We’ve just snuck over to Barcelona. Just for two and a bit days. Just to see Emily, because the last time we were together was in South Korea last autumn.
This morning was sightseeing. I’ll just show you a single photo of the Hospital de Sant Pau, a truly wonderful complex of modernist buildings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll get the full tour once we’re back home.
This afternoon was hot. No better way to spend it than catching up with Emily over a leisurely lunch sitting in a tree lined square. It’s what the Spanish do best.
We were in Seville two years ago. Just like every other tourist, we wanted history, the sights, tapas.
Torre del Oro
The gardens of Alcazar Palace.
On our walk from the station to our hotel, down narrow back streets, we discovered Seville has other less publicised art works. Almost every garage door that we passed had been decorated: graffiti style, country scenes, market scenes and cars, especially cars…..
A few however, bridged the gap between the narrow back streets of our first walk just beyond the city centre, and the discoveries we’d make in the next few days, by depicting views of a city we came to love in our short visit.
….as any English school child of my generation will tell you. Well, he actually set sail from Palos, not too far away from the city of Seville: soon it became the gateway to the New World. Ships returned here laden with silver bullion from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico. And before that, in the 12th century, Seville had been the capital of the Almohad Moorish dynasty. So it’s had a splendid past, and has still scores of magnificent buildings from those glittering periods in its history. Seville is famous for its fiestas, its party-going spirit, its bullfights even, and as the home of the tapas, those delicious snacks made the more enjoyable for always being shared with friends. What’s kept us from visiting it until now, I ask myself?
We spent a week there. In mid-October it should have been as warm as an English summer’s day. But in true English style, it rained, deluged, bucketed down for the whole of our first two days. So we’ll draw a veil over the soggy sights we saw then. I won’t tell you about the wonderful cathedral and its Moorish tower, la Giralda , or about the palaces of Real Alcázar: you can read about those elsewhere.
Let’s talk instead about other highlights: Pilate’s house, for instance. It’s sometimes called the poor man’s Real Alcazar, but for us it was magnificent. A mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Mudéjar styles, it’s a visual feast of elegant and beautiful tiling of the kind even the meanest back street in Seville will produce a dozen examples. It was the then Mayor of Seville who started to have this house built following his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1519. He discovered that the distance from Golgotha to Pontius Pilate’s house was the same as the distance between his planned new home and a Sevillian temple known as Cruz del Campo…. so Pilate’s house it was. Here are some photos.
The historic centre of Seville is a warren of tiny streets, some barely longer than a garden path, no wider than a single car. How does anyone become familiar with them? We didn’t. Once, Malcolm decided to explore what he thought was the parallel street to mine and meet me on the corner. We didn’t see each other again for an hour, not till we’d both abandoned meeting again and each returned to the hotel. On the way of course, we both got waylaid by splendid ceramic tiles in entrance halls, over doorways and climbing up facades. Every stroll through the town was an act of discovery.
Glancing through a perfectly ordinary front door.
Even the undersides of balconies are decoratively tiled.
And street names – often with a strongly Catholic flavour – are always shown in ceramic tiles.
Here’s an old fire insurance sign: ceramic of course.
A favourite: this frieze runs the whole width of the building on both sides.
A narrow street by night.
No cars here, please.
A particularly fine terrace just near where we were staying.
We had a special evening on the Guadalquivir river, seeing the city by night.
I went to a truly wonderful concert, ‘In-vocazione’, that I spotted advertised in a craft-makers cooperative. Sixty singers from Seville, from Italy, and a Franco-Russian-Spanish(??) group sang together, plundering mainly from the folk traditions of southern and Eastern Europe, of Iran, of India,. At the beginning, a single male voice was joined by other men, then by women singing from the balconies. As one group moved down to join the men, more sang from the balconies and others, joyfully, among the audience. They inhabited and involved the architecture of the building as much as they did us, their audience. At the end, as part of their encore, they taught all of us there to join in one of my own choir’s standards, ‘Belle mama’. Singing ‘our’ song with these astonishing choirs was one of the most moving moments of my life.
The women start to sing.
We didn’t expect to enjoy visiting the Bullfighting Museum. But we did. Who knew that bullfighting was devised not as a spectator sport, but as a means of teaching the soldiers of the nobility how to go to war with the enemy? Or that Spain’s youngest bullfighter in recent times was merely nine years old? Or that tickets on the black market to a specially anticipated fight can cost as much as three thousand euros? No wonder we don’t plan to go.
And tapas. We ate somewhere new every day. We ate different dishes every day. The variety of foods on offer is quite extraordinary, from refined and elegant to rib-sticking and peasanty, with fish very often being star of the show. Here’s a picture of a DIY dish. Bake your own chorizo over a little bonfire of alcohol. Delicious.
Let’s end on a popular, un-cultural note. Here’s a sequence of decorated garage doors and graffiti that made us smile as we mooched round the city.
Do you fancy going to Seville soon? I certainly do.
It starts at the airport. No standing for ages in an untidy queue waiting to struggle your way onto your place in the ‘plane. You, your partner and baby are ushered forward, taken onto the aircraft like minor dignitaries and shown to your seats where the emergency procedures are explained.
At your destination, everyone’s prepared to make friends with you, help you in every way they can.
Out at a restaurant, your baby will be the star of the show. He may be passed round for a series of cuddles while you get on with your meal .
If you have the sense to travel with two sets of the baby’s grandparents, you may only get a chance to spend quality time with your infant after bedtime and before breakfast. This may mean you see him mainly round about 3.00 a.m. , but you can’t have everything
So that was how our holiday in la Rioja, Spain, worked out. We’d gone there with three-month-old William, his mum Sarah and dad Tom (my son), and Sarah’s parents. Daughter Emily and her boyfriend Miquel joined us from Barcelona for the weekend too. We’d chosen an area unknown to us all, which seemed worth exploring. Our base was a tiny hamlet, El Villar, whose only claim to fame is that there are dinosaur prints, lots of them, all over the place. You’ll find them by looking out for life-sized models of Tyrannosaurus Rex and similar ranging round the area. But we spent time wandering round the extraordinarily folded and buckled landscape of hills and mountains and the tiny villages perched on the slopes. There were vultures, soaring high above us on the thermals as they searched for their next meal. There were ancient towns and churches. There were Spanish lunchtimes, lazy affairs that started at 2.00 or so and carried languidly along till 4.00 or later. There were evenings of fiercely competitive card games in which the best (wo)man didn’t always win
Most of all though, there was William. He was the centrepiece of a holiday in which an extended family had the chance simply to spend time together, getting to know each other better, and having fun. Babies make good holiday companions.
…. which is, being very roughly translated, our pot-luck picnic on the Resistance trail.
Jean-Charles has long wanted to get us up to Croquié, a village high above the road between Foix and Tarascon, for a walk with a 360 degree panorama of the Pyrenees, and a very moving monument to some of the Maquisards who died fighting in the French resistance in World War II. This really was the last Sunday we could go, and the day was glorious: hot, with clear blue skies and views for miles and miles in every direction.
Neither Malcolm nor I is particularly on form at the moment, so while our Laroquais friends yomped up a semi-vertical path, deeply slicked in mud, we went part-way up the mountainside from the village of Croquié by car, and then walked on up by road (a road, however, closed to cars) to meet the rest of the group.
Our first destination was the Monument to the Resistance. This site, with views across to the mountains dividing us from Spain, far-reaching from west to east, was chosen as a memorial site not because it was a war-time battle ground. Instead it was a training school for resistance fighters from France, Spain and beyond. There are no barracks, no lecture-halls, no buildings of any kind. Instead the men led hidden existences among the forest trees and rocks. And now there is a fine memorial to them. Singled out were two men who died in nearby Vira (the area where we walked last week) a Maquis stronghold, one who died in our neighbouring town of Bélesta, and one who died following deportation. There is a statue to these men, who are nevertheless depicted without facial features. In this way they stand representative for all the men – and women – who died whether through fighting, by acting as liaison workers, or by offering essential support by giving shelter, clothing and food. Individuals did not pass over to Spain from here: the border is too far away. Instead they were driven to one of the freedom trails such as those near Oust and Seix. Petrol? It could be organised, albeit with difficulty. A key man ran a garage.
First glimpse of the monument.
A better look at it
This is the view those figures have
The sculptor of this monument is Ted Carrasco. A native of Bolivia, pre-Columbian art is a clear influence on his work. He seeks always for his pieces to be in harmony with the environment in which they are placed. His monumental granite figures look over to the Pyrenees which were the scene of their fight against fascism and the Nazi occupation of France.
Time to move on, however. Our path took us slowly upwards through forest, along a track which became increasingly snow-covered and tough going. However, it was only 3 km. or so until we reached the top, where there’s a refuge dedicated to the memory of its original owner, Henri Tartie, known as ‘l ‘Aynat’ – the elder, in Occitan. The original structure is tiny, but served as shelter to many a Maquisard . Now it’s a wood store, because a newer concrete annexe has been added with cooking facilities so that hardy mountain walkers can rest, make a meal, and warm themselves up.
The way up to the refuge.
Jean-Charles gives us a short history lesson outside the refuge.
The modern extension and its ‘facilities’.
A cheerful picnic.
This was our view.
And this , on the way down.
We commandeered a circular concrete table outside, with apparently unending views of those Pyrenees, and somehow squeezed all ten of us round. We unpacked our food: as ever there was wine to share, rhum baba à l’orange, galette charentaise, biscuits – all home-made, of course. Malcolm and I knew it was our last walk with our friends. The fine views, the fine company, the cheerful conversation had a predictable effect. We became tearful. But so grateful that this walk was a bit of a first. Extra-special views, extra-special weather for March, the chance to get close to an important slice of Ariègeois history, and our extra-special friends. We shan’t be with them next Sunday: there’ll be too much to do. It doesn’t bear thinking about.