Have Bag, Will Travel
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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!