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Spain: Whispers from the Past by Jonathon Van Maren

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Spain: Whispers from the Past

Blooming gardens and fountains of Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos.

After a whirlwind few days in the Netherlands, where I gave five lectures on various aspects of our collective cultural decline, I decided to visit Spain with a friend and flew from Brussels to Barcelona. I took with me James Michener’s essential Iberia: Travels and Reflections in Spain (by now somewhat outdated but still very helpful) and the trusty millennial go-to, Lonely Planet’s Guidebook to Spain; I left behind Anthony Beevor’s brick-sized The Battle for Spain, which covers the Spanish Civil War in such detail that I kept getting the characters confused. From the airport, we headed straight for one of Europe’s strangest churches.

I have no expertise in architecture—my reading on the subject has been limited to Roger Scruton and Tom Wolfe’s hilarious From Bauhaus to Our House—but I know what I like. The Sagrada Familia, one of the world’s most famous basilicas, is bizarre, brutal, and brilliant—a riot of rococo and statuary rising from the centre of the city. If architecture is frozen music, then what a weird, wild song this is—it looks like something imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien. At night, the skeletal steeples thrusting skyward resemble Tolkien’s Dark Tower of Barad-dûr, but during the day, the sun coming in through the stained-glass windows turns one side of the cathedral into the sunlit fire of a forest in autumn, shimmering lava orange and red. The carvings that cover the cathedral’s exterior, depicting everything from the butchering of the Holy Innocents to the trumpeting angels heralding Christ’s birth, are just as eclectic.

Photo: Trey Ratcliff, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The Sagrada Familia is still not completed—construction began in 1882—but the cranes soaring from the cluster of towers give the project a defiant air. Most of Europe’s great cathedrals took generations to build; it appears that there are still enough Spaniards with the civilizational confidence and patience to commit to the only project of its kind that is currently ongoing. This gives the Sagrada Familia a certain vitality. The airy interior, brilliant lighting, and scores of sculptures of the flora and fauna are starkly different from the brooding, shadowy cathedrals filled with dark corners, ancient pillars, and gravestones. It is not an ecclesiastical museum standing stolidly amidst the traffic roar like the neglected churches of so many other European metropolises; it is a defiant declaration of the Catholic religion in the middle of one of the largest cities in rapidly secularizing Spain. 

Barcelona is as beautiful as they say: from the wide, leafy avenues, to the countless little cafes with canopies blasting gusts of cool mist at patrons and passersby, and squares filled with old folks relaxing and children having fun. Except for a few places in Ireland, I cannot remember seeing so many children out playing in any other major European city. There were kids playing soccer; sweaty babies napping off the heat in their strollers; and even toddlers in their birthday suits climbing into a fountain. Ping-pong tables set up and bolted down in front of ancient monuments to long-forgotten war heroes were in good use, and the crowds out and about of an evening seemed aggressively committed to relaxation. One night we walked down to the sea, and the moonlight gleaming across the Mediterranean was simply gorgeous. Many families were still out past midnight.

A flamenco troupe was performing in a square-off La Rambla near the beach. Flamenco is a centuries-old form of folk dancing originating with the gypsies, and the guidebooks insist that it is unforgettable. It is. The guitarist was talented, and the singer’s range was impressive; but when the two dancers began to hammer their heels about, the cumulative effect was a deafening roar that combined what sounded like the muezzin’s call to prayer with the running of the bulls. The female performer attempted to mask her concentration with what I assume she thought to be a sensuous expression but instead managed to look (to borrow a phrase from Wodehouse) like a sheep with a secret sorrow. The UNESCO World Heritage Foundation has declared flamenco “an intangible heritage,” and it remains intangible to me. Many others loved it, some so much that they deemed to watch the entire performance through their iPhones in order to enjoy the experience in private later rather than with a gathered crowd. 

In Toledo it was over 40 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt a tourist into the cobblestones. We started with a cold drink in the Plaza de Zocodover, where Toledo’s Tuesday market was held from 1465 into the 1960s. Not so long ago, people gathered here to watch bullfights; before that, to torch heretics and watch them burn. On Spain’s mandatory Catholicism I cast the cold eye of a Dutch Calvinist; my primary education in Spanish history cast them as villains, which is natural when you attend a school where you learn the Dutch national anthem and a portrait of William of Orange hangs in the front hall. (I find one’s religious affiliation can generally be determined by their view of the wreck of the Spanish Armada.) Even Don John of Austria, the hero of Lepanto, has a nasty Dutch post-script—after halting the advance of the Moors, he was sent to the Lowlands to suppress the Protestants. He died there instead, and his reputation as a war hero was such that his body was cut into four pieces, pickled in large jars, and smuggled across the Pyrenees before being sewn back together in order to ensure that Spain’s enemies were not emboldened by his passing.

“John the Baptist” or “John in the Wilderness” (ca. 1598), a 169 x 112 cm oil on canvas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).

The high ground of Toledo, hemmed in by ancient stone walls, has been occupied by all sorts over the centuries: the Celtiberians, the Romans, the Germanics, the Visigoths, Muslims, and Spaniards. All left their mark. Like everywhere else in Europe, there are a few remaining traces of the Pax Romana. The Visigoths left little that one can see, but the Toledo Cathedral is one of the only places in the world where a Mass dating from Visigoth times can still be heard in the Mozarabic Rite, ancient words arching across the centuries to create a continuity with a culture that came and went swiftly. The most visible Visigoth contribution can be found in the enchanting blue eyes of some swarthy Spaniards. The cathedral is packed with art treasures (El Greco is the draw, but I thought the best painting was a Caravaggio of John the Baptist); the sarcophagi of a handful of royals; a gold organ. Tourist cameras greedily consumed it all.

But the Alcázar de Toledo is the main attraction. Towering above the town, it was leveled in 1521, nearly destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, and is now a war museum. It was here that Hernando Cortes came to tell Ferdinand and Isabella of the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The collection contains everything from the tombstone of a Roman legionnaire who came, fought, and stayed to the bloodstained scrap of a shirt worn by Francisco Pizarro when he was assassinated in 1541. The 1936 siege rendered it an almost-sacred site during the days of Francisco Franco, with legends springing up as the battle was unfolding. The besieged held out against the Republican besiegers for 71 days against all odds. Walls were destroyed. The Republicans tunneled under one tower with miners and blew it up. Starvation had set in by the time Franco’s reinforcements arrived, and by then the Alcázar’s commander Colonel José Moscardó, whose uniform is on display, had achieved hero status.

When Franco’s men reclaimed Toledo, they took bloody revenge for the Republican massacre of Catholic priests and other allies, taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The Republicans had not only murdered many of their opponents; they had taken many of them to the same cliff where much of the Jewish population had been shoved to their doom following the anti-Semitic sermon of a talented cleric in 1405 and smashed them on the rocks. Franco’s men returned the favor by killing anyone suspected of fighting for the Republican side. The rule of thumb was that if the shoulder of a man’s coat was worn, he’d obviously been using a gun—so shoot him. The history of the Spanish Civil War has become particularly contested recently with the passage of the so-called Law of Democratic Memory by the Spanish lower house of Parliament in mid-July, which is designed to ensure that this complex and messy conflict is told primarily from the leftist point of view. The last statue of Franco in Spain, located in Melilla, was taken down last year. 

Córdoba possesses one of the most distinguished pedigrees in Spain, and seemed to promiscuously spawn powerhouse intellectuals. There is Maimonides, one of Judaism’s most influential scholars; Seneca, the classical philosopher, playwright, and statesmen who was eventually forced to commit suicide by his former student Nero; Hosius, the bishop who fought Arianism and probably presided at the First Council of Nicaea; and Averroes, the Islamic intellectual and philosopher who wrote brilliantly on everything from theology to math. It is no wonder that the kings kept their castle—the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos—here. The gardens were green and flowering despite the scorching heat, with statues of the Christian monarchs standing solemnly amid the hedgerows. A Visigoth fortress used to stand here; Julius Caesar stayed nearby in 45 BC when he arrived to massacre 22,000 people in his pursuit of Pompey’s son.

The crowning jewel of Córdoba is, of course, the Mosque-Cathedral. It stands on the site of a long-vanished Visigoth church. The Great Mosque was built on the orders of Abd ar-Rahman in 785 AD and expanded by various Islamic rulers in the following centuries. When the Christian troops of Castile took Córdoba in 1236 during the Reconquista, the mosque was transformed into a church; in the 1500s, a Renaissance cathedral nave and transept were built inside, surrounded by a forest of candy-cane columns. The king who approved the changes (the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella) was purportedly devastated when he saw the result, saying: “You have destroyed something that was unique in the world, and have put in its place something you can see anywhere.” Fortunately, he was being too pessimistic—the Mosque-Cathedral is far from destroyed.

But Córdoba’s magic is her courtyards. I don’t know how many there are; probably hundreds. Walking the narrow cobblestoned streets perfumed by flowers hanging in pots from shallow balconies, we passed countless doors that provided glimpses into these self-contained worlds. Falling fountains, lush, green plants, the murmur of voices—then gone. There is something lovely, mysterious, and alluring about it that I can’t quite explain. When I see a courtyard door, I just know I want to go in.

The playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (who was assassinated in 1936) once wrote that in Spain, “the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country.” He may be right. In the alleys and cafes, cathedrals and castles, squares and streets, behind the din of the present, we can hear them whisper still.

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.