Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 20 July 2017

In the chapel of the Patriarch I nearly passed through the gates of damnation

Low life | 20 July 2017
Text settings

Valencia was a furnace. During the short ride from the airport, the taxi driver supplemented his chat about the weather with a photo on his phone sent by his father-in-law. His father-in-law lives about an hour away. The photo showed a bus stop on a deserted street. Attached to the bus shelter was a temperature gauge with large green digital numbers showing 50.5°C. Little wonder, observed the taxi driver, that the street was deserted.

He dropped me outside the Sercotel Sorolla Palace hotel where Eva was waiting on the steps. Eva was the Spanish PR lady, or shepherdess, in charge of 13 travel journalists from all over Europe on a three-day cultural tour of the city. ‘Eva I am ever so sorry,’ I said. ‘Shit happens,’ she said pleasantly and idiomatically. We transferred to another taxi and set off to the old town to find the group, who this morning were looking at churches. At least I had turned up, said Eva in the taxi. A veteran Italian travel journalist had had a panic attack on the plane as it taxied to the runway. So severe was it that the plane had returned to the terminal and she was taken off. Two others had cancelled at the last moment because their publications had gone bust.

We found the journalists’ minibus parked outside the seminary and chapel of the Patriarch, founded in the 16th century. We entered through a small ancient door, passed through a dim cloister and entered the cool peace of the seminary chapel, lit only by sunlight filtered through a cupola. I flopped down in a pew beneath a gruesome painting of a man being burnt to death on a bonfire of faggots. He was reclining on these faggots as though advertising an extremely comfortable sofa and looking with compassion on his executioners, who were staggering under the weight of the extra faggots they were adding to the conflagration. In the nave, a motley party of sweating, weary and dumbfounded tourists were being lectured to by an insanely enthusiastic tour guide. Solemn or gruesome frescoes, the colours still vivid, were painted on every possible surface, including the interior of the cupola. Tall, worldly-looking priests in long black frocks passed to and fro. The chapel was extraordinarily beautiful.

It was by now almost midday. The night before I had attended the Spectator Summer party. After that I had gone to a party at the Groucho club. Then I had caught the bus from Liverpool Street to Stansted airport. Stansted airport at 4 a.m. is a wide awake circle of hell, especially if you can’t walk in a straight line. Even more so if you swipe your boarding card at the automatic gate, are refused entry, then you read your boarding card for the first time and realise that you have gone to the wrong airport.

At the help desk I joined a queue of people with apparently insoluble problems of one sort or another. A woman broke down and wept inconsolably over the counter. In my case, however, the problem was magically solved if I handed over half a week’s wages to fly with Ryanair instead of easyJet, and on a plane that would get me to Valencia only an hour later than if I had gone to the correct airport. Armed with a boarding card that allowed me to enter the outer hell of the baggage search hall then the inner spiral of the duty free designer shops, I progressed unsteadily to the gate, then to the aeroplane. After all that, to sink down, stinking and unshaven, and still drunk, into a solid pew in a dark, cool, frescoed 16th-century seminary chapel, was a foretaste of passing through the gates of death into damnation, then being unexpectedly and mercifully given a last-minute reprieve of eternal rest. Then I realised that the appallingly dressed, sweating, dumbfounded tourists were in fact the group of international travel journalists I was joining. And all too soon we were ushered back outside into the furnace to wait for the minibus to take us to the cathedral to have a quick gander at the Holy Grail.

As we waited, Eva introduced me to the journalists. One of these, a forthright German woman in an eye-catching straw hat, expressed keen interest as to why I was joining 24 hours later than everyone else. I was standing in the shade of the seminary wall with the journalists assembled around me like a firing squad. I had been to a fantastic party, I said, and was so drunk afterwards that I had gone to the wrong airport. But they were all so hot and dazed, and they had already heard so many extraordinary excuses, that my tale was greeted with silent indifference, and then the bus came and we filed resignedly aboard.