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.
In 1842, a nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages long account of his day job. Sounds boring? It isn’t: Borrow’s day job was to sell Bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain. The Bible in Spain is a book I cannot recommend enough; it’s a travelogue, an adventure story and comedy all in one. If you want to know more, you can read my review here.
Today’s quote is rather lengthier than usual but gives you a flavour of Borrow’s style of writing. Enjoy this excerpt about his run-in with the famous Spanish bureaucracy:
There’s an old (1949) British comedy film in which Pimlico, a part of London, becomes the Duchy of Burgundy practically overnight with all the complications that this entails – the kind of complications that Carles Puidgemont, the Catalan ex-president, should have foreseen before he unilaterally declared independence from Spain.
On Tuesday evening the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont declared unilateral independence from Spain – only to suspend said independence in the same breath, the same sentence. This has to be some sort of a record; according to Wikipedia, the next shortest lived sovereign state lasted a full 6 hours.
El martes por la tarde el presidente catalán, Carles Puidgemont declaró la independencia unilateral de Cataluña de España – sólo para suspender dicho independencia con el mismo aliento, en la misma frase. Es una especie de marca; según Wikipedia, el segundo más corto estado soberano duró un total de 6 horas.
Seville harbour – only a few hundred yards of dock set on the banks of a slow river, fifty miles from the sea, yet once the greatest harbour in the world, and still, in the legends of man, the most important. Columbus, Pizarro and Fernando Magellan, the Santa María and the little Victoria – from here they sailed to find a new world, or to be the first in all history to encircle the globe.
(Laurie Lee: A Rose for the Winter)
El puerto de Sevilla – sólo unos pocos cientos de yardas de muelle en las orillas de un río lento, cincuenta millas del mar, sin embargo, en otro tiempo el mayor puerto del mundo, y todavía en las leyendas de la humanidad, el más importante. Colón, Pizarro y Fernando de Magallanes, el Santa María y el pequeño Victoria – zarparon de aquí para encontrar un mundo nuevo, o para ser primero en toda la historia en la circunnavegación del globo.
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.
Caravels were the preferred ships for discovery of the Portuguese and the Spanish in the 15th and 16th century on account of their seaworthiness, speed and manoeuvrability, not to mention their shallow draught which allowed the close exploration of unknown coasts. Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama and Columbus all sailed in caravels; one of Magellan’s ships was a caravel too. Having recently read a book about Portuguese explorers and visited Portugal, I noticed these famous ships (perhaps understandably) were just about depicted everywhere…
Carabelas fueron los naves preferidos de los navegantes portugueses y españoles en la era de los descubrimientos en los siglos XV y XVI, debido a su navegabilidad y velocidad, por no mencionar que por ser barcos de poco calado los navegantes pudieron acercarse más a las costas desconocidas. Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama y Cristóbal Colón navegaban en carabelas; uno de los naves de Magallanes también fue una carabela. Como acabo de leer un libro sobre los navegantes portugueses, en mi viaje reciente a Lisboa me fijaba en como esos barcos famosos eran representados en todas partes (tal vez con razón)…
Last month when I reposted Return from the Stars for Throwback Thursday, it went weird and hardly any of you got to see it. I sought enlightenment from support and they told me I was doing it all wrong. I'm trying their way now.
The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?
Originally published on 9 October 2015
Why Homer Doesn’t Matter
Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.
La gloria “será nuestra, que fuemos los primeros inventores de obra tan necessaria”
En 1492, la primera gramática del castellano fue escrito por Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), un humanista renacentista español educado en las universidades de Salamanca y Bolonia (Italia). Y ni siquiera era la obra sólo la primera gramática del castellano; era la primera gramática de cualquier idioma moderno de Europa, y punto. La primera gramática del inglés no fue publicado hasta casi un siglo más tarde (en 1586), lo del francés en 1550.
The glory “will be ours, as we were the first inventors of a work so necessary”
In 1492, the first grammar of Castilian – the language better known as Spanish to English-speakers – was written by Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522), a Spanish Renaissance humanist, educated in the universities of Salamanca and Bologne (Italy). And not only it was the first Spanish grammar; it was the first grammar of a modern European language, full stop. The first English grammar was only published nearly a century later (in 1586), the first French one in 1550.
When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,
En un lugar de la Mancha,
de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…
…I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.
(Cervantes once looked at these.)
—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…
It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.
Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.
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.