The Archives of the Indies (El archivo de las Indias)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Scholars from all over the world come here [the Archivo de las Indias in Seville] to sniff around, to browse, to conduct secret investigations, because these portfolios contain everything to do with the colonies – per geographical region, per historical period, everything. EVERYTHING: cadastres, letters of supplication, custodial sentences, decrees, financial accounts, reports of military campaigns, letters from governors overseas, negotiations, plans for the layout of new cities, maps. That must be what God’s memory looks like: every centimetre, every second of every man and every spot on the face of the earth, described and recorded.

Eruditos de todo el mundo vienen aquí [el Archivo de las Indias en Sevilla] a buscar, a rastrear, a realizar el trabajo de detective secreto, porque en estos carpetones está, por épocas, por colonias, todo, TODO: catastros, súplicas, sentencias, órdenes, proyectos, informes de campañas, cartas de gobernadores, partes de navegación, censos o como se llamaran entonces, negociaciones, planos de ciudad, mapas. A algo así debe de parecerse la memoria de Dios, cada centímetro y cada minuto de cada lugar y cada hombre descrito y conservado.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)

One Century a Minute (Un siglo por minuto)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Zaragoza. Apart from two nuns and an old lady, I am the only visitor in the Bellas Artes Museum, which has a section devoted to archaeology. The nuns overtake me at the rate of one century a minute and then I am truly alone in the prehistory of Spain.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Zaragoza. Junto a dos monjas y una anciana, soy el único visitante en el museo de Bellas Artes, que albergaba también un departamento de arqueología. Las monjas me adelantan a una velocidad de un siglo por minuto y entonces es cuando estoy realmente sólo en la prehistoria española.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)


Travel Notes (Notas de viaje)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana

Anonymus, the unnamed notary of King Béla III and author of the Gesta Hungarorum, c. 1200 (Statue in Ópusztaszer)

For I never passed one single day while I was on my travels without writing some notes, not even when I was at sea, in storms, or in the Holy Land; and in the desert I have frequently written as I sat on an ass or a camel; or at night, while the others were asleep, I would sit and put into writing what I had seen.

(Felix Fabri: The Wanderings of Felix Fabri)

Porque nunca pasé ni un solo día de viaje sin escribir algunas notas, ni siquiera cuando estaba en el mar, en las tormentas, o en la Tierra Santa; y en el desierto he escrito frecuentemente sentado sobre un asno o un camello; o por la noche, mientras los demás dormían, me sentaba y ponía por escrito lo que había visto.

(Félix Fabri: Peregrinaciones)

Note regarding the author picture: 
No image survives of the good friar Felix Fabri (1441-1502), therefore he is represented above by a statue of an unnamed monk: the notary of King Béla III, author of Gesta Hungarorum, the history of the Hungarians, circa 1200.
The statue can be found in Ópusztaszer, Hungary.

Nota sobre la ilustración del autor:
No sobrevive ninguna imagen del buen fraile Félix Fabri (1441-1502), por lo que está representado aquí arriba por una estatua de un monje sin nombre: el notario del rey Béla III, autor de Gesta Hungarorum, la historia de los húngaros, hacia 1200.
La estatua está en Ópusztaszer, Hungría.


The Cricket in the Helmet & Warrior Dreams

I was reading one of Matsuo Basho’s travel diaries, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, last night. Those of you have been with me long enough, know that Basho is regarded as the greatest – the first, the last and the only 🙂 – haiku poet who ever lived. (Those of you haven’t been long enough can find links to an introduction to his poetry and to haiku poetry in general below.) Now haiku can be a bit cryptic sometimes, and I was delighted when I came across some of the Basho’s most famous haikus in his travel diary, accompanied by the stories or landscape that inspired them.

Matsuo Basho by Sugiyama Sanpu [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

I’m sharing two of these today and maybe some others at a later time. Although neither of today’s haikus is difficult to understand or interpret, the story behind them might be of interest to those of you who like history!

The Cricket in the Helmet

so pitiful—
     under the helmet,
          a cricket

I think we had this particular haiku on the blog before, albeit in a different translation. This translation is by David Landis Barnhill.

Basho introduced the haiku in his travel diary with the following explanation:

In this area, I visited the Tada Shrine which contains Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his armour brocade. In days of old, it is said, at a time when he still served the Genji clan, these articles were given to him by Lord Yoshitomo.

Certainly they were meant for no common warrior: from eye shield to ear flaps there is an engraved arabesque of chrysanthemum inlaid with gold and at the crown is a dragon’s head with the hoe-shaped crests attached.

In the annals of the shrine it is written that after Sanemori’s death in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka dedicated these relics to the shrine with a message of prayer; Higuchi no Jiro his emissary. 

Here they lie before my eyes, just as in the legend.

It is remarkable, at least to my western eyes, that in the late 1600s Basho visited, in effect, a museum, where a precious piece of armour has been preserved from the civil wars of some five hundred years earlier. And of course, he knew the story behind it; but then he was a learned man.

Now I suspect that most of you are not that familiar of the early medieval history of Japan, so a little explanation about who Sanemori was, or indeed who the Genji were, and what civil war we’re even talking about. Some of it will be relevant also to the second haiku we will look at today.

The Genpei War

You probably all know that Japan has been ruled by emperors since time immemorial; however, for most of the time, the emperors’ rule was purely nominal and real power were held by the heads of various warrior clans (I expect the term shogun is familiar to all of you?).

Now back in the 12th century, three clans competed for power: the Fujiwaras, the Genji and the Heike. They were all descended from some earlier emperors, and eventually their contest for power resulted in repeated civil wars. (Just to confuse matters a little, the Genji are also known as Minamoto and the Heike as Taira; but bear with me.) The fight between these two – the Genji and the Heike – is knowns as the Genpei war, in the second half of the 12th century.

Their story is well known in Japan and provided literary inspiration to authors for centuries.

The Story of Sanemori

Sanemori’s helmet in the Tada Shrine

Saito Sanemori, in whose helmet the cricket was sitting, was originally a retainer of the Genji, whose then leader, Minamoto no Yoshitomo gifted him the armour; but he later changed sides. At the time of the battle of Shinohara, in 1183, Sanemori was seventy-three years old. He died his hair black to disguise his age and died in the battle, fighting for the Heike.

Warrior Dreams

summer grass—
     all that remains
          of warriors’ dreams

Again, we had this haiku before, although in a different translation.

And these were Basho’s thoughts and the scenery, where and when he penned the haiku:

The splendor of three generations is now but a dream; the ruins of the great gate lie one league off. All that remains of Fujiwara Hidehira’s castle are fields and paddies. Only Mount Kinkei retains its form.

First we climbed up Takadachi, Yoshitsune’s “high fortress”, and looking out we saw Kitakami, a large river flowing from Nambu Province. The river Koromo encircles the castle of Izumi Saburo and then below Takadachi it pours into the larger river. Beyond the Koromo Barrier is the ruins of the castle of Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, which protected the approach from Nambu; it probably guarded against the Ezo tribesmen. 

Yoshitsune’s retainers took this castle as their fortress; their glory, in a moment, has turned to grass. “A country torn apart, the mountains and rivers remain; in spring, in the ruined castle, the grass is green.”

I laid out my bamboo hat and I wept without sense of time.

The Story of Yoshitsune

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is the great tragic hero of the era and was always a particular favourite of mine.

He was the son of the aforementioned Lord Yoshitomo. When Yoshitomo was defeated in battle by the Heike in 1160, he was killed and many of his sons were executed outright.

Yoshitsune, then a babe in arms was spared but was separated from his mother and sent to live in a far off monastery. He escaped from there while still a teenager, and when his elder half-brother Yoritomo rebelled agains the Heike, he fought on his side in the Genpei war.

He was a legendary swordsman and an able general, winning several battles for Yoritomo, but after victory was hunted down by his brother and killed. He was only thirty at the time; it’s not known what became of his mistress and his son who was born posthumously. (There are a lot more details to this story but those would make a post in themselves!)

At the end of the war, Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo founded the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan, which lasted until  1333.

The line quoted by Basho towards the end, about the country torn apart, is from a Chinese poem, A Spring View by Du Fu (written in 735 AD).

Further reading:
An Evening with Matsuo Basho
Four Seasons in Japan - with Matsuo Basho
The Four Seasons in Japan
The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)

And more haikus in the following Lockdown Diary entries:
Day 36: Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus
Day 42: Cherry Blossom Viewing
Day 48: Serenity
Picture credit for Sanemori's helmet: Picture by  retrieved via the blog post Daruma Pilgrim's Gallery (Fair Use) where you can also see a photo of the statue of Basho at the Tada Shrine!

El carácter español (The Spanish Character)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week

Cees Nooteboom bw
Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

El carácter español tiene algo monacal, incluso en sus grandes reyes hay un dejo de anacoreta: Felipe y Carlos construyeron monasterios para ellos mismos y vivie- ron durante mucho tiempo de espaldas al mundo que debían dirigir. Quien ha viajado mucho por España está acostumbrado y espera en medio de la nada un enclave, un oasis, un sitio vuelto hacia dentro, amurallado, a modo de fortaleza, en el que el silencio y la ausencia de los demás causa estragos en las almas.

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

The Spanish character has something monastic about it, even in their great monarchs there is a touch of the anchorite: both Philip and Charles built monasteries for themselves and spent much time in seclusion, turning their backs to the world they were required to govern. Anyone who has travelled widely through Spain is accustomed to such surprise encounters, and indeed anticipates them: in the middle of nowhere an enclave, an oasis, a walled , fortress-like, introverted spot, where silence and the absence of others wreak havoc in the souls of men.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Soria (Spain)

Today’s quote is much longer than usual but it gives you a flavour of Cees Nooteboom’s style of travel writing – and a feel for the Spanish town of Soria. Enjoy!

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom bw
Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

Génie de lieu is the phrase used by the French when a particular site emanates something very special and remarkable.

There are no Knights Hospitallers of of Saint John of Jerusalem in Soria today, but a vestige of the cloister they built in 1100 still stands, a sketch, a hint of what was once the arcade around the inner courtyard. It is early in the morning, wisps of mist float over the river, which is narrow here and courses swiftly and darkly along the banks lined with reeds and tall greenery. The pointed arches are interlaced and look like arabesques suspended in a void. It is a truly secluded courtyard, a tangle of roses against the walls of the little church, gladioli and man-high daisies sway under the poplar trees, but the square space between the four walls is unoccupied. That is what makes thecourtyard so enigmatic: it is open to all sides, wind and air and voices blow through the apertures, it is free-standing, it is out of doors, and yet I am inside a Moorish courtyard. The shape of the ruins indicates what it must have been like, the walls of that long-vanished cloister still surround me. I enter the small church. I see several tombstones with Hebrew lettering, the arch over the apse is Arabic. There are two curious canopy-like structures, one domed, the other conical, next to and in front of the spot where the main altar must have stood; the canopies are Christian, and so in this small deathly-quiet space the three worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in a symbiosis that is unique in the world today.

Why are some places famous and not others? Why does everyone talk of Autun and Poitiers and you never hear a word about Soria, while it has one of the loveliest and most moving Romanesque portals of medieval Christianity? Every true lover of Romanesque art should see the façade of the Santo Domingo and the cloister of San Pedro. They are, with the San Juan de Rabanera and the San Gil, treasuries with the most wondrous details. Florid capitals crown pillars with plant motifs, to which such subtle irregularities have been introduced as to make the stone come alive, Arab influences, the artful manner of showing nudity (by depicting vices), winged lions with birds’ heads which remind me of Persepolis – all those stories and admonitions and decorations that were carved a thousand years ago by master craftsmen and that survive here in the dry, harsh climate of Soria, they are truly worthy of pilgrimage. You find yourself wishing you had an outsize magnifying glass through which to study the carvings: a capital-scope. The decorations oare often miniatures in stone, and if you want to read what the images have to say, you must come armed with a dictionary of Biblical and Christian icons and symbols. I confess to a heartfelt irritation when I cannot interpret precisely what the pictures are trying to tell me.  What used to be common knowledge is now the reserve of experts and scholars.

What, I wonder, is so attractive about all this? I am standing in front of the Santo Domingo. Not famous, so there is no tourism, a quiet corner in a quiet town. Is it the simplicity, if that word is at all justifiable? The piety? The unshakeable totality of a world view? The idea that it was made by people and for people to whom this was not “art” but reality? That a story was being told in stone which everyone already knew by heart but wanted to see and hear again and again – just as Greeks (and Japanese) still flock to see their ancient tragedies? I don tknow. What I do know is that this low, almost squat façade, in which the tympanum takes up relatively little space, exudes great force and emotion. The idea that this was ever new. New! Just finished, hewn out of those almost golden blocks of hard stone! How proud the makers were, how everyone in the province crowded to see the sight!

The figures in the tympanum are so small that you have to get up close to see them. Even then you must crane your neck, because the four rows into which they are crammed are straight up above you, not in front of you. With the four ascending registers on the archivolt securely fixed in your gaze, each made up of a variety of scenes, you find that they lack that rigid and hieratic quality which, for the sake of convenience, we tend to label “primitive”. Indeed, they are both lavish and droll, with their oversize, pious gnomes’ heads protruding from richly pleated garments. And everything happens the way it is described in the Good Book and has been preserved in countless surviving images and no doubt in countless others long since lost: the head of teh Baptist is severed, God fashions the body of Adam from clay, the Annunciation, the adoration of the Magi, the same old stories, only this time not in paint, not in silver, not by Rembrandt, not by Manzú or Rouault, but carved, unsigned, by vanished hands in the hard stone of a barren Spanish province, where serenely they await the end of time.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Lockdown Diaries: Day 45 (A Feast with Attila the Hun)

Locked Down in London, Day 45: Three extra hours per day

When I was not in a lockdown, I walked eight kilometres every working day (to work, back & to the pool) and swam about a kilometre. I badly miss the exercise but I figured that I now have three extra hours on every working day to do as I please. Which was putting the house and the garden in order, first of all, and then embarking on a translation of Hungarian historical legends into English for my children – something I’ve been putting off for years! (It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.)

And because Hungarian historical legends invariably start with the legends about the Huns…

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 45 (A Feast with Attila the Hun)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 44 (An Idle Woman in Sicily)

Locked Down in London, Day 44: The Rubbish Dump

Having found that people now dump rubbish everywhere, the council had a change of heart and reopened the local rubbish dump (or as they fancily call it, the reuse and recycling centre).

We can’t go to the pub, a restaurant, the theatre, a museum or a concert – but we can visit the rubbish dump! Whoppee!

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 44 (An Idle Woman in Sicily)”

Corpses & Titles (Cadáveres y títulos)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

In 1453, Don Álvaro de Luna, grandmaster of the Military Order of Santiago and prime minister under King Juan II of Castile, received the title of Count of San Esteban de Gormaz. That title still exists – Spaniards don’t like throwing things away, not corpses and not titles either…

En 1453, se le otorgó a don Álvaro de Luna – gran maestre de Santiago y primer ministro de Juan II de Castilla – el título de San Esteban de Gormaz. El título existe todavía – los españoles no tiran las cosas tan fácilmente, ni cadáveres ni títulos…

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)

Lockdown Diaries: Day 8 (The Peak District)

Locked Down in London, Day 8: Non-essential

The Derbyshire police released a video taken by a drone earlier this week:

This is Curbar Edge

In the video the police makes it clear that driving to a remote location and taking a solitary walk there, not to mention daring to take a photo of yourself while there, is not essential, therefore a contravention of the lockdown rules.


I get the point about not essential – although I’d argue that preserving your health and sanity is essential and there is only that many times you can go round the block before you go mental. What I totally fail to understand is how can you be possibly considered to be flouting the rules when you’re miles away from everybody else and therefore you’re observing social distancing. Which is, after all, the point of the whole bloody lockdown?!


  • the Peak District visitors did not take the public transport; they travelled in their own cars
  • they visited no rural communities; they were on the hillside
  • they did not gather together; they kept hundreds of metres or more apart…

Of course, I’m not medically trained. The trouble is that I suspect the author of the police video isn’t either. A jobsworth in Derbyshire is trying to inflict his personal interpretation of the lockdown rules on the rest of the country. Is this all it takes to undermine the traditional British liberties?


Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 8 (The Peak District)”

When In Seville…

… do as the sevillanos do.

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

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.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Felix in the Bath

The Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri

I was reading Felix Fabri in the bath the other night (and I did not dropped him into the tub), when I very appropriately I came across the passage of his visit to an Arabic bath house in the city of Gaza. Enjoy! And if you ever have the chance to visit a Turkish bath in Budapest or a Moorish bath in Spain – do not miss the experience!

For those of you who don’t remember who Felix Fabri was (or have never heard of him): He was a German monk from the city of Ulm who made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1480 and 1483. He was blessed with an inquiring mind, an eye for detail, a photographic memory and the gift of the gab. He does at times bore you to tears with the many indulgences (plenary and otherwise) which he collects by kissing the various most holy places in the company of his fellow pilgrims but he can most entertaining when he goes beyond the details of the religious pilgrimage and talks about people, foreign customs, novel experiences or travel mishaps. Of which, as you can imagine, there was plenty of in the 15th century while touring an enemy land!

A Turkish bath in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0]
Continue reading “Felix in the Bath”

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

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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. 🙂


¿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. 🙂

Thirty Pieces of Silver

14 Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
15 And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.

(Matthew 26:14-15, King James Bible)

In case anybody is any doubt, this is not a religious blog and those who seek salvation, better seek elsewhere. Instead, here we are concerned with the famous story of Judas selling Jesus to the Jewish high priests for the now proverbial thirty pieces of silver; or to be precise, with the actual thirty pieces of silver.

Thirty coins.

And their legend, as told by Brother Felix Fabri in his diary of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Continue reading “Thirty Pieces of Silver”

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)


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”