Spain: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Local Peculiarities

Within certain limits it is possible to generalize about Spain and the Spaniards, but broad statements by themselves would give you a far too rough idea of the country and its inhabitants. For here is a land parcelled out among several peoples of different races, with different manners, different customs, different styles of dress, and various other distinctive characteristics. So let us go a-wandering round and about the kingdom, for only in this way can we get into touch with local peculiarities.

In the north-west are the Basque Provinces, the home of a people who are said to be descended from the earliest inhabitants of Spain. The Basques are very proud of being the oldest race in the country; indeed, they all claim to be noblemen, and even the poor occupants of a dilapidated cottage are wont to have armorials sculptured over their humble abode. They are very proud and independent, but most hospitable, and renowned for being thoroughly truthful and honest. They have many quaint old customs, special dances and amusements, a distinct fashion in dress, and a language of their own, which is said to have been spoken at one time throughout Spain. Among their curious customs is the practice of offering bread and corn to deceased relatives and friends on the anniversary of death. Their most famous dances are the "Zorcico," the "Carrica," and the "Espata," performances of which are given on the occasion of Basque holidays; the weird movements are executed to the accompaniment of primitive varieties of the bagpipe, tambourine, and fife, interspersed with wild cries of delight. Basque women are fair-complexioned, very handsome in the days of their youth, and their crowning glory is their hair, which is worn in long plaited tresses hanging down the back; their head-gear, however, a black or brown cloth hood, tends to detract from their charms. The men's dress is extremely picturesque: it consists of a dark green or brown velvet suit, the jacket short, the trousers long and loose, a bright blue or red sash, either sandals or wooden shoes, and a mushroom-shaped cap.

Nature has made a very pretty picture of the Basque district; it was designed in one of her gentle moods, and has an atmosphere which is restful rather than stimulating. The landscape is thickly covered with clusters of hills, richly garbed with oaks, chestnuts, and pines. Embosomed in the hills are beautiful green valleys, with verdant meadow-lands and fertile fields of maize, and many clear little trout—streams bring the great gift of water to the land. Amidst such well-ordered surroundings whitewashed cottages and strongly-built houses are grouped into neat villages, which have straight roads, intersecting each other at right angles, good bridges, a tidy public square, a school, a church, and almost invariably a fives-court, for the pursuit of the people's favourite game, known as "Pelota."

East of the Basque Provinces lies Navarre, also a country of many hills and few plains. The people who inhabit the highland regions are very much like their Basque neighbours, and they speak the Basque language. Those who live on the plains resemble their neighbours on the other side of the province, the Aragonese, at whom we will now take a peep.

The old kingdom of Aragon embraces three provinces of modern Spain—namely, Huesca, Zaragoza, and Teruel. Here we can get into touch with untamed Nature, for in the north of the district are the Spanish Pyrenees, with their magnificent heights and wildly grand passes. Aragon as a whole, however, is an agricultural country of great fertility.

The Aragonese are noted for their love of liberty. Temperamentally they have qualities which are generally regarded as Northern rather than Southern attributes; for instance, they are vigorous and active, cold and serious, thus being strikingly different from the average Spaniard, who is of a highly emotional nature, gay of heart, and a devoted disciple of Maiiana (to-morrow)—that is to say, his guiding principle in life is "Never do to-day what you can possibly put off till to-morrow."

Aragonese men wear a costume which is distinct from the dress favoured in any other part of Spain. They have knee-breeches, generally of cotton velvet, generously decorated about the pockets and knees with filigree buttons and silver coins; blue woollen stockings, and sandals; a short black velvet waistcoat, also ornamented with filigree buttons, over which no coat is worn; and a broad bright red or blue sash, in which they carry numerous small possessions. The head-gear is sometimes a slouched hat, but more frequently a coloured kerchief is fastened like a band round the forehead, leaving the upper part of the head bare.

Going eastward from Aragon, we wander into Catalonia, which consists of the modern seaboard provinces of Gerona, Barcelona, and Tarragona, together with the inland province of Lerida. The Catalans are the merchants and business men of Spain, the most industrious, enterprising, and ambitious part of the whole population. This active commercial district is often called "Spanish Lancashire," and its hub, the city of Barcelona, is known as the "Manchester of Spain."

Barcelona is, I expect, connected in your mind with the red flag of revolution; you think of it as the home of anarchy, the place where a bombshell may burst at any moment. In paying your first visit to the city you are surprised to find yourself in a thoroughly commercial atmosphere. Important-looking shops, palatial offices, big banks and financial houses meet your eye on every side; business men of all types hurry past you in the streets; in the port you see the mercantile flag of almost every nation. You are all at sea, and maybe a trifle disappointed; you cannot explain to yourself exactly what you expected to find in Barcelona, but in your dreams there were indications of plots being hatched, the streets were alive with processions and meetings, or deserted, save for two or three desperadoes stealing round a corner under cover of night to some secret assembly of revolutionary confederates. The terrors of Barcelona have been much exaggerated, you tell yourself, and just at that very moment you notice a couple of policemen. You must have passed several of their fellows, but you were too busy with other sights to see them. Now that you get your first impression of a Barcelona policeman, you marvel at his appearance. He is armed to the teeth, and looks like a soldier ready for the battlefield. Truly there must be more of revolution than meets the eye in this peaceful-looking, busy trading city, or why should the guardians of the law be equipped in this bloodthirsty way?

Thus I argued to myself on my first day in Barcelona, but I spent a most delightful time there, and in spite of the armed policemen—or, perhaps, because I became so accustomed to the sight of them—I left feeling very sceptical about the city's reputation as a hotbed of anarchy. A few days later a bomb was exploded in the street I had so often frequented, opposite the very hotel where I had stayed, and several people were killed.