Mr. Hobson's Trip: SPAIN
Spain is a fascinating place even for the shortest visits; having the chance to spend an entire year there is simply wonderful. My wife’s father was born in a high valley in the Pyrenees, just south of the French border. He came to Canada during the difficult years of Franco’s rule, and after a career as a professor of Medieval Spanish drama at University of Toronto, retired along with his wife back to northern Spain. This gave our family the opportunity to spend our sabbatical year in Spain as well, and for my children to meet their Spanish relatives and get in touch with this part of their heritage. And for me to visit plenty of castles and other historical sites to my heart’s content.
We settled into a small provincial capital called Huesca, nestled into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The setting was spectacular. Aragon, the province we were in, is actually one of the most sparsely populated areas in western Europe, and so we were immersed a vast landscape of dry rolling hills, with farms, vineyards and orchards stretching up to dramatic mountains. In spring, when the almond trees are in bloom, the air is filled with a beautiful fragrance — it is nothing short of sublime. Summer is hard and dry, especially hot when masses of high pressure move up from the Sahara and bake the land. Fall is pleasant, still warm, and winter free of snow in the lower elevations, but the wind blows strong and harsh. It is a land of contrasts and extremes, both in its climate and in its history.
Huesca was a fine example of this. The founding of the city is lost in the mists of time: it was originally a prehistoric Celto-Iberian fortification called Bolskan. It was taken over by the Romans around 30 B.C., and was the site of a famous college. After the withdrawal of Roman power in the fifth century A.D., it became part of the Kingdom of the Visigoths, before being captured by the Moors in the eight century A.D. and renamed Wasqah. It was the site of fierce fighting during the Christian Reconquesta in the eleventh century. The latter is one of the best preserved early medieval castles in Europe, and was featured in the opening scenes of the movie Kingdom of Heaven. During the Spanish Civil War Huesca was the site of further intense battles, and the English writer George Orwell actually fought there with the Republican troops. Trenches from this time still litter the countryside. And the walls around the old city of Huesca were built and rebuilt by every conqueror. The oldest stones, around the base are worn by the winds into fantastical shapes.
Just to the north were the mountains, where I spent every moment I could. In the high Pyrenees there was also a wealth of even older history. I spent a lot of time in the Valley of the Rio Aragon, where my father in law was born. It is possible that this is the valley that Hannibal chose when crossing the mountains. It has been the central route across the Pyrenees since time immemorial. The valleys and hills of the area are covered with dozens of archaeological remnants of the third millennium B.C. megalithic culture of northern Europe that also gave us Stonehenge. Most are dolmens, sort of miniature stone houses which served as burial chambers, and are kind of creepy when evening is starting to close in, and you are still high up in the mountains, alone. Others are sacred circles, or the foundations of large ritual complexes. Nothing is more fascinating than to retrace a route two thousand metres up that has served as a ritual path for five thousand or more years, and to come to the ruins of the complex, surrounded by forbidding cliffs and daunting peaks, with eagles and vultures soaring above you, the stones echoing with their eerie cries.
Also humbling was watching my five year old daughter and three year old son learn to speak fluent Spanish in under two months, while I was still struggling mightily with my Spanish verbs at the end of the year. My son still thinks my Spanish is “muy divertido.” He laughs and answers me in English. Perhaps if I had studied harder, Señora Elliot. Esta facil para los jovens, y defacil para los viajos, mi creo.
Fascinating people, a rich history, a stark and beautiful landscape, wonderful food; Spain is a varied and wonderful country, rewarding the visitor in so many ways.