In the valley of Liébana

„Not many of the Cantabri were captured; for when they had no hope of freedom, they
did not choose to live, either, but some set their forts on fire and cut their own throats,
and others of their own choice remained with them and were consume in the flames,
while yet others took poison in the sight of all. Thus the most of them
and the fiercest element perished.”
(Dio Cassius, Historia romana, 54.5.1)

No, this is not Berlin after the Allied bombing, this is the town of Potes in the heart of the Valley of Liébana, Cantabria, in 1937, one year after the beginning of the Civil War. When Franco’s army on 2 September 1937 entered Potes, they met with a spectacle of an almost complete devastation. According to the official reports, the previous night the Republicans, who had hitherto resisted the besiegers, set fire to the town before abandoning it. This is how the report drafted by the 6th Brigade of Navarre after the occupation describes the events:

“Two third of the settlement of Potes has been devastated by the fire that was lasting even as we entered the town. We have captured from the enemy 2 supply depots, 3 cars and a light truck, a deposit of dynamite, 8,000 kg flour and an optical equipment” (S.H.M. –Legajo 458 – Carpeta 14).

In fact, it has never been found out who was responsible for setting the town on fire, an it is characteristic that during the past eighty years no one attempted to find out the truth, just as in thousands of similar events of the Spanish Civil War. In any case, it is strange that the defenders set fire to the town while leaving their deposits untouched to the besiegers. However, the accused were many. A few months later, at the end of 1937 the twenty-three year old teacher and leader of the local Republican militia Eugenio Ortega Ruiz, before being executed under this charge, presented in his defense a record attesting that the fire-raisers of Potes had been arrested by them. This allegation did not help anything. It appears that this fire became a good excuse to get square with the local opposition.

Between 30 August and 4 September 1937 the troops occupying the smoldering ruins of Potes shot fourteen locals at the wall of the cemetery. The repression run through all the villages of the valley of Liébana, in such an arbitrary and outraged way and it was usual in all Spain.

This was the street along the market square, leading over the bridge to the upper part of the town, before the fire of 1937.

Either this square or the one across the river, facing the church was the market place since 1291, the reign of King Sancho IV. An edict of the king forced everyone going to the livestock market to leave their arms in the inn. The above photo was taken from the Torre del Infantado.

Nowadays every Monday is market day. No livestock market, only vegetables, where you can buy honey, the “quesucos” that is the cheese of Áliva smoked on green juniper wood, huge red onions, small chickpeas and grape-brandy, all characteristic products of the villages of the valley of Liébana. But livestock markets are also held in Potes six times a year, the most important one on the day of All Saints, November. It was established by John I back in 1379.

Before the destruction of the war, this was “the gallery of butter” in the Plaza de Potes, where the neighboring village women sold butter on every Monday. The huge cypress which almost hides the Torre del Infantado no longer exists.

Crossing the New Bridge in the 1950s. This part of the town was rebuilt by then, thanks to the “Devastated Areas Program” launched at the end of the war. In many ways this reconstruction completed the devastation. Nowadays still there are farmers who use such clogs of beech wood as we see in the picture.

The tower screened by the snow is the most characteristic building of Potes, the Torre del Infantado, erected in the 15th century by the family of Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marques of Santillana, who dominated the valley at that time and who made this settlement the center of Liébana. Today it houses a permanent exhibition on the famous Beatus of Liébana.

Archive photos by Eusebio Bustamante

Many ancient historians and geographers, Strabo, Silius Italicus, Florus, and even Horace recall the legendary courage and ferocity of the Cantabri who, for example, sang hymns of victory while being crucified by the Romans (Strabo). In the last quarter of the 1st century B.C. the emperor August had to personally intervene in the conquest and lead here his legions, together with an unusually large contingent – fifty thousand – of settlers to start the Romanization of Cantabria which has never been completed. According to the chronicles, August had to overcome a thousand difficulties on the way, from the inviable mountain paths to epidemics, and he was even close to being struck by lightning, which killed the slave who preceded him. Without doubt, the proverbial hardness of the Cantabri found a good ally in the natural walls and thick forests of the Peaks of Europe.

The view of Potes from the Hermitage of San Miguel, near the Monastery of Santo Toribio. From here we will give a tour to the valley of Liébana in the following days.

Sirena del mar. Sung by Ángel Roiz, Uznayo de Polaciones, Valley of Liébana. Collected by Alan Lomax, 1952-53

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