2000s Archive

Conjuring Spain

Originally Published June 2000
Rising from the arid Spanish plains, three magical cities: mystical, majestic Toledo; melancholy, incense-scented Córdoba; and romantic, pastel-hued Seville.

We have been richly cosseted in cosmopolitan Madrid, patrician city of museums and egalitarian cafés, of boulevards and parks and Hapsburg monuments—where Eros, death, and leafy loveliness are palpable. We have discovered, in the Prado, that great picture gallery in the green heart of Bourbon Spain, a pantheon of painters (flower and glory of a nation): Murillo—lover of Mary, intimate and mystical; Velázquez—painter of luz no usada, “virgin light,” who made black glow and breathe and gave it unsurpassed dimensionality; Goya—elegant and fiercely realistic; adopted son El Greco—who considered himself superior to his contemporary Michelangelo (a judgment with which all right-minded Spaniards concur).

But as we drive to medieval Toledo along a dun-colored Castilian road in a dun-colored world, we are feeling a dun-colored ennui. The land is flat. Lonely groups of whitewashed houses, looking insubstantial in the heat, melt into the landscape. The broad plain, with its occasional (and surprisingly unremarkable, almost banal) windmills and undulations, is pierced by melancholy shafts of light. The road is lined with weedy poppies and yellow rapeseed. The sky is an unforgiving blue. Could this same Spain—harsh, juiceless, introspective— once have been the ruler of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Americas? Rich, imperial, dazzling?

It might have been in such a mood and in just this place that Auden chose to call Spain “that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe.” Indeed, we are separated from Morocco by little more than ten miles of water. For a place to be both so dismal and so exciting—this is how Jan Morris saw it—is a tease, a conjurer’s act, a charisma that gives weight to Madariaga’s dictum that “Spain is a castle & an enchanted castle, labyrinthine and majestic.” Then, suddenly, the conjurer produces Toledo, walled city on a hill. On seven hills, to be exact.

Steep and narrow, full of angst and kitsch and steps and shops (damascene tourist blades), the streets of Toledo are so many Jacob’s ladders, eye-of-the-needle tunnels (suitable for assassinations). The rugged geography and the accidental architecture of this revered city speak of enforced communality and of the ardors and rewards of the Catholic Middle Ages. Mysticism flourished here, and blood flowed—the blood of Jews and Moors, of Catholic priests and nuns, of Nationalists and Republicans. The poet Garcilaso de la Vega called uncompromising Toledo “a clear and illustrious nightmare,” antithetical to modernity. How penitential, ominous, dark, strange—great, gloomy palaces on narrow crooked lanes.

Spanned by two bridges, one of them Roman, Toledo, so famously painted (looking like a city on a plate being offered by invisible hands to God) by El Greco, is built on a rocky eminence in a bend of the river Tagus. It is formidably “girdled in by the indescribable solitude of its utterly desolate hills,” as Augustus Hare wrote in the 19th century, and surrounded on three sides by a gorge—implacable gray rock running down to the water’s edge.

We walk the river promenade—accompanied by mild breezes, the soapy scent of Spanish fir, rosemary, fat crimson Toledo roses—looking, along the mighty, defensive walls, for a logical point of entry. I can’t find one that suggests itself as a rational beginning for an exploration of the rubble-hubble of Mudejar architecture (the combination of Moorish and Spanish techniques and styles, executed by Muslims in the Arab tradition at the time of Christian dominance in the Middle Ages). I find it hard to broach the reality of this private city. Then the 13th-century Puerta del Sol chooses me—exerting its claim by means of intertwined arches of stone and brick and two asymmetrical towers, one round, one square. And suddenly I find I am feeling, as much as seeing, my way through the maze of antiquity—intensely alone and metaphysically safe in the silent streets.

I am staying at the Parador Conde de Orgaz, a palace/inn on the left bank of the Tagus. From the sweet and rustic balcony of my digs, I see the fabled city as El Greco wished it to be seen: an indelible and irresistible upward sweep, churches and synagogues soaring above the hills that hold them fast, the river, aqueducts, castellated bridges, and clumps of boulders like friendly giants. It used to be that Bedouins pitched their black tents outside the city walls. Today, on this windswept prominence—where it is said Hercules once stopped, perhaps to admire the singular view—campers pitch white tents. One could spend hours regarding this vista, and I do. I consider, languorously, that God, who writes straight in crooked lines, is achieved through just such a hard ascent, a process of climbing and falling and climbing up again.

The Parador Orgaz provides a groaning board: venison with raspberry; boar with pineapple; osso buco of stewed stag (it was disquieting, at the time of our visit, to eat from this hunters’ cornucopia, with stags’ heads and hunting rifles on the dining-room walls, telling us more than we wished to know about the voyage of the animal to the table, but those decorations are gone now); grilled roast veal; pickled turkey; goose livers with Spanish olive oil; kid; olives; cream cheese with honey and whipped cream and kiwi on a cinnamon wafer; marzipan.

Nancy Mitford, whose fictional characters sickened on Spanish food, said she only ever ate cuttlefish or kidneys or pigs’ brains in Spain—a country that was not part of the Grand Tour because the food was said to be inhospitable. Brillat- Savarin, on the other hand, said that the Spanish colonizers’ redeeming merit was “the discovery of the turkey and its introduction to the truffle,” and that “gastronomy owes everything to the Church.” Of course there is paella, composed of chorizo, ham, mutton, beef, chicken, drippings, tomatoes, saffron, and cabbage. And, according to Escoffier, we owe pheasant and partridge to Spain. I can think of few things better than the grilled trout and sweet delicate baby lamb chops in Toledo.

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