Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The war that disappeared

As my friend Stewart Ross points out, we are used to dramatic changes in scenery in England but nothing compares to the same phenomenon in Spain. The scale is so different for a start. I believe my own sense of size in the universe is rather pathetically stuck at an infant stage. I am deeply, almost horribly impressed by engineering projects which most grown-ups barely seem to notice. Diggers and combine harvesters and things like that look huge to me. So when we look at rivers, or mountains or cliffs or landscapes in general, I feel absolutely tiny and almost want to faint thinking about the size of the cosmos. These mountains are just minute in comparison to the country, or the continent, or… the planet, and I know Earth is just a tiny dot of nothing inside our own solar system which is itself very very small….. But if I stand beside a clump of rock, consider its hardness, its colour, its provenance, I am struck dumb. I get the same sort of mental blow if I pick up a pebble, or look at a tree…. It’s deep.

Anyway, here in Aragon, the land is wide and hot and looks dry. Driving on the old roads away from Zaragoza we left the suburbs (some of which are much more depressed than the booming centre of the city), and we started to cross what is clearly a profitably-run agricultural zone. As mentioned before, there are for the most part few houses. But the farms are closely packed, and seem to be totally mechanical and automated. They consist of some sheds or barns plus silos. So presumably they house thousands of beasts – pigs? chickens? calves? - which are fed by gravity and computer, and get checked on once or twice a day, and then hauled off for slaughter. The light and uplifting landscape is also a sort of vast animal prison - an unmentioned schizophrenia. (But, I have to confess, I have eaten meat here - difficult not to - and it’s absolutely delicious and tender and so on, so I have my own mostly unspoken dichotomies).

The little towns on the plain have a different kind of split personality.   The road leads you through the old sectors, where maybe one or two very old-looking people are sitting companionably enough on a bench in the shade, but all the houses are shuttered up against the sun and the heat, and the community presents a deeply defended, hostile appearance. No-one moves. It’s like something out of a Mexican cowboy film.   If you try to find the centro urbano, you get lost in a maze of tiny criss-cross streets, and perhaps you see some laundry drying, and some parked cars. It looks dead.   But suddenly, round a corner, in an unexpected sector, you find a new street, with cafes and terraces and trees and pharmacies and a little supermarket, and young people and chatter …. Hence we had a very nice orange juice and olives and tortilla in SariƱena …

Crossing a small range of hills (look, I said ‘small’!) called the Sierra de Alcubierra, we saw a sign saying Ruta Orwell, which prompted me to look him up. A website called https://kfdoyle.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/orwell-aragon-front-homage-to-catalonia/ is very helpful. It’s quite true, the Spanish Civil War is mentioned nowhere.  This really is an unspoken thing.  Considering how painful and even apocalyptic it was, it’s a strange lacuna, in everyone’s narrative. George Orwell wanted to see action, was disappointed to be posted to this quiet area, but recorded his own experiences – the frustration, boredom, the cold, the squalor, and the hopelessness of it. His book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ is powerful and was widely read in the world, and so the authorities have responded by creating (not really re-creating) a dugout in the area he was based.  As Kevin Doyle says, you really do have to look to find it - it was pure chance we saw it.  It seems to be just about the only monument to those terrible times. Yet here in Barbastro in August 1936, the Popular Front (ie the communists) herded up the local monks, the Clarets, and shot 51 of them, sparing only two who happened to be Argentinian. These men were beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1992. There are branch of the Clarets in England, by the way.  I am just left wondering why exactly that war, of the many vile wars which have figured in the last 150 years, has been so quietly forgotten. Maybe it's still going on, though not here at the moment. Think of Syria.

There are some striking agricultural monuments as you cross the landscape – huge deco silo buildings, and these are adorned with massive storks’ nests, great car-sized tangles of branches and twigs. There are also some nests on the cathedral tower in Barbastro, so the birds do venture into the settled areas.

At one point, the road - which was pretty well world-class in terms of surface, signage, quietness, etc - suddenly switched into work-in-progress mode. We had about 5k of stones to drive along, and were glad that the very few other vehicles which passed us did so quite slowly and at a distance, as there were plenty of pebbles flying about. I wouldn't really want to break down in such hot, dry and lonely conditions.

Barbastro itself is a working town, not particularly glamorous, and with a heavily engineered river bed designed on two levels – the inner channel maintaining a deepish flow of water even in summer (say 18 - 24”, I suppose), but with a much bigger channel around that, with space for a huge torrent in the spring with water from the visible Pyrenees gushing down each year. (See, I am always on about size).

We arrived during the time of siesta, met a chirpy Lancashireman who was taking his mum out for lunch and wondering what might amuse her, and touting his rental property at Ainsa (90 minutes away). The town was dead. But a couple of hours later it had sprung into life – elegant shops open, children everywhere, people strolling about, having a soda and a snack in the boulevards under the trees, everyone enjoying themselves. We bought a fantastic local tomato, some figs, some goat’s cheese from the mountains, and some very local olive oil (having had a tasting and a lesson in how to choose oil). 

I made a watercolour, we wandered back to the hotel, which is owned by a very nice lady who took it on from her dad. It is pretty huge – a large dusty carpark at the back, great spacious dining rooms, long corridors (yes, with a flight of stairs up and then down in the middle), all decorated in the 1970s and not touched since. It’s a big banged about, a bit dark, a bit scuffed – but so hospitable and comfortable. At breakfast just now, the owner was sitting having her own breakfast on the next table, which was very homely and gentle (instead of being served by harried waiting staff). She showed us her grandmother’s kitchen table, made of painted iron and marble, 200 years old, her pride and joy. 

She likes September as she has time to meet her guests and chat. Her next booking is 20 Italian wine-students coming for 50 days to study the methods used in viticulture here.

We are off into the mountains today, to Vielha, and then into France again. We are reluctant to leave Spain. It’s so – well, so laid-back, and civilised.

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