Friday, August 31, 2012

Roncesvalles and Roland

Roncesvalles is important historically for a couple reasons. It was the site of the events celebrated in The Song of Roland, the first and still best-known Medieval epic poem, which told of Charlemagne's foray into Spain to battle the Moors (or someone else) and of the ambush and death of his faithful lieutenant Roland, who was bringing up the rear. (Military insight: in “retiring actions,” you always want to be in the vanguard, not the rearguard). There is quite a bit of poetic license in The Song of Roland, as I recall, but that's what makes good stories, despite the fact that the truth is indeed stranger. We saw this earlier with Shakespeare. Anyhow, The Song of Roland was important to literary development in the Middle Ages, etc., and Roncesvalles is therefore important. It is also important historically as a major stop on the Santiago de Compostuela pilgrimage trail, one of the three really major pilgrimages of the Middle Ages (the others being Rome and Jerusalem). St. Jimmie, you will recall from my Santiago post of 2009, was mostly about kicking the Moors out of Spain, and Roncesvalles would have been important commemoratively in view of Charlemagne's ongoing war with the Moors and everyone else. So we had to go there. Besides, Roncesvalles was on the most direct route back to France, and we hadn't had a real baguette in days. I am sure Charlemagne was feeling much the same.
The "silo" of Charlemagne; late medieval

Chapel of Santiago (ditto)

Stone commemorating the Battle of Roncesvalles (778)

Full service abbey

Inside the dark abbey church: a Divine Illumination Machine;
haven't seen one of these since Rome; 8 minutes for a euro!



Old-looking carving on a tomb

The abbey

Good news, Pilgrims! Only 790 km to go! (nearly 500
miles); and mostly downhill!

A "menhir" (dated 1967) marks the spot where Roland fell, or
where the battle occurred; or something

A somewhat older-looking monument not far away

The environs; hot, dry, harsh; ripe for ambush; we proceeded directly and
cautiously back to France


Unlike in 2009, we did get to Pamplona this time, not for the running of the bulls nor the running of the nudes, but for the running of the wash and the wifi. Travel is sometimes just the mundane stuff. Even dealing with laundromats (if you can find them) in different languages and cultures can be exciting, however. Always remember, for example, that the rest of the world uses the Celsius scale. You do not want to wash your clothes at 90 degrees Celsius. Speaking of which, the temperatures in Pamplona were in the low 100s (Fahrenheit), the feral bulls were nowhere to be seen, and I neglected to take pix of either the McDonald's or the lavanderia. But we did get to Pamplona finally.

Bilbao Guggenheim 2

More of our visit to the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. See the previous post for a little commentary.

Bilbao Guggenheim 1

Gaudi in the morning, the Bilbao Guggenheim in the afternoon. It was a pretty good day of art and architecture. And not unrelated, too. From the organic structures of brick and tile and iron and wood and color of Gaudi, more than a century ago, we pass to the glass, titanium, limestone, colorless, huge, billowing, “organic,” hardly a straight line except for floors and elevator shafts, lines of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. Memories of the Sydney Opera, the Ba'Hai Lotus Temple in New Delhi, both of which I disliked. But the Bilbao Guggenheim grows on you, particularly when you consider the contemporary art it is intended to contain. In fact, its major defect is that the “building” itself overshadows anything it could contain. Not a good thing for a museum. Well, almost anything. The Bilbao aire is on a hill overlooking the valley and city from the west. Buses run to the city center and its tram and metro systems every 20 minutes. We checked in in the early afternoon, temperatures already in the 90s, and quickly took the bus down to see the Guggenheim and a bit of the city. The Bilbao Guggenheim is by no means the most wonderful thing we have seen, though it's nothing less than a must-see. It is perhaps the most difficult to render into a post or two or three that tells any sort of coherent story. So I'll just present a number of pix, in two posts, that reflect our experience there. In chronological order, more or less. The David Hockney exhibit is about the largest one-person show I have seen--five or six different halls--and only the last 10 years of his work. Anyhow, if you visit this area, do visit the Guggenheim, and particularly Richard Serra's A Matter of Time exhibit, which required its own very large building. Getting some sense of what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao--a formerly very gritty industrial city--is worth a visit too.

Capricho de Gaudi

Comillas' main attraction for us, however, was its association with Antonio Gaudi and two specimens of his earliest work. We became acquainted with Gaudi in Barcelona in 2010. In a few moments we went from “oh yeah, we should see one of those weird buildings” to “we'll stay a few extra days so we can see them all, by day and by night, and each more than once, too.” We'll visit Barcelona again next spring, mostly for the Gaudi. Anyhow,imagine our delight in learning that Comillas, far from Barcelona, holds the Capricho de Gaudi, a home Gaudi designed for a wealthy businessman and friend of the king. It was his first design after graduating from architecture school, and, surprisingly, one can see in it already nearly all his characteristic features—the iron grill work, use of tile, bold, organic design, use of natural features, color everywhere, and on and on. All that is missing is the later use of broken ceramic and tile to make curved and rounded features. Of course, it is unlike any other house in Comillas.