miércoles, 5 de octubre de 2011

Ancient Scribes and the Lovers of Yesteryear

Street of the Ancient Scribes, only poetic inspiration could have conceived such a name. As I step into Carrer de les Escrivanies Velles I half expect a robed and bearded figure brandishing a quill and carrying large medieval tomes to glide silently by.  This is only one of many streets in the old quarter of Tarragona that invites the imagination to delight in the associations of its nomenclature. There is also the Street of the Glass workers (Carrer del Vidre), the Leather workers (Carrer Cuiraterias), the Cauldron makers (Carrer del Calderers) the Abbot (Carrer de L’Abat), and the Barefooted Ones (Carrer dels Descalços). Their names speak of Spain’s Catholic heritage and of its ancient Arab masters who lived in an era when streets bore the names of the trades and crafts of the merchants who sold their wares in the souks that once stood here.
The Arabs were driven out of Spain over five hundred years ago and the power of the Catholic Church is more a memory than a reality now.  Still, there are half-forgotten alleyways in the labyrinthine streets of the old quarter where candle flames quiver at shrines to saints and martyrs whose names I am not familiar with. Only the black clad, tight-bunned stooped women, hurrying from the cathedral cloister, remember their sacrifices today.
Wander these streets and you wander into the past. The essence of another era is trapped in their heavy stone walls, passage ways and dimly lit courtyards.  Heave aside an oak door and the dankness speaks of ages. Savour it, for it is redolent of a time when the Imam’s call to prayer drifted out from the minaret on a breeze, when plague raged through these streets and when the terrors of the Inquisition froze the blood of all. At each turn there is a new invitation to explore, Walk me, is whispered seductively. At night the enchantment shines out from under period-style street lamps that illuminate the occasional bat flitting by under an amber moon. This is when I have the old quarter to myself. I pass through lofty arches into silent empty streets that have a dreamlike quality, fractured only by the occasional television or the sound of shutters being pulled closed for the night. This is my new neighbourhood. It’s an open invitation to indulge in fantasy.
At the centre of it all is the early gothic cathedral of Santa María, built on the site that was once a Roman temple and later a mosque. Cypress and orange trees surround it and, just beyond the cloister gardens to the rear of the cathedral, the benevolent light of a late afternoon sun bathes the upper reaches of the archdiocese residence. On the forecourt at dusk a scattering of tourists and locals sip lightly at their vino blanco under the nonplussed expression of the twelve apostles fossilised in stone above. This is Plà de la Seu. Cross it, and with your back to the cathedral, walk down the steps, past the drinking fountains, and into the main street, Carrer Major. Modern day artisans and craft workers own the premises that do business here. An aromatic tea shop, a jeweller’s, a tattoo parlour, a baker’s, a cocktail bar, a number of boutiques and assorted retailers line this narrow cobble-stoned street. Further away, in Carrer Talavera is L’abella chocolate shop, where the display of handmade confectionary never fails to evoke Oscar Wilde’s much quoted phrase, “I can resist everything, except temptation …”
Temptation was of a different kind when I first came to Tarragona twenty five years ago. Now, when I cross paths with respectable gentlemen, grandfathers perhaps, I gaze deeply into their features, past the wrinkles, seeking the hippies, the lovers of my youth. Eyes and profile escape the ravages of age, and they are the clue to the identity of the men I once knew so intimately. On Carrer Major I met my first Catalan boyfriend on his way to party and in Cuiraterías I rented a flat, just a few yards away from the brothel down the street. A red light still shines above the entrance and languid scantily clad women lean against the door frame for a hasty smoke before taking a final long drag and disappearing inside. It’s hard to believe that they are not the very same ones who I sneakily glanced at twenty five years ago. These are the moments when I feel so close to the girl I was then that I could reach out and touch her as she hurries by on her way to her next date, to the next party. The past is all around me.
Yes, this is my neighbourhood now.  I can step out into this fantasy whenever I please. Walking to work is a stroll through medieval streets where collared doves coo. Street of the Guitar (Calle de la Guitarra) takes me alongside the Roman walls and out through the Roser arch (Arc de Roser) into the cypress-lined Via del Imperi, where the centurions of the Roman Empire once marched. Although the sun has lost some of its ferocity since the start of October, I still seek refuge in the shade. It’s a very long way from the route I walked each morning in Belfast, along Tate’s Avenue and in to work at the university. Battling against the wind and rain - that was just the summer - I rarely looked up to appreciate the charms of my home city, if there were any, and there were.

1 comentario:

Douglas dijo...

Beautiful, evocative writing.