Spain and Italy

Sat in a poky internet basement in Brescia, northern Italy. Here’s some snapshots of recent weeks…

Granada

Sun burst

A wonderful city, nestled between the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the surrounding near-deserts. The Alhambra is a spectacular must, but also well worth a visit is the little museum up Sacromonte, the hill just opposite the one dominated by the Alhambra. It preserves cave dwellings in use by a famed flamenco dancer and her family until floods in the 1960’s, and houses art left by artists who visit the village in the summer.

Barcelona

Arrived in the morning after an all-night train from Granada. I’d gathered from Flickr’s graffiti tag page that Barcelona’s a modern graffiti hub, but nothing prepared me for the cascades of the stuff adorning the railways sidings, even from many miles outside the city.

Hit a bit of a downer here and didn’t fully appreciate it. Another time. At least the squid ink paella was amazing.

Galicia

A gruelling 18 hour train journey from Barcelona landed me in Santiago de Compostela, the city famed as the alleged burial place of Saint James, and the (near) end-point of the pilgrimage route named after him. I stayed in a good little place called Meiga (“witch”) Hostel on Plaza Galicia. I asked about the witch thing—seemed strange that such a Christian place would be so overflowing with witchiness, to the point of there being performance artists dressed as witches in the square in front of the cathedral. Well, apparently it’s just a local “thing”. Rural Galician villages are supposed to be full of the wrinkly old spell-casters, and tourism has fully capitalised.

Got slightly cornered here by the Easter holidays (my planned drive through the Pyrenees suddenly became very expensive due to rocketing car hire prices), but also by my wish to just go somewhere quiet, camp, search for rock art, and reflect. I spent most of the time here at Camping Ancoradoiro, a great campsite on the end of the peninsula near Muros. It seemed to be run by two brothers, very friendly guys, one of whom ran the campsite while the other ran the adjoined (rather swish) restaurant, and mowed the grass.

I was blessed with some highly unusual (for Galicia in the spring) blistering sunshine, but cursed with a combination of a highly inaccurate “Mapa Topografica” (the closest Spain has to Ordnance Survey maps) and some impossibly elusive rock art. I spent one whole sweaty day getting scratched to shreds by gorse, and found not one of the eight rock carvings I looked for. Oddly, I wasn’t pissed off—the walk through the hills was wholly fulfilling.

A couple of video curiosities. Walking up through a village towards some rock art, I happened upon a little cat with one of those sharp, unmistakable “I been a bad pussycat” wide-eyed expressions. I couldn’t tell whether it had just eaten a lizard or just scared the tail off one, but the tail remained on the ground, squirming with reflexive life (via YouTube). And, walking down a path made out of boulders from a hill behind a monastery, I stopped when I heard a regular drawn-out hissing noise, followed by a thick bubbly sound. It sounded like a massive viper poised for attack in the company of a savage wild boar snuffling in the mud. It actually turned out to be some odd thing going on with the water underneath the path, which I never fully worked out. Watch the seething little pool with awe! (via YouTube)

My time in Santiago convinced me that I want to walk the Camino (the pilgrim’s route) at some point. There seems to be a prehistoric lineage to the route that has some interesting associations—at least from the tidbits I picked up. It being the burial place of Saint James, together with the fact that the route heads westwards towards the Atlantic’s setting sun, obviously associates the pilgrimage with death. What’s more, many pilgrims carry on past Santiago to what they regard as the real end of the road—Finisterra (also called Fisterra), right on the coast. It seems the Romans thought this was the westernmost point in Europe (it isn’t quite), and it’s hard to know whether the correct translation of the placename is the familiar-sounding (and hence less resonant) “Land’s End”, or the more deathly and grandiose “End of the World”. There’s also an etymology of the city’s name that derives “Compostela” from the Latin for “field of the star”. Supposedly Saint James chose his burial place according to a star that hovered over the city. However, if it could be taken as “star field”, or even as having come from a plural, “field of stars”, something more interesting arises. Apparently, the Camino itself has often been referred to as “the Milky Way”, a reference usually casually associated with the sheer number of pilgrims being compared to the density of stars in the galactic band across the sky. However, I (as ever) wonder… Could the association be more to do with the Milky Way’s almost global reputation as the path that souls take after death?

This is how I reasoned from the scraps of information I picked up. Obviously I’ll have to do some proper research to flesh things out. I just found a piece about Galicia that ascribes the “star above the city” myth to someone discovering James’ tomb. Interestingly, that author also refers to Charlemagne having a dream of “a shining path of stars above the Milky Way which led to Compostela”. Also mentioned is the fact that the coastline north from Finisterra is called The Coast of Death. I’d gathered that this was from its long reputation as a shipping hazard, from ancient times through to modern oil tanker disasters. But it’s always worth spreading your net wide before you sort through your catch when fishing for psychospiritual gems in a landscape…

Oddly, and very sadly, death become real at the end of the Camino for a Danish woman I met in the hostel. I was talking with her in the kitchen about a friend of mine whose father is planning on walking the Camino, and about the fact that I’d gathered his wife had some concerns about him doing it due to his recent ill health. The Danish woman said she thought a wife should never stand in the way of her husband doing something, even if she’s extremely concerned for his health. She left the kitchen for a minute, then came back streaming with tears. She’d just found out on the phone that her husband had just died. She said he’d wanted to walk the Camino with her, but was busy with the work he loved so much. Of course she was devastated, but also wracked with a multiplied sense of inexplicability. Why did this sudden, unforeseen tragedy commemorate her completion of this sacred route?

Florence

Florence sunset

Impossibly beautiful, everything it’s said to be and more. I instantly loved Florence, and even the hoardes of tourists totally fail to dampen the atmosphere of the city. The famed Uffizi Gallery, home to a staggering array of medieval and Renaissance art, is well worth the two-hour-plus queue (though obviously it’s better to plan ahead and book).

Val Camonica

I’d long been interested in this area through studying rock art in Britain, especially near Ilkley in West Yorkshire, and especially the Swastika Stone—which has a near-identical double here in alpine Italy.

The carvings here are radically different from Britain, though. For a start, the rocks are different—exposed outcrops that dwarf even those in Kilmartin, Scotland—and are made distinct by the sinuous glacial erosion. Interestingly, there are next to no cup-and-ring designs here, which are common in Britain and Galicia, where these cup-marks surrounded by concentric rings often occur near large natural basins in the rock. One carving in Galicia seemed to combine the natural basin and the concentric rings, leading me to wonder if the basins formed some sort of inspiration for the cup-marks, as natural flat-topped hills may have inspired Silbury. There are no basins in evidence in Val Camonica, but the lack of cup-and-rings seems to be more down to just an entirely different tradition than due to a lack of natural basin inspiration. The carvings themselves are very “light”, made with little pecks into the rock rather than deep grooves—possibly down to the hardness of the rock. And most glaringly, even though Galicia’s art sports numerous animals and some people, Val Camonica is in a league of its own regarding representations. Huge chaotic sprawls of carvings depict hunting scenes, ploughing, fighting, dwellings, animals, people, as well as a host of more abstract and “religious” imagery.

If you visit, head for the town of Capo di Ponte and look for signs to the museum or the Naquane park. There are many other sites nearby, but this is the place to start off. My time there was marred by a stunning bout of allergy suffering, my first since I left England. Now I’m back out of the Alps, I’m fine again. Such a shame to be allergic to nice places!

Books I’ve been reading

I spent much of my time chilling in Galicia avidly reading Steven Mithen’s fascinating book The Prehistory of the Mind. It’s a bit old now (1996), but it’s one of the best coherent theories of the evolution of consciousness I’ve read. It’s based on the recently popular concept of “mental modules”, where the mind contains specialized areas (perhaps, but not necessarily, corresponding to neural regions) that deal with major cognitive functions, such as those related to tool use, socialisation, and language (perhaps some invisible debt here to Leary & Wilson’s 8-circuit model?). Mithen argues that proto-hominids evolved these modules, but the extra “something” that made Homo sapiens so special is the ability to apply ideas from one region to another, which he terms “cognitive fluidity”. It basically rests human consciousness on the slippery foundations of capacity for metaphor and analogy. It’s immensely frustrating, though, to read a hefty tome that bases its theory of consciousness on the development of such “fluidity”, that makes no mention whatsoever of psychedelic plants—not even to dismiss the idea that they contributed in some way to the evolution of consciousness. I can hear Terence McKenna turning in his grave, albeit with a wry “What do you expect?” grin on his face. How these people can claim to be doing their job sometimes staggers me. Maybe Mithen will at least tell us why he avoided such an obvious topic (for those who have read the relevant literature and been to the relevant all-nighters) in his more recent work.

For the train ride to Florence and beyond, I picked up a copy of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. His Guns, Germs & Steel had been recommended to me, so his latest, looking at why societies in the past (Mayan, Anasazi, Easter Island, Norse Greenland) and present (Rwanda) disintegrated, seemed worth checking out. It is indeed an excellent book. Even though Diamond started the project aiming to look exclusively at ecological reasons for such collapses, he was forced to avoid “environmental determinism” and take into account other factors—most notably social values, and responses to environmental crisis—as well. What results is a fascinating, detailed lesson (or rather, course) in history, ecology, sociology and economics. Diamond treads an individual enough path to have both strident environmentalists and “eco-sceptics” in sharp disagreement with certain points, but his message is clear: global society is in grave ecological danger, and if we don’t start living within our means pronto, what will result is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario that, in order to dismiss calls for action as “doomsaying”, the sceptics love to attribute to environmentalists. He saves the best until last: a brilliant, scathing and largely unarguable dismissal of the most common “one-liner” dismissals of environmental concerns (such as “Environmental doomsayers have been wrong in the past” and “Technology will save us”). Read it, weep, and get off your arse.