El Abuelo's Ashes

El Abuelo’s Ashes

Buenaventura Bravo’s main job during the Spanish Civil War was getting his goats out of the village and into the mountains. This was no top-secret mission, entrusted upon young ’Ventura by the besieged Republican government in Madrid, just something that had to be done; this was the day-to-day life that continued to unfold regardless of the conflict between the democratically elected Spanish Republic and Franco’s fascist Falange forces.

In Extremadura’s La Valle de Jerte, cut off from the rest of Spain by distance and indifference, the necessities of life were either provided by the pueblo, or came in by mule from the neighbouring villages – connections with Madrid, and the outside world, were as sparse as they were tenuous, although problems always seemed to make the journey to this far-flung province. While the war raged on around the country, Ventura and his goats had their part to do to support the village, and so, during the summer when the range was free of snowfall, the herd would spend more time in the mountains than down in the valley, in the village.

The boy and his flock would make their way through the terraced cherry orchards that wrap the perimeter of Jerte – the village that gives the valley its name – and then up into the hills. The low stone walls and artificially flattened earth that supported the orderly rows of cherry trees would give way to scrub and slope and the goats would chew their way through a narrow trail winding upwards through a jungle of chestnut and almond trees that nobody had planted, but that provided regular bounty to the village. Ventura would stop to fossick through the low hanging and fallen fruits to augment the supplies he’d packed – a week’s worth of cheese and chorizo and bread stuffed into his rucksack to satiate his time on the range.

After he’d shared the last platitude with the farmers and foragers and left the village limits, the trail would leave that wild but bountiful grove and zig-zag up a steep slope of shale and Spanish oak. From there, he’d find the river that runs between two mountains, past Los Pilones, or “The Sinks” – the brilliantly white, polished stone swimming pools connected by cascades that created them.

Today, 80 years later, tourists come to Jerte for Los Pilones and for the cherries in blossom season, but in the years of Ventura’s youth nobody came to Extremadura for pleasure. Nobody really came to Extremadura at all, unless they had to.

Young Ventura would continue his meander up the rivers that spill down from the range, taking his time as the goats grazed the diversifying foliage. He’d stop to sit on boulders rubbed perfectly smooth by millenia of springtime melt to eat something, and use cupped hands to lap at water from the small waterfalls. Ventura would idle through the hours by throwing rocks into the round pools with their perfectly clear water, maybe splash some of it on his face, maybe take his shirt off and soak up the sun before it got too hot, and as he moved out of the gorge and up the range proper he’d likely stop to pick the ripest blackberries. Eventually, he would himself cross up into the Sierra de Gredos, where days and nights would be spent alone while his goats continued to chew their way through the good, highland grass, before heading back down to town where they would be milked, and cheese would be created. This is how summers were spent for Buenaventura Bravo in Extremadura during the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Extremadura is the province most west from Madrid, bordering Portugal, a far-off and harsh land known for extreme temperatures and dry plains. In the north, around Jerte, Extremadura also has many mountains, valleys and rivers if you know where to look, but not many people do.

During the ’30s, Extremadura was the farthest western outpost of a warring Spain – and as a matter of course and strategic importance on the Portuguese border it was fought over, conquered, subdued and then mostly forgotten by the fascists who were fighting a winning battle across the country; even today Extremeños protest about being forgotten by Madrid, pointing to the lack of reliable train connections, and single carriage highways to the capital as proof. Of the overlooked and underappreciated region,* locals will tell you that Extremadura is so named because the land is extreme and duro (hard), but the reality is that it finds itself at the extreme southern flank of the Douro River, that wine-giving artery that winds from north-central Spain down to the rivermouth at Porto, Portugal.

In any case it is, and especially was, a tough and forgotten part of Europe.

Sometimes during these walks, young Ventura would come across Rojos, communist or Republican fighters who were using the remote and inhospitable Sierra de Gredos to either abscond themselves out of Falangist territory and into Portugal, or to continue the fight against fascism in a more guerrilla-like capacity. Extremadura fell early in the Spanish Civil War, with Republican support from the under-siege Madrid government, in the form of arms and fighters, unable to reach the province in a manner sufficient to repel General Francisco Franco and his battle-hardened African legions – Moor conscripts from his wars in North Africa infamous for their savagery towards civilian populations in the areas they overwhelmed. There was also the ever-present threat of bombardment by Hitler’s Condor Legion, who had recently carpet bombed the Basque city of Guernica during market (see Picasso’s fresco of the atrocity), or a similar promise of death from above by Mussolini’s Aviazione legionaria.

While Madrid and Barcelona were still to fall to the fascists, Extremadura would have seemed like the war was already lost to young Ventura as Franco and his “Nationalists” overran the region and then went about executing some 12,000 Republicans and Reds. Everybody had a side, and even though he was young, Ventura knew that the Bravo family were sympathetic to the Republican cause, and so he would give the fearful and desperate men and women he encountered in the mountains food, wine, and some advice on where to hide themselves, or where the best trails were to move through the Sierra de Gredos without detection.

Once you are at the top of the Sierra and have walked across a treeless plateau for a while, there is a place called the Collado de las Yegüas, where from one side you could see the Jerte Valley, and from the other the Valle de la Vera. In the summertime, the sky looms huge and blue, and the surrounding mountain peaks around are covered in grass, or granite, and are sparse apart from waist-high shrubs and the remnants of shepherds’ huts. Cows graze lazily up on the ridges, waiting for herdsmen to return and usher them back down the range, crickets flit, and crows mill about waiting for an opportunity. To the south, across the Vera Valley, there’s a vast plain truncated by a smaller mountain range in the long distance, and then haze all the way to Andalucia, and Africa if you know your geography, or west to Portugal. This vista must have seemed like the entire known world to a young boy from the narrow, mountain-hemmed Jerte Valley, and while he took in its boundless potential must have marked a stark contrast from the harsh life eked out in the only home he’d ever known.

This spot was Ventura’s favourite, and the one he wanted his ashes spread across, a wish finally fulfilled this past August, after Ventura’s long, complete, varied life gave way after a full 95 years. And it was to this place, following the young Buenaventura’s footsteps, that I found myself this past summer, with his family, fulfilling his final wish in his preferred place.

By the time I met Buenaventura Bravo, he was introduced to me as Aitona, Basque for grandfather. He was living in San Sebastian, as he had for about 70 years, and had been under dementia’s numbing spell for the previous few. Despite the confusion, his bright blue eyes twinkled with affection, and the rhymes and jokes and songs that he’d repeat and chant and loop betrayed a man of immense charisma beyond the fog. He’d ask often who I was, and when he would be reminded that I’m his granddaughter Ane’s boyfriend, he’d look far off and remark that he thought I was from the pueblo, from Jerte – despite me being two metres tall, brown, and largely incapable of understanding his Spanish.

In the couple of years I knew Aitona, he spent a lot of his time living in the Jerte of his youth, and his already brilliant eyes would shine when he was lured into a story that really put him back in that place, at that time. The bright blue eyes gave the family hope that their Aitona might be able to avoid the inevitable, but then one day he fell ill and what seemed like the next plans were made to complete the hike and scatter his ashes in the place most special to him.

And so, on a sweltering late summer day, I made my way along the same mountain paths that Ventura made more than 80 years before with Ane’s parents, her uncles and aunts and her cousins – Aitona’s grandchildren. The village of Jerte seemed more unchanged than otherwise from his time and the centuries before: the small squares, the looming church tower, the narrow, stunted and haphazard lanes darting throughout the old town, populated with gossiping women sitting outside, alongside the front doors to their terraced houses with chaotic, terracotta tiled roofs, and whitewashed walls with externally exposed wooden beams. None of this had changed since Buenaventura brought his goats this way, and not much of it would have changed for hundreds of years before.

As we walked through the cherry terraces and the chestnut and almond jungle the change between now and Civil War Jerte thinned, and once we got into the oaks and then onto the Sierra it would have been almost identical to the landscape that young Ventura roamed with his flock, his thoughts, and the occasional fleeing or fighting Red to give some bread and cheese to.

A masterful raconteur, and prankster, even through the dementia that had set in in old age, the 30-kilometre, nine-hour hike was made in his spirit, filled with storytelling, and teasing and reminiscing about their patriarch’s life. About halfway into the ascent, when the going was particularly tough, the prospect was raised that maybe young Ventura had never even been up into this part of the range, but that instead it was his final prank on his sons, his daughter, and grandchildren.

Throughout the hike, Aitona’s parables would be recounted, like the one about the thirsty traveller who came through Jerte asking for a sip of vino from Ventura’s father, a wine merchant. The traveller was overcome with thirst and that particular lust for wine that drives those on a voyage wild, and greedily suckled down the entire flask, but the senior Bravo refused to take money from the embarrassed and now satiated traveller. “I don’t charge anybody for only a sip,” he said, the morality to that tale now permeating the family I was hiking with.

We wound around hillsides that plunged into the rivers below, along cliffs that precipitously plummeted to a distance of certain death; past dilapidated herders’ huts that would reward the inquisitive with lashes of poison ivy, and fountains that sprung from the rocks to provide travellers with refreshment throughout the centuries. At some point, our ascent levelled out and we wandered through the long yellow grass of the Sierra with nothing between us and the Spanish sun but hot air and flies. At the spot there was a small sign and a cairn and a whole world of views, and one could only imagine the young Ventura at this mountain peak, looking out over that great unknown, pregnant with possibility, alone with his goats and the horrible stories and desperate situations of the refugees, thinking about life outside of the valley. Maybe that’s why this place was so special to Ventura, because he could see not only his whole world, but also how to escape it.

Times were tough in Extremadura – some of the villagers had taken to catching and eating cats in the village, Ventura included. I still remember his blue eyes twinkling as he told me about catching and preparing house cats, what would become a bit of a desperate times delicacy for young villagers. Ventura and his gang even going as far as boiling up the mayor’s particularly fat pet, and when I asked if the mayor was mad about the consumption of mayoral tabby he said, “Not at all! He’d always wanted to cook that cat himself.”

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Ventura took his young bride – whose father was executed fighting the fascists in Madrid, and who herself was forced by the Falange into a fascist-friendly orphanage run by the cruelest of nuns before escaping to reunite with her sister and mother – from Jerte and they moved to the more prosperous Basque Country, where Ventura took on a job cutting hair at the local insane asylum and they set to raising a family. The family was born and grew up and started their own families in the wet Basque north of Spain, but Jerte was always a distant spiritual, or familial, home. They’d come back for the summer all the way up until Ventura’s last year, when the dementia got too thick for him to travel with.

There was a sombre moment when the laughter and storytelling broke momentarily, as Aitona’s ashes were scattered to the warm, southerly wind blowing across the Sierra, before we found ourselves back at it, sitting under one of the few trees on the range, sharing cheese and chorizo and bread, greedily wolfing it down with big swigs of red wine (from goat-skin flasks similar to that the traveller would have terminated). The family laughed and farted and burped and took turns at recounting more of Buenaventura Bravo’s jokes and rhymes, perhaps in the same spot he’d shared food and his bright, blue eyes with the wartime travellers he’d met up there on the range. In this spot, overlooking Jerte and Vera and greater Extremadura and the world, the young Ventura was returned to the landscapes of his childhood, while cows moved around looking for the good grass to chew on, and the late-summer sun beat down across our brows as another chapter in Spain’s history came to pass.

Photos by the author

* Interestingly, some 350 years before Ventura made his way up into these mountains, Charles the fifth, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Italy, Germany, Spain, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy and Lord of the Netherlands would be carried along the same paths, as he made his way to his final resting place, the Monastery of Yuste just beyond these very mountains. For many Extremeños this is still a great sense of regional pride, and Carlos Quinto monuments, hotels, historical walks and souvenirs can be widely spread across the province. It’s also said that the abundance of blues eyes that many Extremeños boast, compared to the rest of Spain, is due to Carlos’ German soldiers mixing with the local population on their way through the mountains and valleys to the monastery. Like your author, Carlos suffered from gout. Unlike your author, he enlisted soldiers to carry him through the mountain passes.

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