A Celebration of Women Writers

"Wonders of Nature and Art in Spain." by Senorita Catalina de Alcala.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 398-401.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 398] 



In comparison to the amount that has been spoken and written concerning the attractions of other countries, almost nothing has been said about the beauties and grandeur of the old Castilian Empire.

While crossing the Atlantic for the United States, one of the lady passengers stated that she had been over the ocean six times to view the wonders of the Old World.

"Now I am through," she said; "There is nothing left worth looking at."

When asked if she had visited Spain, she replied: "Mercy, no; do you think I would venture into that barbarous land to have my heart pierced with a stiletto or my jugular vein severed by a robber's steel?" "Banditti are the only curiosities I ever heard of in that country."

I am sorry to say that as a people we have been too sullenly proud and carelessly indolent to rise up in dignity and earnestness and correct such false impression. The political and religious cloud which has enveloped us for centuries has obscured the vision of the poet, novelist, and even historian. The physical aspect of Spain has been compared to a truncated pyramid, the summit of which is formed by the plateau of Castle and La Manche, furrowed by chains of Sierras towering from six to twelve thousand feet above the level of the sea. The Mediterranean base of the pyramid is a paradise–a land of exquisite fruitfulness, through olive groves to the orange-embowered hamlets of Catalonia on to the garden of Valencia, where African vegetation abounds. At Elche stately palms in tens of thousands group themselves in true oriental style around low Moorish homes. Valencia is a Sicilian landscape. Andalusia with its cacti, bananas, cotton, sugar cane, its tropical atmosphere, pure and brilliant, is truly African. The mountain chains begin with the lofty Pyrenees, whose snow-capped peaks meet the eye on entering Spain from the north. It is the most regular mountain chain in the world, giving off its principal valleys at right angles

The scenery on the Spanish slope far surpasses that of the French side. The innumerable mountain torrents form lofty cascades more magnificent than any other waterfalls in Europe. On a single high station in the Central Pyrenees grows the diascorea, the only European species of the yam. A distinct specimen of the ibex is found here and also the water-mole known in no other streams except the rivers of Southern Russia. The blind insects which abound in the caverns are another wonder of the Pyrenees. Kings, races, governments, have come and gone; wars have fiercely raged on either side and enemies sworn vengeance through thy passes. But thou, O Pyrenees, stand forever firm, immovable, unbroken by the hand of time!

The Iberian chain twines through the heart of the country eastward and southward to the Sierra Morena, and is filled with enormous masses of fossil bones; it forms [Page 399]  the starting point of the Tagus on one side, and the Cabriel Guadalajara and Xucar on the other.

The Carpetanian group runs northeast and southwest with the Escurial and La Granja clinging to its granite declivities. The Sierra Morena is a plateau on one side and a mountain on the other, clothed in rosemary, thyme, cystus, lentise, arbutus, date, palms, aloes and vines. It is a sight to see the lentil and morning-glory with other wild flowers growing side by side out of the crevices in the bare rocks, with scarcely any leaves, but perfect in blossom and fruit. The peasant children, with their brown faces and bright garbs, make a pretty picture in their bare heads and feet leaping from cliff to cliff like the gazelle, caroling their native airs and gathering the nutritious legume to be shipped to all parts of the world with the large yellow garbanzo, which grows only on Spanish soil. If a traveler approaches and addresses them, they will detect at once if he is a foreigner, and come forward offering handfuls of wild flowers, and saying, with their expressive glances, "We pity you because you are a stranger and far from home," the worst of all calamities, in the minds of these little ones.

No matter what is offered them in return for their courtesy and favor they will never accept, and feel wounded because you have mistaken their motive. This is one of the curios of Spain; you can turn around without crossing the hand with silver.

The whole surface of Spain is noted for its striking contrasts; mountains rising in grandeur above the snow line, sheltering rich and magnificent valleys at their base, defying the sun of summer, by not yielding one drop from their icy peaks to water the enchanting land below. Naked walls of white limestone tower above dark woods of cork, oak and olive. Extensive tracts of undulating forest-clad hills lie between apparently boundless plains or tracts of level table lands, some almost uninhabitable, and others intersected with canals and richly cultivated, like the Rekuena of Valencia.

The climate is as great a wonder as the geography. Four zones are recognized. In the north and northwest maritime provinces, the temperature is mild and equable. Monthly roses bloom in the garden at Christmas. The table lands and the larger part of the Ebro basin form the zone of the greatest extremes. Even in summer the nights are decidedly cool, and on the high levels hoar frost is frequent. In spring cold mists envelop the land for days, while in summer the sky may be perfectly clear for weeks. The air is dry and constantly in motion. At Madrid skating is the pastime in December and January. The third zone includes the Mediterranean provinces. The extremes of temperature are not so marked, although the summers are very warm and the winters decidedly cold.

The fourth or African zone, as it is called, embraces the whole of Andalusia as far as the Sierra Morena, the southern half of Murcia and the province of Alicante. The winter is the season of the brightest vegetation. As a consequence of such a varied climate the vegetation is peculiar. No other country in Europe of equal extent has so great a wealth of species. The number is over five thousand. Important medical and dye plants grow wild on all the mountains and in the night season load the air with aroma.

Spain surpasses all other countries in Europe in the production of kitchen vegetables and pod fruits; its sherry wine is famous throughout the world. Who has not heard of the great olive forests which embrace hundreds of square miles furnishing an annual production of millions of gallons of oil. Oranges, almonds, figs, pomegranates, carobs, bananas, cherimogas and apples are abundant and excel in flavor the fruits of all other countries. It is also the land of the mulberry and hence of the silk worm. The annual production of raw silk in Catalonia, Valencia and Murcia is four million, two hundred thousand pounds

The fauna of Spain also corresponds to the climate. Even wild animals abound, bears, wolves, hares and rabbits. The horses of Spain have been famous in all ages. The Romans used to say they were engenders of the wind. They are supposed to be of Arabian origin, as the Arabs, when in possession of the peninsula, stocked it with their finest breeds. Especially in Andalusia are they noted for swiftness and beauty.

One of Spain's greatest resources lies in its immense flocks and herds. They are [Page 400]  distributed in bands of tens of thousands under shepherds and dogs running through millions of acres that are abandoned to their use. It is also a fact that Spain contains the one specimen of the Barbary ape still found wild in Europe, and the four hundred species of butterflies found in the province of Madrid alone are like the gayety and grace displayed in the Spanish ballroom. Spain has ever been a camping ground for innumerable tribes of feathered songsters. The peninsula lies directly in their route to and from frigid and temperate Europe to tropical Africa. While some adorn the foliage with their brilliant plumage, others delight the ear with enchanting melodies.

Spain leads all other European countries in the variety and amount of its minerals. In the production of silver, copper, mercury and lead even Austria and Hungary are excelled. The Greek and Latin authors who have described the Spanish peninsula, state the quantity of gold and silver found there was very great, and that hence the district became an important center of commercial activity of the Phœnicians and Carthaginians.

Marble of many colors and great beauty, iron, silver, copper, loadstone, gold, pearls and rubies make of Spain, what it always has been, an inexhaustible storehouse of wealth.

As the brilliant panorama of nature's wonders recedes from view we find ourselves in royal Madrid amid towering domes and stately palaces. The Castilian capitol is truly an eden of architectural beauty and splendor, and forms the center of an art circle unsurpassed in any other land. The royal palace is acknowledged to be the finest structure of art in all Europe. It is a hollow square, four hundred and seventy feet on the outside and one hundred and forty feet within. A colonnade and a gallery runs entirely around the inside of the square, and without are windows, cornices and columns, adorned with heavy ornaments, except in the balustrade which crowns the whole and hides the leaden roof from view. It is constructed of a kind of granite which has the appearance of white marble; the only wood used in it is the frame of the roof, doors and windows. The foundation stands entirely upon a system of subterranean arches. A magnificent staircase of marble, on which the architect, sculptor and painter have exhausted their arts, leads to the second floor, which is likewise supported by arches.

Here is a second colonnade and a gallery which looks upon the court and is paved with marble. This gallery opens upon the apartments of the diffent members of the royal family, the chapel and audience chamber. On the ceilings are the work of such men as Mengs, Bayeux, Velasquez and Graedona, while the walls are adorned with the best productions of Rubens, Titian, Murillo, Velasquez and Spagnoletto. The picture gallery is a marvel of art, and contains the paintings of both ancient and modern masters, Claude, Van Dyke, Guido, Murillo, Poussin Raphael, Rubens, Teniers Titian, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Paul Veronese and Wonvermans. It is only here that one can study our Velasquez to advantage.

The small oratory of the king is the most beautiful apartment of the palace. It is adorned with the richest and most finely variegated marbles found in the peninsula. The furniture, tapestry, mirrors and clocks are of the highest style of magnificence. The garden of the retiro is of great extent, with its Chinese temple, fountains, artificial lake, gilded barge and royal menagerie. The most prominent object is the bronze statue of Philip IV. Though the figures are four times as large as life, and the enormous mass weighing nine tons is supported on the horse's two hind legs, yet there is such harmony in all the parts as to prevent its appearing cumbrous or unwieldly.

The Fountain of the Swan is another fine piece nestled among the spreading trees. The center is formed of cherubs riding on the back of a snow-white swan and holding in their hands a torch, through which the water flows. In the garden of the Casino stands the bronze statute of Phillip III., weighing twelve thousand pounds.

The Museum of Statuary and Painting is a wonder of elegance and ability in art and design, a monument of Spain's days of prosperity, the beginning of its construction dating back to the time of Charles III. Here all the different schools of art are represented, and, notwithstanding the wholesale plunder made upon it by other nations, it still remains the finest of its kind in the world. [Page 401] 

The Spanish school is noted for its perfection of perspective and design and its vivid and natural coloring. Our Morales followed Raphael, and his inimitable paintings of Christ have gained for him the surname of Divine. Juan de Juanes is the father of the Valencian school, which Spagnoletto afterward brought to the highest state of perfection. Spagnoletto excelled in Bible scenes, especially those pictures which represent sorrow and suffering. Velasquez was his cotemporary and possessed something of his style. In portrait painting he surpassed even Titian and Van Dyke.

Who that 1oves art does not know the sublime Murillo? He studied in Madrid and never traveled out of Spain. He brought the Spanish school to the height of its glory. Though Raphael is considered the most perfect of all artists, to Murillo must be granted the honor of the highest excellence in representing nature; not as it ought to be, but as it is. Indeed, the whole city of Madrid is a wonderful work of art. It is laid out from a magnificent design. The "Puerta del Sol" is the heart of Madrid, the middle of the spider web from which radiate all the principal streets.

We now turn from Madrid thirty miles away to the southeastern declivity of the Guadarrama chain, and there, midway up the barren mountain-side, stands the Monastery of St. Lawrence, or the "Escurial," the wonder of wonders, the eighth wonder of the world. It was built by Phillip II. in memory of St. Lawrence, upon whose day he won the Battle of Saint Quentin. No structure in the world, except the pyramids of Egypt, gives so high an idea of human power. It cost originally $50,000,000 and was twenty-four years in building. It has two thousand rooms and five thousand windows. This is the home of the famous pantheon, built in the ground directly under the altar of the church, where lie in state the Kings and Queens since Charles V. To give any kind of a description of the Escurial would require more time than you would be willing to grant me.

I will pass it over by repeating to you what Harrison says of this stupendous combination of wonderful magnificence: "A mausoleum, a monastery, a palace, a church, a museum, a marvelous reliquary where the limbs and bones of hundreds of saints were devoutly accumulated;. a city of corridors, doors, windows and apartments; a great library, a gigantic picture gallery, a network of tanks and towers, a confession stool for princely humiliation, a village of monks; a town clinging to the sides of the mountain wilderness, a swarming cloister, an austere hermitage, a fortress!"

Delicate marbles of many hues, damasks and velvets of Granada, bronze and iron of Toledo, exquisite work in steel, gold and precious stones from Milan, gorgeous tapestries from Flanders, rare embroideries from the thronging monasteries of Spain, cedar, ebony, marvelously-tinted woods from beyond the seas–all that money, consummate taste and boundless dominion could summon–hung or glistened or blazed with magical brilliancy within these walls. It is filled with inestimable treasures, gems, oriental manuscripts, shrines, painting and sculptures.

The leaning tower of Saragossa is another wonder. Its antiquity enhances its interest, having done duty as a clock tower for the church of San Felipe for many centuries. It leans ten feet from the perpendicular, and is a solid structure of diapered stone, handsomely filigreed. I have but touched at the center of the circle of art in Spain. As it widens it also deepens, until we are lost more and more in amazement at the countless treasures contained in the long-despised Iberian peninsula.

The Cathedral of Toledo, the galleries of Seville, the arches and gardens of Cordova, the Alhambra of Granada, the port of Malga, the many palaces of great note, all embody grandeur and interest beyond the conception of any one mind.

Oh Sunny Spain, my native land!
   My feet have trod the wide world o'er,
But nothing can I find so grand
   As thy rich hills from shore to shore.
Thy azure skies and crystal streams,
   Thy lovely valleys by the sea,
Thy stately palms and verdure green,
   The dearest of all earth to me.

[Page 398] 

Senorita Catalina de Alcala is a pure Castilian, the daughter of the late Duke Louis de Alcala, who fell upon the field of battle–a Carlist. Her mother, Marie de Molina, is a direct descendant of the early Castilian queen of the same name. The name De Alcala is a familiar one in Madrid. The family, consisting of one young son and daughter, were exiled upon the accession of Alphonzo XII. to the throne, and their estate declared confiscate. Their guardian, a grandee and an exile, wandered with his young charges through many lands. He gave the strictest attention to their education, particularly in the languages. Catalina de Alcala is master of five living languages; is a good Latin and Greek scholar, besides having a fair knowledge of Russian, Flemish and Italian. Her brother was assassinated in the streets of Madrid, where he had gone to make a personal appeal at the foot of the throne for the return of his estates. Senorita de Alcala was for some time linguist in the palace of the Emperor of Germany. She was in the royal family of Hawaii when the news of the revolution reached them. She accompanied the family of Don Fernando–Minister to the United States–to Washington, and acted as secretary during the Pan-American Congress. Her knowledge of languages and diplomatic details rendered her services invaluable. Only thirty years of age, this young woman has traveled twice around the world, and has seen every phase of life, from the Imperial Courts to the humblest home. She is at present Professor in the Minnesota State University.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom