James Dyson visits the woodlands, mountains and rolling plains of Soria to find out more about one of Spain's greatest poets
When I first announced that a friend and I were planning a four-day excursion to Soria, the slightly bemused reaction of my friends in Madrid was not entirely unexpected.
The north-easterly province of woodlands, mountains and rolling plains is nearly the size of Yorkshire, yet it is home to just 90,000 people. The least populated of all Spain's 50 provinces, it also attracts fewer visitors than almost anywhere in the country.
Today, Soria is very much the land that time forgot, yet it was once considered almost the very soul of Spain.
It is where the ancient Iberians made their last stand against the Roman invaders in Cervantes's immortalised Siege of Numantia and where the great Castilian epic poem to El Cid was penned. But for me, most importantly, this humble province is also the place most associated with one of Spain's greatest 20th century poets.
The forgotten poetic heartland of Spain
Springtime in Soria, springtime
as humble as the dream of an anchorite,
travel-weary wayfarer adream
on a moor stretching to the infinite!
Tawny, yellowish countryside,
like a peasant woman's coarse smock,
dusty plush of meadowland and field
where scraggly sheep graze in flocks!
In these opening lines from his first Sorian poem, Machado's delight is clear, but it was a very different world from the one he had known.
Born in Seville and having spent his youth in Madrid, he had already published his first collection of poetry and on two visits to Paris had got to know such fin-de-siècle luminaries as Paul Verlaine and Oscar Wilde.
Left: Portrait of Antonio Machado by Joaquín Sorolla
Now, Machado found himself in a rough-hewn rural town of barely 7,000 people buried deep in an impoverished and despondent country that had just lost its last colony in the 1898 Spanish-America war. So as we visited the old classroom where Machado struggled to impart French modernism to his rural students, I couldn't help recalling his acerbic lines in another early poem.
Castile miserable, yesterday dominating,
shrouded in her rags despises everything she ignores.
Such pessimism was not uncommon among Spanish intellectuals of the 'Generation of 98' and for the out-of-towner, Machado's best bet for such discussions was the town's Casino Circulo Amistad Numancia. The bar and lounge can still be visited today and it was perhaps here that Machado first came up with his prescient concept of 'the two Spains': a reference to the left-right political divisions that were eventually to lead to the Spanish Civil War and indeed his own death.
There's now a Spaniard that wants
to live and begins to live,
between a Spain that dies
and another Spain that yawns.
Little Spaniard who joins
the world, may God keep you.
One of the two Spains
will freeze your heart.
Antonio Machado spent just five years in Soria but his time there inspired what is perhaps still Spain's most widely read collection of verse. Written with a clarity and directness that few could match, the themes of 'Campos de Castilla' (Fields of Castile) range from the passage of time, death and the hope of resurrection to the beauty of the Sorian landscape, the harsh life of its inhabitants and the very question of Spanish identity.
It was 1907 when the 32-year-old poet first travelled to Soria. He was there to take up the post of French teacher at a school in the province's capital of the same name, and like my friend and I, he arrived in the month of May.
Soria in spring: view of the River Duero
The Courthouse and clock in Soria's main square
With equal fervour, Machado set out to explore the harsh reality of Castilian life in Soria's increasingly depopulated and decaying rural communities.
The men of these parts who burn the pine woods
and await their booty as they would a kill,
have already despoiled the dark Holm oak woods
and chopped down the sturdy oak trees on the hills.
Today, their needy children flee from their homes
and storms bear away the top soil from the land,
from the wretched moorlands where they work, suffer and roam
down the sacred rivers to the oceans grand.
Communities like the small village of Calatañazor, which my friend and I visited to the west of Soria, now benefit from some limited tourism but they still bear the legacy of Soria's rural exodus.
Yet despite these harsh realities, Machado's time with Leonor were the happiest years of his life; and one of their favourite walks was along the River Duero, which curves around the small provincial city.
I have seen once more the poplars turn golden,
poplars on the banks of the Duero
between San Polo and San Saturio,
behind the old city walls
of Soria - fortress
facing Aragón, in Castilian land.
These river poplars have a dry-leafed
rustle in the wind that harmonizes
with the murmur of the water.
On their trunks they bear
engraved initials, which are names
of lovers, numbers which are dates
To this day, the tradition of romantic engravings continues. And in Machado's case, such was his obsession with the Duero that in October 1910 he set out in search of its source high up in Soria's Urbión Sierra.
Village of Calatañazor
Engraved names of lovers on trees by River Duero
On the way he met a peasant who told him the story of two brothers that murdered their own father for his inheritance. Machado's resulting ballad “The Land of Alvargonzález' is perhaps the greatest of his Campos de Castilla poems and certainly one of the most chilling.
To the Laguna Negra they go,
below the Duero's source;
they bear the dead man and leave
behind them a bloody trace;
and there in that bottomless pool,
which tells no secret tales,
with a stone tied to his feet,
they gave him a watery grave
The Laguna Negra is an hour's drive north of Soria along winding provincial roads, but it's well worth the effort. Climbing past huge boulders under the shade of Scots pines and downy oaks, once you arrive, it's easy to see why Machado set his dark morality tale in this place 'where vulture's nest'.
The Laguna Negra
Shortly after his return from the Urbión Sierra, Machado received a fellowship to study in Paris and, in January 1911, he and Leonor set out for the French capital. But just six months into Machado's fellowship, Leonor fell ill with tuberculosis and the couple were forced to return to Soria.
In the desperate hope that the clean air of the sierra would help Leonor's recovery, Machado rented a farmhouse high up in the hills overlooking the town. As spring approached, her health seemed to improve, filling the poet with a fragile hope and inspiring some of his most poignant verse.
On the old elm, split in two by a ray
of lightning and half rotted,
with the rains of April and the sun of May,
a few green leaves have sprouted.
My heart is waiting
also - before light and before life -
another miracle of spring.
But Machado's hopes were in vain and Leonor died on 1 August 1912. The old elm associated with Machado's poem still stands in the grounds of the Church of Nuestra Señora del Espino. A few yards away, in the nearby cemetery, Leonor's tomb is engraved with the simple words 'To Leonor, Antonio'
Broken hearted and near suicidal, Machado left Soria just a few days later. In his remaining years he continued to write and travel but the lands of Castile and the woman he loved never left his thoughts, as he admitted in a poem written many years later.
You ask me why my heart flies from the coast
back to Castile, to towering raw terrains,
why, near the sea, in fertile fields, I most
long to be back on the high and barren plains.
The next stanza, beginning with these words, seems to give the answer:
No one chooses his love.
Antonio Machado never remarried and in the end he could not escape the destiny that he himself had partially foretold.
In 1939, fleeing Franco's advancing forces in the last months of Spain's Civil War, he was finally forced into exile in France, where he died just three days later, on 22 February.
Photo of Leonor Izquierdo on the day of her wedding to Antonio Marchado
Green Adventures June 2017
James Dyson is a British journalist and communications consultant based in Madrid. At Dysoncommunications.com, he publishes a blog on cultural and professional events, as well as communication tips and advice. His Spanish-language blog Teosiesta focuses on the similarities and differences between British and Spanish society and culture.
On winter nights after the café-debates, Machado would stroll along Soria's main street El Collado to the town square with its magnificent courthouse, which remains today.
Soria cold. The sound
of the courthouse clock striking one.
Soria, Castilian town,
so beautiful under the moon.
By now Machado had moved into a guesthouse on the same El Collado street and it was here that he would meet the love of his life.
Leonor Izquierdo was the daughter of the guesthouse owners and, after a short courtship, they married in 1909. The marriage between Antonio, who was now nearly 34, and Leonor, who was just 15, scandalised Soria's tight-knit Christian community. But although the couple frequently attended services at the Romanesque Church of Santo Domingo, Machado was clearly unrepentant:
In Santo Domingo, the High Mass.
Although they called me a heretic and a Mason,
Praying with you, how much devotion!