“Spain is one of the absolutes” I read this book while on holiday in Andalucia, cycling with James, and loved it so much I had to get a highlighter to highlight key phrases. Jan Morris is a travel writer and historian, beginning her career as a journalist who reported on Hillary’s ascent of Everest in 1953 – I’ve also read her book on Venice (while in Venice) and really enjoyed that too. But Spain just really, really resonated with me. It’s a small little book, first published in 1964, although the edition I read was published in 2008, with a new introductory chapter. But it is still very much set in the era in which it was written, a snapshot of Spain at the end of the Franco era (Franco died in 1975 and a revised edition was published in 1979) – it is clearly a historical book, rather than a reliable picture of what Spain is like today. Having said that, it resonated with me purely because so much is still recognisable, such as the description of Andalusia:
“sol y sombra both – sun on one side of the street, shadow on the other: a mirror both of Spain’s delight, and of her lingering poverty….. whitewashed cobbled streets, and all around you there seem to be flowers – in pots affixed to outside walls, in neat little gardens, in patios glimpsed through the grilled doors of houses”
Anyone that has been to this region of Spain couldn’t fail to recognise the description. Morris really describes Spain, not just telling its history, but painting pictures with her words that are incredibly evocative of a culture and a people. And while a nation’s economy may grow, its politics may change, its coastline may develop, the inescapable fact of the geography of Spain, the climate of Spain, the culture of Spain. Tapas still exists, flamenco still exists, bull fights still exist. It’s still too hot in Madrid in the middle of summer to do anything and despite the new skyscrapers, the streets are empty of people in the middle of the day. In parts of Andalucia you can look out from a hilltop pueblo over a scene that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. So yes, the book is old, but it is still relevant. It’s travel writing in its absolute best, about the place and not about the difficulties the writer feels. Indeed, it is almost written in second person, with the use of “you” making the reader really feel as if they are there, under the blazing hot sun. For example, describing entering Spain:
“But then you turn a corner out of the woodland, and suddenly there before you, below the level of the mist, there unfolds the great plain of the Ebro, with the foothills sweeping down towards the river. Space immeasurable seems to lie down there…. all of Spain seems to be expecting you. Spain of the shrines, Spain of the knights-errant, Spain of the guitars, the bull-rings, and the troglodytes.”
There are amusing moments, either small anecdotes or little historical tales, which lighten the descriptions and the history – for this is not just a painting of Spain, but also an incredibly informative book about Spanish history. The reader learns that the Moors that conquered Spain in just two years were a mix of Arabs, Syrians, Egyptians and Berbers, and that for a century, Cordóba was second in size only to Constantinople. The Moorish age was a fantastic period for Spain, a period in which arts and culture flourished as religion was free,
“women had equal educational chances, libraries, universities and observatories flourished, poets abounded and musicians were great men. Life itself, which was seen elsewhere in Europe as a kind of probationary preparation for death, was interpreted as something glorious in itself, to be ennobled by learning and enlivened by every kind of pleasure.”
She covers the full history of Spain, and it was in this book that the layered nature of the country’s history first really came to life for me – when I first realised just what a wealth of history lay within the country, so much more than paella and sangria on a beach crowded with Brits. I was reading this while in Antequera, a town in Andalucia that embodies the quote below almost entirely:
“There never was such a palimpsest as Spain, so layered with alien influences… you may see the memorials of five different cultures: in the hillsde above, the holes of the Iberian troglodytes; in the country around, the vines of the Greeks; beneath your feet, the Roman paving-stones; behind your back ,a rambling Moorish castle; and away at the water’s edge, the tall black chimneys of a blast furnace. Spain is the most militantly insular of States, but she is trodden all over with foreign footsteps”
I learnt that it took 200 years for the Romans to conquer Spain, and it was this conquest that forced the Romans to adopt conscription. Hispania was then Roman for 600 years, a period in which literature flourished and Roman Emperors came from Spain (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Theodosius the Great). I learnt that the Reconquista lasted 800 years – not an inexorable advance of Christianity, driving back the Muslims, but a forwards and backwards approach, consisting of numerous pacts between people of different faiths and minor civil wars, but ending in the fall of the Alhambra, 800 years ago. Imagine the length of time that has passed since 1215, all the changes our countries have seen since that period. I learnt of the treatment of the Moors, forced to convert and become Moriscos, and then eventually expelled in 1609, persecuted for, among other things, washing too regularly (being clean was a clear sign that one was a Muslim). I learnt of the Jews, expelled earlier in 1492 (and now their descendants are being granted citizenship, in a new law), treated well under Moorish Spain but persecuted in the Inquisition . And finally, the gypsies, poor, looked-down upon, but excelling in bull-fighting and flamenco, those two quintessentially Spanish activities. Why do we love Spain? Why should we go to Spain? The paragraph below sums it all up, despite the fact it was written over 50 years ago, still holding true today.
“To us poor ciphers of the computer culture, us cosmopolitan, humanist, cynical serfs of the machine, nothing is more compelling than the drama, at once dark and dazzling, of that theatre over the hills – the vast splendour of the Spanish landscape, the intensity of Spain’s pride and misery, the adventurous glory of a history that set its seal upon half the world, the sadness of a decline that edged so inexorably from triumph to tragedy, through so many centuries of rot. All this, distilled in blazing heat and venomous cold, dusted by the sand of Africa, guarded by that mountain barricade above you – all this seems to await your arrival.”
p.s. Juneathon day 18 sees me signing up for Gym Pact….. missing a cycle due to sleeping in but spending 30 minutes on the spin bike and then 30 minutes in strength & conditioning work. And perhaps a swim this evening?!