Editor’s Note: Herewith a copy of an email sent to me November 11th, 2022 by Mrs. Fiona St. Clair. I felt the narrative was too delicious to abandon unrecorded into cyberspace. Apart from one or two boarding school chaps and a more remote childhood soulmate, Fiona is my most long standing friend. We met in undergraduate studies at Glendon Hall in Toronto, Ontario around 1968 when I was 20 years old. Serendipitously we extended our alliance to post graduate study when I attended Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Subsequently we prolonged our friendship to Ottawa, Ontario when I articled with Macdonald, Affleck, Barristers &c.; and again when I was a Don at Devonshire House, University of Toronto while attending Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Fiona adjudicated debates between competing houses of Devonshire House. She was exceedingly popular with the boys! Since that time we have crossed paths in Ottawa, Almonte and Florida.
Greetings again from Spain.
Since l last wrote, we’ve traveled to the mainland from the Canary Islands and have been in Madrid, Cordoba and are now half way through our stay in Seville, and boy, is there a lot to tell you about. So….to begin:
Despite having had many family holidays and business trips to various parts of Spain in my lifetime, it’s been almost 50 years since I was last in Madrid. At the end of a 2-month, hitch-hiking holiday through Europe with a university girlfriend, a de rigueur rite of passage for those of us who came of age in the late 1960s, Madrid was our final stop. These were the dying days of Franco’s dictatorship and unlike the rest of Western Europe that had enjoyed the social revolution of the era, Spain was still a closed society where we put away our jeans, dressed demurely (mini-skirts were seriously frowned upon), did not hitch-hike as it was strictly against the law, and kept a low a profile on the streets where Franco’s intimidating Guardia Civil still patrolled day and night. Despite the repressive atmosphere that stood in such great contrast to the ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ society of the time, Spain had one big plus; it was blissfully cheap! After thumbing and slumming our way through France, Switzerland and Italy, we suddenly found we could not only afford first class buses and trains but decent hotels along with dining like kings.
Madrid is an elegant capital, layered with Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and neo-classical architecture that rivals Vienna or Paris, and is absolutely bursting with palaces built by a succession of dynasties such as the Bourbons and Hapsburgs. Great Catholic cathedrals fling their spires and massive domes heavenwards and bells peel out across the city at sunset and at dawn. I remember streets that were quietly bustling but cars did not predominate and the massive plazas attracted many pedestrians as did their beautiful parks. Then, it was a city ideal for strolling its broad avenues or winding cobbled streets, and on every corner was a cafe. Today, that Madrid still exists but one needs to look up to spot its former attractiveness where the statue-studded roof-tops, the trompe l’oeil covered walls and wrought-iron balconies can still be found, for at street level, with the exception of the traditional, heavy brass door-knockers shaped like be-ringed hands, the facades of most buildings present a totally modern, commercial aspect along with a plague of fast-food outlets including several Timmies (had no idea they’d gone international!!). What overwhelms most is the sheer number of people with sidewalks so crammed except in the early morning when you only meet dog-walkers, it is elbow to elbow everywhere, and don’t get me started on the traffic in a city that was better suited to horse and carriage and would now make the busiest day in Toronto seem like a sleepy Sunday in comparison. Still, I’m not complaining but just being aware of so many changes in half a century, leaves me somewhat breathless.
Joined by dear South African friends who now live in The Netherlands, we had 3 days exploring the city’s heart. We walked, a lot, passed palaces, opera houses, the main bull ring, stunning churches and through leafy parks filled with green parakeets. Many hours were spent in the Prado, Spain’s greatest museum and a personal favourite. Doubled in size since my first visit and still full of breathtaking treasures, it has become, to my mind, a museum in desperate need of ‘editing’ because by hanging every painting of their substantial collection, now that they have so much more physical space, one is overwhelmed by duplication. However, to stand in awe before Goya’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or the many works of Velazquez and El Greco and Breugel, both the Elder and the Younger, is a moving experience and a huge privilege. The icing on the cake of our stay had to be snagging tickets to attend the annual flamenco festival and watching a performance given by one of the country’s premier dance schools. It was 90 minutes of some of the most masterful and joyous dancing imaginable and beats the hell out of the over-priced, touristy flamenco clubs. One thing that’s not changed; great food and lots of tapas bars, all still at reasonable prices!
On Monday, we picked up a car and headed south, dropping down nearly 1,800 feet from Spain’s high central plateau (though brilliantly sunny, it was chilly in Madrid) to Cordoba where we spent the night in a traditional patio-ed hotel immediately opposite La Mezquita. This 8th Century mosque/cathedral is probably one of the most unique and unusual religious buildings in the world. In a way, it is the reverse of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul which started out as a great Byzantine cathedral then later was re-built as a mosque. Here, the conquering Moors constructed an exquisitely designed mosque befitting its Iberian peninsula’s capital before being ousted 500 years later by the Spanish kings who promptly set about converting it to a cathedral. However, such was the beauty of its Islamic architecture that the Spaniards did not destroy the mosque’s huge interior arcade of soft red and sandstone-coloured, arched columns but incorporated them into a semi-Gothic reconstruction. Though the minaret became a bell tower, they kept the classical, Persian-inspired, ‘paradise’ gardens within the inner courtyard. Despite the more gaudy aspects of the Christian structures that were added over time, they blend well with the more refined and subtle Muslim style.
As an important centre of Islamic learning at the time, Cordoba was also home to a large Jewish population of teachers, poets and philosophers and the winding narrow streets of the Jewish quarter were lovely to wander through. This ancient city, founded by Visigoths, was settled by the Romans who constructed attractive bridges and aqueducts across the Guadalquiver River. The ever-present Alcazar or palace sits solidly in the city centre and we confined ourselves to a walk around its outer walls for having seen one, one has seen them all as the style and contents don’t vary much. At dawn and at dusk the whole town positively vibrates with the sound of bells and sitting on the roof-top garden patio of our hotel, sipping an excellent ‘rioja’ as the setting sun turned the church towers and ancient battlements to gold, it doesn’t get any better than that.
After a leisurely morning of strolling along the river and through some of Cordoba’s flower-filled, public gardens, we then continued south to Seville, driving by endless vineyards, olive groves and orange and almond orchards. There were windmills of the type that Don Quixote tilted at and on distant hilltops, the silhouettes of walled towns cast shadows across the landscape. We are currently spending 5 nights a stunning apartment in the heart of Seville’s old quarter and at the top of our street are the walls of Europe’s biggest Gothic cathedral and the world’s third largest Catholic church after the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London. But, there is so much to describe including yesterday’s full-day tour to nearby Jerez (of sherry fame) and the coastal port of Cadiz, and in the hope that you are not nodding off after the above long descriptions, I will save the past few days adventures for another email.
It’s early morning now and we’re off in a few hours for a walking tour with a guide and then have a river cruise planned. The days so far have been wonderfully warm after the cool weather in Madrid, and so the adventure continues.