You could say the purpose of the visit was off to a bad start. The perpetrator, Salomon Figueras (his surname appropriately translates as “Fig Trees”), had not acted as a lone wolf, but upon request by a political foe. Exactly who, has never been discovered. Figueras got the death penalty, but it was commuted to life imprisonment four years later by King Alfonso XIII, a monarch who, along with his wife Victoria Eugenia, was no stranger to terrorist acts himself. Just a year before, in 1906, the couple had been nearly blown to smithereens in Madrid by an anarchist on the very day of their wedding. They were parading through the streets from the church to the palace when the bomb went off. The artifact was hidden in a bouquet of flowers and tossed from a second-story window on the Calle Mayor, but on its way down it bounced off the streetcar cables and strayed from its intended target. 25 bystanders and soldiers were killed, and over a hundred injured. Blood from nearby victims was said to have splattered on Victoria’s bridal gown.

          These were turbulent times, indeed. Spain had just given up its final colonies in America to the United States in 1898. The Spanish-American war, or the “Disaster”, as the Spanish acerbically and accurately describe it, spawned the great literary movement, La Generación del 98, commandeered by writers and poets who wept for the Spain they had lost and despondently criticized the Spain they saw around them. Nationalism was on the rise, too. And once again, there was Cebolla; suffering just as much as the rest, if not more. A 2,000-year-old town familiar with the trials and tribulations of survival. It was a tough time for both the town and the country. It wouldn’t be the last for either.