Salinas del Manzano these days
A GUIDEPOST REPRINT
5 August 1983
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: SALINAS DEL MANZANO
Text and photos: Juan Angel Serna
“O’er hanging a ravine is my white town…”
I could begin as in the song by Serrat. But, except for the love with which this article is written, my town has nothing in common with the small homeland of Joan Manuel.
It can be found leaning against a slope that terminates in the highway from Cuenca to teruel. This makes for steep streets from which, on a leisurely ascent, one can delight in the discovery of interesting nooks around every bend. The highway also serves as the dividing line between the old part of the town and the new.
The church, of an undefinable style, stands out on its small meseta perch; although sombre and modest, it appears to want to pass unperceived among the town’s other buildings. Flanked by ancient elms hollowed by the years, the simple bell gable prominently faces an ample valley which drains into a stream whose name I couldn’t remember even if I tried (more than likely, it doesn’t even have a name). To the right of this meseta there is a small valley where the ponds and the white mounds of the salt works are found, crossing the highway and near the fields we see the skeleton of a small house that used to shelter an electric transformer, on one of its white walls appears the following in three languages: “Visit Antiquities 1 K.”
The notice sparks the curiosity of the traveller, forcing a pause in a town that otherwise might have been passed by. A town with 150 inhabitants, more or less, depending on the season (the population increases drastically in the summer months). Here there is an antique exhibition that would delight any ethnologist or antique hound. But it’s the kind of shop where you probably can’t buy the piece that most catches your fancy.
You see, its owner is Bautista Marzal Costa, better known as “El Che” (not because he resembles that famous guerrillero, but because he is originally from the province of Valencia, and as you all know, the word “che” is common in the colloquial dialect of that region).
In spite of the many years he has lived in the area, Bautista has yet to lose his Valencian accent. He is a man of some sixty years who shows a certain suspicious air that dissipates as the conversation advances. His patter is agile and enthusiastic, turning into complaints as he narrates an unpleasant memory. For him, there are no rules to story-telling. He jumps from one idea to another like a grasshopper, not worrying about continuity or letting the listener get a word in edgewise. With hospitality and evident pride, he shows me his “exhibit-museum.”
“It’s taken many years to collect these pieces,” he tells me. “Many of them I saved from the fire. It has brought many criticisms, many unpleasant moments… even with my wife. Now when she sees all the people who come to visit me, she feels very proud.”
He looks towards the town plaza where some grandfatherly old men sit on stone benches in the sun telling tales of their childhood pranks with an air of companionable complicity.
“Do you know what hell is?” he ask suddenly, not giving me time to reply. “Hell is a small town,” he sighs answering his own question, and clarifying:
“It’s lack of education. It’s the same thing that makes them take out a wooden door that’s two centuries old, and replace it with another made of metal, making the house look like a warehouse; or they pull down an old building to build another out of red brick with aluminium window frames and terraces as in all those ‘bedroom cites’, like that tower in the corner of the plaza that is nothing but a slap in the face to the visitor with even a minimum sense of sensitivity.
“I’m not saying that people should live as they did two centuries ago, only that they should respect the stone exteriors and recondition the interiors into a modern dwelling. They don’t realize that this town, in spite of everything, is still a very pleasant place to live, but if they continue like this, come vacation time it won’t seem like they’ve left the big city at all; the landscape will lose all its relaxing aspects.”
Bautista’s museum is formed of an amalgam of bits and pieces in which a Roman dagger lies next to a Visigoth lance above which hangs a lithograph of Alfonso XII.
“In spite of the disorder you no doubt think exists here,” he says smiling, “I have everything memorized. If I go out and you move a piece from its place, when I return, I’ll know which piece you moved, and there are 5000 pieces from every period and style, pieces that speak to us about the life and customs of our grandparents, and many of which show the great ingenuity of their makers.”
The walls run through the history of the area. Tools and tilling instruments are mixed with paintings, musical instruments, hunting rifles, ceramics dishes, toys etc. And even a non-expert can tell that there are quality pieces in this maremagnum.
“For me, each piece has a special meaning. This wool winding frame, for example. I look at it and remember my mother sitting in the firelight winding balls of wool in order to knit us sweaters for the winter,” he muses. “And what’s more, it’s getting difficult to substitute one for another of the same quality, and although I don’t receive help from anyone, I’ll put up with the exhibit while I can.”
“It’s open to everyone” he concludes. “Anyone who wants to see it will be welcome. I treat adults and children alike and I don’t charge anything. At times, people have tried to give me money, but I wouldn’t accept it… What’s important to me is that they speak well of how they were treated when they get back home, and that way more people will come to visit me.”
Well, now you know. If you are ever on the road from Cuenca to Teruel, six kilometres past Cañete you’ll find Salinas del Manzano where you’ll not only be able to relax a few hours in a place where the water is sweet and the people hospitable. Sit on one of the stone benches and listen to the relaxing sound of the fountain; and if you pass by soon, the 14th of August, the town will be celebrating its fiestas, with a romeria in the San Roque Hermitage where bread and wine will be given out free by the Town Hall, with a small bullfight and dancing until dawn. You’ll discover some interesting corners in an area that’s not on the typical tourist routes, in a town where most visitors are still the children who were left behind and could live better: in summer, they always return.
Nearby, in the mountains of Albarracin, there is a town of the same name, surrounded by an arabic wall, that seems as if it still breathed the air of the middle ages. It’s definitely worth the visit.