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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.

There is a phenomenon encountered only in fairy tales, and in special places of the heart: that of the large contained in the small. In Toledo, that endearing marvel finds sublime expression in the mighty Flamboyant Gothic cathedral, constructed on the site of a former mosque. Its lacy, dignified spire appears—if one surrenders oneself to the laws and fancies of perspective—at the top of a little crooked street: a divine exclamation point at the end of a knotted warren. Flooded with sincere northern light, the cathedral—with its spectacular gold-and-wrought-iron grilles and its stained glass and its works by Rubens, Velázquez, Goya, and Bellini—is a coherent mélange of Mudejar and Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Calligraphic plaster traceries on the ceiling are similar to those at the Alhambra; cupboards are densely carved from pearwood. But, as it is the nature of genius to contradict expectations, the overall effect is one of delicacy and lightness. Delicacy deriving from stucco—which is to say, mud.

If one is inclined to the belief that God has a sense of humor, the odd relics here resonate nicely: a miter made from the feathers of a hummingbird; a piece of stone that Mary trod upon when she descended from Heaven to invest Saint Ildefonso with the chasuble (an event that occurred, I’m told somewhat implausibly, in A.D. 666). No one could be so sour as not to find pleasure in the theatricality of the choir stalls (stories sculpted in stone and precious gems, larchwood and walnut, alabaster and jasper). But the genius of the cathedral resides in the reredos of the Chancel, which rises in serried majesty from the high altar to the roof. Is this truly an inanimate object? It breathes and it teems. Frothing wood, carved and painted, dimensionally fretted everywhere with stone canopies and niches, a series of elaborate stone tableaux. Sculpture, no less than painting, is the bible of the illiterate, and of the visually arousable. This was the country’s prescient answer to Communism and Fascism. This was the heart of God. This was the heart of Spain.

On Toledo’s highest hill squats the Alcázar, blunt and sober, a reminder of death. During the country’s fratricidal civil war, blood ran down these streets, and 40 anarchists burned themselves to death here in 1937. Times were mad. Sometimes, when I am at Mass in Spain, I wonder at everybody’s temperate exchange of the greeting of peace. For these are a people who died at the hands of their neighbors not so very long ago. Their restraint seems to me nothing short of miraculous. (They are restrained in traffic, too. Where Italians would indulge in opera buffa, Toledanos calmly go about unsnarling the works.)

This is a country that interpreted the Black Death of 1348 as divine punishment, that tortured heretics and burned them at the stake. This is the land that bred ecstatics—Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius the Jesuit. History’s demented quirks are writ large in Spain. Here, for centuries, Moors, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony. After the Reconquest, when the Moors fell to Christian King Alfonso of Castile, Toledo’s Jews enjoyed prosperity and popular esteem. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the city, capital of Hispanic Jews, had been known as the “Jerusalem of the West.” Then, in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. But from their time of glory, two former synagogues, Santa María la Blanca and Del Tránsito, remain—the latter’s ceiling formed by cedars of Lebanon, its floor covered with the soil of Palestine. The veils of stucco arabesques and honeycombed Hebrew calligraphic tracery on their walls were executed by Moorish artisans.

Much of Toledo is closed for the duration of my visit. This is liberating. I feel free to prowl the streets, committed to nothing but my own pleasure. I find myself in the vicinity of the 14th-century Convento de Santo Domingo el Real, a bewitching neighborhood of little squares, churches, escutcheoned palaces, and convents. People with romances to write set their books in this Toledo, perhaps bestowing upon them such titles as The Legend of the Kiss or The Rose of Christ’s Passion. Near the long and narrow Plaza San Vicente, virgins prick themselves with pins of various colors and sizes and offer them to Mary (to whom no gift is unacceptable) so that she may intercede for them and provide them with a worthy mate. And when they have secured their handsome boys, they will travel to the outlying town of Oropesa to buy snowy linens for their beds. In the black shadow of the church and of huge trees sit old women, spinning and sewing. Once they too were young. The girls will go to the small town of Talavera de La Reina to buy the gay ceramic plates and vessels that will grace their tables. We go there, too. The acquisition of loot is an antidote to thoughts of death. Beautiful, inexpensive plates. On blue-green, beige, white backgrounds, naïve animals—fox, quail, deer, rabbits; rearing, scratching, hurdling, huddling.

The scent of white-flowering jasmine fills the air. On the roofs of churches preposterous white storks guard their untidy nests. We return to our parador, making our way through an enfilade of public rooms, velvet and tiles, rich and sensual. The inn offers a mingled coziness and formality—friendly multicolored cats, antiques with runners of pale-rose–streaked silk and dove-gray embroidery, and strawberries and cream served with fried flowers and almond-cream sauce.

We drive almost due south over the Sierra Morena to Córdoba, where Isabella commissioned Columbus to sail to the New World and where, today, whitewashed houses are wreathed by cascades of hanging flowers, orange-blossom perfume anoints the air, and gates to flower-bedecked courtyards are left tantalizingly ajar. Two old ladies invite us into their courtyard to enjoy their earthly paradise—espaliered bougainvillea, plumbago, a lacy jacaranda tree. Rooms open directly onto patios: One could so easily touch a table, a bed. In the evening, streets bustle with the paseo, but in the heat of day shimmering Córdoba is as mysterious as it is quiet and self-regarding, and fountains rob the heat of its power to prick (Death, where is thy sting?). At night I hear the wail of guitars in shuttered rooms, music that has its roots in Byzantium and in Gregorian chant, in the plaintive songs of the Jews, and in the music of Gypsy tribes. Music that is languid and voluptuous ... wanton.

Tempted to ask myself whether the towns and cities of Andalusia owe their fallen pride to the triumph of kitsch, I have only to think (with profound gratitude for having seen it) of the Mezquita, the Great Mosque, of Córdoba, which architecturally and aesthetically beggars all. A forest of stately columns—onyx, jasper, marble, and granite—fill the wax-and incense–scented space. Shift your glance a fraction and you feel yourself to be unaccountably elsewhere in this regal universe: This patterned, kaleidoscopic, ordered, severe, and sumptuous world exists for you to catch the lucid, complicated symmetry by surprise. Perspective is all—physical and theological perspective. Interlaced red-and-white–striped double-horseshoe arches, imposing and graceful, rest on columns of oxblood red, marching to infinity, pointing to a carved ceiling, the whole enlivened by ground-gold calligraphy. There is something ineffably tentlike—tents in stone—about this place, which could only have been built by desert dwellers who were also mathematicians. Our tiny hotel room is directly across the touristed street from the mosque, and at night, when everything is still, the joy of it disturbs my sleep. I peer from my window at the beaten-brass doors, the illuminated golden tracery shimmering like an Art Nouveau fantasy in a blue velvet sky.

A mosque is also a court, a meeting place, a marketplace. By day, fountains play among the orange trees in the courtyard, the Patio de los Naranjos. The ablution fountains of the Muslims serve now as ornamental pools. I see an Arab woman, in purdah, walking through the Gate of Pardon. I see elegant men in long white jellabas engaged in discourse. I see a child with button your fly on his T-shirt, and a toddler with Marlboro embossed on his cap.

When Charles V sanctioned the building of a cathedral plum in the center of this great mosque, he faced opposition. Nothing, said the wise men of the municipality, could replace such perfection as already existed. But when I come upon the flowery protrusions of marble, the sudden and almost violent explosions of a Baroque choir, I have the sense that I am home. This, after all, is my language, as familiar to me as my hands—the language of monstrance, relic, church organs, crucifix, Nativity, pale Virgins in stone (and cozy, domestic side chapels, tidy residencies of the righteous dead). Representational art is necessary to my view of the world. After a while, calligraphy makes me giddy and leaves me frustrated. What we have here is a dignified dialogue in stone. (Isn’t God bilingual?)

Lorca called córdoba “the most melancholy city of Andalusia.” He felt differently about Seville. Córdoba for death, he said, Seville for life. The soft, winsome, romantic, picture-perfect, otherworldly city thrills and soothes. Seville moves us into the realm of fairy tales.

Four enormous golden apples once crowned the massive pink tower of the Moorish Giralda, but there is nothing airy-fairy about this noble structure, part of the third-largest cathedral in the world. Its charm, and by extension that of all old Seville, is such as to make it seem to belong to another, and very blessed, place and time. Indeed, you never saw such a sweet and friendly, sultry church. The anticipation of its riches made men giddy with delight. “When it is complete,” the canons said of the cathedral in the 15th century, “let posterity consider us all mad.” And a divine madness reigns in the great Flamboyant Gothic church—a golden chapel that is almost Hindu in its mass and in its sense of fecundity and dimensionality (horns, trumpets, angels’ wings). Organ music fills the immense space, swallows fly under the nave, a Gypsy girl sells carnations from a Schwepps paper cup.

Steps away is the Barrio Santa Cruz, clusters of pastel houses, Baroque fountains, and cafés of enduring simplicity and vivacity. Here the august and the naïve, the heroic and the intimate, exist side by side with the cathedral, no rift between the eternal and the quotidian, the sacred and the profane. I sit in a café, regarding the Giralda and eating tapas: saffron shrimp and rice; pork and veal meatballs; calamari in spicy tomato sauce; tiny pork sausages; oxtail stew with almonds, raisins, apples, grapes. Surely this is one of the most satisfying urban oases in the world.

The cathedral, the Barrio, the Alcázar and its gardens, form the glorious feminine trio of Seville. Everything here, in Don Juan’s city, is designed for physical and visual refreshment and delight. Always the unexpected view, often seen behind a scrim of jacaranda, a veil of succulent vines—a heady interplay of shadow and light, palm and fir, orange and roses. All is orderly and complex. Pines, ponds, pavilions. Moonflowers (which yield their fragrance only at night—a soporific, a deadly narcotic if you will) and Dick-and-Jane hollyhocks. Jets of water, a myrtle maze, mimosa. So many levels to this enchanting garden, one seems to walk down to get up and to walk up to get down.

At night we cross the Guadalquivir River and enter the working-class artisans’ district of Triana, where pleasures cost little. Columbus brought his ships up the Guadalquivir after his discoveries. A happy provincial, he said the sea was the same color as the river in Seville. Here, in a late-night tapas bar, over a glass of Sherry, I reflect how in Italian holy painting, the landscape speaks: The Annunciation takes place in Tuscany, Leonardo would have us believe, and all the scenes of Jesus’ earthly life were lived against the background of Chianti. In Spanish art, in the works of those great Spanish masters—Murillo, Velázquez, Goya—the face is more important than the cultivated scenery. Christ is set here, every day, all around me, among the ordinary men and women of Spain.