Monthly Archives: June 2014

Roncesvalles

We returned to Spain via the much better known and more frequently traveled pass of Roncesvalles. Much of the modern traffic through the pass, much like in the Middle Ages, seemed to be thoroughly centered on the Camino de Santiago, and the place was full of pilgrims. Today, the pilgrimage seems a tad bit different than what I imagine it looked like centuries ago. Most of the travelers seemed much more focused on the journey than on the destination, and much more interested in tourism than spiritual reflection. I don’t mean to sound disapproving; in fact, I hope I get to make a tourism-pilgrimage from France to Santiago sometime soon.

Roncesvalles, looking north into France.

Roncesvalles, looking north into France.

Roncesvalles was, for historical purposes, a very interesting place to visit. This is, of course, the setting for one of the most famous battles of the entire European Middle Ages. In 778 the Frankish king, Charlemagne, led an army through the Pyrenees in an attempt to seize Zaragoza. The Muslim governor of the city, who was in rebellion against the emirate of Cordoba, had indicated to Charles that he would surrender his city to him. When the Franks arrived, the Muslim governor and its garrison apparently thought better of this crummy plan. Charles and the Franks retreated in disappointment.

On their way back north, Charlemagne apparently decided to stop and dismantle the defenses of the city of Pamplona. The town and region had long been in a liminal space between Hispanic and Frankish suzerainty, and the Basques had famously asserted their independence against all would-be conquerors, be they Roman, Gothic, Frankish, or Arab, for centuries. In 778 the town was independent, and the regional politics seemed to be based on alliances between powerful Basque factions and rebellious Muslims looking to escape Cordoba’s control. Who ever was in charge at that moment in the late summer of 778, apparently the Frankish King was not confident about the loyalty or reliability of Pamplona, and decided that he could not leave it fortified. Bad decision, as it turned out.

A few days after razing the city, the Frankish army began its slow ascent up the mountains through Roncesvalles. At some point, as the army stretched thin along the Roman road that traversed the narrow pass, the Basques attacked. Using guerilla tactics, and their superior knowledge of the terrain to attack from above, the angry locals inflicted considerable damage on the Frankish army. Reportedly the rear-guard was annihilated, the baggage plundered, and several important Frankish nobles, including the famous Roland, were slain.

 

Roland's marker.  Apparently part of it is missing now.

Roland’s marker. Apparently part of it is missing now.

In time, of course, this minor skirmish would become the stuff of legends. The ambush became and epic battle, the Basques guerillas became a massive Muslim army, and the death of the hero, Roland, became epic. The legend is told in the Chason de Roland, the first French vernacular epic, and one of the most important pieces of medieval literature. The Chason is an eleventh or twelfth century version of events, and is interesting principally because it shows just how thoroughly the process of myth making can be. The events of epic bear little resemblance to whatever took place in this mountain pass in the eighth century.

 

Where exactly the battle took place is another question. The marker for Roland stands at the top of the pass, in an open meadow. The place does not seem ideal for an ambush. On the other hand, as one proceeds north through the pass, the valley narrows into a canyon, and the potential for a devastating attack from above on an army in the valley floor is apparent. This part of the pass, called Valcarlos, seems to be the preferred candidate for the battlefield.

Valcarlos, looking south towards Roncesvalles.

Valcarlos, looking south towards Roncesvalles.

 

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Bayonne

To stick to a theme here, I want to pause and connect this part of the trip to Alfonso I of Aragón, in whose footsteps I had been following since Medinacelli. In 1130, in order to pursue his claims to suzerainty over Gascony, Alfonso led his army over Somport and descended upon the city of Bayonne, and placed it under siege. The politics of early-eleventh century France being what they were, the region was not really under the control of Louis VII of France. Alfonso remained for several months before retreating from the siege to pursue his main goals: conquering land from the Muslims of al-Andalus.

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Catfish crowd around a freshwater storm drain during low tide in the Nive River in Bayonne. The strange, unhealthy interplay between fresh and salt water pretty much encapsulates Bayonne. Photo credit to Jason Bugg.

Anyway, this digression unfortunately reflects nothing of my experience in Bayonne. To put it briefly, I did not love the city. It is very consciously Basque, though it has none of the warmth or enthusiasm of the Spanish Pais Vasco (more about this later). It was beautiful, even picturesque, but somewhat dirtier and somehow more tired than the cities of the north of Spain. The people also seemed to exude a different energy, though I don’t want to wax metaphysical, nor try to talk about “essence” of the French or the Basque or the Bayonnese or whatever. My friend Cody said he felt like they didn’t care about anything, and as superficial as this comment seems, he may have been on to something.

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The wine was good but La Nive smelled objectionable, as Cody’s face suggests.

All that aside, Bayonne was also interesting. During most of the High Middle Ages, the city belonged to the Kings of England, not the Kings of France. The center of the old city is home to a lovely twelfth century gothic Cathedral.

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 The cloister of the Cathedral was apparently used for commercial and social activities, which sets it apart as unusual among medieval churches. Usually a cloister was the secluded sphere of the cathedral’s canons, not a place for public gatherings.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg.

The next day we enjoyed a lovely meal in Petite Bayonne, the especially Basque district located across the Nive River from the old city. The owner of the restaurant himself waited on us, and served us wine from his own vineyards. It was a nice way to end our time in France.

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Photo Credit to Nikki Reid.

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Thoughts on Leaving Spain

NB- My regular posting, with pictures, has been interrupted by flaky internet.  I will resume regular updates soon.

Sad that he could not squeeze all of his stories and experiences in Spain into the pages of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway lamented, “What does one say about a country you love very much?” Indeed. As I approach the end of my second longest trip to Spain—and really they are no longer trips, so much as visits home—I am also struck by the inability to properly express my feelings for this country. I love it very much, as my fellow traveller said, but it is so hard to nail it down. Do I love it because it is here I feel closest to my dad, gone nearly twenty years now? Is it because of my ancient, senile, lovable grandmother who is the last living person I can call a ‘parent’? Is it because of my lovely aunt, who is likely the sweetest, kindest person I know? The home-cooked meals, which I can never get enough of? The fantastic bread here, or the fact that the rather plain lager, when served ice-cold on a hot afternoon when you are seeking relief from the intense sun is perfect? I can get the wine at home, but not the Fanta de Limon. How can a soda be so quintessentially Spanish? Or is it the place itself, the grey mountains and brown countryside, the pine trees that smell like vanilla, or the unfamiliar green of the olives and oak trees? That achingly beautiful blue sky that is so unmistakably Spain, or mejor decir, Castilla?

It is probably all of those things, mixed liberally with my own psychological foibles that lead me to an over-developed sense of connection with places and things. I am attached to Spain in a way that is somewhat different than my attachment to home. Because my experiences here have been episodic, I have not formed such a strong relationship with any one place, but with the country as a whole. Don’t get me wrong; I love to walk into my grandparent’s apartment, which I have been visiting since before I can remember. It is almost home. I adore El Escorial and my cousin’s lovely place there, with its cool weather and quiet nights. I love Madrid, and the places I first visited with my parents, and the new places I discover every time I return. My heart lives in Toledo as much as anywhere. But it is different than Asheville, where my sense of place is so strongly attached to my family home, rather than the town as a whole. My relationship with Asheville is fragile; my relationship with Spain is not, at least as long as I can manage to afford airline tickets. I crave stability, as I think all people do, and recoil from the necessary impermanence of our relationships with the living. The one certain thing that can be said of a human relationship, or even the near-perfection of a relationship with a dog, is that it will end in tragedy and death. But the rocks aren’t going anywhere. The view from the Pico de Abantos isn’t going to die. The deer will still be grazing in El Pardo on my last day. The wheat will still be growing under the blazing sun and painfully blue sky. In that there is some comfort.

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Crossing the Pyrenees

While castle day may have given me my maximum fix of medieval history, the next day driving across the Pyrenees somehow topped it.  We followed the Rio Aragón up towards the Somport Pass into France. The valley was simply incredible.

 

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

We spent some time hiking around the old train station in Canfranc. The station was built in the early twentieth century to accommodate the transition between the French and Spanish rail-systems, which were built on different gauges. The station was abandoned after 1970, when a rail disaster on the French side of the pass led to the permanent closure of the line.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

 

Around Canfranc, we encountered a number of other signs that the border was once a far more contested space than it is today. Hidden bunkers and miniature fortresses, including the nineteenth century Tower of Fusiliers, surrounded the road up to the pass.

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The pass of Somport itself was incredible. High in the mountains (the pass itself is at 5300 feet) there was lots and lots of snow. Tiny ski resorts dotted the hillsides, and the whole region was amazing. The name of the pass comes from the Latin, summa portae, or top of the pass. It was certainly a high, impressive pass.

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Photo credit to Nikki Reid

 

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Near one ski resort we were able to admire the remains of a recent avalanche, which had significantly damaged the road and destroyed several steel power poles.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

We crossed the French border with barely a sign to note the fact. Suddenly the road signs were in a different language.

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Photo credit to an anonymous Japanese tourist

We stopped in a high meadow to admire the amazing mountains, the beautiful alpine landscape, and the incredible wildflowers.

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The decent from the north side of Somport was abrupt and steep. We moved quickly through a stunning valley of tiny villages, all of which seemed focused on cattle-hearding. The French military fortifications on this side were pretty incredible.  This is the nineteenth century Fort du Portalet, built into the side of the mountains.

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We stopped in the medieval village of Borce. A thirteenth century church and strong-house (pictured) still stood at the center of town, as well as a medieval hostal for pilgrims on their way to Santiago.  The entire place was far to quaint for its own good.

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We saw a traveling charcuterie truck driving through the village, selling sausage and jambon, rather than jamon to the villagers, who did not appear to have a lot of local shopping options. My friend Jason tried talking to the proprietor of the pork truck, and walked away with a free sausage.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

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The rest of the drive from Somaport to Bayonne was exquisite, mostly, I think, because I chose a route that took us through the countryside, rather than following the main roads. It turns out the south of France is beautiful. Who knew?

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Great Pyrenees dogs (there were two of them) doing what they do best, in the Pyrenees.

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Jaca

We spent one night in Jaca. My initial reaction was that the town had a very ski-community feel, though we were still below the ski resorts of the Pyrenees. I got very little sense of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Aragón, mostly because scaffolding covered the eleventh century church, as it underwent a face-lift.

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At Great Pyrenees dog in the Pyrenees… and my only noteworthy picture from Jaca.

We did walk around the early-modern star fort that dominates the town, and alerted us for the first time that we were approaching a major international border. The drained moat of the fortress was full of deer at night, though unfortunately I could not get a picture of them.

The only other notable detail was that the Aragonese accent and dialect were very distinct in Jaca.  I found myself struggling to keep up, far more than I had in Zaragoza or Belchite or anywhere in lower Aragón.

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North of the Ebro: Into Alto Aragón

Castle day proved to be a real winner. After touring two terrific castles, we drove up the valley of the Rio Gállego, on our way to Alto Aragón. It was an amazing drive, with something fantastic around every corner. The valley of the Rio Gállego was full of amazing red-rock cliffs.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

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The river itself was an intense blue thanks to the heavy limestone content of the mountains.

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We even got to explore an early-twentieth century dam (the Embalse de Gállego) that appears to have used natural caves through which the river flowed as a spillway.

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Finally, we crested the the mountains into Alto Aragón. Our first look at the valley of the Rio Aragón itself, and the Pyrenees looming in the distance, was simply amazing.Image

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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North of the Ebro: Castle Day, part 2

Our castle day continued with a visit to Loarre, about 20 miles to the northwest of Montearagón. Loarre castle was built early in the eleventh century (starting in the 1020s) by Sancho el Mayor (1004-1035), who in his timed ruled Navarra, Aragón, Castilla, and León.

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Loarre was built both as a defensive bulwark along the Christian frontier with the taifa kingdom of Zaragoza. For most of the century, it was a lonely military frontier, but after 1070, Sancho Ramirez founded an order of Augustinian monks in the fortress. At that point, Sancho and his kingdom were on the offensive; he would start the construction of Montearagón a few years later, and Loarre would begin to fade from importance. This transition was largely completed shortly after the conquest of Huesca, when Pedro I moved the monastery from Loarre to Montearagón.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

The positive result of this transition, however, was that Loarre survives largely in its eleventh century form. It was not heavily modified, not damaged by war after 1100, and so we have this marvelous example of military architecture from the beginning of the High Middle Ages.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

 

 

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North of the Ebro: Castle Day

Perhaps rather predictably, given my career-choice, I am fond of visiting castles. It is particularly interesting to visit an empty, abandoned castle, as empty ruins, at least for me, multiply the impression of connecting with the distant past, and allow the imagination to paint pictures. I don’t think this works quite as well in restored castles that have been turned into museums. So, Montearagón was a real treat, because much to my surprise, this rather important monastery is a lonely ruin.

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Sancho Ramirez built the castle in 1094 as a base of operations for the conquest of Huesca. The fortress sits high on a hill above the city in a dominating and intimidating position, which appears entirely impregnable. The construction of this massive edifice as part of a long-term siege must have made a severe psychological impression on the people and rulers of Wasqah. The Aragonese were coming for them, no matter how long it took.

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As it turned out, the capture of the city was achieved within a few years, and the castle became a monastery.   It inherited this monastic foundation from nearby Loarre castle, which had preceded Montearagón as the strategic defensive point in the region.

Throughout the twelfth century, Montearagón remained an important monastery. Alfonso I was originally interred there in 1134, and the monks continued to benefit from royal patronage. It was one of the most wealthy and powerful monasteries in Aragón throughout the Middle Ages. The monastic community survived until the nineteenth century. Sometime in those years the monastery buildings were destroyed by fire, leaving only the stone walls of the castle.

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Today, the remains of the castle are incredible. What little restoration work that has been undertaken seems to be limited to the keep, which was locked up tight. The rest of the castle is empty and open. The courtyards are full of wild flowers, and the windows in the curtain walls look out over a stark and beautiful landscape. The strategic position vis-à-vis Huesca is very clear. The fortress’s only vulnerability appears to be water: the sight is quite dry, and while one can see the remains of cisterns, it is not clear that the arroyo to the north would have offered anything approaching a reliable water supply.

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In any case, it did not matter. Montearagón was not a frontier fortress for very long, as Alfonso I pushed the frontier many miles to the south within 30 years of its construction. Nevertheless, it is an impressive feat of military engineering, and a fascinating testament to the history of the Kingdom of Aragón.

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Photo credit to Jason Bugg

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North of the Ebro: Huesca

Upon leaving Zaragoza, we headed directly north toward the city of Huesca. That city’s medieval history in many ways mirrors that of Zaragoza, but a generation earlier. The Roman town of Osca was built on the site of an ealier Iberian town, from whence the area takes its name (Olska, or some derivation). It was a fairly significant Roman settlement, sitting astride the road inland from Tarragona, the chief northern port of Hispania.

Osca became Wasqah after the Arab conquest and the creation of al-Andalus. Wasqah formed part of the marcher province based on Zaragoza, and largely remained under the sway of its larger neighboring city to the south. The city was also on the frontline of the struggles between Pamplona and the Banu Qasi rulers of Zaragoza.

The Aragonese conquest of the city began in the late eleventh century. Emerging from the mountains, the Aragonese pushed south aggressively in the second half of the century. Sancho Ramirez, King of Aragón and Navarra, built the castle of Montearagón in the early 1090s, to serve as a base of operations for the conquest of Huesca. An archer killed him while he was reconnoitering the walls of the city in 1094, and so his planned siege fell to his son, Pedro I (brother of Alfonso I). He conquered the city a short time later, in 1096.

Huesca has a somewhat impressive gothic cathedral built in the late thirteenth century. I was surprised by its poor state of repair.

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Jason Bugg, and a Gypsy

Much more interesting, to me at least, is the small church and monastery of San Pedro el Viejo, a mid-twelfth century Romanesque construction.

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The church was greatly reformed in the early modern period, but still retains significant fragments of its old wall murals.

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The real beauty of San Pedro el Viejo, however, is the series of impressive capitals topping the columns of the cloister. They contain some of the most impressive examples of Romanesque sculpture I have seen in Spain.

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Saint George and the Dragon

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The Last Supper

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Griffon versus Centaur

 

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Alfonso I of Aragón is buried here. He was injured fighting the Almoravids at the battle of Fraga in September of 1134. Being nearly sixty years old, he did not survive long. Originally he was buried at Montearagón (more on that later), but now his remains lie here, off the cloister.

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Alfonso I of Aragón

 

A second royal burial here belongs to his brother, the third son of Sancho Ramirez, Ramiro II of Aragón. Ramiro is an interesting case. When Alfonso died in September of 1134, he left no children to succeed him. It is not clear how or why this powerful, active monarch failed in this most important duty. His marriage to Urraca, daughter and heir to Alfonso VI of Castilla was certainly not in anyway happy, and the royal couple spent more time fighting than anything else. Alfonso, however, was aware of the no-heir problem, and so in 1130 made a will to plan for his succession. And what a plan it was.

According to the King’s wishes, Aragón was to be divided up between the Templar Order, the Hospitaller Order, and the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher. The arrangement reflected Alfonso’s deep interest in crusading, as well as an unusual and ultimately successful political stunt. Historians have speculated that Alfonso I feared that upon his death the papacy would back the claim of his wife Urraca’s son, Alfonso VII, King of Castilla and León, and so Aragón and Navarra would become part of those larger Christian kingdom. However, by leaving his kingdom to these religious orders, Alfonso I could force the Pope to follow his wishes, and prevent Alfonso VII from inheriting. However, while this would accomplish one goal (preventing Castilian domination of Aragón), it was still an unworkable arrangement. In 1134 the Templars were a brand new organization of a few dozen knights based in Palestine; the Hospital of Saint John was still just a hospital in Jerusalem, only beginning to take steps toward becoming a military order; and the Holy Sepulcher was church located more than two thousand miles from Aragón. But Alfonso new this, and left it to his nobles to enact an alternative plan. Because a kingdom needs a king, the nobility immediately went to Huesca, to the monastery of San Pedro, and drafted its abbot, Ramon, to become their new monarch.

Ramon had spent the first 47 years of his life in a fruitful church career. A Benedictine monk, he had served as the abbot in a number of monasteries, including San Pedro, and looked prepared to make a jump to the episcopacy as bishop of Barbastro. Instead, he found himself suddenly thrust into the secular world, and rather quickly married to Agnes, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine.

While we know nothing about the inner life of this marriage, I suspect that Ramiro was none too please to be plucked from his monastic existence. The couple remained together only about a year, long enough to conceive and deliver an heir, Petronilla. Agnes retired to the monastery of Fonterault, while Ramiro remained king just long enough to settle things for his new daughter. Despite some pressure from Castilla, Ramon turned east, and contracted a betrothal between Ramon Berenguer, the count of Barcelona, and his year-old daughter. Ramon Berenguer was to become part of the royal family, and the union of Aragón and Cataluña into the Crown of Aragón was complete. Ramiro, having done his duty for his kingdom, retired to San Pedro, and let his son-in-law worry about politics. He is still there today.

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Not actually Ramiro’s tomb. I just like the dogs.

 

 

 

 

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El Rey

We interrupt our regularly scheduled narrative of my travels in Spain to discuss the latest news, and the serendipitous events of the day (today, June 3).

Yesterday morning Juan Carlos I, King of Spain for some 39 years, announced that he is abdicating in favor of his son, Felipe, who will soon rule as Felipe VI.  The King reached this decision for a number of reasons.  Though it is the least discussed, I suspect his health influenced his decision as much as anything.  Apparently he has had a hard time recovering from hip surgery which followed from an injury sustained while he was shooting elephants and other big-game in Africa.  The bad optics of this hunting trip (shooting animals one shouldn’t shoot; expensive trip on state dollars during La Crisis; the public revelation of his extra-marital affair) did a lot to damage Juan Carlos’s reputation and to tarnish the monarchy in general.  There is a long history of republicanism in Spain that carries with it a strong anti-royal prejudice, and such incidents certainly did nothing positive for the monarchy.  Then, as if that weren’t enough of a problem, the King’s younger daughter, the Infanta Cristina, and her husband were implicated last year in a tax fraud affair that apparently involved the misappropriation of state funds.  The consensus seems to be that Juan Carlos waited until a lull in the negative press coverage, and then seized the initiative by abdicating.  In doing so, he noted Spain’s ongoing financial problems, and indicated that it was time to pass on the leadership role to “a younger generation, with new energy, determined to undertake with determination the reforms and changes the situation demands.”

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As it so happened, the day after this big announcement, the King and the Prince of Asturias (Felipe) were scheduled to take part in a special military ceremony: an induction of officers into the Order of San Hermenegildo.  Hermenegildo was a Visigothic prince who rebelled against his father, King Leogivild, ostensibly because he was a orthodox Christian while his father, and the kingdom, remained adherents of the Arian brand of Christianity.  To make a long story short, Hermenegildo lost his head at his father’s orders, but became a national hero shortly thereafter when the Visigoths made the switch to orthodox Christianity.  All of this sixth century history aside, the Order of San Hermenegildo was instituted in the nineteenth century as a way to commend long serving officers and NCOs in the Spanish military (over 20 years).

ImageThe ceremony involved a whole battalion of soldiers in uniform, the cuirassiers of the Royal Escort Squadron, a fly-by of jets spewing red and yellow smoke, canons, a military band, and lots of security.  And of course, the King.

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Prince Felipe was there as well, to the King’s left, though obscured in my picture.

The whole ceremony provided a marvelously well-timed opportunity to witness the royal pageantry, and was the first and almost certainly the last time I will see Juan Carlos, as king at least.  And despite the shameful mistakes of the last couple of years– and yes, they were shameful and not just “human” mistakes as his apologists like to say– Juan Carlos I has been a good king for Spain.  In fact, I would certainly argue that he is among the top monarchs in Spanish history.  He deserves full credit for leading the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to the present democratic state.  While Adolfo Suarez and Felipe Gonzalez were the architects, the King’s decisive support for their political agenda made modern Spain possible. Then in 1981 came his greatest test.  When Colonel Tejero Molina and the Guardia Civil, in cooperation with elements of the army, tried to turn back the clock on Spanish politics with a later-day pronunciamiento, Juan Carlos rose to the occasion.  He could have sat passively by and allowed the reactionaries to dismantle the new constitution and re-impose some sort of military rule.  In fact, precedence suggested that this was the proper role of the monarchy.  But instead Juan Carlos got on television, in the middle of the night, and declared the 23-F uprising illegitimate, threw his support behind the constitution and the democratic government, and insisted that the armed forces stand down.  The would-be rebels obeyed, and the tone and direction of Spanish politics was fundamentally set on a healthy course.  For that alone Juan Carlos should, and no doubt will be remembered as a great king.

 

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