[‘The Relics of the Wolf’ is a translation of pages 191-201 of the book Crónicas Ibéricas by David Fernández de Castro, Altaïr: Barcelona 2008, 295 pages, ISBN 978-84-936220-1-5, € 15. THE ENTIRE TEXT IS UNDER FULL COPYRIGHT OF AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER; NO PART OF IT MAY BE COPIED OR REPRODUCED WITHOUT PREVIOUS PERMISSION. We wish to express our thanks to Ediciones Altaïr (Barcelona) for permission to reproduce the present chapter on this website. The present translation by Peter Missler was first published in the George Borrow Bulletin, n° 35 (autumn 2007), p. 21-32.]
David Fernández de Castro’s book is the minute reflection of a long Borrovian tour through Spain in mid-2006, which took the author first to the Northern provinces, then to Madrid to organise and preside at a George Borrow Conference in the Biblioteca Nacional, and finally through Andalucía. In the previous chapter, the author describes a long excursion to Villaseca de la Sagra, where he discussed the position of rural women with a social worker, and Toledo, where—in the entrance to the cathedral—he interrogated an old priest on the famous cracked Church Bell of Toledo, supposedly the second biggest in the world, which Borrow mentions in Ch. 36 of
The Bible in Spain.
The chapter here produced concerns the village of Almaraz, in north-eastern Extremadura, where Borrow may have stayed the night when on his way from Lisbon to Madrid. When he crossed the frontier from Portugal to Spain in January 1836 he first spent some time with Gypsies in Badajoz. He then travelled east to Mérida (
BiS, Ch. 9), after which he followed a north-easterly route to Madrid via Trujillo (Ch. 10), and travelled on, crossing the Tagus near Almaraz (Ch. 11). Shortly after this in Ch. 11 occurs Borrow’s famous meeting with Abarbenel at Talavera. David was following part of Borrow’s route in reverse. Readers who have the map in the Knapp edition of
BiS will find the route clearly marked.
David Fernández de Castro
AS IF RIDING on a flying carpet, I returned [from Toledo] to Madrid on the high-speed AVE train and later that evening said goodbye to Antonio [Giménez]. I’d have to get up early the next day to catch the first bus. It was good to see Antonio again, but I was eager to leave the city. At long last I’d be going into the countryside, set on a south-westerly course: to the village of Almaraz in search of the wolves that had haunted Borrow on the road.
Getting out of Madrid was a slow business. We halted at all the great dormitory towns that together make up Madrid’s industrial belt: Alcorcón, Móstoles… The bus company treated us to an American war-movie from the 40s, to which nobody paid any attention. We passed through the whole of Madrid’s enormous suburban girdle, a building project nearly as ambitious as that great cracked church-bell of Toledo: (1)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 1).
Borrow, BiS, Ch. 36: ‘In the tower of this cathedral is the famous bell of Toledo, the largest in the world with the exception of the monster bell of Moscow, which I have also seen. It weighs 1,543 arrobes, or 37,032 pounds. It has, however, a disagreeable sound, owing to a cleft in its side.’.
a landscape of thousands of cranes, high rises and billboards announcing even more construction to come. The road itself was no less whimsical and we negotiated many coned off sections and traffic diversions where the carriage way was being widened. Additional lanes had to be built to absorb the future population of the new housing estates. The area started to look like a megalopolis
. Yet once in the open countryside one barely saw larger towns: for many miles around, Madrid absorbed all construction like blotting paper.
We reached Talavera de la Reina, where a curious incident befell Borrow. Near this town of La Mancha he met the sausage-maker Abarbenel, a wealthy merchant and False Convert of Jewish descent. Pretending to be a Catholic on the outside, inside his own house he and his family practised their true religious beliefs. It surprised Borrow no little, since he thought that all Jews had been expelled from Spain. He asked Abarbenel if many people in the same situation remained, and the Jew explained that not only did he know many others just like him, but that once upon a time even an archbishop, beset by remorse for having abandoned his true religion, entered his house to confess to his grandfather. The Protestant was astonished by the revelation and Abarbenel went even further: he told him that “four ecclesiastical dignitaries” visited his house on certain feast-days to celebrate a Jewish ceremony together.
The uncommon name Abarbenel seems to be yet one more example of Borrow’s method of literary creation. Lot 1,485 of the auction of Borrow’s library, held at Sotheby’s in 1883, shortly after his death, contained a book called “The Dialogues of Love by Mestre Leon Abarbenel”, published in Venice in 1568. Borrow was also to cite this Sephardic Jew in two other works of his: in The Zincali
and in Lavengro
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 2).
Zincali, 1st edition, part 1, Ch. 2, a passage deleted in later editions (see Fraser in GBB 10, 22); Lavengro, Chs. 15 and 50.
Borrow’s observations concerning crypto-Jews in Spain could not fail to awaken a lot of interest. The prominent Spanish historian Julio Caro Baroja, for instance, studied this episode and quotes it in his work Los Judíos en la España Moderna y Contemporánea [The Jews in Modern and Contemporary Spain]
. And if one searches the internet for the Spanish word ‘Judíos’ [Jews] and ‘Borrow’, the first thing which pops up is the website of a bizarre neo-Nazi group called ‘The Aryan Nation’, which mentions this meeting.
At Talavera de la Reina a little old man lowered himself into the seat next to me. He held on firmly to the arm-rests; the skin of his hands was so weathered and tanned that it looked like leather. He continually tilted his head sideways into the passage to look through the front windscreen. His small eyes, glazed but still full of strength, fixed themselves firmly on the surface of the road. It seemed he trusted none of this business. I looked out of the window; the scenery had now changed to grassland. Only some days ago, [up north in Galicia,] I had been strolling through the oak-forest, and the wheat had still been green; but here everything had already been parched. The view reminded me of the African savanna, as if we were passing through the crater of a gigantic volcano, through a great flatland enclosed by mountains, in which the impressive turtleback of the Sierra de Guadarrama stood out violet against a golden sky.
We stopped for fifteen minutes in Navalmoral de la Mata, and when we resumed our journey the driver forgot to turn the movie back on again. No one complained. Then, at long last, we arrived at my destination. Almaraz is located in an immense plain near the river Tagus, so that in wintertime banks of fog often drift in. Before getting out I asked the driver at what time tomorrow I could catch a bus to Badajoz. His face assumed the puzzled expression of a roe deer blinded by headlights in the dark, and he told me that there was no direct bus to Badajoz from here, since we were on the road to Cáceres. But if tomorrow I caught the 12.30 to that city, I could get out at Trujillo and see if there was a bus for Badajoz from there. Then he took off, and when the bus had moved out of the way I got a look at what would be my home for the night: a pre-fabricated roadside motel painted cream. As I went in, I called out a loud and sonorous “Good Morning”. I wanted to make myself noticed, in case I needed to make people talk of the wolves whom I had come to investigate. But the few customers in the lobby showed me not the least attention. They didn’t even look up. They were all mesmerized by the television screen. The headline said: ‘Rocio Jurado has died’. (3)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 3).
A celebrated singer of popular coplas, as blonde as she was busty, whose death after a long wasting disease was closely followed by the celebrity press and a drooling public.
Then and there I knew it wouldn’t be easy to talk of trivialities today.
The place was your typical road-side restaurant. The large and spacious bar sported dried hams suspended from the ceiling, plates of snacks on the counter, brown tiles with a floral pattern on the floor, aluminium lined wainscotting and expensive but ugly furniture. A door gave on to a staircase which led to the bedrooms. I dragged my suitcase upstairs. In the corridor a centre-fold Venus reminded me that I was in a boarding-house for short-term stopovers, frequented mainly by lone men. The girl’s voluptuous silhouette stood out in all her graces.
Her scanty and transparent dress had become wet and was glued to her body by a sudden summer shower. With fine foresight, the girl had taken the precaution of carrying her sandals in her hand, so that they would not get wet. Poised on the threshold, she stuck out her free hand to see if the storm had passed. I dropped off my belongings and went into the centre of the town to chat with the locals.
Borrow does not specify exactly where he slept after he descended from the nearby Mirabete Pass, but he does say that he had to cross the river in a boat—the bridge being in ruins—and that he stayed the night some two leagues from there, which made Almaraz my preferred candidate. (Other Borrovians opt for Navalmoral de la Mata, which, if we lend credence to the distance Borrow mentions, would be correct. My own, purely intuitive, choice is determined by the fact that this was the first village where he could have found shelter, and possibly the distance he gives was guesswork. (4)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 4).
For this question see the Appendix at the end of this article.
) When he passed through here, the area was infested with wolves, and this obliged him to find shelter to protect himself from the animals. When I did my research for the journey I read somewhere that here, in Extremadura, wolves had been exterminated long ago, and that there only remained a small population in a spot further to the west, in the Sierra de San Pedro. In fact, in the whole of Spain significant groups had only survived up north, in Zamora and Galicia. I knew, therefore, that I would not find wolves in Almaraz; but I wanted to see what remained of them in the collective memory of the inhabitants.
Almaraz: sign at the bridge
Once in the venta
, Borrow settled down beside a big wood fire which consisted of the greater part of the trunk of an olive tree, to join an on-going conversation between a miscellaneous company: there was a hunter, a brace of shepherds ‘with immense dogs, of that species for which Estremadura is celebrated’ (probably mastiffs), a broken soldier just returned from the wars and a beggar who, first of all, asked him for charity ‘for the seven wounds of Maria Santísima’. The conversation turned to the wolves in the region. One of the shepherds complained how hard it was to toil the whole day in the open air, suffering heat and cold for just a peseta
a day. (5)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 5).
A peseta, or 4 reales, a day was the standard wage for unskilled work in the Spain of the 1830s. It bought just the bare livelihood. Compare GBB 29, 22ff.
The wolves, he said, fared better than he did and it was very difficult to hunt them down, for they were most astute and seldom ran into harm’s way. He explained how the wolf had developed special techniques of attack, because he knew the vulnerable point of every animal. He would fly at the neck of a bullock, but when it came to horses ‘he fastens on the haunches and hamstrings him in a moment’.
The soldier had also had an encounter with wolves and all those present agreed that ‘there is more malice in women than in males’ and that she-wolves were no exception. Once upon a time the soldier was travelling with a companion when they chanced upon a pack of wolves which came straight at them. As the pack crossed their path, a large grey she-wolf ‘snapping and growling at a troop of demons who followed close behind’, grazed close by them. Then, when they already thought that the danger had passed, the bitch suddenly turned half round and snapped at the soldier’s companion. At that signal, the rest of the pack attacked him as well. “In a few moments he was devoured,” the soldier told the company. “Nothing remained but a skull and a few bones.”
The news that the land was infested with wolves must have come as no surprise to Borrow. Already, before he had entered Spain by way of Extremadura, he had learned such things about Portugal. Close to Evora, at a place called Monte Almo, he had come upon a goatherd who kept a wolf-cub that he was endeavouring to tame. And just before leaving Evora he commented in a letter that the Serra Dorso, which he would soon have to negotiate, was full of wolves. (6)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 6).
The shepherd and the wolf cub are mentioned in BiS, Ch 2. For the Serra Dorso, see Borrow’s letter to Brandram from Badajoz of 10 January 1836 (Darlow, 130—a remark repeated almost verbatim in BiS, Ch. 3): ‘The [country adjacent to Evora] is uninteresting; but to the south-east, at the distance of six leagues, is to be seen a range of blue hills, the highest of which is called Serra Dorso. It is picturesquely beautiful, and contains within its recesses wolves and wild boars in numbers.’ This, incidentally, was not written before, but slightly after Borrow passed by—and not through or over—the Serra da Ossa. But note that in his letter to Hasfeld, dated—perhaps spuriously—from Evora on 24 December 1835, Borrow pretends that some time earlier he climbed to the ’highest summit’ of the 650
metres high Serra da Ossa, ‘and sitting down turned my eyes to the far North East, and wept like a child’ for St Petersburg (George Borrow, Letters to John Hasfeld 1835-1839, ed. Angus M. Fraser ( Edinburgh: The Tragara Press, 1982), 15.
Almaraz is a small town. It has barely grown at all over the last twenty years. Instinctively I directed myself towards the bell tower of the church which stuck out above the rooftops, and where I expected the town centre to be. Reaching the Plaza de España I stopped to make enquiries from an elderly lady. She was dressed completely in black and a heavy gold medallion hung down from her scrawny tortoise neck. She was sitting at the door to her house reading the special edition of a celebrity magazine about—what else?—the death of Rocio Jurado. “Good afternoon. Would you know of a shepherd around here who could tell me something about the wolves?” I asked her. “Wolves
?” She frowned as if she were wondering if she had understood the question aright. “Well, ask in that bar across the road. They used to be shepherds, so surely they can tell you something.”
I thanked her and crossed over to the Bar Talavan. I went in, and this time at least my energetic “Buenos Días
” triggered a response. There was no television set here, so I did not need to compete with the death of the vocalist. I sat down at the bar, next to three elderly men who were all over seventy, and addressed the barman:
“I’ve been told that your family used to be shepherds and I’ve come from Barcelona to learn about the local wolves.”
“Wolves?” he asked, puzzled. “There are no wolves around here.”
“They disappeared many years ago in this area,” the three men next to me chipped in.
“Yes, I know they died out long ago, but perhaps you remember something about them?”; and I told them my now customary story about the journey of the nineteenth-century English traveller.
Once my interest in wolf-stories had been explained, the collective memory began to bear fruit little by little. The oldest one of the three clients painted the situation:
“Me, I’m seventy-five years old, and in this place wolves disappeared fifty years ago.
“Last year, however, a wolf killed twenty sheep of a cousin of mine who lives sixty kilometres from here,” chipped in the barman, who was much younger than the others.
“From my childhood, I remember that the donkey-drivers often came into the village with wolf-cubs they had found on the road,” another one said.
“Twenty-five years ago,” the third one added, “the village vet was putting up a decoy bird for the partridges, when suddenly a wolf blocked his path and the man killed it.”
I said it surprised me that there used to be so many wolves in an empty table- land wholly exploited for agriculture. It did not seem a truly appropriate habitat for them.
“Don’t deceive yourself! Wherever you look around here, we are surrounded by mountains,” one of them said. “And the wolves covered many miles to come and search out our cattle,” another one added.
“What’s more: every time a head of cattle died, it was tossed into a waste pit outside the village and by next morning it was always gone,’ another of the old fellows affirmed, and then he told a daunting story: “Once upon a time my father, coming home late, found himself in the fields after dark, surrounded by a pack of wolves. They followed on his heels as he tried to reach the village, at a distance, but continually crossing the road both in front and behind him. So he took out his chiscador
(a primitive lighter of flint and wick) and managed to keep them off and get home by making sparks.”
Almaraz: bar Talavan
We chatted on a little more, until my three companions paid for their drinks and went off to get dinner. I had only had to scratch the surface somewhat to encounter the relics of the wolf. Spain was still a land of oral traditions, and would remain so at least until this present generation of aged survivors passed away. Nobody wondered at the arrival of some stranger who wanted to hear of their village’s history. Borrow did so in a venta
next to a burning log fire; I with a half-pint of beer at the counter of a bar....
As I left the bar, I noticed to my left on the plaza a pillory, probably a far more scary object than the wolf in a village. It was a sixteenth-century stone pillar, mounted on a base of four steps, and ending in a needle-shaped point. Seven metres tall and quite thick, it sported a stone ring from which protruded four arms three quarters of the way up.
Vicente Hernández, the parish priest of Almaraz, has written an interesting book on the village, with the title Almaraz, una villa con historia
(Almaraz, a village with a history). There he describes the age in which such instruments were used. ‘The Rollos
,’ he writes, ‘were used to exhibit the severed heads and limbs of executed criminals, and were the places where lawbreakers were exposed. Those condemned to a flogging were left hanging here in the sunshine after the punishment was administered, their skin rubbed with honey, so that the flies might feast on them for a number of hours.’
Hence the stone arms at which I was looking had served to suspend the limbs of executed men, something which was still practised in the first half of the nineteenth century. Borrow may still have seen these instruments in use during his travels. As a matter of fact, near the bridge of Castellana (which he mistakenly calls ‘Castellanos’, a spot which Peter Missler located on the N-VI between Lugo and Betanzos) he passed by the severed heads of three bandits, a sight which was branded forever into his memory. In a letter to his employers of 20 July 1837, he described the scene as follows: ‘I passed three ghastly heads, stuck on poles standing by the wayside; they were those of a captain of banditti [and two of his men], who had been seized and executed about two months before. Their principal haunt was the vicinity of the bridge (…), and it was their practice to cast the bodies of the murdered into the deep black water which runs rapidly beneath. These three heads will always live in my remembrance, particularly that of the captain, which stood on a higher pole than the other two; the long hair was waving in the wind, and the blackened distorted features were grinning in the sun.’ (7)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 7).
See P. Missler, ‘The bandit of Castellana’, GBB 18, 46-9. Since Borrow says he saw these heads ‘a quarter of an hour previous’ to his arrival at the Castellana bridge, it may be surmised that the stakes had been positioned, in keeping with the habit of giving such punishments the greatest possible publicity, at the T-junction where the road to Santiago (today’s N-643) splits away from the Royal Highway to Coruña (N-VI).
During his Spanish journeys Borrow often worried about dying violently due to the ferocity of the men and beasts that inhabited the land. He felt a great anxiety over the prospect that his corpse might lie abandoned in some desolate spot and that the wolves might eat it. After narrowly escaping Carlist troops in the neighbourhood of Santander, he wrote home to his employers to tell them of the event and his apprehensions, saying that he had nearly been killed and that his body came close to being cast on the rocks to feed the vultures and the wolves. (8)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 8).
Letter to Brandram from Madrid of 1 November 1837 (Darlow, 258).
In another letter sent just before leaving Seville for Madrid, he expressed his worries about having to cross the Sierra Morena, where ‘I should inevitably be bewildered, and perhaps, if not murdered, fall a prey to the wolves.’ (9)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 9).
Letter to Brandram from Seville of 5 December 1836: ‘The route [to Madrid] is through the dismal and savage mountains of the Sierra Morena, where I should inevitably be bewildered, and perhaps, if not murdered, fall a prey to the wolves.’ (Darlow, 191).
After consulting the Almaraz Council of Elders
, I decided to contact the other reliable source in any village: to wit, the person whom we might dub ‘the hometown enthusiast’. So I made my way to the Casa de Cultura
(Cultural Centre) and sought out Juan Carlos, who was engaged in his daily labours. The schools were already out, and the library now served as the municipal crèche. He was surrounded by rowdy children who were screaming and fighting just outside the hall. Those inside were cheering and chattering at the top of their voices while they lined up for their turn to surf the internet. Others were rummaging through drawers and removing DVD movies which they later left lying around in disorder. It was more like a kindergarten than a place of study. Juan Carlos threatened them unsuccessfully with expulsion, but the little despots knew him to be as meek as a lamb. I asked him about the wolves and Juan Carlos told me that he himself was too young to have seen any, but that his mother surely remembered them. Without more ado he grabbed the phone and asked her about the subject as if it were the most natural thing to do. At the other end of the line, the good lady told him that the wolves never came as far as the village, but that, since this was a wooded area with much live-stock, in the old days the cattle-breeders had experienced a lot of problems. She told him the surprising case of a certain estate called La Torrejón
, which was collectivised under the Second Republic, and which the village had managed to keep communal until the 1970s. The many goats kept there were easy prey for the wolves, so that the inhabitants regularly used to mount drives to catch and kill the predators.
Juan Carlos suggested that I talk to Primitivo, one of the oldest men of the village. He called him at his home to warn him that a gentleman from Barcelona would step by, who was writing a book and wanted to talk about wolves. Once it was certified that I would not try to sell him any book, the old man declared he’d be happy to receive me.
Primitivo welcomed me in his modest home in the Calle Cantarrana, next to the church. It was a small and unpretentious building, one of those houses where you enter and find yourself immediately in the living room. To stop the outside heat from seeping in, they kept the space in total darkness, with the blinds drawn and the windows closed, which actually created a rather cosy atmosphere. Thanks to the massive walls it was very cool inside; and in spite of its small size, they had managed to cram into this little room a card-table (round so as not to lose space) , some couches, a corner cupboard and a giant television set.
Primitivo was eighty-five years old. The deep grooves of his face came together at his bulging eyes, with their misty, almost liquid, gaze. Next to him in a rocking chair, his wife, a lady with a hoarse voice, sat fanning herself. The old man told me how one day, long ago, they rose ‘too early’ in order to go and cut brushwood to feed their lime-kiln; and it turned out that the wolves had still not yet abandoned the fields. In fact, Primitivo continued, people in those days made sure to be home at dusk. As children they were forbidden to stroll too far from the village, although he could not remember a single instance of a child being attacked. The village was surrounded on all sides by fields of corralled or stabled cattle; so at night the wolves came down, especially from the woods on the nearby Sierra de Miravete. The shepherds kept great mastiffs, on whom they put big spiked collars so that ‘the wolves would not mangle their necks’, a remark which Primitivo accompanied by a most graphic gesture of both his hands around his throat. Another way to fight the wolves was to put out wolf-traps, hidden in the bushes which they frequented. When the animal stepped on it, this contraption snapped shut and wouldn’t let go of him—at which the old man gave a loud clap of the hands. He too remembered that there were people who went on drives, and afterwards made the rounds showing off the corpses on the back of a mule, soliciting contributions for ‘cleansing’ the area.
Primitivo concluded his stories and by way of a summary told me: “I have seen live wolves from a distance, but they never came into the village, although they often got quite close.”
“And did you ever hear them howl at night when you were in bed?” I asked.
“Why, yes, of course,” he replied.
Just like Primitivo throughout his lifetime, Borrow was accompanied during the whole of his Spanish journeys by the presence of wolves. Usually he did not get to see them, but he often imagined he noticed their presence. Leaving Manzanal, near Leon, he almost fell from his horse and had a lot of trouble to control him. The animal was overcome by panic and Borrow thought he must have scented a wolf prowling nearby. (10)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 10).
BiS, Ch. 24.
Borrow felt both fascination and respect for wolves. Perhaps he was attracted by the image of untamed animals who—just like his beloved Gypsies—trekked in troops through the most inaccessible areas. To weld both images together, he used a quote in The Zincali
, which compared the Gypsies with a pack of anxious wolves. (11)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 11).
Zincali, Part I, Ch.10 (in a seventeenth-century epistle of Doctor Sancho De Moncada to King Philip III): ‘They are much more useless than the Moriscos, as these last were of some service to the state and the royal revenues, but the Gitanos are neither labourers, gardeners, mechanics, nor merchants, and only serve, like wolves, to plunder and to flee.’
The impression I gained from my Almaraz conversations was that, until quite recently, wolves and human beings played natural rôles which might be traced to the earliest ancestral times, even before the days when a word had to be coined to name those animals. The day-time belonged to the one and the night to the other; and both respected the arrangement. It was not any natural hostility that did away with the law by which they interacted; it was only the price paid for progress.
For this precise moment in my journey, I had brought along a gift from my friend Maria, a book written by Peter Mattiessen called The Snow Leopard
. In the course of his journey through Tibet in search of the mythical feline of the title, the author quoted his friend the biologist George Schaller:
Man changes the world so fast and so drastically, that the great majority of animals are unable to adapt themselves to the new situation. In the Himalaya, as elsewhere, a huge mortality is taking place, a mortality which is infinitely sadder than the great extinctions of the Pleistocene Age, because at present Man possesses the knowledge to stop what is going on and he ought to save the relics of his past.
Spain was not the only place where Borrow found traces of the wolf; and The Bible in Spain
is not the only book in which he mentions them. In his travelogue Wild Wales
, he describes Wales as a region in which the wolf had even seeped into the names of objects and people. When he visited the Castle of Cidwm (Welsh for “Rock of the Wolf” or “Castle of the Wolf”), an old man told him that until quite recently the surrounding area had been plagued by wolves. Visiting Chirk Castle, Borrow recalled that its owner, Biddulph, had a Gothic name meaning ‘Wolf of Battle’. On his departure, he spotted the gates with two wolves forged in iron, but noted that they had no connection with Biddulph: they were family emblems from an early Welsh ancestor on his mother’s side, Ryred, surnamed Wolf from his ferocity in war. He also travelled to Beddgelert to visit the grave of the famous dog Gelert, near a ravine. The legend tells that his master, Prince Llywelyn, one day went off to give battle, leaving his loyal dog in charge of his infant son. When he returned, he found the child gone and Gelert stained all over with blood. Supposing that the dog had devoured the child, Llywelyn gave free rein to his anger and clubbed the animal to death. Then, suddenly, he heard a noise coming out from under the broken tent and there he discovered his son, happy and healthy. Next to him lay the corpse of an immense wolf in a pool of blood. His loyal dog Gelert had defended the child from the wolf’s attack. The Prince, sad and thankful, erected a tomb in his honour which may still be seen today. (12)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(David Fernández de Castro: Almaraz, Translator’s note 12).
Castle of Cidwm: Wild Wales, Ch. 44; Chirk Castle: Wild Wales, Ch. 54; Gelert and Prince Llewelyn: Wild Wales, Ch. 46.
The Bridge at Almaraz, a note by Peter Missler
As David Fernández de Castro observes above, it is indeed difficult to decide whether the venta
where Borrow spent the night at the log fire was located in Almaraz or in Navalmoral de la Mata. He certainly crossed the river Tagus at Almaraz when on his way from Badajoz to Madrid on—probably—22 January 1836. In BiS,
Ch. 11 he writes:
In about an hour [after leaving the Mirabete Pass] I reached the river at a place where stood the remains of what had once been a magnificent bridge, which had, however, been blown up in the Peninsular war and never since repaired. I crossed the river in a ferry-boat; the passage was rather difficult, the current very rapid and swollen, owing to the latter rains.
Richard Ford (Hand-book for Travellers in Spain
, 1845 ed., II: 806) bears this out :
The Tagus is crossed at a most inconvenient ferry near the broken but picturesque bridge of Almaraz, which hangs from its superb cistus-clad rocks over the deep sea-green coloured river. (…) [It] consists of two arches, one of which was destroyed in 1809.
However, by the time Ford published these lines, this information was already outdated. As we learn from the hand-painted calligraphy on an old, worn-out wooden sign-post, of which only the middle board remains, the Almaraz bridge (better known locally as the Puente de Albalat
) was reconstructed, between 1841 and 1845, on the initiative of two Extremaduran MPs called Don Joaquin Rodriguez Leal and Don Gonzalo Maria de Ulloa.
Once across the river, Borrow writes: ‘I sprang on the burra
, [which], shortly after nightfall, brought me to a village at about two leagues’ distance from the river’s bank.’ Since Borrow did not have the benefit of reliable maps or road signs, all his distances in The Bible in Spain
are understandably elastic. Two ‘Borrovian’ leagues may be anything from 8 to 14 kilometres (the league he has in mind being about 5.6 km). Yet any such distance from the bank of the Tagus would have taken the traveller far beyond Almaraz, which stands no further from the river than some 3.5 km, i.e. slightly over half a league. Hence it seems more probable that his venta
was at Navalmoral de la Mata, which is some 14 km from the bridge as one follows the oblique, modern road, and which Ford, op. cit.
, 787 estimated to be some 2 leagues again from Almaraz village.
That said, David Fernández de Castro was of course fully justified in seeking out his information on countryside wolves in the dormant rural hamlet of Almaraz, a much more likely place to hear valuable anecdotes on the subject, than in an inflated industrial centre like modern Navalmoral.