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The Villages Are Still the Heart of Spain

When my grandfather, American author John Dos Passos, visited Spain for the first time in 1916, he fell in love with the country—especially the pueblos tucked in the chaparral, shielded from greater Europe’s corruption by the high wall of the Pyrenees. “The villages are the heart of Spain,” he wrote. Today, the villages still reward the curious, open-hearted stranger.

My grandfather’s first trip to Spain was arranged as a compromise between him and his father. The restless twenty-year-old wanted to see the Great War, but his father would not have it. Instead, the father watched the son depart for Spain, a neutral country, where young Dos Passos would learn the nation’s artistic tradition.

“I would have as soon tried to restrain an angry lion from seizing its prey as to have protested against Jack’s going. It is his destiny!” wrote the father, John Randolph Dos Passos. “A noble boy—a more completely educated character—a finer scholar—never went forth…If he lives he will make many more dollars—and much fame.”

Fuentiduena de Tajo, Spain. (John Dos Passos Coggin)

The young man had entered his teens with a European intellectual sensibility thanks to his father’s influence, but Spain was still a foreign feast. Dos Passos sought out its delicacies at once, beginning with Madrid. “I wanted to see the war, to paddle up undiscovered rivers, to climb unmapped mountains,” he reflected, as an elder.

Sure enough, he found mountains to climb. He hiked the Sierra de Guadarrama and the Siete Picos. “Behind them,” he wrote of the Guadarrama, “the sun sets with numbing glory. I’ve never seen such sunsets; they stir up your soul the way a cook stirs a pot of broth but with what a golden spoon.” Chocolate, bread, and oranges comprised a typical high-altitude snack.

He studied Spanish language and literature at Madrid’s Centro de Estúdios Históricos. He read Pío Baroja: Mala Hierba, La Busca, Aurora Roja. He met members of the literary “generation of 1898,” including Juan Ramón Jiménez and Valle Inclán.

My grandfather was a seeker of fine food before the days of television, let alone the Food Network. “I couldn’t get over the food,” he wrote. “The sharp wintry air gave me a perpetual appetite. I wrote home that the meals went on and on; Spaniards spent all their time eating, except the ones who were starving to death.”

‘Palma de Majorca,’ c. 1920, watercolor by John Dos Passos.

Given his predilection for chocolate, it’s likely that John Dos Passos visited the famous San Ginés Chocolateria in Madrid. The typical dish of chocolate, Dos Passos wrote, “comes in the morning with a funny whitish sweet puff and a roll; and I in addition go and guzzle it in cafés in the afternoon. Then there are charming donkeys and mules with paniers or two wheeled carts.”

Above all, he found amity, art, and inspiration in the Spanish countryside. “The country of Castile,” he wrote, “is brown and rolling with dry arroyos and irrigated patches much like California only the brown of the hills is a pale nankeen instead of the rich sienna of the California slopes.” He visited a multitude of villages and towns, including Aranjuez, Cartagena, Tarragona, Alcázar de San Juan, Alicante, Oliva, and Denia.

He walked to El Pardo, a small village north of Madrid. He loved a good promenade. He lunched in town, “in the village square under yellow autumnal poplar trees, that dropped their leaves with a little rustling sound through the perfect glowing sun-drugged stillness of the afternoon.”

Probably the best friend he made on this first voyage was José (Pepe) Robles, a university student in Madrid. “This was a time of life,” Dos Passos wrote, “when a man makes friends. On the third class coach coming back from Toledo one day I found myself talking with a student from the university who wanted to improve his English. We got along so well that we remained fast friends until his death. Pepe Robles had a sharper tongue than my educationist and liberal acquaintances. His talk was more like Pío Baroja’s tart writing.”

Fuentiduena de Tajo, Spain. (John Dos Passos Coggin)

“I am mad about Spain,” he concluded, “the wonderful mellowness of life, the dignity, the layered ages.” The death of his father on January 27, 1917 called him back to the United States and ended this first sojourn in the chaparral land of bulls and chocolate.

Today, the villages of Spain offer the same gifts that my grandfather enjoyed—the same muse that called to Antonio Machado, Pío Baroja, and Blasco Ibáñez. Tertulias, the national literary pastime of café conversation, may be less frequent, but when they spring up they are still inspirational.

Consider Fuentidueña de Tajo, 65 km southeast of Madrid—a town John Dos Passos knew well from his days working on the Spanish documentary, The Spanish Earth (1937), with Ernest Hemingway. The current mayor, Aurora Rodríguez Cabezas, has a welcoming smile for all visitors and a heart for her constituents. She entered politics as a way to fight pollution and she has left her imprint. “Fuentidueña is for visitors,” the town website reads, “to find a place to rest and coexistence with nature, our meadows and our paths of the Cañada Real Soriana, a tradition that gives us the history, nature, rooted with our surroundings.”

The river Tajo—known to English-speakers as the Tagus—is the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula and the oasis of Mayor Rodriguez’s town. It irrigates the surrounding fields. The river is green like a raw artichoke. It flows briskly through the Spanish heartland.

By the river, a faint sage-like aroma is carried by a cool breeze. A gravel road winds through buttes and ravines to a farmhouse guarded by a muscular black dog. Beside the house is a single cherry tree. Its red berries are ambrosial when the sun is high.

A new Spanish documentary will feature Fuentidueña de Tajo and its place in the Spanish Civil War. Duelo al sol, a Time Zone Productions film, will appear in the fall on Spanish TV. It describes John Dos Passos’s search for answers for the death of his friend José Robles, who became a Republican translator during the Civil War and was jailed on suspicion of treason.

John Dos Passos knew that Franco could not truly rule the villages of Spain. “This intense individualism,” Dos Passos wrote, “born of a history whose fundamentals lie in isolated village communities—pueblos, as the Spaniards call them—over the changeless face of which, like grass over a field, events spring and mature and die, is the basic fact of Spanish life. No revolution has been strong enough to shake it.”

If a Third Republic is to begin in Spain, perhaps it will begin in the villages.