“Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dali.” – Salvador Dali (of course)
After a second leisurely night in Besalú the following morning we woke early and despite the high temperatures (the hotel receptionist called it a ‘heat wave’) there was no longer putting off our planned visits to the cities and today we were going to start with the town of Figueres which is most famous for being the birthplace of Salvador Dali and the home of the Dali museum.
It was only a short drive and very soon we left the countryside and were entering the narrow one way roads of the town that were like deep ravines between the high buildings on either side, long and straight as though cut with the precision of a cheese wire and all converging on the busy centre. Finding a parking spot wasn’t easy but eventually we arrived at the central station with a large car park and even though it was a little way out of the town we left the Cabby there and walked in through various busy squares, the town market that was in full swing today, past a statue of St George slaying the dragon (St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia) and the cool and leafy Las Ramblas whilst all the time following signs to the Dali Theatre Museum.
It was only half past ten but when we found it there was already an untidy fifty metre long queue meandering around the front of the building and after we had established that this meant a wait of thirty to forty minutes we took it in turns to line up while one or the other of us went off to see the adjacent sites and various bits of Dali’s surrealist art work.
Surrealism originated in the late 1910s as a literary movement that experimented with a new mode of expression called automatic writing, or automatism, which sought to release the imagination of the subconscious. It officially began in 1924 with the publication of the ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’ by the poet André Breton and became an international intellectual and political movement aligned mostly to the left wing communists and anarchist movements. Breton and his followers were influenced by the psychological theories and dream studies of Sigmund Freud and the political ideas of Karl Marx and using Freudian methods of free association their poetry and prose drew upon the private world of the mind, traditionally restricted by reason and societal rules, to produce surprising and unexpected imagery.
The queue shuffled slowly forward towards the ticket office with a solitary member of staff on duty and it seemed as though there were several different purchase options available and everyone in the line went through all the various permutations at least twice. Everyone had a query to be resolved or a discount voucher that had to be carefully scrutinised as soon as they got there but eventually we were inside and in the first of many rooms displaying the mad work of Dali.
Or maybe not mad because he himself allegedly once proclaimed that “there is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”
I am not a great lover of the works of Dali I have to say, I wouldn’t hang one in my front room, but even I could appreciate the genius of most of this ecclectic work that seemed to me to be the product of a mixed up mind as though its contents had spent some time in a food blender.
It is difficult to pin Dali down for during his life he at various times claimed to be both a communist and a monarchist, a republican and a nationalist, a catholic and an agnostic and with so many conflicting changes of direction that his mind surely have been in a permanent spin. He delighted in confusing people and would sometimes conduct interviews in a mixture of Catalan, Spanish, French and English but my favourite story is that he was also known to avoid paying tabs at restaurants by drawing on the checks he wrote and his theory was that the restaurant would never want to cash such a valuable piece of art.
The museum is only small but is full to the brim with his art and sculpture, his illustrations and collections in a sort of wild and random style that he put together himself and probably comes closest to providing an insight into what it must have been like to be him with his head overflowing with ideas and creativity.
Outside the museum and back on the streets of Figueres we walked around the busy vibrant streets, found a pavement café for lunch and then walked along Las Ramblas to the Sant Ferran Castle which, with a perimeter wall of over five kilometres, is the largest monument in Catalonia built in the eighteenth century because the Spanish were growing weary of the various and frequent French invasions. It is the largest fortress of its type in Europe and commands an almost impregnable position on the top of a hill overlooking the town.
So impregnable was it in fact that in 1938 as the Spanish Civil War drew to a close what was left of the Republican Government retreated to Figueres and took up occupation of the castle and on February 1st 1939 the very last session of the legitimate Government took place here shortly before going into exile and the fall of Figueres to the Nationalist army. Paradoxically a town and a fortress that historically had tried to keep people out from France now became the focus for the organisation of republican refugees escaping from Spain and crossing the border in the opposite direction.
It was the middle of the afternoon, siesta time now and the town was all but closed as we walked back to the railway station, picked up the car and drove the short distance back to Besalú and we were pleased to get back and find a shady spot in the main square and let the rest of the day slip rather carelessly through our fingers before our thoughts turned to evening meal and dining arrangements.