Ten years ago I resolved to drive to Santiago, and so, eventually, I did – not once but several times — but because I had not written about it, I still hadn’t really been there. There was always something else that needed thinking or writing about, a landscape, a road, a monastery, a writer or a painter, and yet it seemed as if all those landscapes, all those stories of Moors and kings and pilgrims, all my own memories as well as the written memoirs of others pointed steadily in the same direction, to the place where Spain and the oceanic west come together, to the city which, in all its Galician aloofness, is the true capital of Spain.
If you thought the Suez Canal was the brainchild of Ferdinand de Lesseps in the 19th century, today’s quote will make you think again. Enjoy this 15th century explanation of the attempted construction of the Suez Canal and its significance from the pen of the German monk, the curious and open-minded Felix Fabri, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt in 1483.
I particularly like his somewhat dismissive reference to a ‘certain Spanish king in our time’ whose ships failed to get to India but instead discovered… well, America!
Note about the author picture
Unfortunately, I was unable to find a picture of Felix Fabri so instead you get a statue of Anonymus - ie. the Nameless - the unknown chronicler of early Hungarian history from the 1200s. It seemed appropriate, since they were both monks, and their faces unknown. The statue is in Budapest, in front of Vajdahunyad Castle.
⇒ Anonymus on Wikipedia
Quote of the Week:
In this place, and in the hill-country at the end of the Red Sea, we saw the stupendous works of the ancient Kings of Egypt, who essayed to bring the Red Sea into the Nile ; wherefore they began to dig through the mountains of the isthmus at the head of the sea, to divide hills, cut through the midst of stones and rocks, and made a canal and a waterway to the city of Arsinoe, which is also called Cleopatridis.
This trench was first begun by Sesostris, King of Egypt, before the Trojan War, at a great cost, and afterwards Darius, King of Persia, attempted to make it, but left it unfinished. Afterwards it was completed with consummate art by Ptolemy II, yet in such a manner that the ditch was closed up and would open to himself alone.
By this work the men of old meant to join together the East and the West, for the Nile runs into the Mediterranean, so that if it entered the Red Sea and the Western Ocean into the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Persian and Barbarian Sea, even to the Indian Sea in the East. Thus ships from India, Persia, Arabia, Media, and all the kingdoms of the East might freely come to Greece, Italy, France, Ireland, England, and Germany, whereas otherwise ships from the countries of the East cannot come beyond the end of the Red Sea, where Arabia Deserta joins Egypt, neither can ships from Western countries come further than Alexandria, which is the boundary of Asia and Africa; albeit in our own time a certain King of Spain has essayed to find out a way from the Western Ocean – that is to say, from the outer sea, which lies without the pillars of Hercules – into the Eastern Ocean and Indian Sea. But his attempt has been in vain, although he is said to have discovered some valuable isles which hitherto were unknown.
Now, in their attempt to join together the East and West in this manner, the Ptolemies, Kings of Egypt, had two objects in view – first, that they might bear rule over both, being, as they were, in the middle between them; secondly, that there might be a road to all parts of the world for merchants and merchandise, and that the Egyptians might take toll and custom-dues from the merchandise of all the world, seeing that the road must needs pass through their land.
And of a truth it would have been a glorius work if they had completed it ; for then men could have sailed into Egypt from Venice – nay, from Flanders and Ireland – and could have gone up the Nile into the Arabian Gulf, come to the cinnamon country, and reached the exceeding wealthy land of India, whereof we are told among other marvels that it has two summers and two winters in one year, an mountains of gold – real ones, not mere figures of speech – and that there are forty-four different countries in it. Then also through the Indian Sea would have been a way for us Westerns to Persia, Parthia, Media, Araby the Blest, Sabaea, and Chaldaea, and the peoples of the East would have had a way whereby to come to us; and so by this work the three principal parts of the world – to wit, Asia, Africa, and Europe – would have been brought together.
(The Book of the Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri by Felix Fabri)
What can one do when the temperature rises to 40°C? Do as the Sevillans do: sigh, and wait until the sun has set to go out in search of coolness in gardens and churches to stroll along the Guadalquivir, but at a slow pace, until night spreads itself out like a black cloth over the city and the river, over the twelve-sided tower where the merchant ships set sail for the Indies, over the palm trees and the rose bushes, the lilies and the cypresses in the gardens of the Alcázar.
It was going to be Plutarch today but life intervened in the form of a sunny Easter weekend. Sunny as in summer-like sunny. So yesterday we hired a boat and made a long day of it on the Thames; because there’s nothing better than messing about in boats…
Sometimes even Plutarch can wait.
Quote of the Week:
“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”
“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing—”
“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.
“—about in boats—or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”
The guide is a layman, he has a dusty grey complexion and talks down to us from his privilege of sharing in the sanctity of the site, a scholar, for the stream of dates and names gushes forth at great speed. He has a record to break, it seems, so I get no more than a glimpse of all there is to see, a mere smattering of the Arab cloister with harmonious pavilion in two styles, Gothic and Moorish, or as my Spanish guidebook says, “el gótico del elevada espiritualidad con el árabe sensorial y humano”. I can believe it: elevated, spiritual, humane, sensual, for before me I see high aspiration and beauty combined, and I hear the self-absorbed trickle of the fountain, but I am not permitted to linger here because the guide has already herded the others into the museum, and is waiting for me like a sheepdog.
Perhaps that is the travellers deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a felling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever.
But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being.
The real traveller finds sustenance in equivocation, he is torn between embracing and letting go, and the wrench of disengagement is the essence of his existence, he belongs nowhere. The anywhere he finds himself is always lacking in some particular, he is the eternal pilgrim of absence, of loss, and like the real pilgrims in this city he is looking for something beyond the grave of an apostle or the coast of Finisterre, something that beckons and remains invisible, the impossible.
Oh to see the Earth just once as a full moon, from a pavement café on the empty shores of the Sea of Tranquillity, a glass of plutonic champagne in front of me on my platinum table, dreaming of an impossible trip to Spain!
Perhaps that is the travellers deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a felling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever. But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being.
Mediterranean brilliance hit me like a bolt of lightning; the whole of human life was enacted on a single, fabulous, public stage against a careless backdrop of thousands of years of sublime art. Colours, foods, markets, clothing, gestures, language: everything seemed more refined, more vivid, more vibrant…
Gondolier awaiting custom, Venice
Street market, Venice
Traghetto (ferry), Venice
The Molo with the view of Sta Maria della Salute, Venice