Well here we are… in front of the bridge where some saints, nobles, armies and murderers crossed, and others attempted to cross. On the opposite side of the bridge, there is a beautiful and small village that brought and attracted the best of the strategy; the business, the farming, the mystical literature and the speculation of holiness. We are only 20 km away from Salamanca and here, there is plenty more to see.
Let’s start at the beginning, at this midstream which the romans saved with a bridge that allowed to bring and to carry precious metals by the grandiose (and very profitable) Via de la Plata (the Silver Route). The actual bridge is a reconstruction from the old one, rehabilitated a thousand times, according to the needs and trends of the moment. But its function and value has always been the same; to allow (or not) and to control (for sure) who was crossing from Castilla to Leon and vice versa. We are talking about times when the borders where marked by rivers and the bridges were the customs.
On the other side of the river Tormes you can see an interesting number of military and ecclesiastical towers which draw a beautiful skyline, and on paper a bunch of no less interesting places, stories and tales.
Perhaps the main piece in this jigsaw of saints, nobles and warriors, transformed in buildings, would be the Carmelitas Convent, where the tomb of Saint Teresa of Jesus is placed (you know the one of Ï live without living in myself¨) and its shocking collection of relics that turned the great mystic poet of the Spanish Gold Century into an incorrupt torn body with pieces for sale to the best or holiest bidder.
In this story of sanctified remains we must give a special mention, for the stronger souls, to her incorrupt (and separated) body and arm beside her heart, torn by an angel in the middle of a mystic ecstasy. It is a pity that the impressive sculpture of Bernini which illustrates this unique moment is in Rome, over 2,000 km away. But that’s history. Some keep the relics and others keep the art pieces.
And speaking of art- Near this convent we can find the unfinished basilica in honour of the previously mentioned Saint Teresa. Its construction started around the 19th century and is still not finished… such a misfortune again for someone who as well as being a saint was also a great writer and a hard worker. Such bad times for the poet…
To continue with another mystic writer, only a couple of streets from here we can see the modest and cute church of Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), the first temple dedicated to the saint and built, also in this occasion, by the Carmelites.
To finish with the religious section of things to see, if you have the time, if you feel like it or simply if you like to keep walking (a twice-healthy activity for the body and spirit just before the aperitif) you can make a stop at the School and Seminary San Jeronimo; at the churches of Santiago, Las Madres Benedictinas, San Juan and San Pedro or at the Virgen de Otero Hermitage.
And that’s it, after going through so much holiness, we will have to start talking about the earthly power, castles and canyons, Army formations and about the Cavalry. But let´s do it one step at a time.
I’m sure that all this about Alba sounds very familiar to you, but, did you know that it’s precisely from this small place where the roots of the Spanish royal house originally come from? That’s right.
You will remember that on the horizon or skyline of the village we could see a picture drawn of a monolithic military structure, in its times as much vigilant as threatening. They are indeed the remains of the medieval castle of the Duques de Alba de Tormes. Unfortunately, the only thing left of it is the Tribute Tower (Torre del Homenaje) of a Gothic style and reconstructed in the middle of the last century, since it had the misfortune to have served as barracks to the Napoleonic troops just when Juan Martin, ¨el empecinado, the Undaunted¨, arrived to these lands. And the usual thing to do in those times…a bit of gunpowder and the problem is solved, this way they wouldn’t come back.
And so, they didn’t come back. But on the 28th of November 1809, with the cold freezing their bones and souls, the Spanish troops deployed with their backs to the bridge over the river Tormes to face the cavalry of the army that had crushed Europe entirely. A year without victories had passed since the defeat of the ¨Grande Armée¨in Bailen and we could say that some demotivation ran between the Spanish-Anglo-Portuguese troops.
The situation was truly desperate and the solution was the same. Deployed with their backs to the river and a narrow bridge to defend. With the enemy cavalry just a few hundred meters away and the French infantry approaching really fast, there was only two alternatives: to win or to die.
The first charge of the French cavalry quickly ended up with the few riders of the army that were defending the cross, and now, they charged against the infantry. Hundreds of riders full of skill and courage charged in a bloody and thunderous gallop in front of the infantry who waited standing with fixed bayonets as their first and desperate defence.
One, two, three and up to four consecutive charges were stopped before the infantry, blinded, sweaty, bleeding and with more than three thousand casualties, surrendered crossing the bridge to defend the other side of the river.
With the arrival of the new day, the freshly arrived French infantry, crossed the narrow bridge and achieved such an unusual victory that it tasted like defeat and which probably marked the beginning of the end. The change of a tendency in which the French swept everything in their way and the defeated fled in terror. A tendency that would eventually extend throughout Europe and that a few years later would collapse the imperial dream of Napoleon.
The name of the battle of Alba de Tormes may appear in the Triumphal Arch of Paris as a great victory over the Napoleonic armies, but we all know how exaggerated advertising and self-steam can be. Today and always.