A Pilgrim in Spain

Howse is an assistant editor of The Daily
and a regular contributor to several weekly journals. He has been
travelling round Spain at intervals for over twenty years and his book bears
the hallmarks of familiarity and affection for his subject. Indeed, he remarks
at the beginning, “Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly
lovable.” It is a nice distinction. His book is one part travelogue, one part
an antiquarian’s anthology and one part a pilgrimage -- but in the broadest
sense. For Howse, the word “pilgrimage” means moving – or possibly meandering --
from ancient church to ancient church while making fascinating discursions on
the oddities and by-ways noticed in the spaces between them; he stoutly
maintains that “every journey through Spain is a pilgrimage.”

deliberately eschews politics; a sensible move because the constantly changing
scenes of political life sit uncomfortably in the timeless world he wishes to
evoke and because it would necessarily involve commenting on the Spanish Civil
War, reminders of which are everywhere. As he comments, “There are terrible
stories told from either side of the Civil War, which excuse nothing.” In one
place there is a memorial to three priests killed by the Marxists “in hatred of
the faith”; in another aside, on relics, there is a reference to “Franco, that
wicked man” who kept “the dried arm of St Teresa on his desk.” A civilised man,
he is baffled by the evidence of the ferocity of the conflict.

mode of travel is by train or bus; “Donkeys are no longer necessary.” In 1954,
he informs the reader, Spain had 4 cars per 1000 people. By 2004 it is 454.
Membership of the European Union has inevitably changed things; the country is
no longer isolated and has begun to understand that “there is money in
culture.” The author senses that the old Spain he has known in the past is now
disappearing beneath the weight of modernity. McDonald’s has now appeared in
Toledo; it is a portent of what is to come, causing the author to lament that
“we have seen the last days of what was.”

Like all
good travellers, nothing is too insignificant to escape Howse’s notice; he
lists decaying old houses, mountain shrines, all-night fiestas, cracked bells,
ancient devotions as well as silent beggars, unashamed stares - and the smells.
As he observes, “A hot country with rare rain develops a well-mixed palette of
smells on its pavements.” He has the good travel writer’s ability to conjure up
a whole world from a few, well-chosen descriptive phrases: “The bars are
haunted by down-at-heel men who once would have been called loafers in England
– pinched men in shabby clothes with weathered faces, dull eyes and a look of
disappointment.” These are the victims of the economic crash; today
unemployment in Spain runs at 20% and hundreds and thousands of new or
half-built houses and flats, built in boom years, remain unsold.

The author
also has a good ear for snatches of overheard conversation and random monologues.
For the readers’ amusement, he has jotted down the remarks of an old woman in
the town square in Covarrubias as she addressed no one in particular, grumbling
about the flies, the heat and the lack of attention being paid to her; it
encapsulates the trials of age in the noonday languor of small town in Spain. There
is also a wealth of arcane information: we learn that brothels are often sited
on isolated plots next to motorways and that troglodytism (cave-dwelling) “is a
tendency all over Spain”.

given that she is one of Spain’s most celebrated personalities, Howse spends a
whole chapter on the architectural marvels of Avila and its local saint, Teresa.
The town is full of faded, crumbling magnificence, with the post office now housed
in a former twelfth century palazzo where, he notes with amusement, “clerks
behind their desks undertake interminable bureaucratic exercises of Mandarin
complexity, culminating in a crescendo of rubber-stamping.” In Avila he dines
at a restaurant called Manolin’s, where the dining-room furniture largely consists
of five decrepit wardrobes; everything is down at heel, but “at least there
were no cockroaches in the lavatory”.  There is no such luck near Yuste, as he goes in search of the tomb of
the Emperor Charles V, and where “a cockroach in the lavatory of the tiny bus
station waved its antennae in the dawn light.”

The best
travel books transport us to places we would not otherwise visit, bringing them
alive in the mind. They also contain a hint of wistfulness: the writer may be
describing a country through which he has journeyed, but at the same time he is
shaping his memories of it according to his tastes and temperament. Howse, who
is aware that “there’s always a wind in Spain, and in the wind there’s a sadness”,
is chronicling a passing age and civilisation where the best has become the
preserve of a museum culture and the worst is a fast-food outlet near a modern
highway where drivers speed past, oblivious of their ancient inheritance in the
hills and valleys nearby.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.


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