The Brexit noise has drowned out how much we travel and admire other European countries and their cultures. In my seventieth year, I still hunger to see as many more of our cities as possible whilst the tick-tock ticks. Alan Whicker (younger readers might not know that he ran a travel programme for about 30 years across both BBC and ITV), when asked whether travel broadened the mind demurred. He said it narrowed one’s prejudices. I am not so sure. Anyway, as I was due at a wedding in Barcelona last month, I thought it was time to do a little more travel en route. For a nanosecond, I pondered whether I might try the pilgrimage from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela, a mere 500 miles or so. Might a legal pilgrimage also include a bike or an e-scooter? Alas not. So, as a complete cop out, I took a plane.
Santiago: that is Saint (Sant) Iago (Spanish for ‘James’) is named after James, a disciple ofJesus. It is not clear to me that he used Google maps to sail from Palestine to what is Santiago not once, not twice, but possibly three times. (He was beheaded in Jerusalem in AD45 by King Herod Agrippa). Anyway, legends are legends. Extraordinarily, or possibly by divine intervention, King Alfonso and Bishop Theodemir of Itia, eight centuries later, claimed they had found James’s bones. There was thus much rejoicing at the equivalent of booking.com, as Santiago became an important centre of Christian pilgrimage. Incidentally, St James became the patron saint of all Spain..
In its heyday, Santiago attracted over a million pilgrims a year. Every day I was there, pilgrims were still arriving, having walked across Europe for 30 or 60 days to worship and pray at the tiny shoebox shrine of James, in the Cathedral. Records suggest that nearly 200,000 still make an annual pilgrimage. The Cathedral itself is a severe disappointment having been wrecked by Baroque architects in the 18th century. At the moment it is replete with scaffolding; nonetheless the small city is a delight. The local wines required nightly practice, especially the collection of Albariño’s and the market supplied fresh fish to taste of all sizes, and some with names and makes not heard before. “The Museum of Pilgrimage!” is magical and a must-see. It is beautifully and cleverly curated and takes a global religious approach as well as a local perspective. The best place to stay is the Paradore on the main square. It is charming and restful with a cafe and a tasteful Restaurant.
I then flew to Valencia via Madrid (two flights) to see the work of local boy and hero, Santiago Calatrava. Valencia is now the third biggest city in Spain (1.6m and counting). His “City of Arts and Sciences” is monumental and stretches over 35 hectares! They include an aquarium, an opera house (a palace of the arts), a planetarium-laserium-Imax, and an arts and science museum on the bed of the former river Tauris, which was diverted in 1957 following a catastrophic flood. The overspend was Eu600m from an original budget of Eu300m! It was completely rethought and has reinvigorated this city with a new port and improved infrastructure. But, I was not yet convinced that the burghers of Valencia had really settled on accepting Calatrava’s extravagance. (And before you ask, Yes there is also one of his celebratory bridges too).
The highlight for me was in having a rather sneaky meal of a lifetime at Ricard Camarena’s two star restaurant where an eleven course meal with accompanying tasting wines caused me to ring home to extend my mortgage. The beach is quite enticing too…and there are largely two star hotels along the front, and lots of them to choose from.
Premià de Mar was my next port of call which was a mere four hour rail journey twenty miles North of Barcelona for the said and wondrous wedding. Premià is one of a slew of super suburby-like villages which swathe the coastline with sandy beaches. The wedding was over two days with the final service starting at 9pm and finishing at 3am……..what a hoot.
I finished with a brief stay in Barcelona which is just such a super city. It has two of many jewels and one mounting concern. The first is the nearly finished ‘Sagrada Familia’, probably the greatest cathedral in the world. The city is confident it will be completed in 2026 to celebrate one hundred years since Gaudi’s death. I have already booked the tickets for the opening ceremony. I just may have made that up. The second is the way Barcelona FC is the glue which gives Catalonians their huge sense of pride and fierce wish for independence. The concern is the growing restlessness amongst its dispossessed youth where there is an alarming rise in street crime. Three friends told me they had their handbags stolen and I was approached in an alley by three teenagers near the Picasso Museum.
I have had a soft spot for Spain stretching back to 1988. A friend had lent me his pad in La Manga to recoup from a heavy filming schedule. But, though I was thrilled to sit in the sun, it was not for me. I hired a jeep and drove ten hours to Granada. On arriving in my cut off jeans and top, it was sleeting and a tad cold. I found a five star Michelin hotel and though it was late October the hotel said it was full. Really? For the first time in my life I took out the company’s gold card and amazingly all was forgiven. The first thing I did was to go out and buy some clothes more appropriate to the climate and the hotel.
I was unaware of the Lorca relationship with Granada and the upcoming five hundred years since Columbus had set sail for the Americas, having collected his funds from Ferdinand and Isabella. This started me thinking. Granada was about to celebrate 500 years, Seville was building Expo92, Madrid had won the competition to be the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1992 and Barcelona was host to the Olympics in 1992. “Ah’” I thought, “I should write a documentary series and call it ‘A Spanish Inquisition’.” I did, but bless them, the BBC people in their infinite wisdom called it ‘Fire in the Blood’ and even though I had found Ian Gibson, the Lorca expert, to present it, it lost its way. It was the unbelievable arrogance of the documentary executives at the Beeb which distressed me more.
Spain is in transition. Politicians come and go (this may sound a tad familiar). Catalonia desperately wants independence, whilst Madrid is frankly not sure what to do. It is as Messi, the greatest of many great Barcelona footballers, might have said: “All to play for”.