Toledo, time changes many things but it hasn’t changed you.

Although you never expect it when you are in your late teens, time does creep up on us all. Then it moves so fast, memories, images, words, emotions, all become blurred. Sometimes blurring into each other, sometimes totally forgotten, other times so clear and crisp it feels like you have been transported back through time.  And so I travelled back – to the years 1987 and 2000 – to the times I had visited Toledo previously. It was like time had stood still and yet there has been a great schism in my memories.

I though that Nina had visited Toledo but had failed to include it in her memoir She Travelled Alone in Spain. This is not the case. Nina did not get to visit Toledo as she travelled through Spain in 1934. With the atrocities that followed soon after her tour, I wonder if she ever got to Toledo at all. It is a shame Nina missed it. Toledo is not only a beautiful walled town protected on three fronts by the River Tagus, the longest river on the Iberian peninsula, but Nina would have revelled in its history as the political and religious (Catholic) capital of Spain. She also would have loved the beautiful landscapes that surround the city which can be seen from every vantage point

I had decided the best way for me to travel was to do a dreaded ‘day tour’. The very words bring fear into me every time but sometimes it is the best and easiest way of travelling somewhere if you are travelling solo. The tour was six hours. I opted for the two hour walking tour to start with, thinking four hours would be enough to revisit the places of my past. I also viewed the visit as my personal pilgrimage. So off I went. As the bus made it way through the outskirts of Madrid and trundled along the highway to Toledo, I started to plan my day around the places I should visit again.  My original plan was the Church of St Thomas where El Greco’s best painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, is kept. The second item on the itinerary was the Cathedral, third the Alcazar and the fourth added on while on the bus to Toledo was the House of Manchego Cheese – why not?

The walking tour dragged on and on and on and I didn’t actually learn anything new or visit places I hadn’t seen. I just could not remember everything. I have walked this town twice before both times over a number of days. I knew my way around and where everything was. The upside of the walking tour was two other solo travellers, an American and a Brazilian. Madrid had been proving a little ‘stand-offish’ towards me. It is harder to break through in the big city as a solo traveller. My favourite city in the world was making it difficult for me so I loved meeting two other English speakers also travelling solo. We chatted when we could in between the tour guides commentary – it was a bilingual tour so always first in Spanish and then in English. No wonder it dragged – well that and some of us were slow walkers. Finally it ended right behind the church of Santo Tomas, the first stop on my personal pilgrimage.  I told my two solo companions that I would visit the church first and then catch up with them for lunch. I don’t remember having to pay the other times I had visited the church, but like most of the big Catholic tourist attractions these days, I had to pay to get in.

On my first visit in 1987, we stayed with relatives of my companion, Eladio Jose. I believe it was his mother’s cousin. We stayed just outside of the old town and the cousin was a tour guide at the Cathedral. So for a few days, we had a lively, energetic and personal tour guide. It was he that took as to the church on his way to work that morning. It was the first time I had really looked at a Greco and I was in awe of the scene he had painted. The fine detail, right down the priest’s vestments. I then visited again, with Robert and our son Joe in 2000. I remember we sat alone in the church, the three of us looking at the painting. Imagine my surprise when on walking into the church, the painting was not at the alter as I remembered. It was off to the side as you enter the church. I asked the security guard if the painting had been moved from the alter to this place. “No, no, no. Siempre aqui. Siempre”. It has always been there. My memories were not reality. I stayed for some time looking at every aspect of the painting before keeping my promise to catch up for lunch.

I found my two new friends from the bus easily enough and had a leisurely lunch. I hadn’t been looking at my watch or the time but as lunch ended and they started making plans for what they would like to see, I offered my apologies on leaving them, but I had an agenda. Next stop the Cathedral.

I know I have spoken of eye-popping Cathedrals in other blogs but I had forgotten, another memory lost but now reclaimed – just how astounding the Cathedral in Toledo is.  It took my breath away. Again. When I walked into the Cathedral back in 2000, I turned to Robert and said “I have just remembered something. When I was here last time with Eladio Jose and his relative, the Cathedral tour guide, he showed us a secret hole, behind a column. Come on. We  have to find it”. Obviously my memories were better 17 years ago. We searched the columns and found it. It was a hole with thick wire mesh over it. “Put your fingers in Robert. Feel what’s in there, I said to Robert then.” Robert did and made a face “what is it?”, he asked. “It’s part of St Peter’s skull bone”, I said. Well that was what I had been told. “Euwwww, Robert quickly pulled his hand out and we laughed at the strange Spanish devotion to relics. On this visit I again, looked for the secret hole but this time memory failed me. I could not find it anywhere.

I wanted to stay in the Cathedral a bit longer but knew that time was moving fast. Off I raced towards the Alcazar. I past the House of Manchego Cheese but decided I would come back to that. The Alcazar was more important. At the start of the walking tour earlier that day, I asked the guide if they still had the room where the telephone call was made in the Alcazar. The room I was asking about played an important role in the Spanish Civil War. Strategically important due to its proximity to Madrid. In the room that day, as the war raged outside the Colonel in charge received a phone call from Republican forces outside They had taken his 16 year old son, Luis, as a hostage and demanded the Alcazar be surrendered or they would kill Luis. Luis was put on the phone to talk to his father and told him if he did not surrender he would be shot. His father replied “Then commend your soul to God, shout ‘Viva Cristo Rey’ and die like a hero. He was shot. On my first visit there was an audio re-enactment of the phone call.  According to the guide the audio no longer existed, the words could be read but I didn’t quite understand if the room was still there or  not. The room had not been redecorated since that fateful day in 1936. I wanted to see if it had changed in the past 17 years.  I had also read that since my previous visits, the basements and cellars had been opened to the public and you could view Roman ruins. I knew this was the place Eladio Jose’s mother a her family had sought refuge from the war when it reached Toledo. Previously I had not been to the basements. I reached the doors of the Alcazar and the security guard told me they had just closed. It wasn’t to be. I looked at my watch and discovered it was too late to go back to the House of Manchengo Cheese, so that would be  missed too. Today, time like my memory, had failed me.

As I sat near the meeting place to go back to Madrid. I wrote a few postcards and I cursed the fact that I had chosen both to do the waste of time walking tour and take the long lunch with new friends instead of sticking to my own personal pilgrimage. I had seen the beautiful hotel that Robert, Joseph and I stayed in on my walk through and around the town. I laughed at the memory of Joseph, who was about two years old at the time, crying. We could not get him to settle to go to sleep. We were trying everything we could in our toddler-taming-bag-of-tricks, when the phone in our room rang. I answered and a very polite male with a German accent asked if we could stop the baby crying. I asked him if he would like me to hit the baby on the head before hanging up. The next day at breakfast Joseph was all smiles and the perfect child, Robert and I were giving every male that looked slightly German the stink eye.  Although my memory played tricks and time was cruel my day in Toledo was not wasted. I got to light a candle in the church of Santo Tomas for Eladio Jose and I had some great memories of both my previous visits to Toledo. If I ever have the chance again to visit Toledo, I will. It is a hauntingly beautiful town – equal in true natural beauty, built history and sadness.

 

Women and the art of war

“Train journeys in Spain are never dull”, so said Nina. She explained you could look at the landscape of if you found that dull, you could visit the restaurant car. You would surely find the restaurant car interesting – although you may not like the food which is full of surprises as it is elsewhere in Spain. Or, you could people watch as Nina did. On the train from Cordoba to Madrid, Nina shared her compartment with a married couple, “both shapelessly fat”. Nina thought the man looked fifty and the woman forty-five. Nina picks them as a middle-class couple as the man’s hands show no sign of labour and he wears his thumb nail at “Chinese length”. He, by all accounts busied himself with the paper, while she ate two big sugar buns her husband had bought for her. He rarely gives his wife the attention she seeks but Nina believes as husband and wife they are very contented.

This is the story that begins Nina’s chapter on the Women of Spain an anthropological insight into a woman’s place in 1934 Spain. They were allowed to vote, having received the right in 1931. However, women were the property of men. Either their husbands, their fathers or their brothers owned the woman. Nina says “she is still almost as much a prisoner as in the days when she saw the world only through the fretted screens of her window. Many women were not allowed out in the streets with being accompanied by their husband or an old servant. Nina recounts a story she was told by an American woman. A friend of hers, another American woman was married to a Spaniard. They went on holidays, his mistress was on the same train, in another carriage. She stayed in the same hotel on another floor. The man would meet friends and take his mistress with him, as his wife was too much of a lady to be with the men. The wife insisted if the mistress was not sent away, she would leave. The man said to his wife, if you leave, I will call the police and make you return. She left, the police picked her up on the train and took her back to the holiday hotel. The mistress stayed on.

Today’s modern woman of Spain would not tolerate this. Even though Spain is still, very much a man’s world (in the minds of men) Spain maintains a high rank globally in female representation in Parliament. It is number 14 in the world. For comparison’s sake, New Zealand is at number 18 and Australia? You’ll find it at number 50. Women in Spain are allowed to marry other women. There are no barriers to equality when it comes to love in Spain. Unlike Australia. The women in Spain are modern and chic. Like women everywhere, they juggle their lives, their loves, their families and their careers.

This morning, I visited the Queen Sofia National Centre for Art in Madrid. I had gone to see Guernica, the Pablo Picasso painting I love so much. Guernica is a town in the north of Spain, in the Basque region. It was one of the first aerial bombings by German and Italian air forces in support of Franco’s Civil War. Hundreds and hundreds of innocent civilians were killed in a three hour air raid. Picasso’s painting remembers the horrors of the bombing. The galleries sit in a fantastic art space in an old hospital down near the main train station. Each gallery moves through eras of Spain and Spanish history. I started my visit pleasantly enough going through the cubism and surrealism exhibitions and found that I like the work of Palencia. His painting reminded me of landscapes I had seen on the Camino and wished I could paint like him. On I moved through the galleries getting more excited about Guernica.  I did not think, I would get to stand before Guernica and look at it. Really look at it. I thought  I would be looking at it through the back of people’s heads and through others iPhones as they took photos of one of the world’s greatest paintings – but this was not the case. All of a sudden it was there in front of me. There were other people but not hoards of tourist. Respectful, art lovers, Spaniards, quietly taking in the horror the painting shows. When I had looked enough I walked into the next room. There were photos from the International Press Agency and many from Robert Capa showing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. There were photos of women crying over dead children in front of bombed and shot out buildings, there were photos of women firing rifles from the Alcazar during the final fateful battle in Toledo, there were women making bombs, women and children sleeping on the streets. It was hard not to be moved by the images, the sadness in them. Most strikingly, there is a photomural by Josep Renau. One side is a  woman in a traditional bridal dress of Salamanca, the other side is a militia women, wearing trousers and looking confident. The message overlaid on the militia woman reads “The new woman of Spain has rid herself of the superstitions and misery of her past enslavement and is reborn and capable of taking part in the celebration of the future. I can only think to myself ‘what price, freedom?’. Nina would not have seen either Renau’s photo mural or Picasso’s Guernica, she did not know of the future horrors Spain would endure.

I continued my journey through propaganda posters for both sides of the Spanish Civil War, many with women as the image. I was very sad as I walked into the next gallery. It was full of Dali’s follies. I was not in the mood, so I left. As I walked into the bright sunlight I felt the need to visit Toledo again. I have been twice before but was not going to go this time as it would mean travelling backwards. Nina went but didn’t write about it which is quite frustrating for me. Why did she not write about Toledo it is such a magnificent town with so much history? When I first visited back in 1987, we went to the Alcazar. My companion wanted to see it as his grandmother took her young daughters, including his mother,  to the Alcazar for safety when war reached the doorstep of Toledo. My companion’s mother, just a young girl of six at the times, stayed down in the basement as the war raged around outside. I have always felt a personal connection to Toledo and the Alcazar because of this visit and my connection to the family. The need to visit again was now overwhelming. I started trying to plan in my head when I could go, how best to get there, when suddenly I saw a sign “Day Trip to Toledo”. There is my answer.

 

Good grief Cordoba.

Regrets? I’ve had a few. I regretted leaving Seville – eight days was enough to see all the things I needed to see in a leisurely manner. However, to experience and see all the things I wanted to see – I would need a life-time. As I pulled away in the taxi for the train station, I looked back at what had been my home for the past eight days and let out a sigh. The taxi whizzed me out of the San Lorenzo district and into the busy streets back out to the train station. I have been pretty pleased with my ability to do every day things, like order in restaurants, buy train tickets and stamps, send parcels back to Australia. As the station assistant handed over my ticket, he explained in slow Spanish that I was to take the train that said ‘Madrid’ on the departures board that left at 11:45. It would stop at Cordoba. I thanked him and made my way to platform 2, where a smart, new, bullet style train waited for me and the other passengers. Cordoba was the first stop and it took only 35 minutes to get there. I barely had time to admire the landscape – and rave on about it – as Nina would have in the slow all-stations trains of 1934.

I always plan the trip a day or two before I leave. I work out if I can walk, catch public transport or if I need to get a cab from the train station to my accommodation. I prefer to walk as it gives me the street level view of the new place I am in. However, dragging the wheely bag over cobblestones makes my arm feel like it is on one of those exercise machines that ‘blast fat’. At least I’ll have one skinny arm.

Cordoba was cold when I arrived. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, there was not a cloud in sight but it was cold. I commented on it to the taxi driver. He assured me if I stood in the sun I would soon be very hot and as it was only just after midday, the day still had a long way to go before it warmed up at about four or five o’clock. After checking in and dropping my bag at the hostal, I went out for my walk and to have lunch. I like to take in the town and leave the real sight-seeing and visiting of monuments, until a day or two after I arrive. I choose a café for lunch on my street and take a seat on the outside. A loud woman walks up to the café, chatting with the staff and orders a beer. She is short but is as tall as she is wide. She yells for a beer and continually yells at people she knows walking by, occasionally having a chat to herself. The staff bring her a tapa to have with her beer. She complains loudly about their choice of tapa and asks for olives and prawns. Once the prawns arrive, she picks one up off her plate. She holds it between two fingers with the prawn head looking at her. She starts talking to the prawn. This continues for a few minutes before she rips off its head, sucks and what is inside and then eats the rest of the prawn. This happens with every prawn. Although it takes her quite some time to finish the plate as she often jumps up and runs after someone on the street. A beggar comes up and asks for money. I shake my head and he moves on to the prawn woman. She swears loudly at him in Spanish – I suspect they know each other. Aware he will not get money from her he asks for a cigarette from her instead. Now, she really loses it, yelling, swearing and gesticulating wildly. I look on in amazement and can barely conceal my mirth. As I leave I say goodbye to her.

Cordoba feels like a big country town. People are relaxed and friendly. The bitter orange trees that line the streets are full of ripe fruit.  Many of the townsfolk say hello and the old men stare and say ‘guapa’ to me.  I walked for just a few minutes after lunch and all of a sudden, I am at I am at the Mezquita, The Mezquita is the old mosque –  now a Cathedral yet it still known as the Mezquita. Nina had appreciated the non-name change, as do I. I notice there is no queue to enter the Mezquita – therefore I break from my usual routine buy a ticket and enter immediately. It is almost empty – this huge forest of arches. I stand still, transfixed by the beauty and the silence. There is certainly no feeling of being in a Catholic church when you stand in the Mezquita. Nina described it as “uncompromisingly savage and beautiful. And the moment you walk in from the white glare of summer, and the Mosque reveals itself in it triumphant paganism, is the most thrilling, I think, in all of Spain”.  Nail. On. Head. Nina! I stood there for several moments before beginning my tour around the edges of this vast, silent space. Around the edges are Catholic chapels to the saints. I play my usual ‘spot the saints siblings are named after’ game. Two, St Therese and St Bernando. Surprisgly, I never make it past two. Three – if I count Mary but she is in every church. All the chapels are like all the chapels in every other Cathedral I have visited. Nooks with paintings and statues to the local saints and the Holy Family. I must be tiring of religious art. I am aghast but understanding that history – and more importantly my old friend, Carlos V, allowed what once must have been perfection, to be scarred by these alters. Although Nina reported “even the Emperor, Charles V, whose protection permitted the Cathedral chapter to carry out the scheme with impunity, stood aghast when he visited the Mezquita for the first time and realized the lovely perfection they had marred but failed to ruin with their banalities”.  I exited the Mezquita by the orange grove and feel the warm sun on my face. In every mosque turned cathedral in Spain, the once ablution area, where Muslims would wash before prayer, have been planted with orange trees. Bitter orange trees so that the fruit cannot even be enjoyed but the picturesque grove can be.

Once back at the hostal, I wondered what on earth I would do for the next three days. I had booked four nights here and had seen the main attraction. From the map given to me by the senora on reception, there didn’t appear much more to see – other than 14 churches. I have dinner at the restaurant where the bull-fighters eat. It is empty when I enter at 8:45 by the time I leave an hour later people are starting to arrive. The food is amazing and my theory on eating where the bull-fighters eat, passes the test. I am happy when I walk out into the night. The nights are now cold here – a chill in the air – that will only warm with tomorrow’s sun.

The next morning I woke up – early by Spanish standards at 8:15 to sad news from home. I had lost a friend suddenly. I spent the day remembering and grieving – glad to be in the warm city of Cordoba, that seemed to hold me close and comfort me. I go out for a small cerveza in the afternoon. To raise a parting glass for my friend. As I am sitting at an outdoor table an orange falls from the tree next to me. I let out an exclamation as it frightened me but I was thankful it landed on the road next to me and not on my head. Before I even have time to finish being thankful a speeding taxi passes by running over the orange, which squirts juice and pulp all over me. Through the tears of my grief I get a good belly laugh.

Life moves on so the following day, I set out again, leaving my grief and tears behind. When Nina visited Spain, in the spring and summer of 1934, she travelled through the fiesta season. She was fortunate enough to be in Cordoba on 25 May, which is the opening day of Cordoba’s annual fiesta and the day it holds the biggest bullfight of the year. Nina avoids the bullfight. She says “my curiosity concerning bullfights had been assuaged six years before”. She writes about her “pure repulsion” at the hideous sight and would no rather watch people be seasick. Here, Nina takes the opportunity to take a swipe at Ernest Hemmingway. I am always happy with a swipe at Hemmingway.  Other than visiting the Mezquita and attending the fiesta, Nina writes nothing more about what she did in Cordoba. I am not fortunate enough to be travelling through Spain during fiesta time but am happy that I am not here during the bullfighting season.  I find over the next few days that there is so much to see in this lovely town. The Alcazar has beautiful gardens and old roman baths, there are Roman ruins and an archaeological museum and the fourteen churches marked on the map to look at, sit in and spend intervals of grief which momentarily still lingers at different times. There are even Camino way markers to be found showing the way to Santiago by way of the Mazarabe route. At the end of my first day in Cordoba, I thought I would regret my decision to stay for four nights. I don’t. Unlike Nina I did not have to regret “the foolishness of having accepted somebody else’s estimate that no more than one day was needed for seeing Cordoba”. Indeed, spending a few days here was good for my regrets and my  heart.

Art, love and loss

Spanish people take their art and their artists very seriously. For their great artists contribute to their theory that Spaniards are the best of men and the best of lovers. They take great pride in their painters, writers, poets,  musicians, dancers and architects. For it is through art, the emotion of love – and their status as great lovers – becomes a public statement. Seville lives and breathes beauty, art and love. In 1934 there were two ways men would indicate interest in women they did not know. They would stare relentlessly or give a complement in passing. Nina found the stare of Spanish men unsettling to say the least. She preferred the compliment as it was over more quickly. She wrote that “no foreign woman can walk alone in Seville’s streets without being made aware of the Andalusian custom of piropos, which means ‘charm to a lady’, and which, like so many Spanish traditions, flourishes more happily in Seville than in the other cities of the South”. Nina often had men nod and smile at her and say ‘guapa’ which she translated as “Ah, pretty!”. I too have had ‘guapa’ said to me, both in passing men on the street and when passing men in conversation in cafes and bars. My men are usually very old – over sixty! – and  have had a few drinks at the bar I am passing by, as the say “hola guapa”.

When I checked into my accommodation in Seville. My host, Silvia, showed me around. She took me out to a courtyard off the bedroom. The courtyard was beautiful, there were traditional tiles on the walls and the floor. The garden full of plants was an oasis of beauty and solitude. “Here”, she said, “this is all yours. If you want to take coffee here, you take coffee here. If you want to take a beer here, you take a beer here. If you want to bring a man, you do that. The Sevillian men are very handsome. You wait to see. You will want to take a Sevillian man. Oh! and there is a hairdresser next door. You should get your hair fixed. It’s very private here, you just share with Pepe next door. He is not handsome”. I laughed and laughed. Needless to say, I did not take a man or get my hair ‘fixed’. By ‘fixed’ I suspect Silvia meant blonde and curled as the Spanish women prefer their hair. I sat in my courtyard every day. One evening, somewhere, close by, someone was playing a piano. The lovely delicate notes of a gentle classical piece, floated down around me. Another time, someone in the building was playing flamenco guitar and singing the soulful lament of a flamenco love song. No doubt a story of great love and love lost.

On Sunday afternoon I went to visit the Parc de Maria Luisa. The Spanish always walk in a park on Sunday afternoons. I learnt this many years ago on my first visit to Spain when I walked around the Retiro in Madrid. Like the locals we bought a packet of sunflower seeds (pepitas) which we ate as we walked, spitting the hard shells to the ground. Nina would be shocked at this. I didn’t buy sunflower seeds this day but I wanted to visit Parc de Maria Luisa as Nina visited there and enjoyed the shady gardens . While Nina was there she came across a monument to the Spanish poet, Gustavo Becquer. The monument was erected by Becquer’s friends after his death. I went to see, to sit and to look at this monument just as Nina had done. It is a very beautiful marble sculpture. Becquer’s bust sits upon a high column under a beautiful large tree. Below him sit three women. One is a youth, happy and smiling – dreaming of love to be. The middle woman is older, sassy – she knows love. The third is an older woman, sad and reflective – she has lost love. Above them is a Cupid made of brass looking for his next victim to shoot with his little  love arrow. Off on the side other side of Becquer is lust, dead with a dagger in her side. I suspect Becquer knew his women very well and his friends had a little fun at his expense in erecting such a monument.

A day or so later I visited the Gallery of Fine Arts. It is housed in yet another Arabian style building. Some people believe these buildings are left over from when the Moors ruled Spain. The truth is when Ferdinand and Isabella went into the Alhambra in Granada, they so loved the architecture they kept it but added Christian elements. This fashion then took off all over Spain and it now known as Mudajar style. Built in traditional Moorish manner but with the added elements of depictions of humans and animals and crests – whereas the Moors only used geometric patterns for decoration. It is another beautiful building with courtyards and gardens. There are two floors to make your way around and look at paintings by El Greco and Goya as well as Murillo and Zurbaran – whom Nina devoted a whole chapter to in her book. Indeed it is Zurbaran who painted the picture of Saint Dorothea that I searched for, without success, in the cathedral.

I walked around the gallery admiring the art and wondering if, perhaps, I am beginning to tire of religious art. It is possible? I walked into a gallery of paintings of saints by Zurbaran – and there amongt them was Saint Dorothea. I stopped to look at her. She is pretty, with dark hair is holding ripe fruit and flowers on a tray. She looks to be with child, but she died a virgin and a martyr. I figure it is Dorothea’s dress that makes her look pregnant but I like the fact she looks like that. Then I came to a room with portraits. In viewing the portraits I would look into the eyes of each subject. I would decide what their personalities were like by the way the artist painted their eyes. I walked around in my head saying short descriptions of each subject ‘mean’, ‘in love’, ‘hussy’, ‘regal’, ‘beast’, ‘bore’, ‘fun’ etc. I came to a portrait of a young man “heart-breaker” I said to myself. I read the information. It was the poet Becquer painted by his brother. I laughed. Took a step back. Appraised him. He was handsome and wore a smile that played around the edges of his mouth. You knew he was mischievous. His eyes loved. They loved everyone who stopped to pay the compliment of looking at him. As I looked at him, he looked back at me, daring me to fall in love with him. I did. He would have stared at the women he fancied – at first. The words, the piropos, would come later. After all, he was a poet.

I love that Spain is showy about its arts and artists. I first visited here in 1987 and fell in love with Spain. I fell in love with its showiness, with its people and culture, with its food and warmth, with its song and dance, its art and poetry, its landscapes and churches, with every single thing about it. My love and knowledge of Spain were bestowed upon me – like a gift – by my friend Eladio Jose, who first brought me to Spain. We travelled around for six weeks staying with family and friends. Before I left Sydney for this trip he contributed to my “Go Fund Me” page and wrote “nothing you do, could ever surprise me”. I learnt today that Eladio Jose passed away suddenly. I am saddened by his death and have cried for him, for the Spain we shared, for the life we shared and for the love we shared. Becquer the poet wrote:-
Lonely, sad and mute
That cemetery was found; 
Its inhabitants do not cry …

 

 

 

 

 

Seville is my friend. Nina, my frenemy!

“Whatever happened, I should never be able to arrive at committing suicide, for the feeling that something marvellous might yet be waiting round the corner. You never know! The opening of a door, and transcendent beauty in a new form presents itself. There is no telling when or where or how beauty and delight will manifest themselves. I could never commit suicide for fear of missing the new manifestation.” So wrote Nina after seeing the Cathedral of Seville. I feel like this too in Seville, not in the Cathedral which I did not particularly like, but simply in seeing beauty in the streets, in the windows, in the parks, in a glimpse through an open door-way into a courtyard, in the food, in the fun and the people.

Nina remembers “walking in out of the blazing sunlight and standing still, with a little pain in my heart, and a tightness in my throat, and a heavenly appreciation of being alive”. This I felt too, again not in the Cathedral, but simply being here. In Seville, I have felt that I have come home. That Seville, is where I belong. I can’t explain why I feel this but it fells like home. My first afternoon, I walked around the streets with a tightness in my throat, with joy bursting in my heart, with tears skimming the lids of my eyes and a smile that could not be taken from me. Apart from this shared feeling, Nina and I have not much in common at all. It could be that we are women of our times – of different ages –  but to me Nina is old-fashioned both in her language and her thoughts. We certainly do not agree on many things – we do not agree on the Cathedral of Seville, we do not agree on how good Spanish food is, we do not agree on our politics of looking after those less fortunate. Nina considered herself middle-class and proud of it. She is relentlessly critical of the beggars, especially the begging children, of Spain. Yet when she travelled alone is Spain, the world had been suffering through the great depression. She even goes as far as to slap a begging boy in the Cathedral. She wrote, “Suddenly there came a sharp hiss and a peremptory rap on my hand, and, looking down, I found a dirty-faced little urchin of a choir-boy snapping his fingers under my nose in an impertinent demand for money. Startled, I flew straight down from my supernal dreaming to smacking the importunate hand with a leather glove, which so surprised the urchin he jumped off like a grasshopper and bothered me no morel”. All through Spain she quite often gives such a ugly description of Spanish people, but in particular of the poor. Nina, I think, believes one’s dignity is more important than food on the family table. Dignity was difficult to come by in the early 1930s for the hungry and the poor.

Nevertheless, though I do not agree with Nina on many things, I follow her. I go to places she visited to see for myself and then to argue with her the whole way home. Sometimes, I find myself agreeing with her as she gets something exactly right. Then I find myself arguing with myself, ‘well, she only got that right because that is how it is’. Nina writes about the “extravagant and empty buldings erected for the Spanish American Exhibition in Maria Luisa Park. Being empty, they lack vitality, but the tiles on the outer walls of the great semi-circular Building of Spain are worth seeing”. I visited the Plaza de Espana today. It is a vibrant show-stopping building of the most beautiful architecture. Now housing various Ministerial Offices – oh to be a Chief-of-Staff in here! As well as a military museum. The building is certainly in my top ten of buildings I have visited. Yet, how do I know that what has changed in Spain since her travels and mine? The Spanish Civil War devastated Spain. Even though decades have now passed, Spain still bears the physical and emotional scars of families against families, of neighbour pitted against neighbour, of the righteous against the virtuous, where a father would allow for his son to be shot – for the good of Spain. When I first arrived in Spain and was staying on the Spanish side of the border with Gibraltar, I noticed Spanish flags hanging from windows and verandas. I thought it was an ‘up you’ to Great Britain. Town after town I have witnessed the Spanish flags flying proudly from private homes and apartments. It is sign to Catalonia in support of a united Spain. Fresh wounds opening old wounds.

Seville is a wealthy town. The well-heeled strut the streets in their branded clothing. The height and material  of the comb is still a status symbol. Obviously the Sevillanos still don’t wear the comb and the mantilla on a daily basis but  they do on special religious days and weddings. There are poor here too. Beggars, not just the homeless but those with disabilities, are to be found in the centre of town outside churches and banks. There are the women who will try to give you a sprig of rosemary and then ask for money or want to tell your fortune. There are the hawkers trying to sell fake handbags, runners and sunglasses. As soon as word is heard the police are on their way, the hawkers scamper. The fabric that they put on the ground to display their wares has thin rope two pieces of rope tied to each corner. The ropes meet in the middle which allows the hawkers, to pick it up, the fabric becomes a sack with all the fake merchandise inside – and they run for it. Most times successfully to my joy. What would Nina have made – and written – of these people?

The streets of Seville are never straight – we agree on this Nina and me. Nina says “nor do they run in curves. They dart about, forming angles”. This irregularity Nina says, “only adds to Seville’s charms. As I have walked the streets in this past week, it is true. The streets here are charming as it the city itself. Nina marvelled at how Calle O’Donnell, was so narrow two people could not walk two abreast but must walk “Indian file”. I guess that means in a single line. She shouted the benefits of Sierpes, the main shopping street as “motor-cars and tram-cars are not permitted”. Now many streets in Seville are for pedestrians and bicyclists only. It is a fun city to walk around and I never get bored of walking streets. I also ponder the amount of motor cars in 1934 compared to now. What would she make of Sydney or Melbourne or even the Pacific Highway that goes through Woodburn on the north coast where she grew up? I can see it – I’m starting to see Nina as a whinger rather than someone who accepts time changes, places change, modernity changes. I am certain Nina though she was a modern woman. As I believe I am – but others would argue I am old fashioned.

Today I visited a number of Sevillian monuments that Nina visited including the Casa de Pilatos. This casa – like four others in Seville is privately owned but takes tours several times a day. The Casa de Pilatos was the third of the four I visited. I love seeing these Arabian style houses, built in Christian times, still owned by the same family. Most of the rooms are blocked from tourists and they usually charge around ten euro to visit but we get a glimpse into Sevillian nobility.  I always imagine the owners peeping out at us tourists from behind drawn curtains but suspect they live in Madrid or Barcelona and merely visit during ‘the season’. Casa de Pilatos – Pilate’s house – was named after Pontius Pilate –by the son of the original owners. He had been to Jerusalem and brought back with him the observance of the Stations of the Cross. He introduced this Catholic ritual into Seville – could this be why Seville is the only city I have seen churches that depict the Stations of the Cross? According to the story, the route runs the same distance of 1,321 paces that separated the praetorium of Pontius Pilate from Calvary. Nina dislike the Casa de Pilatos. The mixture of Roman statues with an Arabic style house rubbed Nina the wrong way. She “actually disliked seeing classic sculpture set against a background of Moorish arcades and tiling”. I loved it. I even took a photo of a little tile of a donkey on it – just for Nina.  Each of the three private houses I visited had Roman elements. The first two Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija and Casa de Salinas both had Roman mosaic floors dating back to the second century BC. These were literally ripped out of other places in Spain in the late 1800s early 1900s – when you could do that type of thing because you were nobility – and brought to these two casas and laid in their courtyards. Never did I expect to see as much Roman history – in private hands – as I did see here in Seville. I loved all three houses for their beauty and their history – both the Spanish/Arabic elements and the ripped out Roman ruins – ‘because we could’. I think maybe my sensibilities about history and life and hardship are more evolved than Nina’s. After all, Nina wore a hat and gloves and a stiff upper lip. I wear runners, sunnies and a laid back attitude.

Dear Dorothy, a letter from Seville

If you have lost a loved parent, or both, as I have – you will know what the feeling is like. You see something, or hear something, some old memory is jogged and you want to talk to them, tell them things. To tell them what it was you saw, what you heard or what remembered – but you can’t. This has happened a lot to me on my both my trips to Spain. I would love to call my mother or send her postcards and letters to tell her the things I see, the things she would love to see. Today, I have written to her from Seville.

Dearest mother,

I think about you a lot when I am travelling. Small things jog old memories. I always think of you when I walk into a church, which as I travel, is several times a day.

Nina describes this city as “Seville is like a laughing woman in a summer frock come in from raiding the garden with her arms full of flowers”. It is the truth. There is so much beauty in Seville it is difficult to take it all in. Around every bend in the road, around every twist in the passageways and around every corner of the laneways, there is something new to take in. The Cathedral, St Mary of the Sea – how dad would have loved that name – towers above all else. Its bell tower, once an Islamic minaret, stands tall in the old part of town. The buttresses fly high over the gargoyles and the line to visit winds around the streets. When Nina visited she saw the painting of Saint Dorothy by Zurbaran painted “in tafettas the colour of the bloom on purple grapes, with a scarf and panniers of gold striped with brown”. I went into the Cathedral today. I lined up forty minutes before it opened to avoid the queue. Once inside it was difficult to like the place. It is empty save for a chapels off to the side and behind the back main alter. The choir blocks much of the view. Nina complained about this too but again, she was lucky to be there when the organ was playing and the cannons singing at choir. I am luck if I go to a church and choral singing is being piped through the speakers.

I don’t know if they say mass there now but in the late 1800s apparently, 500 masses were said each day. I’m sure they do still celebrate mass for the local Catholics, but the main doors are for tourists to pay nine euro entry to walk around in. It feels a bit like being in an empty – but very grand – warehouse. With all the tourists it simply can not feel like a religious place of worship. Just a large empty shell. The main alter is a sight to behold when sitting in front of it. You really could spend hours looking at it. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is in the cathedral. It is impressive. His tomb is held high by four men representing the kingdoms of Spain during his life. Castille, Aragon, Navara and Leon. Although apparently he was moved around quite a bit after death before ending up here in Seville. Nina was of the opinion Christopher would not have liked something so grand but I think he would have loved it.

It is difficult to see and appreciate the paintings in this cathedral. Everything is behind wrought iron fencing and gates with bad lighting – perhaps to protect the paintings – but all are difficult to see. I searched for St Dorothy but could not find her. I asked one of the attendants, who was no help at all. So I left – via the souvenir shop where I stopped I asked the senorita if they had a holy card of St Dorothy I could buy. They didn’t but I could purchase a recipe books for tapas.

I walked the streets looking at buildings being wowed by the different architecture until I stopped looking up and looked down. It was then the shops caught my eyes. Oh mother, how you would love them. There are shops with the most gorgeous fabrics. Plenty for you to choose from for your next dress. There are shops solely to sell priests garments and adornment. In another I spotted a bull fighter’s jacket along with some very flash handbags and remembered how you loved the dancing – and Paul Mecurio – in Strictly Ballroom.  Many shops sell the traditional dress of Seville. High Spanish combs worn under the mantilla are proudly on display. Some are very expensive, more that 150 euro each – but these are made from tortoise shell and mother of pearl. You can buy cheaper ones in plastic in the souvenir shops I remember when I was very young, in the late 1960s, how you would wear a mantilla (the lace scarf) over your head to church. Maybe that was just for special occasions but I do remember you wearing one. I could spend hours describing the beautiful jewellery and flamenco costumes but there are so many as soon as I have admired something, a new bauble has caught my eye.

I wonder into a grand old Spanish house owned by a noble Sevillian family owned by an old lady. It is built in the Arabic style with not one – but two court yards. The second has a mosaic tile Roman floor from the second century. We were taken into the family’s summer dining room. There are twelve chairs around the table, one for each of the lady’s sons. That many children – of course I had to say I was one of thirteen. I can imagine your face thinking of twelve sons and you of course, would have said you had thirteen. On my way back home I deliberately lost myself walking the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter. If a pathway or a laneway looked interesting I would walk into it – without a care of where I would end up. I went up one that turned out to be a dead end. It ended in the front of the door to a house. I turned and walked back. About half way down I saw a way marker for the Camino – I laughed. You wouldn’t want to follow that one.

Yesterday I visited the Basilica of Jesus del Gran Poder. It is a circular church of mixed ages in both architecture and art. I like it. I spent some time looking at the paintings representing the Stations of the Cross. It is unusual to see Stations of the Cross in Spanish churches. They were relatively modern paintings, simple but good. There was also a picture of Jesus. It was huge and made up of a montage of people’s passport photos. It was great to look at from afar and then to get up close and look at all the people’s photos. I walked and looked at the alter and noticed two doors either side. One said ‘entrader’ entry the other ‘salida’ exit. Of course I wanted to see what the entry door led to. It went behind the alter and up a short flight of stairs. I thought I was going to have to hug-a-saint again, as I did in the Cathedral in Santiago. There was an elderly Spanish couple and their middle aged daughter in front of me. We were directly behind the alter where there is a sculpture of Jesus carrying the cross. This sculpture is a feature in the Santa Semana, Easter Week, celebrations in Seville – which are known as the best in Spain. People  believe miracles have occurred after touching the sculpture. The old Spanish woman in front of me was at Jesus first. He was all behind glass except for the heel of his right foot which protruded out. She was a small lady and she tried in vain to tippy-toe up as far as she could to kiss the heel. I looked on in shock. Surely they weren’t all kissing the foot? Again, she tried to stretch up. Again, she couldn’t reach. I tried not to laugh at her huge buck teeth sticking out from the kissing lips. Once more she tried, once more I tried not to laugh. She gave up. Kissed her fingers and put them on the heel of Jesus. Her husband, taller, bent down and kissed the heel. The daughter, kissed her hand and made the sign of the cross on the heel of Jesus. They turned to look at me. I stood there. What else could I do? There was no way I was going to kiss or touch that heel – not without hand sanitizer in my day day-pack.

I think, if I could talk to you, you would ask me “Don’t you get lonely, travelling by yourself?”. I don’t. Sometimes I feel alone but I never feel lonely. Last night I sat in a bar, having tapas and drinking a vino tinto. Suddenly it went from me being alone in the bar to being packed with Spanish people. I have a feeling Mass finished at the church across the road. All around me was a buzz of Spanish people talking – loudly – at and to each other. I could hear snippits of various conversations as I tried to work out words I recognised – “venga”, “escucha”, “diga” “espera” – come, listen, speak. wait. I feel that is what Seville says to me and, if I could mother, I would wait here in Seville for the rest of my days. It is such a place. It is such a place.

Much love,

Genevieve

Cadiz – it took a while but you grew on me.

Casa Caracol – the snail’s house. A backpackers. A youth hostel. It is my hell. I thought I could handle staying in backpacker accommodation. After all, I had done so when I walked the Camino de Santiago. I did it in London for three days that was fine. I thought I could do it again here in Cadiz for three days. Tonight is my last night and I am wondering if I can make it out alive. Unfortunately, I could not get a female only dorm as I did in London. I do prefer to stay in all female dorms. They tend to be less noisy, less sweaty, less smelly – I personally feel more at ease in them. Don’t get me wrong, the guys in my room are nice men. They are polite and we weave around each others space. On the Camino it was different. You get all ages, all sizes and genders. Everyone tends to go to bed early after their pilgrim’s meal and once the first zipper of the morning is heard, it gets everyone up and out on the way. This backbacker’s appears to cater specifically to the young and gorgeous and is a different matter for me altogether.

Before I booked, I was under the misguided belief that it wouldn’t be too full. After all, it is the off season and what reason do people have to go to Cadiz? History buffs I thought! I booked a room in a seven bed mixed dorm, perhaps I could be the only one in there? I didn’t understand the difference that caused at three euro increase from the six bed dorm to the ‘deluxe’ seven bed dorm- but I booked the seven bed deluxe anyway. I arrived and the place is buzzing with young people, coming and going – going and coming. I am greeted at reception by a young Spanish guy named Ramon. He is guiding some other people through the check in process and tells me he will be with me soon and to wait. I do, I watch a couple of young women in the kitchen cooking and talking. One is Australian. They barely notice me among their enthusiasm for their own words to each other. I secretly roll my eyes and think to myself ‘well this’ll be fun’. They are a clique.

Ramon comes back to me all apologetic and smiles. He shows me the kitchen and gives me the drill with any food I might put in the fridge “you must write your name on it and your checkout date – otherwise it will be thrown out” he says. He shows me the lounge, “you can use this until 2:00 am. Same with the roof top terrace. The kitchen – we close at the same time.  A beautiful breakfast is included served by our volunteers between 9:00am and 10:30”. He carries my bag up three flights of stairs to the first floor – telling me he does not get paid to carry bags it is a favour and good service. He is in good humour as he takes me to my room – room two – informing me that I have no need to worry about being on a top bunk as I have just a single bed “No top. No bottom.” My room is small thing chocked with seven beds, three double bunks and my lonely single pushed against the wall between the French doors and the French windows. “There you go, Genoveva, enjoy your stay.” With that, he leaves me.

A youngish skinny guy is sitting on the bottom bunk nearest to my bed. He jumps up, shakes my hand and tells me he is Ricardo from Italy. He then tells me his story. He is from Venice. He rode his bike across the top of Italy to Genoa, then along the Italian coast into France, then down the French east coast and into Spain. From there he rode all down the east coast of Spain and has now come the west coast. “Six thousand kilometres he tells me proudly”. Wow! He tells me at night he has slept in parks and on beaches and in camping grounds and when it rains, he stays in hostels. “But now I have very bad news.  I have a thing on my leg”. He pulls up his trousers to show me a bandage. We work out that the English word for it must be an ulcer and it has gone down to his bone. As least that’s what I think we worked out as we are speaking in broken Spanglish with some French and Italian thrown in. He goes to the hospital twice a day to get it bandaged. I ask him, “ are you loco?”. “Si, si, si” he replies as his eyes roll around his head and he smiles the biggest smile laughing at me. Ricardo is off to the Canary Islands to work for three to four months before heading off to Argentina to find work in his trade. He is a butcher. I tell him one of my brothers is a butcher. He asks “does he work in a shop …. or another place?”. A shop I tell him. “I work in another place” he replies. I figure he means an abattoir but I am afraid to ask.

A young girl walks into the room. She is beautiful with a smile that looks it is straight out of California circa late 70s – I’m thinking Charley’s Angels – before the ultra white blinding look became fashionable. She introduces herself as Kate and has a killer handshake. I commend her  on her handshake and tell her that I used to work in politics so I am a bit of an expert on handshakes. She laughs and tells me she went to business school and that where she learnt it. Kate is not from California. She is Canadian from way up north – the north west territories. Apparently the nearest big town is Edmonton, which is 16 hours away from her home town. We talk about where we’ve been, what we are doing before I go out to explore the town. Later that night after dinner I return to the hostel. Kate is in the lounge with an Australian guy, Colin. Colin and I talk Australian doing out best to out-drawl each other. He is from Brisbane – a surfer. He is tanned and laconic, tall with a good head of curly, dirty blonde hair. His hair is all straight at the back like he has been lying in bed all day and just got up.  It doesn’t take me long to work out Colin is what my friend Louise would describe as a “douche”. I guess that’s the description because you can use a douche once for health purposes but if you use the douche too often it strips away at you. I hope that Kate hasn’t or doesn’t hook up with him. They leave for dinner at the appropriate time for dinner in Spain. I can never manage to stay up late enough to have dinner at Spanish time, at 10:00 or 11:00 at night. I tell Kate that I snore so I will leave some earplugs on her bed. You cannot get earplugs like these in Australia so I stock up on them when I am in Europe.

The following night I meet Kate in the lounge room again. She is speaking with another girl and we introduce ourselves. Her name is Kaye, she looks like she is from the Philippines. She is from Britain and now lives in Barcelona. Her parents are Filipino. She is laughing about how she went from Brexit to Catxit – in relation to Catalonia wanting to be independent from Spain. She is funny girl and we talk for a while after Kate leaves. We talk about going out for a drink but I decide I am too tired and sneak off to bed. Some of my roomies are already in bed. Some come in much later during the night. I am aware but with the earplugs it doesn’t bother me. I decide that perhaps its not that bad in the hostel but I would much rather have my own room. I spend another day walking around Cadiz. I have done everything Nina did. I have seen what she saw, walked the streets she walked and there is not much left for me to do but to walk around Cadiz – again – and admire the architecture. I think about leaving town a day early. Cadiz is the new place for young travellers to go. It’s not that it is a party town it more of a chill-out, surf, eat good food. It must be written about in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook as the young backpackers are flocking her perhaps because it hasn’t been destroyed by over-development or the yuppies – yet. I decide to stick to my plan and stay the last night. I’m glad I did.

When I arrive home I am walking up to my room on the first floor, as I hit the landing Kaye is coming down the stairs from her room on the second floor, Kate is coming out of the first floor hallway. We say hello and begin to talk. Kaye introduces us to Maria, her roomie,  a Spanish woman from Majorca.  Kaye has wine, should we have a drink? Of course. Apparently, all the young guys are up on the roof-top terrace playing guitar, talking waves and being all ‘backpackery touring the world wanker thingy’. We decide to go to the lounge room. It is empty.  That night four women sit with two bottles of wine. OK it turned into three bottles of wine. I raise the issue of douche Colin with Kate – she did not hook up with him. Kate is way too smart. Together the four of us talk, laugh, share photos, take selfies and eat the sausages Kaye has thoughtfully provided. We have become friends. I realise it is Melbourne Cup Day back home in Australia and know from past experience that I have had good luck with making life-long friends on Melbourne Cup Day. We say our goodbyes as tomorrow I leave for Seville. I don’t see the girls before I leave the Casa Caracol – but I do search out Ricardo. I shake his hand, say ciao and wish him the good fortune for his travels. As I walk out the door and down the passage way to the train station I again smile, I am not sorry stayed in Cadiz and I am very happy that I stayed in the backpackers.