Advertisement

Remains of a Romantic Vision

Spain

Whisper "Spain," and images well up from the back of your mind: toresdors, flamenco guitars. Carmen, and Don Quixote. Unfortunately, this romantic ideal has been all but trampled out by paternajistic yet persistent fascism. The political realities of Spain, a country of loosely bound provinces and great internal strife, obliterate the Spain of the Moors, of El Greco, and the Siglo de Oro.

Spain in 1981 is a country divided by the 20th century. Half of it--the large, pseudo-cosmopolitan cities like Madrid and Barcelona--strives mightily to industrialize, modernize; computerize, and merge with the rest of Western Europe.

But regional joyalty and wide-spread poverty diminish the possibility of realizing this dream in the minds of all save Common Market-conscious politicians, who forget that national pride cannot bring together Andalucian gazpacho and Cordoban shoes.

A brief word on Spanish customs. It may seem astounding to Americans--given the tropical heat that descends on the peninsula at ten in the morning and lasts past sunset--that shorts on women cause men to leer and catcall and local women to dower with contempt and derision. This is uncomfortably true: wearing shorts verges on the suicidal the farther South you go. Spaniards themselves tend, as a rule, to dress in colors that vary little from the funerial: style and colorful dress are equated with loose morals and looser living habits.

Spaniards take their siesta seriously, closing stores and restaurants from two in the afternoon until about six in order to sleep. As a result, dinner time is around ten in the evening. But it's worth the wait. The regional individuality that causes so many headaches for the national government has produced a cuisine perhaps not on a par with that of the French, but superior to it in variety. The best part is that you can get a three-course meal anywhere in Spain for three or four dollars.

Madrid, according to legend, became Spain's capital when Ferdinand drew lines from the corners of the country through the middle. They intersected at Madrid. The city is a curious mixture of ornate 16th century architecture and clean-cut neo-classical buildings constructed during the years of fascist rule. The most modern street, something of a cross between Boston's Newbury Street and New York's Fifth Avenue in atmosphere. Proudly bears the name Avenida de Generalissimo Franco.

The principle commercial activity centers on Calle de la Pricessa and Avenida de Jose Antonio, south of which lies a maze of twisting alleys lined by innumerable restaurants. This is the Madrid you see in brochures, the old part of town that converges on Plaza Mayor and Plaza del Sol. This part of the city brings the reality of Spain somewhat closer to the idealized conception: Here you can sit down to a meal of paella, the music of guitars in the distance, and know you're not in America any more.

The one sight that makes a vist to Madrid mandatory is the Prado, one of the world best art museurns. What can one say about a museum that has an unparalleled collection of Spanish masters, including El Greco, Goya and Velasquez, as well as pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italian paintings and works by Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt?

Barcelona, like Madrid, has little to offer in the way of traditional Spanish atmosphere. The main thoroughfare of the older part of the city. Las Ramblas, resembles an enormous flea market. Peddlers line the central strip, hawking birds, animals, jewelry and pornographic magazines.

To one side of Las Ramblas stands the Mercado de San Jose, and enormous market with a country fair atmosphere. Fresh fruit--a pound of strawberries for 40 cents--and cheese, dried meat and livestock, and row after row of counters piled high with Spanish produce fill the lively mercado.

On the other side of Las Ramblas, the barrio gotico calls to mind the Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries. Townhouses crowd each other along narrow alleys, interspersed with shops and restaurants. The juxtaposition of Barcelona's modern port with the markets and neighborhood immediately surrounding Las Ramblas exemplifies the coexistence of history and modernization.

Outside the major cities in the smaller towns of Castile and Andalucia, one finds the traditional Spanish character most intact. Toledo, 70 miles south of Madrid, is a town dominated by the shadow of El Greco, the expatriated Cretan painter who adopted the town as his home. Toledo may be the most visited small town in Spain, but it is also a microcosm of Spanish history, art, and architecture.

Streets snake around a Moorish church, a medieval synagogue converted into a church during the Inquisition, and a massive cathedral that seems a composite of every wave of architecture to hit the peninsula in the past thousand years. And always El Greco remains in the background: his house, a museum of his work, a judejar (Moorish-jewish architecture) church that houses his The Burial of Count Orgaz. Before leaving Toledo, take a look at the gold-on-black inlaid jewelry and the knives: both are world-famous products of the city.

Segovia, to the north of Madrid, seems to have remained firmly rooted in the distant past. Its two principle attractions would probably have inspired Ruskin, Swinburne, or Byron: a Roman aqueduct in working order and the Alcazar, an ancient fortress. Around these lie Gothic churches and Moorish ruins. Segovia includes none of the artificial modernness effected in Madrid or Barcelona: it is simply a small Spanish town in an arid wilderness.

The barren countryside of La Mancha. which surrounds Madrid--you can easily imagine Don Quixote sparring with windmills here--contrasts sharply with the tropical plushness of Andalucia, the southernmost province. Seville, wreathed in palms, is the last of the romantic cities on the continent. Here you will hear flamenco guitars and see flamenco dancers snap castanets. The sun shines in Seville with a pure white heat--different from the stifling atmosphere of Madrid--that infuses the town with a feeling of laziness.

Seville is what all of Spain should be like: a commerical town that doesn't interfere with romantic ideals. The business activity centers in a small area of town, neither offending the visitor with pretentious architecture nor repelling him with dark alleys. In the older parts of town, the houses are whitewashed and highlighted in brilliant colors. The main sights are the cathedral, the Casa de Pilatos and the Alcazar; in each, you can see the upheavals the church, nobility, and military underwent from the time of the Moors through the 18th century. The Plaza de Espana, a tile masterpiece, is a 19th-century nightmare vision of Moorish construction.

If you are looking for the last relics of a fading comanticism, an institutionalized laziness, and above all, palm trees, or if Spain means flamenco to you, then breeze through Toledo and maybe Segovia, dash through Madrid, and head for Seville. Bring a panama hat

Recommended Articles

Advertisement