Guided Tour

Quote of the Week:

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

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Covadonga (All That Has Moved Is History)

Quote of the Week:

It is not time that stood still here, although one would like to think so, it is the mountains. All that has moved is history, and all that has breathed are the seasons. Hot summers, harsh winters and the activity of man in between. Always the same: hunters, shepherds, farmers, descendants of Cantabrians and Goths. Never subjugated by Moors…

It is from here that the reconquest of Spain began. Reconquest is the proper word, but the prefix “re” encapsulates a long work of nearly eight centuries culminating in the victory of the Catholic Kings at Granada, and which began when the first Asturian king, Pelayo, defeated the Moorish troops at Covadonga in 718.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

The Dutch & the Spanish (Los holandeses y los españoles)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

There exist certain similarities between the Spanish and the Dutch character.

The landscape of La Mancha dotted with windmills is no more rigorously divided into heaven and earth than the Dutch polder. It is an extreme division, unmitigated by temptations, valleys, romantic corners. Most of the meseta is as hard for a man to hide in as the flatlands of the Netherlands. A man is always visible between heaven and earth, silhouetted against the sky, and sometimes I think this has something to do with the extremism that characterises both Holland’s Calvinism and Spain’s Catholicism.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)


Existen ciertas similitudes entre el carácter español y el holandés.

El paisaje de La Mancha salpicado de molinos de viento no está más rigurosamente dividido en cielo y tierra que el pólder holandés. Es una división extrema, no mitigada por las tentaciones, los valles, los rincones románticos. En la mayoría de la meseta es tan difícil para un hombre ocultarse como en las llanuras de los Países Bajos. Un hombre siempre es visible entre el cielo y la tierra, recortada contra el cielo, y a veces creo que este tiene algo que ver con el extremismo que caracteriza tanto al calvinismo de Holanda como al catolicismo de España.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

The Paradox of Travel

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Quote of the Week:

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Quote of the Week: Church-Shaped Air

Canterbury Cathedral

The late Romanesque façade of the abbey church is decorated with a row of frail columns lacking a base. Not touching the ground, supporting nothing, they simply frame the semi-circular arch through which I enter.

The coolness of the garden contrasts with the head of the landscape, the coolness of the church contrasts with that of the garden, it is almost chilly where I am now. The thick walls of a church prevent the outside air, the ordinary air, from having its way.

Suddenly I am standing before an arbitrary structure made of stone; its mere presence alters the quality of what little air has managed to come in. This is no longer the air wafting in poplars and clover, the air that is moved this way and that in the breeze. This is church air, as invisible as the air outside, but different. Church-shaped air, permeating the space between the columns and, deathly still, like an absent element, rising up to fill the pointed vaulting constructed of rough-hewn blocks of stone.

There is no one in the church. Enormous columns rise directly from the paved floor, the position of the sun casts a strange, static pool of light through the oculus somewhere on the right of the church. It’s a little ghostly. I hear my own footsteps. This space distorts not only the air, but also the sound of each step I take – they become the steps of someone walking in a church. Even if one subtratcs from these sensations all that one does not in fact believe in oneself, then there’s still the imponderable factor that other people do believe, and especially have believed, in this space.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Roads to Santiago

Images of Spain.

But not in the form of the sickeningly familiar, glossy pictures of crowded beaches on the Mediterranean coast with their ugly hotel developments serving as backdrop, nor those of flamenco and bull-fights, nor yet the image that we receive through the daily news of RTE of a corrupt political and business élite, the pollution over Madrid or the meaningless posturing over the status of Gibraltar or Catalonian independence.

The images of Spain presented to us by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom in his book Roads to Santiago go far deeper than the stereotypes that we are all familiar with. He searches for – and finds – a different Spain: one that is more ancient, more elemental, more real, if you will. A Spain that would take a lifetime of living there to get to know, even just a little.

The old town of Cáceres

As you can guess, Roads to Santiago is not a guide book, although you could do much worse than follow in the author’s footsteps.

Continue reading “Roads to Santiago”

A World View in Stone (Una visión del mundo en piedra)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Santa María de Eunate, Navarre, Spain / Navarra, España. Photo by By Jule_Berlin [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

…Romanesque art is a world view expressed in stone.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)


…el arte románico es una visión del mundo expresada en piedra.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

Three Thousand Year Old Bowls

Quote of the Week:

We can travel to the moon nowadays, but the basic shape of a bowl remains unchanged. I remember similar specimens in Africa, but they were not three thousand years old. I make a supreme effort to sense how ancient these are and I succeed because I know it’s true: three thousand years of violence, of profound upheaval have left this pottery intact, ready for use. I would gladly steal a piece from the cabinet and take it home, not to sell it on for some exorbitant price but to drink from it behind locked doors just in order to prove the continuity of my species, and to reflect a little on the unknown potter who fashioned it.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Mundane

Return from Spain

Sunset over Seville

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

The paradox of travel.

The Art of Zurbarán

In the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville you can see a number of paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever having heard Zurbarán’s name when I was in school, although admittedly art history was no longer part of the grammar school curriculum by then.

The first time I took notice of Zurbarán was, in fact, in the Prado, seven years ago now – I must have seen him in the National Gallery in London before, but the National Gallery is so vast and so full of masterpieces of all styles that I passed him by. The Prado was different. Not that it’s short of masterpieces from all over the world, mind, but I went there specifically to look at Spanish paintings. I wanted to see Goya and El Greco and Velázquez… and while doing so, I came across Zurbarán.

Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), National Gallery, London (NG230) [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]
Continue reading “The Art of Zurbarán”

The View from the Ivory Tower

Should we admire or despair of those single-minded people who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a pet obsession? Who put what we’d consider a ‘normal’ life on hold to disappear into the wilderness spending years in research?

I’m talking about the likes of Milman Parry, who traipsed around the remote mountains of pre-WWII Yugoslavia for a decade, recording folk songs in an attempt to gain an insight into the oral tradition as surviving since the time of Homer… Or Walter Muir Whitehill, who, similarly obsessed, spent nine years in Spain at around the same time, discovering and cataloguing Romanesque churches in the most godforsaken locations. (Both Harvard academics, I notice.) I came across this second one, Muir, while reading Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom.

Continue reading “The View from the Ivory Tower”

Mediterranean Brilliance

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…

(Cees Nooteboom)