When In Seville…

… do as the sevillanos do.

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

What can one do when the temperature rises to 40°C? Do as the Sevillans do: sigh, and wait until the sun has set to go out in search of coolness in gardens and churches to stroll along the Guadalquivir, but at a slow pace, until night spreads itself out like a black cloth over the city and the river, over the twelve-sided tower where the merchant ships set sail for the Indies, over the palm trees and the rose bushes, the lilies and the cypresses in the gardens of the Alcázar.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)


A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista

The other day (okay, a few weeks ago, it took me a while to finish this post) I wrote a few lines about Covadonga in Asturias, the place where the reconquista, the reconquering of Spain from the Moors began in 722 A.D. If you haven’t read it:

View from the Holy Cave, Covadonga

Asturias Is Spain… (And the Rest Is Conquered Land)

…then you’d bloody well better 🙂 because today you’re going to get part two of the story that started in Covadonga: the story of the reconquista.

In keeping with Waterblogged tradition, we’re going to explore the topic through the medium of literature; I hope you’ll enjoy this brief history of the reconquista as told by Spanish historical ballads!

Spanish Historical Ballads – aka Romances

“Sung by all classes, the ballads were a truly national Spanish possession…”

(C. Colin Smith: Spanish Ballads)

The Spanish romances are ballads which blend fact and legend together to tell picturesque stories from early Spanish history, in particular about:

  • the Moorish invasion
  • the origins of the Kingdom of Castile
  • Christian infighting
  • El Cid
  • the fall of Granada

They go all the way back to the Middle Ages; the era, in fact, in which many of the events they relate took place. The great popularity of the genre ensured the survival of the ballads into the age of print and most of the ballads in their current forms are from the 15th or 16th century.

As you read the ballads it’s interesting to note the many Romantic – in the literary sense – elements they contain. The outpouring of emotion, the sharp contrasts, the use of landscape to mirror the hero’s mental or physical state, &c. will pop up again in European literature a few centuries later to become the hallmark of the age of Romanticism.

The Reconquista

The Moors might have taken almost the entire Iberian peninsula in little more than a year but the reconquest was an entirely different affair. It was not a single, straightforward, successful military campaign or even a series of campaigns:  it started with the first Christian victory in 722 A.D. in the battle of Covadonga and finished  with the capture of Granada in 1492. Even between brothers this makes seven and half centuries of warfare up and down the land, from Asturias in the north all the way to Andalusia in the south, from today’s Portugal on the west to the Pyrenees in the east. Is it surprising that the reconquista looms largely in the Spanish national consciousness?

The progress of the reconquista 914-1492 [By Macucal via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0]
Over such a large period of time of course the battle lines sometimes became a little blurred. Neither the Moorish, nor the Christian kingdoms on the peninsula were very stable, especially in the first centuries after the Moorish conquest. Infighting was common and the ruling families made sometimes surprising alliances. Indeed, Moors and Christians did on occasion fight side by side against a common enemy, before they returned to hacking each other to pieces.

But turbulent times often make for good literature!

King Roderick, Last of the Goths: The Moorish Invasion of Spain

Of course before Pelayo¹ and all those who came after him could reconquer Spain, somebody had to lose it. This honour falls to one Roderick (known in Spanish as Rodrigo), king of the Visigoths², who lost his kingdom in the Battle of Guadelete in 711 A.D.

Legend would have it that Roderick fell in illicit love with the daughter of Julian, Count of Ceuta – some versions of the story have the king outright raping the girl – and Count Julian took revenge by allying himself with the Moors and invading Spain.

Exactly how the invasion of 711 took place is not known. The Moslems had completed the conquest of Morocco in 710 and would in any case have been tempted to invade the pleasant land which they could see across the water. In the event, they were aided by a dynastic dispute within the Gothic state of Spain, in which the new king Roderick was opposed by the sons of Witiza, the previous ruler, and by others of his party…

(C. Colin Smith: Spanish Ballads)

King Roderick with is troops in the battle of Guadalete / El rey Don Rodrigo arengado a sus tropas en la batalla de Guadalete (Bernardo Blanco) [public domain via Wikipedia]
The truth is a little less picturesque than the legend: the Visigothic kingdom suffered from frequent internal turmoils, including at the time of the Moorish invasion, and Don Rodrigo might have been a usurper betrayed by his own troops in the decisive battle of Guadalete. But we won’t let history stand in the way of a good piece of literature:

His horse was bleeding, blind, and lame, – he could no farther go;
Dismounted, without path or aim, the King stepped to and fro;
It was a sight of pity to look on Roderick,
For, sore athirst and hungry, he staggered faint and sick.
All stained and strewed with dust and blood, like to some smouldering brand
Plucked from the flame, Rodrigo showed: his sword was in his hand,
But it was hacked into a saw of dark and purple tint;
His jewelled mail had many a flaw, his helmet many a dint.

He climbed unto a hill-top, the highest he could see, –
Thence all about of that wide rout his last long look took he;
He saw his royal banners, where they lay drenched and torn,
He heard the cry of victory, the Arab’s shout of scorn.

He looked for the brave captains that led the hosts of Spain,
But all were fled except the dead, and who could count the slain?
Where’er his eye could wander, all bloody was the plain,
And, while thus he said, the tears he shed run down his cheeks like rain:

“Last night I was the King of Spain, – to-day no king am I;
Last night fair castles held my train, – to-night where shall I lie?
Last night a hundred pages did serve me on the knee, –
To-night not one I call mine own:- not one pertains to me. ”
O, luckless, luckless was the hour, and cursed was the day,
When I was born to have the power of this great seniory!
Unhappy me, that I should see the sun go down to-night!
O Death, why now so slow art thou, why fearest thou to smite?”

(The Lamentation of Roderick)

There are in fact several emotive ballads about Roderick, the girl he seduced (Florinda aka La Cava³), her father Count Julian and the Battle of Guadelete, but The Lamentation of Roderick is held to be the oldest, written in the second half of the 15th century. Besides, it’s the only one I could find an English translation of (and I do draw the line at trying to translate poetry from one foreign language to another)!

Bernardo del Carpio, or Who Defeated Roland?

Of Bernardo del Carpio, we find little or nothing in the French romances of Charlemagne. He belongs exclusively to Spanish History, or rather perhaps to Spanish Romance ; in which the honour is claimed for him of slaying the famous Orlando, or Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, in the fatal field of Roncesvalles.

(J.G.  Lockhart: Spanish Ballads)

The Song of Roland

Given that the heroic Bernardo was entirely fictitious, we cannot wonder too much about him not appearing in the French romances. Even if he had been real, we could hardly expect the defeated French extolling the Spanish hero’s virtues!

Bernardo appeared in the 12th century as the Spanish response to the French epic poem The Song of Roland, which made the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, 778 A.D. (Batalla de Roncesvalles in Spanish) immortal.

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, 778 A.D. 

Taking advantage of some Moorish infighting, Charlemagne invaded the Iberian peninsula to extend his empire. This didn't quite turn out the way he expected, so on his way back to France, he decided to at least secure his hold on the Basque country, especially as he suspected the Basques to be allied with the Moors. After he destroyed the walls of the Basque capital, Pamplona, the Basques ambushed his army in Roncevaux Pass, cutting off and annihilating his rearguard. 

Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne and commander of the rearguard, and twelve Frankish paladins4 were all killed. Their story was told in the epic poem The Song of Roland, one of the earliest surviving works of French literature.

The death of Roland. Manuscript illustration from c.1455-1460 [public domain via Wikipedia]
Poetic licence being what it is, in The Song of Roland there is no mention of the wrong done to the Basques and the Frankish rearguard is, in point of fact, depicted fighting the Moors:

The count Rollanz, he canters through the field,
Holds Durendal5, he well can thrust and wield,
Right great damage he’s done the Sarrazines
You’d seen them, one on other, dead in heaps,
Through all that place their blood was flowing clear!
In blood his arms were and his hauberk steeped,
And bloodied o’er, shoulders and neck, his steed.

(The Song of Roland)

The most – tragically – famous part of the poem concerns the refusal of Roland to sound his horn (his ‘olifant’) to summon help from Charlemagne in the beginning of the battle when his friend Oliver asks him to. Roland refuses, lest he should be considered a coward. He eventually sees reason as all his comrades fall around him but by the time Charlemagne arrives, he finds only corpses.

Perhaps exactly because of Roland’s refusal to sound his horn, the poem had a huge impact on the ideas of chivalry in Europe. In due course it reached Spain where, understandably, the locals took exception to the French way of the telling the story; in particular to the bit which claimed that Charlemagne liberated Spain from the Moors.

The Bernardo ballads derive from a lost epic and from the legends incorporated in rather divers forms in the chronicles. Both epic and legends were no more than pseudo-historical; they sprang up in the 12th century as a nationalistic answer to the extravagant claims made in the opening lines of the Chanson de Roland (then becoming known in Spain) to the effect that Charlemagne and his Franks had liberated most of Spain from the Moors…

(C. Colin Smith: Spanish Ballads)

In response, the Spanish invented the mythical Asturian hero Bernardo del Carpio and had him to defeat Roland at the Batalla de Roncesvalles:

With three thousand men of Leon, from the city Bernard goes,
To protect the soil Hispanian6 from the spear of Frankish foes ;
From the city which is planted in the midst between the seas,
To preserve the name and glory of old Pelayo’s victories.


As through the glen his spears did gleam, these soldiers from the hills,
They swelled his host, as mountain-stream receives the roaring rills;
They round his banner flocked, in scorn of haughty Charlemagne, And thus upon their swords are sworn the faithful sons of Spain.

” Free were we born,” ’tis thus they cry, ” though to our King we owe
The homage and the fealty behind his crest to go ;
By God’s behest our aid he shares, but God did ne’er command
That we should leave our children heirs of an enslaved land.”

(The March of Bernardo del Carpio)

A nicely rousing patriotic piece, and although Bernardo never actually existed, this version still seems slightly closer to the truth regarding the Battle of Roncevaux Pass than that of The Song of Roland – at least Bernardo was Spanish7.

But there is more to the story of Bernardo del Carpio than the patriotic Battle of Roncesvaux Pass. In fact, it’s a fine romantic story of family feud, told in a string of ballads.

Bernardo & Alfonso

Bernardo del Carpio was the son of Sancho, Count of Saldaña, and Ximena, the sister of King Alfonso II the Chaste. Unfortunately, the king looked askance at the affair (secret marriage?): the count soon found himself in prison (blinded for good measure) and Doña Ximena in a nunnery. Alfonso II raised their offspring, Bernardo, in his court, without bothering to inform the boy of who his father was. A state of affairs that was not to last: which courtier spilt the beans I don’t know.  In any case, heroic Bernardo found out the truth and confronted the king, who promised to set his father free. And so he did – he just had the blind count murdered first.

The ballad Bernardo and Alphonso describes the meeting of Alfonso II and Bernardo in the immediate aftermath of Don Sancho’s funeral:

With some good ten of his chosen men, Bernardo hath appeared
Before them all in the palace hall, the lying King to beard ;
With cap in hand and eye on ground, he came in reverend guise,
But ever and anon he frowned, and flame broke from his eyes.

“A curse upon thee,” cries the King, “who comest unbid to me;
But what from traitor’s blood should spring, save traitors like to thee?
His sire, Lords, had a traitor’s heart : perchance our Champion brave
Make think it were a pious part to share Don Sancho’s grave.”

” Whoever told this tale the King hath rashness to repeat,”
Cries Bernard, ” here my gage I fling before THE LIAR’S feet !
No treason was in Sancho’s blood, no stain in mine doth lie
Below the throne what knight will own the coward calumny?

” The blood that I like water shed, when Roland did advance,
By secret traitors hired and led, to make us slaves of France ;
The life of King Alphonso I saved at Roncesval,
Your words, Lord King, are recompence abundant for it all.

” Your horse was down, your hope was flown, I saw the falchion shine,
That soon had drunk your royal blood, had I not ventured mine ;
But memory soon of service done deserteth the ingrate,
And ye’ve thanked the son for life and crown by the father’s bloody fate.

” Ye swore upon your kingly faith, to set Don Sancho free,
But curse upon your paltering breath, the light he ne’er did see ;
He died in dungeon cold and dim, by Alphonso’s base decree,
And visage blind, and stiffened limb, were all they gave to me.

” The King that swerveth from his word hath stained his purple black,
No Spanish Lord will draw the sword behind a Liar’s back ;
But noble vengeance shall be mine, an open hate I’ll shew
The King hath injured Carpio’s line, and Bernard is his foe.” –

” Seize seize him ! ” loud the King doth scream ” There are a thousand here
Let his foul blood this instant stream What ! Caitiffs, do ye fear?
Seize seize the traitor ! ” But not one to move a finger dareth,
Bernardo standeth by the throne, and calm his sword he bareth.

(Bernardo and Alphonso)

Contrary what you might think, Bernardo did not slit the king’s throat in the next line. He made his escape and offered his sword to someone who appreciated his heroism more: the Moors. Nor was he the only Spanish national hero to do so, but we’ll come to that later. 🙂

Although entirely fictitious, Bernardo del Carpio was believed to be a historical figure in Spain for centuries. So much so that in 1522 King Charles I (better known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) visited his ‘grave’ in Aguilar de Campoo8. In addition to medieval ballads, he was the hero of many epic poems, plays and books of chivalry written during the Siglo de Oro9, the heyday of Spanish literature.

The Song of Roland is a great piece of literature; the ballads about Bernardo del Carpio are a great response to it.

The Maiden Tribute: St James, the Moorslayer

In a manner reminiscent of the Ancient Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur10, Abderrahman II, the Emir of Córdoba, demanded that a hundred Christian virgins should be surrendered to him every year as tribute11; King Ramíro I of Asturias refused. War duly followed, and in the mythical12 Battle of  Clavijo, 844 A.D., the patron saint of Spain, St James, came to the aid of the beleaguered Asturians, helping them to a famous victory and earning himself the epithet Matamoros, the Moorslayer. (In my mind’s eye I can quite clearly see St James riding down the Moorish foot soldiers on his white charger with his banner flying.) Needless to say, the maiden tribute was never paid again!

According to the romance, it all started with a golden haired maiden bursting into King Ramíro’s council room. She said:

I know not if I’m bounden to call thee by the name
Of Christian, King Ramiro; for though thou dost not claim
A heathen realm’s allegiance, a heathen sure thou art,
Beneath a Spaniard’s mantle thou hidest a Moorish heart.

For he who gives the Moor-King a hundred maids of Spain,
Each year when in its season the day comes round again ;
If he be not a heathen, he swells the heathen’s train
Twere better burn a kingdom than suffer such disdain.

If the Moslem must have tribute, make men your tribute-money,
Send idle drones to teaze them within their hives of honey ;
For when ’tis paid with maidens, from every maid there spring
Some five or six strong soldiers, to serve the Moorish King.

Luckily for the maiden (who was probably in danger of being sent as tribute herself), King Ramíro grasped the crux of the matter immediately.

The King call’d God to witness, that, come there weal or woe,
Thenceforth no maiden-tribute from out Castile should go ;
” At least I will do battle on God our Saviour’s foe,
And die beneath my banner before I see it so.”

A cry went through the mountains when the proud Moor drew near,
And trooping to Ramiro came every Christian spear ;
The blessed Saint Iago13, they called upon his name ;
That day began our freedom, and wiped away our shame.

St James in the battle of Clavijo, fresco by José Casado del Alisal. Photo by José Javier Martín Espartosa via Flickr [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Castile vs León: The Love & Life of Fernán González

Outside of Spain and the inevitable circle of hispanophiles, it’s a little known fact that Castile, the heart of Spain and the largest of the old Spanish kingdoms, started out as a humble county of the Kingdom of León. As was not unusual in the Middle Ages, the Count of Castile, Fernán González (910-970), got ideas above his station into his head… and to these ideas Castile owes her independence.

The story of Fernan Gonsalez is detailed in the Chronica Antiqua de Espana, with so many romantic circumstances, that certain modern critics have been inclined to consider it as entirely fabulous. Of the main facts recorded, there seems, however, to be no good reason to doubt ; and it is quite certain, that from the earliest times, the name of Fernan Gonsalez has been held in the highest honour by the Spaniards themselves, of every degree. He lived at the beginning of the 1oth century. It was under his rule, according to the chronicles, that Castile first became an independent Christian state, and it was by his exertions that the first foundations were laid of that system of warfare, by which the Moorish power in Spain was at last overthrown.

(J.G. Lockhart: Spanish Ballads)

The King of León unfortunately was not particularly impressed by Castile becoming independent and Fernán González subsequently found that the Moors weren’t his only – or even chief? – enemy. In fact, he never knew which honest Christian would be trying to stab him in the back next. Luckily, he was blessed with a devoted and resourceful wife who twice saved him from captivity. The first of these occasions is the subject of the following ballad (imaginatively titled The Escape of Fernán González).

At this point in the narrative, Count Fernán and Princess Sancha, the daughter of the King of Navarre, were not yet married, merely betrothed. As Fernán was on his way to her, the Navarrese, on the instigation of the Leonese, seized him and threw him into prison. (You have to wonder whose side the King of Navarre really was on.) The princess duly received word of this while she was enjoying herself at a banquet in her father’s palace; the instrument of God was a conveniently passing knight – from Normandy of all places. This is how he addressed the princess:

“The Moors may well be joyful, but great should be our grief,
For Spain has lost her guardian, when Castile has lost her chief;
The Moorish host is pouring like a river o’er the land,
Curse on the Christian fetters that bind Gonsalez’ hand!

Gonsalez loves thee, lady, he loved thee long ago,
But little is the kindness that for his love you show ;
The curse that lies on Caba’s14 head, it may be shared by thee
Arise, let love with love be paid, and set Gonsalez free.”

The lady answered little, but at the mirk of night,
When all her maids are sleeping, she hath risen and ta’en her flight ;
She hath tempted the Alcayde15 with her jewels and her gold,
And unto her his prisoner that jailer false hath sold.

The story continues with the handsome pair (of course they were handsome) making their escape through some woods where they bumped into a lordly priest, out hunting. This good man of God didn’t quite see eye to eye with the princess in the right course to pursue (that would be away from Navarre and onwards to Castile) and tried to blackmail the fugitives. His mistake. They left him for dead and rode off on his horse…

Till to their ears a sound did come, might fill their hearts with dread,
A steady whisper on the breeze, and horsemen’s heavy tread.

The Infanta16 trembled in the wood, but forth the Count did go,
And, gazing wide, a troop descried upon the bridge below ;
” Gramercy ! ” quoth Gonsalez ” or else my sight is gone,
Methinks I know the pennon yon sun is shining on.

” Come forth, come forth, Infanta, mine own true men they be,
Come forth, and see my banner, and cry Castile ! with me :
My merry men draw near me, I see my pennon shine,
Their swords shine bright, Infanta, and every blade is thine.”

Three cheers for Castile! 🙂

El Cid Campeador

There happens, however, to be a very old Spanish poem of the Cid…

The poem of which I speak is called ‘Poema del Cid‘ and is supposed to be the very oldest piece of versification in the Spanish language. The manuscript was discovered in the archives of Bivar about a hundred years ago, and after many adventures fell into the hands of the omnivorous Gayangos, who presented it to the Royal Library of Madrid. It is supposed to have been composed in the twelfth century, and the MS. certainly dates from the thirteenth. Though it contains about 4000 lines it is unfortunately incomplete, as it begins only with the expulsion of the Cid from the Court of Alfonso el Bravo, and ends with the capture of Valencia. All the beautiful legends of the Cid’s early life and marriage with Ximena are therefore wanting. Imperfect as it is, it is the only real Epic the Spaniards possess, and they are fond of calling it their Iliad, and the unknown author their Homer, and of course the Cid their Achilles…

(James Y. Gibson: Preface to The Cid Ballads and Other Poems)

Who doesn’t know El Cid17 and his tearjerking love affair18 with Doña Ximena, subject of the 1961 Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren? A fine romantic and chivalric story from the Middle Ages, which – unlike the story of Bernardo del Carpio – was based on the life of a flesh and blood human being, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c. 1043 – 10 July 1099), a Castilian nobleman.

Some of the more interesting events in Don Rodrigo’s life were:

  • His love affair with Ximena, complicated by the fact that he killed her father in a duel (to revenge the insult by her father to his father – if you’re still with me).
  • Antagonising King Alfonso by demanding him to swear that he had not murdered his brother Sancho (the Cid’s liege lord), whose throne he inherited:
    Facing El Cid, Alfonso (red cape) swears on the Bible that he’s innocent of his brother’s Sancho death. Painting: Santa Gadea Oath by Marcos Giráldez de Acosta [public domain via Wikipedia]
  • His subsequent exile from Castile and service with the Moors.
  • His conquest of Valencia.
  • His riding out to fight the Moors – when already dead.

Which last point is the subject of the ballad The Cid’s Victory after Death:

Twelve days were gone ; the men of war
Were ready for the fight
To chase King Bucar19 from the land,
With all his men of might.

They saddled Bavieca20,
And there at even-tide
They placed the dead Cid on his back,
As he was wont to ride.

With dress and hose and armlets
Of colours black and white,
He looked as he was wont to be
When harnessed as a Knight.

A shield, with waving proud device,
Did from his neck hang down ;
A helm of painted parchment
Was planted on his crown ;

It looked withal like burnished steel,
Wrought by a cunning hand ;
And with his arm upraised he held
Tizona, his good brand.

At dead of night, when all was still,
The silent march began ;
With stalwart Knights, four hundred strong,
Bermudez led the van ;

He rode in front, with banner spread,
The baggage came behind ;
To guard its precious treasures
Four hundred were assigned ;

Next came the body of the Cid
In midst of all the train ;
Upon his right the Bishop rode,
Gil Diaz held the rein.

A hundred noble Knights were round
To guard the honoured corse ;
Ximena followed with her maids,
And twice three hundred horse.

They seemed to be but twenty,
So silently they passed ;
And when they left the town behind,
The day was breaking fast.


Amazed stood Bucar and his Kings,
To see the Christian throng ;
Arrayed in shining robes, they seemed
Full seventy thousand strong.

But there was one of stately mien,
That towered above the rest ;
His charger white as driven snow,
A red cross on his breast.

A banner white was in his hand,
His falchion gleamed like fire;
And as he rode the Moormen down,
He smote them in his ire.

A panic seized the Pagan ranks,
To fight they had no mind ;
King Bucar fled with all his Kings,
And left the field behind.

With hurry-scurry to their ships
They every man did flee;
The Christians smote them hip and thigh,
And chased them to the sea.

Ten thousand ‘mid the waters sank,
And many more were slain ;
The rest embarked, and hoisted sail,
And left the shores of Spain.

King Bucar found a safe retreat,
There died full twenty Kings ;
The Cid’s men captured all their tents,
Their gold and precious things.

The poorest men grew wealthy then,
The rich were richer still ;
With merry hearts they took the road,
And journeyed to Castile.

Within Cardefia’s cloister,
And in San Pedro’s fane,
They laid the body of the Cid,
Who gave renown to Spain.

The Massacre of the Abencerrages

As seen above, the Spanish heroes Bernardo del Carpio and the Cid both had they differences (to put it mildly) with their respective kings; the same have often occurred in the Moorish kingdoms. The following story of one such an episode is narrated by Washington Irving in his Tales of the Alhambra and is subject of a poem by Dorothea Felicia Hemans (of Casabianca fame).

According to the legend, one of the members of the powerful and noble family of the Abencerrages, in Moorish Granada, fell in love with one of the ladies in the royal family and was caught in the act of trying to climb up to enter her chamber via the window. The king then summoned the entire family of the Abencerrajes to the Alhambra where, as they entered the hall, they were cut down one by one. The hall where this took place bears the name of The Hall of the Abencerrages to this day. The legend forms the background to a fine Spanish ballad, translated by Byron, about the fall of Alhama de Granada, a town about 50 km from Granada. Owing to its strategic position, Alhama was considered the key to taking Granada, the last Moorish kingdom; it was also prized by the Moors for its thermal baths. It fell to the Catholic kings, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1482.

The Moorish king rides up and down
Through Granada’s royal town;
From Elvira’s gates21 to those
Of Bivarambla on he goes.
Woe is me, Alhama!

Letters to the monarch tell
How Alhama’s city fell;
In the fire the scroll he threw,
And the messenger he slew.
Woe is me, Alhama!

He quits his mule, and mounts his horse,
And through the street directs his course;
Through the street of Zacatin
To the Alhambra spurring in.
Woe is me, Alhama!

When the Alhambra walls he gained,
On the moment he ordained
That the trumpet straight should sound,
With the silver clarion round.
Woe is me, Alhama!

Out then spake an aged Moor
In these words the king before,
“Wherefore call on us, O king?
What may mean this gathering?”
Woe is me, Alhama!

“Friends! ye have, alas! to know
Of a most disastrous blow,
That the Christians, stern and bold,
Have obtained Alhama’s hold.”
Woe is me, Alhama!

Out then spake old Alfaqui22,
With his beard so white to see,
“Good king, thou art justly served,
Good king, this thou hast deserved.
Woe is me, Alhama!

“By thee were slain, in evil hour,
The Abencerrage, Granada’s flower;
And strangers were received by thee
Of Cordova the chivalry.
Woe is me, Albama!

“And for this, O king! is sent
On thee a double chastisement,
Thee and thine, thy crown and realm,
One last wreck shall overwhelm.
Woe is me, Alhama!”

(Woe Is Me, Alhama! or A Very Mournful Ballad of the Siege and Conquest of Alhama)

The Flight from Granada

The Surrender of Granada by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz [public domain via Wikipedia]
All good things come to an end and this brief literary history of the reconquista is about to be concluded.

We started it with a lament of the last Visigothic king; it’s fitting to finish it with the lament of the last Moorish king.

Boabdil’s Farewell to Granada by Alfred Dehodencq [public domain via Wikipedia]
The last ruler or Granada was a certain Boabdil (Abu Abdallah Mohammad XII, ruled 1487-1492); by his time the Moorish kingdom consisted of little more than the city of Granada, which he surrendered to Isabella and Ferdinand on 2 January 1492. The event marked the end of the centuries long reconquista.

As Boabdil rode off into exile, legend has it that he reined his horse in on a rocky promontory in the Sierra Nevada and took a last sorrowful look at beautiful Granada below. The place where this is alleged to have taken place is now known as Suspiro del Moro (The Moor’s Sigh) and the event itself is commemorated in the following ballad:

There was crying in Granada when the sun was going down,
Some calling on the Trinity, some calling on Mahoun ;
Here passed away the Koran, there in the Cross was borne,
And here was heard the Christian bell, and there the Moorish

Te Deum Laudamus was up the Alcala sung :
Down from the Alhambra’s minarets were all the crescents flung ;
The arms thereon of Arragon they with Castile’s display ;
One king comes in in triumph, one weeping goes away.

Thus cried the weeper, while his hands his old white beard did tear,
” Farewell, farewell, Granada ! thou city without peer ;
Woe, woe, thou pride of Heathendom, seven hundred years and more
Have gone since first the faithful thy royal sceptre bore.

” Thou wert the happy mother of an high renowned race ;
Within thee dwelt a haughty line that now go from their place ;
Within thee fearless knights did dwell, who fought with mickle glee
The enemies of proud Castile, the bane of Christientie.

“The mother of fair dames wert thou, of truth and beauty rare,
Into whose arms did courteous knights for solace sweet repair ;
For whose dear sakes the gallants of Afric made display
Of might in joust and battle on many a bloody day :

” Here gallants held it little thing for ladies’ sake to die,
Or for the Prophet’s honour, and pride of Soldanry ;
For here did valour flourish, and deeds of warlike might
Ennobled lordly palaces, in which was our delight.

“The gardens of thy Vega, its fields and blooming bowers
Woe, woe ! I see their beauty gone, and scattered all their flowers.
No reverence can he claim the King that such a land hath lost,
On charger never can he ride, nor be heard among the host
But in some dark and dismal place, where none his face may see,
There weeping and lamenting, alone that King should be.”

Thus spake Granada’s King as he was riding to the sea,
About to cross Gibraltar’s Strait away to Barbary :
Thus he in heaviness of soul unto his Queen did cry.
( He had stopped and ta’en her in his arms, for together they did

” Unhappy King ! whose craven soul can brook ” (she ‘gan reply)
” To leave behind Granada, who hast not heart to die
Now for the love I bore thy youth thee gladly could I slay,
For what is life to leave when such a crown is cast away?”

(The Flight from Granada)

The End
¹ Who?... Well, if you read the piece about Covadonga like I told you, you'd know who Pelayo was. Luckily for you, it's never too late to learn. The link is above. :)
² The Visigoths ruled the Iberian peninsula after the fall of the Roman empire.
³ Rather unfairly, Count Julian's daughter got a bad name for herself in history by becoming a rape (?) victim. Her epiteth of La Cava supposedly means 'the whore' in Arabic. Although her father seems to have turned traitor on her account, to blame her for 800 years of Moorish rule still seems a tad unfair.
4  Paladins: the twelve most important knights of Charlemagne's court: the Frankish version of the Knights of the Round Table.
5 Durendal was Roland's sword. In Medieval romances the swords of famous heroes all tended to have names. Remember Excalibur?
6 The 'soil Hispanian'? Good grief! Credit to J.G. Lockhart for appreciating Spanish ballads but we could wish for a better English translation, one where the rhythm and the rhyme do not limp quite so spectacularly in places. But then, reading poetry in translation is always a fatuous exercise. 
7 Any passing Basque separatists, please, please, please, spare me the argument about the difference between the Basques and the Spanish! I already know the argument and this post is long enough without going into that kind of thing...
8 There's nothing strange in this delusion persisting for centuries. In Hungary the completely erroneous belief that the Hungarians were related to the Huns of Attila persisted well into the 19th century. For nearly a thousand years in other words.
9 Siglo de Oro = the Golden Century. The 17th century, the golden era of Spanish literature and art. The age of Cervantes, among others.
10 Theseus and the Minotaur: There are several Ancient Greek myths about the Athenian hero Theseus. The Minotaur was the half bull, half man son of King Minos of Knossos to whom Athens had to pay a yearly tribute of ten maidens and youths. Theseus volunteered to go among them and killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth, then found his way out with the help of Ariadne's thread. I'd love to tell you more about it, including how the Aegean Sea got its name but - not here, not now! 
11 The tribute supposedly started in 783 A.D. as a 'down payment' from King Mauregato of Asturias after Abderrahman I helped him to gain the throne.
12 Battle of Clavijo, 844 A.D. Mythical because this battle, as far as historians can ascertain it, never took place. It's the fictionalised version of the first or the second battle of Albelda (852 and 859 A.D. respectively). St James got his epithet Moorslayer in this battle.
13 Sant Iago = Santiago, St James, the patron saint of Spain.
14 Caba: or Cava. Castilian Spanish pronunciation does not distinguish between b and v. (So that mixing them up is a common spelling error among the less educated - excuse the linguist in me!)
15 Alcayde = a captain of a castle; a warden in a prison
16 Infanta = Princess
17 El Cid: a Castilian corruption of the Arabic phrase Al-Sayyid, meaning 'The Lord'. El Cid is also often known as the Campeador, which can be loosely translated as the Champion, an Outstanding Warrior in the Battlefield. (Er... that'd be a champion, wouldn't it?)
18  Ximena's father insulted Rodrigo's, who was too old and feeble to demand satisfaction. Rodrigo then killed Ximena's father in a duel, which made Ximena to ask the king for his head. Rodrigo offered to marry her instead - in those times this was seen as a reasonable arrangement to ensure she didn't end up begging by the roadside. The marriage however was not consummated as Rodrigo refused to touch Ximena unless she was willing... (Love of course triumphed in the end!)
19 King Bucar: A Moroccan king who tried to recapture Valencia in 1099.
20 Bavieca or Babieca (see 14 above for the spelling variation) was the horse of El Cid. Coming later in the poem is his sword Tizón, or Tizona - which you can now see exhibited in the Museum of Burgos. 
21 Elvira's gates, Bivar(r)ambla, &c. are all place names in Granada. Feel free to consult Google Earth. :)
22 Alfaquí - a Moslem wise man or expert in Islamic law

Links:The Lament of King RoderickLegends & Romance of Spain by Lewis SpenceSpanish Ballads, transl. by J. G. Lockhart
⇒ The Cid Ballads and Other Poems, transl. by James Young Gibson
⇒ The Song of Roland on Project Gutenberg
⇒ The March of Bernardo del CarpioThe Hall of the Abencerrages, Alhambra, GranadaWoe is Me, Alhama

The Seven Princes of Lara

In the process of writing a brief literary history of the reconquista (the reconquering of Spain from the Moors), I found myself debating whether the tragic story of the seven princes of Lara should be included or not. On the one hand, it seemed difficult to leave out such a popular ballad from the era of the reconquista altogether; on the other hand, the brief literary history is already long enough without adding in something that, strictly speaking, is not so much a story of the reconquista but a story of a family feud. Upon reflection I decided that the famous story of the seven princes of Lara deserved a post of its own. To keep you busy while I finish the brief literary history. 🙂

Continue reading “The Seven Princes of Lara”

Asturias Is Spain…

…And The Rest Is Conquered Land

There’s a popular saying in Spain, principally in Asturias, a province on the Bay of Biscay in Northern Spain, which goes:

Asturias es España, y lo demás tierra conquistada.

Asturias is Spain, and the rest is conquered land.

It makes reference to the Battle of Covadonga, 722 A.D. when the troops of Don Pelayo, king of Asturias, defeated the invading Moors. The battle is considered the starting point of the reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moors (a long process of wars which ended with the taking of Granada in 1492). Legend would have it that Pelayo and his 300 defeated an army of 180,000 Moors. Historically speaking, it’s more likely that the Moors were not quite so numerous, nor Pelayo’s lot so few but – why spoil the legend? It’s still a famous victory for those defending their homeland.

Don Pelayo in Covadonga by Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz, 1855. Courtesy of the Museum of Prado

As a consequence of Don Pelayo’s victory, Asturias has never been conquered by the Moors which explains the above saying.

Continue reading “Asturias Is Spain…”

Intruder in the Alhambra

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

The pink walls of the Alcazaba are tinged with a different shade each hour, the disciplined gardens around me, the eroded brick of the fortifications which seem to bleed in places, the gates and patios I saw that day, the excruciating intricacy and refinement of the decorations in corridors and pavilions and then suddenly, in the midst of it all, rises Charles V’s Renaissance palace like an intruder clinging to the remains of that vanished Orient, a proclamation of power and conquest.

A severe statement, a massive square enclosing a magnificent circle, a courtyard the size of a town square, one of the most lovely open spaces I know, as if even air could express the advent of a new era and a new might. Columns are curiously akin to trees, the multicoloured chunks of rock that nature once pressed into these marble thunks to make a superior kind of brawn, bear witness to a new military caste deploying its forces worldwide to destroy empires and amass the gold with which armies are fed, palaces built, and inflation generated. Skulls of oxen, stone tablets commemorating battles, iron rings decorated with eagles’ heads that once served to tie up horses, winged women of great beauty reclining dreamily on the pediments, their broken wings half spread, there is no more tangible evidence of the confrontation that took place here than those two intertwined palaces: the one extroverted, out to seduce, the other haughty, self-absorved; over and above the hedonistic bloom of the sultans the imperial edifice points to the might of the other, earlier caesars who ruled Europe long before the armies of Islam came and went.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Palace of Charles V in Granada
Palace of Charles V / Palacio de Carlos V, Granada
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Land of Giants

Leer esto en castellano

Or The Windmills of Don Quixote


The Lonely Planet guide about the La Mancha town of Campo de Criptana reads:

One of the most popular stops on the Don Quijote route, Campo de Criptana is crowned by 10 windmills visible from kilometres around. Revered contemporary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar¹ was born here, but left for Madrid in his teens. The town is pleasant, if unexceptional.

Actually, unexceptional doesn’t even begin to describe the town if you arrive by train (Campo de Criptana is on the mainline from Madrid to Albacete, the capital of Castile-La Mancha). Downright ugly might be a better description: as in many Spanish towns, the railway station is on the outskirts, in this case surrounded by industrial buildings of little appeal. Luckily, Campo de Criptana is a small place and fifteen minutes walk will bring you to the centre of town.

Which is unexceptional.

Statue of Cervantes, Campo de Criptana

But you don’t really want the centre of town. You’re a reader, a reader of Don Quixote at that, and what you want is the famous windmills, the giants that Don Quixote fought. Head uphill from the unexceptional Plaza Mayor with its obligatory Cervantes statue, through the Albaícin – the old Moorish quarter -, through the narrow cobblestoned alleys, between whitewashed houses edged in indigo blue… it sounds better already, doesn’t it? There. As you turn the corner, you spot your first windmill. And there are other nine to come.

Continue reading “Land of Giants”

Purple Evenings, Juicy As Grapes

Quote of the Week:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

There were purple evenings, juicy as grapes, the thin moon cutting a cloud like a knife; and dawns of quick sudden thunder when I’d wake in the dark to splashes of rain pouring from cracks of lightning, then walk on to a village to sit cold and alone, waiting for it to wake and sell me some bread, watching the grey light shifting, a man opening a table, the first girls coming to the square for water.

(Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)


The Ghost’s Rent (La renta del fantasma)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

They even took me one night to a tenement near the cathedral and pointed out a howling man on the rooftop, who was pretending to be a ghost in order to terrorize the landlord and thereby reduce the rents.

(Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)

Incluso me llevaron una noche a un bloque de pisos cerca de la catedral y señalaron a un hombre aullando en la azotea, que pretendía ser un fantasma para aterrorizar al propietario y así reducir las rentas.

(Laurie Lee: Cuando partí una mañana de verano)

April Fool?

Did a man really howl from the rooftops in Cádiz in order to reduce his rent? Or did I just make it up?

The best way to find out is by reading the book. 🙂


¿Estaba, de verdad, un hombre aullando en la azotea en Cádiz, para reducir su renta? ¿O lo he inventado yo?

La mejor manera de averiguarlo es leer el libro. 🙂

The Oddest Motive for Walking the Camino de Santiago

There is an old route of pilgrimage, or rather I should say several routes, leading to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. It is known as the Camino de Santiago, St James’s Way, and it is actually a whole network of routes starting in various parts of Spain; the most popular and famous remains the camino francés, the French Way, which starts in France and climbs over the Pyrenees before traverses Northern Spain. The Camino continues to be a very popular walking route and not just for religious pilgrims.

If you complete the walk, at the end you can obtain a certificate, as you can read in today’s quote below by Dutch author, Cees Nooteboom.

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Everyone who had completed the journey on foot or on a bicycle, could, if they wished, obtain a rubber-stamped document from him and have their names registered in the great book. “Many times people burst into tears right here,” he had told me, pointing in front of his desk. He had shown me the ledger, too, a sort of account book, written in longhand.

He had turned the pages until he spotted a Dutchman, a chemistry teacher, “not a believer”, motive: “thinking”.

He had appreciated that, he said, people came up with the oddest motives, but “thinking” was seldom among them.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

El arco romano de Medinaceli (The Roman Arch of Medinaceli)


The Roman arch of Medinaceli, Spain. Photo by By Diego Delso via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0].

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

¡Medinaceli! El arco romano, imperial, mirando con ojos que son pura luz al paisaje planetario de aquellas tierras tan tristes…

(Miguel de Unamuno: Por las tierras del Cid)

Medinaceli! The Roman arch, imperial, looking with eyes of pure light at the planetary landscape of those sad lands…

(Miguel de Unamuno: Through the lands of Cid)


Guided Tour

Quote of the Week:

The guide is a layman, he has a dusty grey complexion and talks down to us from his privilege of sharing in the sanctity of the site, a scholar, for the stream of dates and names gushes forth at great speed. He has a record to break, it seems, so I get no more than a glimpse of all there is to see, a mere smattering of the Arab cloister with harmonious pavilion in two styles, Gothic and Moorish, or as my Spanish guidebook says, “el gótico del elevada espiritualidad con el árabe sensorial y humano”. I can believe it: elevated, spiritual, humane, sensual, for before me I see high aspiration and beauty combined, and I hear the self-absorbed trickle of the fountain, but I am not permitted to linger here because the guide has already herded the others into the museum, and is waiting for me like a sheepdog.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

A Short Pictorial History of Ribadesella

“Of where?” I hear you all saying.


Ribadesella, Asturias, Spain

Spain’s Best Kept Secret

Ribadesella is a small town in a spectacular setting at the mouth of the River Sella right under the Picos de Europa. Cliffs protect its wide sandy bay. You can surf, swim, go kayaking on the river or hiking in the mountains. Plus there’s a cave with 30 thousand year old cave paintings, practically in town.

Well may you wonder why you’ve never heard of it.

Perhaps because Ribadesella is the place where the Spanish go on holiday. You hardly hear a foreign word in the street. This is a different Spain from the Spain of package holidays.

Enjoy this short pictorial history of the town – brought to you by the Municipality of Ribadesella (and Waterblogged).

Continue reading “A Short Pictorial History of Ribadesella”

Covadonga (All That Has Moved Is History)

Quote of the Week:

It is not time that stood still here, although one would like to think so, it is the mountains. All that has moved is history, and all that has breathed are the seasons. Hot summers, harsh winters and the activity of man in between. Always the same: hunters, shepherds, farmers, descendants of Cantabrians and Goths. Never subjugated by Moors…

It is from here that the reconquest of Spain began. Reconquest is the proper word, but the prefix “re” encapsulates a long work of nearly eight centuries culminating in the victory of the Catholic Kings at Granada, and which began when the first Asturian king, Pelayo, defeated the Moorish troops at Covadonga in 718.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)


The bull-ring in Mérida, Spain

Today’s quote of the week is once again longer than usual: an excerpt from a book by the English travel writer, Laurie Lee – most famous for his autobiographical trilogy: A Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. The first deals with his childhood, the second with him traipsing around the Spanish countryside in 1935 and the third with his experiences in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

The quote below is from A Rose for Winter, a book that recounts his visit to Spain about fifteen years after the end of the Civil War.

Continue reading “Bull-Fight”

The Dutch & the Spanish (Los holandeses y los españoles)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

There exist certain similarities between the Spanish and the Dutch character.

The landscape of La Mancha dotted with windmills is no more rigorously divided into heaven and earth than the Dutch polder. It is an extreme division, unmitigated by temptations, valleys, romantic corners. Most of the meseta is as hard for a man to hide in as the flatlands of the Netherlands. A man is always visible between heaven and earth, silhouetted against the sky, and sometimes I think this has something to do with the extremism that characterises both Holland’s Calvinism and Spain’s Catholicism.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Existen ciertas similitudes entre el carácter español y el holandés.

El paisaje de La Mancha salpicado de molinos de viento no está más rigurosamente dividido en cielo y tierra que el pólder holandés. Es una división extrema, no mitigada por las tentaciones, los valles, los rincones románticos. En la mayoría de la meseta es tan difícil para un hombre ocultarse como en las llanuras de los Países Bajos. Un hombre siempre es visible entre el cielo y la tierra, recortada contra el cielo, y a veces creo que este tiene algo que ver con el extremismo que caracteriza tanto al calvinismo de Holanda como al catolicismo de España.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

The Paradox of Travel

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Quote of the Week:

Perhaps that is the travellers deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a felling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever.

But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being.

The real traveller finds sustenance in equivocation, he is torn between embracing and letting go, and the wrench of disengagement is the essence of his existence, he belongs nowhere. The anywhere he finds himself is always lacking in some particular, he is the eternal pilgrim of absence, of loss, and like the real pilgrims in this city he is looking for something beyond the grave of an apostle or the coast of Finisterre, something that beckons and remains invisible, the impossible.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)