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Travel and Places (1)

El Antiguo Convento, Cordoba

From Malaga to Cordoba

It began at Malaga airport as I searched for a car to hire in the labyrinths of the airport parking spaces; momentarily, on Level Minus 1, the myth of the Minotaur came alive: suddenly I was engulfed by hot heavy diesel fumes pulsing from a large parked van; matters scarcely improved when, next to me, a cleaner decided to rid her broom of two-hours worth of car-park dust. The English tourists, the primitivo crowd that sediments itself west of Malaga, began to argue loudly amongst themselves and bring shame onto their nation… But we finally secured a car (the process of which was managed by a sharp shock-haired Latino girl from New Jersey) and set off for Cordoba.

As I travelled along the sweeping motorways of Malaga, I saw the unimaginative geometries of the new Spain – of its cities encircled by pink and yellow and beige tower blocks – uniformly unrelenting – homes to a million people programmed into the false paradise of modernism. Moving north we passed dried up Rios or Rios barely trickling with life and on through the bleached weathered mountains that looked like messengers from Pluto – and we listened to the hip Spanish DJs – the rat-a-tat-tat Julios – singing the praises of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this way’. (I know I’m really not supposed to say this but I like Lady Gaga and her songs.) And I saw desertic tracts of land cut and etched by the wrath of storms, gulches scorched – but touched with a rash of grasses, then sudden bright red fields of scarlet poppies, and pale green meadows, and dark green cypresses, striped orchards and regiments of olive trees, armies of potato fields… And all along, I heard a poem by Gloria Fuertes and I thought of her and the gorgeous craziness of love …

Out in the big spaces, out and under the blinding sun, the sky forgot it was supposed to be blue. It dazzled – like the brilliant works of art in the contemporary art museum back in Malaga. Then, bit by bit I found a kind of perspective: away from all the stark reminders of how we live now, of how we are so virtual I reconnected with half-dead dreams, with slowing things down and with a kind of freedom.

Let’s stop! Amidst the wild flowers something shimmered in the near distance. A troubadour? Why not? Singing songs about boots of Spanish leather … A lizard ran, a hawk hung, a clock ticked … and the road called again. Soon, the signs began to shout ‘Cordoba’.

On approaching the great city I recalled Graham Greene’s ‘old-school’ travel writing: He declared that, ‘When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of a long journey are picked up again: a factory is followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas works by a modern church: the houses begin to tread on each others heels, advertisements for cars, for the good life, swarm closer and closer together … and at last there are only houses, houses, houses …’ (Except, of course, now there are apartment blocks and apartment blocks and apartment blocks … and signs for cosmetic surgery …)

Cordoba: great wide avenues and suddenly impossibly narrow streets in the old old barrios.

I loved being in Cordoba. I stayed in El Antiguo Convento. I found it quite by chance in the mazy streets of the old quarter. It’s exactly the kind of place that somehow mixes austerity with comfort: the mystical calm peace of a convent that blended Moorish symmetry with the conflicted impulses of Catholicism. The owners had decorated the place with vitrines full of old clock mechanisms and 70s or 80s Album covers, including Talking Heads, The Clash, Tom Waits, Queen – and little playmobile men, old-style music centres that played tapes and records and a powder blue typewriter with odd bits of typed text all randomly assembled. Superb!

I wish I could have stayed there much longer. It was so good to be away from the fat tourists who loll about vacantly on the Costa del Sol; So good to be free of all that fleshy blankness. We visited the astonishing Mezquita and the conservatories of dance and of music …

One of the reasons I so enjoy being in cities that are drenched in history, politics and high culture is that I keep coming across the unexpected: like seeing the headquarters of the Communist Party just off the Plaza de las Tendillas or finding four tiny orphaned kittens living under a huge wooden door near to the Guadalquivir or remarking, when we arrived in the late afternoon, how the famous Guadalquivir was almost motionless, just lying there indolently, the colour of a good old-fashioned pea soup, only for storms on the distant mountains to transform it into a simmering café creme torrent the next morning.

And still I heard Gloria Fuertes poem ‘I Think Table And I Say Chair’:

I think table and I say chair,
I buy bread and I lose it,
whatever I learn I forget,
and what this means is I love you.

The harrow says it all
and the huddled beggar,
the fish that flies through the living room,
the bull bellowing in his last corner.

Between Santander and Asturias
a river runs, deer pass,
a herd of saints passes,
a great load passes.

Between my blood and my tears
there is a tiny bridge,
and nothing crosses; what
this means is I love you.

Between Malaga and Cordoba – there lie the potato fields and the bright sun. A lizard runs; a hawk hangs … blood on the wing. Between Malaga and Cordoba – the big spaces – memories of reading Freud in the gardens of the Alhambra – that glorious sublimation – and thinking about paradise on earth.

City centre, Cordoba

The Communist Party Headquarters, Cordoba

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