Two small streams, the Arroyos de Los Carneros and del Morete flow through the thick pine forests of the Sierra de Guadarrama into the palace gardens of La Granja de San Ildefonso. The water collects into a mirror-smooth lake, then pours down an intricate system of canals and piping, and on special occasions, the water sprays and spews out of the scruptures and fountains built in the name of pomposity. The palace and gardens were designed in the jardin à la française style, and Felipe V was inspired by the curated extravagance of his grandfather Louis XIV’s Versailles. Tourists walk through the flowers and trimmed rose bushes, a likely few will be pondering how these grounds were really used in the 1700’s.
But just beyond the iron gate of this 18th-century center of government and hunting grounds for the privileged lies the village of La Granja, and today at 10 o’clock in the morning, the bell in the main plaza rang a slow, sad ring, a drone announcing the death of someone in the village. The Spanish verb for this type of ring is doblar, as in Hemingway’s Para Quien Doblan las Campanas, For Whom the Bell Tolls. In contrast, the quicker, more celebratory ringing is repicar.
Earlier, before sunrise, the summer morning begins quiet and with a single, metallic gong from the plaza bell tower. Shortly after, the birds start shuffling in the trees and the village stirs, and merchants open their shop doors and set up terrace chairs and umbrellas. There are the whistling sounds of espresso machines and the smell of churros and baked bread. Then throughout the day, as the sun moves across the sky, the bells ring thier advisories from high in their towers.
Many do not notice it, but the toneless quality of these bells is particularly Spanish, or at least Castilian. Spaniards seem never to have cared if the bell has a musical quality to it; more important is the simple function of announcement. In most of the rest of Europe, church bells, clock tower bells and town hall bells suffer painstaking honing to produce the right idiophonic qualities (just think Christmas in Holland or Germany). And possibly apropos to character and countanence, the Spaniard prefers just to make some noise and convey meaning through varied degrees of repetition.
There is another characteristic of Spanish bells which is a manifestation of the unique cultural differences we enjoy in the Iberian peninsula, and residual evidence of a historic line between the Crowns of Aragón and Castile, which still survives today (yes, this is likely more than you ever thought about bells, but I had to dig deeper into this, and I’m taking you with me).
The bells in Cataluña, The Balaerics Islands, and Valencia tend to be swinging bells (but not always), and those elsewhere are most often fixed in place, using a metal clapper at the side of or inside the wide, dense bell. Therefore, the sounds that resonate from bell towers through the villages of Spain, the dull tones and clanging that announce weddings, deaths, times of day, celebrations, religious gatherings and memorializations, they express the linguistic and historical differences in this diverse country, as well as differences in landscape, space and temperament. The bells you hear in Palma will broadcast a different wealth of sound to the ones you hear in Valladolid, and the reasons for this partly lie in the bypast habits and customs of Queen Isabel de Castilla and King Fernando de Aragón and their contemporaries.
Today, as we walk along a trail at the foot of the Guadarrama mountians, we hear three single chimes from the village, the steel clapper striking against the wide, fixed bell of the town square, and from these sounds we know that it is a quarter to the hour, somewhere in Castilla y León, and sometime between the early 1500’s and the present day.