Saturday, May 21, 2011

Castilian Days by John Hay

I enjoyed this book. Unlike many travel books about Spain, it was not all about cathedrals, churches and castles.


American John Milton Hay was more famous as a statesman than as an author – amongst other things he was the 37th Secretary of State. He had also performed the role of private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and one of his publications “Abraham Lincoln: A History” which he co-wrote with John G. Nicolay was published in 1890.

“Castilian Days” was first published in 1875, though my copy was the Holiday Edition of 1903, recently launched in Kindle e-book format by Project Gutenberg.

The book is a good balance between people and places. The first part of the book is dedicated to the habits and customs of the ordinary people of Castile in the late 19th century. This is followed by a vivid description of the bullfight – a bit too vivid for my liking. Hay describes all the gory details, which includes horses being gored to death – old horses that have been worked to (near) death in the intense heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. So, if you are squeamish, miss that chapter.

The remainder of the book is less morbid. These final chapters are mostly about some of the “must see” sights of this area of Spain – Madrid’s Prado, Segovia, Toledo, the Escorial and Cervantes hometown of Alcalá de Henares.

The author does include some background history of the places he visits and provides the reader with a balanced account of these locations – sometimes with enthusiasm but with the occasional averse comment.

There is also a chapter about holidays and fiestas.

Unless I am mistaken, there is no mention of the year in which John Hay undertook his journey around Castile. It must have been between 1873 and 1874 because he writes of the country being a republic. Despite the fact that the book is set over a century ago, many of the descriptions applied to the Spanish people and places, in my mind, still hold true today.

Robert Bovington

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