Category Archives: Uncategorized

43 – a final hike in the mountains….April 29, 2015

The weather forecast was promising sunshine.  It didn’t show up where I was going. Up the funicular, a 2000 m journey through the mountain, rising 400 metres to the village of Bulnes which through the centuries has had no road connection whatsoever to the rest of Spain.  The funicular was built instead about 15 years ago – I am in the funicular facing into the tunnel.  A 7 minute journey.

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A tiny village at the top, still surviving as it has for centuries by the raising of livestock, cattle and goats.  There is also now some tourism, hikers and serious hikers at that.  There are no trails for the ‘let’s go for a bit of a ramble’ hikers.  These are all classed as difficult.  There are a lot of serious hikers in this country.IMG_5259

 

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I did some walking up from the village to a lookout, onto the cloud-enshrouded peaks with some interesting information boards on the glacial history of the valley. Apparently there was a recent ice-age here in the 15th and 16th centuries.  I headed to one of the small cafes – and the local queso de cabrales, their famous blue cheese, fermented in limestone caves, a basket of bread, a glass of beer and a long chat with the owner of the cafe, a woman born here, of parents, grandparents etc. also born here.

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The village is surrounded by peaks.  Notice the home on top of the hill in the foreground.  I headed back to the funicular, missed it by a few minutes and instead of waiting (every half hour), I decided to give a go at the trail heading back to the valley floor and my car, the trail that had been the only access to the village through the centuries until the funicular and is still used by serious hikers.  A 400 metre drop in approximately 2 km, with an almost continual descent, reminiscent of the first and final section of my Monday trek.  Photos will suffice.

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Wobblier and wobblier by the time I reached my car.  I doubt that I would have made it up, given the continual nature of the slope, with barely any flat, get-your-breath sections.  The hot bath felt so good!  Back to Madrid tomorrow and the world of flat surfaces!  Quite the memories, though, of Los Picos de Europa. The legend is that the sailors returning from the New World would see these snow-covered peaks first and know that they were getting close to home.  They referred to them as Los Picos.

42 – Awesome! April 29, 2015

It is called la ruta de Cares or la gargantua del rio Cares – the Cares path or the River Cares Gorge. It is awesome, it is regarded as one of the great walks, if not the greatest in this country of magnificent walks.  Awesome!  I walked farther than expected, I was waiting for the first bridge, I thought it was somewhere in the middle of the 12 km distance. But according to the signs, I walked 19 kilometres, the first 2 or 3 kilometres involving an ascent of 500 metres.  After that it was primarily a pathway cut into the side of the cliffs by engineers and lots of manual labour about one hundred years ago to harness the hydroelectric potential of the river.  I was wobbling by the end – that 500 metres of ascent over a few kilometres was translated into 500 metres of descent on what was at times a very tricky surface, a descent when I was running out of energy and strength.  I am going to let the photos tell the story.  Caín is the village at the other end, and, Bill, at All That Jazz, I simply was not able to make it.

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Yes, that is my path on the right, with a small very necessary man-made section.

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That’s the railing of the short bridge across the very deep chasm!

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There is only going forward, there is no choice.

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From a window in one of the tunnels.

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In the left foreground is a man-made retaining wall, part of the extensive system of channels (the third photo) to collect and divert the water downstream to the hydro plant.  I can’t imagine the working conditions 100 years ago, 500 men, donkeys, basic equipment, sledge hammers, dynamite, injuries, death, starvation wages…..

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And finally two short videos, the soundtrack?  the river, my constant companion throughout the long day.

Vertigo?  I felt it primarily on the steep descent of the final 2 kilometres, my eyes were naturally looking down, I had to keep checking carefully for safe spots for my feet on very jagged sections, and I was clearly tired, wobblier and wobblier was I.

AWESOME!

 

 

41 Celebrating with friends…..April 23, 2015

How fortunate to have met some wonderful people and to celebrate this old fart’s birthday with them!   I am in Valladolid for 4 days, days which fortunately coincide with an important regional festival and also a village festival.  I had the opportunity to attend in both with these friends.

In 1515 there was a battle near Valladolid between the monarchy and local rebels who were asserting their ancient rights and demand for more local autonomy.  The rebels lost but the anniversary has been transformed into a national holiday for Castille y León where liberty and local autonomy are affirmed and the many issues arising out of the years of extreme austerity and ensuing hardship for the working class and youth are at centre stage.  We are in the village of Villalar and the day consists of a series of processions to the main square with music and singing.  Key participants are the various working class parties.

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Another is awaiting their turn.  Always with music and with a well-known song which relates the story of the battle and its meaning through the centuries.

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The Spanish have been much more willing to take to the streets, to protest government action and inaction.  I have a sense that the ordinary Spaniard has a greater sense of history, a collective memory of the many centuries of the one per cent of the one per cent enjoying most of the benefits of their country.  There is political graffiti here as there is on many walls across this country.

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The seeds of hope still spring forth.  The comuneral rebellion still springs forth.  Passion.

The comuneros were the original rebels.  The final single word has an interesting connotation – something like the inflaming tinder.  It is the responsibility of youth to question, to rebel, to find a better way for all.

There are also other kinds of music and dancing.

Here is a group from another village and among their musicians is a bagpiper – he plays a gaita – Spain was settled for centuries by the Celts before the arrival of the Romans.  Sorry but I messed up photographing the piper.  You can see his pipes behind the three young girls in black.

 

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A market place with bread, cheese and enormous pans of paella.

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They are cooking eggs in the other pan. And finally I introduce you all to my friend, Montse.  Quite the ball of energy!

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And now for day two of my celebrations.  The day itself, the 25th, there is a village festival south of Valladolid, so off goes the whole family, Montse, her sons Diego and Martín and Antonio, her novio, my friend from the little Visigothic church who had given me the opportunity to be the guide at this church the previous week.  Post #38

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We are drinking local artisanal beers.  I assure you that I have barely tasted mine, regardless of what my droopy eyes say.  Here is the brewmaster.

IMG_5072 This kind of brewing is gradually catching on in Spain.  Thank heavens!  Unfortunately the weather did not co-operate and there were very few buyers in the streets to take advantage of the wares on sale in the various stalls.  Most headed indoors to eat. We spent a couple of hours in a very large and very busy restaurant eating plate after plate of tapas – platters of calamari and a lamb cooked in the traditional local manner – in small pieces on a sword.  Long Saturday and Sunday lunches with the whole family, including the teenagers, is definitely a tradition in this country,

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The server would show up at your table, sometimes with three swords at a time, and simply use a knife to push the lamb off onto your plates. Succulent!  Like lamb usually is, right?

The highlight of the late afternoon was a variation of the running of the bulls.  I referred to the famous festival of San Fermín in Pamplona in my eating post.  Most of us have probably seen some of this on TV.  Here through the village streets we had the young, old and foolish being chased by a couple of bulls.  Antonio assured me that later they would bring out the older, more aggressive toros but the lad was tiring and waiting around for a possibility can be very tiring.

¡Amistades! Friendships!  A special way to let Spain sink in!

Muchas gracias a Montse, Antonio, Diego y Martín, amigos amabilísimos!  Hasta luego!

 

40 Soccer serendipity in the clouds…..April 28, 2015

Muchas gracias, Raquel, para ayudarme con mis preguntas. Hasta luego!

I am jumping ahead, and delaying posting about my birthday weekend with friends in Valladolid.  I am alsogoing to wait to write about my hike through an amazing gorge. I want to write about today.  I took off in the car and headed up narrow winding constantly ascending roads to a couple of small agricultural villages high up in the mountains, Vielve and Sotres.  A couple of views, the first across the typically tiled rooftops, the second from a vantage point above the second village, the highest in this chain of mountains.IMG_5207

 

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I am hiking on access roads used by the shepherds – cattle and sheep, the primary industry here for essentially thousands of years.  There is tourism, some small hotels (serious hikers) and shops selling the famous local cheese and sausages.  I kept going and saw this marvellous site.

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Thirty some in the flock, 22 or so are black.  Imagine having to live down or uphold the reputation for being the white sheep in your family!  The black ones, of course, absolutely life savers for the flock when the snow hits, and it definitely hits here. I made it up to some abandoned buildings, used in the old days by shepherds who would have moved their flocks up here from the valleys below in the summer.  While I was here, the villagers were busy moving their herds of cattle around from one pasture to the next, dealing with the stubborn ones, and at one point taking the whole herd through the centre of the village to pastures on the other side.  These are working villages.  The roads and village streets show it.

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I decided to aim for a crest not too far above me where I would be able to see into the valley behind.

It is amazingly beautiful, this place, this country, these people.  But I have saved the best for the last.  Up here, at times in the clouds, I found  un campo de futbol, yes a soccer field.

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Small goal posts at either end, very rugged playing surface…look carefully on the right side of the second photo.

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I tried to include both goals here, but in the sun with our modern cameras I could not see the screen at the back, so trust me on this.  I returned to the village for lunch and asked my server.  Yes, it was a futbol field and she played up there with her mates in her mid teens;  there was no other ‘flat’ surface in the village.  I also asked her my favourite question here.  Were you born in this village?  Your parents? Your grandparents?  Grandparents of your grandparents?  Yes, yes, yes, for many centuries and she clearly hopes to die here.  Asturians have been living and surviving here for thousands of years.  The area is famous for its queso de cabrales, a blue goat cheese aged in limestone caves.  I had a goodly chunk in the other village halfway up, a second breakfast. Well, I had to, you know, let  Spain sink in!

The road up and down for that matter is not for the faint of heart.  Very difficult to get photos;  let’s just say that we (the car and I) kept climbing, very close to the guardrail, when there was one.  Numerous gaps, too much warning tape (some visible just at the turn to the right), one work group reinstalling, I didn’t want to ask my server about this. There is barely room for the road, let alone shoulders and places to stop.

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On a cheerier note, a flowering shrub on my hike above the village.

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An enjoyable day with that wonderful bit a serendipity, discovering that campo de futbol up in the clouds. Camp Nou, Jose Calderon, Bernebeu, you simply can’t compete.

 

39 Se comen bien aquí…great dining…..April 22, 2015

I am remembering my first years travelling initially in Portugal back in 2005 and 2006.  I didn’t want to spend too much money, I also wanted to eat what the typical Portuguese ate for lunch, I knew that I could eat in the fancier spots, but I headed into the neighbourhoods where the ‘real’ people lived and tried their typical ‘menu de día‘.  It was interesting at times and really not very good for the most part. It was difficult to get away from the meat or fish as the dominating item on the plate with barely a garnish of vegetables.  I hungered for something different.  In a small city north of Lisbon, I found on a narrow lane off the main square a unique restaurant, vegetarian-fusion cuisine.  I started to wait outside the door for it to open, to be the first customer and each time I said to the servers that my body was thanking them for all these wonderfully prepared vegetarian food. They looked at me strangely. No surprise! I did learn to eat well in Portugal and have learned to do the same here in Spain.  It does take time.

I have spent the last three days in the Basque country.  They eat well here.  I lunched the other day in Vitoria-Gasteiz, an ancient Basque city, one of the many Spanish cities which we have never heard of but are worth a visit.  I am in a chic little modern cafe that is part of a new museum complex.  ‘Menu de dia’ for 16.50 euros, a little more than $20.  Three courses including the bottle of wine.  My server brought me what the Quebecois would call a ‘amuse-guele’, a spoonful to tantalize the palate; in this case, some smoked salmon on some mixed vegetables.

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The first course (I had four or five choices) was goat cheese prepared in a very light phyllo pastry on a bed of arugula and tomates, with caramelized onions on top. I could easily have eaten a second one of these. More, sir!

IMG_4884The second course (again from choices, the rest of which were meat) was cod beautifully cooked on a bed of asparagus in a creamy leek sauce.  This is not your typical central Spanish cuisine, which clearly comes directly from grandmother’s kitchen.  There are other influences at work here, particularly from the Mediterranian, France, Italy, at times, North Africa.

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I usually do not choose a dessert;  my standard line is that I don’t like desserts (this coming from the pie maker?) but more so because I do not want to change the memory of a meal by putting cheese cake or some equivalent on top of the savoury courses. I am changing my mind and taking advantage of the all inclusive price.

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A very thick yogurt with walnuts and honey.  I have had variations of this now in different parts of northern Spain, and especially one variation with a very young cheese, like the next step from yogurt.  It can be called cuajada del abuelo (of the grandfather). I ask for it now.  As if to make sure that I was breaking my resolve about desserts, my young server brought me some cake to go with my café con leche.

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A memorable meal!

I would like to add just a few more photos.  The following day I was in Pamplona, the town famous for its festival in July, the running of the bulls and the young idiots who run before them through the narrow streets hoping not to be gored.

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This sculpture which ‘celebrates’ the event is located on Avenida de Roncesvalles , a broad avenue of expensive shops and banks with little sense of neighbourhood.  The original Roncesvalles is 40 some kilometres north of Pamplona.  I live in the actual neighbourhood of Roncesvalles. I had lunch at the famous Café de Iruña, situated on Pamplona;s main plaza.  Some interior, eh?

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Apparently it was Hemingway’s favourite haunt in Pamplona.  The main course, farmed trout from a region with countless trout streams!

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Beautifully grilled, of course with the head still on, and, we are in Spain, stuffed with slices of, you guessed it, jámon – and the mushroom sauté is also laced with chunks of the ubiquitous jámon. Notice once again, and we are in Spain, the bottle of wine which came as part of the meal ($17 Canadian) Knowing that I was going to be spending a few more hours in this city, I did drink quite a bit of this one. I have never had a bad wine in this country.

Earlier today in another small, unknown-to-us city, Palencia, I enjoyed a salad similar to the one above with the deep-fried goat cheese, this time with watercress, tiny tomatoes and walnuts, and now,  guess the other obligatory ingredient!

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Yes, did you find them, the six slices of a kind of local bacon?  The plate at the top of the photo? – this restaurant’s take on amuse-guele, two tiny morcillas, black sausages.  They failed to amuse today.  Knowing that I still had some distance to drive, I asked only for a glass of wine.  Time to stop writing, time to head out to see my next city, Valladolid, has to offer me.  Something lighter hopefully and a humdinger of a futbol game!

A late night report! Valladolid is full of small tapas bars and the spreads are amazing. I am here for four nights and the belly is growing!

38 Letting Spain sink in……April 17, 2015

A few days before heading off this time for Spain, a good friend, instead of telling me to have a good time, encouraged me to be open to the possibility of ‘letting Spain sink in’.  I am travelling here for the tenth time, I have spent many months all told here, I have met many interesting people and, of course, seen fascinating sites and in many ways tasted some of what Spanish life and culture is all about.  But I know that I will never be able to leave behind who I am in Canada, I will never to able to fully understand what it is to be Spanish, I do not even pretend that I would be able ever to do this.  But I do get hints, I feel traces, even intimations, I have come to understand something of Spain by reading their histories, their literature, their daily press, and, of course, by standing in reverence and, at times, awe before their art and architecture which are capable of yielding insights into the mystery of what it is to be Spanish.

That’s enough of that.  Now to today and some moments of letting Spain ‘sink in’.

I am back in Covarrubias, the tiny ancient village which played a significant role in the 11th century in the resettling of this central band of Spain, the Duero River valley and the lands north of it, for centuries a kind of no-man’s land, the frontier between the north Christian kingdoms and the southern Moorish ones. I feel at home here, just travelling the final 15 familiar kilometres warms me, knowing what I will see over the next hill, around the next bend, enjoying the rich colours of spring, the brilliant greens of the young spring wheat, interspersed with fields of red soil, and today, everywhere, the apple and cherry trees in bloom.  And of course, my regular pension, family-run hotel, bar and restaurant, Casa Galin, and my dueño, Ezechiel, waiting for me.  I figure that it’s my ninth time here and this is the place I brought my brother and sister-in-law a few years ago to introduce them to Spain.IMG_4865

From my window, I see this square with its 12th century tower;  you see the side of Casa Galin from the second photo looking into the Plaza Mayor of the village.

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I spent the afternoon at the Visigothic ermita which I wrote about in post #23.

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Antonio, my guide, is bored with his job.  I think that he would rather run than talk to the tourists who arrive, most of whom are Spanish; they are a people who are deeply interested in their history, in their patrimony.  They travel extensively in their own country.

Today I assumed my temporary role as guide and I had a ball.  I shared my knowledge of this building with two couples at one point and then with a single visitor.  I have studied, I have read the academic texts, I have even written a paper for my medieval professor at York on this building, I have seen most of the handful of other Visigothic sites in Spain and am able to talk about this one in relationship to the others, etc. I get very excited talking about it and sharing what I have learned and in particular about a theory I have regarding it.  Sharing my passion with those who share the same passion – for me it worked today – and, as a result, Spain was sinking in.  At times, I feel a genuine buzz in the presence of these ancient, beautifully cut and put together stones.  I want to return to spend time in them.  The buzz also happens when I visit one of these sites for the first time.  Cathedrals do nothing for me;  the small isolated village churches draw me strongly.  If I look carefully,they are ready to tell me about what it was like to live in these communities 800 years ago (1300 years ago for this ermita visigoda– the sharing of their joys, sorrows, and genuine fears, including violence from the powerful classes, disease, famine and whatever they believed the dark powers to be.  The medieval festival must have been a wonderful experience, a day or so to enjoy, to put out of one’s mind all these fears and survival concerns, to laugh, dance, carouse and eat heartily with your neighbours before returning to the daily drudge. And these little buildings were at the centre of all this community life.

In the post #23 is the gist of what I was sharing with my Spanish ‘tourists’. So let me share some photos of an another ermita, that I finally got to visit on my way back to Covarrubias – the ermita of San Bartolomé hidden away in a spectacular canyon, El Cañon del Rio Lobo.  Look again, I do not have to translate.

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It’s the 12th century, it has been built in an isolated area like so many small monasteries, far from greed, violence and sins of the flesh.  The medieval mind considered it well nigh impossible to gain salvation if you lived out there in the world.  Retreat was the only way.

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Now if you read my last post carefully, you will know that the artisans who created this window were mudéjar,  Muslims who were continuing to live in this area after the Christians had taken control.  In the background is the very large mouth of a cave in which prehistoric drawings have been found.  Chances are that earlier generations of monks had used it as their refuge, a common habit across the mountainous north.  Fun up under the eaves!  That bold little kid again!IMG_4838

 

 

 

IMG_4839More than likely this is a carnaval mask of a wolf rather than an image of the wolf itself.  Such sculptures appear under the eaves of countless small churches.

IMG_4840Now I have learned from my time in class up at York Univeristy with Professor Malcolm Thurlby (whose classes I ‘thoroughby’ enjoyed) that the art historian relishes finding unique pieces for the first time.  I have never seen a cornice with the four heads looking in on each other.  The flat heads are also wonderfully unique to me.  When visiting here, I met a couple from Belgium.  We chatted a lot in my totally mixed up Spanish/French.  She is similarly obsessed with Romanesque small churches and they have travelled quite often through France and Spain.  It was fun sharing this discovery with them.IMG_4841

 

Ah yes, the life of a typical medieval community involved wine and I am not sure what, on the right. The position of the arms reminds me of frequently seeing acrobats under the eaves?  Carnaval fun! And does the wine drinker not appear to be chugging directly from the barrel, or is that a firkin?

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A dramatic setting!  One of the Belgians photographed me.

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Could the light be construed as an enormous halo?  Give it a rest, Ed!

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I went back to check out a few more of the cornices. Dancers? Flautist? Post #19 might answer your puzzlement of what else might be happening with one on the right? And a final shot to try to give you some sense of the towering canyon.  There are hiking trails for miles up the river with the walls rising on both sides.  Spain is rich in canyons, that all I can say.

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37 On the lam, back in the 12th century….April 16, 2015

I am in an ancient hilltop fortified town about an hour and a half northeast of Madrid – Siguenza relaxing in a very charming and comfortable bed and breakfast just below the castle (searching, googling ‘Siguenza fotos’ will bring you up a wealth of pictures).  It’s an ancient strategic site, pre-Roman, Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, Christian, Moorish again, etc. I slept like a dream last night after three almost frightening nights of insomnia in Madrid.  I am very happy that the problem is resolving itself in this quiet corner of Spain.  I came through this area a few years ago because, and it will be of no surprise, it is full of small 12th century village churches and I have developed a passion for the sculpture built into these little buildings – the capitals and cornices (under the eaves) that evoke so much and in so many ways the life of these isolated communities so many centuries ago.

Just look at the back wall of this tiny church in the farming village of Albendiego, forty kilometres north of here.

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I have seen a couple of hundred or so small village churches across the north of Spain from Galicia to Catalonia, but this one is absolutely unique.  It is set off from the village, 500 metres, down a tree-lined avenue, among spring wheat fields and those windows – absolute treasures!  The artisans would have been mudejars – Arab, Islamic artisans who were living in this area of Spain during the centuries when the Christians from the north were gradually ‘reconquering’ these lands.  They employed the available artisans, the Arabs who had been living here for centuries and who were not forced out by the Christians.  Here is a close-up of the bottom window in the central panel.

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It is a celosia (slightly damaged) a window modelled on those used in harems which allowed in light but allowed for maximum privacy, a window that had a long tradition of use in Christian churches during even earlier centuries in the northern province of Asturias.  The geometric designs are very much part of Islamic art.  What strikes me also is that each circle is unique, a different way of treating, of visualizing the basic space.  What struck me about the Alhambra in Granada is that each room, even each wall had been decorated differently, it was not an endless recreation of similar patterns, the artist, the artisan had license to create, to invent.  It was happening in this church too.  And, tucked up into the arch of the windows off to both sides is a symbol which I had never seen before, the seal of Solomon.  Muslims would have been familiar with the books of the Hebrew Bible.  They acknowledged that the three religions (including Judaism) flowed from Abraham, that they were all ‘people of the book’.

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By the way, these marvels are hidden away on the back wall;  the rest of the church is absolutely plain;  the artisans were really having fun.  And the church backs onto a forest.

I headed then to Campisobálos, another farming village and there I was most fortunate.  As I arrived, Severino was just locking up, a lifelong resident of this pueblo who had the time and willingness to chat with me.

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We  spent the next half hour in and about the church and the chapel attached to it, discussing its history and arquitectural details. It was built in the 12th century with some later additions.  It was connected with the Knights Templar, the quasi religious military order. I can only share a few highlights.  Here is the main front door of the church (he is standing in front of the adjoining chapel door).  It is a very typical Romanesque main door with 5 layers of decorative arches and columns framing the wooden door.

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Note the first arch, immediately above the door:  sun images with ancient pagan roots which I have seen in other churches in Spain and the lobulated edge, popular in Moorish buildings. (I could do a separate post just on wooden doors in Spain.)

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This church’s drawing card is a sculptural relief along the wall (and I forgot to take a photo of the whole thing.) of a calendario agricole, scenes from across the seasons of the activities necessary to sustain such a farming community.  Severino knew them well, he was really enjoying being my guide, I am sure that he has helped other fanatics of tiny rural 12th century churches. Bear in mind that these were carved 8-900 years ago and in a softer stone so that there has been a lot of erosion, of lot of wearing down.

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On the left,  a team of oxen are pulling a simple plow;  on the right, very worn and relying here on my guide, the farmer is sowing seed.

IMG_4764 Decanting the new wine in large jars, and on the right, slaughtering a deer.

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The harvest –  threshing and gathering in the sheaves (in reverse order).   The calendar goes from left to right.  And finally the season of the hunt, still important in Spain, and in this case, of the jábali, the wild boar, an important activity in mid-winter, with the help of dogs.

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A couple of final photos, the first being of a sculpture high up on the back corner, the demonio, which has faces in three directions;  another weathered one (like me own!)  Severino was keen to show me this one.

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The face in the centre is clear, two eyes, nose, large (devilishly) grinning mouth.  To the left of the nose is a second nose on the face turning towards the left which makes use of its own eye and the left eye of the face looking at us.  The mouth encircles the whole head so that it works for each of the faces.  Moving a little bit to the right and you would see a third nose and the sense of a third face looking down at us from the right.

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The fear of the devil was very strong in these days, and that this creature is very difficult to escape, his eyes are on you from all directions.  And finally I cannot resist the rude face high up on another corner, somewhat hidden, possibly the artisan was trying to get away with it, representing the imp in all of us.

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Years ago, I brought a copy home of a similar rude face from the Bodleian Library in Oxford as a gift for a friend.  And little kids of all ages are still making rude faces, so often the same as this one, enough out of site so that hopefully they can get away with it.  Can you not hear the noise it’s making, blubbering down through the centuries.

A most wonderful day, helping me celebrate Barca’s victory last night in the Champion’s League quarter-final over Paris.  This sort of brings together most of what draws me to this country; let’s see, the geography, the people, the medieval architecture, futbol, the food ( a plate of grilled-to-a-crispy perfection fresh sardines for lunch).  Alright!  One more photo!  For you, Pat!

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