Sunday, 11 September 2016

Peripatetic courtyards

The purpose of this bulletin is to contemplate the rigors and benefits of travel, both for humans and for buildings. In fact, we will be discussing peripatetic courtyards, but that is later on.

Those who slog it out on the real camino will laugh at this, but I am thinking about this adventure through northern Spain as being somewhat like a pilgrimage…. It’s all about contemplating your inner voices, immersing yourself in the landscape, adapting to challenges, making note of what appeals or appalls. We certainly faced a few challenges when we decided to camp – it coincided with a 2-3 day episode of cold wet weather, and our airbed proved to be less than supportive. Not sleeping, or sleeping badly, is a big difficulty. It’s hard to stay good-humoured when your bones ache from biffing on the uneven ground, and you didn’t get enough unconsciousness. Oddly, as we struck camp at Igeldo, the sun peeped out, the air warmed up, and we heard a siren voice --- ‘spend your money in hotels, not campsites….’

Once again we experienced the remarkable switch of landscape and thought as we went south through the mountains out of San Sebastian. We were now travelling through a dried, harvested, yellow-brown infinity, the trees tapering out, windfarms and solar farms cropping up, and barely a homestead to be seen.

(Without looking anything up, or having any evidence except what I see with my own eyes) I think something remarkable has happened to Spain in the last 80 or 100 years, equivalent to the period in English history in the 18th century when the industrial revolution sucked the population out of the countryside and into the new cities – Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, London….. And something like that must have happened in the 20th century in Spain. Because hardly anyone at all lives in the countryside.   On the other hand, the towns and the cities are absolutely crammed full with apartment blocks, five, six, seven, eight stories high, and well supplied at street level with trees, plazas, cafes, bread-shops, fruit-shops, bus stops, etc. The inner landscape is completely empty.  You can go for miles and miles and miles and not see a single sign of habitation.  It must once (150 years ago) have been chocked with villages, hamlets etc, to supply the labour force and look after the animals they needed to manage the land. Even today, new motorways have marvellous no-entry signs which include a graphic showing people on a little pony-trap, and that is a vivid example of the clash of the old and new ways of doing things. A slightly more modern version shows a man on a tractor barred from using the motorway, but still.

Anyway, the result is that the towns, even quite small ones, are completely buzzing. People just get together in tight clusters – in church, in bars, in cafes, in bread shops, in parks, in florists. It’s as if there’s a collective wish never to be lonely or separated ever again.

And whereas now in post-Brexit and post-Thatcher England there is a palpable feeling of collapse, despair, end-of-the-empire, broken, spoiled systems, potholes, waiting lists, all that, in Spain, however serious their unemployment situation and economics, the ‘feeling’ in each of these towns and cities is still completely plump. The roads are good. The museums are open, and free on Sundays. There are beautifully dressed children everywhere. People’s dogs are kempt and cared-for. The fountains are clean. The streets sparkle. The public lavatories are fragrant and clean. The buses and trams are running on time for long hours every day. The civic sense is alive and well. Each place has adapted its ancient medieval origins to a modern purpose, so the streets have shared space for cars and people, the lighting is excellent, the new and the old are intermingled and spacious and everything works. It is so uplifting. In England, we have almost completely forgotten all this.

We meet the very occasional English couple dotting about as we are doing. One pair from Bristol were marvelling about this very thing.   Another inside the Aljaferia in Zaragoza this morning, filled with excitement, said ‘Have you been to the Basilica yet? It’s just amazing – this place is almost disappointing in comparison…...’. And an older couple (from the Lake District) yesterday afternoon in Pamplona were talking about their son walking the camino, and how they wanted to find typical local bars and avoid the tourist routes… they were loving it all.

We couldn’t get a room in Pamplona yesterday but we stopped there for lunch. Surrounded by its suburban high-rise new town, the centre is of course ancient and beautifully presented, and as a bonus we discovered they had a special Pamplona festival going on, celebrating the fact that in 1380 or something, on 8th September, King Carlos III? had unified the city from its ancient three-way split, so the streets were full of food stalls and dancers, and children, and craft displays, and music and local produce – on and on and on…. No wonder we couldn’t get a room! A lot of people were in medieval costume. The pride in local food and products – ham, vegetables, ceramics, ironwork, woodwork, wool, leather, etc – was absolutely bursting out. Lunch in Pamplona is apparently taken by the locals in pinchos or small tapas, often standing up. However we found a small quiet place away from the markets with no English spoken and a simple menu – salad, then squid for Andrew and veal for me…. So perfectly cooked. It is one of the perils of not speaking Spanish, and going into local bistros which have menus which do not appear in any dictionary , is that you end up eating things you might not eat at home – veal for me, and tripe, maybe. Andrew has had the tripe stuff twice now and loves it. But the way they serve meat in Spain is extraordinary. I don’t know how they treat the animals but the meat is superb.

Down the broad, hot valley of the River Ebro we went, through the heat of the afternoon with the aircon keeping us cool and calm… hardly any traffic on the road, which had expensive tolls (about 25€ altogether), but the light and the landscape were mesmerising. Into Zaragoza, and then a chicane of zigzags through fantastically narrow streets and alleys, left, left, right, left, right, left, right…… and to our hotel. 


They had a ground-level parking space for us in a garage off reception. We walked out into the city. (700,000 people).

Bam!!!! Buildings to blow your eyeballs out. That basilica! A modern water-sculpture with waterfall and reflective pond, towers like minarets, Roman walls, narrow alleys, smart shops, arcades, decorated facades, weddings, slick hotels (recovered from ETA attacks and fires decades ago), companionable bars full of old ladies and gentlemen having beers or coffees and little snack of something….. and dark narrow tourist bars full of young locals, chatting and laughing, and we have never seen so many happy people.


This is Aragon, which sent its princess Katherine to wed the Prince of Wales, but he died, so she married his brother Henry and lived with him for 20 years but only had a daughter…. So he divorced her and split the kingdom of England into Catholics and Protestants and a religious war which lasted 140 years. What on earth she thought when she left her native land with its vast plains and tremendous mountains, the heat and civilisation and horses and armories and heraldry and history…. And found herself in the Thames valley with – ok, all that greenery, but…. She had Eltham, and Hampton Court and Nonsuch… how small and miserable that must have looked to her, a bit of a ghastly spooky story, which is how her life turned out in the end. A lot of the buildings here today in Aragon are later than the 16th century but some are earlier (especially the great Moorish fortifications), and in any case there is no mistaking the scale and power of the grand architecture. Moslem or Christian, Catholic or Protestant, God has supplied fantastic buildings for all these beliefs …

The Aljaferia which we saw today was a Moorish military stronghold, then a palace, then a Christian royal palace, then a barracks, then restored, and now a museum, and home for the Aragon parliament. Its tower is the celebrated tower in Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ or The Troubador, a romance entirely concocted in the 19th century.


One last thing to report from Zaragoza… There is a 16th century ‘patio’, or court, built by a Jewish magnate and banker called Gabriel Zaporta as a present to his bride Sabina Santangel – but she died, and then he died, and then their son took it over, and eventually it was sold off and became apartments, and then it was sold off and sent to Paris where it became an antique shop, much admired (and coveted by Goering), and only latterly bought back by Ibercaja, a local bank with social responsibilities….. So it sits inside a modern social and banking building, a lovely square stone two-story conservatory or courtyard, with fabulous decorations and carvings all around. It is very like the durbar in Hastings Museum, built of wood in the 19th c by the almost totally unknown railway magnate Brassey who had it made for his house in Park Lane, and then it was shipped to his house in Hastings, and then eventually moved to the local museum. There is something marvellous about these peripatetic courtyards, don’t you think?

It’s been a long read to get to the end, but we’ve managed it. 

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