Spanish word order is sometimes the opposite of ours in English, as is the case for cities with city in the name. With Spanish word order, we’d have City New York, and City Kansas. City Rapid. Cities Atlantic and Oklahoma. How strange those names sound, how backward, clunky, and graceless. In contrast, the Spanish cities Ciudad Real and Ciudad Rodrigo sound stately and antique. I’ve never visited either, but I would expect old castles, cobbled streets, and hats with plumes.
Ciudad Real, royal city, is in Castilla-La Mancha, in central Spain, south of Madrid. It has some 75,000 inhabitants now, but a thousand years ago it was a cluster of houses called Pozuelo Seco, dry well. In 1255, Alfonso X, also known as Alfonso the Wise, founded Villa Real on the site. Later the village was awarded the status of city, and the name was updated. In the late 15th century, Ciudad Real was the seat of the Inquisition tribunal, until the tribunal was moved to Toledo. I imagine a page hurrying though the streets bearing a scroll while citizens gather to read the dread proclamation, or the joyous one.
To the north and west is Ciudad Rodrigo, a small cathedral city on the bank of the Águeda River in the province of Salamanca, only 15 kilometers from the border with Portugal. Don Rodrigo, who ruled Hispania from 710 to 711, was the last Visigoth king to rule from Toledo. He is the subject of a play, poems, and two operas. The city wasn’t, however, named for him.
Nor for Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, an 11th-century warlord and a hero of the Spanish Reconquista for liberating lands from Muslim rule. The Moors knew him as el Cid, from the Arabic, meaning master, and the Christians as el Campeador, master of the battlefield. Medieval Spain was a simmering caldron of fiefdoms and intrigue, and el Cid Campeador, as he was sometimes called, fought for Muslim rulers as well as Christian. Along the way he took control of the independent kingdom-city of Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, and ruled it with the popular support of Christians and Muslims alike. He died in 1099 during a siege of the city, which he had himself once besieged. Legend holds that his wife, Jimena, had his corpse suited in armor and sent into battle on his warhorse Babieca, to bolster the morale of his troops. The medieval Spanish epic poem “El Cantar de mio Cid” glorified his life. Operas, paintings, and movies retell his exploits.
No such tribute for Ciudad Rodrigo’s namesake, the Count Don Rodrigo González Girón, a noble landholder who established the city in 1100. Images of Ciudad Rodrigo show the typical old city center with stone buildings and stone coats of arms on the facades, carved stone pillars, stone churches, and the cathedral, which was built in 1190 and restored in the 1500s and is a hybrid of Gothic and late Romanesque styles. The prettiest building for my taste is the 17th-century city hall, with beveled columns, wide arches, and a deep portico. The population in the last 100 years has hovered around 10,000.
Ciudad Rodrigo was originally a Celtic village, dating to the 6th century B.C. In the 2nd century A.D. came the Roman invasion, and the city was conquered and settled by the invaders, as the remnants of a Roman aqueduct and the foundations of a bridge across the river attest. In the 6th century, the Visigothic King Liuvigild took the city. Then came the Arab invasion, and the area was again embattled. Alfonso I of Asturias retook it in the 8th century. The fighting between Moors and Christians continued. Don Rodrigo came at the beginning of the 12th century and began to repopulate the city, giving it his name.
Later in the century, King Ferdinand II of León fortified the city with a wall and re-established the old Visigothic diocese. The cathedral was built. In 1810, during the Peninsular War, the city was captured by the French; in 1812 it was retaken by the British under Viscount Wellington, who in appreciation was awarded the titles of Earl of Wellington, Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo, and Marquess of Torres Vedras, in Portugal.
In short, emperors and lords, kings of Hispania and kings of Spain, emirs and caliphs of Al-Ándalus; Visigoths, Moors, Romans, Celts, and Christians, all plundering, foraging, settling, fortifying, marrying, begetting, inheriting, striking forth, attacking and retreating, nominating and naming, dying while making plans, pacts, and sacrifices; warhorses, dead riders, dry wells, deep forests, rivers to ford, Damascus steel, tombs, B.C. and A.D., years accumulating in a hodgepodge, and years melting out of memory.
None of that history matters to Sabina, with whom I was spending the afternoon. She was born 87 years ago in a village of several hundred inhabitants, 12 kilometers from Ciudad Rodrigo. “Did you visit the city often?” I asked, and she told me that her parents made the trip once a week, on Tuesday, market day, and she, the youngest of six children, was taken along. That was the best day. Something always turned up in the course of it—a sweet, a trinket. “How did you travel?” I asked. “By burro,” she answered. I pulled up a picture of her village from the Internet, and then turned the tablet to show her the Roman bridge there. She peered at the image but shook her head. Her hearing is sharp, her mind generally clear, but her eyesight is very poor. She sat back.
We had the whole afternoon, and I hoped she’d tell me a story about her life as a girl before she emigrated, following her older siblings out of the village. But she didn’t. Nor was she interested in the story I was ready to tell her about el Cid and his warhorse, Babieca. Instead she dozed, rousing herself to look around. “What a foolish life,” she remarked, apropos of nothing in particular. Did she mean her life now, spent sitting in a chair all day, or her life up until now, full of struggle and strife, moving from one place to another and one job to the next, settling in Asturias but later going as far as Germany for work and then returning? Instead of asking, I inquired when her last visit to her village had been, and she told me, adding that no family remained.
“And the house?” I asked.
“It fell down. No one was living in it, so there it stayed, a pile of stones.”
She settled back into reverie, perhaps thinking about the burros—the family had had two—and I also settled back, thinking about a great warhorse, a warlord, and a caldron of intrigue, bubbling and smoking. Schemes, plots, dreams of betterment in Valencia, Ciudad Real, Ciudad Rodriguez, and Sabina’s village Saelices el Chico, where she played before she truly embarked on this foolish life, from which our legends are made.
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