The Quarantine Blog: Chapter XXIV, Aug 5, 2021

Re Previous blog: A friend has criticized me for not making a sufficiently sharp demarcation between the early and late 1960’s. She is quite right. There was a big change with the first part of the decade being tentative and the last part much more strident.

The most touching response I received about the blog was from a friend in Nepal who explained how important the music of Dylan and others had been to his generation in that still largely isolated country.

And now a trip to Girona

In 1286 the French struck down through the Pyrenees to attack Girona on their way south. The city was a regular battle site for any army headed south. In this case it was King Peter the Great of Catalonia and Aragon against King Philip of France backed by Pope Martin IV, who had excommunicated King Peter. The Sicilian Vespers are part of this story, the Sicilians having massacred their French conquerors and elected Peter as their King. Entering the fortifications of Girona unopposed the soldiers were plundering, raping, and looting when they went into the church of Sant Felix, which contained the shrine of Sant Narcis, opened his tomb and were about to sacrilegiously hack his body to pieces when out of his belly erupted a snarling cyclone of flies.

“As big as acorns” they crawled up the nostrils of horses stinging them to death, 4,000 of them, and stung to death the soldiers as well. Partly black, partly green with traces of red, they were so poisonous they killed instantly.

This is why one can buy fly earrings in Girona, which I did on my first visit. I have a frog ring and when I saw the flies I thought it would be a display of good guardianship to buy him a pair of flies. They were delicately wrought of gilded silver filigree. But I lost one. In the female emotional structure the loss of an earring creates a vacuum with the insistent gravitational pull of a Black Hole.

However my present trip was in March, a year after I had written my first Quarantine Blog; we were still Covid bound but allowed to travel around Catalonia or whatever province in Spain we belonged to. I decided to go back to Girona because, a town on a mountain, it has just the right number of things to investigate. Another motivation was to replace the fly earrings.

I had not been on much public transport in that year of Covid quarantine—the metro three or four times, buses which I found easier to accept than the metro, once on an airplane to San Sebastian. I took a taxi to Sants and after a café con leche boarded the Renfe but could not find my seat. It turned out to be upstairs. I was adamantly unwilling to haul my bag up that twisty stair and then, in an hour or so, down again with the train moving. I went out to the platform leaving my bag with a young man who was standing in the entry to the car who wanted to know if I spoke French. He too was going to Girona.

I explained to the woman conductor on the platform that I was 84 and not about to drag maletas up and down narrow stairs. At this point the young man offered his seat to me. I thanked him fervently and the conductress seated me.

It is only about an hour to Girona. The train had no distancing whatsoever and I was sure the return trip would be the same. On arrival, I found a taxi and we drove up the mountain to the Hotel Historic in its lane to the right hand side of the cathedral. I like this hotel because it is next door to the cathedral but also because it is an old stone house with thick walls and tall windows that look out to the stone paved lane below them. It combines a medieval air with very hot water in superb bathrooms and a breakfast under stone arches with endless coffee.

I was too early to be checked in so I left my bag and walked to the church that was closed up tight as a can of peas. I went next door to the cathedral museum, which is entirely religious art. I knew I had been there before, yet I remembered nothing I was looking at until I came to a stone sarcophagus with a knight carved into it. Him I recalled and with him that I had been in gritty mood when I had been to the museum before. Apparently gritty moods destroy memory.

The knight’s name was Cruiiles, a very standard looking fellow in grey stone. In Barcelona my upstairs neighbor’s last name is Cruelles. I wondered if the later was a modern version of the former. Since returning I have asked her but she has never enquired into her family history.

This time I enjoyed the museum. There are column capitals from the 12th, 13th and 14th century with palm fronds and other vegetal decorations but also the occasional human, or almost, human face. The imagination of carvers of those centuries can be a little macabre presenting visages which wander between animal, human and sinister combinations but there was nothing as interesting as the face on a capital in the MNAC 8museo National de Arte Cataluña) in Barcelona which is either eating or vomiting a ram, a whole ram with horns. There is no Christian symbolism apparent here. No one knows who this ram-eater-vomiter is or what his meaning is.

There were endless paintings of very graphic sadomasochistic martyrdoms in which the martyr’s face is always in Swedish deadpan. He or she might be staring into a bowl of porridge while being flayed alive, dismembered or gouged with various instruments for for all the emotional content on his features. The Madonnas and their bizarrely limbed infants often have faces pulled about by unknown forces, but they were better than the carved wooden Madonnas who are early Catholic Cigar Store Indians.

I felt the painters and carvers had never really looked at women or children. Their men, however, are clearly individual with specific faces. One altarpiece had some real men who you would recognize in the street while the Madonna looked as though she had suffered a mild stroke.

Upstairs in an exhibit of old stained glass they show how the glass was cut and the variations of hues among the span of colors.

Their shop, tiny, had no fly earrings. I asked about the museum shop—closed for renovation. They suggested I ask about earrings at the tourist office down on Rambla Libertad.

I ambled down, now hungry, asking my way when I got lost, and found a café on La Rambla by the river with its low bridges where I had an excellent melon with ham followed by a fideu, also exceptionally good with shrimp, mussels and something unidentifiable which may have been pretending to be scallops.

I found the tourist office where a young woman in oversized glasses told me, as soon as I asked about fly earrings, the name and location of a shop I would pass on my way home.

I walked up hill, passed it, retraced my steps. It’s in the Call, the Jewish Quarter, and indeed, the dark burly man had fly earrings but not the same as those in the museum. These were larger, clunkier and in silver but I could have them gilded. The Cathedral shop won’t open until next June. As a friend of mine says, “We will go to any length to replace an earring.”

The next morning, Saturday, I did not make it to mass at the cathedral, which was at 8 because breakfast was not served until 8:30. As I exited the hotel I looked up and saw between the buildings dark smoke billowing up to close the sky channel of the street. There was a fire in a building across and down the lane. Standing near me was the owner of the hotel, also looking up. He introduced me to a grandmotherly woman standing on the other side of me. It was her house that was burning. She didn’t seem that distressed but within seconds her two grand daughters arrived, barefooted, in furry acid green and screeching pink zip up sleeping suits their faces swollen and wet with tears of fright. There were firemen. Since there was nothing I could do but commiserate, I did and then walked over to the cathedral now closed after mass.

It is always pleasant hanging out around it when the sun is out, looking down the steps or inspecting the carvings over the side entrance which, despite their often being inexplicable as the ram vomiting man—two serpent monsters, one with a rather malevolent woman’s head—I prefer to the rococo baroque front façade which I find Hallmark in its sentiments. There are serpent monsters with human heads that to my bemused amazement convey clearly that they have a low IQ. How do you manage to carve dim wittedness into stone?

The cathedral and the steps were part of the scenery of THE GAME OF THRONES, which I have not seen. The steps are of the variety that one has no difficulty imagining a body or bodies rolling down.

I was meeting two friends who have a masia not far outside of Girona. They arrived with their dog, Kramer, who is the calmest and possibly the most emotionally stable of the three. We had a coffee at a cafe with tables in front of the steps. This is, for me, what friends are for. I had intended last time to have a coffee here but had not done it. Being alone, there are things one doesn’t do which come quite without hesitation in company. J and I went into the baths together.

I have now seen a lot of Roman and Arab baths, these are 12th century Arab, in various parts of Spain but this is one of the nicest because it isn’t your usual—cold, tepid, hot carved in good strong well squared stones. There is as you enter a “reception area” of graceful elegance with a small pool at its center covered by a cupola on tall, slender columns. There are seats around the edge of the barrel-vaulted space: a serenity gently enfolds you. After this the rooms are much as usual but it is a ruin and you climb up stairs out of ceilingless rooms to look out over the ruin of the baths to the valley and up the green hill to where there are more ruins secreted in the whisper of trees. It is beautiful.

We walked down to toward the river, which I had not done before, stopping at a Romanesque church. Cataluña is rich in Romanesque ruins. The collection of frescoes rescued from abandoned country churches at the MNAC (Museo National de Arte Cataluña) in Barcelona is world famous. The church has been turned into a museum for temporary exhibits and had one on food on its walls. It is intimate with charming proportions; a chubby stone edifice wearing tiles roofs like Chinese farmers’ straw hats.

We walked along the river and came to the restaurant J and R had chosen among an animated row of eateries now full of people. I had delicious goat chops and Kramer was delighted to finish them off for me. We talked about everything from architecture, to real estate, to Russia and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. R, it was the first time I had met him although I have known J for many years, has perfectly greying hair, piercing dark eyes and an intellect to match.

We walked beside the river past the bright red hierro bridge, coming to a quarter of town I had not seen before with the usual international cloned shops. Here I left them, crossed a low stone bridge and started up hill to the hotel.

The next day, Palm Sunday, I went over to the cathedral for mass. There was a well-dressed, small crowd, given the size of the cathedral, with lots of children grasping the complicatedly braided and twined palm leaves that are de rigueur on this day in Spain. The priests looked elegant in elaborate vestments. Women wore hats and shushed children. Men, I was pleased to see, attended with their families. In Italy you can barely squirm your way through the crowd of men blocking the exit of any church.

There was a small but enthusiastic chorus accompanied by the organ which when musically on its own swelled its sound into the available space like a frog expanding its throat.

I had wanted to return to the church because of the memory I had from my first visit.  Entering its dim expanse—the nave is the second widest after St. Peters at 75 feet—I had seen floating before me an ethereal cloud of light which, after deciding that it was not a spiritual apparition, I identified as a silver baldacchino. It´s shape is not unlike the large white sheets or canvases that are strung up on roofs in the hottest months of summer in Spain. It shimmered, a spirit from the 13th century. It’s underside and outer curve dance with a multitude of figures, 137 saints and angels in rows, which you cannot make out without binoculars but the angles and curves of elbows, noses, knees and fingers refract frolicking light. It was created between 1292 and 1326.

On the high altar is another piece of what I think of as religious jewelry, a retable. It is silver, embossed plates, sometimes gilded, over a wooden core studded with cabochons, filigree and superb enamel of local manufacture. It crests into three towers that enclose figures in high relief of Saint Felix, Saint Narcis and the Virgin. It was begun in 1320 by the goldsmith Bartomeu and completed in 1358 by Ramón Andreu and Pedro Berneç. Again, to see the figures with any clarity you need binoculars. These colors, gold, silver and enamel with a rainbow of hues make me think of the Pala d’Oro in Saint Marks, Venice, which it postdates by 200 years. The altar is alabaster and was consecrated in 1038.

Having had time with the silver cloud while enveloped in the organ’s sound I crept out as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the celebrants. I asked the hotel owner about the people who had the fire. He rents apartments as well as hotel rooms and had given them one of his apartments for a few days. I gave him a contribution for the family remembering the sorrowing green and pink furries, ordered a cab and found the right station.  There are two. The train back to Barcelona was full, with no distancing just as I had thought. My not-quite-satisfactory silver fly earrings were in my purse.

3 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog: Chapter XXIV, Aug 5, 2021

  1. Karen
    Thanks for the blog. I haven’t been getting it for while. I liked the Catholic Cigar Store Indian. The life-size painted plaster saints in South Indian churches look like the brothers and sisters of the Hindu deities in the nearby temples. All children of God, one could say though one doesn’t.


  2. Finely written and long-awaited blog. An onsite history and art lesson (as well as vocabulary lesson) for those unacquainted with the intricacies of these long-forgotten antiquities.


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