San Pedro de Cardeña – a Sketch from Spain

A hundred years ago Federico García Lorca journeyed around central, north-western and southern Spain. His reflections on his travels were published as Sketches of Spain – his very first published work. During his travels, Lorca visited the monastery in San Pedro de Cardeña near to the northern city of Burgos. As Lorca’s translator noted, there is an added poignancy in his reflections on visiting the monastery (contained in the extract below) as the site was to become home to the hospital where Gestapo doctors assisted Fascist psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo Nájer as he sought to identify the ‘red gene’ in his experiments on International Brigade prisoners of war…. Twenty years after writing these words Lorca was murdered by fascist militia in the province of Grenada. The exact location of his grave is still unknown.

SAN PEDRO DE CARDEÑA
✤✤✤✤✤

Echoes of Castile fall on the cool spring air. Spiders glitter on mounds of sweet-smelling corn and the sun extends opaque panes of red glass onto distant mists … The trees resound like the sea and the glare of the sun strangely enamels the vast, solitary plain. Profound tranquillity invades the villages; silken threshing floors smell of flaxen incense and a gentle, almost priestly tinkle of bells accompanies resigned toil … a fountain perpetually kisses the water channel that swallows it … Cheerful ragamuffins shout out in the soft shadows of elms and walnut trees, scaring off the hens … silent towers, their roofs riotous gardens; shuttered houses, all sadness and humility … and a boy singing as he returns from the corn fields …

Women are washing in a pool that is like a slab of green marble; their hair unkempt like Gorgons’, they laugh and banter …

The sublime unity of the lands of Castile is expressed by a single, solemn hue. Everything has Carthusian austerity, tedious homogeneity, self-questioning anxiety, authentic  religiosity, solemn anguish, tender simplicity and numbing immensity.

The distant sierras are a blur of purple volcanic ash, some trees have souls of gold in the evening sun, and on far-off frontiers soft, dark colours open their huge fans and swathe the sweet, melancholy hills in iridescent velvet …

Reapers’ scythes bring death to fields of corn where poppy flowers set out their ancient cloth.

The red sky begins to resonate against the leaden backcloth; the wind abates and the vaguely mystical dusk of Castile intones a weary, eternal song …

Carts clatter along tracks, insect string-musicians chirrup on the air; hay and anonymous flowers seem to burst from the chest hoarding their perfumes in order to caress the softness of the shadows … as if an explanation of eternity might spring from an ineffable dialogue with the divine …

The trees reflected in the water are surrounded by an exquisite autumnal melancholy … and in damp, already dark valleys, sheep bleat to the monotonous jangling of a bell.

The landscape’s rhythmic grandeur lies in the ruddy yellow which shuts out any other colour that attempts to interfere …

The dry grass carpeting the ground is still, and a spartan tower, windows gaping and empty, sticks its head, wearied by the years, between walnut trees and elms.

✤ ✤ ✤ ✤ ✤

The sun spreads transparent green waters over the meadow where Doña Sol and Doña Elvira once chatted.

Inline image 1

Inline image 4

Silence brings religious depth to the stone’s sense of history, disturbed only by the soft flap of pigeon wings.

Wooed by ivy and swallows, the whole monastery opens disconsolate, empty eyes and crumbles slowly, allowing ivy and blossoming willows to grow over …

The luminous rays of the evening sun garland elms and walnut trees in yellow blooms, while the distant bright green turns bronze.

Swarms of greasy flies buzz melodiously; birds swoop frantically and settle on poplars that are like candelabra ready-made in the darkness.

Large tomb-like slabs embedded in nettles and purple flowers rise up in the great courtyard in front of the monastery.

To one side of the great building, a small entranceway with broken steps, a tower with a blackened coat of arms under hieratic, long-shanked, pink-beaked storks …

Their large nests entangle their branches around the battlements.

A grandiose epic would like to clamour under the mysterious sun, but the crested helmets and chain-mail cuirasses long since retreated into the pitch-black distance …

Jimena’s loving figure, described in that wonderful tale, still seems to wait for her knight, who is driven more by his wars than her heart, and she will always wait like the Don Quixotes who await their Dulcineas, forever turning their backs on horrendous reality.

The story of that sterling love is told entirely in these lands; the melancholy of El Cid’s wife passed this way … her words of affectionate, passionate reproach resounded here, and are now dead …

King of my soul and of these lands, my liege. Why do you leave me? Where do you go? Oh where?

But heroes have to be heroes, and he moved the sweet figure aside, departing with his yeomen in search of death … and the grieving, weeping woman paced through these cool willows and walnut trees until a white-bearded, shiny-pated holy man led her to her chamber and there she perhaps listened to the roosters every night … And she desired and loved him because he was noble and strong, but to no avail, she only enjoyed his caresses for a few hours …

Doña Jimena is the most feminine, entrancing note in the entire collection of Spanish ballads and is almost erased by her husband Rodrigo’s swagger and aggression, but love’s gentle charm wins out.

Jimena’s giant love can be felt through the pages of the collection. A mature love and vibrant passion the spectre of duty forces her to stifle … The dusty, rubbish-filled cloister is in the monastery next to the fountain of the martyrs … and leads to the large, ugly church that has been profaned and the tomb of El Cid and his wife where their statues lie damaged and soulless, dripping with emeralds of damp … The rest is a ruin where silvery slugs thread across nettles, rue, creepers and a thousand leaves on fallen stones … all with a bitter, silent patina of damp …

The storks stand so still and stiff they are like decorations appended to the turrets …

A smell of meadows and antiquity. In the shadows from the swooning twilight, caressed by laden walnut trees, the monastery asks more questions, suggests more …

Inline image 2
Inline image 3

When we leave this valley, the bright reflections from the sunset are extending over the flatlands … A plain of tawny gold crowned by a red halo, rusted silver battlements and in the sky a waxing, cold blue moon … Epic iron voices ring out over the countryside, loud, ghostly and blood-red, softened by Schumann’s sorrowful evening song that wrenches at my soul.

Find out more about Sketches of Spain here.