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A Walk Back Through Time in Spain

A Story from My Childhood in Spain

The Port of Laredo, Cantabria Drawn by the Author  

My friend Melisa was a wealth of knowledge. Everything we passed had a history to tell, most of the stories were probably even true! I was back visiting the town where I lived until I was two. Everything felt familiar; dusty memories from long ago still lurked inside. 

I always loved taking walks with Melisa when I visited. We walked through the town, she pointed to me the cave entrance in the side of a cliff that had bars on it. “Those are used to make wine, but during the civil war, people used it as a bomb shelter” this was after all, not too far away from the town of Guernica which was made famous by Picasso’s painting of the devastation caused by Nazi bombings of the town at the request of the Spanish nationalists.

We continued to walk past a house that was old and grand enough to have a name. “That is La Casa Gil de la Redonda y Valesco” it was built in the 1600s, and had two coat of arms above the entrance. “It has a secret tunnel with an entrance in the court yard!” I must have looked skeptical because she quickly added, “My dad once saw it when he was working on the house!” I still wonder if it was nothing but a legend.  

I had been given a hand-me-down digital camera to record my memories, so I took a photo of the beautiful old house with thick stone walls, aged tile roof and possible secret tunnel. 

“The tunnel is rumored to connect with the castle and also to the old stone church beyond it. It was used to escape enemy raids. The idea was, if they could hide inside the church, which was a holy place, they would be safe.” 

We crossed a green field with a couple fig trees (that I happily helped myself to) towards a small castle that was being swallowed up by ivy. It had two square towers with a walled courtyard in between. One had a pointed red tile roof that had seen better days, nature had taken over the other tower and it had a roof of tree branches. 

Melisa showed me the secret of how to get into the abandoned castle. 

We climbed up through broken floor boards from the ground floor stable into the still (somewhat) intact tower. Someone must have lived there in more recent times, because there was a sea foam green stove that looked like it was maybe from the 30-40s and a dented metal pot that had been abandoned on the floor beside it. There was garbage everywhere, including discarded syringes that we were too young and innocent to know the danger of. 

We passed the debris and climbed the old stone steps into the top of the tower.

“Keep to the edge of the room, the wooden floor is probably from the 1500s and rotted,” she said. “We could fall all the way down to the stable!” 

I gingerly took her advice. 

A pigeon startled me as it suddenly flew out a hole in the ceiling.

Melisa told me of how 17-year-old Juana of Castile and Aragon, future Ill-fortuned queen of Spain had stayed in this very castle. At that time this tiny little coastal village had been a bustling sea port that connected Spain to the rest of Europe. Juana of Castile and Aragon, more commonly known as Juana la Loca, stayed there on her way to fulfill her political arranged marriage with Philip the Handsome, archduke of Hapsburg who was a kind of a jerk and unfaithful to poor Juana.

Her sister Catherine of Aragon likely stayed in this castle as well on her way to England to marry Henry VIII (yes, that guy). 

We then went on with our walk. She pointed to a blue road sign with a yellow shell, “That is a sign to show the peregrinos the way to Santiago de Compostela.”

There was a donkey munching on some green grass, with a wooden cart of hay nearby. I had a feeling this same scene would have been common way back in Juana’s time.

The road we were taking was going up hill. The houses here were built up against each other to save on space and building materials. They were all made of stone, some of them painted bright colors, others bare rock, all with red tile roofs. Most of the houses had flower boxes in front of the windows. A white cat was watching an elderly woman wearing the traditional black dress of a widow, sweeping her front step. 

“Buenos días, Doña Luisa.” 

“Buenos días.” 

We past an ancient stone fountain with a cross above it.

“This is the best water in Spain!” 

I had heard that very same sentiment from other people in other towns about other fountains, but didn’t I tell her that. 

As we walked on, the houses got sparser, and the hill got steeper. We walked by a Lavadero, which is a basin with a roof where a part of a natural stream is diverted to continuously flow though, that allows people to wash their clothes. Although most people now had washing machines in their houses, there were still rugs hanging on a line, showing that this Lavadero was still being used.

We walked on. The road got steeper. “Our neighbor Maria lives here” Melisa pointed to a house that shared a wall with a very small barn with four brown cows. “My mom sometimes gets eggs from her.”

Happy chickens clucked around us, pecking at kernels of corn sprinkled on the road. Across from the house was a goat grazing in a small slanted field.

Our road was narrowing as we walked. Soon  the pavement turned to stones, then the stones turned into a dirt path, which turned into a pasture. All the houses were left behind us, Maria’s had been the last one. 

We walked through the fields until we got very near the top of the little mountain.  There was a small grove of blooming gnarled apple trees and a small stone shack where a shepherd once lived, but now had a caved in roof. Outside was a rusty claw foot tub that was being used as a trough for sheep. 

     The view around made the climb worth it. I could see the castle, and the town of Colindres and the port of Laredo below. I could see the town of Limpias further away, and many other little towns Melisa told me all about, but I was in awe of the view and didn’t hear a word. The endless bay of Biscay faded into the horizon and the misty Picos de Europa (Spanish Alps) towered in the distance. On a neighboring hill there were tiny white specks that were moving around. Suprisingly, I realized that they must be a flock of sheep. The smell of fresh green grass, apple blossoms and eucalyptus trees filled the air. 

It was so peaceful, almost sacred. 

I was filled with wonder. In that moment I knew, that this must be the most beautiful place in the world. I quickly wiped away a tear, hoping my friend wouldn’t notice. I didn’t think I wanted to, or could explain why I had tears in my eyes. I never wanted to leave that moment and place.

On the way down the mountain I was quiet and contemplative. 

That digital camera I had been taking pictures with—before I could look even look at any of the pictures, was accidentally wiped clean.

 All the photos were lost.   

But now I think, a camera couldn’t have captured the story or beauty. Perhaps it was too precious a moment to be contained in a photo.

Maybe life is better experienced in person than through a screen. 

Painting of a Cantabria Landscape by My Mother

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A Walk Back Through Time in Spain
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