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The Quality of Life: Las Hurdes

     Joan Úbeda reassures me that the paseo (late afternoon stroll) survives. Traditionally, the young men walked in one direction, the girls in the other, ogling each other. Joan does not mention this relic of segregation. He says: "Although the statistics for the last few years show an impressive surge in the rate of car sales, the traditional paseo is not completely lost."
     Joan goes on to discuss a more serious subject. When I was in Spain in the 30s, the primitive region of Las Hurdes, not too far from the Portuguese border, was singled out as the worst example of Spain's backwardness, for which the old regime was blamed. Joan says:
     "Earlier this year I was filming in Las Hurdes (Extremadura), where Luis Buñuel filmed his important and controversial documentary "Land without Bread". It used to be a very poor part of Spain, a web of valleys with difficult access which had suffered from bad press since the XVIth century, when Lope de Vega wrote in one of his comedies that the area was populated by barbarians and cannibals. The Buñuel documentary added the power of the moving picture to the black legend surrounding Las Hurdes.
     One Saturday afternoon, around 3 PM, we were driving to El Gasco. It's a small hamlet located at the very end of one of the higher valleys of Las Hurdes. There is no way to go further from there unless you walk on a narrow path used by goats. The road, perched above the river at the bottom of the valley, makes a lot of turns before reaching the village.
     It was a clear, sunny winter afternoon and, as we were approaching El Gasco, we saw groups of people walking up from the village and taking a seat at the side of the road to enjoy the sun (it had been raining for the last three days). There were men and women, old and young, scattered in small groups along the road. Some were engaged in conversations, others were just bathing in the sun like lizards. An old woman sitting on a rock was knitting.
     The vision struck me as something from the past. I was sure that if I could go back in time 100 or 200 or 500 years ago, I would watch exactly that same scene on such a day. As you can imagine, El Gasco does not offer a lot of opportunities for entertainment. There are a few bars, TV sets in the homes, and that's all. The nearest cinema is 50 miles away, the nearest library is 10 miles away.
     Las Hurdes and Spain in general have leaped into modernity in the last decades, but you can still find some of the old habits of everyday life in remote rural areas. (Some city dwellers also take long walks when they are on holidays).

     My comment: Buñuel, like García Lorca, frequented the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, where I lived. I knew García Lorca, but never spoke with Buñuel. They belonged to the same group which I disliked. I am not an admirer of Buñuel's films, such as "Un chien andalou." I imagine Joan, a professional documentary film producer, is.
     I have not seen Buñuel's film on Las Hurdes, but it shows how the region had become a symbol. The present conservative regime in Spain prepared a documentary on Alfonso XIII visiting Las Hurdes and taking doctors like Marañón with him. The aim was to prove that the monarchy which the Republic overthrew was not indifferent to the poverty of the region and was much more public spirited than the Republicans claimed.

Ronald Hilton - 5/6/00