Sunday, 24 September 2017

Obliteration, rediscovery

Things which live, and have a full life, can completely disappear. Even the enthusiastic sexlife of Tyrannosaurus Rex could not prevent its obliteration, but as we shall see, these things can be coaxed back into life.

Remarkably, for a period of about 300 years or more, the community of Gijón completely disappeared. What is now a sizeable seaport and capital for the region of Asturia, with population of around quarter of a million people and a history of mining and heavy industry, was wiped off the map. It had had mixed fortunes before that - Roman baths, church building, Moorish occupation, feudal development, the odd fire... but between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries - nothing.  Eventually, someone thought it might make a good harbour and things started up again.... Now, like all the cities we have seen it has acres of apartment blocks, all the rules and regs which make up modern Spanish life, and a tiny 'old town'.

The Roman baths are rather fun, all underground now, very reminiscent of the Roman bit of Canterbury, and with lots of excellent diagrams showing how it all worked, scattered round a jumble of old brickwork and holes.  The money spent on the excavation, investigation, presentation and management of this once-thriving spa is hard to imagine, but I would say no expense was spared. Like all the Spanish interiors we have visited, it's all very clean and smart, dimly lit, and done in the best possible taste.

It's another mystery quite why and how the Spanish choose to live in such darkness. Shops, bars, public spaces are all lit with electricity - but only just. It's as if light itself was a precious commodity inside, to be doled out.  Many times we have walked or driven past a shop because it looks closed, only to realise that it is open and ready for business, but in a troglodyte sort of way, shady and murkish.  Anyone wanting to start a new fashion in Spain only has to bring a lorry-load of modern light fittings across and switch them on.

We went back into Gijón today to visit the Railway Museum - best in Spain, so they say, and it is indeed a splendid place. Asturia never really had a rail network, only an enthusiastic industry of coal mining which required the stuff to be brought to the coast - and several gauges and machines and systems were installed over the 19th and 20th centuries. Passengers were an add-on, and did get their three-class system in due course. The story of gauges is quite interesting in itself - the Spanish deliberately chose a wide gauge to stop any French ambitions of invasion by train.  If you go (as we did a year or so ago) by train from Paris into Spain, there's a railyard where they have to physically change the distance of the running wheels....      The selection of engines and equipment which survives in this excellent and very well-presented museum is impressive and rather gorgeous, not least because they have not stinted in the way it's all set out, and the social history is woven into the whole story. The building itself is also very beautiful with wonderful granite paving on the old platforms.  Luckily it was a bright day today so the dim lighting did not cause too much of a problem.

Our last few days have been spent staying in a campsite at a place called Playa de Vega, in the Ribadisella district. It's at the beach end of a quiet old valley, no sound of anything but the waves about half a mile away.  We are in a wooden cabin with 2 bedrooms which is spacious and comfortable and even has the heating on for mornings and evenings.  60€ a night.  At night, there are owls calling all around - at least six or seven of them. During the day there are dozens of German surfers down in the water.

We had an outing yesterday to yet another museum - the Jurassic Dinosaur Park a few miles up the road.  There is no doubt about it, Spanish Museums are plain terrific.  This one, seated in the centre of a geological serendipity from the dinosaur point of view, is outstanding. The carpark leads up to a huge garden, filled with full-scale models of all the dinosaurs you want to see - diplodocus, tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, etc.   Free entry.  Children of all ages are delighted, including me.  Roar!!!! Agghhh!!!!!!!!   There are also very convincing full-scale replicas of footprints and of spinal bones found in the sand.  The building, shaped like a huge footprint blown into zeppelin proportions, leads you through millions of years of evolution and discovery and has a fair-to-middling service for non-Spanish speakers in terms of labelling and the audio guide.   It also boasts the only TRex mating model in Europe. Roar!!!!! This is a wonderful place, for fun and for academia. The chances which led to so many massive fossil discoveries in this area are slim, but they have exploited it all with flair and brilliance and it would be worth coming to Asturia just for this experience alone. 

One small complaint is that in the list of illustrious explorers and excavators who invented modern fossil-hunting, no mention is made of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, who was not only an outstanding scientist and pioneer, but also female - but who nonetheless helped to start this fascinating area of study.  The line of pious portraits is all male.


The life and existence of these huge and diverse creatures, along with all the other plants, insects, invertebrates and other things is - frankly - almost completely unimaginable, but to see everything explained and sequenced and illustrated and modelled so comprehensively does help a lot.

A little detour on the way home, to a viewpoint or mirador called el Fito is just icing on the cake.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The castle mentality

We live in an age of mad alpha-male despots. Maybe we always did, but at the moment among others we think of the North Korean weird man, and the American President with his instinct for smashing through the values which people around him have come to value.... respect, conservation of resources, sensitivity, community.  Trump in particular reminds me very strongly of King Henry VIII, another one who was willing to tear down the old certainties in pursuit of a vision which benefitted him above anyone else.  I even detect a sort of facial or expressional resemblance among these three men - a flat-faced, blank stare, belligerent. They are cruel, sadistic, frightening.

They are all human but very different from me and I find it hard to imagine what it must be like to 'be' like one of them.   Walking round inside a castle is the nearest thing I can think of to experience the sort of mindset they probably have - hard, defensive, perhaps paranoid, aggressive.

Castles are very strange things. They stayed in fashion among the warrior classes of Europe for a long time, and there were hundreds if not thousands of them. They were built strongly of course which is why a lot of them survive, and they've been altered and knocked about a lot too, but they do give us an insight into how people thought about the world in the early to middle medieval ages. 

For a start, castles were usually built on hill tops. That's ok for defence (and we have already considered the benefits of high vantage points), but you always have the problem of getting up there (lugging all that stone if you need more to build the walls etc), and the problem of enough water for your fighting men to drink if you are under siege.   Castle wells are always interesting. The well at Bamburgh in Northumberland is memorable - somehow they excavated down to fresh water, hundreds of feet through solid rock, right beside the sea. 

And castles were hard, awkward places - steep stairs, draughty, military. OK for stomping about in your armour and keeping watch, but not so good for domestic matters - the work and experience of women and children and cooks and and gardeners etc was the last thing on the list. 

Without looking anything up, it strikes me that there was a huge splurge of stone castle-building (and cathedral-building) right across Europe in the second half of the 1100s, and that was presumably based on some sort of economic surplus which released the labour force to be available for stone-work, and that was presumably based on an improvement in the climatic conditions - fine weather, warmer years, more harvests, less sickness and starvation, stronger bigger peasants, etc. 

Our travels in Spain have taken us to city after city with these massive installations - castles, forts, cathedrals, basilicas.... and we find them of course in France and England and Italy.....

Ponferrada, sitting as it does in the centre of a huge basin surrounded by mountain ranges is an attractive place and perfect for a castle, right beside the river Sil. The present edifice is gorgeous to look at with castellations, towers, drawbridges, turrets, flags etc, and a great tourist attraction. It covers a vast area with a very large open courtyard. It was owned and embellished by successive kings and warlords, held by the Templars long enough for it to qualify now as a research institution into Templar history, and to attract a lot of funding for rebuilding and so on... The area known as the Old Palace is now a modern wooden thing, not at all medieval-looking, but useful for practical purposes.  The signage is adequate but intermittent. The viewpoints from various walls are marvellous. It was interesting to see that the famous battlements - the castellations - were perhaps not left naked as we usually see them today, but held roofwork - either individually or all along, and there are photos from many other castles to prove it. This reminded me of a book owned by Norma Pleasance which shows how the Coliseum in Rome was not a bare open cylinder as we see it today, but held a huge canvas tent above it, to shade the crowd.  Nice.

The men who built and lived in and used and fought for these castles had a very odd view of the world, according to me.  They worried about being safe enough. They spent huge amounts of money etc on their own defence and possessions. They cut themselves off from most of the people around them - being in command, killing, thinking a lot about death and heredity. They walked round those battlements and stared out. They risked falling down the hard stone stairs. They all died.

Right beside the castle, which by the way, has free entry on Wednesdays, is a little Baroque house which now houses Spain's finest Radio Museum. This mostly consists of a marvellous collection of 'wireless' receivers from the 20s through to the 70s and into the digital age. There are one or two mixer desks, some microphones, a couple of tape recorders including a Uher just like the one which I myself lugged around as a radio reporter in the 1970s.  It's a lovely collection and worth a visit for the sheer design qualities which were lavished on the great twentieth century technology.  The radios channelled the words and actions of despots - and 'news' was a broadcast thing, the changes in war technology and battles, all talked about and heard in homes across the land.   But radios also brought music and laughter and people sat around together listening, sharing. 

Quite different things. 

Galician hospitality

Just packing up to leave this lovely apartment in Ponferrada. We have loved it here.
During the night, I realised there are lots of things I have failed to record - the fantastic hospitality of our friends in Pontedeume, including their wide circle of friends, who seem to eat and make music as often as they breathe.
In particular we had one marvellous lunch by the sea, at a restaurant in Ares opened by Miguel Ezquerro and his wife/chef Conchita. It was by chance a reunion of the wonderful Galician folk band Iriadona which - since the dreadful train accident of lead singer Lidia Sanmartin at Santiago a few years ago - has not really played together since about 5 years.  They came twice to perform at Faversham and since her remarkable recovery, Lidia herself has become an international star, performing in Brussels and Glasgow most recently.

After our amazing meal, they gradually produced their instruments and then they played - for two or three hours, a spontaneous concert-rehearsal, changing instruments, watching each other, getting into it. The sun was shining on the promenade, we sat under our terrace roof and melted into the sounds.
To hear them is to be carried into Celtic lands - it could be being made in Ireland or Scotland, the same kinds of melody, the same harmonies.  Their instruments are partly familiar, partly new to me - the pandeireta (a square double-covered hand-drum), the mandola, plus of course guitar, flutes of various kinds, and bodhran....
The next day, some of us met up again, at the house of Carola and Santi - for an evening meal in the open (under one of the sensible covered terrace roofs). She produced peaches stuffed with an egg and vegetable salad, a fine cheese which we didn't even touch!, turnip tops with cream and egg, then a massive paella cooked in front of us, and then postres - a kind of apple flan with a filling of compote.... this was delicious but the cook and her husband were disappointed with it because the pastry lining did not hold together properly. They are real gourmets... as indeed the whole Galician people seem to be.  The main idea of a lunch taken mid-afternoon, and then a drink + pincho (usually given as a freebie from a small choice of menu at most bars) is all you need for supper.
During Carola's supper, the assembled party sang me a Galician 'happy birthday' song... never heard it before.
The next day some of the gang met up again - Monday this time - at a bar on the mountain - in a garden, under cover.... This was a strange place, beautiful, an old boatyard of all things, with the dock still visible in the contours of what is now a carefully managed garden. Two rivers met here, though the water levels are different now, so no boats have been built since 1880. The only surviving record at the place is a set of photos of the boats - lovely elegant skiffs, perfect for fishing on the Eume estuary.
Robins and sparrow flitted about. One robin was very hunchbacked. Never seen that before either.
Had we known it, this little party was a prelude to the next day's exploration of the old Roman goldmines - the industrial archeology just sitting silently in the landscape.
I will try to add photos to this a little later.  For now, I wanted to record our deep pleasure in the festivities and hospitality and kindness and cooking of the Galician crowd. We are about to set off on the next stage of our Spanish adventure - to go up to Gijon on the north coast. Rain is forecast.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Romans. what they found and what they did

Travelling makes you very conscious of how rocky our planet is. The mountains are just huge. Wide. Tall. Deep. Hard. Difficult. And slowly moving all the time.

As a soft-fleshed and lazy person I view them partly with admiration and wonder, and partly with fear and horror. It is an unimaginably long time since they arrived. Some are obviously made of layer upon layer of sediment, once presumably quite level and soft, but then hardened and later bent up into tormented and tortuous folds and bends - the seabed literally lifted to the heavens, to be worn down again and the tiny gritty particles of dust to settle once again on a sea bed somewhere... The process begins again. Some of these rocks look as soft as butter. Then you touch them, and find they are the hardest substance you have ever touched. The volcanic 'toffee' in the huge crater of Mount Teide in Tenerife is like that.

It is in these uplifts that people have searched for and found things of value. For instance, they have found distance - the chance of seeing a very long way, which might give them warning of the approach of an enemy, or the sense of ownership of the territory spread out below them, or an understanding of how the land lies, or maybe the chance to connect with the Great Powers of the Universe - the starry skies, the blue heaven, storms.

Having bid farewell to Galicia yesterday morning, we headed east and into these mountains - and eventually to the extraordinary sky-village now called O Cebreira. It is not well signposted, and it is very very high up. It was settled well over two thousand years ago, with round stone houses, thatched and snug, and in use till a few years ago. Then as decline and modern ways set in (just as in Perithia, in Corfu, where we were just a few weeks ago), the houses were in danger of being lost completely, and it was the parish priest who organised to save them. Nine survive, four still inhabited, the rest in use as museums or storage spaces.

Actually the locals seem to like round things, as the church gate posts are round, the buttresses on various walls are round, door-jambs are round, even a cupboard carved from one solid tree has a round interior though the back and sides are squared off.  There is said to be a Holy Grail in the little church (sadly not a round building, and locked when we were there).  The place is thronged with pilgrims and tourists and is - well, exciting. The views all around are stupendous. A magic place, lived in since long before the Romans arrived. Round houses are associated with matriarchy, and quite right too.

But of course, it is not only distance which people value in the mountains.  They have also found metals - copper, lead, silver, gold....  And a little further on, in a golden land of vineyards and quaint crooked villages with massive jettied balconies, we came across the biggest ancient goldmine of antiquity.  Asturia is where the Romans got all their gold.  Since 80% of all gold now in use has been mined in the last 200 years, there was clearly much less around two thousand years ago, and its value was commensurately higher.  It was fantastically difficult to get.  Even for the Romans, the journey to be made from Rome to this distant edge of Iberia was a long one, and presumably the engineers, miners, soldiers, directors, financiers and so on all had to get to it.  The place is now called Las Meduras, and it's truly weird.

 What they had to do was to get down more than 100m into the rock to find the layers with traces of gold in them. They knew it was there because the locals had been panning it in the rivers for generations, but that wasn't enough for the Romans. So they decided to remove the top layers of rock.  They used water, and channelled it into cracks. They used the water to make 'explosive' air pressure further down. They used fire to heat the rocks and then cold water to create steam. They dug tunnels and pits and deep trenches, and basically they removed whole mountains. The peaks left behind are a bright burning red colour - again hard enough to touch - and these stand out like ridiculously pointy needles and slabs. There are massive cliffs where their operations ceased, but which give testimony to how much spoil was removed.   This process was called 'ruining mountains' - ruina monteum.   Pliny the Elder wrote about it in 77BC, mentioning how dangerous it was.  The labour force - so they say - was of free men, not slaves. 60,000 of them.  But how do we know?   Some of them lived down in the tunnels for months, never seeing daylight. They had to be fed, watered. And the area of operations is massive - really spreading for miles around.  They carried on doing this for 250 years and although it is debatable, Pliny said 20,000 Roman pounds of gold were extracted each year.  (A Roman pound is aproximately 11-12 oz).  Another estimate is that 1,650,000 kilograms of gold was taken.   Astonishing.   The resulting landscape is just breath-taking - red, torn, secret, difficult, silent.

The land around is now used for growing sweet chestnuts, and these trees are themselves described as centurions, being massive and ancient. They have been pollarded over and over again, and their trunks are huge and contorted. They all have wildly expressive markings on them - like some silent opera.  There are signs up everywhere warning you not to steal the chestnuts.  The walks around the area are open and free and well maintained.  On a late summer afternoon, you almost have the place to yourself.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

To be a pilgrim

The pilgrimage business in Spain has boomed. When we first came exploring these northern districts a few years ago there were - to be sure - a lot of people trudging their way along the dusty paths and through the beautiful cool woods, but there are far more of them these days. And now there are pilgrimage path signs all over the place, as communities enthusiastically welcome these visitors. There are even motorways designated as part of the camino, which is illuminating.

In the middle ages, when most people went on most of their journeys by foot, the idea of walking to a famous and holy place did not perhaps carry the same sub-messages as it does today. It would be interesting to know how people financed their pilgrimages in the 15th century, for instance. Surely they did not carry bags of gold or silver with them? Did they work their way along, to earn the money they needed? The houses and chapels which accommodated them must surely have taken coins from them in return for bed and board - they and their parishes could not have sustained a constant stream of freeloaders.  

In Ponferrada, besides the river, there is a huge castle which was handed to the Templars so they could protect the pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Protect from whom?  It sounds more mafia-like to me… the king was paying off this mighty fighting force by giving them a castle and a ‘job’ to do. They didn’t get to keep their castle for very long, because their whole order was closed down and disbanded only about 20 years after they took over the ancient and impressive fortress, and it became a sort of convenient quarry for hewn rocks. It is still a marvellous and picturesque edifice, which we enjoyed looking at from the other bank while we had an excellent picnic lunch.

Not being religious myself, I don’t know what the ‘official’ guidelines are for being a pilgrim. I imagine there is a kind of meditational, solitary, contemplative purpose, and a way of learning how to overcome physical (worldy) difficulties and mishaps. So it boosts resourcefulness and ingenuity, and helps put someone into a new kind of perspective of the world - the huge distances to be covered, the height and beauty of the mountains, the different ways in which people do things.  So, deeply informative and maybe transformational. To walk to Santiago (or Walsingham, or Canterbury, or Jerusalem, or Rome) and back again would be a really remarkable achievement even in the age of walking.   On this ‘holiday’ of ours, planned to last the whole of September, in the comfort of a car with hotel stops and a well-equipped tent for camping, we are hardly facing the same hardships and deprivations which a ‘real’ pilgrim would face, even today. But I have felt that this is a pilgrimage of sorts.  

We are disconnected. Don’t laugh - but we go for hours, days, without access to wifi - and thus I find I am brought up hard against my addictive nature, my dependance on things, my fear of isolation.  Is that the same as the fear of death?  I realise how I like to have things arranged the way I like them - how controlling that can be. I see how quickly I deteriorate into grumpiness if things go wrong, and I get tired. It’s not that I didn’t know about these shortcomings beforehand, but it’s impossible to avoid seeing them on a journey like this. Lots of room for improvement and change.  On the other hand, it’s been interesting to see how much I live in my eyes - how I look at things, almost strenuously. It’s very tiring - that was the clue. I am really exhausted when we arrive somewhere because I have been LOOKING at everything.  Most days I have been able to draw or paint, and I have found it very calming and meditational to do this work - moving into a new frame of mind, and being calm, almost as if I am finding my true nature. My paintings themselves have become clearer and more transparent, less muddy. I take these things to be part of my pilgrimage. I see too that I gain great benefits from talking with people - even tiny snippets of conversation with someone in a shop or along the road - from these I take whole worlds, fantasies of how they live, who they are. It feels loving, to me, but of course it’s a novelist’s habit and not necessarily sane.  

At this moment, in the tiny apartment belonging to our friends, I am alone with the washing machine, with one painting done and drying on the balcony, and with everyone out for a coffee. Time for me to join them. 

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Being rich and pally with God for a long long time.....

Here in Burgos in northern Spain, for about nine hundred years, the super-rich (kings, queens, constables, bishops, priests etc) had access to more or less unlimited wealth which they took from the poor. They spent this money on creating a church for themselves where they could display their money, power, holiness and taste, and show off to their friends and relations.

It was not a small regional project.

They scoured Europe for the very best architects, designers, sculptors, painters, carvers-in-wood, gilders and so on, and set them to work. They started in about 1221 and seem to have had the greater part done by about 1450 - maybe 1500.  This was while we (in England) were still marvelling at the concept of making houses out of brick.

The staircase incorporates designs by Michelangelo and was the model for the stairs in the Paris Opera 400 years later.

Door to the cloister - added in 15th/16th century to a 13th century arch

The result is one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world. And saying that in Spain which is stuffed full of huge cathedrals really is an accolade.

Not only does it knock your socks off in every direction, it also sends a powerful message about how things have been in the world for all of modern times, and how (I fear) they will be again.   Churches are for rich people.

They are display cases for vanity and power.  They use the attractive idea of glorifying god as a channel to divert people's attention away from what is really going on.  It is where the pious and impious rich can arrange to have their bodies interred (viz every parish church in England).

Not one but two towers surmounted by vaulted glazed ceilings

Chapels made for queens, kings, bishops, their families, and friends... all with glorious ceilings and all very early
Burgos is a supreme example of how to do it. When you see the acres of exquisite carving, the lavish use of gold, the beauties of the design and the astonishing uplifting serenity and excitement of how it's all laid out, you also know that no peasant would really have been welcome in such a place. I really wonder if any ordinary outsiders were ever allowed in (until modern tourism sanctioned by UNESCO was invented. Thank you, that will be 6€ to come in).

So, it was a strolling ground for princesses and courtiers. It was a place where lords and kings plotted which aristocratic or royal female child would be sold off to which aggrandising aristo. It was where god slotted in nicely thank you, to keep it all going.

Just look at it.

As a matter of interest, the medieval lord known as El Cid is buried here, somewhere.

There are dozens and dozens of wonderful paintings now displayed in the Museum, where hoi polloi like me can wander round and look. The commentary on the headphones is not bad but enunciated in a ghastly pious sing-song voice by two presenters (m and f) who alternate. This undoubtedly pleased the patrons (clergy) who commissioned it all but left me feeling very squeamish. There are many beautiful madonna-with-child images, and I also liked the arrangement of all the legs in this rather violent painting. I feel the artist reckoned he could do a good leg and persuaded a patron to let him get on with it. 


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Apart from shortage of time, I find it has been quite hard to assemble my thoughts about the last 3 days, and I wonder if this is a delayed result of the car smash last week - my brush with death.  In fact we have had rich and stimulating times, travelling through the most spectacularly beautiful mountains, camping and wandering around in Huesca, and then coming back into France for a day or so. Visually it has been entrancing. So many thoughts and ideas have been flooding through my mind, I knew I couldn't record much of it... so there's this sense of ideas lost, and opportunities missed.  Something sad as well as uplifted, dark and light, down and up.
(Each time we have been up in the mountains we have seen eagles - huge and solitary - and flocks of great vultures.....)
One powerful thread was thinking of Katherine of Aragon, that extraordinary redhead who was married into the Tudors as a child because she brought more lineage and credibility than they had without her, having two direct lines of legitimate ancestry from John of Gaunt whereas they were basically illegitimate. If she could produce a male heir for them, that young man would have a claim to the throne of England which would be completely upheld by all the other crowns of Europe, and the Pope.
She came from this kingdom of Aragon, whose beauties we have been dazzled by in the last few days - great mountain passes and folds, rivers, cities, estates, castles, and pride. She was born in Madrid, educated, dedicated and and intelligent.
What she thought when she arrived in the lowlands of southern England one can only imagine - how low, dark and cold it must have seemed compared to the grandeur and brilliance of her own lands.

Among her courtiers was one John Blanke, a trumpeter - thought to be the first African black man to arrive in England in those days.
She was married by proxy, and then in reality to Arthur, Prince of Wales - but he was overtaken by a fever and died within a few months and she was left widowed. In order to keep her all-important lineage in the family, Arthur's father considered marrying her himself but her father objected, so she was then paired with Arthur's brother, Henry - five years younger than she, and destined to become the Donald Trump of his age - Henry VIII.  She bore numerous children, but only one survived - Mary, a girl.  As we know Henry took matters into his own hands when he became infatuated with young Anne Boleyn... and Katherine was dumped, never ceasing to protest, and never accepting her divorce.  She commissioned a book about the education of women..... 
As we passed through some of her lands here, we thought about her, and saluted her, and her country.
The new roadworks are a wonder - there is no shortage of space so they can spread out and do what they want - it is a paradise for spaghetti-junction lovers. The roadworks are also adorned with striking and attractive works of art. They are proud of their roads and rightly so.

Iron Horse in Aragon

From Torla we went west through the mountains to Biescas (where a squall of wind demolished some of the market stalls in front of our eyes), and then down to Huesca - to camp for a couple of nights in what turned out to be an urban campsite - something out of Celesteville, next to the football stadium and the swimming pool - but now surrounded by blocks of apartments. As we have seen before, the population of Spain no longer wants to live on the plain, but to flood into the cities for the fun, the footie, the schools, shops and amusements. Every town has its new forest of accommodation, tall suburbs, blocks and blocks of flats.
That mighty wind came rushing past us, day and night, bringing sporadic rain but a lot of roaring and flapping. The small plane trees planted through the campsite offering shade and privacy were bashed and battered and the wind spanked through the leaves and gave us a non-stop orchestral howling.....

We spent Sunday wandering round the sleepy city, having the place almost to ourselves.

The cathedral has a very good alabaster altar-piece,

but is mostly unusual in being rather late in date. That's because the Christians (in a practical spirit) just used the mosque for two hundred years longer than anyone else did, until some king or other protested and thought a purpose-built church would be a good idea. The only bit of the original mosque thought to survive is a part of a doorway, but not open to the public on Sundays.
The museum (near the university, and housed in a lovely octagonal building) is described on TripAdvisor as ' not very interesting' but we beg to differ. It is exemplary as to its displays and quality, offering a warm story of the history of humans in the province of Huesca - Old Stone Age, Upper Paleolithic, Meso, Neo, Bronze, Roman, and the rest.... lovely stone and pottery and then into the modern age.
A hand from a Roman statue - and my own....
Half way round, you get diverted into a suite of rooms once part of the royal palace - beautifully cleaned up, and partly used for a modern art display. Since one of the lower rooms is said to have been where a monk called Ramiro II chopped off the heads of some rebellious gentlemen, the present art installation of ghoulish heads and ghastly noises is absolutely appropriate.

The chapel above this charnel house is very lovely with carved capitals and when an Aragonese princess called Petronilla was given as a child-bride to the Count of Barcelona......    Ah, the child brides.

The museum has some stunningly beautiful madonnas - two carved effigies with the holy child, and one particularly lovely painting showing musicians around her, playing heavenly music.

We fled the wind and the roaring plane trees and came back up to the Pyrenees.

It was fun to stop at Canfranc - the railway station where the two national rail-gauges have to meet and make friends, and which since an extraordinary 170mph accident in 1970, has been closed. They are planning to open the whole thing again, to link France and Spain again, by 2020, costing 57bn Euros..... and that will be fun. A beautiful line, if they can run passenger trains as well as freight.
Escaping the wind, we booked the next two nights in the Spanish border town of Irun.
This has proved to be a confusing place, not only because of the Basque signage, but the layout and arrangement of roads - even the satnav has led us to flights of steps impassable for a car.  But today we went up along the coast back into France, to look for Ravel's birthplace - passing the surfing beach of Hendaye (OMG),

and to Ciboure to see his house, and on the bustling and pretty fishing port of St Jean de Luz.  The church of St John the Baptist is deceptive. Outside, it is modest enough, stone, plain, quiet. 

Inside, it has three tiers of dark wooden balconies with balusters each side of the nave, and round the organ at the west end. It has a massive altar-piece of course, but the whole thing is more or less exactly contemporary with St Paul's Cathedral in London and (like the buildings in Tenerife made at the same time) filled with details which late seventeenth century people would have welcomed as bang up to date. It is marvellous, worth coming for all on its own. It is theatrical, democratic, accommodating, wooden, huge and memorable.

This account is probably long enough - though I have missed out so much - the waterfalls, the castles, the massive mountain cliffs, the distant views, the delicious meals. It is very intense. Exhausting actually. I think this is my reaction to the crash... things are exhausting, because I am grabbing on everything. Apart from my wonderful pink hat, which I have only had for a week, and which I lost today. We went back to try to find it, in vain. It is gone and I am very sad.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Rocks and mountains

The valley is formed from massive impressive glaciated mountains with almost edibly delicious swirls and stripes of different coloured rocks, towering cliffs and rounded peaks, terrifying drops and what seem to be totally inaccessible hanging valleys and forests high above. A national park was created back in 1918, and it's now part of the UNESCO world heritage conservation programme due to the precious diversity and pristine atmosphere.

You can see the Torla Fold on the left of this picture 
You are only allowed to get up to the park on a bus, and we (being old) had a price reduction for our tickets. There was a long queue to get onto a bus, and each bus has kennels underneath for lucky pooches being taken walkies in tham thar hills. (It does look a bit like a Western movie).

We did our five miles or so along a rough but well-maintained gravelly pathway - boulders, sand, rocks, some parts paved where mountain streams are likely to wash the road away, some very loose scree. How this path survives winter snows and melts is a question.
Parts of the path almost looked like somewhere in Surrey - till you look up and see the massive mountains above you, through the trees. Far, far above.  In the slightly misty air it was hard to estimate how far away they are, how tall.  In fact they are getting on for 3000m high.
It was really amazing the number of people and how old and how young they were, we saw on the path. The map says it's an hour to the first waterfall, but we found it was quite a lot longer than that, even going at a fair lick.   We saw lots of babies being carried back-pack style, tiny toddlers, slightly disgruntled young teens, masses of hefty keen walkers, many older or even elderly couples or groups.  The young couples ignored us.  The families were friendly.  It was the older people who were most likely to say 'Olá!' or give us some other greeting.   We estimated that even at this time of year there must be well over a thousand people trekking along to see the waterfalls every day, and we were on just one of many possible paths through the park. There are loos at the carpark area, but none along the route. So, occasionally, as on the famous St James camino pathways, you see scraps of tissue where people have ducked behind trees for a pee or more.  The climb (which is not just up but also down and up) is said to be about 100m altitude - but the waterfalls are beautiful, interesting and noisy. 
We had noticed that some areas of paving in Broto and Torla have strange undulated veins running over them, reminiscent of the blood vessels on the coats of some well-groomed horses, and I asked via Facebook what this effect is called. It led to an interesting debate, with one friend, Duncan Grant, promptly sending a reference to something called the Torla Fold (see left of photo above), which is a mighty toffee-like squidgey sandwich of rock stripes bending back on itself, which we could see from our lunchtime seats in an excellent tapas bar.  There were no clear answers about this paved surface, but it sent us out to do more research and we came to the conclusion that it's a natural effect of the solidified rock being laid down as mud (500 million years ago), possibly heated, with possible intrusions, some of which look like white marble, and some of which are these thready decorations.  Very handy as a foot surface in a place with such icy winters.

The hotels all close for 3 months a year, maybe the whole village shuts down. There's no ski-ing here.
Our final call of the day was to break into prison, the Torre de Carcel de Broto which I mentioned before. The gaoler is now a very pleasant housewife who lives just along the alley. The tower looks pretty much like an ordinary house. However, it has three floors. The lowest is a cellar or warehouse, now completely separate from the museum, accessed from the street below, further down the hill. The prison is a stone room about fifteen feet square, lit only by two miniscule squints to the west.  No facilities at all, walls all blackened and sooty, or just dirty.  The top chamber presumably belonged to the Magistrate, with a barrel-vaulted roof, a proper window space though no fireplace, and a magnificent, well-designed bog in the wall, complete with a cylindrical stone drop for his poo to go down through to some unknown heap somewhere below.  The whole message of this was, I suppose, to emphasise that prisoners had to live in their own squalor. The ongoing fight for use of the high mountain pastures was always going to be hazardous, with the risk of imprisonment in dungeons like this if you were caught by the other side.  The prison seems to have been in use for hundreds of years. The prisoners - some of them - artists and free spirits - spent their time carving holy graffiti into the blackened walls of their cell - saints, musicians, soldiers, a Calvary, geometric shapes, crosses, animals, lots of free-flying birds....  They must have used little shards of stone to while away their stinking hours, in the near pitch darkness, drawing images of radiant light and godliness.
Life in the mountains is always going to be tough, breeding tough people with a strong spiritual quality. They apparently need few 'things' to help them live in these vast stony valleys. Just their eyes.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Day three post crash

I have hesitated to resume the blog, for various reasons. I felt very trembly and weak, for one thing. And life, ordinary life, suddenly seemed a bit trivial after the eyeball-searing moment watching the huge camion bearing down onto our car.
However, things seem to be resuming more of an ordinary cast.
More than anything else I want to celebrate being alive!
We drove - the next day - and despite my sister's wish that we stay on longer, into Spain, through the Bielsa tunnel in the end.  Lunch en route at the Les Routiers in Masseube which was wonderful, well attended and we recommend it if you are passing.

The countryside in France is so completely ordered, buckled down, managed, signposted, controlled - and the minute you get into Spain not only does the sun come out of the mist, but everything relaxes. That in itself seemed an endorsement of joy.
It was a long day's drive and I noticed I did actually flinch each time a lorry came towards us, or too close, even though my husband (who I often call The Concierge but should in this instance have titled The Chauffeur) is a very safe (even boring) driver.
The mountains shouted their magnificence.
The road twisted and wound its way.
We saw vultures - griffon vultures? And an eagle.
We saw waterfalls.
Glory glory.
To think I might have missed all that.
Our hotel was Completo (but we had a room reserved). The room turned out to have its own sitting room attached, and a balcony, and stupendous views.  The price including parking and an excellebnt breakfast was €60 for the two of us. No wonder it was Completo.
We found a sort-of rough tapas bar for a light supper.... workmanlike would be the word.
I slept like a log, the minute my head hit the pillow I think. Exhausted (and no wonder, with all that flinching).
We spent the day visiting the area - two villages in particular - Broto a little further down the valley, and Fragen, smaller and hanging above Torla. Torla itself is the main jumping off place to go and visit the National Par of Ordesa, twenty minutes away by bus (no cars allowed).  The whole place closes down from November to March. One characteristic of this town is the sweet medieval double-arch stone windows set into the strong square stone walls.  
In neither Broto nor Fragen did we spot anything like these, though all three have wonderful columnar stone chimneys with decorations on top.  In Torla, some of the roofs have these knives or cutters which diminish the impact of snowslides (mini avalanches) by slicing the snow-mats into strips. The very old houses have stone slab roofs. The very new houses do not have these gadgets.

Broto was bombed to bits in the 1930s and has been well rebuilt with modern housing and hotels around its medieval centre, and it has a fantastically beautiful waterfall (cascada) about 5 minutes easy walk from the centre.
The main topic of history is the centuries of warfare with the French, disputing ownership of the high pastures.  Wherever we go, it's war, war, war.... until my lifetime (at least in my part of the world, Europe).
My golden life. Which I still have.
We moved to another hotel which had space, and we're here for 2 nights. Now we're off to the National Park, and later will try to get into the prison at Broto when it opens this evening to see the carved art on its walls, made by people travelling through, or incarcerated for squabbling with (killing?) the French, or the Spanish.