Monday, November 23, 2009

Spanish Colonial Fashion Show

Here in St Augustine, we’re getting ready for our 450th anniversary (in 2015).  The city is conducting a modest campaign to get residents fully familiar with our past, and we’ve been having some very entertaining reenactors doing living history for us at civic events.
Here we have people dressed in the clothing of the several hundred year span of Spanish settlement. In the large picture, the earliest outfits are in front – 16th and 17th centuries – and the people in the rear are dressed in 18th century clothing.
This photo shows a miscellany of mostly 16th century outfits.
Finally, we make it to the 18th century and this fine soldier.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Sloth that I am, it’s been weeks since my last posting. However, I do have the excuse of having spent part of that time in Spain, attending a conference of belenistas, that is, Nativity Scene builders and figure makers, in Guadalajara.
During that time, we visited the cathedral, which is not in Guadalajara but in the smaller, older city of Sigüenza, about 60 km distant. And that brings us to today’s topic: Cathedrals, or Catedrales.
This is actually the title of a book that I heard about on Spanish radio and had to get as soon as I arrived in Spain. It’s by an artist/architect named Miguel Sobrino, and is an entertaining and personal but informative and knowledgeable ramble through some 23 cathedrals scattered across the “piel de toro,” aka Spain. It’s a great, big fat book with illustrations, many of them the author’s drawings, and is so hefty I was afraid my luggage was going to go into the overweight category. But I carried it on and read it happily for the 9 hour flight back to the US. It’s only in Spanish, unfortunately, but readers of Spanish will certainly enjoy it. I’ve only gotten as far as Gerona…in alphabetical order.
But back to Sigüenza and its Cathedral. Since we were a large group with a particular interest in religious art and architecture, we got the special tour with one of the canons of the Cathedral. He gave a truly excellent tour that was probably the most thorough tour of any place that I have ever had. But I emerged with a much better understanding of the theory of the cathedral building.
Sigüenza’s cathedral was started in the 12th century, right after the area was reconquered from the Muslims, and much of it is Gothic, although, like any old building, it has layers of later additions, strange gaps where things were removed, odd remodelings, and so forth. And it has lived hard: if you look at the stone around the windows in the tower in this photo, you will see the pitting left by bullets during the Spanish Civil War, when one side holed up in the Cathedral and fired, while the other side fired back from a location higher up on the hillside. A considerable amount of damage was done to the building at that time, but it has healed up in the intervening 70+ years.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Long Silence…

This has been a busy summer, and I have been sadly lax about this blog. However, I’m planning on mending my ways.  I’m going to Spain next week and hope to have interesting things to post, both on the event I’m attending (a conference on Spanish Nativity figures) and Spanish life in general.

In the meantime, here’s a photograph of members of the St Augustine Archeological Association digging in front of the 18th century Cathedral building. We told the pastor that we were looking for change dropped by parishioners as they crossed the Plaza 200 years ago, but actually, we were looking for anything that indicated how the space had been used and what had been done to it over the years.

The Plaza is situated on a relative high point in St Augustine. It was the area of a Spanish settlement in the 16th century and became the town plaza as the settlement spread out around it.  It is the oldest European archeological feature in what is now the United States.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hispanic Society

Last week I made a trip to New York City and went up to one of my favorite haunts, the Hispanic Society, on 155th Street in Upper Manhattan.  The Hispanic Society has a rather struggling air to it, and in fact I didn’t get any pictures of the building because there was scaffolding and blue tarp all around it.  This is a good thing, because it means that repairs are being made.

The Hispanic Society has been struggling ever since I first saw it, and because I grew up near that neighborhood, you can imagine how many years that means!

Located in a plaza originally intended for other museums or institutions, such as the Numismatic Society, but now virtually abandoned by the other museums and sharing its broad plaza with a small college, the Hispanic Society was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington, heir to a railroad fortune.

He fell in love with Spain at an early age and by the time he was 14 had resolved to found a museum dedicated to Spain. Fortunately, he had the money to indulge his interests, and spent years building his collection of everything Spanish – ceramics, photographs, painting, coins, etc.  He first purchased  items in Spain and then decided that taking them out of Spain was unethical, so he subsequently collected only things that were already on the international art market and outside of Spain.


He commissioned the artist Joaquín Sorolla to  paint a huge mural for the reading room, and in 1919, the artist completed the work, which we see above.  It wasn’t open to the public until 1926, 3 years after Sorolla’s death.  The murals suffered water damage over the years and were sadly in need of restoration, which was finally supplied by Bancaja, a Spanish bank headquarted in Valencia, home city of Sorolla.  The murals are currently on tour in Spain and will be back in NYC in September, reopening in January of 2010.

Archer Huntington married the sculptress Anna Hyatt in the 20s, and the Society benefitted from her work.  The plaza is surrounded by the dramatic bronze equestrian statues and marble bas-reliefs for which she was famous.  Most of these also appeared to be undergoing cleaning or were covered for some other reason, so I don’t have any photos. But this cover from one of the Society’s few publications – a pamphlet published in 1945! – will give you some idea of her work.


I was able to buy an excellent catalog by the paintings curator, Marcus Burke, published on the occasion of the Museum’s 100th anniversary. However, when I attempted to join the museum, I was told that it was impossible, I had to take the form home, fill it out and mail it in!  All it requested was my name and address and a check or $50, which I could easily have done at the desk. But the fact that the museum lets potential members of the museum friends society slip through its fingers like that is simply par for the course, I suspect.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Spanish Colonial Art in – Davenport, Iowa?

Today I took a quick trip to Orlando and stopped at one of my favorite small museums, the Menello Museum of American Art. Dedicated mostly to the work of primitive painter Earl Cunningham, of St. Augustine, it has a small gallery of other Florida folk painters and a tiny but nice bookstore; actually, it’s not a store, but just a couple of shelves. And this was where I discovered that Davenport, Iowa is host to one of the country’s finest collections of Mexican Colonial art, painted during the several hundred years that Mexico was a Spanish colony.


The museum is based on the collection of a late 19th-early 20th century collector from Iowa named C.A. Ficke.  He was born in Germany but brought to the US at the age of two and grew up in Iowa. Once he had made his fortune in land development, he became a wide-ranging collector of art, and was particularly attracted by the art of Colonial Mexico. He was advised by a Mexican scholar in the selection of the paintings, most of which were acquired from private parties (he lists sources such as “an old priest” and “the thieves’ market”). He left his collection to the City of Davenport, and it was the foundation for the collection of the future Davenport Museum of Art, now known as the Ficke Museum.

At the same time, a Missouri woman named Margaret Barber was collecting everything she laid eyes on, including “works of Spanish painters.”  She also collected furniture, needlework, pewter, porcelain, etc., etc.  In the 1950s, after her death, her collections were broken up, with the Mexican paintings going to William Wood College in Missouri. They were bought by the Davenport Museum in 1992 to add to its Mexican art collection.

This made up for the loss of some of the Ficke collection in the 1940s and 1950s, when the museum entered on hard times and actually sold some of its collection. It has recovered some of the paintings, but not all.

The collection spans hundreds of years and has some of the finest of the early Mexican painters.  The excellent catalog was prepared by Marcus Burke, curator of paintings at The Hispanic Society.  You can visit the collection at the Ficke Museum’s excellent website.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Spanish Missionaries in California

At present, I am in Monterrey, California, doing a brief tour of the Central California missions. Most of these missions were founded in the late 18th century by priests sent from Mexico City, although most of them were originally from Spain. For some reason, a large percentage came from the island of Mallorca, including Fr. Junipero Serra, founder of many missions.

Mission Carmel, or Mision San Carlos Borromeo, which I visited yesterday, was the third California mission and was founded by Fr. Serra in 1790. Born Miguel Jose Serra, he took the name Junipero - one of the earliest and humblest of St Francis' followers - when he joined the Franciscan order. He was from the city of Petra on Mallorca, and was a professor of theology and a well-known preacher in his native land before leaving for the missions at the age of 36.

He was a tireless missionary, founding numerous missions and ending up as president of the entire mission chain. Fr Serra was noted for his austere, holy life and his dramatic preaching, which sometimes included whipping himself, greatly impressed the Indian converts. I saw a stamp he had had made depicting Brother Juniper; he would stamp pieces of paper with this and give them as holy cards to the people he met. He was also very fond of reading the theologian Ramon Llull, also a Mallorcan, one of the first humanist theologians of Spain, and made sure that the Mission had a large library (large for its time, at any rate, particularly considering the hardship of getting books to Alta California).

A great lover of music, he made sure that the converts were instructed in Catholic liturgical music. He is also known to have led them in the performance of a Nativity play - the Pastorela or Pastorets - at Christmas every years. Followers of things Spanish will recall the Pastorets as a Catalan "Shepherds Play," or Nativity Play, still performed at Christmas in many areas.

Fr Serra was always in poor health and, after a life of hardship and endless travels, died at Mission Carmel at the age of 70. He was buried in the mission, although when the mission was abandoned, his burial site was lost. Finally, when restoration of the missions began, his burial place and coffin were found and he was reburied in front of the main altar. Here we see the fragments of his original coffin, in a glass case near the altar.

Fr Junipero Serra was beatified in 1987, and Pope John Paul II came to the mission and prayed before its Virgin, La Conquistadora. Fr Serra's cause is still moving ahead to canonization. Below we see a large mausoleum that was planned for Fr. Serra but never placed in the church because it was much too large for the space. It depicts Fr Serra in death, surrounded by his Franciscan brothers, who are praying for him.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Spanish Colonial Art in Denver

A trip to Denver last week provided some interesting Spanish material. The Denver Art Museum has a truly fine collection of Spanish Colonial Art, beginning in the 16th century and going all the way through to modern makers of “bultos” [statues] of “santos” in New Mexico. It is well displayed and well-curated; the information is factual and does not engage in editorial remarks on the evils of the Catholic Church, Spanish colonization, etc., which are all part of the Leyenda Negra that circulates in US academic environments.

The Spanish colonies of Mexico City, Quito and Lima, to name some particularly important ones, were busy, sophisticated cities and their residents demanded high-quality works of art for their homes and churches. Spanish artists set up workshops in these cities, training native craftsmen in European techniques. The quality was so high that there was actually an export market, with religious statuary and painting being brought into the mother country, Spain.


Here is a classic Adoration of the Shepherds, done in the 17th century by the artist Nicolás Rodríguez Juárez in Mexico. The museum’s website has a few other glimpses of items in their remarkable collection.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Visit to Peru

Cruising around the Internet looking for Nativity figures (for my other blog, Spanish Nativity), I came across something that I thought might be of interest.

The Monty Python "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" joke makes light of the Leyenda Negra that, paradoxically, encouraged by the British, portrays Spain as sunk in the terrors of the Inquisition. Acknowledging that the Inquisition may not have been the best way of handling the problems of the time and that the process was certainly used by political powers, it was no more brutal than the practices of civil law in those centuries and in fact actually had more checks and balances than ordinary civil law and was sometimes even more moderate in its punishments, treating actions as sins rather than criminal acts.

The Inquisition also went to the Spanish colonies. Here most of the persons processed by the Inquisition were Europeans or criollos, because the indigenous peoples and people of non-European descent (such as African slaves) were considered not knowledgeable enough about the Faith to be heretics. The Inquisition maintained a court in Lima, Peru, which was a very important center of law and learning in Colonial days. Now, the Peruvian government sponsors a museum devoted to the Inquisition, not only in Peru, but in other Latin American countries and, of course, in the mother country, Spain. The Museum, named the Museo de la Inquisición y del Congreso, also has a section dedicated to the Peruvian Congress and Peruvian political history.

The virtual museum is fascinating, and not only provides detailed documentary information, but interesting visuals. My favorite was the chart we see here, which shows some of the many different people who participated in a trial. The process was based on civil law proceedings of the time, and also on ecclsiastical courts. On the website, if you cursor over these figures, you will see their names - everything from the Inquisidor to the Portero - and their duties. As a Spanish translator specializing in legal matters, I was particularly interested to see that many of these figures are still with us, including the all-important Notario.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stanley Payne and Spain’s Unique Story

The last couple of weeks have been full of completely unimportant but time-consuming duties, so I’ve been neglecting Towers of Avila. But during this time, I did start a bit of reading that I thought might be of interest.

At Barajas Airport, on my return trip from Spain last December, I bought a copy of a truly excellent history of Spain, España - Una Historia Única, by Stanley Payne, the well known American historian of Spain. In Spanish, a person like this is called an hispanista, that is, a scholar of things Spanish.

Espana - Una Historia Unica

Stanley Payne is probably the most objective of the historians writing on Spain today. Most other English- language hispanistas feel the urge to begin their work by swearing allegiance to Abraham Lincoln Brigade (that group of sadly misled and exploited Communist sympathizers drawn from 1930’s left-wing American intellectuals and unionists). Payne, however, is interested in the actual history of how things came to be and why. Hugh Thomas is also good and strives for objectivity.

I’ve just started España - Una Historia Única , which of course was originally written in English. I like to read things in translation just to see how well other translators do their job! It seems like an excellent book, and it starts with a very interesting chapter on Payne’s development as an hispanista.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

3000 Years of Spanish Cooking

When I was in Spain last Christmas, my dear friends Horacio and Alicia, who know my fondness for cooking and historical food research, gave me a delightful book, 3000 Años de Cocina Española. It’s a very unusual cookbook by two women, Rosa Tovar and Monique Fuller. It was originally intended for an English-speaking readership, but it was clear that the book would be of interest to Spaniards, too, so the women collaborated on the work, which was published by Espasa in 2006.

Because of its geographical location, Spain has probably had more diverse culinary influences than most European countries. The cookbook is structured to cover “recipes” from each of these periods, although obviously, in some cases the recipes are purely speculative. We probably don’t know what the Celts ate, or even who the elusive Iberos were, let alone what they ate. But the authors have gathered recipes from old Spanish sources, such as Rupert de Nola, or even from the very earliest European recipe collections that appear among the Romans, such as Apicius’ De re coquinaria. They have grouped them historically and in an entertaining fashion; for example, there are meal suggestions for offering a dinner for a (medieval ) bishop. In case you’re interested, they think he’d like chicken soup flavored with roses and saffron, followed up by a tasty turbot in a bitter orange sauce.

3000 Years of Spanish Cooking

The book has a preface by the famous chef Ferran Adrià, and features a very lovely font and layout and some pleasing chapter art. It also has a great bibliography, for folks who are interested in food history.

And best of all, the recipes work! Many of the recipes are simply traditional regional recipes that have been modernized in terms of their quantities and techniques, and they have been carefully tested and are explained clearly. I have found that sometimes artistic, literary or historical cookbooks look great and may be entertaining to read, but the recipes are disastrous. 3000 Años de Cocina Española, however, is a successful cookbook and you will be able to whip up some historical delight from it that you will actually recognize as the thing that you had in that wonderful restaurant in … well, you’ve probably forgotten the name of the town anyway.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Holy Week and León de las Indias

Just before Easter, searching the Internet for Spanish Holy Week processions and art, I came across a great blog, El León de las Indias. The author is a young journalist named Raúl Ramírez who lives in Sevilla. Visit his blog to see some truly spectacular photos of Holy Week processions in Sevilla. Particularly beautiful are the Palm Sunday photos taken in Jerez. Raúl Ramírez is a magnificent photographer. In addition, his blog has some interesting links on the sidebars.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Felices Pascuas

I was in Charleston for Easter. This blurry photo – snatched hastily, since I was there to go to the Easter Vigil and not to take pictures! – shows the new bishop of Charleston, Bishop Robert Guglielmone, lighting the New Fire on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston, South Carolina.  Happy Easter!


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Camino de la Cruz

Trying to straighten up my office, cluttered by the remains of translations and other projects, I came across something that was perfect for this week, Holy Week.

Chapel at albergue in Ponferrada.
Last summer, I spent a few high-stress weeks as an hospitalera, basically, a guest-house attendant, in an albergue, or pilgrim hostal, on the Camino de Santiago where it passes through Ponferrada in the province of León on the edge of Galicia.  The albergue, San Nicolás de Flue, has its own chapel, a beautifully restored little stone chapel whose construction dates to the 17th century. 

Interior of Ponferrada chapel.
At evening prayers, I often found myself looking a painting on a side wall of the chapel that depicted the priest and congregation, coming back from the procession they have every year for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patroness of the chapel.  It was a very striking painting; this photo doesn’t do it justice, I’m afraid.

Painting by Gomez Domingo in chapel.
Don Antolín, the priest responsible for the chapel, told me that the painting was by an artist named Luis Gómez Domingo, who was originally from Teruel but had been living in Ponferrada for many years, teaching at the university.  Don Antolín also gave me a little booklet of a truly beautiful Camino de la Cruz (Way of the Cross) painted by Gómez Domingo in 2007 for the traveling religious art exhibit, Las Edades del Hombre.  Camino de la Cruz depicts the traditional 14 episodes in Jesus’ path to the Crucifixion, which are known to English speaking Catholics as the Stations of the Cross.


I am not sure of the size of the original paintings or even where they were exhibited. Las Edades del Hombre is an annual exhibit that is sponsored by the bishops of the dioceses of Castilla y León, and is set up in different cathedrals in that territory.  The diocese or deanery in which the exhibit is located brings out rarely seen works of art from the local churches or the diocesan treasuries, and sometimes new works, such as this one, are created.  The website of Las Edades del Hombre is quite beautiful and worth visiting.  This year’s exhibit will be in Soria from May to December.


But now let us contemplate a section of this beautiful Way of the Cross by Gómez Domingo.



Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Particularly Relevant Francisco Suarez

Anyone who has Francisco Suarezbeen following American politics in recent months has probably been alarmed by seeing the rapid advance of statism in our country, ranging from government attempts to nationalize certain industries to the aggressive attempts to impose government-ordered utilitarian morality on all citizens, controlling their every thought and action.  There has been much underground complaining about this, but many Americans are afraid to complain out loud for fear that they will be attacked by everything ranging from the media to the tax authorities.  And this made me think of the consent of the governed, which made me think of Francisco Suarez.

He was born in Granada in 1548 and studied at the university in Salamanca.  He became a member of the Jesuit order and was ordained a priest in 1572, spending most of the rest of his life as a university professor in Spain and Portugal, where he died in 1617.

He was considered a Scholastic or follower of St. Thomas Aquinas and wrote widely on philosophy and theology, but it is his legal and political writing that probably had the greatest impact, particularly his thoughts on the source of law and the consent of the governed.  Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment political thinkers are believed to have been directly or indirectly influenced by Suarez, whose writing rejecting the divine right of kings and insisting on the state and its government as human creations that depended on the consent of those subject to them was well known.  His ideas were particularly influential in the Latin American independence movements.

Reading through a summary of his thought – at what point a government can no longer be said to have the consent of the governed, for example, and what is to be done about it – I was struck by the timeliness of it. But I suppose that this is because there is, as Ecclesiastes said, nothing new under the sun. Facade of U. de Salamanca

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Día de San José

Today, the Feast of St Joseph, is a favorite feast day among Spaniards. St Joseph is also one of my favorite saints. He is often shown with carpenter's tools and one of my best memories of the day is being in Cartagena one St Joseph's Day and seeing a procession of little boys bearing silver tools - not only for carpentry, but things like shovels and axes - as they marched behind a paso bearing a figure of St Joseph.

The San José you see in this photo is a sculpture by Pedro Roldán, the 17th century sculptor who was the father of the famous court sculptor, Luisa Roldán, known as "La Roldana."

This is the feast day of people named José, Josefina, etc. You may know a Pepe - his real name, of course, is José. San José, the stepfather of Jesus, was known in the Latin Missal as the "Padre Putativo" of Jesus, and often referred to with those initials, P.P. In Spanish, this is pronounced "pe pe," hence the name, Pepe.

Buñuelos are a traditional treat for this day in Spain. In some areas, they are similar to Italian zeppole, but I like the Madrid style, the buñuelo de viento, which is also traditional at All Saints Day. It is made of a batter similar to cream puff paste, fried so that it puffs up into little balls. These are then filled with pastry cream or whipped cream and sprinkled with sugar. Yum!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Great Articles on Art in Spain

Cruising around the Internet, I happened to come across a little collection of articles in the TIMES ONLINE (the London Times' online version) about places of artistic interest in Spain. The articles are short and cover everything from the usual scene, the Prado, to smaller galleries or simply the places where Spain's artists have worked - and dined - over the centuries. Entitled Artistic Spain, the set of articles is well worth reading.

I hope to work on Towers of Avila a little more regularly now. I have been occupied with the redesign of my website, Spanish Nativity, which has taken every spare moment. But the worst is over now, and I can drop back to simply tinkering with it on an ongoing basis and get back to my other interests.

Friday, February 27, 2009

España en la Vereda

This is an excellent nature program that I found on the website of the Spanish radio station, COPE. It’s actually a production of Popular TV, and can also be seen on their website and on YouTube. Popular TV offers not only the current program, but a collection of the earlier editions of the program on its website. I recommend it highly! There are, of course, other interesting programs on the website, but this one is particularly good for people who want to learn more about Spain’s geography and natural features.

España en la Vereda is a weekly program (A “vereda” is a foot-path or byway.) The program is directed by Carlos de Prada, a well known naturalist, and has lovely photography. Each week, de Prada visits some lesser-known part of Spain and focuses on some aspect of natural or traditional life in the area. A couple of weeks ago, it was cherries in the Río Jerte valley in the province of Cáceres – and I must admit, I had never realized that Spain had a huge cherry crop that came from this area – and this week it was the palmeras (palm groves) of Elche.

The palm trees of Elche are primarily date palms, although many smaller and less spectacular species grow there. Several years ago, I visited a truly spectacular palm garden, the Huerto del Cura (literally, the Priest’s Garden). In the 19th century, it belonged to a family named Castaño, and at the beginning of the 20th century, was inherited by one of the sons, a priest named José Castaño, who began to plant exotic plants in it. It was famous for its seven-trunked palm, which can still be seen, although I’m not sure it’s the same palm tree. In the 1940s it was taken over by the Orst family, who expanded and improved it, making it a fascinating place full of different palms and exotic plants as well as statuary and fountains. The interesting website Arboles Ornamentales, dedicated to the flora of Murcia, has a page about the Huerto del Cura. The blog Granada Gardens, run by two British gardeners in Spain, also has a short post on the Huerto del Cura.
The other function of the palm trees of Elche is to produce the famous white palm branches used for Palm Sunday. Anyone who has ever been in Spain during Holy Week will remember the people – mostly from Alicante, where Elche is located, selling elaborately woven palm leaves or simply long frondy white palm branches. The palms are white because the top branches of the trees are wrapped in plastic bags during the early part of the year so that photosynthesis cannot occur, thus yielding lovely white or cream-colored palm branches that are still soft enough for weaving.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Spanish Fragments on St George Street

As everybody knows, St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, having been founded by the Spanish in 1565. Little remains of the original Spanish city, of course; between pirate attacks, hurricanes, attacks from the British colonists in South Carolina and Georgia and everyday fires and termites, the city of the first couple of centuries is long gone and detectable only to archeologists.

Some 18th century buildings or at least parts of them remain, and the locations of all the earlier buildings are known and in many cases there are traces of their foundations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the city began a project to “recreate” some of the Spanish areas, particularly St. George Street, which had been the main drag. Some of the buildings were recreated from drawings or 19th century photos, others were rebuilt on their old foundations, and others had their remaining authentic Spanish era features – parts of walls, generally – incorporated into recreated but essentially new buildings.

Now, of course, it’s become a gauntlet of tourist traps and tee-shirt shops, with a few decent shops squeezed in between.
It has a couple of attractive features, though. One is a little park, the Hispanic Garden, created in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it’s never open to the public, allegedly because the city had trouble a few years ago with vagrants attempting to take up residence there. This is a pity, because right in the middle of the park is a charming small statue by Anna Hyatt Huntington. It shows Isabel I of Spain, Isabel la Católica, being led on a mule as she travels through Spain.
Anna Hyatt Huntington was a well known sculptor when she married Archer Huntington, who in addition to being fantastically wealthy, was another Hispanista or Hispanophile, and created the Hispanic Society in New York City. His wife did the imposing equestrian statues on the plaza outside the building. And she did this little tiny equestrian statue in our park.

This was not a great day to take a photo of the statue because the gardeners who are preparing the park for spring had left a hose draped over the figure. But this will give you an idea of it and I’ll try to get a better photo when the planting season is over.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Church and State

The relationship between the Church and the State in Spain has always been a little on the rocky side. Sometimes the Church was only too willing to cooperate with the State and be used by it to extend State power; sometimes the State turned on the Church and made it the scapegoat for all of Spain’s other problems. The 19th century was famous for the desamortización of Mendizábal, that is, the disentailment/expropriation, when most of the land belonging to religious houses and, eventually, even clergy was seized by the government and sold to already wealthy landowners who were political friends.

Education was frequently a point of conflict, particularly in the 19th century, with the advent of government sponsored schools. And education is still a point of conflict.

Currently, the Spanish government has a controversial civics program that it has introduced into all public schools as well as the “colegios concertados” (semi-private, somewhat like an American “charter school”) and even Catholic schools. Called “Educación para la Ciudadanía”or EpC, it is basically a compendium of the liberal positions of the Socialist government that many Catholic parents find unacceptable, particularly where it deals with sexual matters. Parents have asked for the right to exempt their children from these classes, but a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision ruled against them.
Spain does not have a long tradition of resistance to authority but this issue has actually spurred some action, as parents insist that they will keep their children out of these classes. Here’s a video made by a group of families in response to the court decision: For those who don’t speak Spanish, basically they are saying that they will continue to resist.

There are other citizens’ groups, such as Hazte Oir (Make Yourself Heard) (, which started primarily with pro-life activities. Hazte Oir and other groups have organized huge public demonstrations in Spain, although they are rarely given much coverage by the country’s major newspapers, with the exception of ABC and La Razón. And as usual, there are some clergy – the so-called progres­ or progresistas, who are on the side of the State, while others, including the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, have found themselves in opposition to the State. It’s very similar to the US situation, but it’s a new experience for many Spaniards.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Walking to Jerusalem

What am I reading now? A great account of a pilgrimage from Madrid to Jerusalem. The book El Camino del Alma (Andando a Jerusalén) (The Way of the Soul (Walking to Jerusalem)) was published in late 2008 and tells the story of the pilgrimage made by its author, Miguel Angel Gimeno, and a friend, Kiko Fernández, to Jerusalem. The men had done the Camino de Santiago together a few years earlier and decided to try for Jerusalem, one of the traditional 3 great pilgrimages (Santiago, Rome and Jerusalem).

It’s a difficult pilgrimage because there is no clearly defined route and, of course, no albergues (pilgrim lodgings) or pilgrimage infrastructure. In addition, they decided to do it by appealing to people’s better nature for lodging and food, While they received some assistance from friends and the Spanish companies DATISA (information services) and Colonel Tapioca (hiking and expedition clothing and supplies), it was still considerably more demanding on many levels than the average pilgrimage to Santiago in this century, particularly because they were often regarded as wandering derelicts looking for handouts.

In any case, I’ve been reading it in little bits at a time, so they’ve only gotten into Italy and I have about 2/3 of the book ahead of me (it’s a big book). But it’s very entertaining reading. Somehow, despite doing what seems to be an average of 40 km per day, they seem to have found time to write every night, sp the accounts of the day’s events are fresh and lively. If you’ve done a pilgrimage, you’ll love this; even if you haven’t, you’ll love reading about their encounters with hostile village priests, nice village priests, grifters, drifters and holy men and women.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The View From The Wall

Two years ago, I was standing on the wall, the muralla, that surrounds the old town of Ávila. It is a high point; the town is about 3000 feet in elevation on the high plain. From the wall, you can see the surrounding lower hills, brown and grassless in the summer sun, rough but not particularly menacing. To the southwest lies Extremadura; to the northeast, the rest of Castilla. Yet I imagined St. Teresa or her brother, standing on the wall or even slipping outside of the town, as they were known to have done, and seeing danger.

Spain was not at peace those hundreds of years ago, and Spain has often not been at peace. The 88 towers of the city wall of Ávila were not built as a mere ornamental detail, but were for defensive purposes. Even during the childhood of Sta Teresa, who was born in 1515, the possibility of Muslim attacks was very real. In fact, this was one of the things that made St Teresa long to be a missionary when she was a little girl, setting her dreaming of a life of travel and travail and risk. While she did indeed achieve the latter, it wasn't exactly the way she had expected!

But like any modern city, Ávila is a place where it is hard to imagine that it ever existed as other than what it is now. Ávila is a provincial capital, home of Spain's National Police Academy, a quiet place mostly dedicated to Teresa-themed tourism and the sale of yemas, a traditional local candy made of egg yolk and sugar. But like every place in Spain, it has layers and layers of history, of poetry, of art, of drama, of battles lost and won, of preaching, of saints, of good rulers and evil rulers - in short, it is a small distillation of Peninsula history.

Spain has always been a place where peoples have transited through, some on their way to the Europe on the other side of the Pyrenees and, eventually, some on their way to the New World. And I am adding to this the travels of a lone American as she wanders back and forth across this piel de toro, or bull hide, as the Spanish describe it because of its shape.

I am a Spanish translator and have spent years traveling to Spain. I go to Spain every year, as often as possible, and I have been to the usual places and to truly remote and little known places, eaten remarkable foods, seen great art and walked through many back roads. I look forward to many more years of doing so, because Spain is so inexhaustibly interesting.

So this blog will be my small attempt to share a bit of my travels with other people who love Spain or perhaps will come to love Spain. I'll post photographs, commentary and links. Towers of Avila will reflect some of my other interests, too, of course, such as art, Catholicism, poetry, and - last but hardly least! - food.

Seated here in St Augustine, Florida, on a rainy early spring afternoon, I am seeing in my mind that dusty, sometimes harsh, beautiful land across the sea; I am standing on the wall, and I hope you will be able to see Spain through my eyes.