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To Run Across the Sea
By Norman Lewis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Norman Lewis
All rights reserved.
'They change their sky, not their soul,' as Horace said, 'who run across the sea.' The sad old Roman truth is not to be refuted. Escape is never more than partial. Nevertheless, at a minor geographical level small, reviving evasions can be planned. This one was to Spain, an unlikely bolthole, it might be supposed, in the era of the package deal; yet far from the Costas in the deep interior rich lodes of undisturbed hispanidad remain to be discovered.
In preparing such an evasion simple rules are to be followed. Bring or hire a car, avoid great cities, travel by second- or third-class roads, make for the remoter parts of the south and west which are too far from anywhere to have made it worthwhile setting up industries. Here, where there has been no money to spend on development, the old Spain stubbornly survives. Rare and extraordinary flowers flourish in hedgerows that have never been reached by sprays. Towns built with the proceeds of the plunder of Moorish kingdoms, or of the Indies, remain intact. The best of them offer no accommodation for the traveller except occasionally a government parador. By way of a bonus, some of the latter are housed in grand buildings: castles, old convents, Renaissance palaces. It is normal, too, for them to be sited in areas of outstanding historic interest.
Carmona comes under this heading. It is a two days' drive by the slow roads from Valencia, Alicante or Madrid. When Seville is en fête—as this alluring and anachronistic town is during most of the spring and summer—and there is not a bed to be had, Carmona supplies a small-scale and concentrated alternative. It is full of tremendous churches, the scent of incense, and scuttling nuns. Its window grilles, coming right down to the pavement, symbolise the Andalusian exclusion of the world from private affairs, and within the house—since shutters remain closed—the gloom Alexander Dumas noted as characteristic of these southern interiors, persists until lamps are lit or switched on at night.
Apart from palaces and churches, Carmona possesses no fewer than three Moorish fortresses, whose red walls spread a russet light through the streets like the glow beneath chestnuts in autumn leaf. Kestrels by the dozen hang pale and translucent in the sky over church towers that were once minarets, appearing like tiny kites manipulated by invisible strings. The principal fortress is the Alcázar del Rey Don Pedro, favourite abode in his kingdom of Pedro the Cruel. From what is now theparador this fearsome monarch—only to be recognised in his disguise by the clicking of his arthritic knees—stole out at night to pick a quarrel with and assassinate any defenceless subject who happened to be abroad. It was here in 1492 while awaiting the fall of Granada that Ferdinand and Isabella sat side by side on their thrones to hand down the ferocious edicts by which the conquered territories were to be governed. This was a bad time to be on the losing side. King Ferdinand the Saint, whose self-imposed penances brought about his own death by dropsy and starvation, converted the Muslim survivors in this town after its conquest. Magnanimous by the standards of his day he spared those who turned promptly to Christ. Where conversion was proved later to have been insincere, backsliders were burned in batches, the king himself frequently applying the torch to the faggots after first implanting the kiss of forgiveness upon the cheeks of those about to suffer.
Zafra is a two-hour drive away up the Estremadura highway to the north. This small, bewitching town is frequently called Little Seville, due, it is supposed, to the settlement there in the past of Sevillians seeking escape from an over-severe religious climate and its all too frequent auto-da-fés. Here the refugees built themselves mansions in the style of their home town: white, with baroque embellishments over windows and doors painted with the unique and costly chrome-yellow pigment derived from the soil of Alcala de Guadaïra, a few miles away. This, according to local belief, not only cools the heat of the summer sun and warms the chills of winter, but possesses also talismanic qualities against the spells of witchcraft.
Like Carmona it is a town with a brilliant Andalusian surface and dark, secretive interiors. In true Andalusian style, its people lead frugal lives, are calm and slow in their movements, conduct their business transactions verbally, and settle them without written contract. Dignity is regarded as a principal virtue, and life's targets are kept simple. As in Seville, ceramic wall plaques are sometimes used to set forth the philosophy of the owner of a house. Several in Carmona enjoin kindness to birds.
Spaniards regard this town's alcázar, in which the parador is incorporated, as one of the country's most imposing, and with this I would agree, although it is smaller than most. It was built in 1443 at a time when, with the strengthening of the central government's grip, private military enterprises of this kind were becoming obsolete. In effect, this was the town house of a rich nobleman who set out to impress his friends, for, with the front line of the war against the Moors a hundred miles away, it was unlikely ever to be required to withstand enemy attack. Nor with its make-belief Moorish-style decorative battlements, its slender towers, its elegant but not too solid keep, could it easily have done so. An exquisite Renaissance patio in white marble, by the architect responsible for the building of the Escorial was added later, further enhancing the showy domestic atmosphere of the place. It is in this setting that guests are splendidly lodged.
The parador is pridefully named after the conqueror of Mexico, Hernando Cortes who stayed some months here at the invitation of his patron, the Duke of Feria, before his departure for the New World. Cortes, understandably, has remained a local as well as national hero, the more so because—as with the rest of the conquistadors—he was an Estremaduran man and, like most of them, of obscure and humble origin. The picture of him to be seen here presents an imperial figure indeed. As was the custom at that time, he had been given the great man's face of the day, based upon that of the Emperor Charles V, though modified by some slight tinkering with the features, and in particular by the correction of the pendulous Hapsburg lip. There is a mystery here, for in 1947 the Mexicans announced that the conqueror's remains had been exhumed in Mexico City. What had been found was described as the skeleton of a hump-backed dwarf, with a right arm withered into uselessness through syphilitic infection. Such are the deceits concealed in history.
From this point on, the road leads northwards through Merida and Trujillo and then to the east into the centre of Spain. In doing so it skirts an area of roughly 25,000 square kilometres where hardly any changes have been made to the map for half a century. George Borrow, prospecting for souls in the back-lands, where he thought the 'Genuine Spaniard' was most likely to be found, came here to distribute his bibles on his 'sorry mule, covered with sores, and wall-eyed'. He would have no difficulty in recognising these villages as they are now, for, notwithstanding the prosperity based upon the tourist industry of Spain's eastern seaboard, and of cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, Estremadura remains isolated and impoverished, suffering moreover from the draining away of its human life's blood through emigration to France and to the Spanish towns.
Narrow winding lanes bring the traveller eventually to Guadaloupe, a town of great charm with old wooden and half-timbered houses, clustered round the monastery-fortress that provides its raison d'être. It is near enough to the geographical centre of the country to have served for a short time as the seat of government, before the establishment of the capital at Madrid. The Catholic Kings, enthroned as stiffly as figures in cathedral stained glass, held court here, issuing royal licenses for voyages of discovery or conquest to the New World, attracted to Guadaloupe not only by its location but by its reservoir of undiluted faith.
Guadaloupe's position in the forefront of Christian revival and endeavour was achieved following a sign from heaven shortly after its liberation in battle from the Moors. The Virgin Mary appeared to a countryman, instructing him to dig in a cave, where an image of her, hidden away from the invaders back in the eighth century, would be found. This he did, the image was recovered and a shrine set up. There followed a series of prodigious happenings of a rustic, homely kind. Asses reproached their masters for their ill-treatment in good Castilian, levitation was commonplace, and in one case a defunct cow, already in the process of being skinned, was raised from the dead. Pilgrims began to flock in.
From these beginnings there arose and grew through the centuries the enormous accretion of military and ecclesiastical architecture constituting the monastery. There are few more stunning experiences of its kind than to arrive here by night, dropping down from the black emptiness of the sierra, then, after the last hairpin bend, plunging without warning into the great spread of light from these buildings, their mediaeval banners afloat in a glowing sky.
The parador at Guadaloupe has borrowed a little history from them. It began as a hospital for pilgrims and in 1402 was issued a Papal privilege by which the first dissection in Spain was carried out, the body having been preserved in perfumed oils to which sacramental wine was added while awaiting the privilege's arrival. Its guests are housed in pseudo-mediaeval surroundings, which fail quite to measure up to those offered by the monastery itself, part of which has been converted into a hostelry. This, with the distant chanting, the aloof monks padding through the cloisters, the soft, background mutter of pilgrims' prayers, and the crashing discord of bells, is the Middle Ages.
In its venture into the hotel business the Church has been brilliantly successful, for nowhere in the province are guests lodged so splendidly, and nowhere do they eat so cheaply and so well. All are welcome and Guadaloupe is filled in all seasons with countrymen and women who have saved up for a year or two to come here for the good of their souls, and also to have the holiday of their lives. Zurbarán, master painter of Estremadura worked here. The monastery owns many of his canvases, and his saints wear the faces of those thick-fingered, black-clad peasants, who wander in small flocks round the Gothic ambulatory to admire the paintings of martyrdoms and miracles.
Guadaloupe, thriving on religious tourism, is an island of prosperity in the depressed economy of the province as a whole. Leaving it, the change is immediate and stark. The timbered skeleton of a once fine house that has shed its flesh stands by the roadside as a portent of what is to come; after that, only a single, rather miserable hamlet and piles of stones where others once existed are passed before Cijara is reached. One of the reasons for this last leg of the journey was the hope of seeing something of the Cijara region, generally known locally as the Siberia of Estremadura, due to its historically unhappy situation in the no-man's-land between warring mediaeval kingdoms. Nobody lived here unless obliged to. This, coupled with a recent acute loss in population, has been to the advantage of many rare animals and birds. Included among them are the Iberian lynx, and the Egyptian mongoose, which is not to be found elsewhere in Europe. Renowned as a last refuge of obsolescent birds is El Muro, a lakeside cliff listed as the breeding ground of three species of vulture, the Black Stork, Bonelli's Eagle and the Iberian Imperial Eagle. I was hoping to be able to visit this birdwatcher's paradise although it is several miles from the nearest road and only vaguely defined on large-scale maps.
The Siberia of Estremadura, roughly 60 kilometres across, contains four villages and a sprawling complex of artificial lakes formed by the flooding of the Guadiana Valley. When last counted, its total population was 2,500, but that was ten years ago and there has been a steep decline since then. A government report devoted to its predicament mentions that the direct road from Toledo no longer touches a single inhabited place for 80 kilometres. Final desolation, then, draws near, although, clutching at a straw, the report says that emigration is slowing down, 'doubtless owing to unemployment in the cities'.
Villagers without any strong ties to keep them in Cijara have pulled out, leaving those who are too old to uproot themselves, plus a hard core of devotees of the hunter-gatherer's way of life. Isolation has welded those that remain into a family group that takes a remarkably philosophic view of its situation. They are remarkably courteous and kind, even for the Spanish. When I spoke of 'people' using the normal word gente, someone administered a gentle correction. People in Cijara were vecinos, 'neighbours', and everyone, including visiting foreigners, was included in this pleasant familiarity. 'Communications leave much to be desired,' said the government report. 'Their economic resources are scant, and they rely almost exclusively upon game.' Game, however, was varied and abundant, and in Cijara they eat well. Partridge in saffron rice was on the menu at the bar, and trout could be fished from the lake in a matter of minutes. The bread baked here was the best I have tasted in my life.
Hopes of being able to reach El Muro faded. Unseasonably in October it had been raining for days, and the view from a hilltop was of a drenched savannah through which the Guadiana River, full to the brim, had spread curlicues of water. The news at Cijara was that the direct road along the north shore of the lake had been cut off by floods and an extremely circuitous route round by the south, through Helechosa, might also be impassable. I was grateful for the excuse for this detour. Helechosa conducts a Corpus Christi ceremony in which children take up cudgels to drive out the horned and masked 'devils' that have invaded the village—a whispered suggestion that, despite the Inquisition's efforts, the old Manichaean heresy, once prevalent here, that God and Satan are co-eternal, may have survived.
But, when I went there in the rain, there were no children to be seen. Perhaps there were none left for, when a village faces the possibility of its eventual extinction, the children are the first to go. Beyond Helechosa the road came to an end. The Guadiana flowed across it into the lake where once there must have been a bridge and only a ravaged track corkscrewing up into the hills offered an alternative to turning back. At this point the river in spate carried red earth in suspension. A magenta stain was widening in the lake and, as I watched, a white bird folded its wings and dropped into it after a fish.
Beyond the rising water, cork oaks were meticulously spaced in the order imposed by nature in a landscape which—apart from artificial lakes—had been left to itself, and the maquis was as clean-cut as a well tended garden. Within a decade or two the human presence would almost certainly be gone. I wondered if the wolves would eventually find their way back, as they had in the Sierra de la Culebra in the north which I had visited in the spring. Villages containing many old houses exist where a single family remains. In one village, Boya, all the self-supporting young had been enticed away to the discos in the towns, but most of the middle-aged hoped to stay on. It was a pleasant place, amazingly reminiscent of a village in unspoiled England, perhaps in the Cotswolds, with an ancient church on the green, merino sheep cropping the grass, and cottages with flower gardens. When the talk of wolves came up, Jaime Martinez, owner of the bar, was philosophical. 'You see one now and again,' he said, 'but they don't really trouble us. They're something you can cope with. It's the wild boars that bother us. They root up everything in the gardens. You could even say the wolves are useful in a way. At least they keep the boars down.'
Excerpted from To Run Across the Sea by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1989 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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