- since 2011 -

Spain: art and soul

Tuesday, 9 November 2014

At the football, on the seafood, dodging conkers

In the age of Instagram have you noticed how less touchy they are about iPhone-appended idiots like us taking photos in museums and galleries? The sign here in Madrid's Museo Reina Sofia says click away to your heart's content, so long as the flash is off, and apart from one room on the second floor where it's strictly prohibited: 'Area 206 [Guernica]'.

It's crossed my mind to take a sly one of Picasso's masterpiece but what's the point when I've come all the way to see it for real, on a tear-arse visit to the Spanish capital for a football match before heading back to Barcelona by rail then Liverpool by plane. Quite a few LFC fans have had the same idea: old and young, veterans and pathfinders, Euro-virgins and post-Istanbul-ers. Some though are disembarking at Barcelona for the quaint holiday resort of Salou from where a special minibus will be making the 'two or three hour trip' (260 miles) from Shankly's Bar to the match.

Sixty minutes and counting till the train pulls out from Madrid Atocha station over the road and across the plains of Aragon-and-on-and-on to Barcelona Sants. So it's through Reina Sofia's main entrance, up the dancers to the second floor and around the maze of galleries like Usain Bolt before skidding to a halt in an ante-room with tell-tale sketches of dead horses and wailing women (Concert Square: Saturday night) until there it was, and still is: massive, unmistakable, all that grey-black-white matching the room's monochrome floortiles and igloo-shaped ceiling.

There are no chairs or benches in 206 so unless you're musuem staff like the girl on the stool with the teensiest smile for each surefire reverential gawp, you have to stand. I don't like Guernica much at all but know that's the deal: a 25ft long piece of propaganda about the terror and misery visited upon a symbolic Basque town by Hitler's Condor squadron in the Spanish Civil War; painted in the modernist manner that Franco's traditionalists feared and loathed; once seen never forgotten. Such is its notoriety it's only been in the country since 1981 and at the Reina Sofia since 1995; not so much the elephant in Spain's room as the bull with the smoking tail.

Street art in Girona, Catalonia

A few weeks before this Madrid trip I'd stopped myself taking a different kind of photo in Spain not because it was forbidden and they'd pounce if you so much as loosened a lens cap, nor that I'd come over all Kate Bush and wanted to 'share in the experience' though that wasn't far off the mark. It's just something at the time that put me off.

It was a lovely warm October day in Girona, 50 miles or so up the A7 from Barcelona. There were putative Catalan independence flags ('A NEW EUROPEAN STATE') draped from balconies and castanos de Indias (conkers) the size of cobblestones dropping in the gentle breeze onto café tabletops and owlfellas' baldy heads. I'd wandered past a surrealist mural of a man with a tree-trunk for a neck (local lad Salvador Dali retired that shirt number long ago) and what looked like an art installation of exposed steel joists between two orange buildings down a narrow street, when I happened upon a flight of old stone steps with a church at the top and a terrace halfway up strewn with tables and chairs and tourists beneath an arch leading to some private patio.

The steps were called La Pujada de Sant Domenec; apparently they're one of the most photographed parts of Girona. But there was a plaque nearby that said something about prisoners - I can't remember whether they were republican or nationalist - being marched down them to be shot, with guns not cameras. Taking a picture felt wrong, but my interest in the Civil War was piqued. Back home I dug out my copy of the seminal Hugh Thomas history book, bought 20 years ago and hardly touched till now; and in Madrid, the day before seeing Guernica, I picked up Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, which has sold half-a-million copies in Spain and investigates an apocryphal tale about a soldier who turns a blind eye to a Fascist grandee escaping through the woods from a firing squad. It turns out the novel, which flits between past and present, is set for the most part in Catalonia with a few scenes in Girona's medieval quarter including one at a place called Le Bistrot with chairs and tables on a terrace along a flight of old steps with a church, sure enough, at the top.

Seafood at Santiago's Abastos Market

Girona looked a lot like Santiago de Compostela in the opposite corner of northern Spain, where I'd been for a few days last summer: both with old-towns enclosed by medieval walls and clogged with tourists like me taking friend-boring photos. TV chef Rick Stein says the true measure of anywhere's cuisine is its food markets. Santiago's Mercado de Abastos was sensational: loaded with frozen fish and famous for its Galician empanada - a version of the Portuguese pie made from salted cod, cornmeal, onions and raisins - washed down with the local albarino wine.

Santiago has a famous cathedral, too, at the end of the Camino pilgrim route. But it doesn't have the weather - Lorca even mentioned the rain in one of his poems. He was name-checked himself in the book I took with me, James Salter's All That Is, in a bit where the hero takes his new squeeze to Spain on a sexathon. Lorca, recalls Salter, was murdered at the start of the Civil War: 'His offence was everything he had written and stood for. The destruction of the finest is natural, it confirms them. And for death, as Lorca said, there is no consolation, which is one of the beauties of life'. Who fancies a pint?

When the clouds did clear and the sun dipped past the tree-line it was a joy to watch the evening paseo of locals strolling along Santiago's modern high street away from the backpacking scruffs. The recession was still real here and writ large on shop windows: Se alquila (For rent)... Rebajadas (Reductions) hasta el 50%. With the old-town's tourist-traps carved up by Roma beggars, this was where Spain's own impoverished came: a middle-aged man sat upon a rollmat outside a vacant store, saddle-bagged bicycle behind him and cardboard message on his lap. Soy de Jaen (I am from Jaen). Sin techo (Homeless). Sin recursos (Without means). Por favor una ayuda (Please help me).

Staircase at the Museum of the Galician People

Life has always been hard in Galicia, the far-northwest where Franco was born. You can tell from Santiago's Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People) where the girl with the ocean-grey eyes on the front desk warns English-speaking visitors that everything's in the local patter only, which in these parts is more like Portuguese than Spanish. Among the exhibits: battering-ram rowing boats that must have trailed fishing-nets over monstrous Atlantic waves; crude ploughs and harrows and scale-models of stone granaries on stilts; mannequins in traditional folk costume wielding bagpipes or gaitas as they're called here. All housed over three floors in a former convent whose star attraction is a mind-bending triple-spiral staircase of which Escher would be proud. When I was there it had competition from a temporary artwork in the adjacent chapel: on its sunlit stone floor, below the slender Gothic windows of the apse that once housed the high altar, were two rows of blue-neon tubes which looked like fluorescent tank tracks. It was part of a site-specific exhibition around the city entitled On the Road which, said the brochure, commemorated the 800th anniversary of a visit by Francis of Assisi whom, it added, stood for 'human dignity in poverty' (no-brainer), 'the preservation of nature' (why the hell not), 'walking as a means to knowledge' (only in the right flip-flops) and 'the revaluation of sensible knowledge as opposed to the hegemony of purely instrumental reason' (sorry you've lost me there completely).

Art installation (left) and fountain, Santiago

Down in Madrid the official guidebook for Sofia Reina, beautifully illustrated and enlightening though it is, contains loads of cobblers like that. But I'm glad that Guernica is in Madrid not just because it draws the cool/cultural short straw compared to Barcelona but also because this was a city that withstood Franco's forces till pretty much the bitter end, in 1939.

Having been positively sultry in Barcelona the evening before, it was cold in the capital last night. A big waxing moon lit up the 80,000-capacity Bernabeu stadium where my view from the fourth tier, right on the halfway-line and high above the team dugouts and technical areas, was glorious. To the left, equally steep and behind the south goal, was a group of around 1,500 white-jerseyed socios, Real Madrid's 'singing section' - installed in place of a group of extreme right-wing supporters, the Ultras Sur, who have been expelled from the ground by the football club. On the right, occupying a two-tiered swathe behind the opposite goal, were the visiting fans, a little international brigade arrayed in red. 'NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THIS ARL BIRD' read one of the banners featuring Liverpool's famous symbol. Among the others: 'OOOHH CAMPIONE'; 'LIVERPOOL FOOTBALL CLUB YESTERDAY TODAY FOREVER'; and 'MARSH LANE'. Get on that for avant-garde, Pablo lad.

My images of Girona and Santiago de Compostela are here.

'I'm glad that Picasso's Guernica is in Madrid because the Spanish capital draws the cool/cultural short straw compared to Barcelona'


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