Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Europe, Spring 2016, Part Five: Spain Again and Out

I'll admit to a certain relief as I steered the Peugeot out of Montpellier and on to the motorway (which was, along most of its length, the old Roman Via Domitia) towards Perpignan to return it. Maybe if I'd had someone with me to whom I could have shown bits of my past, perhaps driven up to Pic St. Loup and up the tiny road that leads to the ruined castle hanging off its companion escarpment l'Hortus that I thought I'd hallucinated until I actually was able to stop and photograph it. Or maybe I needed the down-time as a day of drawing a deep breath before heading into the last couple of days of this trip.

Spring in this part of the world announces itself with wind. Cold winds sweep out of the mountains and lower the temperature until they're countered by warmer winds from the south, the Mediterranean, and Africa itself. I used to sweep up a fine yellow dust that blew into my apartment, and someone who knew told me that this was sand from the Sahara in Algeria, picked up and transported to coastal France. The winds were in full effect on the highway, and I had to pay attention to stay in my lane, and make sure that the gigantic semi-trucks stayed in theirs. Fortunately there weren't many campers on the road: signs in French, English, Spanish, and German appeared every dozen or so miles warning against violent cross-winds.

But at least I didn't have any problem finding the Center of the World again, even if I did make a misstep finding the parking garage and, then, the rental return. It was okay: I had plenty of time before my train to Girona at 3:17. I was concerned about the scratches -- very concerned -- but just as concerned that Europcar had closed for lunch and there were various customers milling around. My body was sending me signals, so I went to the main waiting room, found some packaged sandwiches, and found a French BLT, speck, lettuce, marinated tomatoes on a seeded baguette. I knew I'd burn off enough glucose toting the case of wine that this wouldn't be an issue. Then I headed back to the Europcar area to wait. Apparently someone had tipped off the cops that someone arriving on the train from Marseille, a teenage boy, might be trouble, and a number of suspects had their luggage searched. Another pair, who looked to be in the demographic, were apparently undercover cops, checking in with the uniforms from time to time.

Eventually the agent reappeared, several families pushed ahead of me and got their cars, and I returned mine. She didn't seem unduly concerned about the scratches and I still haven't heard anything. My American Express card showed only the $100 I'd charged on it, so who knows. And the train to Girona, when I finally got on it, was impossibly crowded and noisy, but it was only 45 minutes, so I arrived in Girona, got a cab despite the fact that my hotel was only a few blocks away (luggage again) and checked in to a once-elegant hotel (cigarette burns on the desk? really?) crowded with British and Scottish golfers. I went out as soon as I'd stashed my luggage to look at the town, but the weather had other ideas and I returned, somewhat damper for the experience, about a half-hour later.

For dinner, I hit the city's oldest restaurant, Casa Marieta, and had some odd pâtés to start, then a dish of squid with green peas, which was interesting. But I'd read a description of the place as "tired," and that's just how it seemed. Surely there was someone doing something more interesting with Catalan food here. Fortunately, there was.

The next morning I set off to see the obvious sights and to figure out what the story was with Girona. I'd read that it had the best-preserved Jewish quarter in Spain and deduced from that, mistakenly, that the Jews hadn't been expelled from Girona with the rest of the Spanish Jews in 1492. A visit to the Jewish Museum set me straight, as well as inadvertantly providing me with a perfect first stop in figuring the place out. The Jewish quarter, El Call, had apparently existed in one form or another since before 1000 CE, and besides becoming a center of trade, it was a center of Jewish intellectual life, epitomized by Mossé ben Nahman (1194-1270), who must have been a busy guy, since he penned famous commentaries on the Talmud, systematized the Kabballah, wrote poetry, practiced medicine, and found a little time to preach at the synagogue, which at the time was located atop Girona's hill next door to the cathedral. He left town in his old age and died in Acre, which the museum puts in Israel, but I seem to remember as a Jordanian city. By the time of Mossé's death, though, Gironans had become suspicious of the Jews, and demanded a wall be built around the Call. Riots and laws persecuting the Jews began in 1381, and a lot of them converted, at least outwardly, but they continued to socialize with the unconverted and also made mistakes when practicing their new religion's rituals. The Inquisition finally came to town to see what was up, mostly because Barcelona, where they'd been working, kept having bouts of plague, and Jews started emptying out the Call. The usual punishment for being a Jew was burning in a bonfire, but so many had left by the time the Inquisition's bureaucracy had found them guilty that straw dolls were used in almost every case. And by 1492, of course, the Jews had all left. The Inquisition proved so popular with the people of Girona that in 1820, during the Riego Uprising (unexplained in the wall caption), the House of the Inquisition was burned to the ground, destroying all its records. With the Jews gone, they'd gone after herbalists, homosexuals, witches, Lutherans, and anyone else they didn't like.

If you wanted to sum up the history of the Jews of Girona, a rather ugly sculpture in the museum's courtyard does a great job:

On one side, the Zodiac, an astrolabe, various navigational instruments, and Mossé with a book...

...and on the other side, Columbus sailing from a Jew-free Spain using those instruments.

It was time to climb the hill, where the rest of the story would unfold, and explore the cathedral and its surroundings. The Museu d'Art is located in one of the buildings where the cathedral's bureaucracy was once housed, including its prison, and it has an impressive amount of mostly older stuff (ie, right up my alley), including a minor work by the Master of Cabestany, a long painted beam of unknown provenance, showing a procession of monks,

Rather badly captured here, but click to enlarge

the ubiquitous lion-eating-a guy carving, 

There's one in Montpellier, too. No idea.
and lots more. Impressive. Eventually, you leave into the plaza in front of the cathedral, where, letting my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I saw an act of rather shocking violence: I was noting the seagulls that were up there among the pigeons, because they were about two feet from one end to the other. As I was trying to decode whether or not the cathedral was actually open (it still serves as a cathedral, after all, with several Masses a day) I noticed that one of the seagulls had taken a small black pigeon in its beak and had broken its neck, and was bashing it against the pavement to hasten its death as it flapped its wings, ever more feebly. I'd always known that seagulls were eaters of every sort of junk available, but had no idea they'd hunt live prey. 

Although, in its odd way, it set me up for the cathedral, which is big, filled with Baroque chapels as over-the-top as any Spanish Baroque art can be (and that's plenty, althoug I do like that period's organ music), lots of depictions of martyrdom (Spanish Catholicism is gory) and its treasury has, as its central display, a very old tapestry depicting the Creation. I liked that a lot: it was a cheapo way of teaching the bible to the illiterate masses and it's crowded with bible stories and other goodies, like the pair of Jews at the bottom who serve as an informal logo for the Jewish Museum. 

Outside again, I descended the hill and headed for the grandly-named Archaeological Museum of Catalonia, housed in the former church of San Pere de Gallegants, which has a nice cloister and good paintings in the museum part showing how ancient people lived here (burning the dead, putting them in ceramic vessels, and burying them surrounded by mini-Stonehenges of rocks) and were influenced by the Greeks and, later, the Romans. Christianity seems to have arrived early, around the 4th century, possibly with Roman colonial settlers, and there are apparently small basilicas out in the countryside dating from then, centered around the cult of St. Felix the Martyr, who remains the city's patron saint. 

Next I went to the "Arab baths," so-called not because they were made by resident Arabs (a people who seem missing from the city history, interestingly enough) but because they were in the style the Arabs employed: first a cold dip, then outdoors, then a hot  room for the steam. The building dates from 1194, but there really isn't enough of it to warrant a visit, and it was made less pleasant by a couple of those cult-kids making new-agey music on what looks like an overturned wok with dimples in it. Those suckers are loud!

It was time for lunch, and as I made my way down the street, I passed the City Museum, which would be the perfect knitting-together of the various threads I'd gathered so far, but I wasn't going to miss another meal and get goofy, so I went to a place in the Call and had the one signature Catalan dish I'd missed in my visits to Barcelona: botifarra amb mongetes, which looks like this: 

Right: sausage and beans
It wasn't all that distinguished, but it was just enough to fill the gap, and I was off for my last museum of the day. 

The City Museum starts out with one of the weirder rooms I've ever been in. It was once a Capuchin monastery, and when the monks died, they were arranged in a seated position and placed in the dessicarium. 

Dry up, bro!
When the corpses were mummified by the air circulating around them, they were dressed in their old robes and displayed in another part of the monastery. Memento mori, dudes!

The city museum is big on history and light on artifacts, which was okay by me, and the period between the Romans and the Inquisition is wisely left to other institutions in the city, but come the 19th century and the city's realization that its economic growth was stunted by its still being encircled by the age-old city wall, the citizens decided to tear most of it down so the city could grow. It became a printing center and had a few other industries, but it also suffered badly when it was bombed (by the Spanish government) during the Civil War in 1938. There is an amazing small display of children's drawings of the bombardment, all done in typical primitive kid style with bright crayons, and it reminded me that, starting with that, Spain became ruled by a fascist dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, with full support from the Church, and that it remained so until 1975. With the current stirrings of reactionary right-wing politics fuelled by extreme conservative religion in the United States, remembering Spain's history during these times is a disturbing and, I'd say, necessary thing to do. 

After that, I was museumed out, and started strolling back towards the hotel. Along the way, I passed a restaurant that looked interesting enough, wrote down its name (incorrectly, but thank heavens for Google Maps, where I just zoomed in further and further until its name appeared) and, when I eventually got back, I checked out their website. There, I thought, would be a meal worthy of Girona's spirit. 

Because there is a spirit there, as there is in Barcelona, but it's more concentrated because the town is smaller. The place thrums with activity: Lance Armstrong, Gerry told me, took a house here because the hills were great training places for him and his team, and although I'm used to being a minority group as a pedestrian in Austin, not until Girona was I outnumbered by bikers. Had it not been for a book festival in the evening that drew crowds to its entertainment part, between the golfers and the bikers, I might not have seen any civilians at all. I liked this place, and once I arrived at my interesting-looking restaurant (where I'd reserved: you have to, I'd say), Llevataps, the deal was sealed. I started with a warm salad that contained calçots, a uniquely Catalan cousin of the green onion and leek that's usually roasted, touched with a bit of romesco sauce, went on to an absolutely amazing dish of grilled artichokes and razor clams, which concentrated the artichoke flavors while charring the leaves -- a tour-de-force -- and finished up with tender octopus whose method of preparation I didn't note, because by then I was too full and had to regretfully leave half of it behind. With this, I had a bottle of Io Masia Serra, a brilliant combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, black Grenache, and Merlot, one of those creative red blends I've favored recently, and which paired with the artichokes and clams spectacularly. Without question, the best meal of the trip, and not nearly the most expensive. The staff was friendly and the whole experience underscored my belief that Catalonia is well ahead of France in experimenting and creating within the tradition, extending it instead of merely preserving it. I gotta get back to this place. 

Obligatory cliched pic of houses along the Onyar River

Non-obligatory picture of feline residents of the river's edge

* * *

I had no train to meet to get me to Barcelona the next day, but I wanted to get going, even though I knew the hotel wouldn't have my room ready. But I seemed to have trouble getting out of hotels on this trip: construction workers hit a power line in Narbonne, trapping everyone inside (the front door had an electric eye to open it) for an hour or so, and Sunday morning in Girona, there was the city's annual 10,000k run. The brilliant folks who organized it managed to cut off the three big streets surrounding the hotel so no cabs could pick anyone up. This lasted for 90 minutes, with one of the desk ladies getting testier and testier with the cab company, who didn't seem to have any idea if there were a solution or how long the race would last. I hung out in the lobby, watching runners dash in to use the john and then dash out again, and finally the thing ended and a cab took me to the railroad station, where I was offered a fast train and a slow train. The fast train got me into Barcelona ten minutes earlier, so I chose the slow one, which took a different route and went through some lovely countryside. Had I but known, I could have gotten off at the Paseig de Gracia station in Barcelona, two blocks from my hotel. I also realized that, if one left at about 9, one could do a day-trip to Girona from Barcelona. Llevataps is open for lunch, too. 

Monday I checked out, but I also met a friend from Austin who arrived that day to start a trip with his girlfriend that would also take in Florence, where they would do some work on a film they're making. She wouldn't be in until later, so I took him to try to get a cheap phone, then to the hotel/housing agency that handled the apartment they'd rented to get the key, then to the apartment, and then back up to the housing agency's next door neighbor, a stellar northern Spanish tapas joint called Pulperia Bar Celta. A perfect last meal in Barcelona!

* * *

I'd also booked this end of the flight badly, and had to overnight at an overpriced, dingy hotel at Heathrow, a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone. After that, though, I had a long time to think about the trip (and, much as I'd disliked the Austin-Heathrow nonstop on the way out, this flight wasn't nearly as crowded, so I had some room). And I did. Beauty had clearly been encountered and enjoyed -- luxuriated in, even -- both natural and man-made. Love was, of course, unchanged, except for a nagging realization that a lot of women I'd been encountering in the States thought it unseemly that I could still be interested at my advanced age. Of course, my friend who was just starting his Barcelona trip was with a woman ten years younger than me -- and he's nearly ten years older than I am. I landed in Austin to discover a text from him: "What a big lovely city, Paris with a better attitude." Can't say that about the city I'd just landed in, and I'm going to have to cope with that somehow. I'm about to embark on a period where if all goes well I should see some changes in my material and professional life, and I intend to take as much advantage of that as possible. I would dearly love to get out of Austin: it's a bad fit, and had I known, I needn't have come here when I realized I couldn't stay in France any more. This isn't the place to bitch about that now. Just do your work, keep the love and beauty thing in your mind, and keep on. 

* * *

Two days after I got back, I ran out of coffee and headed up to Anderson's to re-fill. The next morning I poured some beans out of the bag into the grinder and took the egg man's rubber band to close it up. It snapped. 

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