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
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.
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.
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.