The Cathedral of Chartres

The Cathedral of Chartres

Europe is full of cathedrals. Some people weary of them quickly. After all, you get the basic idea after a couple visits: In front there is an impressive façade, with several magnificent doors; then the inside is composed of a nave and the two aisles that lead to the main altar; and of course you have the choir, the transept, and all the little chapels on the periphery. It is the same layout every time, with only minor exceptions and variations. And, of course, the artistic styles are fairly uniform, too. There are the Romanesque and the Gothic styles, and all of the standard tropes of Christianity: Jesus, Mary, the prophets, the evangelists, and all the various angels and saints. 

But there are those, such as myself, who only grow more fascinated the more cathedrals they see. In fact, I think that it is only possible to appreciate a cathedral once you have acquired a certain background. Even if styles are fairly uniform across Europe, the level of execution certainly is not; and it takes some experience to tell the difference. But cathedrals are more than mere exercises in art, of course. They represent the greatest monuments of Europe’s most deeply spiritual age. Each one is suffused with a sensibility that is almost entirely foreign to the modern world: a pervading sense of the nothingness of this life in comparison with the life to come. Unlike the palace of Versailles—a building devoted to earthly power and splendor—a cathedral uses earthly art to evoke something otherworldly. Thus, while I find the effect of most palaces to be rather deadening, I always find a visit to a cathedral uplifting. Nowhere is this more the case than at Chartres.

Chartres is a fair-sized town in the vicinity of Paris. Trains leave several times a day from the the capital’s Montparnasse station, and the ride takes a little over an hour. For whatever reason, I had to struggle with the ticket machine, which did not seem to wish to give me a ticket. My uncle told me that he also needed help buying a ticket to Chartres, but none of the French people could understand him when he said “Chartres.” (I had the exact same situation with my Airbnb host. French people can be very particular when it comes to pronunciation. And “Chartres” is not easy to say correctly.) In any case, all of us ended up getting to the city in time.

Though doubtless once a beautiful medieval town, most of Chartres was sadly destroyed during the Second World War. The cathedral’s survival and preservation is little short of miraculous, considering the circumstances. Even if most of Chartres’s medieval architecture was burned or blown away, the town still has a robust memory of their heritage. When I arrived the people were having their annual medieval festival. There were archery contests, parades of drummers and flag-twirlers, a concert of period music, and even obstacle courses for the children. All the vendors were dressed in the appropriate medieval rags and caps. It was a lovely time.

But unfortunately my train tickets did not leave me with much time to appreciate the life of the town. I wanted to spend as much time in the cathedral as possible. My hope was to get a tour from the great Malcolm Miller, a famous scholar of the cathedral who has been giving tours since the late 50s, but that was not to be. When I walked in the cathedral, I had just missed an assembling tour group (not with him), and I decided to settle on the standard audioguide.

I am getting ahead of myself, however. First I should describe the cathedral’s distinctive profile. Chartres is immediately recognizable for its two non-matching towers. The north tower (on the left, facing the building) is quite notably taller than the south tower; and its style is also quite different. This is because a fire necessitated the rebuilding of the north tower, which was completed in the early 1500s. Stylistically, then, it is more recent, partaking of the flamboyant gothic. While superficially more resplendent, it is actually the less interesting of the two towers, as it is rather like that of many other cathedrals. The right tower, on the other hand, is an architectural marvel in its own right. It features a sloping octagonal stone spire, constructed without any interior framework to hold it up. This is quite an amazing feat, when you consider that it was completed in 1150. Even now, there is not a bigger stone spire anywhere.

The first impression, upon walking into the cathedral, is rather stark. Compared with the great Spanish cathedrals—Toledo, Seville, or Santiago—the cathedral of Chartres can seem, at first glance, disappointingly empty. Toledo’s cathedral, for example, is stuffed to the brim with every sort of artwork. The cathedral also lacks the ostentatious splendor of so many Italian churches—shimmering with color and gold. Chartres’ appeal is quite different. It is the beauty of form, line, and light. It is the architecture of purity. The walls, arches, and vaults are arranged with such exactitude that the final effect is like that of a brilliant mathematical proof: the manifestation of divine logic.

Admittedly, this sensation of purity is partly a result of a thorough cleaning that the cathedral underwent about ten years ago. Centuries of soot had accumulated on its walls, turning them a dusky gray. During the restoration, the walls and even the statues were cleaned, making everything appear an ethereal white. This cleaning was not without its controversy. Part of the romance of visiting old buildings, after all, is the overpowering sensation of age, the palpable weight of time. Making the buildings look as good as new does radically alter the effect. However, the decision was defended as being necessary to the building’s preservation. For my part, the restoration did bring out the extreme lightness of the structure.

The audio guide first asks you to step back outside to examine the front portal. As with so many cathedrals, it consists of three doorways—one large one in the center, flanked by two smaller ones—lushly decorated with biblical figures. Appropriately enough, Christ sits enthroned in the center of the affair, surrounded by representations of the four evangelists. The most charming sculptures are not in the tympanums above the doors, however, but in the jambs separating the doorways. These elongated men and women are some of the sculptural masterpieces of the gothic age: they possess a certain majesty, mixed with a naive charm that I find difficult to describe. Even the decorative carvings between the human figures are varied and beautiful.

It is worth taking a closer look at these sculptures to spot the tiny personifications of the seven liberal arts (the trivium with the quadrivium). This marks the epoch when Chartres was at the forefront of European intellectual life. Before the time of universities, cathedrals were major intellectual centers; and the School of Chartres played a major role in shaping the scholastic thought that would dominate the European mind for centuries. The School of Chartres was distinct for its great emphasis on natural science, which was not always highly valued at the time. Indeed, you can see the scholars’ interest in both science and antiquity in one tiny figure, believed to represent the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. As Lawrence M. Principe said in his history of science, the middle ages are unfairly maligned as benighted. 

Notice the personification of the liberal arts in the lower corners.

As soon as you walk inside, you must turn your attention to the windows. The stained-glass windows of Chartres are simply extraordinary. The quality of craftsmanship and art is excellent; and there is just so much of it. Normally, only a few windows receive the lavish treatment of elaborate pictorial representations, the rest being taken up with basic patterns. Not in Chartres: every window is bursting with detail. Describing even a fraction of these windows would be an enormous task. The audio guide had me walk around the entire length of the building, pausing before each set of windows, pointing out the most distinctive features. Each one merited close examination; but there are so many that you must budget your time and energy.

Some windows deserve special mention. The three rose windows—enormous circular panels above the three entrances—are magnificent, if difficult to see in detail from the ground. Indeed, many of the panels contain so many scenes—such as the Life of Christ, or the entire genealogy of Mary—that they overwhelm the viewer with information. One exception to this is the so-called Blue Virgin, a large representation of the Virgin with the Christ child. It is a wonderful piece of work, with Mary enshrouded in a glowing blue robe, while angels fly all about her. Though a difficult and expensive medium, Chartres shows that stained glass is quite the equal of painting or sculpture in its power.

My favorite windows were those around the aisles. These features several different panels, typically with a Biblical story occupying the main panel, with secondary scenes in the periphery. Curiously, many of these windows show craftsmen and laborers of different professions in the lower panel, such as shoemakers or blacksmiths. This is unusual in gothic art, and the guide explained that it was because the local guilds financed the windows. Recent research has thrown doubt upon this explanation, however, since it is unlikely that the guilds had nearly enough money. These scenes were perhaps included more as a gesture on behalf of the church, as a way of symbolizing its universal nature. Either way, it does give the cathedral a curiously democratic aspect.

Notice the craftsman on the bottom.

The windows deserve far more attention than this. But I will let the images do the talking. Let us move on. 

Chartres’s main altar would be glorious in another setting, but it seems somewhat out of place in the heavily gothic atmosphere of Chartres. It is an ornate, neoclassical sculpture in white marble of the assumption of Mary. It is clearly the work of a different age: the figures are carefully realistic and engaged in a dramatic action. The choir stall is another product of a later age (having been made in the 16th to 18th century), but it fits the aesthetic of the church rather better. It is beautifully carved with an endless number of details, providing a sculptural counterpoint to the complex windows above.

One of Chartres’s most recognizable features is the labyrinth. This takes the form of a circle, with one single path running from the beginning to the end point. It is meant as a symbol of the Christian’s path from sin to salvation, one long, winding road from the periphery to the center, a kind of miniature pilgrimage. (And the cathedral is, of course, part of the network of pilgrimage paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.) Simply as a design the labyrinth is quite lovely; and the more one examines it, the longer it seems. I wonder how long it would take to walk the entire distance.

The last stops on my visit were the north and south portals. The first is dedicated to the Virgin and the second to Christ’s crucifiction. In another context, virtually all of the sculptures in both doorways would be considered masterful by itself; in Chartres they are further extensions of the cathedral’s majesty. I was particularly taken with a group of Christian martyrs in the south portal, each of them holding a symbol of their identity. (I could not hope to identify the vast majority.) Though rather stiff by the standards of Renaissance sculpture, the bodies have a certain tension and dynamism, as if they are all on the lookout, that I found very appealing.

Thus concluded my audioguide’s visit to Chartres. Aware of the cathedral’s reputation, I was fully prepared to be awed; and I was not disappointed. But there were still a few delights in store for me. Right as I was about to walk out of the cathedral for the last time, a man began to give a lecture on organ music. He was seated high up above, in front of the keyboard, and speaking to an audience via a microphone; his image was projected onto a screen. I could not understand anything he said, since it was French, but it was obvious that he was giving some sort of a lecture on organ music, since every now and then he would demonstrate his point by playing the organ. It sounded fantastic. There are few more powerful feelings than hearing the ancient pipes of an organ resounding through the cavernous cathedral.

As I emerged onto the street, I was treated to another kind of music. Set up right in front of the cathedral, a group of four men were performing medieval songs on period instruments—simple jigs, mostly, with bouncing rhythms. It was quite a contrast to the somber and magnificent sound of the organ from a moment ago; yet it was a charming way to leave the atmosphere of the cathedral. Cathedrals exist to touch us in special moments, when we are able to see our own lives as very small in relation to something enormous that is above and all around us. This feeling engenders a sense of calm and even of detachment. Yet we cannot live our lives this way. We need rhythm, emotion, passion, too, if we want the full range of the human experience. The fullest life of all will contain moments of both passion and calm. And this is just what I experienced during my visit to Chartres

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Images of Santiago de Compostela

Images of Santiago de Compostela

This academic year I have taken two trips to Santiago de Compostela, one in December and one during Holy Week in April. The first time did not go well. I arrived with an upset stomach, which quickly escalated to full-blown food poisoning. Unfortunately my Airbnb was in Ourense so I was stuck there until our return train in the evening. It was a mediocre day.

But my recent trip was much more enjoyable. We took the night bus up from Madrid, which leaves at 12:30 at night and arrives at 9:00 the next morning. This is no comfortable way to travel. But it did give us an opportunity to see an Easter procession.

To an American, a Spanish Easter procession initially presents a frightening aspect, since the hoods strongly resemble those worn by the Ku Klux Klan (the Klan took it from the Spanish and not vice versa). But once this initial shock passes, the viewer is presented with an impressive religious spectacle. The hooded figures carry floats with religious figures on their shoulders, marching in unison, pounding walking sticks in a jarring metallic march. A band walks behind them, at times playing mournful and discordant tunes on their trumpets.

The elaborate doorway of the Monastery of San Martín Pinario can be seen in the background
The walking sticks have notches, so that they can be used to support the float when they stop walking
The procession entering the Praza de Quintana for a Good Friday ceremony
The float makes its way down the stairs

No trip to Santiago is complete without a trip to the cathedral. Though I had been to Santiago several times before, December was the first time that I had seen the cathedral without scaffolding. The authorities are engaged in a years-long restoration effort, so that much of the cathedral’s famous façade had been covered up in previous years.

As good as new.
St. James the pilgrim: A detail from another façade

The Pórtico de la Gloria was still undergoing reparations when I visited last December. So it was a relief when, this April, I was finally able to see the iconic doorway. In the past you could just walk into the cathedral and examine the statues for free. But now go through a special entrance, pay a modest fee, and go with a guided tour. And no photographs are allowed.

The money and the trouble are, however, entirely worth it if you enjoy medieval art. For the Pórtico de la Gloria is one of the finest pieces of medieval sculpture that I have ever seen.

An image in the public domain. Recent restoration work has recovered much of the original pigment.

Unfortunately, neither of my two recent trips to Santiago allowed me to see the famous Botafumeiro. This is the immense incensor that the priests swing from the ceilings of the cathedral. I went to a mass in December, on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, thinking that such a special religious holiday would merit the use of the incensor. But no luck. I sat through the entire mass clutching my stomach, dizzy from the pain, only to walk out disappointed.

I thought that I would have another opportunity during Holy Week. But, again, I had bad luck. Though restoration work is finished outside, now the inside of the cathedral is covered in tarps and scaffolds. There will be no mass held inside the building until 2021, or so I was informed.

We did, however, visit the Cathedral Museum. This is surprisingly large, and contains two of the Botafumeiro incensors, as well as many works of religious art. I was also surprised to find a few tapestries based on Goya’s designs. But the best part of the visit may be the view of the Praza do Obradoiro, the grand square where the Camino de Santiago ends. As on any other day of the year, the square was full of supine pilgrims, resting after a long journey.

One of my favorite places to visit in the city is the Museo do Pobo Galego, or the Museum of the Galician People. It is a fascinating ethnographic exhibit on the traditional lifeways of the region, housed in an old monastery.

The Museum Entrance
Some traditional carnival costumes
The famous double-helix staircase of the museum

Behind the museum is the Parque de Bonaval, one of my favorite parks in the city. Since this used to be the grounds of a church and a monastery, it is unsurprisingly that grave plots remain, though I am unsure if they still contain bodies.

At the top of the park’s hill the visitor can also find an excellent view of the surroundings of the city.

Notice the arch of the futuristic cultural center in the distance

Another excellent park is the Parque Alameda in the center of the city. It captures the bucolic charm of the Galician forests.

Best of all, this park offers an iconic view of the city and its cathedral. I took two shots with my new camera, one in winter and one in spring.

The view on a December morning
The view on an April afternoon

Flight to Mallorca

Flight to Mallorca

“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”

She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.

Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca beforehand. We had booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.

The long, early-morning hours between our arrival and our flight passed slowly and uneventfully, except for the loud, angry outburst of a passenger who was told that he bag was too big to carry-on, and he would have to pay to check it. Ryanair’s flight are cheap; but their fines and extra charges can be murderous.

Finally it was time for us to board. The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.

The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible.

Ryanair

The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” we said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and frightening

Now, far from foreign, the city and the landscape felt comfortingly familiar. It is amazing how fast we get used to things. Only a few months had sufficed to transform a mysterious place into a second home.

I could not get enough of the view. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles of countryside totally empty, except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is so picturesque: for a modern, industrialized country, it has retained much of its rural charm.

Another source of Spain’s natural beauty are its mountains. In minutes the plane was passing over the Madrid Sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies. I tried to read my book—James Michener’s excellent travelogue of Spain, Iberiabut the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the ride glued to the glass.

The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements, for food, perfume, and lottery tickets, clumsily delivered from a script through the low-quality intercom system. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English. I tried to block it out, but it was very distracting. Just when I began to feel very annoyed, however, we left the mainland and were flying over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. A few minutes later we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.

Mallorca (or Majorca, in English) is the largest of the four main Balearic Islands, along with Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “larger island” (Menorca is the smaller one). With a population of 401,270, Palma is both the largest city on the islands and the capital of the whole autonomous region. As its Latin name suggests, these islands were long ago the stomping ground of Romans; and the city of Palma owes its origin to that ancient civilization.

By a lucky coincidence our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at the airport at almost the same time as us, so he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport—one of the biggest in Spain—to sit on the benches in the sun outside.

As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.

Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of North America had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But in Europe the languages stretch back centuries and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana, people from Catalonia call it Catalan, and people from Mallorca call it Mallorquín, even though they differe only by few words and an accent.

Another advertisement caught my attention. It said something like: “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping native Spaniards sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Legions of northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—sick of their cold climates, move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years.

Palma de Mallorca is simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays for the infrastructure, and we get to live there.”)

Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there.

It was a marvelously sunny day. The great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat swayed in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German cyclists would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. I could well understand why the Germans moved here.

We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral. This one of the classic views of Mallorca. As you walk in from the shore you pass through the Parc de la Mar, a lovely park with large pools of crystalline water and fountains spraying aquamarine jets into the air. The sandy-shaded surface of the cathedral seems to rise out of the water, more like a tropical cliff than a medieval church.

Mallorca_Cathedral

An audioguide was included in our visit to the cathedral, and it was one of the best I’ve used. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.

The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space.” These appellations are well-deserved. Unusually, there are rose windows on both sides of the building; and the bigger of these is the largest gothic rose window in the world (13 meters in diameter, and thus about 100 square meters in area). The result is a lot of light.

The cathedral is also voluminous. Among the tallest gothic cathedrals ever built (with the eighth tallest nave in the world, at 44 meters), it stands taller than the massive Cathedral of Seville, and contains 160,000 cubic meters within its walls. And because the cathedral has no central choir (Antoni Gaudí decided to remove it while he was working on the cathedral), the interior feels far more expansive than most gothic cathedrals.

Palma_Cathedralinside

Gaudí was also responsible for the baldachin, which bears the stamp of his originality. A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling; on top are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know how they were made), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Gaudí may have been planning something more elaborate, but he quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).

To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and other episodes from the Gospels. The style is both gruesome and abstract. It is hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, since the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was an excellent work, if a bit excessive.

Our next stop was far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). The castle sitting on a big hill overlooking the whole city, about a mile from the center. In this respect the castle is like the Gibralfaro Castle in Málaga.

Mallorca_Castle

After some mucking about (a friendly British resident of the island helped us out), we arrived in the park that led up to the castle. We were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.

The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. It is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. Apparently, the castle successfully withstood two sieges, in 1343 and 1391, but was captured in 1521.

When we arrived the place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up the hill to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?

The castle itself was lovely—though, like all defensive structures, it was not especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.

The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases. This is the Museum of the City of Palma. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand anything. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient.

The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. From here you can see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind, you can see the green mountains of Tramontana. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.

Palma_City

We left and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. After eating in a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep.

§

We only had one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a small tourist town on the other side of the island.

The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself. The history of the railway goes back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride allows you to see some of Mallorca’s natural beauty.

We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. Once there we found out that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets. As you will see, this was a big mistake.

Soon  we were on board and the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks underneath made that satisfying double clacking as we slowly accelerated.

We passed buildings covered in graffiti, overgrown fields and broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.

Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the city and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. The squat, twisted forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged.

We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. On other other side we saw a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the gaping space. This was Sóller.

Soller_City

By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.

This is what the famous tram is for. The tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. We watched it go by as we ate, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tram tickets.

Soller_Tram

But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar if it was possible to walk to the coast, and he said yes, it isn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk to the port was one hour. This meant we would have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the heck?

Soon we were outside Sóller walking along a highway. Though it was February, the hot Mediterranean sun made it warm enough for t-shirts. Behind us we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Every color was intensified in the intense sunlight.

We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived.

The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a natural port: two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow opening to the ocean. On either side of the port’s mouth stood a white lighthouse. The place was a German tourist’s dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. It reminded me of Robert Hughe’s comment on Mediterranean tourism, that it has been reduced to “endless kitsch, infinitely prolonged.” Though, to be fair, it was exceedingly delightful kitsch.

Soller_Port

With the time we had, there wasn’t anything to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular.

My mind wandered until I chanced to see a small white cat. It was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. As I got closer the cat tensed its body and began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it coiled its body and sprang five feet through the air to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws it gripped the canvas covering, steadied itself, it carefully climbed underneath into the boat. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.

Soller_Port2

Shaking myself from this reverie, I checked the time. We had to go. Actually we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began.

We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?

After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. We still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside.

If you take the train to Sóller, do yourself a favor and buy the tram ticket, too.

We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.

The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, with GF asleep nearby. Once again, I was reading Michener’s travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.

Palma_Beach

North from Madrid: León

North from Madrid: León

(I have broken up my original post for ease of navigation. Click here for Gijón, and here for Oviedo.)

“See that?” D said. “That’s the Valle de los Caídos.”

D is a softspoken Spaniard who works in software development. He was our only driver, poor man, because none of us could drive a stick-shift. We were on the highway going north. D was pointing out the window at a gigantic cross in the distance; this was the famous and controversial monument erected by Franco after the Spanish Civil War: the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen.

“Anyone want a piece of avocado?” T asked.

T is a lively Russian émigré, who teaches English here. We had a very international car.

Our first stop was León because it was the closest. The drive there took about four and a half hours, which is quite a long time when you’re sitting in the back and have long legs and achy knees. I was going into my typical hibernation mode, which I use for all long car rides, when a thought popped into my head.

“Hey guys,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I forgot to bring underwear.”

“Too late now,” GF said.

“Yeah,” T said. “You’ll just have to buy some when we get there.”

I spent a few minutes panicking about whether any stores would be open; but the panic quickly passed, and within an hour I had fallen asleep, as I always do, with my head pressed against the glass.


León

I woke up. We had arrived. It was dark outside. My neck hurt the way it always does when I sleep sitting up, and my mouth was full of that disgusting taste I always get when I take a nap. D was trying to find a parking spot near our hostel. As we drove along, I looked out the window in the hopes of finding an open clothing store. There were several, and I tried to remember their location as the car went along.

T really had to go to the bathroom so D dropped us off near the entrance to go find a parking spot by himself. The hostel was confusing. We pressed the buzzer to get in and walked up the stairs to the first floor. There we found two doors, one right and one left, each with a sign on the side of it. T went to one of the doors and knocked. No answer. She knocked harder. Nothing.

“What the hell?” she said. “Does nobody work here?”

She knocked again and we waited, but the building was absolutely silent.

“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I’m calling them.”

She took out her phone and dialed the number of the hostel.

I couldn’t follow the conversation, but after a minute T went over to one of the doors and dialed a number on the keypad. The door clicked and we pushed it open.

We walked inside and found an empty hallway with several doors along the sides. Each door had a keypad on the side of it. The hostel was completely automated, apparently. Pretty cool.

Soon D arrived from parking the car.

“We need codes to get in,” T said.

D looked in his phone and found an email from the hostel. They’d sent it just two hours before. We typed in the codes and went into our rooms. But I couldn’t relax. I had to buy underwear.

“Hey, would you mind if I went to buy some underwear real quick?” I said to T.

“What, are you embarrassed if we come with you?”

“It will only take a minute,” I said. “I want to go before the stores close.”

“Okay, go, go,” T said.

GF and I walked out into the street and started looking. On the next corner was a Hiperasia. These are locally owned shops—most often owned by Chinese immigrants—that contain every variety of product you can imagine, from window fans to a white boards, from candelabras to Halloween costumes, from cigarette lighters to potted plants. These products are often of mediocre quality, but the stores are quite convenient—not only because of their variety, but also because they are open when most other stores are closed.

We walked inside.

¿Hay ropa de interior para hombres?” I asked the woman standing near the door.

From the confused look on the woman’s face I could immediately tell that she couldn’t speak Spanish. It was really weird to have the shoe on the other foot, for once.

Thankfully, I soon noticed a bunch of underwear hanging nearby. I picked two of them, paid, and went back to the hostel, where D and T were waiting for us.

“Do you guys wanna go walk around and get something to eat?” D asked.

“Sure,” we said.

The four of us went down to the street and started walking. On our walk we passed a park, where there was a small metal model of a settlement.

“This is the Roman camp,” D said to me, pointing at the model. “León was originally a camp for Roman soldiers. The name comes from the word for ‘legions’.”

(According to Wikipedia, this is true; the name comes from the old Roman name Legio. This is an interesting coincidence, since león is also the Spanish word for lion.)

After about fifteen minutes we found a restaurant and went inside. All of us ordered drinks first, to see what food would be included. Our drinks came with two small plates, one of chorizo, and one of mushrooms in a sauce made from queso de cabrales.

Queso de cabrales, or goat cheese, is a type of blue cheese that is native to Asturias (the province immediately to the north of León). I was not prepared for the flavor of this cheese. I winced as soon as it touched my tongue. It did not taste sour or rank the way some blue cheeses do, but bitter and earthy. But it wasn’t the flavor that made me wince, but something else; as soon as it touched my tongue I felt an electric shock—the flavor was intense. I did not like it very much, but everyone else loved it.

We sat there and ate and drank, all of us a bit tired. After three rounds of drinks and three rounds of tapas we’d had enough and went back to bed. I stayed up for a few hours reading Anna Karenina. Anna and Vronsky had just moved abroad to Italy where they were dallying in European art, and Tolstoy was satirizing them beautifully, with the lightest and most compassionate touch. There’s nothing like traveling with a good book.

 

§

We woke up the next day, bright and early, ready to see León.

“Did you do a new underwear dance this morning?” T asked as we met in the hall. (I hadn’t. The underwear was a little tight but still quite comfortable, in case you’re wondering.)

Our first stop was the cathedral, but on our way there we went past the Casa Botines (see above), which is one of the few architectural works by Antoni Gaudí outside of Barcelona. It was the first work of his I had ever seen, and I have to admit it looked Disneyish to me. The style is theatrical neo-gothic. All the windows and towers are designed to be narrow, sharp, and tall; and combined with the somber grey color, the building looks like it belongs on a movie set rather than a city block. The building is now the headquarters of the bank, Caja España.

Leon CathedralSoon we were standing in front of the cathedral. The building had that wonderful, foreboding grandeur of true gothic architecture. Two large towers flanked the central section with the rose window, flying buttresses extending from either side. So much mass is concentrated in the front of the building that the final effect, for me, is that the edifice looks like it is about to charge right at you when you’re standing in front of it. All of the architectural elements are pushing and pulling against one another, giving it a feeling of tension and poise.

Stained Glass Close Leon

We went in. It was quite dark inside. The walls and chapels seemed bare and unadorned—not that it mattered, since it was impossible to focus on anything but the cathedral’s stained glass windows. These must be the most beautiful in all of Spain. Standing in that dark room and looking up at the glass, with their deep greens and blues and reds, I felt strangely at peace. Looking back, I am reminded of a quote from Middlemarch:

It is strange how deeply colors seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven.

Indeed these windows were more than mere fragments of heaven, but portals letting heaven shine through into interior gloom. The building—so massive when seen from the outside—is pure air and light within. How could these medieval workmen have built such massive windows in a structure made completely of stone? It is an architectural feat so amazing that I cannot get used to it. Every wall of the cathedral glowed with dancing patterns of glimmering images. I soon gave up walking around the cathedral and just sat down on the pews, lost in silent admiration.

Stained Glass and Main Altar Leon_Fotor
The main altar with stained glass above

 

Thirty minutes passed, and we were back on the street. Suddenly the sound of drumming and singing caught my ear. I looked over and saw a procession of about a dozen strangely dressed women. Curious, I started following the little parade. The women were dressed in colorful headscarves, dresses, and black shawls. A man was beating on a little drum and all of them were singing.

“What is this?” I asked D.

“I think it’s a procession for a religious holiday celebrating women,” he said.

“Oh, neat.”

We followed the procession for a while and then cut off to visit the Plaza Mayor. There, we found a farmer’s market. Tables were set up, covered in crates of fresh vegetables. The vegetable vendors were doing good business, too; the place was buzzing. Nearby there were parked several vans, with sides that opened up to reveal red piles of meat. D and T, who love buying food from these markets, went right over to one of these meat vans.

I wasn’t particularly interested in buying anything, but the meat vendor almost convinced me. He was giving away samples left and right, giving us a taste of anything we wanted. I was chewing on some particularly good chorizo when a very short man with a big blond mustache, wearing a plastic Viking’s helmet (with the two horns) and carrying about thirty balloons, walked up and started talking with the meat vendor.

IMG_1927

Then the balloon Viking noticed a wineskin hanging from the meat van. He walked over, grabbed the wineskin, and said “¡Mira!” (look!) as he proceeded to squirt a stream of red wine into his mouth, turning his tongue blood red and leaving scarlet specks in his blonde mustache. A true viking indeed.

We had plans to see Oviedo and Gijon that same weekend, so we couldn’t stick around all day. Thus, sadly, we had to start making our way back to the hostel.

On our way, we passed by the remains of an old wall city walls, which we climbed up. These are the original Roman walls that protected the budding city. At present they delimit the outer edge of the casco viejo, or historical center.

Leon Wall

We got back to the hostel, paid the bill, and then got into the car. But we only got about a mile before we stopped to see something that caught our eye. This was the Hostal de San Marcos, a large, impressive building that was originally a convent, but has since been converted into a Parador de Turismo: a luxury hotel in an old historical building. Convento de San MarcosDespite whatever renovations the building has suffered on its insides, the exterior retains its impressive plateresque façade. Though part of the building is off limits to visitors, since that’s where the fancy guests stay, there is a church and a small museum you can visit—with a lovely gothic interior and several fine statues, not to mention a Renaissance church.

But I was most surprised to learn that this building, one of the most important Renaissance structures in Spain, was used to intern political prisoners in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, during and after the war, this noble building became a symbol of Fascist repression. Thousands of prisoners were sent here, and many were tortured and killed. This beautiful building is thus a fair summary of European history: from religious piety, to fascist brutality, to high-end luxury.

Out in front of the convent, in the middle of the massive plaza, there is a statue of a weary pilgrim, resting his bearded head against a crucifix, a reminder of the important role that the Camino de Santiago has played in its history.

Pilgrim Statue

After half an hour of peeking around, we got in the car and drove off again. This time I stayed awake, for the most part.


Addendum: I was only in the city of León a short time, and I certainly missed a lot. One thing I wish I had seen was the Interpretation Center of León’s Roman history.

But the most obvious and grave omission was the Basílica de San Isidro de León, which is considered to be one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Spain. The Royal Mausoleum is particularly noteworthy: I have heard it described as the “Sistine Chapel of the Romanesque” for its extensive, wonderful ceiling frescos. The kings buried here were not kings of Spain, but of León, which was its own small kingdom before the unification of the Spanish peninsula in the 15th century. Hopefully one day I will be able to see it for myself.

Review: Iberia

Review: Iberia

IberiaIberia by James A. Michener

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a sense no visitor can ever be adequately prepared to judge a foreign city, let alone an entire nation; the best he can do is to observe with sympathy.

Travel writing is like love poetry. All travelers and lovers are convinced that their experiences are unique, and therefore worth writing about; while in reality most travel stories and love poems express nearly the same basic sentiment, over and over, with only minor variations. Both genres are easy to write and hard to read, which is why far more travel blogs and love poems are written then read. Even brilliant writers sometimes make fools of themselves.

James Michener is not a brilliant writer, but he has done a fine job in this book. And for once in my life, I think I am actually qualified to judge, since I have been to about 80% of the major places he visited. Not only that, but I myself have written about my travels in Spain.

As I said before, Michener is not a brilliant writer; but he is a highly competent one. There are very few parts of this book that are memorably good, but very few that are memorably bad. The best thing that can be said for his prose is that you can read him for hours without getting tired or bored. The only parts that stuck out as bad were in some of his descriptions of churches. For example, I got completely lost in his description of the Toledo Cathedral, even though I’ve been to it—which is a bad sign.

His approach to travel writing is not very different from that of Bill Bryson: go someplace, find an interesting tidbit from the history, and then describe a few nice buildings or whatever. Apart from this, however, the two men are quite different. Michener is very much preoccupied with what in earlier times was called ‘culture’: painting, literature, architecture, music, and so on. Thus much of this book consists of descriptions and appraisals of Spain’s artistic and intellectual life. He covers flamenco, zarzuela, the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco, romanesque, gothic, and modernist architecture, the philosophy of Seneca, Maimonides, and Averroes, and much else.

But most of all, Michener is concerned with history. For him, Spain is a kind of window into the past, and he spends many pages on his so-called ‘speculations’. Mainly, these speculations deal with the following question: Why was Spain once so great and is now not so great? Personally, I found him to be a pretty mediocre historian, academically speaking; but he knows how to find a good story and how to tell one. And it is true that you learn quite a bit about Spain’s history in the course of this book.

Michener spent about thirty years traveling in Spain, on and off. As a result, he is able to cast a wide net, covering almost every major city in the country. Most of the chapters are centered around one city—Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Seville, Santiago, Córdoba, Toledo—but Michener inevitably ends up leaving the city and touring the surrounding areas. (The exceptions to this are his chapters on the Guadalquivir Marshes and bullfighting.) Not only that, but Michener is very digression-prone, so he will often pause to tell you some bit of history that interests him. Thus in the course of these 900 pages he travels through nearly all of the country, the only noticeable exception being the Basque Country. It is an encyclopedic travel book.

Some people have said this book is outdated. To a certain extent this is true. Michener first came to Spain as a young man, which must have been in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and then continued his visits until the books publication in 1968. Thus you obviously can’t find anything here about the great transformations and dramas of post-Franco Spain. Apart from this, however, the book has kept its relevance. Every time he visited somewhere that I had been, I found little to no discrepancy between his description and my experience. All the beautiful cathedrals and churches and plazas are still standing today, just as lovely as when Michener saw them.

The only section where the book’s age really made itself felt was in the chapter on Madrid. In one section, Michener adds excerpts from several conversations he had about what would happen when Franco died. What is most fascinating is that nobody saw what was coming. In fact, many people insisted that democracy could never work in Spain and that Juan Carlos was just a weak little boy. A mere seven years after this book’s publication, Franco would die, Juan Carlos would take over, and then the new king would effect a masterful transition from fascism to liberal democracy. Of course, Michener can’t be faulted for missing this.

I am not sure whether this book can be enjoyed by somebody who is not at least planning on visiting Spain. It’s simply too long and too detailed. For those who are planning a trip, the book can be profitably skimmed, and indeed that might be the best way to read it. But frankly this may not a great travel guide, if only because it can make you feel inadequate and envious. You see, Michener was a successful novelist with plenty of time and disposable income on his hands. As a result he went everywhere he pleased, stayed in whatever hotel he wanted, spent months driving around eating, drinking, seeing bullfights. Every time he goes to a new town the local professor comes to talk to him about the local history. He gets private tours of every monument. In short, he has many experiences that aren’t available for the rest of us.

On the whole this book is a very well-done piece of work. It is not poetic, not profound, but it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. But the book suffers from several faults. First, it is simply too big and sprawling. Michener needed a better organizing principle than “Hey, this is all the stuff I liked in Spain!” This lack of an overarching organization really wore on me by the end of the book. There are only so many buildings I can hear described in agonizing detail, there are only so many times I can hear him say “This is one of Spain’s finest plazas,” or “This was one of the best meals I had in Spain.”

This is related to another flaw. For travel not to be frivolous, I think it must change you in some way, if only subtly. Well, Michener is certainly not a superficial person, and I think he was deeply affected by Spain. Nevertheless, at times I wondered whether all this travel—all this eating and music and art loving—was just another, more sophisticated version of consumer culture. Of course this is a bigger question than this book; and in fact it can be asked about all modern travel. At what point does the itch to go to a new city and to see all the sights become just as frivolous as the itch to buy the newest iPhone? At what point does travel stop being a rewarding experience and start becoming a consumption of experience? And by the way, this question can be asked of books too, especially on Goodreads: at what point does reading stop being a form of self-learning and start being a form of conspicuous consumption? Probably there is no clear line, but in any case there were several times during the course of this book that Michener’s urge to see and know everything about Spain struck me as the urge to consume the country.

The third flaw was Michener’s preoccupation with authenticity. He often talks about finding the ‘real’ Spain, and I find this grating. He goes from place to place, finding each one more ‘authentic’ and more ‘Spanish’ than the last. I admit that I have had experiences in which I couldn’t help saying to myself “This is so incredibly Spanish.” Just the same, I am deeply suspicious about this idea of authenticity in travel. Every tourist looks for something that is unique to the area they are visiting. This unique thing—whether it’s a dish or a genre of music—becomes profitable and then becomes commodified very quickly by locals hoping to earn some money. Thus a kind of arms-race ensues, with tourists trying to find out where the locals go and locals trying to find out where the tourists go. The whole thing is silly. And the silliest part is that often the locals are not fond of the ‘authentic’ local attraction. I know Spaniards who dislike flamenco, and I’ve met Germans who insisted that the best food in Germany is Döner Kebab.

These flaws are all certainly applicable to myself. I offer them in the spirit of comradeship and not of spite. All things considered, this book is really a marvelous tour of Spain. Michener did a fine job in a difficult task. If you read it, you will learn a lot, and you’ll get many good ideas for trips too. Michener is a clear writer, a knowledgeable guide, and a genial companion. More than that, this book has a special significance for me, since we are two writers with similar experiences, similar flaws, and roughly the same interests. This book spoke to directly to me in a way that few other books have, so I am sad to be putting it down.

View all my reviews

A Trip to Toledo

A Trip to Toledo

 

“Where’s the damned gate?” I asked my friend, as we stood in the train station, bewildered, worried, looking at every sign, nervously checking the time as the appointed hour of our departure neared.

I thought it must be upstairs, since that’s where the arrow seemed to point; but my friend, more perceptive than myself, noticed that the sign said bajo on it.

“That means it’s on the ground floor,” she said.

She pointed this out while we were already on the escalator up; so after we lamely rode all the way up, and then the adjacent one all the way down, we began again to scour the ground floor for our gate.

“Maybe it’s this way?” my friend offered, pointing in the direction that most people were walking.

We joined the crowd, and found ourselves headed towards the door outside.

“No, no,” I said. “This is to exit the building.”

We returned to where we started, once more examining the sign with the ambiguous arrow. Time was running out. We’d given ourselves a good 45 minutes to get lost, and we’d used nearly all of them. Luckily, we soon noticed the (very obvious) gate entrance, where people were lining up to pass through security.

After walking through the metal detector, we walked frantically down the platform, passing car after car of the train, looking in the windows for open seats. Finally, we got to a car that was mostly empty; we hopped on, found the two nearest seats, and sat down—happy that the stress of the morning was over.

Our peace was disturbed when, just two minutes later, two very nice Spanish women politely informed us that we were sitting in their seats.

Perdone,” I said, as we got up, again confused and embarrassed, and walked away.

“I told you we shouldn’t have sat there,” I said as we recommenced our desperate search for seats. (I’d said no such thing, by the way.) “That must’ve been the reserved section!”

“Whatever.”

We went through one, then two, then three cars—all of them completely full—until finally, in an otherwise full car, there were two empty seats.

We sat down again, hoping that finally we could relax.

As I sat there, letting my breathing slow, still a bit disoriented from the activity and lack of sleep, I noticed that an elderly British couple was sitting in front of us. This would not be worth mentioning if, a moment later, a Spanish man hadn’t came up and told them that they were sitting in his seat.

“What?” said the Englishman.

“Yes, look,” the Spaniard said in English, holding up his ticket. With his finger, he pointed to two numbers on the top of the slip of paper.

“E6 and E7, car 3,” he said.

I looked up and found, to my surprise, that the seats had numbers and letters. We had assigned seats!

“Oh, terribly sorry,” the Englishman said, as he and his wife relocated to their proper seats—which, as it turned out, were right behind us.

“Quick,” I said to my friend, “the tickets!”

She pulled out the tickets from her bag, and we hastily examined them. E8 and E9, car 3. I looked up: we were sitting in our exact seats.

One thing to remember when traveling in foreign lands: even simple things can be a challenge, since here your conventional wisdom is unconventional, and your common sense far from common. This can make you come across as a fool, and feel like one, too. But you know you’re not a fool—you’re an American. And although there’s a large degree of overlap in the two categories, they aren’t exactly equal.

§

I had been urged, repeatedly and sometimes urgently, by friends and family who had been to Madrid that, once there, I shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Toledo.

Toledo is a small city, situated about 75 kilometers south of Madrid. It can be gotten to cheaply and quickly, by train in 30 minutes and by bus in an hour, making it the ideal place for day-trippers. It is a city of long history and rich culture, of fine architecture and splendid sights.

But of course I didn’t know any of this when, after much cursing and petty frustration, I booked two round-trip tickets (ida y vuelta) on the train for a Sunday trip. Really, I didn’t know anything about the place at all, other than that its cathedral was reputed to be one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

As a result, I had nothing definite in mind when I stepped off the train in Toledo, blinking in the bright sun, looking around in a befuddled daze. My ignorance didn’t bother me, however, as going places without knowing anything about them is something I tend to do. After all, I’d moved to Spain without knowing Spanish—or really anything about Spain at all except that there was bullfighting, flamenco, and an inquisition a long time ago—so why not try the same approach with Toledo?

My friend was less keen on this, though, so she went about procuring a map from the nearby tourist office—even as I insisted that it was unnecessary, since we have phones.

Yet we needed neither a map nor a phone to tell us that we’d arrived somewhere special; even the train station was lovely. In fact, it hardly seemed like a train station at all—more like a renovated relic. I know now, since I’ve looked it up, that the building was constructed in the early 20th century, and so was far from ancient. Nevertheless, the amount of effort exerted on a purely functional edifice—elaborately ornamented on the inside and outside, with finely carved wooden railings and stained-glass windows—was enough to convince me that Toledo was not an ordinary city.

Since we were traveling on the cheap, we decided not to take a cab or a bus into town, but to walk. This was, it turned out, an excellent choice, not only because of the agreeable weather, but because the approach from the station to the town took us across a bridge, spanning across a sparkling blue river, and allowed us to see the whole antique city, nestled up on a hilltop, almost as a traveler would have seen it a few hundred years ago.

I admit I indulged in a bit of romanticizing in the last paragraph; for it is impossible to forget that, however old Toledo might be, it is now the twenty-first century. Indeed, the juxtaposition between old and new was a constant refrain during our trip there. City buses crawled up twisting roads, alongside fortified walls; modern cars squeezed their way through crooked, narrow streets, forcing pedestrians to press themselves up against the sides of buildings, as if in a police line-up, to avoid getting clipped by passing side-mirrors.

To an American, at least, and I suspect to most other people, the past has a strange and eerie power, which lingers in the present like a faint, musty odor. The whole city felt old. We went through a stone gate, passing churches and abbeys, climbing up a road that had possibly been laid down before my country was a country—perhaps before my country was even a colony.

In these moments, when in the presence of something truly antique, there is a certain type of pensiveness that comes upon us, a certain reverie which, we hope, is akin to wisdom. Being in the presence of an object so much older than ourselves puts our own lives into a historic perspective. We feel ourselves, all too briefly, to be but a small and passing phenomenon in the pageant of works and deeds that came before us and will continue after us. Our problems, struggles, and triumphs are made ridiculous in the face of these accomplishments, and we are humbled.

If there is something edifying or character-building about visiting historic sites, I suspect that the above is it. The problem, however, is that these contemplative moments—when the passing years yawn open in your mind like a chasm, swallowing you up until nothing remains but mute astonishment—are cut short by all the other people there, trying to do the exact same thing.

It is one of the paradoxes of travel that, because it’s supposed to be good for you, everyone does it; and because everyone does it, it ceases to be good for you. Nothing quite ruins the romance of gazing at an old statue like two people in front of it, taking a selfie. And not only does this ruin the romance, but it makes it hard to even get a good selfie yourself.

§

The first thing I wanted to do was to visit the cathedral—since that was the only thing I knew about, anyway. I typed “Toledo Cathedral” into my phone, and was helpfully shown the way with a blue path extending from the tips of my toes to one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe. Still, we managed to take a few wrong turns (I’m not sure mapping software was built for the crooked, tightly packed, criss-crossing roads of old towns like Toledo), and, as usual, I managed to leave my friend behind a few times as I ruthlessly powerwalked in whatever direction I thought was correct.

But gothic cathedrals are notoriously hard to miss; so in just twenty-minutes time, we found ourselves gaping upward at the magnificent Catedral Primada María de Toledo. It was even more marvelous than I’d expected. It was, in fact, probably the most beautiful structure that I’d ever seen. Most conspicuous was the tremendous spire, ornamented with spikes, reaching upward like a hand grasping towards heaven.

Hypnotized, we made our way towards it (though we took a short detour to examine the metal swords on sale in a gift shop), trying to find the entrance. Our search took us past the three great doors. In typical gothic style, these were surrounded by concentric archways, which had the effect of making them seem like portals to another world.

Every corner of the façade was stuffed with bas-reliefs of religious figures; the whole building, in fact, was covered in little statues, who prayed and chanted and sang endlessly to the heavens and to the earth. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition was there, the prophets, the apostles, angels and psalmists and kings and priests and even God.

It was a very strange feeling, standing there in front of those doors; it was as if the entire cathedral was looking down at us, judging our little lives. Perhaps because there were so many human figures carved into the walls, or perhaps because the whole building, both in its large-scale design and its fine details, was redolent with symbols and tradition—for whatever reason, the cathedral did not seem in that moment to be a mere hunk of stone, but strangely alive.

But of course, I couldn’t let this feeling linger long, for I had to take pictures. This done, we kept moving, slowly circling the entire edifice, until we ended up at the tourist entrance. Strange: there was no line; only a couple employees standing in front of the open door.

“Ask him if this is for the cathedral,” I told my friend.

“¿Por el catedral?” she asked.

Sí, pero se abre a las dos,” he responded.

“It opens at two,” my friend told me.

“Damn.”

Somewhat despondently, we pulled out the tourist map (the damn thing was useful, after all) and began looking for other things to do until then. The nearest attraction was the El Greco museum, so we decided on that.

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Like most everything I encountered here, I knew almost nothing about El Greco before coming to Spain. I’d seen a few of his paintings in an art history textbook, and remembered liking them—but that’s about it. So I was understandably not very excited for the museum.

But I perked up a bit when the lady at the front desk told us it was free.

“Sweet!” I said, and in a few minutes we found ourselves standing in an old house, refurnished to give it the appearance it would’ve had during El Greco’s life.

“Imagine, El Greco, the famous painter, lived here!” I said to myself, looking around the quaint old place.

Unfortunately, I soon found out from reading a sign on the wall that he’d never lived here; in fact, his old house no longer exists. This museum was bought and built by some eccentric nobleman (if memory serves) under false pretenses, and the true state of affairs was discovered later.

Somehow, learning this made the experience considerably less cool. I’m not exactly sure why this is, mind you. Really, when you think it over, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the tourist’s search for the authentic is a bit silly.

The simple truth is that “authenticity” is not a property of objects, but of our perception of objects. Take these two scenarios: First, what if the sign told me that this was the real house, when it really wasn’t? And second, what if the sign told me that this wasn’t the real house, when it really was?

In the first scenario, I’d be thrilled; and in the second scenario, I’d be disappointed—even though the physical house would be, in both cases, identical. The simple fact is that I have no direct way of telling whether this or that particular house was the previous home to a famous Spanish Renaissance painter. My feelings of awe or anticlimax are thus pure exercises of my imagination; they are only tenuously related with the physical object. If told the house was real, I could imagine the painter himself (not that I know what he looked like) walking through these very halls; while if told the house was only a replica, these pleasant images wouldn’t spring so easily to mind. But of course, I can imagine El Greco wherever and whenever I want. And if I was a master of self-deception, maybe I could even convince myself that he’d lived in my own apartment?

To return to the museum, I wasn’t very impressed with it. Seeing old-fashioned furniture and old-fangled kitchens does not play strongly upon my passions. So I walked from room to room, my eyes passing over every surface, my mind somewhere else, until I found myself in a room filled with El Greco’s works.

My interest was piqued. Most of the paintings were individualized portraits of saints. One detail I remember in particular, which I learned from reading a caption, is that it’s a tradition in Catholic art to portray martyred saints holding the instrument with which they were killed. Thus, there were a few portraits of saints with crucifixes leaned upon them, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes, as if challenging us to equal their conviction.

But the most arresting painting of the lot was the portrait of St. Peter, teary-eyed, his hands clasped in prayer in front of his chest, beseeching heaven for forgiveness. He had just denied Christ (as in, denied he knew Christ) three times, just as Jesus prophesied, and was repenting for his cowardice.

It’s difficult to capture the feeling of standing before a great painting—especially for someone such as myself, who knows so little about art. But what I remember most are St. Peter’s eyes, sad and soft, seeming to twinkle as you looked at the portrait.

This was near the end of our walk through the museum; and soon we found ourselves, once again, standing on the streets, wondering what to do. Thankfully, it was almost two o’clock; so after eating a brief lunch—and a very early lunch, for Spaniards—we were on our way, once again, to visit one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

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The line was short, the wait was brief, the price of admission came with an audioguide; and in just a few minutes, we found ourselves standing under the vaulted ceiling of Toledo Cathedral.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. It was a scent I had experienced at least once before, at a concert in a church in New York. Perhaps this is a scent associated with all catholic places of worship—I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever the smell is, I love it. I find it intoxicating and irresistible. I know this sounds funny, but I wish my whole life smelled like this, for there is something unearthly and calming about it, as if this faint fragrance is above all of the petty concerns and vain ambitions, all of the weaknesses and frailties that beset human life. It is a smell that puts the whole cosmos in perspective. I’d buy it if I knew where to find it.

The next feeling is a vertiginous sense of height. The ceiling, made entirely of heavy stone, hovers high up above you, suspended in mid-air. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, dozens of feet up, making the top of the cathedral brighter than the bottom; it is as if heaven itself is illuminating the space. At ground level, meanwhile, the place is dusky and dim—a twilight of religious mystery. The building is just as impressive on the ears as on the eyes. Footsteps, snatches of conversation, coughs, sneezes, and whispers are all quickly picked up by the towering room, carried up to the top of the building, bounced off the walls, and returned to you as indistinct murmuring. Even your own breath seems far away.

I put on the audioguide and began the virtual tour. I’ve quickly developed a strong liking for audioguides. They are private—preserving the individual experience, and giving you the freedom to go where you please—but they also connect you intimately with your surroundings. Left to my own devices, a particular religious work of art, for example, might be wholly unintelligible; but with an expert in my ear, guiding my eye, feeding me information, a meaningless image becomes an icon, laden with symbolism. This way, I was led by my ears all through the cathedral, then into its museum, then outside into the cloister, and then back in again, learning about kings, cardinals, saints, and artists.

Perhaps this is only a modern prejudice, but I am normally tempted to say that art is a form of self-expression. Yet this definition is wholly inadequate when faced with something like the Toledo Cathedral. So many hands contributed to this building, across so many years, in so many different styles, that it’s obvious that the building is not the expression of any individual. Rather, the building seems to be the expression of an age, of a religion, of a whole people. It is a blend of sensibilities across centuries.

I can’t hope to recount all the different tombs and temples contained in that church; and besides, such a straightforward list would be dull. I will try, however, to articulate why I found my time in the cathedral so profoundly moving, even though I am not at all religious.

But what does it mean to be religious? Does it mean to believe certain dogmas and to endorse a particular mythology? A single glance at the cathedral would give you this impression. Every spare surface has been ornamented with an image from the Judeo-Christian saga. During the Middle Ages, I can imagine these pictures and sculptures being a visual Bible for the unlettered farmers who prayed here, inculcating the faith through the sight rather than words.

“Faith” and “belief” are words we often hear associated with religion. Although some church fathers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to persuade others with reason, in the church’s history tremendous clashes of power and violence were waged over doctrinal differences. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was distinct and subordinate to God the Father, came very close to being made the orthodox belief, until it was slowly beaten back by its opponents; and a war had to be waged during the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade, to wipe out a puritanical sect of Christians who had adopted a dualist view of the cosmos (i.e. holding that there was both an evil and a good force in the universe). I give these two examples only to show that, in the history of religion, or at least of Catholicism, a lot of ink and blood has been spilled to establish one belief over another.

Insofar as religion consists in holding beliefs in the supernatural, I can’t abide by it. It seems to me a violence to human reason to enforce beliefs based neither on evidence nor logic. But once the pretentions to reality of Catholic dogma are pared away, once we discredit and ignore the occult elements, what are we left with?

What remains is a complex medley of stories and rituals, myths and legends, customs and ceremonies. Without the core of belief, this remnant can perhaps be called the “shell” of the religion. For Catholicism, this shell is partly physical, partly immaterial. The intangible portion of the remainder consists of the wonderful stories—Adam and Eve, David and Samuel, Jesus and the apostles—full of drama and wit and wisdom. The material remainder consists of things like the Book of Kells, the Hagia Sophia, and of course the Toledo Cathedral.

Taken together, I’d argue that the remaining shell of the religion can be seen, not simply as an anthropological curiosity, but a tremendous work of art. The Catholic religion is like a beautiful, multi-colored tapestry, spread over the whole of human life. Or perhaps it can be better described as an aesthetic system, through which the mundane events of daily life are dramatized. The beauty often hidden in our humdrum affairs is accentuated and given meaning within this tradition. Like a painter, the myths and rituals of religion begin with something ordinary—a shopkeeper, a sunny evening in the park, a few objects sitting on a table—and transforms them into something beautiful and significant.

Of course, I can’t claim any originality for this thought; many have said this before. The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is my most direct influence in seeing religion this way. Here is a quote from his book, The Life of Reason: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.”

This is an image which has stuck with me: a flower taking nutrients from the unremarkable and ugly dirt, and turning them into a blossom of color. And is not something similar happening when, as in Catholicism, every day of the calendar year commemorates the life of a saint, whose heroic deeds are recounted in dramatic stories? Is not something similar happening when every stage of life and death is marked by a sacrament and a ritual?

These meditations filled my head as I wandered through Toledo Cathedral, gasping up at the ceiling, staring in continuous awe at the many paintings and statues and frescoes contained therein. It was an experience which, I predict, I’ll remember all my life.

§

The rest of my time in Toledo was, of course, something of an anticlimax compared to this. We visited a synagogue, used by the Sephardic Jews before they were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs. But the main impression left on me by that museum was that I would do well to read The Ornament of the World, by María Rosa Menocal, which tells the story of the brief period of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.

We also visited a temporary exhibition on torture devices, which consisted of replicas of torture devices, alongside gory descriptions of how they were used on their poor victims. The information was framed in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, when torture was used to extract confessions from accused heretics. However, I now suspect that the information presented was untrustworthy, or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, the exhibition had an iron maiden, but according to the Wikipedia article—which I trust!—there is no reliable evidence of the existence of iron maidens before 1793; and although several iron maidens are on display around the world, its unlikely that any of them were ever used. It seems to be an invention of our morbid modern imagination, rather than a condemnation of medieval times.

After this, we tried to visit the Hospital de Tavera, a medical center constructed during the Renaissance. But, unfortunately for us, the place was closed by the time we got there. Oh well.

We were out of time. The train was leaving in 25 minutes, and the station was 20 minutes away. So we powerwalked and jogged the kilometer between the town and the train station, quickly passing through the beautiful station building, presented our tickets, and boarded the train—this time, making sure to sit down in our proper seats. My friend fell asleep shortly after sitting down, and I almost did the same; in thirty minutes, we were exiting the gate which had so eluded us that morning.

“Whew, that was fun,” said my friend. “What’s next?”