Feb 5, 2016

The 1921 Continental Tour

Sixteen year old Elia Rodriguez Casas, Mariana M. Prats’ mother, went on a 10 week tour of Europe with her 24 year old sister Margarita and her mother Araceli de las Casas in late summer and fall of 1921. The three went to Spain, France, Belgium, British-occupied Rhineland, and Germany proper.
Elia Rodríguez Casas
January, 1921
They went by ship, by train, and by rented automobile and driver. It was to be girls’ only trip to Europe and by all accounts they each cherished memories of this trip all their lives.

The Great War (World War I) was over and Europe was being rebuilt. And the nastiness that would create World War II had not started to fester yet. It was a perfect time to visit Europe as a tourist, and tourists, especially well-heeled ones, were especially welcome.

And well-heeled they were, finally, with a well-appointed hacienda in the country and luxurious city house in town. Araceli was the second wife and widow of  Gaspar Rodriguez Porro, inheriting three cattle ranches in 1913 from her husband: Saratoga, Lauritania, and Songorrongo, which she would successfully operate until her death in 1932. It was her money now and there was no need to ask anyone permission to spend it. And spend some of it they did, on this no-expenses-barred trip from Camaguey, Cuba, to “the Continent” and back.

Elia was the youngest of eight siblings. Three, including herself and Margarita were unmarried in 1921. No one knows why their unmarried sister Celita (her given name was Araceli, after her mother) did not go with them, but she was already 32 and involved with the Camaguey Tennis Club. She would be its president between 1926 and 1931. Elia would meet the man who would become her husband at the Tennis, but that’s another story.

Elia’s Passport Photo
July, 1920
Her 1920 passport with her 15-year-old photo has visas and entry stamps documenting her 1921 European tour. The debarkation stamp for their arrival in Europe was dated August 3, 1921. They embarked for their return Atlantic crossing on October 15th, making their tour ten weeks. Getting there and back, by ship via New York City, would add another three weeks to the trip.

PDF: Elia Rodriguez July 2, 1920 Passport

This could have been their itinerary — with many intermediate stops that were not stamped lost to time — as gleaned from stamps in the passport, from memories of Elia’s children and grandchildren who heard the stories, and from one photograph of the trip that has survived:

  1.  By train from Camaguey to Havana (one overnight)
They would have boarded one of the first-class Pullman-built cars of The Cuba Railroad’s Train No. 2, the Santiago-Havana Tren Rápido (Express Train) that left Camaguey at 4:30 in the afternoon. Perhaps they had booked a salón, a drawing room that slept three. Or the two girls shared one private compartment while their mother was adjacent. The partition between the compartments would have been open, giving them one spacious sitting room with facing sofas.
A 1920s Pullman Drawing Room

After dining in the rolling restaurant and perhaps watching the sun set over the Cuban countryside from the parlor car, they retired for the night, finding that their sitting room had been converted into two separate bedrooms by the sleeping car porter. I wonder which girl got the upper bunk bed? The next day, an early breakfast of toast with butter and jam and warm café con leche was delivered to their compartments, as they had to be up, dressed, and primped for arrival at Havana Central Station at 7:30 in the morning and get to their ship before it departed at noon.
  1. By steamship from Havana to New York City in first class staterooms (four overnights) 
They could have continued by train (over water!) from Havana to New York City, but they went by ship. Araceli went to New York
Lists like this facilitated
on board introductions
periodically throughout her life, and she went by ship when a sea voyage was the only way there. Why change now.

In the late 1800s and up through the 1940s, there was little of interest to Cubans in Florida. Miami then was a tiny backwards settlement. The major ports of call from Havana to the United States were Tampa, New Orleans, or New York, and New York had the glamour and the most sailings. But in 1912 Henry Flagler bridged the Florida Keys all the way to Key West and there was a two-overnights route by train from Havana to New York City, the first leg of which was a 6 hour crossing to Key West by luxury P&O steamer.

But she always went to New York by ship and by ship they would go. Which liner? Hard to say. At least one liner left every day for New York, sometimes more. The travel agent would have chosen a luxurious one.
  1. They had permission to transit via New York in their passports. So they could have spent one or more nights in a hotel in New York City while awaiting the departure of their ship for the transatlantic crossing. Or they could have transferred to their ship on arrival and spent time in the floating hotel until departure.
The French Line’s SS Paris
Their first destination was France, so they most likely took a French ship like the newly refurbished SS Paris on the French Line. This was going to be a luxury trip and the best and fastest ocean liners then were English, French, or German and sailed from New York. To get as close to Spain as possible on a transatlantic crossing from New York without changing ships, they needed to be on a ship that called at the French port of Hendaye, on the border with Spain. A railway from there went straight to Madrid, another one to Paris. The SS Paris crossed from New York to Le Havre “in 5½ to 7 days.” Then it continued down the coast to Hendaye in less than a day.

Illustration of the SS Paris dining room
The SS Paris was a 34,570 gross ton ship, 764 feet long and 85 feet wide, with a top speed of 21 knots. It had a capacity of 560 first class passengers, 530 in second class, and 840 in third class.
“Paris's interior reflected the transitional period of the early twenties, between the earlier preferred Jacobean, Tudor, Baroque, and Palladian themes in favor of the sleekness and simplicity of her Art Deco arrangements. Paris had something of a magic touch, with every possible kind of interior. Passengers could choose to travel in the standard conservative palatial cabins, but the ship also featured Art Nouveau and hints of the Art Deco that the Ile de France would boast six years later.
“The luxury of Paris was something no other liner could claim to have. For starters, most first class staterooms had square windows rather than the usual round portholes. In a first class cabin, you were able to have a private telephone for room-to-room calling, to summon your steward, or to dictate a telegram, which was extremely rare on board a ship. A personal valet traveling with you on the Paris could be summoned easily from an adjacent (smaller, more spartan) room, rather than from a cabin in the second class, uncomfortably far away.” — Wikipedia
Elia thought the ocean liner was wondrous and the meals sumptuous. There was always something to do, other young ladies to try to communicate with (Elia and Margarita spoke some English), games to play, another salon or outside deck to explore, and the occasional ship to spot on the horizon. She even got a tour of the bridge, the engine room and the radio room. She said the staff was very friendly even though few spoke Spanish.
  1. So their fourth item on their itinerary was a transatlantic crossing New York to Hendaye, France (5 or 6 overnights), possibly on the SS Paris. They arrived in Hendaye on Wednesday, August 3, 1921.
1917 Winton Limousine
In Camaguey, Araceli had already switched from a coach-and-horses with a liveried driver to a car and chauffeur. Elia told of the Winton limousine that her mother owned in Camaguey when she was a child and Máximo, the uniformed chauffeur from Spain that was in charge of it (he not only drove it but was its mechanic and kept it nice and polished). The Winton Motor Company, based in Cleveland, was one of the first American car companies to sell cars in the U.S., and in those years specialized in town cars and limousines for the luxury market. So in Europe she would not have given a second thought to hiring a car and driver in every city and town they stopped at.

A chauffeur and his auto
The chauffeur they hired in each town had to speak Spanish in addition to the local language and served as translator and sightseeing guide.  This was arranged in advance: Most likely the concierge at the hotel they were leaving would telegraph the hotel they were going to and make the arrangements, because the new chauffeur would be waiting at the train station on their arrival to take them to their new hotel. During their stay they would telephone the front desk from their hotel suite to ask for their car and when they got down to the lobby the chauffeur was there to greet them and take them to wherever they needed to go.
  1. Next, they stayed in the Basque region of France until sometime after August 15th, most likely at Biarritz.
1925 Poster
The elegant, aristocratic French seaside resort of Biarritz is only 20 miles north of Hendaye by rail, and I’m sure they made a beeline for it. That may have been their home for the next two weeks. Its wide beaches and beach-side promenades continue to be its most acclaimed tourist attractions today. Tea rooms like the famed Patisserie Miremont  facing the Grand Plage (Great Beach), would have been and ideal place to have lunch. It was a favorite of the young Spanish King, Alfonso XII, and the recently deceased English King, Edward VII. Biarritz was, and remains, a city built for strolling, with beautiful architecture and broad paved streets and squares with panoramic views of the ocean.
Hôtel du Palais, Biarritz, in 2006
It was originally built for the Empress Eugénie around 1855 as a summer villa. It was rebuilt in 1903 after a fire as a hotel, a favorite of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom

Virgin of the Rock, Biarritz
While they were in Biarritz, maybe they went to see the Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin of the Rock), crossing the iron bridge that Gustave Eiffel built to the rock out in the sea. Or they went to pray at the Imperial Chapel built for French Empress Eugénie in 1864 in the Byzantine and Moorish style with gilded mosaics. They certainly went to Mass at the Byzantine-style church in Biarritz, described as a “jewel-box” of a church adorned with icons from St. Petersburg.
  1. They went to Lourdes, to “take the waters,” either before or after they went to Spain. While there is no indication of this on the passport, of this everyone I spoke with is certain.
Basilica Notre Dame du Rosarie du Lourdes
Byzantine style church consecrated in 1901.
The passport shows that they arrived in Hendaye on August 3rd and obtained permission to enter Spain at the Spanish Consulate in Hendaye on August 15th. But they did not have to immediately cross the border. Perhaps they went to Lourdes first. There is a direct rail line from Biarritz up into the foothills of the Pyrenees to Lourdes, 100 miles away. In 1858 Lourdes rose to prominence around the world due to the apparitions of the Virgin Mary seen by the peasant girl Bernadette and almost instantly the town became one of the world’s most important religious sites. It was soon known for miraculous healings. Today it remains the second-most important tourist site in France, after Paris. The Basilica Church of the Rosary is the centerpiece of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, a 125 acre expanse with 22 separate places of worship.

Taking the waters at Lourdes
One of Elia’s daughters told me that she was told that Araceli de las Casas had not been well before the trip. Perhaps she planned this trip to try for a cure at Lourdes. It is said that the Lady Mary told Bernadette to dig in the ground at a certain spot and to drink from the small spring of water that began to bubble up. Almost immediately cures were reported from drinking the water. Soon thousands of gallons of water gushed from the spring and baths were built for pilgrims to bathe in them. Over the years thousands of miracle cures have been documented in Lourdes. Hopefully Araceli’s felt better after visiting.
  1.  They went to Madrid. Madrid is inland, about 400 rail miles from Hendaye. By rail was the only practical way there. It may have taken more than 12 hours to get there by rail in 1921.
Passenger train crossing the International Bridge
over the Bidasoa River between Irun, Spain,
and Hendaye, France
Whether they left for Madrid from Lourdes or from Biarritz, their train would continue a mile or so just across the Spanish border to Irun and terminate there. By 1921 most rail lines in Europe were the same width (gauge) allowing trains to cross between countries without any difficulty. The exception was Spain, which used and still uses what is known as the Iberic broad gauge. But at this crossing, they laid extra rails between Irun, Spain, and Hendaye, France, so that Spanish trains could cross the border just to Hendaye, and French trains could cross the border just to Irun. When the Rodriguez party arrived in Irun, their Spanish train was probably waiting just across the platform for the 400 mile run to Madrid.

Ormáiztegui Viaduct, Spanish Basque Country
The Línea Madrid-Hendaya  rail line crosses the Spanish Basque Country and ancient kingdom of Castile and León on its way to Madrid. We have no information saying whether they stopped along the way for a few days or if they went directly to Madrid. In any case, the countryside should have been beautiful in September and they would have at least seen church spires and other grand buildings from their trainas it passed Vitoria, Burgos, Valladolid and Avila before they arrived at the grand Atocha Station in Madrid. (Today trains from Hendaye stop at a less grand, more modern Chamartín station, but in 1921, the “northern trains” all went into Atocha.) The Atocha Station they arrived at — built with a steel-and-glass roof 88 feet high — still stands, but was converted in 1992 into a shopping concourse for the modern Atocha station built behind it.

Atocha Station, Madrid
Their car and chauffer would have been waiting for them at the station. The question is, which grand hotel did the driver take them to? It could have been the Hotel Ritz, built in 1910, or the Hotel Palace, built in 1912, or one of the many hotels on or around the Gran Vía, the “Spanish Broadway,” an avenue that had recently been developed and populated with grand apartment buildings, theaters, shops and hotels — and convenient to museums, gardens, the Royal Palace, the Puerta del Sol plaza, and other tourist attractions.

Alcalá Street at Gran Via
Elia explained that in big cities like Madrid, Paris, and Berlin they would go out during the day to museums, gardens, promenades, shops and other tourist attractions and in the evening to dinner, the opera, or a play. In Madrid they would have surely gone to the magnificent fine arts museum at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, and one or more evenings they would have certainly seen a Zarzuela, similar to an English operetta. Zarzuelas are typically fun if not outright comic and the music infectious — they would be humming the tunes on their drive back to the hotel.  Did they go to dinner at the Restaurante Botin? It may not have been grand enough for them, but it had fame, and still does, as the oldest restaurant still running in the world. It serves typical Castilian cuisine.

Royal Basilica de San Francisco el Grande
And on Sundays they would go to morning Mass in the biggest and most impressive church or cathedral in whatever city they were in. Today Madrid has a grand new cathedral, the Almudena, one of the largest in the world. But although construction began in 1879, it was not completed until 1993. They would have most likely gone to the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, a few blocks from the Royal Palace.
  1. They went to Royat, France. We have a photograph of Araceli and her daughter Margarita at Royat.
Araceli De las Casas and her daughter
Margarita Rodriguez in Royat, France

Elia is taking the photo with her Kodak
Until I found this photo, I had nothing between Madrid and Paris and I was going to route them back the way the came, traveling back to France via Biarritz to Paris. But a good travel agent would do their best not to have them see the same scenery again if they can help it. With this stop on their tour next, it would make sense that coming from the Atlantic coast to Madrid, they would return to France along the Mediterranean coast and stop somewhere on the way to Paris. Royat would be a great place to stop.

En route to Royat they also surely stopped in Barcelona and probably also went a little off the route to Paris to see Marseilles. Maybe they also stopped at Zaragoza, Toulouse or Limoges. But this is only conjecture. They could have trained straight through to Royat.

Boarding a Wagons-Lits train in 1914 in Marseilles
On their trip to Madrid, and on their return trip to France, they surely traveled in Wagons-Lits first-class cars on both the Spanish and French trains. The Wagons-Lits Company operated international luxury trains or had their luxury cars attached to regular trains throughout Europe. Their most famous train was the Orient Express. The service was similar to what the Pullman Company was running in the U.S, but with a more aristocratic flair, using cars with private compartments that converted from a sitting rooms by day to bedrooms by night, along with parlor cars and dining cars with on-board butlers, servants, chefs and waiters. After World War I the Wagons-Lits Company restarted their business and in 1921 they were running service between Madrid and Paris via Biarritz with a daily train called the Sud Express and via Barcelona with the Barcelone Express.

The Barcelone Express to Paris passed through Royat. They would have to change trains at the French border because of the incompatible rail width (even though the ongoing train had the same name) but it was just a few steps across the platform from the Spanish train to the French one while a porter carried your bags for you.

So maybe they tour Barcelona for a few days, then Marseilles. And then they get to to Royat. Why Royat?  Again, for the waters. There were spas all over the continent and in the U.S. in those days, each touting the curative powers of their hot or cold or clear or muddy water. They were very popular with the aristocratic set.

A view of Royat, France
Royat’s springs were rediscovered in 1822 and a spa-hotel was built by 1856. Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie came to the baths in 1862 and that put it on the map. Grand hotels and casinos were built, a landscaped park was designed and the railway arrived in 1881. This spa claimed to cure cardiac and circulatory illnesses as well as rheumatism with 90 degrees Fahrenheit carbonic water in the fresh air of a forested mountain setting.
  1. They went to Paris. A stamp in their passport puts them in the City of Light on September 13th.
1921 Paris Fashions
An embarrassing situation came to light soon after their arrival in Paris. It seems that the fashions they were wearing, perfectly acceptable in Biarritz, Lourdes, Madrid, and Royat, were “just so yesterday” in Paris. The story goes that they were mistaken for women of the night one evening when they were out on the town. Or maybe their driver was worried about them and, as discretely as possible, let them know what they could be mistaken for. Either way, Araceli cut their evening short and called for the hotel’s seamstress for an emergency lowering of all of their hems.

Place du Carrousel, les Jardins de Tuileries
But where could they have stayed in Paris?  Perhaps at the Grand Hôtel du Louvre built in Second Empire style in 1855 and recently refurbished. Or the Grand Hôtel Inter-Continental. Or at the “smallest of the grand hotels,” Hôtel Le Lotti, a hotel with Italian character frequented by royalty, a short block from the Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Gardens) and a short stroll through the gardens to the Place de la Concorde, the Avenue des Champs-Élyséss and the promenades of the River Seine. From the Lotti they were just a short drive away from the Palais Garnier where they most certainly took in an opera one evening.

Typical hotel dining room of the era in Paris
In addition to the usual sightseeing, in Paris they also had to call at (in the old sense of the word: to visit)  embassies or consulates to be “be seen.” These visits would get visas stamped in their passport that the border guards en route to Belgium and Germany had to see to let them pass. On September 16 they got visas for Belgium, Germany, and British Occupied Rhineland (German territory on the border with France and Belgium still occupied by one of the victors of the recent war).  They day before they visited the U.S. embassy to get a “seen for” stamp for their return trip that would let them land in New York City for their connecting ship to Havana.
  1. They went to Belgium, most likely to its capital, Brussels.  Perhaps they made a side-trip to Bruges, the Belgian seaside town crisscrossed with picturesque canals.
It’s hard to say if they stopped in Belgium or if they trained straight through to Berlin. They would have needed a Belgian visa in either case. No one recalls Elia or Margarita speaking about Belgium. They may have had to spend a night in Brussels to change trains for Berlin. In 1921 Wagons-Lits luxury train service between Paris and Berlin via Luxembourg had not yet been restarted. It took until 1925 for Wagons-Litz to get authority to operate in Germany again so there were only second-class and third-class trains between Paris and Berlin. But the German company Mitropa, using Wagon-Lits equipment confiscated during the war, was running a first-class train between London and Berlin that went through Brussels, Belgium. They would have been on the Wagons-Litz train Étoile du Nord (the North Star) from Paris to Brussels, and the Mitropa de-Luxe London-Berlin-Express between Brussels and Berlin.

Traveling first class, they certainly did not have to leave their private compartment on the train at each border. Customs officials of the country they were entering would board their train at the last station in the country they were leaving and go seat to seat and compartment to compartment checking passports. Anyone without the right papers would be taken off the train at the first stop in the arriving country and put on the next train back.
Elia Rodriguez’ Passport
This way there were no delays while the passengers took care of their border formalities since this was done while the train was moving.  You still see this today on long-distance trains traveling through Switzerland, which is not part of the European Union. When traveling from Germany to Italy, for example, Swiss Customs checks your passport at your seat before your train arrives in Zurich and Italian Customs does the same before you arrive in Milan.
  1. Berlin, their final destination on their Continental Tour.
Elia always noted when talking of this trip that no matter where they went, Germans were all happy and festive, even if they did not understand a word they said. Maybe they were still pleased the the war was over and the economy seemed to be doing well. Or maybe it was Oktoberfest: they were there in late September!

Hotel Esplanade, Berlin
Where could they have stayed? The Hotel Esplanade was one of the grand hotels of Berlin between the wars. Built in the Belle Epoque style, it opened in 1908 on Potsdamer Platz, the large plaza in the heart of Berlin, next to the Großer Tiergarten, the 500 acre urban park with ornamental gardens and Berlin’s zoo.  The Hotel Adlon, located at the Pariser Platz directly opposite the Brandenburg Gate, was one of the most famous hotels in Europe when it opened in 1907 it had its own electrical power plant. It was the social center of Berlin, hosting diplomats and high-ranking government officials until World War II. It was also hard up against another edge of Tiergarten park. These two hotels were the best of the best in 1921. In keeping with their choices at their previous stops, they would have stayed in one or the other, I would think. Except that the following story may indicate that they stayed elsewhere, as I can find no indication online that either of those plazas were in the process of being rebuilt in 1921.

Rose Garden at Tiergarten Park, Berlin
You see, my grandmother Elia told me that the streets where they were staying were being rebuilt when they visited Berlin. Not just rebuilt, but raised.  They were installing new lines for the U-Bahn subway in 1921, and they simply raised the streets one floor level to keep them open while they dug up the street. She said her hotel had their temporary entrance on the second floor, and the street outside was all wood planking. From the lobby on the first floor, plate glass windows to the street were covered with drapes.

Berlin’s St. Hedwig Cathedral
Photograph taken in 2009
In Berlin they repeated their routine from Paris and Madrid. They went to museums, shops and tourist attractions during the day, and out to dinner or a show in the evening. Perhaps the famed Otto Klemperer was conducting a symphony or an opera one evening.  And I wonder what they thought about German food?  They were as far away, cuisine wise, as they could be from Mediterranean-style food served in Spain and Cuba.
  1. And then they started their trip home from Germany.
Gare du Nord, Paris
To get back to Hendaye, they would have to retrace their steps. Their train from Berlin to Brussels would travel through Hanover and Cologne in Germany; and Liege in Belgium. Could they have stopped in any of these places?  Brussels would make the most sense for an extended stop of a few days because they had to change trains.

They had to not only change trains but train stations when they got to Paris.  Their train from Brussels arrived at Gare du Nord (North Terminal Station) and the train to Biarritz and Hendaye left from Gare d'Austerlitz three miles across town. Did they break their trip in Paris, or just hired a taxi to take them and their steamer trunks to Gare d'Austerlitz ?
  1. They were in Paris October 3rd, where they called at the police department.
Gare d’Austerlitz, Paris
This is odd. The police stamp in Elia’s passport reads “Préfecture de Police — Visa No. 128/19 pour Etats Unids valable [illegible].” I suppose the Paris police was allowing them to depart for the U.S. Or maybe the stamp they got in New York from the French was expiring?  Did they do this at one of the Paris train stations, and continued on their way, or did they spend a few days in Paris taking care of this?

Either way, after they got this stamp they had 12 days until their ship sailed. Did they spend their remaining time in Paris? Did they return to Biarritz?  Or maybe this is when they went to Lourdes: just before returning to Cuba.
  1. Embarkation at the port of Hendaye for New York
Le Gare, Hendaye
On October 15th, 1921, they boarded their ship for New York. It must have been another smooth voyage because there are no stories to the contrary.  
  1. By sea or by train, New York to Havana
We know they returned via New York City. But we don’t know for sure that they went to Cuba by ship. They might have taken the first-class-only Havana Special train across the Overseas Railway to Key West and an opulent P&O steamer for the quick 90 mile crossing between Key West to Havana. It would have cut this leg of their trip in half, from four or five nights to two. At this point on their trip they had plenty of experience traveling by ship, and traveling by train. Would Araceli have traded in the tickets she had in her purse to chose the method of transportation that was most appealing? There is no way to tell.
  1. The final leg, the overnight train from Havana, home to Camaguey.
Havana Central Station
Alerted by telegram, Máximo was waiting with the limousine at Camaguey’s railroad station when Train No. 1, the Havana-Santiago Tren Rápido, arrived just before noon. He may have purchased some guava and cheese pastries at the Dulceria Perezosa bakery across the street from the station for the young ladies to munch on in the car, their first taste of home after more than three months away. The train arrived around noon and Máximo would make sure they would be home just a few minutes later. Then he would come back for the luggage.

Camaguey Station, Streetside
Their chauffeur would have been waiting at the far end
of the station, the limousine parked at the curb.
Wow, what a tour! There were plenty of stories to tell and photographs, postcards and souvenirs to show relatives and friends when they called on Doña Araceli and her daughters Elia and Margarita to welcome them home. And they shared plenty more stories and souvenirs at luncheons, garden parties and get-togethers — and at the Tennis Club — that winter season in Camaguey.