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Spanish Notebook

24 March 2012

3:00 PM

24 March 2012

3:00 PM

Round a bend in the mountain path, between the flowering rosemary and the wild box bushes, above the spine of bare rock that stretched like a dragon’s tail hundreds of feet down into the valley of the unseen river below, someone had sprayed in black letters on the unsuitable surface of the ground: ‘Catalunya is not Spain’. True enough, but where is? In the 700-mile railway journey I’ve been making over the past week from Montserrat in the east to La Coruña on the Atlantic, not many places. To Léonese nationalists, even the ancient Kingdom of Léon has its own language, though it sounds like good Castilian to me. And I can never see the monastery of Montserrat, long a symbol of Catalan civilisation, without thinking ‘Shangri-La’. After a silent night in the monastery’s hotel, the way to the station is by cable car, 2,000ft down across the River Llobregat. From the empty station platform, the monastery appears glued to the side of the mountain, and Tibetan horns could sound at any moment.

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The beggars put on a good show outside the cathedral in Barcelona — not Gaudí’s spiky basilica, but the medieval cathedral where dear old St Eulalia is honoured. Several men lacking lower limbs and a succession of women in black clothes sat imploring alms. There’s nothing wrong with begging, but I’m not sure it’s a reliable economic indicator. Certainly, more people are taking things out of dustbins, especially in the south of Spain, but that is because there’s a better market for scrap. The people who make it to the door of the cathedral are not those who most need help, but the ones stuck in flats beyond the station. Outside the cathedral, past the greeting-line of beggars, people were dancing the sardana. This circle-dance is done by anyone, old men and children, and its dignified tread makes the burliest dancer light-footed. It is not put on for the tourists. No better emblem of social cohesion could be imagined. It is a dance in which Iain Duncan Smith could excel. Perhaps he does.

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The storks began at Tudela, on the Ebro. There were none in Barcelona. These birds of good omen had made their nest on the clocktower above the main square of the tiny city. They were joined, brilliant and dangerously close in the night sky, by Venus and Jupiter, which had been following me around for days. On arriving at one-horse Tudela, I had thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ But that was near the station in the traffic-stained canyon of the Avenida Zaragoza. The best is brought out in most towns by streets with old-fashioned names: Zapaterías, Pescaderías, Cuchillerías, Pan — shoemakers, fishmongers, cutlers and bread. In Tudela, the old square amid that warren of one-time trade streets was forsaken for a nice new square in the 1690s. It has now had time to settle down. Every evening hundreds of people are there, sitting outside the cafés, taking a glass of beer, a coffee, a Nestea, a whisky and Coke, a bit of octopus or a pig’s ear, proud fathers cooing at babies in buggies, girls with awkward youths, a grandmother taking a toddler by the hand, eight-year-olds playing football on the far side of the bandstand (inscribed with the names of those musical sons of Navarre — Gaztambide, Sarasate, Gayarre and Eslava — the first actually born in Tudela). It’s all a looser way of dancing the sardana.

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In the busiest, best bar in Sahagún (which, if Tudela is a one horse-city, doesn’t even have a horse, for all its historic standing) a mother was dandling her baby on her knee and singing to it. Behind her on the large-screen television, a matador was making a rather bad job of finishing off a bull, twice having his sword fall out if its back, and then plunging it in to the hilt, but perhaps not quite in the right place, judging by the result. I have never been to a bullfight, but it is reported under ‘Culture’ in the papers, not in the sports pages. It is noticeable that the best bars are the ones with bullfighting photos or with a corrida on the television. Not that the Spanish take much notice of what is on television, and in any case, they, like us, have been driven out of the bar by anti-smoking laws. At least the weather generally treats them more kindly in the street.

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I don’t know how matadors manage on trains. The new high-speed trains in Spain pretend they’re aeroplanes and among banned items to be detected by the X-ray machine are swords (fair enough) and knives. So if you’ve bought a case of Toledo’s excellent sharp steak knives, you might be able to check them in as baggage on the plane but not on the train to the airport.

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The tobacconist at Sahagún, who looked much like Lady Boothroyd, insisted in wrapping up my postage stamps for me. ‘You’ll lose them otherwise,’ she said accusingly. The baker in Tudela had taken this politesse of wrapping even further. After selling me half a loaf (for 55 céntimos), he fashioned a sort of paper sleeve and folded it carefully over the cut end, to stop it going stale by lunchtime.

Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph and the author of A Pilgrim in Spain (Continuum, £16.99).


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