…during the Second World War he [Jorge Luis Borges] had considered giving up his habit of not reading the papers (because it made more sense to read the classics), but had decided instead to spend some time every day reading Tacitus on a different, early war. In a world like his, in which events repeat themselves ad infinitum, his decision was not without logic and Tacitus had the advantage of a superior style while, in his view, the content remained essentially the same.
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.
The pink walls of the Alcazaba are tinged with a different shade each hour, the disciplined gardens around me, the eroded brick of the fortifications which seem to bleed in places, the gates and patios I saw that day, the excruciating intricacy and refinement of the decorations in corridors and pavilions and then suddenly, in the midst of it all, rises Charles V’s Renaissance palace like an intruder clinging to the remains of that vanished Orient, a proclamation of power and conquest.
A severe statement, a massive square enclosing a magnificent circle, a courtyard the size of a town square, one of the most lovely open spaces I know, as if even air could express the advent of a new era and a new might. Columns are curiously akin to trees, the multicoloured chunks of rock that nature once pressed into these marble thunks to make a superior kind of brawn, bear witness to a new military caste deploying its forces worldwide to destroy empires and amass the gold with which armies are fed, palaces built, and inflation generated. Skulls of oxen, stone tablets commemorating battles, iron rings decorated with eagles’ heads that once served to tie up horses, winged women of great beauty reclining dreamily on the pediments, their broken wings half spread, there is no more tangible evidence of the confrontation that took place here than those two intertwined palaces: the one extroverted, out to seduce, the other haughty, self-absorved; over and above the hedonistic bloom of the sultans the imperial edifice points to the might of the other, earlier caesars who ruled Europe long before the armies of Islam came and went.
The Lonely Planet guide about the La Mancha town of Campo de Criptana reads:
One of the most popular stops on the Don Quijote route, Campo de Criptana is crowned by 10 windmills visible from kilometres around. Revered contemporary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar¹ was born here, but left for Madrid in his teens. The town is pleasant, if unexceptional.
Actually, unexceptional doesn’t even begin to describe the town if you arrive by train (Campo de Criptana is on the mainline from Madrid to Albacete, the capital of Castile-La Mancha). Downright ugly might be a better description: as in many Spanish towns, the railway station is on the outskirts, in this case surrounded by industrial buildings of little appeal. Luckily, Campo de Criptana is a small place and fifteen minutes walk will bring you to the centre of town.
Which is unexceptional.
But you don’t really want the centre of town. You’re a reader, a reader of Don Quixote at that, and what you want is the famous windmills, the giants that Don Quixote fought. Head uphill from the unexceptional Plaza Mayor with its obligatory Cervantes statue, through the Albaícin – the old Moorish quarter -, through the narrow cobblestoned alleys, between whitewashed houses edged in indigo blue… it sounds better already, doesn’t it? There. As you turn the corner, you spot your first windmill. And there are other nine to come.
El artículo de Lonely Planet sobre el pueblo manchego Campo de Criptana dice:
Una de las paradas más populares en la ruta de Don Quijote, Campo de Criptana está coronado por 10 molinos de viento visibles desde kilómetros. El respetado cineasta contemporáneo Pedro Almodóvar¹ nació aquí, pero se fue a Madrid en su adolescencia. El pueblo es agradable, aunque nada excepcional.
De hecho, la frase nada excepcional ni siquiera comienza a describir el pueblo si llegas por tren (Campo de Criptana está en la línea principal de Madrid a Albacete, la capital de Castilla-La Mancha). Feísimo podría ser una mejor descripción: como en muchas ciudades españolas, la estación de tren está en las afueras, en este caso rodeada de edificios industriales poco atractivo. Afortunadamente, Campo de Criptana es un lugar pequeño y quince minutos a pie te llevará al centro de la ciudad.
Lo que es nada excepcional.
Pero la verdad es que no quieres el centro de la ciudad. Eres un lector, un lector de Don Quijote además, y lo que quieres son los famosos molinos de viento, los gigantes con los que luchó Don Quijote. Diríjase cuesta arriba desde la Plaza Mayor con su obligatoria estatua de Cervantes, a través del Albaícin, el antiguo barrio morisco, caminando por los estrechos callejones adoquinados, entre casas encaladas y bordeadas de azul añil … ya suena mejor, ¿no? Ahí. Al doblar la esquina, ves tu primer molino de viento. Y hay nueve más por venir.
There is an old route of pilgrimage, or rather I should say several routes, leading to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. It is known as the Camino de Santiago, St James’s Way, and it is actually a whole network of routes starting in various parts of Spain; the most popular and famous remains the camino francés, the French Way, which starts in France and climbs over the Pyrenees before traverses Northern Spain. The Camino continues to be a very popular walking route and not just for religious pilgrims.
If you complete the walk, at the end you can obtain a certificate, as you can read in today’s quote below by Dutch author, Cees Nooteboom.
Quote of the Week:
Everyone who had completed the journey on foot or on a bicycle, could, if they wished, obtain a rubber-stamped document from him and have their names registered in the great book. “Many times people burst into tears right here,” he had told me, pointing in front of his desk. He had shown me the ledger, too, a sort of account book, written in longhand.
He had turned the pages until he spotted a Dutchman, a chemistry teacher, “not a believer”, motive: “thinking”.
He had appreciated that, he said, people came up with the oddest motives, but “thinking” was seldom among them.
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.
View of the Basilica from the cave church of Covadonga, Asturias
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.