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A blog the history of Spain for ex-pats and others.

A soldiers duty: to defend his country.
17 September 2021

On the 2 May 1808 the people of Madrid learned that the 26 year-old Infanta, Maria Luisa, daughter of King Charles IV, was to be taken to Bayonne to join the rest of the Spanish Royal Family. They began to gather around the Royal Palace to prevent her from leaving, but the Spanish palace guard, who would normally escort royalty, had been ordered to remain in their barracks and cooperate with the French by the local Spanish junta. The French were deeply unpopular, and there had been several incidents in the city which had, so far, amounted to no more than brawls and insults. In anticipation of trouble, Marshal Murat had deployed his troops to various parts of the city, but as the crowd grew outside the palace he ordered a contingent of musket armed soldiers into the plaza in an effort to keep the crowd under control.

The mood changed when they realised that the French would be entering the palace to take the infanta away. The mob blocked the gates to stop the French from entering and the crowd became more belligerent. On that fateful morning, something happened to alarm the French troops, who opened fire on the crowd. The British consul, John Hunter, wrote that by 11 am French troops were firing musket volleys in the crowded square and the rioting had spread across Madrid. At the Puerta del Sol, Napoleon’s famed and feared Mamaluk jinetes of the Imperial Guard, comprised of mercenary ex- slaves, charged the rioters and brutally cut them down.

Goya painted the 2 de Mayo and the 3 de Mayo paintings in 1814 within two months of each other, but six years after the event, and long after the French had left Spain.  During the occupation, Goya painted very little, but when the war was over, he asked the provisional government if he could show the heroes of the insurrection. He did not paint soldiers or nobles, but the ordinary people in the street who fought the French. He was probably not present in person during the riots, and painted these most famous scenes from eyewitness accounts.  Goya was asked to paint portraits of King Ferdinand after he had been reinstated as King of Spain, but Ferdinand did not like either of Goya’s battle scenes, and would not allow them to be shown. For many years they were locked away, and only when other kings and other governments ruled Spain did they see the light of day again. During the 1936 Spanish Civil War, Madrid was bombed, and the paintings were removed from the Prado for safety, but the truck carrying them had an accident and the 2 de Mayo was badly damaged. After the war was it returned to the Prado, where it was repaired and still hangs there to this day. The 3 de Mayo is set in the Calle de Alcalá near Puerta del Sol, Madrid.

There were small contingents of Spanish troops who had been garrisoned in Madrid at various locations and one of them was the Monteleón Artillery Park. Monteleón was an armoury and it was commanded by Captain Luis Daoíz y Torres, who was known by his officers and men as abuelo because of his age (41) and his 26 years of service in the army. Daoiz had been at the signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau when Godoy had allowed the French to invade Spain. He had followed orders and fought against the Portuguese, but he was no admirer of the French or their emperor and his puppet king brother. He had already been involved with another Spanish officer, Pedro Velarde y Santillán, in a failed military plot to rise up against the French. Velarde was an instructor of mathematics and ballistics and was secretary of the Artillery Corps’ Junta Superior Económica.

The plan failed to gain the backing of the subservient Spanish government and was abandoned. Daoíz himself had to be restrained from fighting a duel with a French soldier he overheard insulting Spain in a tavern, and Fernando de la Vera, the military governor of Madrid, gave the order that the Spanish troops should remain in their barracks to avoid altercations with the French troops. The French had posted 80 soldiers at Monteleón to watch that the Spanish did not begin to manufacture ammunition for a revolt. When the fighting spread across Madrid, civilians crowded outside the gates of the armoury demanding that Daoiz release the weapons so that they could defend themselves.

Fearing that the barracks would be overrun, Daoíz rode to his regimental headquarters and returned with a further 33 men and 2 officers. When he heard the shooting, Pedro Velarde y Santillán ordered the 37 men under his command to run through the city to the armoury. The two officers discussed the situation and decided that their duty was to fight the French.  By now, the armoury was surrounded by a crowd of desperate civilians, and the French contingent were in fear of their lives. They were ordered to surrender and give up their weapons, which were distributed to the crowd along with all other supplies of musket and shot. The two officers rolled out the 9 cannons in the armoury and placed some of the 24 pounders at the gates of the barracks facing the street. A mix of civilians and soldiers loaded them with canister shot and awaited the French.

French General Joseph Lagrange commanded a force of around 2,000 men in the area including a unit of Imperial Grenadiers, and he began to move them into position ready to take control of the barracks. They made two assaults on the guns, but both were repulsed and Daoíz managed to capture a French colonel. The third attack reached the gates of the barracks and the French troops fired point-blank into the defenders killing many of them including Velarde.

Joaquín Sorolla, who painted the Defence of the Monteleón Artillery Park, was born in 1863 in Valencia, Spain, and is recognised as one of Spain’s leading artists. He began his training in art at the age of 9 and by the age of 18 he was studying at Museo del Prado in Madrid. He worked in Rome and Paris, but in 1897 he won the Prize of Honour in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid for his Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the microscope and A Research. His exhibition at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900 won him a medal of honour and his nomination as Knight of the Legion of Honour. Within the next few years Sorolla was honoured as a member of the Fine Art Academies of Paris, Lisbon, and Valencia, and as a Favourite Son of Valencia. After his death, Sorolla's widow, Clotilde García del Castillo, left many of his paintings to the Spanish public. The paintings eventually formed the collection that is now known as the Museo Sorolla, which was the artist's house in Madrid. 

Pressing their advantage, the French troops stormed the barracks with fixed bayonets. John Hunter, who must have been close to the action, writes that Daoíz had been shot in the hip but continued to shout orders to his troops and the civilians who were now in a futile fight against insurmountable odds. Daoíz stood at the front and fought the French with his sabre. Finally, realising that many innocent lives would be lost if he continued, he approached a French officer with a white flag. He was bayoneted in the back by French soldiers, but his men dragged him back and continued to fight. Finally, the Spanish Captain-General, the Marquis de San Simón, was brought to the barracks and he called for the survivors to surrender. For three hours the Spanish troops had held off the French, but the rest of Madrid was still fighting.

As night fell, the French troops rounded up the rioters and forced them to surrender. In the early hours of the morning of the 3rd of May, Murat gave the order to execute all those who had been carrying arms of any kind during the day’s battles.

News of the uprising and its horrific ending spread to outlying towns including Móstoles, where Juan Pérez Villamil, secretary of the Admiralty was staying.  He urged the two mayors of the town, Andrés Torrejón and Simón Hernández, to sign a declaration of war calling all Spaniards to rise up against the occupying French. The name of this declaration was Bando de los alcaldes de Móstoles, which was in effect a declaration of independence, and the cry spread across Sapin – “For King and For Country!”

Built upon the foundations of the old gate to the Monteleón Artillery Park, this memorial commemorates the heroic last stand of Captain Luis Daoíz y Torres and Pedro Velarde y Santillán. And on the steps outside the Congreso de los Diputados, where the Spanish parliament meets, are two stone lions called Velarde and Daoiz. They are meant to remind everybody who enters about the cost of their freedom and their duty to preserve it.





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An ulcer that would not heal
10 September 2021

It is 1805 and Napoleon Bonaparte has subdued Prussia and struck a deal which allied France with Russia. The French were now the dominant military land power in Europe while the British Royal Navy controlled the seas. Spain was then an ally of Napoleon’s First French Empire and to combat the strength of the British navy Spain’s formidable navy had been incorporated with the French navy to form the Combined Fleet under the command of French Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. Bonaparte had an ambitious plan to invade England, and the fleet was a part of his strategy to gain control of the English Channel and allow his Grande Armée unhindered access to the south coast of England. On the 18th October 1805, the Combined Fleet left Cádiz bound for England, where they had been instructed to clear British ships from the English Channel.

The battle of Trafalgar, J. M. W. Turner, National Maritime Museum Greenwich.

The Royal Navy, commanded by Admiral Nelson, was well aware of the disposition of Bonaprte’s fleet and sailed to meet them off the Cabo de Trafalgar. The battle that followed resulted in the loss or capture of 22 of the coalition ships, including the largest fighting ship in either fleet, the Spanish flagship Santisima Trinidad. The British fleet lost none of their ships, but their victorious Admiral Nelson had been killed. After the battle, Bonaparte was incensed that the Portuguese were still trading with, and aiding, the British. Napoleon had his agents drew up a secret treaty with the unpopular Prime Minister of Spain Manuel de Godoy. Now known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau, it divided Portugal up between Spain and France. Godoy would become the ruler of the Algarve, and all that he had to do to gain this prize was allow Bonaparte’s troops to march through Spain and invade Portugal. Prince John of Braganza, was ruling Portugal as regent for his insane mother Queen Maria I, and it was he who received a visit on 19 July 1807 from Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Talleyrand. He was ordered to declare war on England, arrest and imprison all British traders and confiscate their ships and goods. The Prince Regent refused.

The emperor began to build up his forces at Bayonne under the command of Jean-Andoche Junot, who had served as ambassador to Portugal in 1805. A second demand to declare war on England was sent to Portugal, and again Prince John refused to comply. This was all the excuse Bonaparte needed, and on 12 October, Junot led his army across the Bidasoa River at Irun to begin the long march to Portugal. Just under 7 weeks later, on 30 November, Bonaparte’s troops entered Lisbon to find that the day before they arrived, the Prince Regent, along with all the nobility and rich traders of Portugal, had loaded a fleet of 20 ships with their treasure and possessions and sailed for their colony in Brazil. They were escorted on their voyage by15 warships, some of them British.

Prince John and the nobles of Portugal leaving for Brazil. Painting : unknown Wiki.

Junot now had a difficult situation on his hands. The Portuguese army was still in place, but with nobody to lead it. All the loot that he had hoped to pay his troops with had gone to Brazil and the Portuguese people were not happy that they were under the yoke of French invaders. He immediately formed a Portuguese Legion from the Portuguese army, absorbed them into the French army, and sent them to northern Germany to perform garrison duty. He confiscated all the land and properties of the absent nobility and raised the taxes throughout Portugal. It was not long before he had to enforce payment of the crippling taxes with executions. Any incident could spark off a revolt that could make his rule impossible. That incident did not to come from Portugal, but Spain.

After the battle of Trafalgar, King Charles IV of Spain and Godoy were alarmed at the loss of most of their fleet and the growing French presence in their country. On top of this, the British embargo was causing serious food shortages throughout Spain. With increasing trepidation they realised that Bonaparte had 100,000 soldiers stationed in Spain under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat, who had already occupied San Sebastián, Pamplona and Barcelona. Murat moved into Madrid with 30,000 troops and ordered the 3,000 man Spanish garrison to be confined to their barracks. Anticipating a French take-over, the king and his family along with Godoy, decided to leave Madrid and go south. Soldiers and peasants alike were incensed that Godoy had allowed the French into the country and they captured him and the king at Aranjuez 50 km south of Madrid on 17 March 1808. They forced the king to dismiss Godoy, who was thrown into prison, and shortly after, the king was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, who became King Ferdinand VII.

 King Ferdinand VII

Napoleon saw his chance for a coup d’état and invited the king and his family to go to Bayonne in France. Hoping that the emperor would help him regain his throne, but fearful of imprisonment or worse, the king had little choice but to accept. Once there, Bonaparte refused to help him, and refused to recognise his son as king. Nearly all the Spanish royal family was now under house arrest in France, and Napoleon executed his master stroke of forcing them to cede the crown of Spain to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. The Council of Castile, the central government of Spain, was now under the control of the emperor.

 Joseph I of Spain.

When the people realised they had been duped, they began to provoke and jeer at French forces in Spain. On 2 May 1808, the younger son of Charles IV, the Infante Francisco de Paula, who was the only remaining candidate for the throne, was sent to Bayonne. This was the spark that ignited the gunpowder.

Nobody knows how it started, but during the 2 May, the whole Spanish population of Madrid rose up and fought French soldiers in the streets. During the night, the French regained control of the capitol and the following day began to execute anybody who had fought against them. The Spanish administration collapsed, but the word spread throughout Spain to fight the French wherever they were found. Resistance fighters organised themselves into groups aided by the remains of the Spanish army, and a new kind of warfare was conceived. The Spanish word for war is guerra, and the diminutive is guerrilla, and these “little wars” with hit and run tactics began to sap the strength of the French forces. Provincial juntas (councils) were created and began to coordinate their actions.

Napoleon responded by organising French units into flying columns to subdue the major centres of resistance. One of them was sent to Andalusia in June 1808 with the intention of relieving a French naval squadron which was trapped by the Spanish in Cádiz harbour. The force of 20,000 men was led by General Dupont de l'Étang, who decided that it would be a good idea to plunder Córdoba on the way. After this highly profitable diversion, he withdrew with cartloads of treasure and sent for reinforcements from Madrid.

General Castaños was commanding the regrouped Spanish army in Andalucia and he and General von Reding, Governor of Málaga, joined with the junta of Seville to lead an army to attack Dupont’s forces who were spread out amongst villages along the Guadalquivir. Castaños attacked at Andújar whilst Reding crossed the river and took Mengibar and Bailén. Dupont’s army was cut in half, and he was surrounded. His troops made three desperate charges to break out, but they failed with the loss of 2,500 men. Dupont called for an armistice and was compelled to surrender. However, the other half of Dupont’s army was still intact outside the encirclement and Dupont astonished everybody by ordering them to surrender, too.

The surrender of French forces at Bailén. Painting José Casado de Alisal : del Prado.

This was the first time that Bonaparte had suffered a defeat in open battle, and he was furious. All over Europe countries occupied by French forces realised that this invincible empire could be beaten. Joseph Bonaparte was forced to leave Madrid a month after the Battle of Bailén, and it was only the intervention of his brother, who briefly led the French army in Spain, that the French re-occupied the capitol in November. Napoleon had more ambitious plans, and was not about to be distracted by this rabble from the Spanish streets. As the Bonaparte brothers found out to their cost, the lowest Spanish farm labourer would take up arms to force their mighty army off Spanish soil, and this Spanish ulcer, as Napoleon later called it, was the beginning of a long ailment that would bring him down.

As far as I know, (and you can correct me if I am wrong) there is only one place in Spain where the fierce resistance of the ordinary people of Spain against French forces is remembered and celebrated. There are statues and monuments, but this is the only living recreation of French occupation.

On the morning of 22 April 1810, an exhausted rider arrived at the town hall of the little Andalusian pueblo of Algodonales bringing very bad news. One of Bonaparte’s flying columns had attacked the town of Montellano 30 kilometres away. Since the uprising in Madrid nearly two years earlier French troops had been brutal in enforcing their rule. Rape, beatings and murder were encouraged in order to subdue the Spanish.

A grim meeting was held in the village square, and 13 of the townsfolk led by Gaspar Tardío volunteered to ride to Montellano and help fight the French. They were joined by a force of 60 Spanish troops who had been garrisoned nearby and led by Francisco Salcedo. On the way, their ranks were swelled by volunteers from Puerto Serrano, a village half way to Montellano.

What they saw when they entered Montellano shocked them. The village had been bombarded by artillery and burned to the ground. The only survivors were the mayor, José Romero, and his family. They realised that there was nothing they could do for the town and returned to Algodonales to prepare their defences. Two weeks later, a division of between 6,000 and10,000 French troops led by General of Brigade, Jean-Pierre Maransin arrived at the outskirts of Algodonales. Mayor Juan Ximenez de la Barrerra led the townspeople of Algodonlaes against an overwhelmingly superior force of French troops. They had barricaded the streets and were prepared to stand and fight for their pueblo to the last man.

On the 1 May the first attack by the French was repelled with heavy French losses. Maransin called a parley and offered to spare the village if they surrendered. The villagers had seen what happened to Montellano and knew that the French would not keep their word; they decided to fight. On the 2 May, exactly two years after the uprising in Madrid, French artillery began to bombard the town. By evening, 73 houses had been destroyed and 237 of the villagers were dead and the French took the town. The survivors were brutalised and the women raped. The men and boys were imprisoned and the village was forced to pay 200,000 reals to have them released.

When the War of Independence was over, and the French were gone, Algodonales was granted autonomy from its regional junta, Zahara de la Sierra, and awarded the title of "Village among the Most Deserving in Spain".

Photos: Alan Pearson

Each May, the village celebrates the battle with a re-enactment of the battle that involves all the townspeople with authentic cannon and muskets. When I lived in Spain I watched this enactment several times and can recommend it. They may not stage it this year, but don’t miss the 2022 battle.       


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What a big headed idea!
27 August 2021

In many of the pueblos of Cataluña during the middle-ages Corpus Christi was celebrated, as in the rest of Spain, with processions whose main theme was biblical, with effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary as the highlight of the event.  But unlike the rest of Spain, at some point the processions lost their religious origins and began to show other characters of a less religious nature. The first recorded appearance of a different kind of procession was in Zaragoza in the 15th century, during the reign of Alfonso V. The king is believed to have brought the idea of the gigantes and cabezudos back from Naples or Sicily where he had seen it performed whilst on a visit. The Spanish are not a people who will turn down an excuse for a fiesta, and this idea seemed much better than the serious, tragic, religious processions. The idea soon caught the imaginations of the artisans who saw the first figures, and there were plenty of volunteers to wear the costumes in the parade.


Photo: Ayunt Pamplona.

Constructed in the same proportions to normal people, but about three times bigger, the gigantes were assembled from cane and wood. Inside the framework was a saddle that sat upon the shoulders of the man inside. The head of the puppet was made form carton-pierre, a mixture of papier-mâché and plaster of Paris and painted. Finally, the whole thing was covered in a long robe or dress that hid the geganter or operator. The arms of the puppet are left to hang at the side of the figure during the procession, but when the music begins, the figures gyrate around each other and the arms fly out, giving the impression of real dancing people.

The second type of puppet, the cabezudo, is in the form of a man wearing an outsized papier-mâché head. This type of figure is much more agile and mischievous, and runs in and out of the crowds chasing young girls and children, often hitting them with an inflated bladder on a stick. They have names that reflect their defects or place in history. These puppets, originally called kilikis, (from the euskera kili-kili, meaning somebody who tickles or irritates you) were created in the 16th century and have more-or less retained their original form. Later, they became known as gigantillos, but now are called cabezudos.  


Photo: Jorge Urdanoz

From left to right, this motley collection of characters go by the names of Patata, Barbas, Coletas, Caravinagre, Napoleón and Berrugón.  They are the 6 regular cabezudos for the cabalgata of Pamplona. Patata is a description that speaks for itself, and Barbas and Coletas (beard and ponytail) whose origins are unknown, were created by an artisan called Tadeo Amorena sometime around 1860. The last three are the most well-known and most fearful characters. Caravinegre, (vinegar face) a miserable bad-tempered man, and Napoleón is supposedly a parody of  the French Emperor, who made his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and gave him a puppet government to rule with. The Berrugón was once a magistrate whose facial warts gained him a place in history.


Photo: Ayunt Pamplona

It was not long before other towns and cities rallied their craftsmen to make figures for their own fiestas. Pamplona was not far behind Zaragoza, and by the 16th century, the giant figures were known to have accompanied the more traditional figures of the Corpus and the festival of Minerva. Pamplona’s city records show that for the early comparsa, the figures were burned at the end of the festival, but later records from 1657 show that money was set aside for the construction of 8 new figures by the local craftsman, Francisco de Azpillaga. These were not to be burned, but were to be used for the fiestas de San Fermín each year. The idea had caught on, and characters were added or omitted as the years went by. But for every silver lining there has to be a cloud, and the church took a dim view of the way things were going.

In 1789, by order of King Carlos III, the use of los gigantes in the processions was forbidden. The king explained that they were becoming a distraction to the real meaning of the Corpus Christi, and the figures were confiscated and stored in one of the side rooms of the cathedral. But lighter hearts must have lobbied the church, because in 1813 they were once again allowed out for the fiesta. By now, the form of the cabalgata de los gigantes had been more-or-less set, and Zaragoza city records show that there were 4 gigantes and 4 cabezudos. For the comparsa of 1841, the main four gigantes represented the four continents of the world, Asia, America, Europe and Africa. They paraded at the same time as the traditional Corpus Christi processions, and the taller figures were meant to signify the good in the world, whilst the smaller figures represented the bad people of the world. The parades were usually accompanied by brass horns or groups of musicians playing drums and chiflaina. (A kind of penny whistle.)

In 1860, Zaragoza commissioned Félix de Oroz to construct a new set of 8 gigantes which represented the different races of the world as well as famous people; A Negress and a Chinese man, the king and queen, a duke and a duchess and Don Quixote and Dulcinea. Four more cabezudos were added to the original line up, Boticario, the evil looking proprietor of a farmacia who trembles and shakes, Robaculeros who started off as Sancho Panza, but now represents a lazy slow witted character, Torero a bullfighter and the Forana the female form of Forano. The origin of the Forano is lost to time. Some sources say that he represents a coachman and another name for the puppet is el cochero, The Foranos possibly began life as parodies Joseph Bonaparte, but it is now thought that they represent foreigners of any kind.

 These figures became popular, and nothing was changed until 1904 when figures of real people from Zaragoza were sometimes added to the figures in the parades. 1916 was a special year when it was decided to officially marry the Forano and Forana, and the ceremony was celebrated by the attendance of gigantes from other towns and cities in the area. In 1964, after 164 years of service, it was decided to burn the figures that Félix Oroz had created, and make a whole set of new ones. The task of making the new cabezudos was given to Modesto González Latorre, whilst the gigantes were to be made by Armando Ruiz, who was instructed to add two more gigantes, Gastón de Bearn (el Bearnés) and la Bearnesa to celebrate the unification of Bearn and Aragon. When the gigantes parade they are separated into males on one side, with the corresponding females on the other, and when the music plays, the partners dance together. 

The full line up of the Cabalgata de los Gigantes in Pamplona. Photo: Jorge Urdanoz.

There are a number of cabalgatas in the cities of northern of Spain, with smaller pueblos sometimes parading their own gigantes in smaller local processions. Normally, for Zaragoza, the modern procession has 12 of the giant figures and 11of the smaller ones, although the number has varied over the history of the event. Pamplona has 8 gigantes, but 11 cabezudos.

The gigantes of  Lerida. Photo :  Pelip Vilardell

Lerida has 10 splendid gigantes as well as a varying number of cabezudos, and the cabalgata in San Sebastion has a totally different line up to all the others.


 The gigantes of San Sebastion. Photo: Tourismo San Sebastian.

Whichever city you visit, you will be guaranteed a good and entertaining holiday if you can see the cabalgatas, but beware; the prices for accommodation, drinks and food double during the fiestas. Even then, it’s well worth the visit.




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Salt of the earth
13 August 2021

In 1720 the port of Cádiz made the decision to build a Cathedral that would reflect its growing prosperity. Trade with the Americas had enriched the city, and it was felt that some of these riches should go to the construction of a building that would rival, or be better than other inland cities. The drawings of Architect Vicente Acero were approved, and he directed the laying of the foundations and crypt in 1722.  To mix their mortar the tradesmen used the abundant sand available on the nearby beaches and the brackish water from an old well that had been a part of the older buildings which had been demolished when they cleared the site.

Unknowingly, they had added disaster into their cement, because both the water in the well and the sand from the beaches was full of salt. Indeed, it was later discovered that if mortar had been mixed with water from the well at high tide, there was enough salt in the mix to stop it setting. Worse was to come. Over the years, as the work progressed, the fortunes of the port declined, and the grand plans for the Cathedral became an embarrassment and a target for cost-cutting. Instead of good quality stone, the builders were instructed to use Estepa limestone, a cheaper alternative. Acero had used good stone for the initial construction, but from the very beginning the building had been flawed by the mixing of salt into the mortar. The salt dissolved with humidity, and the lime turned to dust, leaving hard spots in the mortar between the stones. The huge weight of the building above focused the load through the hard spots and cracked the stone. The cathedral’s proximity to the sea added to the problem. When winter storms enveloped the building with salt laden spray, the salt was absorbed by the poorer quality stone. But in the heat of summer, the salt within the stone crystallized, making the stone crumble. Vicente Acero left the project, and a string of other architects took over, changing the Baroque style to Neoclassicism. But 90 years after the first stone had been laid for the cathedral, the future of the port, and indeed all of Spain and Portugal, was in grave jeopardy.

By 1812, Cádiz was the last stronghold of Spanish Cortes Generales, (General Courts) and Spain’s resistance to the occupying French troops of Napoleon. On the 19 March that year, the Cortes established the principles of universal male suffrage, national sovereignty, constitutional monarchy and freedom of the press, and supported land reform and free enterprise. It is popularly known by the name "Constitution of Cádiz", or the “Pepa”.  Many of the American possessions, from which Cádiz had gained its wealth, declared independence. Worse was to come. When Napoleon was defeated at great cost to the people of Spain, King Ferdinand VII was restored to power, and on 24 March 1814, six weeks after returning to Spain, he abolished the constitution and had all monuments to it torn down.  He replaced all the liberal politicians with his own aristocratic and very rich cronies, who commenced to impose their old-style rich versus exploited-poor agenda. Years of national poverty followed the betrayal. This was Spain’s darkest hour, and nobody in Cádiz spared a thought for their half-built cathedral.

For 40 years the cathedral stood without a roof and open to the elements, which slowly began to erode the poorest of the 27 types of stone the building had been constructed with. Eventually, work did start again. New architects were employed and masons attempted to make good the damage caused by the weather. The cathedral was given a roof, and was finally finished and consecrated in 1838, to the acclaim and satisfaction of the people of Cádiz.

 Photo: Diego Delso.

Three months after the consecration, father Domingo González Villanueva was inspecting the vaulted roof when he made an alarming discovery.  He alerted the church officials to the fact that “stone slabs and somewhat larger pieces are falling.” For the next hundred years the chapter of the cathedral made attempts to remedy the problems, but the ever present salt confounded their efforts.

General Franco came to power in Spain, and the years after the Spanish Civil war and the Second World War were “the years of hunger” for the Spanish, as it was with nearly all the other counties in Europe. But for Cádiz Cathedral, things were going from bad to worse.  In 1947 an accidental explosion blew out all the windows. There was no money to replace them, and for years salt laden air blew through the interior of the building once more, insidiously seeping into the stone. Though the windows were eventually replaced, the salt had accelerated the deterioration of the stone. Pieces of the vaulted ceiling began to fall with alarming regularity, and the cathedral was closed to the public in 1969 and was not opened again until 1983. The problem had not gone away, and in 1989, just days before the cathedral was due to be full of worshipers celebrating a First Communion mass, a large block of masonry fell and smashed one of the pews. The chapter of the cathedral decided to install of net throughout the whole building to catch the pieces before they hit the ground. The net is periodically emptied, but nobody knows how big a piece of masonry it will stop, and the fear is that eventually a heavy piece will fall and bring the net down with it. Juan Jiménez Mata, the architect who installed the net over 30 years ago, and who is responsible for the upkeep of the cathedral, is unable to say how much weight it would stand in the event of a major incident.

The nets installed inside the cathedral catch the smaller pieces of masonry. Photo : Juan Carlos Toro, El Pais. 

Early this year, a large piece of masonry came loose from the façade and landed in the cathedral’s courtyard, mercifully without causing injury. But it is a wake-up call to the Junta de Andalusia that things are reaching a critical point.

A decade ago, at the request of the cathedral’s college of clerics and the regional government, Mata wrote a report listing priorities and laying out how the restoration work should be tackled. After installing the net, he has overseen repair work in which the empty joints are filled with new mortar, and the fallen stones are replaced with new masonry. So far, he has restored the lower sacristy and the Chapel of the Relics, but it has been a decade since any significant restoration work has been carried out on the crumbling vaults. Mata’s report estimated repair work to the 3,100 square meters of roof would cost €15 million. During this time, neither the regional nor the central authorities have come up with the necessary funding, although from 1998 to 2009 they invested €1.5 and €2.3 million respectively in other restoration projects.

El País  has asked the culture department’s representatives in Cádiz why the recommendations of Mata have not been implemented, and strangely, they had no idea why the architect’s plan has still not been approved. Meanwhile, the cathedral chapter’s efforts have been focused on annual maintenance for the roofs and on emptying the net. To be fair, the Cádiz Culture Delegation have paid for various restoration projects during this period, the last of which concerned the Chapel of the Assumption, the first in the cathedral to be built. Fabián Pérez, who has regularly collaborated in the cathedral’s restoration work as part of the Ars Nova studio, says that, “The chapter’s efforts to restore movable and immovable assets is remarkable. It hasn’t stopped even with the pandemic.”

But the authorities holding the purse strings have dismissed requests from El País  to explain how much they have invested and whether they following Mata’s list of priorities.

Meanwhile, Juan Jiménez Mata and his son Alberto are concerned that no funding for work on the crumbling vaults is forthcoming. “There should be a group of contracted masons, led by an architect, constantly reviewing roofs and cornices,” says Juan. Alberto adds, adds, “We are not asking for the work to be entrusted to us, but we do ask that the people who intervene in the restoration of historical heritage be assessed with transparency and a public tender.” Alberto adds ominously, “Pieces of rubble continue to fall, but the size of them is a lottery.”

Photo: Juan Carlos Toro,  El País.

The salt curse of Cádiz Cathedral continues apace, with the authorities charged with its upkeep dragging their feet. The solution to the problem is available, but expensive, and as with so many situations like this, things will only be jarred into action when somebody is killed.

Taken from El Pais, with acknowledgements to Heather Galloway.


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This cup runneth over.
30 July 2021

There are two cups in existence that claim to be the Holy Grail. One is in the Cathedral of Valencia and the other is in the Cathedral of Genoa. There is a third contender, The Chalice of Doña Urraca in León, but this is a doubtful latecomer, and owes its claim to authenticity to a book written in 2014.

So much has been written, and by so many, about the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper that the Holy Grail has become a metaphor for something so precious and unattainable as to be other worldly. There is no doubt Jesus used a cup at that famous meal, and it is mentioned by Mark and Luke and by the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, but the cup had no significance to the writers of the gospels; it was just a prop that Jesus used to explain his message to them. Matthew writes that Jesus said: 

“Drink this, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

Over the centuries within the Catholic Church, the search for icons from Christ’s life became a holy quest all by itself. Just about every European cathedral has an icon; a piece of the cross, the hair of a saint or one of his bones. Having an icon became a way of getting one up on a rival bishop or neighbouring medieval city.  Fake icons abound, and the fertile imagination of writers and romancers have fed the fevered minds of the faithful. The next time the cup appears in written records is sometime around the year 380, when St. John Chrysostom was commenting on Matthew’s account of the Last Supper. He says,

“The table was not of silver, the chalice was not of gold in which Christ gave His blood to His disciples to drink, and yet everything there was precious and truly fit to inspire awe.” Although 350 years after the event, his comments showed a growing awareness of the religious significance of the cup that Jesus used that night.

The first mention of the existence of an actual cup comes 190 years later in 570 from Antoninus of Piacenza, who wrote a travelogue of the holy places in Jerusalem which said that he saw “the cup of onyx, which our Lord blessed at the last supper.”  He saw it in the Basilica built by Constantine close to Golgotha and the Tomb of Christ where it was displayed with other relics of Christ’s time.

But the legend of the fabulous Holy Grail with miraculous powers begins during the 1180’s, when Chrétien de Troyes wrote a romance for his patron, Philip I, Count of Flanders. (Romances were high-culture poetic narratives of chivalric heroism with the emphasis on love and courtly manners.) The poem was written in Old French and the grail appears in the unfinished fifth verse of Perceval ou le Conte du Graal. Philip provided Chrétien de Troyes with the original storyline, but died in 1191 while crusading at Acre in the Holy Land. The romance was about the adventures of a young knight, Perceval, who joins King Arthur’s court and gains distinction for bravery. During his travels he is invited to eat with the mysterious Fisher King, and one of the king’s serving girls carries a graal. In the morning, Perceval awakes alone and continues his journey. A young girl whom he meets that same morning admonishes Perceval for not asking the Fisher King about the graal and its significance.

Perceval arrives at the Grail Castle to be greeted by the Fisher King in an illustration for a 1330 manuscript.  Source: Wikipedia.

The story now breaks off to follow Gawain, a favourite of King Arthur, in a new chapter which was also never finished. The reason that these works were left unfinished is assumed to be either the death of Philip or Chrétien de Troyes, but other writers soon jumped in to finish the epic poem. Before the turn of the 11th century, Robert de Boron wrote two poems, Joseph d'Arimathie in which the grail is used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ at the crucifixion, and Merlin; the latter work survives only in fragments rendered in prose and written around 1210, possibly by Robert himself. Both were later translated into Middle English by Henry Lovelich in the mid-15th century. The two poems are thought to have been combined to form either a trilogy – with the Perceval verses forming the third part – or a tetralogy with the inclusion of the Lancelot-Grail stories leading to the Le Morte d'Arthur. (Death of Arthur) All of these romances were hugely popular in the middle ages. The writers had set the stage, and all that was required now was the star of the show; the Holy Grail itself.


The Grail of Valencia. Photo: Sylvain Billet.

The Holy Chalice of Valencia is an agate cup which has been enclosed in an ornate gold mount with handles so that the cup can be picked up without touching it. The cup itself was most likely made in a Palestinian or Egyptian workshop between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD and its (alleged) history is the most-plausible of the two Grails. Seemingly, the cup was taken to Rome by St. Peter after the death of Christ, where it stayed in obscurity until Emperor Valerian began a witch-hunt against Christians in 258. Pope Sixtus II was forced to hide many of the sacred relics in far-flung places where the Romans could not find them. Pope Sixtus along with numerous bishops, priests, and deacons were put to death by Valerian.

Saint Lawrence in Huesca was the pope’s deacon in Spain, and the grail was delivered to him. That the pope removed the chalice from Rome is recorded in the Vatican records as “He took this glorious chalice”, and the phrasing of the translated passage indicates a high level of veneration for the grail.  Alongside the Grail in the cathedral, written on vellum, is a list of items that the church had to divide up and hide amongst its members during the Roman persecution. Saint Lawrence is mentioned on this list, but another letter which accompanied this list and detailed the persecution by Valerian has been lost. A paper trail of documents concerning the grail leads us back as far as 1134, when it is mentioned in an inventory of the treasury of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña drawn up for the Canon of Zaragoza. 

There is a more dubious alternative history for the Grail of Valencia, which is without the benefit any kind of proof. In this history the grail was acquired by a Roman soldier sometime during the third century and it was he who brought it back to his home in Huesca. When the Moors invaded in712 it was taken to San Juan de la Peña for safety. This is where the two histories join.

The grail was kept and venerated during many centuries among the relics of the Cathedral, but when Napoleon invaded in 1809 it was taken to Alicante, Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca.  In 1916, it was finally housed in the old Chapter House, later called the Holy Chalice Chapel, but when Civil War broke out in Spain in 1936 it was again removed and hidden in Carlet.

The Vatican has never publicly said that the Grail of Valencia was the actual cup used by Christ.  The nearest that the church will come to endorsing the grail is to say that it could possibly be the cup that Jesus used. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II celebrated mass with the Holy Chalice in Valencia in November 1982, when he referred to the grail as “a witness to Christ's passage on earth”. In July 2006 Pope Benedict XVI also celebrated mass with the Holy Chalice calling it “this most famous chalice” paraphrasing words in the Roman Canon said to have been used by the first popes to refer to the Holy Grail before the 4th century in Rome.

The Sacro Catino, or The grail of Genoa.

 The other Grail, or Sacro Catino, in Genoa is very different in shape to the one in Valencia. It’s not a cup but a hexagonal dish made of green Egyptian glass. It was brought to Genoa by Guglielmo Embriaco as part of the spoils from the conquest of Caesarea in 1101. Embriaco was a Genoese merchant and military leader who came to the assistance of the Crusader States in the aftermath of the First Crusade. Even though Embriaco would later be considered as one of the founders of The Republic of Genoa, the Genuese did not have much respect for him. His nickname amongst his own countrymen was William the drunkard, and during the campaign, which was finally successful, he acquired a second sobriquet of William the mallethead. Guglielmo accepted the grail because he was told that it was, “made of a single emerald” a precious stone thought to have miraculous powers. It was not considered to be a holy relic until after the widespread success of the grail romances and the amplification of the legend by Jacobus de Voragine in 1290 in his literary work, Chronicon.

When Napoleon invaded in 1805 he seized the bowl and took it to Paris where it was damaged, and the world found out that it was not made from emerald but glass. It was returned to Genoa in 1816 where its popularity is still as great as ever.

The Chalice of Doña Urraca

The final Spanish grail is known as the Chalice of Doña Urraca and is kept in the Basilica of San Isidoro in León, Spain. It had never been considered as a Holy Chalice, and was only proposed as such in a 2014 book called Los Reyes del Grial. The book, which develops the hypothesis that this cup had been taken by Egyptian troops following the invasion of Jerusalem and the looting of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then given by the Emir of Egypt to the Emir of Denia, who in the 11th century gave it to the Kings of León in order for them to spare his city in the Reconquista. Only the writer of the book claims that it is anything but an elaborately worked fake.

In the light of all the fabulous stories and romances written about the grail over the centuries, including all the modern books like Da Vinci Code and films like The Last Crusade, should we consider all the grails to be nothing more than elaborate fakes? The true story of the cup has been lost in all the fantasy and conspiracy generated by writers. I like to think that Indianna Jones has it right; when asked to choose the true true cup from all the bejewweled and golden chalices he spurns them and picks a simple cup as would be used by a carpenter.

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You won't need a mask for this one
16 July 2021

It is a quarter to ten on Saturday morning in the port of Lisbon and many people are arriving at the weekly market held in the plaza by the docks. Fish caught that morning and vegetables brought in from the farms will be on sale, along with fruit, dates and spices. The early risers will have already bought the best fish and are pushing through the noisy stalls looking for something to go with it for the evening meal. White linen canopies protect the stallholders and their goods from the warm morning sun, and children run between the shoppers calling to each other and laughing.

Suddenly the earth beneath the feet of the people moves so rapidly that they are thrown to the pavement. Stalls collapse, and fruit rolls amongst the people on the ground who are trying to scramble to their feet. Many have managed to stand only to have the earth move again in the opposite direction, and once more they tumble to the floor. So far this has been soundless apart from the screams and cries of the people, but now a rumble turns into a roar as the buildings around the plaza collapse upon the market stalls, burying them in masonry and rubble. It is All Saints day, and many of the houses and churches had lit candles, and as the buildings collapse, the flames of the still burning candles ignite spilt oil, which soon spreads to the bone-dry timbers of the fallen buildings and their furniture. The earth is still moving, and the next heave opens a fissure across the plaza three meters wide. Fruit and people roll into the chasm and those around the edges scramble away in terror as the earth continues to shake. For five minutes the earthquake continues before stopping. Now, the only sound is that of the wails of the injured and the screams of those who are terrified.

Many who fear more tremors push through the crowds, scrambling over the rubble and bodies, ignoring the cries of those who are trapped. They elbow their way to the open area of the docks and are amazed by what they see. The sea is leaving faster than any tide that they have ever seen. Wrecks and rocks never seen before appear as the sea retreats, and ships that had been riding at anchor are left high and dry and slowly roll over onto one side.

The fires in the rubble and remaining buildings are growing in intensity and more people run into to the open areas. Those on the seafront stand shocked and speechless at the spectacle of burning and collapsed houses as far as their eyes can see. But their attention is soon drawn to the seaward horizon by the low roar of the returning ocean. A tidal wave three meters high is rushing towards them, lifting ships and tossing them over as though they were toys. It crashes over the low seawalls and surges through the city. The water subsides, but the fire rages on creating a firestorm that draws the oxygen out of the air, suffocating hundreds of people before they can flee. More waves crash over the sea walls, but the fire is unstoppable and continues burning for weeks after the earthquake.

This was the Lisbon earthquake of 1577, and when the fires had burned themselves out it was estimated that between30,000 and 50,000 people had been killed; one fifth of the population of the city. Eighty five percent of the city’s buildings had been lost, along with priceless artworks and libraries. It was not just Lisbon that suffered; the western coasts of Andalucia and Morocco were devastated by tremors and the following tidal wave. Spain’s primary Atlantic port of Cádiz was almost totally destroyed as the tidal wave entered the port, became focused, and roared across the surrounding low-lying areas. The earthquake caused damage to buildings far inland, and the Alcazar in Seville was found to have cracks in its foundations which required major building repairs.

But the 1577 earthquake was not the only one. It was just the biggest and best documented one out of a known total of four. After the 1755 earthquake the Marquis of Pombal, the Portuguese Secretary of State for Internal Affairs, was given the job of rebuilding Lisbon and the Portuguese economy following the earthquake. In an effort to better understand his task, he asked one of his deputies to look through the records and see how previous governments had dealt with earthquakes.  His search gave details of the earthquake that had occurred in the early morning of January 26, 1531, which had been preceded by two foreshocks on the 2 and 7. Again, damage to the port of Lisbon had been severe, with around one-third of the buildings in the city destroyed and 1,000 lives lost. Before 1577, earthquakes were believed to be “Ira Dei”- the wrath of God, but the investigations started by Pombal led to the birth of modern seismology and the understanding of earthquakes. In the end, the Marquis of Pombal rebuilt Lisbon hoping that it was over, but 184 years later disaster struck again.

On the afternoon on March 31, 1761 there was another earthquake causing widespread damage across Portugal, Spain and Morocco. Although not as strong as the 1577 earthquake, the effects of this one were felt throughout Western Europe as far north as Fort Augustus in Scotland, at the southern end of Loch Ness. There, fishermen noted a sudden two-foot high rise in the lake level which lasted just less than an hour before subsiding again. Simultaneously, Cork in Ireland recorded “strong shaking” that lasted several minutes.

The final link in the chain came in 1909, when a Portuguese newspaper reported the discovery of an unsigned manuscript of eyewitness accounts of an even earlier earthquake in 1321. This report was corroborated in 1919 by the discovery a four-page letter found in a Lisbon bookshop addressed to the Marquis of Tarifa describing the1321 event. It was clear now that the 1577 earthquake was the biggest, but only one of four earthquakes to shake Portugal and Spain. Earthquakes on this level of destruction seemed to have been occurring around every 200 years since records began.

Now, of course, we are in possession of much more information to help us understand what forces cause earthquakes. Off the coast of Spain, the Atlantic sea bed is relentlessly moving east at 3.8 mm a year, giving rise to a series of strike-slip and thrust faults collectively called the Azores-Gibraltar Fault. The epicentre of the 1577 earthquake was along a 50-kilometer fault some 200 kilometers south of Lisbon, The unstoppable eastward movement of the earth’s crust beneath the Atlantic makes it inevitable that there will be another earthquake like the one in 1577.

For Andalucia, the greatest risk to the population lies in the arc of coastline from Ayamonte in the north to Tarifa in the south. The earth tremors are likely to cause damage as far inland as Seville, but because of the low-lying nature of the coastline, the following tsunami presents the biggest threat to life. Areas of the coast that are substantially higher than sea level, and have cliffs facing the sea will be safe, but much of the coastline is low-lying with a high population density. Two main areas of this coastline have been designated as high risk from the tsunami. Huelva in the north, and the Cádiz bay area, including El Puerto Santa Maria, Chiclana, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and San Fernando. 

Historical records and simulations have been combined to predict that the worst-case tsunami could be to be up to 7 meters high with a flow velocity of between 3 to 8 meters per second. If previous earthquakes are anything to go by, there may be several tsunamis after the earthquake, followed by more aftershocks. 

Geologists have learned not to cry wolf too often. False alarms breed complacency which will get people killed when the real event arrives. The answer is to have regular drills and exercises so that everybody knows what to do, and it soon becomes apparent that time is the main factor in saving lives. Estimates vary on how long it will take for the tsunami to arrive after the earthquake. Huelva will be first to see the approaching wave and raise the alarm, but by the time that the warning reaches Cádiz and the alarms sounded the wave will be just 20 minutes away. 

The Diario de Cádiz and the Vos de Cádiz have raised concerns that most of the population have no idea where nearest safe areas are, or what precautions to take. There is no recognised alarm system for people who work and live in these areas. They go on to say that every family should know where to go to be safe. Schoolchildren in Cádiz have regular drills in which they leave school and walk to the nearest high rise building when the alarm is given, but there is no plan for their parents or grandparents. An even greater worry, are the huge numbers of holidaymakers who fill the beaches every summer weekend. They will have no idea of how to go about the “vertical evacuation” that the gaditanos have planned.

The Junta de Andalucía and the Diputación y el Ayuntamiento de Cádiz have drawn up emergency procedures for medical, security and the restoration of infrastructure after the event, but they have little to say about what measures can be taken to save lives before the event. Some of the barrios have designated their own high-rise refuges, and neighbourhood committees in Cádiz have drawn up lists of basic measures that householders can follow. Immediate loss of electrical power, roads blocked by fallen buildings and the destruction of most vehicles is inevitable, so the storage of emergency first-aid supplies and large amounts of bottled water are a must. The medical, rescue and fire services will be stretched to the limit, and aiding the injured and homeless survivors will require mobilisation on a national scale.

In built up areas the buildings have been assessed for their survivability in a major earthquake. Overhangs, balconies, glass roofs and fasciae will go in the first few seconds. Conventional stone and mortar may not survive a prolonged earthquake, but steel-reinforced concrete buildings might, and if they are multiple-story, could become refuges from the tsunami. The risk of fire is a major problem. With most homes using bombonas for heating and cooking, the puncture or cutting of rubber tubes could release highly explosive and inflammable gasses into partially collapsed buildings and hinder rescue attempts even when the water has subsided. Equally, the storage sites for bombonas and the tanks of petrol and diesel beneath most gasolineras are the subject of much concern.

To make people aware of the danger of the tsunami, La Sexta have produced a virtual video of what can be expected in Cádiz. The only thing missing from the video is the thousands of people in the streets who were too late to get to the third floor and safety.


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Painting at the Hard Rock Cafe
02 July 2021

Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was a Spanish jurist who owned lands around Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. He was also an amateur archaeologist, and when one of the local hunters, Modesto Cubillas, told him of a cave on his land his interest was piqued and he decided to go and look for himself. The cave had been known to local people for years, but Sautuola began a series of visits starting in 1875 during which he explored the cave system. On one of these visits his eight-year-old daughter, Maria, accompanied him, and it was she who first saw the shadowy form of pictures on the ceiling of the cave. She excitedly told her father who brought trestles on their next visit so that he could examine the ceiling more closely.

 Maria Sans de Sautuola.

He was amazed to find that the ceiling was covered in paintings of bison. Sautuola had seen similar images engraved on Paleolithic objects displayed at the World Exposition in Paris the year before, and he rightly assumed that the paintings might also date from the Stone Age. This prompted him to write to Juan Vilanova y Piera at the University of Madrid, who immediately travelled to Santillana del Mar to see the find for himself. During 1879 they explored the cave together and the following year published a scientific paper proposing that the paintings were Paleolithic in origin.

Sautuola´s drawing of the paintings.

They presented their paper at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon, but they met instant opposition from two French specialists on prehistoric art, Gabriel de Mortillet and Émile Cartailhac. Most of the known cave paintings in Europe at that time were in a small area alongside the river Dordogne, the most famous, of course, being Lascaux. The Frenchmen examined the cave for themselves, and at the congress they ridiculed the findings of Sautuola and Piera. Because they were de-facto the only experts in a very limited field, their opinion carried a lot of weight.

Cartailhac rejected the paper because of the high artistic quality of the Altamira paintings and their exceptional state of conservation. He called attention to the fact that there were no soot marks that would be unavoidable for a prehistoric painter who was using tallow lamps for illumination whilst painting a ceiling. To add to the condemnation of Sautuola and Piera’s paper, a fellow Spanish archaeologist accused Sautuola of paying an artist to paint the bison, and that the whole thing was a fraud. Sautuola, with his limited experience, could not defend the accusations, and it was only years later that he learned that many of the Paleolithic painters used marrow fat in their lamps because it doesn’t give off smoke or soot.

The damage was done, and Sautola’s find was ridiculed and rejected by mainstream archaeology. Sautuola died in 1888, but the science of archaeology moved on, and later finds at other sites corroborated his findings. In 1902 the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniard’s paper. Cartailhac emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, “Mea culpa d'un sceptique” published in the journal L’Anthropologie.

With the authenticity of the cave verified, the archaeological spadework began anew. The relatively flat ceiling in the cave entrance is where the majority of artwork is to be found, though more can be found in the twisting passages and chambers deeper within the cave. It was discovered that the cave was occupied during two distinct phases: the first ended 18,000 years ago, and the second is between 16,600 to 14,000 years ago. In between, there is a 2,000 year gap when it was not occupied by humans at all. Sometime around 13,000 years ago a rock-fall sealed the cave entrance until modern times.  It was only discovered again when a tree fell and the roots dislodged some rocks revealing a cavity beyond.

The artists used charcoal and ochre for their paintings and had used the natural contours of the cave walls to give a 3-dimensional effect to their painted figures and by far the most impressive and famous group are the herd of steppe bison, a long extinct species. There are other animals, too. Two horses, a large doe and a wild boar, all painted with the same vivid colours that the artist must have seen with his own eyes. French cave art takes first prize for its variety of animals and the quality of artwork, which in fact, is beyond the ability of most modern people, and to be honest, many modern self-acclaimed artists. But the question that has puzzled archaeologists is why they were painted at all.

Photograph of the steppe bisons

Although petroglyphs or engravings on the walls of human occupied caves had been found which have been dated at around 44,000 years old, full colour and form rock painting burst into human culture around 25,000 years ago. Archaeologists sometimes call this the “the day we learned to think”. Cave artwork began during what is called the last glacial maximum, (LGM) the coldest part of the last Ice Age. The artwork is not religious; there are no demons or deities in any of the pictures. Later paintings have drawings of stick men with bows and arrows and sometimes rows of scratches that could be a calendar, so what was the reason for the explosion in cave painting?

Humans at this time were all hunter-gatherers. Farming was around 14,000 years in the future, so to survive, these hunters needed to work together as a pack to hunt the food they needed. Family groups could not hope to feed themselves with just two or three hunters. The herd of bison shown at Altamira would most likely be animals that migrated seasonally through northern Spain, and like so many of the Ice Age animals, they were big. The steppe bison weighed in at around a ton and had horns that measured a meter across. The Aurouch, ancestor of modern cattle, also weighed about a ton and was about twice the size of a modern bull, standing seven feet tall at the shoulder. However, for the northern latitudes, the mammoth took first prize for size at ten feet tall and weighing around six tons. It needed organized teamwork to bring down one of these animals with just flint tipped spears, and one recent theory is that the paintings were a visual aid for more experienced hunters to show the young novices how to go about it. This may be true, but the quality of the paintings goes far beyond the simple line diagrams needed, and it may be that although simple drawings would have sufficed, the chance to show off with full colour pictures of the hunt was more than the artist could resist. What started off as a tutorial turned into an exhibition of the new suite of abilities that modern humans were to develop in time. Human cave painting of animals took place over a span of 20,000 years, and was the longest-lasting culture in human history. It endured for 800 generations and stretched from southern Spain to the Urals. But once the ice retreated and the forests returned, bringing smaller game like deer and boar, the caves were abandoned and cave art stopped.

Close up of hand stencils believed to have been painted by Neanderthals.

But humans were not the only hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Iberia during the Ice Age. Neanderthals predate the arrival of modern humans in the area and they also had a more primitive form of cave art that began 64,000 years ago. There are several sites in Spain where you can see their work. The Cave of Maltravieso in Cáceres, Extremadura, contains 71 hand stencils, some of which are from around this time.

But by far the best places to see how Neanderthals lived is at Ardales in Málaga province. The artwork that they left can hardly be called art compared to later humans and is limited to simple symbols rather than animal or human forms, but it is 40,000 years earlier than later cave paintings made by Homo Sapiens. Nevertheless, it represents the first stirrings of a new consciousness that was to transform the world.

Altamira is a long hike from Andalucía, but the centre has related displays with bi-lingual explanations and is well worth the visit if you tie it in with other places of interest and make a holiday of it. The real cave has been closed to visitors since 2002 because mould was found to be destroying the original paintings. A replica cave and museum were built nearby and completed in 2001 by Manuel Franquelo and Sven Nebel, reproducing the cave and its art.

Ardales is much easier to reach and has almost as good a display as Altamira with a section dedicated to the Neanderthals. Also, you can visit the beautiful village of Ardales and the ruins of its Moorish castle on a promontory above the pueblo. (The name Ardales is from the Arabic Ard Allah, meaning God’s country.) But, of course, the real attraction at Ardales are the embalses, which gives the area its other name, the Lake District of Málaga Province.

Just to finish off, little Maria who discovered the bison at Altamira married into the rich Botín family, and her children and grandchildren are among the current owners of Banco Santander. There is also a film starring Antonio Banderas called Finding Alatamira.

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Can't sleep in the heat...try it in chain mail pyjamas.
18 June 2021

For 400 years the walled fortress of Calatrava la Vieja stood on the frontier between Muslim and Christian lands. Its name was derived from the name of the Arab nobleman, Qalʿat Rabāḥ, who founded it sometime after 785. Towering over the Guadiana River valley, the fortress held great strategic importance by controlling the roads to the rival taifas of Córdoba and Toledo who fought each other and the taifa of Seville for its control. During these internal battles it was partially destroyed and rebuilt again by al-Hakam, son of Abd ar-Rahman II.

Calatrava la Vieja.

It was the Umayyad Caliphs of Córdoba who were in control of the fortress when it was attacked and captured by King Alfonso VII (el Emperador) in 1147, but it was at the extreme southern edge of the Christian kingdoms and it was inevitable that its ownership would be hotly contested. There is an old saying; you can have what you can take, but you can only keep what you can hold. This was true for the fortress of Calatrava. In those days there was no such thing as a standing army of troops who would defend the Christian kingdoms. Armies were raised on the offer of plunder and possible land gain for the dukes who were obliged to provide the king with men for a fixed term and to feed them. This was an onerous financial burden if you were only providing a garrison. However, the need for a unified force of soldiers during the reqonquista was obvious, and there was a precedent that had proved its worth and grown rich and powerful in the process..

When the First Crusade had captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099 Christians flocked to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Higwaymen and bandits attacked these pious but wealthy pilgrims sometimes robbing and killing them by the hundreds.  The point came when something had to be done to protect these innocent people, and it was a French knight who came up with the idea of creating a monastic order to protect the pilgrims. In 1119 Hugues de Payens approached King Baldwin II of Jerusalem and explained his idea. Early the following year at the Council of Nablus, Warmund, Patriarch of Jerusalem, granted the Frenchman his wish.

Initially the order was founded with just nine knights including Godfrey de Saint-Omer and André de Montbard. For a headquarters they were given a wing of the royal palace on the Temple Mount in the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Temple Mount was believed to have been the site of the Temple of Solomon, and the new order became known as the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, which was shortened to just the “Templars.” They had no financial backing and relied upon donations to survive. Their emblem was of two knights riding on a single horse, emphasizing the order's poverty.

Fifty years later, the Order of the Knights Templar had grown to a sizable army with quite impressive assets and funding, and it was they who were given the task of defending the captured fortress of Calatrava. For reasons unknown, the Templars did not stay long, and King Sancho III of Castile made a public offer to give the castle and surrounding land to any group who would defend it for him. This prompted a retired soldier called Diego Velásquez who had become a monk at the monastery of Fitero to speak to his abbot, Raymond. Cistercian monks were not warriors, so Diego proposed forming an army of defenders from the lay-brothers of the order. Lay-brothers were a recent addition to Cistercian monasteries which had found the need to allow tradesmen into their monasteries. Whilst the monks performed more pious duties, the lay-brothers looked after the cattle and sheep and maintained the buildings. They did not wear habits and had taken no religious vows, and must have been very happy that they had landed a plum job for life. Monasteries then were oases of sanity and safety whilst the hatred and brutality of the requonquista raged around them. When Diego suggested that they become Soldiers of the Cross they must have been overjoyed. However, the lay-brother loophole allowed Raymond to hire another kind of tradesmen, those who lived by the sword. Raymond went to his superior, Juan II of Toledo, the Archbishop of Toledo, who backed him to the hilt, creating the new Order of Calatrava in 1157. As it turned out, the first test for the order of would arrive the very next year.

The winds of change were blowing from Africa, and ten years earlier a new wave of Moors had subdued all of the Maghreb and crossed the straits into Iberia. The Almohads were a more orthodox Muslim sect who were determined to impose a stricter interpretation of the Koran on the Almoravids. In 1158 they made an attempt to take the fortress of Calatrava, but were beaten back by the Calatravans under the command of the Archbishop. The fortress remained under the control of the Calatravans for the next 36 years, but Raymond died in 1163 and was succeeded by a man whose history is unknown. Known only as Don Garcia, he must have been highly thought of by the king, who installed him as the first grand master of the order, forcing Velasquez into a secondary role. Garcia transformed the order into a private army. Under his rule, the monks were moved (under protest) to the monastery of Cirvelos, leaving just the knights under the command of Velasquez and a few other clerics to defend the fortress. The order attracted more mercenary knights and pious nobles willing to fund and fight the reqonquista. To give the order legitimacy with the church, and a formal code of conduct, a general chapter in 1187agreed upon the code for the Knights of Calatrava  which was approved by Pope Gregory VIII. They were to be lay brothers following the Cistercian rules of silence in certain areas of the monastery, abstinence four days of the week, and to have several fast days during the year. More pertinent to their military role, they were to sleep in their armour and to wear the Cistercian white mantle with a black cross called the Flordelisada, which would later be changed to red.

 A knight of the Order of Calatrava. Painting: A Pearson.

Meanwhile, the power and forces of the Almohads had grown, and in 1195 they attacked the principle Christian town of town of Alarcos on the river Guadiana. King Alfonso VIII brought an army to the defence of the town, but he was defeated by Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, who immediately began to occupy the surrounding territory. The first fortress to fall was Calatrava, and for the next seventeen years the frontier lay in the hills to the south of Toledo.

In 1212 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against the Almohads, and the kingdoms rallied around his flag. The Catalans and Aroganese led by Peter II, the Franks led by the Archbishop of Narbonne and the Navarrese led by Sancho VII. The military orders also gave their support, including the Calatravans and Templars. The citadel of Calatrava was the first major objective to be recaptured followed by Alarcos and Benavente before the final battle at las Navas de Tolosa near Santa Elena, which broke the power of Muhammad al-Nasir and the Almohads.

But the story of Calatrava was not over. When the pope called for the crusade he assembled the troops of his coalition in Toledo where they immediately began to fall out with each other. The French and other Europeans were unused to the heat of the Iberian summer, but whilst they were camped around Toledo they were responsible for assaults and murders in the Jewish quarter of the town. When they took Calatrava, they wanted to slaughter the Jews and Moors who had lived in and defended the fortress and take their wives and children as slaves. Alfonso VIII had ordered the humane treatment of all the defenders and their families, as was common during the requonquista. This was not the kind of crusade the mercenary troops had signed up for and more than 30,000 men broke camp and deserted to cross back over the Pyrenees.

The final part of the story of the fortress of Calatrava came in 1217 when the frontier had been pushed back and the order moved 60 km to the south to the castle of Dueñas, which became known as Calatrava la Nueva, and the old Calatrava became known as Calatrava la Vieja.

Calatrava la Nueva

It’s one thing to read about history from dusty old books and piece together events from disjointed records, and another to be able hold the past in your hands.

In 1960 a farmer uncovered a buried stash of over 100 coins from the ninth century at what would then have been the eastern edge of Calatrava la Vieja. Archaeologists arrived on the scene too late to stop the farmer selling all but five coins, which he donated to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

A second find came in 1995 during construction work close the first site, but this time the finder informed the Department of Pre-History, Archeology and Ancient History at Madrid’s Complutense University. The stash contained 400 grams of silver coins from the reigns of “all of the Umayyad Emirs of al-Andalus from Abd al-Rahman I to Abd Allah, plus a few fragments of Frankish coins, two coins from other Islamic dynasties and two small pieces of silver jewellery.” The chronology of the coins covers more than 100 years, from the late 700’s to 891 or 892 and they are now displayed Provincial Museum of Ciudad Real. A third find by archaeologists came in 2004 near to the alcázar fortress at Old Calatrava. 71 coins were uncovered by wrapped in fragments of cloth and had probably been hidden in the roof timbers of a house which collapsed sometime after 1217. The value of the coins is believed to have been around a month’s wages when they were hidden. A final find came in 2010 just eight meters from the previous one and contained 29 coins. These were minted between 1200 and 1264 and had also been hidden in the roof of a house.

The people who hid this money were hoping to return and collect it again, but in the uncertain and often brutal times in which they lived they often did not survive the frequent attacks and changes of ownership that plagued old Calatrava. Whole families would either be killed or sold into slavery as one warring faction replaced another.

The last part, including the photos of coins, is taken from an article in El Pais entitled Calatrava la Vieja’s hidden coins, and was authored by the archaeologist Manuel Retuerce Velasco and others.

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The tunnel of spies.
04 June 2021

After the end of the First World War, during the euphoria following one of the most awful periods of world history, the Pau-Somport rail tunnel had been driven beneath the Pyrenees to link France with Spain by rail. It was to be a hope for the future prosperity of both countries. The Spanish spared no expense to create a welcome for visitors to their country and built a Beaux-art station concourse 240 meters long with 365 window and 156 doors. It was to be a hub for rail traffic, both passenger and freight arriving from the north of Europe. However, Estación Internacional de Canfranc, as it became known, was not a through station. It was a dead end from both sides.

The station had been built with extensive facilities for transferring the passengers and freight from one set of lines to another adjacent set of lines. This was because the 1,435 millimetres (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) French gauge was incompatible with the Spanish gauge of 1,668 millimetres (5 ft 5 21⁄32 in). Despite this setback, hopes were high that traffic would flow quickly and freely from one country to the other.  Canfranc International was opened in July 1928, but events were already darkening the skies on both sides of the Pyrenees.  In August 1934, Adolf Hitler became dictator of Germany and two years later the Spanish Civil war began. Franco ordered the tunnel entrance on the Spanish side to be walled up to stop the loyalists bringing reinforcements through it. The dream of easy travel and friendly relations with the rest of Europe looked to be doomed; and so they were until the end of the Civil War in Spain.

The derelict station of Canfrank in the 90's. Photo: Jean-Pierre Bazard.

With the Civil War over, the tunnel was opened once again, but Canfranc became the hub for some very different activities to tourism. On the French side was Vichy France, ruled by a puppet government under German control. On the Spanish side was a country under the heel of a dictator with its population near to starvation and bankruptcy.

Germany was rounding up Jews for extermination camps, and many organisations were rescuing Jewish families by giving them false papers and sending them to neutral Spain where they could claim asylum. In Budapest, the Spanish Ambassador, Angel Brits, had discovered a legal loophole that allowed him to issue Jewish families with papers that entitled them to move to Spain as residents. The old law of 1924 applied to the Sephardic Jews expelled during the reign of Isabel and Ferdinand and had been repealed in 1930, but the Germans didn’t know that. Many of these refugees arrived on the platform at Canfranc and were met by Albert Le Lay, the head of the French Customs, and a member of the French Resistance, who passed them on to sympathetic Spanish consulate staff. Something like 14,000 fugitives from the Nazis passed safely through Canfranc. Surviving station workers still boast that not one refugee was ever handed over to the Germans.

There were other kinds of escapees, too. Allied airmen who had been shot down over France were sometimes smuggled aboard the trains and they too were spirited away from the platforms as they arrived. Perhaps the least dangerous, but most rewarding for the families who lived around Canfranc was in the memories of the children of the village who recall their father arriving home from work at the railway goods yard with pockets stuffed with tinned sardines or fruit which, according to their fathers, had been found lying at the side of the track. The Canfranc men earned a local reputation of being able to steal the shoes from a running horse.

However, it was the movement of mining ore trucks that filled the long platform of Canfranc with some of the most sinister and evil people of that awful time. The movement of refugees and airmen would be enough to bring the German SS here, but the freight was several magnitudes higher in importance, and the area around Canfranc was watched by dozens of German officers, who in turn were watched by Allied spies, and on occasion, representatives of neutral Switzerland. In in the corridors of MI6 and the American intelligence agencies tasked with depriving the Nazis of essential war materials, Canfranc had been dubbed “The Casablanca of the Pyrenees.”  

The reason for this espionage was because a vital element was needed by Germany that could only be found in quantity in isolated mines in Portugal and Spain. The Germans first discovered the ore and called it wolfram, but the refined element within the ore is known as tungsten. Tungsten is used as an alloy in steel for cutting tools that were essential for German war production.  Large shipments of wolfram began passing through the tunnel on their way to Germany, whilst coming in the opposite direction, shipments of German gold looted from all Europe arrived in Spain to pay for the wolfram.

Throughout the Second World War, Spain was subject to economic sanctions by the Allies to stop the supposedly neutral country aiding the Axis countries with the shipment of war materials. The US stopped the supply oil to Spain, and the Royal Navy enforced the blockade at sea. During the Battle of Britain, when it looked likely that England would fall, Franco was tempted to come into the war on Germany’s side.  In Spanish history this is called “the great temptation,” and Britain and America increased their sanctions against Spain to persuade Franco not to. When Roosevelt sold Britain 50 destroyers (old and out of date) under the lend lease scheme Franco was swayed and considered the heavy penalties that his starving and bankrupt country would pay if he joined the Axis powers. At the same time, America offered Franco some very attractive loans. The carrot and stick policy worked and Franco stayed out of the war.

Meanwhile, both America and Britain, who also wanted wolfram, began a bidding war for the vital ore. Spain was only the second largest producer of wolfram during the war, and most of the production came from the Panasqueira mine in Portugal. Ironically, the mine had been British owned before the war. The long-serving dictator of Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, began a dangerous game of trying to please to Allies and Nazis at the same time, as both sides made threats and offers for the control of the vital ore. It was too dangerous to send the wolfram by sea, so the ore from both countries was sent by rail through the Estación Canfranc

When the Spanish Civil war ended in 1939, exports of wolfram earned Spain £73,000 a year, but as the world superpowers began to bid against each other the price ballooned, and by 1943, exports of wolfram were bringing Spain a staggering £15.7 million a year, which accounted for 20% of Spain’s total export revenue. Franco was happy to play both sides off against each other until 1943, when the American ambassador ordered the unconditional halt of wolfram exports to Germany otherwise it would stop all oil supplies to Spain, and also stop all other exports from leaving Spain. Franco grudgingly complied, but continued to supply Nazi Germany with limited amounts of wolfram in great secrecy. Knowing full well of the double-cross, Winston Churchill was obliged to commend Spain for its “services” in the House of Commons.

It was only in 2000 when a French citizen found documents that recorded the passage of 86 tons of Nazi gold through Canfranc between 1942 and 1943 that the true scale of the operations that went on at Canfranc became known. Pensioners who live in Canfranc now remember their parents telling them how the French and Spanish border guards worked together, but the Germans made no friends and kept themselves to themselves. Some of the guards at Canfranc were often ordered to escort the gold shipments as far as Portugal.

After the war, the rail service was resumed until 1970 when the tunnel was closed on the French side after a derailment destroyed a bridge, and the tracks were declared unsafe for use. There was by now not enough traffic to justify the repairs, and the line to Canfranc was closed. Nowadays the Estación Canfranc is still home to people dealing with dark matters, but they are scientists studying the dark matter in intergalactic space. The 850m of rock of Monte Tobazo above the Pau-Somport tunnel filters out many of the particles that would otherwise ruin a search for the mysterious substance. The Laboratorio Subterráneo de Canfranc is open to the public, and in 2018 it received 2,400 visitors.

The newly refurbished Canfranc Station. Photo: Antonio Orga

However, the idea of re-opening the tunnel to rail traffic again has gained the approval of the EU, who several years ago allocated funds for the restoration of the station for its “enormous historical and monumental value,” with the ultimate aim of opening the tunnel and re-establishing rail services bringing tourism and allowing the passage of trade goods once again. The effects on the local economy and the economy of Aragon could be very beneficial. To this end, on April15, 2021, a RENFE DMU carrying invited guests from Zaragoza became the first train to arrive at the remodelled and relocated station in Canfranc.

Who knows, perhaps this beautiful station could finally become the iconic Estación Internacional that it was meant to be.   



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This really gets your goat
21 May 2021

In the Naval Museum in, Barcelona is a full size replica of the El Real, flagship of the Christian Holy League, which fought the Ottoman Empire’s navy of the at the battle of Lepanto. The Holy League was a desperate coalition of the Republic of Genoa, the Republic of Venice, the Spanish Empire, Sicily, Sardinia and Malta, and was led by the Pope against the mightiest Muslim navy ever assembled. The original El Real had been built and launched in Barcelona, and it was one of the largest galeasses ever constructed.

The El Real: drawing: Alan Pearson.

Philip II of Spain provided most of the funds for the campaign, as well as the El Real, but Venice provided half of the ships that fought in the battle. The crusades were over, and the Moors had been driven from Spain, but they had only crossed to North Africa, from where they continued the war at sea. All of Europe learned to fear the Barbary Corsairs as they became known.

In 1453 the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and firmly closed all the overland trade routes to the far-east. Over decades, they had been slowly choking the sea trade with repeated attacks on Christian trading ships. They controlled all the eastern end of the Mediterranean and ports along the north coast of Africa as far as the Atlantic, and their galleys prowled the vital seaways with impunity, capturing ships and enslaving their crews for oarsmen on their galleys. Genoa, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and even Rome itself were attacked

The Mediterranean, or the Sea of the Moors, as it was now being called, became the most hotly contested piece of water in the world. The Ottomans began to island hop in the Aegean, forcing Venetians to abandon their ports and flee.  One of their most successful captains, Kheir el Din, (protector of the faith), but better known as Barbarossa, (Red Beard) was summoned by the Sultan of Constantinople and ordered to reorganise and enlarge the Turkish navy. The outcome was an immense fleet of over a hundred galleys and many more support ships. Venice was suffering from these repeated attacks and becoming alarmed with the growing strength of the Ottoman fleet.  The Doge pleaded with the other nations around the Mediterranean to form the Holy League to confront the Moors once and for all.

Venice at that time owned one of the largest commercial navies in the world. It was made up of two distinct kinds of trading ships. The tall sailing ships which had large holds and were broad in the beam were the most numerous and popular. Venice had around three hundred of these.  Of these three hundred, 30 could be considered superships weighing over 250 tons. These large vessels plied the routes to the eastern Mediterranean ports bringing Syrian cotton and Cretan wine.

The other kind of ship was the galley, or if it had a sail a galeass, which normally carried around 150 oarsmen. These oarsmen were not slaves and were armed, and so the galleys that carried precious cargoes were also well defended. Many also had a rams built into the prow, which could sink or severely disable another ship. Galleys were slower than the sailing ships and required huge crews serving as oarsmen, but they were much harder to rob. A direct descendant of Greek triremes, they were the elite of the Venetian navy, and often made quite long voyages through the Straits of Gibraltar and up the coast of Portugal, calling at Lisbon and Flanders in France before stopping in England to trade.

Over the centuries, it had been the Venetian shipyards that had built the best and biggest galleys, but by the late 1400’s they were struggling to find the timber that they needed to build ships. When traders first began using the Mediterranean as a super-highway, the forests around Venice began at the shore and climbed all the way to the Alps. They contained spruce, fir, larch and beech well as other timber which had more specialised uses aboard a ship. But the most important timbers for shipbuilding was the mighty oak, whose curved boughs made the ribs, and whose straight trunks were laid and joined for the keels. But by the time of Lepanto, the abundance of forests within the Republic of Venice had been depleted to critical levels for shipbuilding. The Venetians shipwrights toured the forests marking trees that were to be used for shipbuilding and imposed strict laws about felling trees. They provided armed guards for the woodlands, which effectively made them property of the state. It was at this crucial time when timber for new ships was scarce that the Turks reached the peak of their power.

Formation of the two fleets before the battle.

The two fleets met on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Patras and immediately decided to engage. The Christian fleet consisted of 206 galleys and six galleasses. Ali Pasha, the Ottoman admiral, supported by the corsairs Mehmed Sirocco of Alexandria commanded an Ottoman force of 222 war galleys, 56 galliots, and some smaller vessels. An advantage for the Christians was the numerical superiority in guns and cannon aboard their ships, as well as the superior quality of the Spanish infantry. It is estimated that the Christians had 1,815 guns, while the Turks had only 750 with insufficient ammunition. The Christians embarked with their much improved arquebusier and musketeer forces, while the Ottomans trusted in their greatly feared composite bowmen. Within the first hour, the flagship of the Turkish fleet had rammed the Real and boarded her.  It was only the intervention of the League ship, the Colonna that saved the day. The crew of the Colonna drove off the Turks and captured the Ottoman flagship killing all the crew including their admiral, Ali Pasha. The banner of the Holy League was hoisted on the captured ship and the morale of the Turks plummeted. Isolated battles raged for hours more, but it was obvious that the Turks were defeated. By the end of the day, the Christians had taken 117 galleys along with 20 galliots and sunk or destroyed another 50 ships. Around 10,000 Turks were taken prisoner and 20,000 Christian slaves freed, and if we can believe the figures the, Christians lost 7,500 men, whilst the Turks lost 30,000.

When stock was taken after the battle it was soon realised that nothing decisive had been achieved. None of the territories captured by the Turks had been recaptured. If the Holy League (which was already falling apart) had pressed on they could have inflicted real damage to the Turks. In effect, all that had been achieved was to draw a line down the Mediterranean that said Christendom to the left, Ottoman Empire to the right.

Six months later, with the forests of Greece and Turkey at their disposal, the Ottomans had replaced more than 150 galleys, 8 galleasses, and in total 250 ships had been built, including eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean. That same year (1572) the Turks took Cyprus. The Holy League was reformed to counter the new threat, but internal divisions made it ineffective and opportunities that could have been decisive were squandered. By 1573, Venice was forced to accept loser’s terms. Cyprus was ceded to the Ottoman Empire and Venice agreed to pay an indemnity of 300,000 ducats. The Republic of Venice was still very rich, and could afford to pay the high price for the foreign timber, but her traders would have to work very hard to counter the loss of her eastern trading empire to the Turks. Fortunately, Columbus’ discovery had literally opened up a whole New World of trade opportunities which was denied to the Turks. Venice and Genoa went on to even greater riches and glory, which is evident in its art and sculpture.

However, unnoticed until the need for shipbuilding timber became acute, the whole region had undergone one of the greatest ecological disasters since the stone-age. This was not about species extinction, but the proliferation of a single species encouraged by man. The unexpected villain of this story was the hardy little goat. Let me explain.

When the replica of El Real was built it required 50 beech trees for her oars, 300 pine and fir trees for her planks and spars, and over 300 mature oaks for the timbers of her hull. To build the ships of both fleets at the Battle of Lepanto required the felling of a quarter of a million mature trees. A forest that could provide trees of the size needed for shipbuilding could easily take 300 years to grow, and in the case of oak, a figure of 500 years is more reasonable. So, over the centuries of trading, why had the forests not grown back?

Around 9,000 BC, goats and sheep were first domesticated by early farmers somewhere around Syria or southeast Turkey. Both animals are highly socially hierarchical and will follow the biggest male, making it easy to imprint them with a human master. This was an immensely successful symbiosis and was quick to be adopted by early humans. Our ancestors were discovering grain crops at about the same time, meaning that settlements became villages and the first walled towns appeared. We know this because the abundance of animal bones at the sites where these early farmers lived suddenly changed from gazelle to goat. (Domestication of the dog precedes this by at least 5,000 years.) As the idea of farming grew, both animals followed their masters and populated the shores of the Mediterranean.

The goat had evolved in an arid climate and could live on plants that were usually inedible because of thorns or because they were high up on the tree. Goats will climb trees to get at the greenery, and they are voracious feeders. If goats remain in an arid climate then this ability is an asset, but if they are introduced to mixed woodlands their appetite soon becomes a problem. They will eat saplings, thus stopping new growth. Unchecked, they will strip a forest of its undergrowth up to a height of 3 meters. As old trees are cut or die, the forest is not able to regenerate. Topsoil is washed away, and the ecosystem that is left is one that can only support the goat. Once the goat is established, the land stands little chance of recovery and the forests recede. The goat herders can hardly be blamed for allowing the expansion of an animal that provides so much and requires so little. But after 2,000 years, the rich forests around the Mediterranean had all but disappeared. Only the maquis and garrigue which had grown in the rockiest and poorest soil could survive along with the goat, and they were a worthless replacement for the forests that provided timber for shipbuilding.

Of course shipbuilding did not stop, but the timber that the shipyards needed was to come from the Baltic, where the goat had never been introduced and the forests were pristine. Spain had also welcomed the goat, and large areas of Andalucia had been stripped of forest cover. But worse was to come when Philip II ordered the decimation of whatever forests were left to enlarge his navy in order to exploit the New World and eliminate his other maritime threat, the English Corsairs. His final solution for the “English ulcer” as he called them and their virgin queen would cost him dearly in timber, in lives, and the glory of Spain. But we can’t blame the goats for that.  



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