Gael Elton Mayo (1921-92) journalist, writer and artist, was a contributor to Harpers & Queen, Apollo, Interiors and The Observer.
Spain is a ‘place apart’ from Italy, France and the other Latin countries, with a very individual character, only partly explained by her language and history. The language contains many Arabic words; the Moors left much of their character in Spain after their defeat; Moorish mosques were converted into Catholic cathedrals; Romany lore is present in the flamenco songs of love which are always sad. But there is also a mystery — in the inhabitants’ pride, dignity and aloofness, and it is this inexplicable element that makes them so fascinating.
A traveller might start their journey into Spain by crossing the French frontier at Le Perthus, after which the first major town would be Gerona, standing out on the hillside, showing the coveted site for which it was so often besieged. Inside the old part of the town the streets are chasms too narrow for the sun to reach. The stranger feels compelled to stroll there, drawn into the core of a city where the Middle Ages seem to live on. “City of a thousand sieges”, it was called, from Iberian and Roman times until later, when its people organised several battalions against Napoleon, including one entirely of women.
Alternatively one can go along the coast and visit Cadaquez, a small fishing port. Here Salvador Dali lived and painted many versions of the beautiful back of Gala, the woman he later married. Much of this coast has been developed, but there are still small unspoilt creeks and beaches, and the Costa Brava has kept its own atmosphere inland. The wrought iron signs in the villages are like superstitious images; in Bagur there is a weird allegorical bird that swings from one street corner. Inland in Catalonia the food is unusual. Catalans like goose liver in vinegar or gander liver with cherries. But is this really Spain? Here they dance the sardana (imported long ago by the Greeks), they speak their own language; are less emotional and more practical. They say they have affinities with the French, who they greatly admire. Catalans are proud of their capital. One energetic Barcelona businessman, José Luis Cerbera, told me: “We are not like the Castilians. They in Madrid are a lazy lot, we do all the work for them; it is we who keep Spain going.” He has fifteen factories and rises at five each morning (which does not stop him dancing the sardana at weekends!)
Driving south, the traveller reaches Tortosa where the Ebro was called “the river that ran blood” in the Civil War (150,000 died there in 1938 when the Nationalists won). Lines of cypresses along the hills near Tortosa are reminiscent of Italy. Next comes Valencia, the third largest city in Spain, with a character entirely its own. In March each year there is a carnival where all the carpenters of the town make bonfires of their wood shavings, and the townsfolk throw effigies of people they dislike into the flames. Watching this from a café terrace, one ponders . . . could the origin of the strange performance go back to 1102, when Ximena, widow of El Cid, set fire to the town? Her husband first besieged and captured it with 7,000 men following a nine-month siege and then was tragically killed. She held Valencia for three years against the Moors.
Valencia is a greedy town where food is peculiar: sea bass with apples or cider; steak with fresh strawberry juice. Tb the south, on the banks of the river Turia, lies a fertile plain, known as the Huerta, where in spring the rice fields are as brilliantly emerald green as Ireland. Paella was invented here. The Huerta has so many orange trees they can be counted in millions, growing right down to the beaches. There is a large port where, apart from the usual shipping traffic, the small yellow fishing boats still come in from Mallorca or Tarragona, manned by tribes of sea-people speaking their own dialects.
The irrigation system of the Huerta was started by the Romans, then improved by the Moors, and is still used today. So is the Moorish trench system for the sugarcane fields near Nerja, farther south. In the early evening there, when the dams have been lifted from these small ditches, the paths to the beaches become torrents. The Moors are remembered for their ferocity, but were in truth also industrious and efficient.
He who says the Mediterranean is ruined should visit Spain out of season. Smell the orange trees in blossom or see their fruit in November, like lanterns shining and illuminating the autumn; or see Lorca’s “olive-trees waiting for the night of Capricorn” — olives are ripe in December. Or let him visit Andalusia in January or February when the mimosa is in flower and large white ‘cow-birds’ sit on the backs of the animals in the fields. Or go north to visit Tossa on the Costa Brava for the feast of Corpus Christi, when the streets are strewn with yellow broom flowers, collected from the hills by the village children.
In Murcia there is a grim Lenten procession of ghostly people clad in mauve — followed by a riotous pageant to celebrate the end of Lent, with the ceremonial burial of a sardine. In Andalusia witches are tolerated by the Church. Elche is another town worth a visit, especially when the dates are ripe in the largest palm grove in Europe planted by the Phoenicians. It is said that the dogs on Ibiza are descended from those of the Phoenicians. Certainly there is a particular type of mongrel that roams there: long, elegant, rather sad and detached, somewhat like a wild greyhound. Everywhere round the Mediterranean there is a perpetual consciousness of antiquity. The past is contained in and enriches the present. Robert Graves says the dogs are descended from the hounds of the Egyptian goddess Anubis.
For a Spanish holiday in full summer, but away from crowds and modem development, it is possible to go ten miles inland and find a way of living that is the same as it has been for centuries. Farther inland, behind Honda on the Costa del Sol, villages like Grazalema are quite unspoilt. Nearer the sea there is Mojacar, a Moorish village frequented by writers and painters. Both the Greeks and the Romans called the Costa Blanca “white”, for its strong light and the luminosity of its skies. And long before they came, before Ulysses, before Christ, people were already crossing and re-crossing this inland sea to see each other’s countries, to fight, but also to settle.
The Spanish coast has many ruined watchtowers, used during the incessant battles with the Moors. Hurtado de Mendoza, in his account of the last armed struggle on Spanish soil between Christianity and Islam, said, “Like the owls and dragons in the Book of Isaiah, Christian and Moor fouled a paradise they could not, would not share”. Now that the battle is long over, the paradise remains.
When a twentieth-century traveller arrives in Spain, however much or little s/he knows of its history, the first sight of the aquamarine sea through the bamboo thickets or the grey olives on red earth, the unforgettable smell of the vegetation, the view of what Lorca called “misty grapes and clustered mountains”, must give a surge of pleasure. There will always be a special magic in the Spanish Mediterranean coast that Rose Macaulay called “the fabled shore”.
Copyright © Estate of Gael Elton Mayo. First published in Harpers & Queen, January 1985. The copyright to all the content of this site is held by the individual authors and creators. All rights reserved. Enquiries: please use the contact form