Sunday, October 23, 2005

Segovia, Avila and a Salamanca Spectacle

Wonderful day.

After forgoing last week’s Saturday excursion to the countryside, I had tried to book a place on today’s outing to Segovia and Avila. Thwarted in my attempts to make a booking, the bus was already full before I found someone. So I elected to drive, and take Bondi along for the day.

Leaving just after 10, with a near 2 hour drive ahead of us, and cafes yet to open, I spied a drive-thru MacDonalds on the way out of Salamanca… and, it’s been thoroughly iberianised – not open, no breakfast menu, no coffee, nada.
Castillian countryside
Back on the road again, there’s not much to see until I reach the province of Segovia, some hour or so later. There, the landscape rolls gently under the long low clouds, as if powdery skeletal fingers were tracing out their own journey over a gigantic map. As we got closer to the city itself, the adjacent mountains were more densely covered in clouds, following the earthly contours in a shroud that might hide more nebulous appendages.
segovia cathedral
Then, the city itself is visible, the details of its profile rounded by centuries of Moorish influence. Not 15 minutes later, I’ve parked and we’ve made our way up to the plaza mayor, and the gates of the 500yr-old cathedral. Inside, it’s the familiar vaulted ceilings of England and France, but cleaner, airier and brightened considerably by the wealth of silver and gold brought from the New World. The inside perimeter of the nave(? I’ve forgotten my cathedral anatomy) is a ring of small chapels, individually decorated with gilt sculptures, tapestries and portraiture (no photos sorry). In one I spy what I think may be the earlier known speech-balloon in medieval religious art, two words spoken from saint to angel, an invocation in unencapsulated but reversed text. The central cloisters (photos allowed) lead off to rooms filled with more treasures and idols (no photos again).

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In a nearby tower gallery, I visit an exhibition of works by cubist/surrealist painter & sculptor Eugenio Granell (1912-2001). Stopping for lunch, I find a table of students from my college analysing the Spanish way of life. I find that my own experiences to date are not unique, and others are a little frustrated by Salamanca. I’m called on to tell the story of how my dog got to accompany me, and thence how the car accompanied me from Australia*, and so also, my road travels on the “short” route from London-Salamanca via Calais, Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Lucerne, Genoa and Nice. All, I explain (quite straight-faced), because I couldn’t understand the French words for “take the next right” at Calais.

[* In my first week at school, I had told one of the Dutch students that I had my dog and car with me. Mishearing this, he had passed on the strange news that the Aussie guy was travelling with his dog and cat. I took the opportunity to tell him that travelling with the aquarium and ant-farm was an even greater challenge.]

Mike and Bondi SegoviaDSC03104Next we make our way down to the great Martian aqueduct, straddling the city, and built by the interplanetary visitors in 3000000 BC*. There we meet more students from the college in Salamanca (who tell me there were available seats on the bus due to failed appearances). Bondi is happy to disappear, off-leash, into the crowd of touring students, as we climb the stairs by the aqueduct – provoking many ¿WTF? looks from passers-by – and then headed back past the cathedral to the great fort sitting atop a tor next to the city plateau.

(* editorial note from 2012: no one has ever commented on this.sigh )

This gran casa afford spectacular views back to the city and cathedral – particularly from the tower, 152 narrow spiralling steps skyward – and also houses many riches, extraordinarily ornate ceilings, and fine museum displays. Outside the temporary Alaskan monument happily poses for snaps with hordes of travellers.
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It’s started to rain, but we drive on to Avila, 60km Salamanca-wards. The other students said there wasn’t a great deal to see there – relative to Salamanca and Segovia - and they were pretty correct. Unlike the yellow stones of these other cities, Avila is mainly grey, with some buildings looking more like they’re of cinder-block construction. World Heritage-listed cinder-block nonetheless. Today it appears there’s a Festival of Annoying Children, and while it would have been satisfying to stay around for the mass-drowning or whatever caps it off, we seek refuge in an Italian café. I’m hankering for a nice spag bog, but they’re out of spaghetti (is this the third pasta joint I’ve been to recently that’s out of their primary ingredient?) so I have to settle for a Pesto Ravioli. While green, it offers only a distant reminder of the taste of basil, so I seek solace in my hot white chocolate, and my book. Like Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, Foer’s Everything was Illuminated provides laugh-out loud writing mixed with intensely moving situations. There’s also much to reflect upon:
Her life was an urgent, desperate struggle to justify her life. She learned impossibly difficult songs on her violin, songs outside of what she thought she could know…She spent evenings with the art books...and each morning sulked over breakfast, They were good and fine, but not beautiful. No, not if I’m being honest with myself. They are only the best of what exists.
I’m reminded often of one of my very favourite authors, Mark Helprin, whose writing has a similar energy, in both his short stories and long novels like Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War.

Bondi, meanwhile, is flaked out on the floor beside me. A child drops a biscuit to the floor, and Bondi dies the death of a thousand unattainable crumbs as it is crushed beneath a succession of boots marching for the door.
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On the outskirts of Avila, I finally get my photo moments, looking back to the city walls.
Bondi at Avila
Segovia & AvilaThe drive back to Salamanca is accompanied by constant heavy rain, but it’s comforting in that rainy-day way when you have the right music. This time it’s Martin Desrée’s Psaumes, a Latin and French setting of religious texts, with violins, oud, winds and synths (CD bought on a chance in Segovia), and Nino Rota’s suites for the films La Strada and The Leopard.

A “spectacle” has been announced for 10pm in the Salamanca Plaza Mayor, as part of the cultural festival to celebrate its 250 years. A crowd has gathered, although far from what could be accommodated, probably because of the rain, and I’ve taken my place with a mind to a good view of the clock-tower and hot-air balloons positioned around the square. The rain-gods are hungry, and their umbrella-wielding priests and priestesses are out to collect some sacrificial eyeballs from the throng. At 5 minutes to ten, the gentle drizzle has come to a halt: a good omen. A voice (the mayor?) announces the program: I detect that its theme is a baroque fantasy, and the performers are an Italian group, who have designed this as a unique event.

At 10pm, the top windows of the “main” face of the Plaza Mayor encircling building – to the north, below the clock - have lit up, with human figures in courtly dress posed one to a window. The music – a pseudo-baroque quasi-operatic confection of Cirque du Soleil electrified lute tossed with Rondo Veneziano and Handel – begins. The figures in the windows begin to strike a series of poses, like a gigantic mechanical clock. I think a little of the Salzburg clock, that my father and I used to visit at Sydney’s old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, before it became the Powerhouse.

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After 10 minutes of Venetian voguing, aerial performers appear on high-wires strung diagonally across the square. Dressed in flowing dancing gowns, the women tumble and turn, drawn across the square by tow-wires held by men on the ground. Then from the largest entrance to the square, two large translucent balls roll in amongst the crowd. Lit from within, a single tumbler somersaults and capers behind the onion-skin. Next up, two water jets spray a fan of droplets upwards, onto which is back-projected a series of famous Spanish postcards, with the water occasionally turned off so that the picture is left to slowly dissipate with the mist of air-borne water droplets.


Finally, the big set-piece begins. Several hot air balloons bearing more aerialists light up from inside and take to the air, guided by more men on the ground. Both wired and airborne aerialists process above and around the square, with accompanying lights. Despite the kitschy music, it really is a spectacle: the performers are moving not too far over my head at times, and when the balloons pass close to each other, it does seem as if the planets partaking in a masque ball, following Ptolemy’s rules of the dance.

45 minutes later, I’m taking my last pictures and video sequences as the final balloon returns to earth and the camera is full. I am sated.

Today I’ve had some of the best that exists.

They made for themselves a sanctuary…a habitat completely unlike the rest of the world. No hateful words were ever spoken, and no hands raised. But more than that, no unloving words were ever spoken, and everything was held up as another small piece of proof that it can be this way, it doesn’t have to be that way; if there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler’s felt so that we should never hear it. [JS Foer, Everything was Illuminated]

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