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.