Goodbye To All That

Spain, for so many, is the costas…the beaches, the bars, the booze….

I remember conversations with older cousins who talked grandly of the qualities of the various hotels on the Costa Brava as if all should know of them, from the catalogues so eagerly perused before Christmas, the holiday booked in January.

My father’s Spain was that of the civil war where he went out a dedicated Communist and came back totally opposed to Russian communism, hardened by the realities of a war without rules of conduct.

Leo’s Spain was that of the intermediate period, when the resorts were still fishing villages, where widows would touch a visitor’s suitcase for luck and to find a lodging you asked for a room at the bar.

He remembers the beaches being full of cactus, the sewage pipes disgorging their contents close to the shore and a gypsy family camping there losing their baby to rats… washing his shirt in a room above a bar in Seville and hanging it out of the window – dry in minutes.

He remembers too, when holidaying with his father, returning to their room to find the latter plying the young chambermaids with sherry while they danced together to music from the radio. Luckily for the chambermaids the German in the next room complained about the noise and made his views known. Picture a very large middle aged German and a squat elderly Belgian vis a vis in the doorway. The German expresses his distaste for the goings on. The Belgian replies

‘Hitler tot’…Hitler is dead…

Collapse of stout Westphalian party. While the chambermaids, the spell broken, depart about their duties.

When his father acquired a Spanish mistress, Leo was sent to Madrid to improve his education – or to be kept out of the way – studying at the university while staying with the mistress’ family in an upmarket area of Madrid. A fellow lodger was the son of Franco’s chief of police, banned from the family home for licentious behaviour, with whom he toured the bars and the less touristic areas of the city, giving rise to cries of ‘I remember when tapas, proper tapas, were free…’ memories of the mussel shells crunching underfoot on the sawdust strewn floors of the bars.

Just as well that the tapas were free…his father was distinctly stingy with support – the mistress clearly offering better value for money – while his boon companion was also starved of cash. They might have toured the barrios in an ancient Hispano Suiza, but it only budged when mummy coughed up spending money unbeknownst to her husband.

The diet in their pension consisted largely of lentils…the lady of the house announcing their arrival on the table with

‘If you don’t like lentils…you don’t have to eat them…’

As any meat accompaniment would have needed a microscope to detect its presence one must assume that her lodgers preferred lentils to starvation.

Apart from the lentils, though, it was an idyllic period in his life….no father on his back, free to spend hours in the Prado., wine and a tapa for a couple of pesetas….which all came crashing to the ground when the mistress produced a baby whose crying sufficiently annoyed its progenitor to set up mistress and child in their own establishment and summon Leo home to be sent to the Stock Exchange. Leaving Madrid in a snowstorm, sharing the driving with an English student returninghome for Christmas, he said farewell to Spain…and farewell to lentils.

I have only come there relatively recently, to another face of the country in our house up in the hills behind the Valencian coast. Lying quiet against the pines on the hillside, it looks out over the vines, the olives and the almonds below and, in the distance, the peak of Mount Penyagolosa, dominating the skyline.

The village names bear witness to the long occupation by the Moors, and the road that lies beyond the olives marks the traces of the Reconquest…that long crusade starting in the eleventh century, its aims not to be achieved until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. The road in question is part of a side circuit of the Camina del Cid

Camina del Cid

marking the trail of that somewhat mercenary warlord from Burgos to Valencia and is, in all probablility dreamt up by a tourist office somewhere in the area, the background information being full of ‘he must have’s and ‘he would have’s….but it is a spectacular route in its own right, especially in the mountainous sectors, and with villages well worth a visit in themselves, whether it is tiny Culla, clinging to its rock under the old castle walls, once the stronghold of the Knights of Montesa who took the place of the Templars when that order came to disaster, ruling what was then a disputed border area,

or the winemaking village of Les Useres, whence departs a journey of another nature.

On the last Friday in April, every year since the fourteenth century, twelve pilgrims and a guide, representing Jesus Christ and his disciples, set off from Les Useres to walk to the sanctuary of St. Joan de Penyagolosa,

over thirty kilometres away. The original purpose of the pilgrimage is forgotten, though tradition has it that it is to ask for rain, so vital in that barren country.

Pelerins de Les Useres route

The thirteen have to follow an exact ritual…from growing their beards, their distinctive blue clothing, the parts of the route which must be made in bare feet, the prescribed halts and, above all, the observation of total silence. The only music comes from those accompanying them as the group makes its way over rough tracks to its destination where they will spend the night at the sanctuary before a religious ceremony – Perdon – in which the guide addresses the pilgrims, who must never transmit what has been said to them, before setting off on the return journey.

People do gather to watch or to follow for part of the way, but this is no tourist attraction like the medieval fairs which render horrid the summer scene…those men have a serious purpose and, I imagine, the journey offers the opportunity for self discovery.

Here is a video made in 1998, which gives a flavour of the pilgrimage…it is a bit long…but so is the route!

While so calm and quiet now, the area has its stories….its wild isolation offering refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution in France, centuries later its conservative tradition providing support to the Carlists in the mid nineteenth century civil wars which while in theory disputing the succession to the Spanish crown, were in fact a face off between a liberal, urban, centralising government and traditionalists, who wished to preserve established religion and the particular laws and customs of the regions making up that crown. The civil war of the twentieth century, child of the Carlist Wars, did not pass it by….after the decisive battle at Teruel across the mountains Franco’s forces and the remains of the Republican army made a race for the sea…Franco winning and cutting the Republic in two, leading to its defeat. There were supposed to be Republican guerillas operating up in the hills into the fifties, somehow avoiding the genocide that accompanied Franco’s victory.

To this day ‘don’t mention the war’ is good advice….

While so many villages have all but died, the one closest to the house is – by village standards – booming. A butcher, several bakers, a supermarket with a fresh fish counter, an odds and bods shop, a hardware shop and white goods shop…where they delivered me a new washing machine before I paid for it… and the best maker of turron – nougat – that I have ever encountered. Not to speak of the bars and restaurants ranging from the plastic chairs and drop in when you like to oak doors and entry by appointment. There is an active cultural life…from historical research to, inevitably, bulls running in the streets, a big music programme for the kids…massive bonfires…all making for a community spirit.

There is even a bus….leaving at 5.30 in the morning and returning at 6.30 at night…but it is a bus…and I have taken it.

It is about the only village not perched on a hill….I remember being driven up to Xodos one day…stopping at the roadside halt to watch the eagles rising on the thermals before going on to the village itself where we ate a snail and rabbit paella for lunch in the plastic chair style caff by the church.

while closing the shutters of the house at night the lights of Benefigos would be shining across the valley like a beacon of security.

It is yet another goodbye, this year….the house has to be sold. The gentleman, in every sense of that word, who looked after it is no more and, given the state of Leo’s health, and now mine, the less complications in our life the better.

I came late to Spain….I came late to a house which has the most peaceful atmosphere I have ever experienced….and I have to lose both.

Getting on in life is a bugger sometimes.

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50 thoughts on “Goodbye To All That”

    1. We had twenty years in France with some wonderful houses….but having to give up this one is such a terrible wrench. Good memlories of good neighbours…a great community…damn and blast ill health.

  1. Yes, the fondant-melting candles on the annual cake , the inability to do in half a day what once took an hour…all a bugger.
    I’m sorry you have to leave your piece of Spanish peace. I wish you luck with what you still have.

          1. I am often put off by places that are too pretty. By the way sorry for the typo in my comment, it is the fault of the spellchecker on my phone (which I can barely see the screen of). I haven’t been using my actual computer much lately.

  2. So sad to see you hurt by leaving this place. I can however understand that. That is a Spain I could enjoy, not the city/seaside full of louts type that holidaymakers crave. My knees however would not agree with the hills!
    I am now working out how to buy your house and employ a nurse to carry me up them hills.
    A fascinating insight into Leo’s life. The Spanish domestics I knew at the NHS did not have that willingness to drink sherry with me I remember… I used to frequent a veg cafe in Camden occasionally, green lentils were heavy on the menu and I lived, taste was optional I remember.
    Looking at the collection of small red roofed houses I wondered how on earth they survived in the heat? Let alone with a history of wars passing by every so often, from Moors to Franco and what chance such a village?
    Great recording of history there madam.
    The pilgrimage is good and bad. Such desperate measures for rain back in the far past might have sounded worthy, and may well have worked, God is good, but going straight to God via Jesus in repentance and belief is simpler and more effective. Such pilgrimages will bring a sense of shared suffering,a team spirit if you like, and possibly a time to think deeply about life. I was quite taken with it but while it looks good the simple way works better. These processions, much more sincere than the tourist traps, take me back to ancient Sumer where they paraded their gods annually through towns and cities, this sort of thing may be a hangover.
    I did however enjoy the thing while my knees objected loudly!
    ‘Don’t mention the war,’ it is still a deep hurt.
    I still do not understand how such a village can flourish, especially with ‘fresh fish!’
    I do appreciate how much you loved this area. It looks and sounds wonderful. Apart from snail and rabbit pie that is.
    Now, where is my lottery ticket…?

    1. Yes, the pilgrimage traditon must be ancient…look at the Eleusinian mysteries too…Other villages have pilgrimages to the same site…it used to be about a dozen but only the one from Culla survived until a recent revival in two other villages…but these are more like village walks. The Les Useres one is distinctly different.
      For a quiet chap it is surprising that Leo has walked into so many ‘interesting’ situations…an innocent abroad is his excuse!
      You’ll have to try Alan’s tip for the knees…juniper oil, then you’ll be off on the tracks like a mountain goat…well, sort of…with the nurse to help…
      Hurry up and win the lottery!

  3. ‘Dem bones, dem bones . . .’ Oh, how I empathise! How the decrepitude feeds the tiredness and dulls the day – if we let it. Mind you, I did manage to weatherproof one end of the cabin this morning and I find the smell of Juniper oil rubbed into the joints to be invigorating as I brushed away (or was it the fumes from the magical waterproofing solution?). Keep on truckin’ you guys – it isn’t over till it’s over!

  4. Dear Helen, that’s life. there’s an end to everything, as Late Andersen used to sing. Only the memories remain.
    And what memories they are!

    A lovely post, thank you. Best wishes and good health to you and Leo, and, really, when you accept the old age and infirmity part, how many houses can you actually live in?
    I read an article this morning about the pleasures old age can bring – always excepting decrepitude – and it made me feel quite upbeat. Can’t say how long the feeling will last, of course.

    1. I think I saw the same article…but was in ‘bah, humbug’ mode. I must read it again now that the morning tea has been imbibed and relative sanity restored.
      We do have to accept our limitations and that house is not suitable for Leo now that he has to use a wheelchair as he can’t get to the swimming pool or to the top terraces…but I always find acceptance hard to accept!
      Still, I had the luck to have been there…will still remember the thrillI I had every time we crossed the pass and saw the village below, the plains stretching to the mountains beyond. At least I had it.

    1. I did feel that…you are very perceptive. We have a good life here in Costa Rica…and I have been lucky enough to have had that time in rural Spain to look back on…so all is not doom and gloom., thank you.

  5. Are you familiar with this poem?

    One Art
    By Elizabeth Bishop

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

  6. Oh Helen, what a shame. I seem to remember you had the house built, or vastly modified to be perfect? Obviously it holds a special place in your heart. But nothing stays the same, and time goes marching inexorably on, taking us with it kicking and screaming (painfully).
    I very much enjoyed reading about Leo’s disreputable youth, you tell a good story. 🙂

    1. Leo has a fund of tales of his youth…for a solitary, quiet young chap he certainly had some ‘interesting’ acquaintances!
      It was this place in C.R. that Leo designed to make it easy to get around…the house in Spain is on a number of levels which is just not workable for him any more, but it has a certain something…you open the door and almost touch the peacefulness of it. I shall miss it.

  7. A beautiful, elegiac post, Helen. I’m so sorry the time has come to sell your little corner of Spain. I remember your excitement when you found the house and know the deep pleasure it has given you since. I hope you find the right buyer before too long.

    I enjoyed the glimpse of Leo’s youthful Spanish experiences. Coming from such a family background must have given him considerable resilience with which to face life.

    1. Thank you…I loved that place…it was a haven of peace nomatter how full the house!
      Finding a buyer may be a problem, given the state of the economy, but I will try advertising abroad.

      I think that if Leo could survive his family he could survive anything! He was lucky to have had the family in Belgium, where he spent all his summers as a child, who gave him the affection so lacking at home.

  8. A shame you have to sell the house, but you’ve certainly got to know Spain pretty well in the meantime. It sounds as if Leo had a great time in Madrid “improving his education”. I imagine the surfeit of lentils must have put him off them for life.

    Jenny and I visited Madrid and Barcelona many years ago. We greatly preferred Barcelona, not sure why. I gather Barcelona is very different now – like many places, suffering from over tourism and too much crime.

    1. Leo still likes Madrid…if not lentils!
      I like the smaller places…Tarragona is a favourite…where I can take my time to look around and take a bus out into the hinterland.
      I had wanted to look for the churches with vestiges of visigothic work on the outskirts of Barcelona…but was just too tired to make the effort….made me aware of just how much I had slowed up.

  9. My Spain was as an exchange student in Alicante in the early 60’s. How anyone could have thought that dispatching a hormonally-amped teenage boy there is a mystery. It was certainly an educational and (cough) maturing experience on many counts but that’s a story for another day. This post was beautifully written and poignant. We’ve owned quite a few homes as we’ve moved around over the years and each time we sold one I felt as though another of life’s chapters was ending. Given a couple of beers, actually just one will suffice, we will go on and on recounting tales about each home and the memories we made there. If you’re very unlucky, we will bring out the book of photos. Aging is a bitch and that’s why I refuse to do anymore of it. So far, so good.

  10. A well told memory of a fondly held home. I am so happy your Costa Rica home is its own kind of satisfying, And who would have thought Leo had as fascinating history as Helen Devries. Not I.

    1. He has tales he can tell!
      Costa Rica has been good to us….despite walking into a water war when we moved over..but I shall miss that house more than those we had in France, which might have been more impressive. Well, when we finished restoring them they were…

    1. His is long term…he fell il some thirty five years ago with a rare disease which has now affected his lungs so that he is in a wheelchair full time as he cannot walk without becoming breathless.
      Me…anno domini and a leg broken and bedly set when in France years ago which is now giving me gip!
      But we keep on going! Thank you for your kind wishes.

  11. I wonder who picked Alicante for you in that era? Presbyterian maiden ladies who took the list in alphabetical order…or a gentleman sympathetic to the urges of youth? And what was the experience of the youth of Alicante in your purlieus, I wonder?
    We went through a lot of places in France…but not many photographs were taken. This house was quite special because of its atmosphere…but, again, not many photographs – which is a great disadvantage when selling the place! How can you photograph the elderly neighbour who decided that I had pneumonia and took me to the clinic in the village….or the unemployed young couple to whom he let his land for a song so that they could grow fruit and veg for their family…that was what made it so special there.
    With you on the opposition to aging…wish the blasted knees and ankle would agree.

  12. I’m so sorry your caretaker is gone. No question, a house needs someone right there, all the time. You couldn’t manage it from Madrid, much less Costa Rica. Good luck selling it; my other house has been on the market for three years, now, and they keep telling me dropping the price won’t make a bit of difference. Your place looks gorgeous.

    1. I’m not very optimistic given the economy…perhaps people from abroad as there is an little airport within half an hour’s drive and another major one about an hour and a half away.
      Still, we shall see…
      I have a replacement – though no one could really replace Adrian – but he is a tick the box man and does not communicate – not what I need, while the alternative is a letting agent who has a husband who can always do any work needed…at a price I don’t appreciate.

  13. That really was a beautifully written, and interesting, piece. I am sorry you are having to sell. ‘Bugger’ probably sums it up perfectly. Also, sorry I haven’t been commenting much lately – life! (etc).

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