Spanish Cities

An American novelist with an enormous following here and abroad, FRANCES PARKINSON KEYEScarries on her writing despite physical trials and tribulations which would have stopped a frailer person. Some of this she disclosed to Atlantic readers in her often quoted article, “The Cost of a Best-Seller,” and note in the poetic essay which follows she tells of the refreshment, spiritual and physical, which has come to her on her repeated visits to Spain, a country and a people that are dear to her.


SEVILLE is the scent of orange blossoms along the streets and wafted through the windows; it is trellises and arbors wreathed in roses; it is most of all the favorite — carnations: in bright bouquets sent to a welcome traveler, in mourning sheaves to decorate the tombs; snow white or shell pink on the Virgin’s pasos, deep crimson banked around the crucifixes or nestling close between the glossy tresses and high combs of the señoritas (dressed all in black, fingering their rosaries, veiled, but with gossamer lightness, by mantillas meant, to enhance, not to hide, their charms) who, arm in arm with brother or with novio, walk up and down and round and round the city, from Holy Thursday morning through Good Friday, not merrymaking, but not grieving either.

Seville is an old-fashioned victoria hitched to a drooping horse, whose feet go clop-clopping over the pavements day and night and whose unshaven driver is cheerful and chatty. It is a smart turnout with two men on the box and a crest on the door; it is a carryall drawn by six tasseled mules. Seville is a sunset seen across the Guadalquivir, and moonlight above the Alcázar. It is blue tiles and slitlike streets — one that winds like a serpent; it is parks that resound to the laughter of children and shelter countless lovers in their lanes. It is monumental archives and flowerpots strung along the steep sides of a house; it is white walls and carven doorways, and patios so freely shown through iron grillwork that it is hard to recognize seclusion as their outstanding attribute. And yet, if you should try to penetrate them, you would find out that they are subtly secret, even while thus unhidden. The Sevillano is courteous, but he is unlike the Madrileño, who, saying “This is your house,”means it.

Seville is a feria which started long, long ago just as a cattle fair, and came to be the city’s chief fiesta, bustling and crowded and hilarious, noisy with cries of vendors and with shouts of children, gay with festoons of light and blinking signs. Broad avenues are lined with striped pavilions, tentlike in form and fabric, because people have not forgotten all about the cattle fair. But otherwise these festival pavilions — wide open to the avenues they line, lace-curtained, flowerwreathed, illuminated, crowded with dancers, ringing with music, and called casetas now — bear no resemblance to the small striped tents of long ago. The girls who dance are clad in ruffled dresses — flamenco costumes, quaint and multicolored — and girls not dancing in the bright caseias are strolling in the crowded street or sitting, their ruffled skirts spread fanlike all around them, atop the folded covers of victorias or on the benches of the carryalls. Tireless, night and day these Sevillanas chatter and laugh and click their castanets whether they dance or not. Others ride pillion behind their sleek and slender cavaliers. Still others, instead of ruffled dresses, wear riding habits, cut with such perfection that they seem molded to the graceful forms of the incomparable equestriennes who ride alone, nor need a cavalier to make their beauty seem desirable.

Seville is the sound of the saetas — sad songs that echo through Semana Santa — the gleam of candles and the flash of jewels that light the image of the Macarena. Blazing with countless gems, she leaves her church, her paso borne aloft by fifty men — dock hands who trudge beneath the panoply of her magnificence, bearing their load with patient pride. Meanwhile, before her go the censer bearers, acolytes, and priests, the masked confradíos in their peaked hoods, fathers and sons, down to the smallest child whose heritage is this fraternity. And when the heavy doors that guard her shrine are opened, and the waiting multitude sees her emerge, serene and glorious, a cry goes up that reaches to high heaven and there are some who weep and some who pray, and all are certain that the Macarena hears cries and prayers alike, and that the tears which have been shed for her will soon be dried. She is the people’s Mother, too, as well as Christ’s, their darling and their refuge and their queen.

There is an ancient saying which tells you, “Seville will drive you away or swallow you up.” Perhaps. But if you are so driven, I believe you will come back begging more tender treatment, and, if deserved, that you may have it. While, if swallowed, I believe you will rejoice in such engulfment. For there’s another saying, too — about a window that lets you look toward heaven from Seville, and later on a second, which lets you look from heaven toward Seville. I have had my glimpse of heaven from Seville, so now I hope that amid the “many mansions” which we are promised I may find a window where I can look down on the bright carnations, the azure-colored tiles and secret patios, the slitlike streets and sunny open parks. I hope that mingled with the heavenly music I still shall hear the Sevillanos singing, and most of all I hope the Macarena will not live far from my celestial mansion.


Salamanca is a city of many glories, tawny of color, intricate of carving, lavishly offered to the errant stranger. One of these is her plaza, certainly the largest and just as surely the most beautiful in Spain. Another is the grooved and fluted wonder known as the House of Shells. And still another the twin cathedrals, linked so close together that they seem indivisible, though one is called the old and one the new. Wide-set they stand within this spacious city, their glory unobscured by crowding roofs.

Here is that seat of learning which was already old before the Pilgrims and Puritans of sober Massachusetts bethought them of a university so that their ministry might be literate. Fray Luis de Léon presides here still; his statue dominates a noble square, and in the classroom where he taught, the same rude benches stand row on row beneath a carven lectern which never will seem empty, for his spirit pervades the atmosphere and always will. (Do you remember — it is not a legend — that the familiars of the Inquisition came here one day when he was lecturing and took him off to prison? Ten years later, the students sitting on those roughhewn benches were suddenly aware he was among them. Again they felt the power of his presence, though he returned to them unheralded. With noiseless tread and unperturbed expression, once more he mounted to his carven lectern and, in a gentle voice, said quietly, “Well, gentlemen, as I was saying yesterday. . . .”)

I love to linger in that ancient classroom, and long I felt considerable self-pity, because the nearby library, rich in treasure, was closed when I was in the splendid city, and I could neither browse nor study there. Another stranger, thwarted like myself, turned to me in the cloister and remarked, “I wanted most of all to see that book written in blood.”

“Written in blood?” I asked.

“Yes — when he had no ink, the priestly author drew what he needed from his own pricked veins.”

Over and over since then, I have cross-examined Spanish scholars, asking about this book. Some say there is none like it in existence, others that it was only signed in blood; some that they would seek for information when it was possible to do so — and, forgetting, have promised and forgotten once again; but none has said that someday I might see it. Well, I have grieved and grieved because this marvel was hidden from my eyes and from my ken. But I have ceased to grieve. What does it matter that this one book is hidden from my sight when I, a writer, know past all misgiving that everv book which counts was writ in blood?


Madrid is luncheon in the Ritz garden on a sunny day and luncheon at Horscher’s Restaurant on a rainy day, and luncheon with pleasant friends in their pleasant apartments on any kind of day. Then, when you sit at table, first will appear that wonderful gazpacho, that “liquid salad” served to you as soup. Tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, green peppers, vinegar and olive oil, garlic, paprika, kümmel seeds, and bread crumbs — all these have first been pounded to a pulp and then passed through a sieve to form a purée before the chilling process which completes the preparation of this pleasing soup. And, when you feel agreeably refreshed, an iron skillet — hissing with such heat that you are puzzled how it ever could have reached your plate so quickly, since it left the fire — is set before you, piled with saffron rice and beautified with scarlet pimiento. Embedded in the rice are shrimp and clams, morsels of chicken, scraps of beef and pork, green peas, fresh parsley, hearts of artichokes, well oiled, well seasoned, skillfully combined to form a perfect blend in the paella. It is eating too much, on such occasions, but rising from table with a wonderful sense of well-being and good fellowship and the conviction that it does not matter whether you do anything else that day or not.

Madrid is late Mass at San Geronimo’s and an hour at the Prado before going on to one of those soothing and satisfying luncheons. It is choosing beforehand in whose company you will spend that hour: Velásquez and his royalty and warriors? Goya and his immortal duchess? El Greco and his ascetic saints? Murillo and his mystic madonnas? Nowhere in the world will you have greater variety of choice in the matter of goodly company.

Madrid is the Gran’ Via crowded with traffic at dusk, strident with sound and suddenly blooming with lights. It is a narrow street of the quiet old city thronged with a procession honoring San Isidro, the good laborer who is the city’s patron, and whom the city honors on his feast day with a parade in which laborers young and old take part, and a pontifical Mass at the cathedral, which all the great of Madrid honor with their presence, knowing that Isidro was greater than any one of them.

Madrid is the beautiful dresses shown by great couturiers in their salons— dresses which set the fashion for day after tomorrow — and the medieval costumes worn by the guards at El Retiro -costumes which have never changed since the Middle. Ages, when El Retiro was a private pleasure ground and not a great park where prince and peasant alike could spend their hours of ease and of freedom; solace their ailments in its beneficent sunshine; seek the seclusion of its shadowy allées; breathe in the scent of its multitudinous flowers; watch the swift rise and fall of its glittering fountains; ponder the script on the base of the towering statues — statues which tell the story of Spain through its heroes; pause by the pools which reflect these embellishments and, through reflection, double their loveliness; feel kinship alike with the nursemaids, the children, the students, the lovers, the happy, carefree people who throng El Retiro — kinship, too, with the crippled, the aged, the homeless, the people who have so little cause to be happy and yet, somehow, find happiness here.

Madrid is the portico of the Church of San Francisco on the Sunday when the animals are brought there to be blessed: the Sunday when hucksters bring their donkeys, draymen their horses, small boys their dogs and little girls their kittens, and old ladies the cages containing their lovebirds, whose twittering is the only love song they hear nowadays. The good priest comes out of the church with his holy water and sprinkles it over them all as he blesses them all and smiles at them all. Afterward the hucksters and draymen adjust the ornaments on their donkeys and horses and pace off proudly; the boys run away merrily, whistling to their dogs; the little girls cuddle their kittens against their shoulders and whisper to each other as they leave; but the old ladies linger a little. Some of them are blind. They must wait to be led.

Madrid is the focal point for all sorts of excursions. You can go to Toledo or Segovia or even Avila and come back the same day if you are in a hurry, but it is a great mistake to spend your time in Spain hurrying. It is better to go to the Royal Golf Club, where you watch polo instead of playing golf, and sit on the terrace gazing out at the mountains, until the shadows have engulfed all their lovely verdure; or to Alcalá de Henares, the city of Cervantes, to eat a leisurely supper at La Hosteria del Estudiante, in a raftered room where your drink is drawn from great wineskins and the pottery is inscribed with ancient mottoes, and Sancho Panza seems to be serving at table, and Cervantes there with you telling his tall tales, and the erstwhile students your fellow listeners. And again, you have the feeling of great good fellowship.


Segovia is a mighty aqueduct, towering threetiered above a quiet city as strong, as stately, as indomitable, as when the Romans built it to convey the water that they needed from the fields into their houses and their bathing pools.

Segovia is a tiny restaurant tucked in among the arches of those tiers, reached by steep stairs, lowstudded, heavy-beamed, with little tables set so close together that every guest is neighbor to the next. Great loaves of bread and earthen jugs of wine are amicably passed from hand to hand, and gossip flows with equal unrestraint. Then suddenly there comes a hush because a buxom waitress, bearing a great platter, edges her way amongst the crowded tables and proudly starts to carve a suckling pig.

Segovia is an antiquario’s shop tucked, hole-in-wall, upon a winding hill where scurrying cars sweep by with heedless haste, so only wayfarers discover it. Amongst the worthless piles of dusty trash, of battered furniture and broken metal, motheaten fabrics and worm-eaten books, are tarnished treasures lovely to behold and precious to possess. “You like this fan? Well, I am very pleased. That crucifix? Yes, that would be a gem in anyone’s collection. La Granja glass? Alas! Señora, I have none of that. But I will search and when you come next year I shall have some to show you.”Apparently it never crossed his mind that with the coming of another summer the customer would not come, too; for wreathed in smiles he greeted her, the day of her return, and proudly pointed to some lovely goblets, set safe and high upon a narrow shelf. “You see, Señora, I did not forget,” and she was very glad that she had not forgotten, either.

Segovia is the ornate sepulchre of that most lowly and most fervent saint who sang because he suffered, and whose mysticism was tinged with kindly singleheartedness: John of the Cross, whose life was bare and sad, whose bride was poverty, whose bed was stone, and who was used so cruelly on earth one marvels that he could have kept his belief of heaven. I do not know why, afterward, men chose to place his quiet body in a tomb so rich and gilded and elaborate that it seems out of keeping with his life. But after all, it does not matter much. His monument is not in marble anyway, but in the songs he sang because he suffered.

Segovia is that wondrous alcázar, breath-taking whenever and however seen, but seen best from below, at eventide, when sunset glows behind it, or when stars begin to thicken in a darkening sky and a triumphant moon swings into sight. Then it stands out set in the glory of God’s handiwork as a great tribute to the work of man. So have I seen it often. But the time that I remember best is when I stood on the small bridge that spans the little stream, curving around the hill the fortress crowns. Beggars came crowding in upon the friends who stood there with me and upon me, too. We bade them all begone; they spoiled the scene where there was nought but beauty otherwise, telling ourselves that we were right to do so, because you should not give to beggars anyway. But one, an aged man clad in soiled rags, leaning upon a cane, besought me, saying, “Lady, I am poor and I am sick and I am old.” I wish I had not turned this man away — that I had spoken to him softly, given him alms, whether it is best to give to beggars or not. For I know that as I myself grow poorer and feebler and older, this man will haunt me and I shall deserve it.


Avila is a city of matchless walls and many names. It has been called the City of Knights — and why not? Knights without number have gone forth from there, to conquer continents and spread the Faith. It has been called the City of Kings — and why not ? Avila gave a viceroy to Peru; it was from Avila that Henry VIII, surrounded by the knights of Avila, went forth to war against the Mussulmen. It was in Avila Alfonso XI found refuge from his furious enemies; it was to Avila the Empress Isabella brought Philip, her small son, for princely ceremonies; later, the Emperor Charles came, too. And on and on the roster of these regal names continues.

It has been called the Land of Stones and Saints — and why not? Within its gates are only narrow streets, winding their hard-paved way between the walls of convents and of churches, carved and cold. Its battlements and its cathedrals tower above a bleak and rock-strewn countryside, where little verdure thrives and few flocks feed. Yet this forbidding city, these barren fields, brought forth such miracles of sanctity that all the world has bowed in awesome wonder. The great Teresa leads the godly group, but all are worthy of their mighty leader.

It has been called the city nearest heaven —and why not? Its builders chose for it a high plateau far, far above the plains of old Castile, and from these heights its turrets rise farther still against the blue of the Castilian sky. But it is not alone this lofty stature that brings it close to heaven. A nun of Avila has told me that Our Lord has shown Himself to mortal beings here on more occasions than are recorded elsewhere in this world, and by His presence drew it to Himself. I do not doubt her word. The great Teresa, in writing of His frequent revelations, has told us that at first she only saw His holy hands, and then His countenance, and then at last His whole and glorious being; and thus, by slow degrees, she came to know Him.

I believe the same is true of Avila. We see it as the City of the Knights; the City of the Kings; the barren land that brought forth stones but also brought forth saints; and then at last we see it close to heaven, transfigured by the presence of Our Lord.

A far greater writer than I has said that the most wonderful building in Spain is a tomb and the most wonderful painting a burial scene. I do not think so. It was a foreign writer who said that, and I like much bettor what a Spanish writer has said: “There is one thing more sacred than a tomb: a cradle. There is one greater than the past: the future.” There are many cradles in Spain, and its future stretches out to a glowing horizon.