The next morning, the night after the cyclone, we opened the shutters of the room and looked out into the storm battered streets Alghero looked rather damp, drenched, soggy and windswept, forlorn and feeling rather sorry for itself…
Tag Archives: Aragon
“This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel – nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.” D H Lawrence – ‘Sea and Sardinia’
Cheap flight tickets are top of a long list of good reasons to travel and when we spotted some reasonably priced return flights to Sardinia it didn’t take long to make a decision to visit the second biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea (just slightly smaller than Sicily).
The next morning, the night after the cyclone, when we opened the shutters of the room and looked out into the storm battered streets Alghero looked rather damp, drenched, soggy and windswept, forlorn and feeling rather sorry for itself.
In the lobby there were some newspapers and glancing through one looking for a weather forecast there was a two page spread about the storm and the deluge and the damage and a weather map which explained exactly why. It seemed however that whilst it seemed quite wild to us that Alghero had got off relatively lightly compared to the disruption and the flooding in Olbia which was where we were heading for our final day.
Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the whole island had been smashed and battered by strong winds and heavy rainfall causing huge widespread damage. Sardinia had been plunged into chaos as the cyclone slammed into the island, causing two months worth of rain to fall in just twenty-four hours.
We were in no rush though so this morning we attempted a second walk into the town and were delighted to see that overhead the clouds were occasionally breaking to show a patch or two of blue.
If Castelsardo reminded me of Istria and Dalmatia then Alghero had an immediate Spanish feel and this shouldn’t have been surprising because for nearly four hundred years it was part of the Aragon monarchy which was an empire that stretched as far as Sicily and Southern Italy.
Even today Catalan is recognised as an official language and street names appear in both Catalan and Italian. A good percentage of the population speak this language although being rather isolated from direct Catalan influence over the years the dialect of Alghero today is said to be similar to the language spoken in Catalonia between the middle of the fourteenth and the end of the seventeenth century which for an Algheran to speak to a Catalan today would be rather like me trying to have a sensible conversation with William Shakespeare.
As if to emphasise this Catalan connection Alghero has four twin towns, Tarragona and Balaguer in Catalonia, Encamp in Andorra (almost Catalonia) and Catalan speaking Palma in Majorca.
There is no getting away from an Iberian influence here and walking through the narrow streets of the old town it was easy to imagine being in Girona or Figueres. Enclosed by robust, honey-coloured sea walls the imposing medieval bastions and defensive towers mark out the unmistakable outline of the town and inside the walls there is a tightly knit enclave of shady cobbled lanes, Gothic palazzi and cafe-lined piazzas.
We navigated the city and as went peered down slightly shabby narrow streets, disfigured by graffiti, care worn but lived in with brightly colour-washed buildings with ancient coats of paint like fragments of history which have blotched and been blurred by a combination of successive harsh summers, equally hard winters and general neglect resulting in a glorious wash resembling water colours running in the rain, everything dripping and running, liquefying and merging, leaking and fusing.
The streets between the houses were like deep gullies made brilliant by vibrant washing lines even after a night of torrential rain strung outside of windows like carnival bunting as though in anticipation of a parade, stretching across the streets dripping indiscriminately and swaying gently backwards and forwards above the secret doorways and back alleys and with realistically today, in view of the weather, only an outside chance of drying out.
Everywhere there was water as we picked our way through the town north to south and then east to west and then walked around the battlements where below the sea continued to churn and surge as though someone was taking great pleasure in stirring it into a froth with a giant ladle.
If the weather had been better we almost certainly would have stayed a little longer, perhaps gone to the beach for an hour or so followed by lunch, but it wasn’t to be so we walked back to the car and on the way stopped at a supermarket called Nonna Isa which as it turns out is the leading supermarket business in Sardinia which you may not find especially fascinating but I mention this because Nonna Isa has a service that I fully approve of – it has a bar!
Now, if supermarkets in the UK had bars then I am absolutely certain that I would find shopping a whole lot more enjoyable. And it was cheap so before we did our shopping we found a table and had a beer, a Sardinian beer called Ichnusa which we had rather acquired a taste for over the last few days.
And so we left Alghero somewhat ahead of our carefully planned itinerary and drove east to the city of Sassari, the second largest in all of Sardinia where we would be staying overnight on our way back to Olbia.
We arrived at our hotel which turned out to be a sort of edge of city, functional but not too glamorous sort of place and after checking in and with nothing to excite us very much about the location we decided to bring forward the plan for tomorrow morning to visit Sassari city and do it this afternoon instead and so under leaden skies we drove to the centre.
The guide-book suggested some things to see but I should have consulted my friend Dai Woosnam on the matter because when he knew that I was in Sardinia he emailed me this – “We had an interesting time in Alghero about twelve years ago. Also recall being bored out of our skulls in the second city of Sassari.”
Dai is rarely wrong and he had hit the nail squarely on the head again this time. The guide-book said that it is possible to see the sights of Sassari in just a morning but having been there I reckon that you can do it in half an hour including time for a beer and a glass of wine. Sometimes when travelling it is possible to come across an unexpected gem, Bari in Puglia or Trujillo in Extremadura for example but sadly Sassari is not going to get a nomination from me to join that exclusive list.
To be fair the weather was awful, cold and wet and the streets were deserted, it may well be better on a warm sunny day but I have to say that I am most unlikely to ever test this out. Some places you vow to go back to, Sorrento for example, Sassari is sadly not one of them.
We had evening meal in the hotel and decided to abandon the itinerary altogether now and just leave early the next day and go directly back to Olbia.
Have you ever ended up somewhere desperately disappointing?
I visited the town of Borja in Aragon in Spain in April 2014 for no other reason than to see the wall fresco Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in the Sanctuary of Mercy church which is famous now not for the original but for the botched restoration attempt by local resident Cecilia Giménez, an eighty year-old amateur artist who painted over the fresco in 2012 in an attempt to restore it and succeeded only in completely destroying it.
The church painting was for decades a little-known piece of religious art by a minor Spanish artist. It had remained in peaceful obscurity in the Misericordia sanctuary since it was painted in 1930. That was until Gimenez decided it needed some attention and she set about her ill-judged restoration.
The attempt was so bad that the church and the authorities initially suspected vandalism but Cecilia eventually came forward to confess that she was responsible and had attempted to restore her ‘favourite’ painting after she became upset at the weathered condition of the flecked and peeling paint.
There was talk of prosecution and punishment but soon the retouched version grew popular. The image started appearing without authorisation on everything from T-shirts to mobile phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels. Just like ourselves may people began to arrive in Borja asking to see the painting.
The council started charging an entrance fee of €1, giving the money to the Sancti Spiritus charitable foundation, which used the windfall to help pay bills at a care home for 60 elderly people. The savvy council also instructed lawyers to establish copyright and draw up a merchandising agreement that will see the image put on plates, postcards and cigarette lighters and anything else that tourists might buy.
Every cloud has a silver lining!
I have travelled to Spain now several times and have rarely, if ever, had a day of disappointments or disaster but this was to be one of them.
There was no way of knowing this of course as we enjoyed the home made breakfast at the Casa Rural Posada los Cuatro Canos or as we loaded the car and drove out of Sigüenza with the intention of visiting the city of Zaragoza about two hundred kilometres away. I should have had the sense to realise that a journey of that distance was rather too ambitious to be enjoyable but I have a personal objective of visiting each of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain and the opportunity to make Aragon the fifteenth was enough for me to selfishly insist on this rather long and arduous journey.
At first things went well, the sun was shining and we drove across a landscape the colour of modern armies – buff, khaki, olive green and mule grey, all rather harsh with saw-edged escarpments, limestone boulders rising through the earth like skeletal bones and just now and then some cultivated land close to the infrequent villages every few kilometres or so along the highway; it reminded me of the sheer immensity of La Mancha in such contrast to the topography of the United Kingdom.
The road continued over the barren landscape until it came to the unremarkable town of Alcolea del Pinar and then we joined the A2 Autovia and entered a flat windswept plateau of yellow moorland and occasional green forest and home to the Maranchon Wind Farm. Spain provides more than 12% of its energy from wind farms and we drove past hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of turbines, certainly too many to count for kilometre after kilometre after kilometre. There were enough windmills here to give objectors in the UK a real orgasm of disapproval and certainly more than enough to put Don Quixote in a spin!
It was about now that I began to question my judgement because Zaragoza suddenly seemed an awful long way away as we crossed the barren plain, a wilderness really with no trees, no animals, no birds and only the occasional village or hamlet a kilometre or two away from the road. We drove ever further on a highway carved through though a landscape of windy canyons and red sandstone buttes sculptured by erosion into curious shapes and patterns and occasionally topped with a long abandoned castle or a solitary ragged keep as a constant reminder that a thousand years ago this was the front line in the Arab occupation of the peninsular.
We were travelling quickly but still Zaragoza seemed to get no closer, 120 kilometres, 110, 100, 90, 80 and about two-thirds of the way there I was really beginning to regret the decision to go there and back in just one day especially as we had to be back quite early to see the Semana Santa Parade later.
Eventually we arrived in the city after two hours of driving and then things went spectacularly wrong. First the Satnav lady sent me up a one way street the wrong way (on reflection my fault for not having bought a software upgrade) and then I got hopelessly lost and entered into a futile argument with her.
What I had failed to appreciate is that Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain and therefore quite naturally quite difficult to navigate for a stranger with a Satnav that couldn’t be trusted. I drove around a couple of times and just got pointlessly stressed and angry and intimidated by the traffic so after a wasted thirty minutes I made a decision to drive back out and leave. Stupid, completely stupid!
I really wanted to see Zaragoza and now I have been there but I haven’t been there and my friend Dai Woosnam would surely point out that this just doesn’t count and certainly doesn’t entitle me to cross it off my list so it looks as though I will have to go again but next time I will do the sensible thing and fly there and stay in the city for a couple of days.
Accepting Dai’s impeccable logic there was now also a danger that I couldn’t even say that I had been to Aragon so it occurred to me that I better find somewhere to stop the car and put my feet down on Aragonese soil.
Eventually we reached the small town of Magallón where, tired of my constant doubting of her interpretation of the Satnav instructions, Kim insisted that I stop the car and we find somewhere for a drink. Actually, she threw the Satnav tablet at me!
Magallón is a small dusty, one street and a single plaza sort of town which I guess doesn’t really get a lot of English visitors and our presence at the pavement table at a roadside bar seemed to generate rather a lot of interest as the local people stared at us with some curiosity. Eventually one man came to our table and was obviously keen to practice his English. As he sipped his large glass of red wine he told us that he was a long distance lorry driver and that very evening he was taking a consignment of Andalucian cauliflowers to the UK and he said that he would be there and back in seventy-two hours. That seemed this morning’s little journey into some sort of greater perspective so I reflected on that and started to relax.
After a while sitting in the sun we paid the bill and made our way to the neighbouring town of Borja where I thought we might rescue the day by seeing the fresco Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in the Sanctuary of Mercy church which is famous now not for the original but for the botched restoration attempt by Cecilia Giménez, an eighty year-old amateur artist living locally who painted over the fresco in an attempt to restore it and succeeded only in completely destroying it.
I’d like to tell you that we got to see it but sadly I can’t. The Sanctuary of Mercy church is some way out of the town where we had parked the car and I had no further appetite for squabbling with the Satnav lady especially as, to be fair, she wasn’t to know that half the roads in the town were closed on account of the Palm Sunday Parade and there were several confusing diversions in place. So I have been there but I haven’t seen it.
I pointed the car in the general direction of the Autovia and began the long journey back. A disaster day but at least I can say that I have been to Aragon. Just two to go now, Navarre and La Rioja.
The original, the damaged and the restored!
The seven hundred year period between 722 and 1492 has long been known to historians of Spain as the ‘Reconquista’ and the Spanish have organised their medieval history around the drama of this glorious event which over time has become a cherished feature of the self-image of the Spanish people.