Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This close to the Edge...

... the disc's magical field was so intense that a hazy corona flickered across everything, as raw illusion spontaneously discharged itself. - Terry Pratchett (The Colour of Magic)

That's the lighthouse and the hotel up on Monte FachoNow that all the heavy build-up is done, shall I move right on to the crux? I'd talked of the coast of death being the end of the world. Which it is. But you can't just wave your hand in the general direction of northwestern Spain and say you were at Land's End. You need a spot to point at, one GPS coordinate. Amundsen didn't just land on the beach, play with a couple of penguins and then claim that he'd been to the southern extremities of the earth. The Romans felt exactly the same way. And so there's one particular cape that they chose to call Finisterrae - which the Spanish amended to Finisterre and the Galicians prefer to call Fisterra.

Faro de Finisterre
Of course, it isn't quite the westernmost spot in continental Europe. Somewhere in Portugal takes the credit for that, but what with the earth being round and everything, it isn't so much a question of logic as a case for the heart. And gloomy, rocky Fisterra lashed by fierce storms, and with the Atlantic blowing winds that terrified the Romans and drove them mad, is certainly all you could imagine of the Edge. Unfortunately, it was all sunshine and fragrance when I visited. It was so clear that I could see all the way to Ireland. I could've used this weather in Ronda and Ronda's gloom here. But such is life.

Anyway, near the village of Fisterra is the promontory of Monte Facho. In pagan times, this was the end of the famous pilgrimage: people would walk from their doorsteps across Europe to this one spot at the end of the world and pay their respects to the great beyond. Since the Christian take-over of the Camino, most pilgrims end their walk now at the church of St James in Santiago de Compostela, a hundred kilometres or so inland. But many still carry on upto here. And in Monte Facho, there is the lighthouse - the second-most visited spot in Galicia - where they end their penance and burn their clothes.

My very own "Psycho" shot!
The lighthouse is about 3 kilometres or so from Fisterra. The walk up to it is quite spectacular, but there is nothing along the road, except for a hotel a few metres away in the same compound as the lighthouse. The promontory is very narrow, and if you stay in this hotel and glance out the window in the morning, all you see is the Atlantic. To see land, you have to lean right out the window and look straight down. I've stayed in much cheaper hotels through this holiday of mine and also in more luxurious ones - but this one is definitely the most memorable. And, of course, if you eat in the restaurant there and are a Douglas Adams fan...

I tired of seeing gigantic gothic churches and was very happy to come across a small, pretty one like this
Speaking of restaurants, Fisterra has the best seafood I've eaten in my whole life - and I come from Kerala. Clams and mussels and lobster and squid and octopus and prawns and codfish and a whole lot more. And pretty cheap, too. In Spain there's what they call a menu del dia. For a fixed price, at lunchtime, you get this set meal of a starter, the main course, dessert and a drink. Normally, the drink is a glass of wine or water. In Fisterra, though, in one place, they plonked a whole bottle of white wine on my table. And they charged just 12 Euros for the whole multicourse meal of this bottle and the most divine sea-food you'll ever eat.

I don't like to drink (the stuff tastes just horrible, in my opinion), but I come from a family of famous drinkers and this bottle somehow triggered an ancient, competitive spirit long dormant in me. By the time the meal was done, the bottle was empty and I was feeling completely miserable. I wished my competitive spirit had remained dormant. I wasn't drunk enough to not remember what happened for the next couple of hours, but there is rather a haze around the edges and a few holes in time I can't quite account for.

View from a playground. How lucky are these kids?
To start with, I tottered about town feeling very sorry for myself. And then I came upon a playground. This playground, like everything else in Fisterra, has excellent views of the Atlantic. It has a wall on one side, and then a drop down to a beach far below. I normally don't much like heights, but it's amazing how a little bit of wine does away with inhibitions of this sort. I sat on the wall with my feet dangling over the edge and contemplated the Atlantic for a while. But as the afternoon progressed, more kids poured in. Since I can endure kids only in moderate quantities,  it was time to leave.

I was conscious of an irresistible urge to take a leak and I was still an uphill climb of 2 kilometres or so from my hotel. And so when I saw a sign that said something along the lines of "the walk of San Guillermo," that pointed toward a dirt track into the hills, I took it without hesitation. I don't remember seeing anyone for the several kilometres I walked, save for a French couple who passed me on their way down. I tried to ask them what was up top, but language barriers were between us. The dude did point at his camera and blow a kiss top-side. Which was enough encouragement to continue despite coming across a herd of horses a little later. A quick google search on my phone confirmed my suspicion that some horses have a mean streak, and so I left the track and tried to cut through the trees.

The reason I mention this last is that I have come across references to a chapel to San Guillermo somewhere near the end of the trail. I don't remember seeing anything of the sort. Maybe I missed it when I took the shortcut. At the very top is a power station (and no, I'm not mistaken: even I can tell the difference between a church and a power station) that seems to be in use, but like everything else off the beaten path, it has an air of windswept desolation about it. It's amazing how so many people throng the main road to the lighthouse but everywhere else you see an average of about two people an hour. But this video hints that the church is just ruins being excavated. A lot of the images in there look familiar, save the ruins, but maybe I took no notice in my inebriated state. Though, if the stone that is mentioned there - that infertile couples apparently still use to increase the chances of conception - had been in use when I passed by; drunk or not, I would most certainly have remembered seeing the church.

But for the less religiously inclined, the real scene-stealer at the end of the walk is the views of Fisterra afforded. That is what got the Frenchman excited and it would have done the same to me too, had I been up to feeling excited. Instead, I crawled up on to the bench they've placed there, probably for precisely this reason, and took a nap. When I woke up, all ill effects of the wine had worn off and I was my normal sunny, enthusiastic self. The last three photographs are the ones I took of Fisterra from up there. I hope I've done it justice.

Waking up to the sights and the sounds of the Atlantic, a bit of walking around and a whole lot of seafood eating pretty much covers how I spent my two days there. There was also, of course, the little matter of watching two sunsets from the end of the world, but that demands a post of its own, I think.

Finis electricity line

Somewhere on the trail of San Guillermo

The day before, this tower was covered with clothes. I was delighted to see that the Spaniards have the same attitude to the "do not dump garbage here" signs that we do. Pity I didn't take the photo then.
 The Trip

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Indian Who Went Up A Mountain And Then Later Went Down By The Sea

Those out there who share my movie tastes would readily agree that beaches are boring and distasteful. Lots of sun, sand, salty water and hordes of people. And weedy, tentacly things twining themselves around your legs. I'd take a Hammer Film coastline myself anytime - cliffs plunging into the sea, waves crashing against rock, windy gloom, thunder and lightning, and lone lighthouses on rocky promontories defiantly holding fort against the elements, signalling humanity's eternal war at the edges of civilisation. Nothing man-made stirs me as much as lighthouses.

Thus, for people like me, there is Galicia, out beyond most tourist radars in north-western Spain. Even for the mighty engineers and seafarers that were the Romans, this was the end. Beyond the treacherous costa da morte - the coast of death - from where the wild wind comes that gave them nightmares, there lay nothing but the tempestuous Atlantic stretching unto infinity. This was finis terrae - the end of earth. And so, they built a ring of lighthouses separating the living from the great beyond, and turned back.

The most famous of these lighthouses is Torre de Hércules, so named because legend has it that it was Hercules who built it with his own hands. But since no airline is ever going to let that club on-board, the next best way is the train from Athens to Milan - which takes close to two days, then the overnight train from Milan to Barcelona, and finally another overnighter from Barcelona to A Coruña. A draining journey - even for a God.

And so, modern theory has it that it was the Romans who built it in the second century AD, which makes it the oldest functioning lighthouse in the world. A Coruña is the wealthiest city in Galicia and a bustling port, but I didn't do much here except visit the lighthouse. I saw quite a few lighthouses in Galicia, as well as the Costa Brava in the east, but this was definitely the most interesting of them all. It's built on a small hill, with a tiny beach on one side and an endless meadow on the other - and so has the solitude that a lighthouse so needs to give it character. I think I spent as much time walking around on the hill as much as inside the lighthouse. Very few people frequent the tracks cut into the hill and the rocks there are excellent places to sit down and contemplate the Atlantic - especially if its your first meeting with her.

The inside of the lighthouse is, of course, a must-visit. Going over the pictures I took, it looks like I forgot to take any in there - which is nice and cozy, with an endless spiral staircase all the way to the top, and little rooms with nice views and history lessons along the way. And finally, the very top with spectacular views of the ocean and the city. Not a bad introduction to the Atlantic and green, rainy Galicia.


The Trip

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Watching Messi behind enemy lines in Seville

The Cathedral - and I think this picture covers only one-eighth of itI did everything everyone asked me to do in Seville. I went inside the Alcazar. I stood disbelieving, stunned by the sheer size of the cathedral. I switched off my GPS and walked around the Barrio de Santa Cruz, marvelling at how narrow the streets were, at the granite pavements, at the coolness there despite the heat outside. (I never tired of the old quarters in Spain's cities, and Seville has the biggest of all the ones I saw.) I also saw a building shaped like a waffle; stuck out like a sore thumb, in this the most stately of all cities. Why didn't I think of going in and finding out what it was?

Torre del Oro - probably not made of gold, thoughI went to a flamenco show. I went to the tapas bars. I marvelled at how clean the Guadalquivir looked, despite flowing through the heart of such a big city. I clicked dozens of night-time photos of the river and the bridges across it and the tower of gold by it and the avenues and the walkways along it... and then deleted every last one of them, because none could do the sights justice. I checked the menus displayed outside on the riverside restaurants and decided that they were just a little bit out of my budget. (I wish they'd do this in India, too. Beats getting seated at a table and then, "I have to rush now... family emergency... got call... but lovely restaurant - I'll be here tomorrow, for sure.")

But really, my Seville trip was defined by this gigantic coincidence. I'd checked into the hotel and had gone for a walk in the neighbourhood. Wandering hither and thither, I chanced upon a stadium with this bus marked FC Barcelona parked outside. Weird, right? I mean, this was Seville; Camp Nou was at least a thousand kilometres away. I asked the girl sitting behind the ticket counter for the lowdown. She told me that Barcelona was in town for a game and that it was scheduled for the very same evening. You could've knocked me down with a feather. I was in Seville for the culture and the architecture, of course, but this was clearly a Sign. So I bought a ticket.

The tickets were not as expensive as the ones in the Camp Nou, so I could afford the covered seats near the half-way line. A good thing, too: it drizzled at the start. The chap next to me was the friendly sort and wanted to know whether I was a Barcelona fan. I didn't want to alienate him, so replied that because I was a tourist, I had no loyalties whatsoever. My reactions through the match would've given me away, though - besides, I don't think he bought it to begin with. He didn't speak much English, but talked to me through the match giving me some tidbits about the city and the stadium now and then. He was also the most fanatical of all the Sevilla supporters in the section - pretty loud and explicit with his swearing at the referee and the Barcelona players, when things went awry.

Much like the game at the Camp Nou, I got there well in time and was again treated to Messi warming up with Dani Alves. It's fun watching those two warm up. One stands near the goal line, the other near the half-way line. And they ping the ball between each other. Very, very accurately, too. Before the start of the match, a piano was carried on to the pitch and there was a rendition of the Sevilla anthem. Then, or maybe before that, the players were announced. It was the exact reverse of what happened in the Camp Nou a week earlier. Every Sevilla player's name was cheered, and with the exception of Xavi and Messi, every Barça player's whistled. Messi, though, got some grudging applause.

This match saw a much more active and sunnily-disposed Messi than the previous week. He was playing slightly deeper and I got to see first-hand some lightning-quick interplay between Xavi and Messi in the opening minutes. The passes between the two, running at full pelt while zigzagging unpredictably, were sometimes quicker than I could process. Generally, it's easier to follow football on TV, but the quick one-touch, on-the-move passes, I somehow found much more exhilarating watching live at the ground.

But for all of Barça's dominance, it was Sevilla who took a two-goal lead. Barça have been crippled by injury to their back four, and have of late been playing with a makeshift defence - and they've been paying for it. The Sevilla crowd were quite enjoying themselves and even sang the Barça anthem a couple of times - specifically the part that ends with "Barça, Barça, Barça"... with a pause tacked on and followed by a mieeeeeerda. There was much amusement and everyone was in good spirits.

Early on in the second half, Barça scored, but were still a goal behind. But like every match I saw of theirs, they got better and better as the game progressed and their opponents tired. They cranked the gears up a notch and tempers started to fray. Fabregas and a Sevilla chap had an altercation and the latter pushed his head (not quite a head-butt, but definitely a head-bump) into Fabregas. Fabregas made sure the referee noticed it and the Sevilla chap was promptly red-carded. My new friend to my right damn near had an apoplexy. He then shouted abuse at the referee for 5 minutes without so much as pausing for breath; a few folks around shot him an occasional worried glance.

From now on, Barça, already on the ascendancy, took a stranglehold on the match. And the crowd grew more and more hostile. Every Barça touch (which was a lot) was jeered and whistled and everyone had a thing or two to say of the referee. There were anti-Barça chants. There were slogans with arms raised against the referee. It was so unbelievably hostile that it was positively delicious. This was what I'd been looking forward to for all those weeks!  All of the baser emotions that were tut-tutted in my moral-science classes vented out in relative safetly, but multiplied amongst 40,000 people. I think that when George Orwell wrote of sport being war minus the shooting, he was spot on - but you really have to be at a football stadium, with the home crowd feeling particularly wronged to fully understand it - however, it is just possible that his words contained more grudging admiration than my staid school books conveyed. How could anyone not be moved, not have their pulses up, by being amongst tens of thousands of people, all spitting venom and baying for blood for 20 minutes straight? It was glorious.

And then, with Barça still losing by a goal, Messi laid a ball off to Fabregas in the 89th minute, and the latter didn't miss. And a couple of minutes later, in the very final minute of the game, Messi and Villa played another of those one-twos and Villa didn't miss either. The whole stadium went mierda. My friend let loose another tirade aimed at the referee, who was at that very moment being escorted off the pitch by a ring of security guards. I don't think they need have bothered. For all the hostility on display, it was clear that the fans at the match had a football mask over a very human face: when I walked out of the stadium, the mask was off and everyone was perfectly calm. Even the chap to my right, who was still shouting abuse as he turned toward the exit, interrupted his tirade to give me the widest smile and the warmest handshake when I clapped him on the back to say goodbye.

Plaza de España - another Lawrence of Arabia locationAn improved Messi performance from the previous week, Barça winning in the final minute after trailing by a goal until the 89th minute, and being witness to the most glorious sporting atmosphere anyone could ever hope for. What more could I have asked of the Gods in the city where a man once said, "Let us build a cathedral so large that future generations will think we were mad."

Inside the Casa de PilatosP.S. - I was there only for three days and didn't have the time to go inside the cathedral but, in order to appease the Gods, did go to the Casa de Pilatos  (all right, I'll admit it: I'd read that it was used as a location in Lawrence of Arabia, and I wanted to have a look) - so named because it was once believed to be a copy of Pilate's house. It had rooms very appropriately and religiously named - like Flagellation Chapel. Also contains a strange picture of a bearded woman breast-feeding a child, with her husband standing nearby wearing a disgusted look. Alone worth the price of admission.

The Trip

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain...

...than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain! ... I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Spanish working class - I ought perhaps to say the Catalan working class, for apart from a few Aragonese and Andalusians I mixed only with Catalans - and not be struck by their essential decency; above all, their straightforwardness and generosity. A Spaniard's generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this, there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances. - George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia)

The first friend I made in Spain did not even know me when he offered to put me up in Barcelona. I was taking Spanish classes in Bangalore and my instructor's a friend of his and she told him about my trip. Francesc has been to India many times, and the fact that he loves India and that his friend spoke well of me was enough to get me a "my home is your home."

My trip to Barcelona was for four days, and because I really picked the wrong time for a first visit to the city, had he not been there to show me around, I would've left it bewildered. Apart from being in the train station early in the morning, to pick me up, he woke up at the crack of dawn each day (and with me sometimes waking up late and leaving him waiting, I'm ashamed to say), and showed me the best of what was possible to enjoy in Barcelona, in the din that was La Mercè.

I had plans for another 8 days in Catalonia at the end of my trip (my flight back was from Barcelona), and while the first two days were reserved for el clásico, the game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, I wanted to spend the remaining 6 days in the rest of Catalonia. I asked him whether he would accompany me and was delighted when he said yes and further that we would take his car for the tour. He planned the whole trip, giving me a wealth of options and explaining the various permutations on the map, but always leaving the final word to me - I was the guest, after all. And the one thing he'd learnt in India was that the guest is God. Or something like that. It was a lesson I'd missed, somehow.

And so, after tramping around Spain for 3 weeks, and then watching an exhilarating game at the Camp Nou, I found Francesc waiting outside my hotel the next morning in his Opel. Thus began our road trip. I still couldn't get the sardana I'd seen a few weeks earlier at the Camp Nou out of my head, so I asked him whether he had any of that music. But no, all he had was a thick stack of Bollywood music (the hits of Aamir Khan): and so the hills and the forests of Catalonia reverberated to Pehla Nasha and Aati Kya Khandala.

I won't describe in much detail here the places we went to (I hope to do that in a later post), but it was mostly the city of Girona and the northern stretch of the Costa Brava - from the strange Cap de Creus near the French border to Tossa de Mar further south. I didn't see much of Tossa de Mar - we stopped there only on the way back to Barcelona - but didn't like the place much. It has much bigger beaches than the other places in the Costa Brava we'd been to and so attracts lots of tourists and has ugly hotels dotting the beach-front. Francesc says it gets worse further south.

I preferred very much the rocky coves and the lovely villages on the coast up north. But it's also more isolated and had it not been for Francesc, I wouldn't have seen any of it - it's not an area well covered by public transport, and to experience it without a car would've taken a lot more than the 4 days I had. 

The other advantage of being introduced to Catalonia by Francesc is that he's the friendliest chap you could imagine. It's not just him, though, and it definitely is not just Catalonia. Throughout my trip in Spain, the people were the warmest and the friendliest I've ever been around. They speak very little English generally, but even so, if you approached anyone for help, most would take as long you need and use as much sign language as they know to make sure you got what you needed. It's as if none of them have anywhere to be in a hurry. And why would they, in a country as beautiful as theirs?

To take one instance, there was this young mother with her child in a bus-stop in A Coruña. Galicia's the only place in Spain where my GPS gave me trouble and I was well and truly lost in this instance. I knew the bus number I had to take, but couldn't figure out where to catch it from. After walking around for a while and having had no luck, I chanced upon those two waiting alone for a bus. I showed her the map I had and the bus number I was supposed to take, hoping that she would indicate on which street it stopped. But she brushed it away, told her little girl - about 4 or 5 years old - to behave while she was away, and took me herself to the stop where I could catch my bus. I suppose, apart from the general kindness, it's also an indication of how safe their country is.

So, anyway, like I said, the whole of Spain are a friendly bunch (except this one chap behind the ticket counter in the bus station in Ronda - but even he wasn't actively rude, just curt and grumpy: if I were in the tourism department and had to pick the face of Andalusia, it wouldn't be him). But I thought the Catalans managed to exceed the very high standards set by the rest of Spain. For one thing, they talk and talk and talk. In the one week I spent with Francesc, I can't ever recall a conversation with a stranger that got over in less than 5 minutes, no matter how innocuously it started. Ask the lady at the laundromat where my trousers were, and you'd think that's a conversation that'd be over in 10 seconds: "It's right there, behind that shirt." But no, Francesc managed a 7-page animated conversation on the topic with her.

Sometimes, I wished I understood a little Catalan to figure out what on earth they talk about so much. Used as I am to avoiding any sort of eye contact with strangers and sticking to monosyllabic sentences, I sometimes found it exhausting just watching them. Everyone - from above-mentioned laundromat lady, to the strange couple dressed as astronauts in a car park, to hotel receptionists, to tobacconists, to even the policeman we once stopped in the middle of a street in Barcelona to ask for directions (cars piled up behind us as the policeman and Francesc had a leisurely conversation - but not one honked) - seemed genuinely delighted to meet people. But curiosity often got the better of my mental exhaustion. Not that I'm any the wiser, though, because even if I asked Francesc about it later, his English translations were often the very concise Reader's Digest versions. There was this man in a shop where we'd walked into to buy a bottle of water. Naturally, a 10-minute conversation followed. After we left the shop, 

"So, what were you guys talking about, Francesc?"
"I was just telling him that I was showing you around the Costa Brava and that we'd been in Cadaqués yesterday."
"And what'd he say?"
"He said, 'Oh, that's good.'"

But anyway, that's how it was. Francesc always made friends wherever he went. And especially with the women. I don't know how; it's not like he's Pierce Brosnan or anything, but they all seem happy to talk to him. That's a general thing I noticed in Spain, though. Compared to some other countries, actually the only other country, I've been in, women don't put up deflector shields and have the general attitude of being alone in a basement with a well-known sex offender on being hailed by strange men - even if it were the middle of the night and there were two strange men. And yes, yes, before anyone jumps down my throat, it must have something to do with the general attitudes of the men there, too. But yeah, he has them eating out of his hand, and one girl even let us in the museum she was the custodian at, for free, after he talked to her for a while.

But of all the friends we made, the one I'll never forget is the one he (and therefore we) made in Begur. We were walking around the town looking for a place to eat. The bistro we walked into, by coincidence, was owned by the most beautiful woman I'd seen in all of Catalonia. After the customary 15-minute greetings, she asked us what we wanted to eat. The Spanish have this habit of drinking chocolate - no, not a watered-down chocolate shake, but the real thing; you could freeze it in your fridge and sell it the next day as a bar of chocolate. It's as thick as mercury and is the most heavenly drink I've ever had. So, I asked for that. She made an apologetic face and told me that she doesn't sell it anymore, but if I went there again the next day, she would buy it and have it ready "just for me."

At least, that's what I think she said. For one thing, even if she spoke perfect English without any accent, it still would've been very difficult to concentrate on what she was saying - coming as close as she did, laying her hands on mine, and looking at me with light-green eyes as clear as the waters of the nearby coves. But the next day, there was chocolate waiting for me at the bistro, so that must have been what she said.

This next day was also my birthday, one where I not only turned a year older, but a whole decade older. Dinner was again at the bistro, but we reached there very late and were the only ones around. She was having dinner with a friend and his son, who were visiting her from afar. She cheerfully asked us to join them and introduced us to her friend. He was a documentary filmmaker and while we ate had plenty of stories to tell of his just-concluded visit to Nepal. (He also complimented me on my Joan Miró t-shirt - clearly a man of taste.) And after the loveliest (and longest - the Spaniards are never hurried about anything) birthday dinner I've ever had, they got out a cake and a small candle and sang me happy birthday - these old friends who were meeting each other after a long time, and who hadn't known either Francesc or me until the day before. Not a bad way to get older.

It had to end, of course, and after a week in Catalonia, it was time to head to the airport. Catalonia is a beautiful place and when I first saw Girona, I told Francesc that that is where I'd like to buy a house one day. The trouble is, I kept changing my mind practically everyday. I said the same when I saw Begur, and I think I've now settled on Cadaqués. But I'm sure I'll change my mind again when next I go there and see more places. And I can unreservedly say that as beautiful as the towns and the villages dotting the hills and the coves there are, the people are just as big an attraction.

I've been told that I mostly only write about places and things and that even the photographs I take have very few people in them. Well, I hope this one didn't get too mushy. But you see, I don't think I could ever be as nice as Francesc was to me, to anyone, let alone someone I've never met before. And so, as meager repayment, all I can do is write about the land and the people he loves so much.

The Trip

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Football not quite prohibited

Terrassa´s Plaça del Progrés is a place of legend. A young Xavi Hernández grew up playing football here, a concrete square in this city that´s a few kilometres outside Barcelona. He was the smallest of his friends, but if the ball ever rolled onto the streets adjoining, it wasn´t from his feet. He was into possession-based football even then.

But as the years passed, they modernised the square, which is now very nice, with a children´s playground, park benches and so on. And a sign that says ¨Football prohibited.¨ If ever there´s a story ripe for a maudlin blog post that ends with something along the lines of a teary - ¨Times change. Maybe the next Xavi will become a doctor instead.¨ - line, it´s this one.

At least, that´s the story I read.

So, the moment I reached Terrassa, I headed straight for the Plaça del Progrés, my mobile´s camera lens all cleaned up and ready for action. But the trouble is, I walked the whole frigging thing thrice and I still couldn´t find the damn sign. Maybe they took it down because of all the bad press. I found some that say ¨Dogs prohibited¨ but that´s not quite the same thing.

I mean, yes, what with all the stuff built on there now, football isn´t possible anymore. But I fear it´s a little too subtle for me. Think of all the things I could´ve done with the story of where Spain´s greatest-ever footballer played as a child, a square named ¨progress,¨ and a photo of a sign that says ¨Football prohibitedAnd they took the bloody sign down. It makes me want to cry. I´ve lost my shot at a sentimental tear-jerker.

Friday, October 12, 2012

As a young man, Dali was totally asexual...

...and forever making fun of friends who fell in love or ran after women - until the day he lost his virginity to Gala and wrote me a six-page letter detailing, in his own inimitable way, the pleasures of carnal love. (Gala’s the only woman he ever really made love to. Of course, he’s seduced many, particularly American heiresses; but those seductions usually entailed stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting them on the woman’s shoulders, and, without a word, showing them to the door.)Luis Buñuel (My Last Sigh)

From the Dali house in Port Lligat
The Trip

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Ronda started out on my itinerary as a picture of a nameless bridge across a deep gorge. But so striking was the image that I simply had to find out where it was from. And it delighted me no end to learn that it was a pretty town in the hills, no more than a couple of hours from Cordoba and Seville; and furthermore that folks like Hemingway and Orson Welles were one-time residents of it.

It was raining in Cordoba during my stay there and the bad weather continued in to Ronda. But it did mean that the train ride up into the hills was one for the ages. The train would often trundle into the clouds, and peaks and gorges would appear out of nowhere with a parting of the veil. It was also fun to watch windmills up on the hills playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. It's an enormously pretty sight, a windmill emerging from a cloud...

There are three bridges in Ronda, and they separate the new town from the old Islamic town. Most of the tourist accommodation and also the train and bus stations are in the new town, but the old town is the one that catches the eye most. Even further beyond, outside the walls of the old town, is the neighbourhood of San Francisco, the site of two other legendary bridges - James Stewart jumped from the foot of one to rescue Kim Novak in Vertigo, and the other one bears a plaque commemorating the spot where <SPOILER ALERT> Brigid O'Shaughnessy shot Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer.</SPOILER ALERT> Or maybe that happened on another continent.

Anyway, the bridge, Puente Nuevo,  is not as new as the name suggests - construction finished in 1793, 42 years after it began. Ronda is a beautiful town, but even if it were a desert wasteland, this bridge and the gorge across which it is built would be worth a visit. I won't try to describe it. I braved my cellphone in the rain precisely to avoid these kind of descriptions.

Apart from the rain, it was windy, too, and the temperature hovered somewhere around 10 degrees for a lot of the time. But I had only two days and so had no chance to wait for good weather. I was determined to do a bit of walking, even if it meant braving the rain and the cold - it was nice to be in the hills and away from the cities. If there's two things I could change about this trip, they're that, first, I would ensure that I spend at least 3 days in a place, no matter how small it is, and second, I would alternate cities with the countryside. Visiting cities tend to be very tiring, what with all the museums and "must-visit" monuments and everything, and Madrid, Granada, Valencia, Barcelona and Cordoba on the trot is not very advisable to someone who shares my liking for the laidback.

The first day, I walked from the top of the bridge, from the old-town side of it, down a trail to the river at the bottom. But I had not bought any maps of the trail, and so just picked the most likely paths. The trail was steep and it was raining and while the bridge towered higher and higher above me, so did the vegetation get thicker and the trail narrower and steeper. As I got nearer the river below, the rocks on the trail also got more slippery and a couple of painful falls, and a scary spider, convinced me that perhaps I hadn't got so much of the adventurer in me. I turned back, a little bruised and battered, my new jacket a bit torn, and crawled into bed. I would find out the next day that there are no good trails to follow down to the foot of the bridge: all the best views are from a little further out.

The next day, still raining, saw a smarter me, who went to the tourist office and bought some maps of walking trails into the valley below. The best one started at the far end of the old town, from San Francisco, and wound down the hill through pastures with grazing horses. It was beautiful - especially seeing Ronda high up, built literally on the cliff edge. The trail also afforded some excellent views of the bridge from below, but soon left it behind and ended at a power station. And from then on, it wound up into the surrounding hills.

There were very few people around - I think I came across two or three in the 45 minutes or so up till then, and so was very happy to run into a Belgian couple who were also walking the same trail. They were very friendly (and they say that all Belgians are as nice as themselves - which makes Belgium pretty high up on the must-visit tourist destinations, I think) and we walked along together to find out what was at the end of the trail. The rain stopped finally, and the temperature rose to the high teens. The Belgians, maybe just to tease me, started to complain that it was "very warm." We walked through mud-covered roads, and we walked through excellent vantage points of Ronda and the trail we'd walked, and we walked through a beautiful forest (park?) of maroon-coloured grass and tall trees, until we hit a dead stop on a busy highway with cars whizzing by all around: it was the highway from Seville to Algeciras and was a very unorthodox end to a walking trail in the hills. We stared bemused at the road and took turns reading the description of the trail I had with me. But it did seem like the end - and that was that.

The bull ringI was on strike against monument visits and so did not go to any of Ronda's cultural highlights - like the bull ring, one of the oldest in Spain, and the Arab baths. I did spend a couple of hours in the Bandits Museum, though. But only the very hard-hearted would call a visit to a museum dedicated to bandits a "cultural visit." Is a very nice, if small, museum. I now know the names of some of the legendary Spanish bandits. Apparently, the hills around Ronda was excellent bandit country and the town was also near a popular smuggling route back in the days...

Two days was far too little.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The hospital is the huge brown building to the left, actually, but if you swerve right into this rock instead, we guarantee you quicker service.
The Trip

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A rose by any other name...

I've posted here that I've never liked the sound of my official name. Rohan is fine, but George has a weird ring to it. So, while in Spain, I did a bit of research on the various ways they say it here.

The Madrileños and the Andalusians call me Jorge. The easiest approximation to how Indians would pronounce it is hoar-hay. But the Spanish do something with the starting "j" that makes it sound like they're drawing up phlegm - it's hard for us to do that pronunciation. Not my favourite.

The Galicians call me Xurxo. Substitute the two "x"'s with "sh" and you're good to go. Again, not my favourite.

The Basques call me Gorka. It's up North and not that well connected with the rest of my itinerary, so I'm not going there (San Sebastian, though, is a city I would've loved to visit) and haven't heard the pronunciation from a Basque. From the spelling, though, it doesn't look promising.

Which leaves the Catalans. They call me Jordi; pronounced sort of as spelled, with the Spanish "r," and not the English "d" either - the softer one, close to "th" - jiorr-thee. And my namesake, the one with the lance and the dragon at the end of it, is their patron saint. Jordi is a beautiful name and I sometimes have these fantasies of the Catalans knocking at my hotel door with, "Jordi! Jordi! Save us! There's a dragon just outside la Sagrada Família!"

Call me Jordi.

Edit: The pronunciations I keep hearing here in India are varied, with none of them as pleasing to the ear as the Catalan way. So, skip right to the last second of this video here - that, by the way, is Jordi Alba scoring the most beautiful own goal you'll ever see. And if you'd like to know what a man having sex with someone named Messi sounds like, turn up the volume from 0:52 to 1:00.

Friday, October 5, 2012

I have come oér moor and mountain... the hawk upon the wing. I was once a shining knight who was the guardian of a king. - Gordon Lightfoot (Don Quixote)

In my case, I just took the AVE from Barcelona. And where did it land me? In that ancient city of scholars and knights. Cordoba.

When the Moors invaded Spain, the rest of Europe were in the Dark Ages. The Moors brought with them philosophy, mathematics, sublime architecture and the concept of bathing. And in Cordoba, they established the greatest city not only in Europe, but all the world. A centre of learning, the most renowned in the world, where Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars worked together, and a gigantic library - again, the largest in the world. And since Cordoba at that point dealt only with tags of the greatest in the world, they built the famed Mezquita, still considered amongst the high-points of Islamic architecture.

So beautiful is it that when the Christians reclaimed Andalusia and were destroying mosques left, right and centre, they didn't have the heart to bring down the Mezquita; instead, they tore out the heart of the mosque and built a cathedral inside. So it's one of the few places in the world where you can walk into a mosque and pray to Christ, or whoever it is that Christians pray to. The signs outside and inside by the Church take great pains to point out that it is a Christian place of worship, and even that it is originally a Christian monument before the Muslims built the mosque. But everyone else still calls it the Mezquita. I like that.

But I had only two nights and a day there, and I was still recovering from Barcelona, so didn't really do very much there. I took a walking tour there and the guide showed me around the Alcazar with its magnificent gardens, the Mezquita, a synagogue and some other buildings of historical interest. The guide was knowledgeable, but I'm not sure walking tours with many people are for me. It felt a little rushed and crowded. I had taken some in Granada, but those were private tours - just me and the guide. More expensive, but definitely more interesting.

Cordoba was also where UNESCO-World-Heritage-Site fatigue first started hitting me. I'm officially tired of monuments. So much so that in my 3 days in Seville later - a city built as a UNESCO Heritage Site, if there ever was one - I only entered two buildings. Maybe I'm a philistine.

But the guide had the best line on the Mezquita. She said that perhaps people should look beyond which religion it belongs to and simply look upon it as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world - first built by the Visigoths, then expanded by the Muslims and now altered by the Christians; it is a veritable book of 1500 years or so of history, if you know how to read the language of stones, engravings and pillars, she says.

As a side note, I stayed in the old Jewish quarter: a labyrinth of narrow, mazy streets and wonderful balconies. I wish I'd walked more than I did in there.

The Trip