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.
Ribadesella is a small town in a spectacular setting at the mouth of the River Sella right under the Picos de Europa. Cliffs protect its wide sandy bay. You can surf, swim, go kayaking on the river or hiking in the mountains. Plus there’s a cave with 30 thousand year old cave paintings, practically in town.
Well may you wonder why you’ve never heard of it.
Perhaps because Ribadesella is the place where the Spanish go on holiday. You hardly hear a foreign word in the street. This is a different Spain from the Spain of package holidays.
Enjoy this short pictorial history of the town – brought to you by the Municipality of Ribadesella (and Waterblogged).
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.
Today’s quote of the week is once again longer than usual: an excerpt from a book by the English travel writer, Laurie Lee – most famous for his autobiographical trilogy: A Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and AMoment of War. The first deals with his childhood, the second with him traipsing around the Spanish countryside in 1935 and the third with his experiences in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
The quote below is from A Rose for Winter, a book that recounts his visit to Spain about fifteen years after the end of the Civil War.
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.
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.