Intruder in the Alhambra

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Palace of Charles V in Granada
Palace of Charles V / Palacio de Carlos V, Granada
You might also like:The Palace of Charles V in Granada
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Land of Giants

Leer esto en castellano

Or The Windmills of Don Quixote

Unexceptional

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.

Statue of Cervantes, Campo de Criptana

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.

A Miller and a Thief

Being a miller and a thief is one and the same.

(Castilian proverb)

In 1752, the land survey of the Marquis of Ensenada counted thirty-four windmills here; an earlier survey ordered by Philip II in 1575, the Relaciones Topográficas, simply mentions – rather more vaguely – “many windmills”.

People came here from all over the neighbourhood to have their wheat ground. For the millers, for the town, this was a source of riches. As lingering evidence of the proverbial dishonesty of millers, one of the 16th century windmills goes by the name of El Burleta, corrupted over the centuries from Burlapobres (ie. Tricking the Poor).

The Sierra de los Molinos, Windmill Hill, still boasts three original 16th century mills; the ones Cervantes saw, the ones Don Quixote took for giants. For paltry two euros you can enter one of them and a guide will explain about the machinery inside. Working machinery: on the first Sunday of every month, the mills are still armed with sails and grind wheat. The other seven windmills are more modern constructions, albeit rebuilt from the original stones. The oficina de turismo is located in one of them.

The Land of Giants

Tierra de gigantes / Land of giants

The hill of windmills is tiny. Hardly merits the name of hill, really. But when you reach the top and look around, you feel as if you’re on top of the world. This is the famous Spanish meseta, the Castilian meseta, with the red soil Federico García Lorca sang about and its utter emptiness under a stupendous sky.

These fields are an immense symphony of congealed blood without trees, cool respite or shelter for the brain, full of superstitious prayer, broken lances, enigmatic villages…

(Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain)

 

Las ruinas de un granero / The ruins of a grain store, Campo de Criptana, Castilla-La Mancha

There’s nowhere to hide here. You’re exposed to the elements, to the wandering eyes of your fellow humans and to your God, should you have one.

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 Netherland. A man is always visible between heaven and earth, silhouetted against the sky…

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

The weather rolls in. You can see it coming from a long way off. Two cyclists stand out as stark silhouettes against the empty sky. There are the four windmills on a distant hill, near Alcazár de San Juan. As you wander, you can find the ruins of old grain stores. You can see the odd olive grove. El Toboso, the home of Dulcinea, is about 20 km northeast. Two low flying fighter planes scream through the sky.

There is nothing really here, apart from the windmills, the sky and the red soil of the windswept, half-barren meseta. But if you walk out on the meseta far enough and look back, the windmills do look like giants. With the tiniest bit of imagination.

You are in Don Quixote country.

At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

“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, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, “Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you.”

A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great sails began to move, seeing which Don Quixote exclaimed, “Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, ye have to reckon with me.”

So saying, and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, imploring her to support him in such a peril, with lance in rest and covered by his buckler, he charged at Rocinante’s fullest gallop and fell upon the first mill that stood in front of him; but as he drove his lance-point into the sail the wind whirled it round with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces, sweeping with it horse and rider, who went rolling over on the plain, in a sorry condition.

Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as his ass could go, and when he came up found him unable to move, with such a shock had Rocinante fallen with him.

“God bless me!” said Sancho, “did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head.”

(Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote de La Mancha)

Notes:
¹If one can believe Wikipedia (and why not?), Almodóvar was born in Calzada de Calatrava - only about a 100 km difference!

You might also like:Don Quixote (available for download or online reading on Project Gutenberg)
⇒ Campo de Criptana (Lonely Planet)
⇒ Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago 
⇒ Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain

Purple Evenings, Juicy As Grapes

Quote of the Week:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

There were purple evenings, juicy as grapes, the thin moon cutting a cloud like a knife; and dawns of quick sudden thunder when I’d wake in the dark to splashes of rain pouring from cracks of lightning, then walk on to a village to sit cold and alone, waiting for it to wake and sell me some bread, watching the grey light shifting, a man opening a table, the first girls coming to the square for water.

(Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)

 

The Ghost’s Rent (La renta del fantasma)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

They even took me one night to a tenement near the cathedral and pointed out a howling man on the rooftop, who was pretending to be a ghost in order to terrorize the landlord and thereby reduce the rents.

(Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)


Incluso me llevaron una noche a un bloque de pisos cerca de la catedral y señalaron a un hombre aullando en la azotea, que pretendía ser un fantasma para aterrorizar al propietario y así reducir las rentas.

(Laurie Lee: Cuando partí una mañana de verano)

April Fool?

Did a man really howl from the rooftops in Cádiz in order to reduce his rent? Or did I just make it up?

The best way to find out is by reading the book. 🙂

¿Inocente?

¿Estaba, de verdad, un hombre aullando en la azotea en Cádiz, para reducir su renta? ¿O lo he inventado yo?

La mejor manera de averiguarlo es leer el libro. 🙂

The Oddest Motive for Walking the Camino de Santiago

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:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

El arco romano de Medinaceli (The Roman Arch of Medinaceli)

 

The Roman arch of Medinaceli, Spain. Photo by By Diego Delso via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0].

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

¡Medinaceli! El arco romano, imperial, mirando con ojos que son pura luz al paisaje planetario de aquellas tierras tan tristes…

(Miguel de Unamuno: Por las tierras del Cid)


Medinaceli! The Roman arch, imperial, looking with eyes of pure light at the planetary landscape of those sad lands…

(Miguel de Unamuno: Through the lands of Cid)

 

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)

A Short Pictorial History of Ribadesella

“Of where?” I hear you all saying.

Here:

Ribadesella, Asturias, Spain

Spain’s Best Kept Secret

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).

Continue reading “A Short Pictorial History of Ribadesella”

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)

Bull-Fight

The bull-ring in Mérida, Spain

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 A Moment 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.

Continue reading “Bull-Fight”

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”

Quote of the Week: The Council of Trent

George Borrow portrait
George Borrow (1843), courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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:

Continue reading “Quote of the Week: The Council of Trent”