Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Guide from the Past

This little volume was created in 1240 to serve
as a travel guide for Frederick II on his visit to 
the area around Napoli. It extols the virtues of
the soothing thermal waters of the region.
There is nothing more helpful when planning a trip than a travel guide – and there have been travel guides around since Eve and Adam departed the Garden of Eden. I recall on a visit to the Augustinian Library being shown a 13th century manuscript extolling the virtues of the waters of Pozzuoli near Napoli created for a royal visitor  complete with illustrations. Of course there were no end to the travel guides written for the gilded youth of the Renaissance and Enlightenment as they did the Grand Tour. And American writers of the 19th and early 20th century flooded the bookshops with tales of innocents abroad. And in our own day we’ve seen entire stores devoted to travel guides – Baedeker, Michelin, Lonely Planet etc. – and websites and Apps by the thousands – Trip Adviser et al.

The big decision is always which ones do you use when planning your trip? Which are the most dependable and up-to-date? Which can be used to help plan a trip filled with good wine, great food and incredible sights. And which are simply puff pieces put out by a local tourist authority or even worse an “enterprising” entrepreneur whose research on their subject has been restricted to cut and paste from Wikipedia.

Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside by Thomas Oldham Barlow, 1864
From left to right: Henry T. Tuckerman,  Oliver Wendell Holmes , William Gilmore Simms, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Nathaniel Hawthorne , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Parker Willis, William H. Prescott, Washington Irving, James Kirke Paulding , Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, John Pendleton Kennedy, James Fenimore Cooper, and George Bancroft.
Operating on the theory that thus far they haven’t been far off track I tend to use Booking.com for hotels, Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet for restaurants and Wikipedia as a good general guide to a city/region. However on occasion I wander off to some obscure corner of the virtual or digital bookshelf and to find a livelier, if slightly dated, read on a place of interest.

In the early spring of 1829 Washington Irving, who was living in Madrid at the time, decided to make the arduous trek to Granada along with a friend from the Russian Embassy. After several weeks his friend was recalled to Madrid however Irving stayed on and managed to arrange a billet at the semi-derelict Alhambra until he to was required to leave in late July to fill his appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London.  His Tales of the Alhambra was published, unusually for the time, simultaneously in England and the US in 1832. That first edition was to contain his colourful – and perhaps in some cases apocryphal (after all this was the man who had us all convinced that in the Middle-Ages people believed the earth was flat) – journey to and stay in Granada. He included a few of the exotic folk stories he had heard from his fellow lodgers at the former Great Red Fortress. He was to expand on these in a later edition (1835) and, as only he could, recounted tales that are a heady – and delightful - mixture of Arabian Nights, Spanish superstition and Andalusian story telling.  One of those tales was to be adapted by Pushkin and surfaced as Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Zolotoy petushok (The Golden Cockerel).

Unlike Irving we had need neither of the boastful Sancho with his blunderbuss to protect us nor of overnight stops as guests in small towns: the comfortable and efficient Renfe service took us on the same route in three hours.  Though it would have been a bit more romantic to have been entertained by the local Alicade and curious townsfolk.

Even the landscape has changed in the two hundred years since Irving made his journey.  Modern irrigation systems have turned what was once barren and treacherous scrub into olive groves almost to the Sierra Nevadas. 
Much has changed since Irving’s journey but much has remained the same. He describes the barren, rocky – and dangerous - road through to the Sierra Madres and the surrounding bleakly beautiful landscape. Though the road (or at least train ride) is less dangerous and the hill and mountainsides are now planted with endless olive groves there are still patches that are barren and bleak. Much of that bleakness and barrenness comes from the industrial sites on the edge of towns where concrete and rusting steel skeletons have replaced hard packed earth and leafless trees silhouetted against the burning sun.

Perhaps Irving would have recognized the names of the five intersecting Calles but I'm sure he
would have been astounded by the buildings and the confusing traffic lights. 

On the winding road up to the Alhambra a  local artist has left their mark.

The entrance to the Capilla Real de Granada - the burial place of that
"Servant of God" Isabella the Catholic and her slightly less Catholic
husband Ferdinand. It is a marvel of Spanish-Moorish ecclesiastical
design with a truly magnificent central grill.

Above the Capilla entrance the decorations on the Cathedral show the strong Moorish influence
of the previous rulers of Granada which are apparent throughout the core of Granada.

The entrance to an old and semi-derelict building on a side street
with a gloriously carved Moorish ceiling speaks of the city's past.

 And other than recognizing the Great Cathedral, some of the monasteries and the honeycomb of Calles and Tendrilles in Centro he would have some difficulty finding his way around modern Granada. Broad avenues – with a confusing system of traffic lights that even Irving’s brave muleteer Sancho would have found daunting – are lined with buildings in the grand Spanish style of the 19th-20th century. The narrow roadway up to the Alhambra allows for the passage of one car – right of way controlled by a system of lights – but still allows glimpses of the city spread out below. Some of that spread being the urban sprawl typical to, and identical to, any modern city. What Irving would recognize is the crowds of people on the main streets and down the winding Calles, eating, drinking, battering, selling, buying and socializing the way they did long before he arrived in this little corner of Andalusia.

As dusk falls over the Sierra Nevadas the Alhambra glows like the jewel it is.  A truly glorious sight.

Once at his old residence I have a feeling he’d be, if not lost, then certainly astounded. What was a dusty – howbeit to his eyes romantic – pile of ruins and decaying fortifications, untended gardens and rutted passageways and terraces has been restored to much of its former glory. The remarkable 12th century water system – partially restored by the departing French troops in 1812 and remarked on by Irving - now refreshes and cools all the tile and marble courtyards. Once again it irrigates roses, vines, orchards, sentinel stands of cypress and sculptured rows of myrtle and brings the music of cascading water into fantasy festooned galleries. Much of the splendour he had heard spoken of in the legends told around the table of the aged Dona Antonia and saw crumbling evidence of during his residence has been lovingly and carefully restored. And the work is on going: an eight-year plan to restore the rows of trained myrtle trees in the Generalife is at its halfway point.

One of several of the rooms that Washington Irving lived in during his stay at the Alhambra - a residence he shared with a wonderful cast of eccentrics and local characters.  The fantastical stories they wove over the evening meal and by the fireside are an enchanting mixture of Arabian Nights, Andalusian folklore and religious superstition.

One small suite of rooms has remained largely unchanged since Irving’s departure in late July of 1829. The rooms he occupied in the Nasrid Palace and where he was tended to by little dark-eyed Dolores, the stuttering Pepe and the faithful Matteo – a true son of the Alhambra - are as Spartan as he first found them. Nothing remains of the furnishings – even at the time they were only odds and ends from other rooms – but there is a simple plaque that tells us he stayed and wrote in these rooms. There is even the suggestion that his writings may have been the catalyst that began renewed interest in the once forgotten fortress.

Neither my words nor, unfortunately, my camera could capture the thousands of details that make up the glories of the Nasrid Palace.  The artisans who created the stone, wood and inlay; the architects who meticulously planed the graceful arches, open spaces and cooling waterways; the gardeners who nurtured the groves and floral beds are all anonymous but their work creates a harmony that speaks of a culture advanced far beyond the one that replaced it.
I had the highly romantic notion that it might be possible to follow his path when exploring the palaces, gardens and fortresses that make up the complex: discovering them as he discovered them. However a nighttime visit to the Nasrid Palace meant being restricted to certain areas only; though wandering through the illuminated rooms and gardens did conjure up the magic of the tales he tells. The crowds on a Saturday were even more restrictive and plans to go beyond the Portal of Wine and into the old Fortress had to be abandoned. Plans for another visit perhaps?

Two things that Irving would find unchanged in Granada:  the good earthy taste of salmorejo.  No doubt this simple soup of tomato, garlic and olive oil was a staple in the kitchen of Dona Antonia.  And.....
....  the welcoming charm of a lovely Granaina!  Carolina and her family at La Parrala provide
a warm and friendly atmosphere and homemade dishes paired with great local wines.
Irving is a writer who appears to have fallen out of favour in our time; one critic has referred to his writing as “all style with no substance” – as if style were a fault. For the first time I’ve read beyond The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle and find his style elegant and sophisticated and there is more than enough substance in his prose. Descriptive narrative, history, personal anecdotes, food critiques (perhaps a little out of date where price, location and fare are concerned) and fables mix to paint a picture of one of the treasures of our Western heritage. All delightfully written from a very personal perspective. What more could you ask for from a travel guide?
August 12 - 1676: Praying Indian John Alderman shoots and kills Metacomet, the Wampanoag war chief, ending King Philip's War.


Laurent said...

You bring back the memories of that visit, it was a really magical place to visit and I am glad we went but we have to return to see it again.

abctung said...