The Archbishop's Bridge

November 2008

From the moment I set foot in Spain more that forty years ago, I was drawn to the beauty of the Spanish people. My wife Ruth and I rented a tiny Seat 600 and traveled the back roads of rural Spain to learn how these remarkable people preserved their traditional values. We encountered villagers who were barely subsisting due to the ravages of their civil war and its aftermath. Yet they radiated a spirit that was far more precious: they cherished their children, were bonded to their families, and they looked after one another as neighbors. 

We came to understand that living a life of continuity was key to their way of life. It is preserved by common activities in the town which bind the community together – whether it be fishermen in Galicia mending their nets along the shore or working in the bodegas of a sherry town, where an omnipresent sweetness fills the air. 

The most important indication of this healthy way of life is one of the most natural: neighbors and families enjoy meeting at their favorite café at the end of each day to exchange the day’s concerns. The modern industrial age often severs these personal ties to the land and the people. Some of you who have lived in rural America understand what I am referring to.

We hope to diminish this disruption by supporting small artisan producers whose families have lived together in these towns for generations. When we meet these people and acquire their handiwork for La Tienda we enable this way of life to continue. When you in turn bring it into your home, we validate the heritage of Spain together. 

A good example is the story of Belén de la Cal Hidalgo. She is the latest in a line of artisan potters that stretch back for six generations. She and her husband Manuel are proud parents of two sons. 

The de la Cal family provides La Tienda with a unique type of ceramics that have been produced for centuries in her village of El Puente del Arzobispo. My wife Ruth and I enjoy eating from the cheerful plates every day.

Belén told me that her home town, El Puente del Arzobispo, was founded in the fourteenth century when a key Romanesque bridge was constructed in the area. It seems that Archbishop Don Pedro Tenorio, while surveying his lands, realized that there was no communication between two rich agricultural zones, Castilla y Extremadura, because there was no viable way to cross the Tajo River.

The river narrows where it turns toward Lisbon, creating waters that flow with great force. Thus it prevented transit of flocks of animals as well as general commerce. Don Pedro called for the construction of a bridge and commissioned the best architect of the time, who had made his reputation with the bridge of San Martin in the city of Toledo, as well as the commendable Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

Work began in 1380 and lasted 8 years. The granite used for the bridge was extracted from the Tajo riverbed. The number of workers needed was so great that stonemasons and other laborers moved with their families from Toledo to the site of the new village.

Belén explained that this generated a brisk trade in essential goods, because the families needed tableware for daily use, containers for storing food, as well as ollas (cooking pots), a necessity for every hearth. To meet this demand Mudéjar Christian settled in the area of El Puente del Arzobispo, bringing with them the exquisite art of Moorish ceramics they had perfected in the workshops of the ancient city of Toledo.

Upon the completion of the Romanesque bridge, which still stands today, many of the workers settled permanently in the area. They found they could make a livelihood due to the dramatic increase of commerce from Extremadura and Castilla passing over the new bridge. Many also took advantage of flourishing agriculture nourished by the very rich silt washed down the river Tajo. 

Lush broom grass grew along the edge of the water – perfect for use as fuel in the kilns of potters. With prosperity, the art of ceramic crafts evolved. The artisans designed brilliant glazes with metals: copper (green) cobalt (blue), manganese (black). 

It seems as if there never was a time when the de la Cal family was not dedicated to producing fine pottery for daily use. There is a 200 year old record of their making tile decorations for convents and churches, as well as enamel tiles for monumental works such as the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas.

Today Belén de la Cal Hidalgo works closely with her father Augustin de la Cal Berreira, a Maestro Artesano since 1980. She tells me that he is her most important adviser in the techniques of traditional pottery. Augustin, with his daughter by his side, has apprenticed more than 400 students.

In their studio they surround their students with examples of the tradition they are committed to preserve. The apprentices learn a technique that is painstaking - requiring great patience. Some of you may recognize echoes of Islamic art in the intricate symmetry and brilliant colors of the traditional designs. This is not surprising, since the Moors were a part of the Spanish culture for over 700 years, and their influence most likely was extended by the Mudéjar Christians when they first settled in the area. 

Belén tells me that the location of her workshop feeds her soul. It is in the middle of nature, surrounded by the River Tajo, and built around an old patio. It is enveloped by echoes of the past, including an antique clay press used many employed by her family many years ago.

Among the cottonwood trees by the river, in the company of her dogs, woodpeckers and goldfinches, Belén continues the legacy of her father and their ancestors with imagination and enthusiasm. 

We find it very satisfying to be able to enjoy her work, almost as much as she does, while doing our part to strengthen the traditional Spain that we love.

Our family wishes you and your loved ones a warm and loving Thanksgiving Day.

Tu amigo,