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
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
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:
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.