Chapter 16. Northern Spain via the Riviera and Lourdes

Northern Spain. Winter 1960

C/-Thos.Cook & Son, Via Veneto, Roma. 7th November 1960. 

Dear Mum and Dad,

            Actually, I have finally managed to leave Rome and begin my journey to Spain, and right now I am in a little hotel at Lourdes. The above address will be a good one to send my mail to instead of the Bank of N.S.W. in London.– I’m sorry that I hadn’t thought of it before.

 I left on a 7 AM train on Saturday morning and came straight through to Nice, via Genoa, arriving there at 8 PM.   I decided to travel by day in order to see some of the scenery, as the route is right up the coastline almost all the way.  It was not so exciting as far as Pisa but what glimpses we had of the Italian Riviera were really spectacular, though I hadn’t expected to go through so many tunnels, which tended to spoil the fun.

I arrived at Nice intending to stay at the main youth hostel but it was too far from the station and too late to risk looking for it in the evening, so I found a nice family hotel, ate dinner and then enjoyed watching some French television — the first time I had done so even though I had spent three months in Paris last year.  In spite of the language differences, I have noticed a similar style of T.V. presentation from one country to the next, especially the news programmes.

 I made an early start the next morning, going to a lovely old Franciscan monastery nearby to hear Mass and then set out to explore the city. Nice is the capital of the beautiful French Riviera –the Cote d’Azur, as it is better known in Europe.

The Hotel  on the Promenade des  Anglais at Nice

 The Promenade des Anglais stretches along the curved foreshore for about 7 miles. It is bustling with holidaymakers everywhere all the year round because of its sunny climate and happy atmosphere.  All the famous hotels and casinos are very elegant, set back among beautifully tended gardens up on the rise overlooking the Bay of Angels and the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea.

 Lining the promenade are lots of little outdoor cafes with their bright umbrellas, palm trees and entertaining music. There are many beautiful galleries and I had to content myself with just exploring two of them. The Muse de Beaux Arts is in a beautiful villa and has a very fine collection of French Impressionist paintings – always a treat.  I also went to the Matisse Museum, which I really enjoyed, studying many of this artist’s works which were beautifully displayed. It was like discovering a new friend — and a modern one at that!

 Not far away I came to ‘Old Nice’ with its narrow streets and colourful markets and delicious food stalls. I wandered around Place Garibaldi, which was lined with interesting arcades — the square was named after the hero of Italian unification who was born here.   Nearby was a fine Russian cathedral, said to be the largest outside of Russia, with its large onion shaped domes to the rear and contrasting palm trees at the front.

 The pebbly public beach is opposite the Old Town, and there are also a number of private sections of beach along the classier area where there is imported sand to lie on, and where one can swim and sun bake for a fee, hire umbrellas and deck chairs, and sip cocktails which waiters will bring you from one of the little cafes in the enclosure.  There are lots of people on bikes along the wide promenade and these can be hired as well

The Harbour at Monaco

 After lunch I went by bus along the coast through beautiful scenery to the tiny principality of Monaco –  only half an hour away to the west.   It is very tiny to be called a state, only 200 hectares  — there is only one smaller, and that is the Vatican State- it is surrounded on three sides by French territory, and a fourth by water. Its little port is full of yachts including those of Prince Rainier’s and Onassis’ – these are more like ships!

 The famous Monte Carlo Casino stands out. It is beautifully situated overlooking the water with gardens all around. An entrance feature to the playing rooms costs about five shillings, so I restrained my curiosity to see the sumptuous interior.

 Everything here is very expensive — worse than France!    Local citizens don’t pay taxes and Monaco is well known as a tax haven. The Grimaldi family has ruled here since the 13th century, and although these days it is only a constitutional monarchy, they are still quite powerful.

 As you know, Prince Rainier is the current ruler (since 1947) and would you believe already four years have gone by since he married Grace Kelly, or should I say Princess Grace — doesn’t time fly!

 The famous annual car rally, the Grand Prix, is one of the state’s greatest assets and brings thousands to see it — it has been going since 1921.  Another attraction is its world-renowned Oceanographic Museum.

 I had managed to fit a great deal into a very interesting day, and I was glad to finally board a night train for Lourdes — another 12-hour trip. This time I had a couchette and slept reasonably well.The change in temperature when I arrived this morning was quite a shock to the system.   I have come from a warm sunny day in Nice to what is normal November weather in the mountains – the snow-covered Pyrenees are only a matter of a few miles away.

 As I stepped out on to the station I found the city to be very quiet and empty. The pilgrims are normally here in their thousands during the set season from Easter until the middle of October, but now all the hotels appeared to be closed and all of the little shops full of rather shoddy souvenirs on either side of the main street leading down to the sanctuary had their shutters down.

 It all felt quite eerie and a little depressing. Somehow, as I wandered shivering down the empty streets I really did feel like one of the pilgrims of old, and it didn’t seem as if I was missing anything by not having the crowds around. It would have been a completely different experience in season – maybe one for another time.

The Domain Sanctuary of Our lady of Lourdes

 Lourdes was originally a quiet market town, tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenees region of southwest France. Its original language is Gascon–Occitan which the 14-year-old Bernadette Subiroux would have spoken back in 1858.

 I could see the old fortress way above on top of the escarpment overlooking the town, and as I headed down below, I came to the very beautiful Sanctuary of our Lady, consisting of the crypt and a magnificent Basilica actually built directly above it, with its tall spire stretching up to the sky.

  From there I went down further, following the sound of the river until I reached the grotto itself, which is basically just a natural cave, (not unlike the replica in the grounds of Mount Erin convent with the familiar statue of Mary looking down from a rocky niche in the cave wall.)  It is very simple and unadorned — no decorations apart from the tall glowing candles — just a plain stone altar in front for celebrating Mass, and rows of benches to sit on.

Mother Mary’s Grotto by the river at Lourdes in southern France

 Nearby is the spring where Bernadette was told to dig for water, and there are taps available  to collect it.   It was such a contrast to the splendour of the sanctuary built way above on top of the rocky outreach!

 I sat awhile on a hard bench, with the icy, misty river flowing behind me, beginning to wonder what on earth I was doing there, and then an extraordinary thing happened — something unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since. A very gentle warm loving feeling seemed to spread through the cave and encompass me — I don’t really have the right words for it, or any explanation — if it was a blessing then I want to stay feeling blessed forever!  All of my skepticism just fell away — no room for questions — just a rare sense of being loved and at peace!

I spent the rest of the day quietly wandering around, collected a little bottle of holy water for Aunty Bet, and went later on to an evening Mass in the crypt and feeling so grateful that I had kept my promise to Betty! I’ll write next to tell her all about it.

  I will post this letter tomorrow morning before catching the train for San Sebastian.  Mother Mary sends blessings to you all from Lourdes,  and lots of love from me.

Madrid.4th November 1960.

 Dear family,

  It is hard to believe that I am finally in Spain after talking about it for so long. Remember when I first started teaching myself a little of the language during spare moments in the East End pharmacy, and I’m so glad that I did — not that I learnt a lot, but it has helped me to get by, and made easier because Spanish has a lot of similarities to Italian.

 The choice of San Sebastian as my first stopover proved to be a very happy one. It is the first of the big towns along the North Coast of the Bay of Biscay, and was my first contact with this part of the Atlantic Ocean since sailing to England two years ago.

 It is a very scenic city nestling in La Concha Bay, closed off by green hills at either end of lovely beaches, with the tortoise shaped island of Santa Clara, accessible by boat, not far offshore.

San Sebastian

The spectacular crescent shaped seafront has a handsome traditional promenade curving all away along it. There are two immensely popular beaches separated by a strange rock formation, where an artist has attached two huge rusty metal claw sculptures facing one another across  the wave- lashed rocks of the inlet. The work is called the ” The Comb of the Wind”.

At the western end is Monte Urgull with tranquil parkland covering it. At its summit there is a fortress that houses a small museum of local history, and above that is a huge statue of Christ.

  There is a breathtaking view from there, stretching off into the distance up and down the spectacular coastline. Down below the cliff is a maritime museum and aquarium and the port area where the fishing boats come in.

 Nearby is the Old Town, which is the real heart of the city. I wandered through the streets taking in the lively atmosphere, and came to the Plaza de Constitucion – a huge central square where bullfights were held in the past.  It is surrounded by buildings with columned arcades at ground level and three tiers of balconies above, from which people would have watched the entertainment!  Each little balcony was numbered – much like a theatre seat, and the numbers can still be seen today.

Santa Maria del Cor Basilica in the Old Town in San Sebastian.  Source: tripadvisor

 Nearby is the baroque -styled basilica of San Maria del Coro, dedicated to the city’s patron saint, and inside there is a statue of the Black Madonna. They recount a legend about a monk who tried to take the figure home with him, but it became so heavy it couldn’t be moved until he gave in, turned round, and returned it to its rightful place. Since then it has been given pride of place on the high altar.

 Further along towards the promenade is a very impressive Town Hall, which started life in the 19th century as a Casino, but changed roles when the city fathers banned gambling. – Or perhaps it was the city mothers?

 I must tell you of a funny experience I had just as I arrived in San Sebastian. I wasn’t too sure how long the train trip from Lourdes would take, and was frightened that I might doze off and miss the stop, so I asked in French for someone to alert me when we arrived.  A gentleman duly did so, and got off the train ahead of me.  He then asked me if I would like any further help as he knew the town well.  I thanked him and declined his offer. 

When I went into the station proper he was there again and wanted to know if I had already arranged any accommodation.  By this stage I was getting a little nervous and assured him firmly that everything was under control. He just shrugged, and I left him and went to look for the information desk to get my little guidebook and then find somewhere to stay.

 There seem to be no one on duty, so I waited, and guess who finally came out, stood behind the counter, reached down beneath it, pulled out an official cap, put it on his head and said ever so patiently- ” now Señorita — would you please permit me to assist you .‘‘   I felt so foolish especially as he took no offense and proceeded to be very helpful — he was happy to give me plenty of background information as well as recommending an inexpensive little pensione to stay in overnight, not far from the water.

One thing I learnt from him was that I was actually in the Basque Country, a region which lies between the mountains and the sea, straddling the border, about a third of it was Northern Basque in France, and the bulk of it — Southern Basque in Spanish territory. Its capital is Bilbao, far west of San Sebastian.

 Little is recorded of its origin — the people lived in isolation for many centuries and have their own characteristics and customs. They are bilingual, speaking a language which is unique to them and a mystery to linguists. It bears no resemblance to the mix of Indo-European languages spoken in the countries surrounding it, or to any other known language, it would seem.

 They have strong traditions connecting them to the land, and women play an important part in the social structures and laws.  They have are very protective of their independence, often paying dearly to hold on to it. Up until 1937, Spain allowed them autonomy, but once Franco came into power, this was revoked and they have been heavily repressed, and forbidden the use of their language.

 The Basques are renowned for their cuisine – lots of seafood and high-quality produce from their farms and I proceeded to sample it in the traditional way. The Old Town has a record number of bars, where friends gather together regularly to eat pintxos – the local version of tapas. These are sold individually, accompanied by a glass of a special light white wine, (or beer if you prefer). They consist of small pieces of bread, generously topped with delicious fillings, each one kept in place with a large toothpick –pintxos simply means spear.

 Each bar competes with the next one in variety of  taste and presentation. it’s the custom to move from one bar to the next, sampling a couple at each one and socialising along the way. It makes for a very vibrant street life, and certainly puts Aussie pub-crawls in the shade!

The Basque area is also known for its spectacular fiestas and cultural activities.  San Sebastian became a very fashionable resort early in the 20th century when it was frequented by Spanish royalty and the upper class from France and Spain, thus creating the New Town.  I loved strolling along the car-free boulevards with their elegant shops and gourmet restaurants.

 As evening drew in, I noticed the fishing boats sailing into port with their catch of sardines, for which they are famous.  As they unloaded, a ” fishwife” began to ring a bell; people came from everywhere and a sardine auction started. I couldn’t quite work out how the prices were arrived at, as none of the portions were weighed, with each person wandering off with their share, held in bowls or handkerchiefs or whatever came to hand.  It was such fun to watch, and those shining fresh sardines looked much more inviting than when jammed into tins!

It had been a wonderful day — one day I would love to get to know the Basques better and San Sebastian was  a wonderful place to begin. My next destination heading south was the city of Burgos, travelling through the Castilian heartland and enjoying beautiful countryside — lots of little villages, some of them still walled, old farmhouses and occasional monasteries along the way. Train schedules only allowed me a fairly short stop to explore Burgos, but I’d been told not to miss the opportunity of seeing its great Gothic cathedral.

The great Gothic Cathedral of Burgos

 From the moment I caught sight of it on leaving the station and crossing the river, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The whole extraordinary building complex dominates the skyline. The main part of the church was built in the 13th century in just 40 years, and the rest gradually added over the next 300 years. It is up there with the other great Gothic masterpieces of France and Germany that impressed me so much.  Artists and architects came from all over Europe to take part in creating it.

The Spanish style that makes it different both architecturally and in the detailed decoration came from the influence of Moorish taste and workmanship. I learnt that much of Spain had been under Muslim control  throughout the Middle Ages, so elements of Islamic art blended with European Christian art and architecture right through the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance periods and became known as the Platansque style.

It spread right throughout Spain and her colonies.  All aspects of its main façade are perfectly symmetrical. The nave and cloisters were built first and the intricately decorated spires and 17 chapels were added later. It was built on a gentle slope, so a magnificent Golden Staircase was designed to link the street level entrance to the nave above.

 Above the richly gilded high altar and  huge central dome you see light pouring in through octagonal star skylights of brilliantly coloured stained glass. There is a splendid rose window above the Door of Santa Maria with a row of eight Spanish kings below it.

An unusual feature below the central dome is the tomb of El Cid and his wife. He was a legendary Castilian nobleman,  born in Burgos, a military leader and diplomat of the Middle Ages whose heroic  exploits have been immortalized in a famous poem of the same name.

 I explored the cathedral’s peaceful two-storied cloister and the adjoining Museo Catedralicio, with its collection of chalices and tapestries and other rich paraphernalia – lots of splendid religious paintings and sculptures throughout.  One painting that caught my attention was of Mary Magdalena in prayer – plump and very beautiful, bare to the waist with a modest cover of long rich auburn hair! much like something Rubens would have painted, though the artist was Italian, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils.

 Burgos became wealthy back in the 13th century:  it was a principal trading centre between the Bay of Biscay and southern Spain, and especially being one of the main stopovers for pilgrims along the Camino di Santiago de Compostella –‘ the way of St James’.- and still is today. This tradition began in the Middle Ages when the burial site of the apostle St James the Greater was discovered in the northern corner of Spain, and Christians from all over Europe began to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Compostella, built to hold his tomb.

The Cathedral of Santiago di Compostela. – final destination of the Camino

Gradually a great network of designated routes evolved, starting in Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, coming down through France, often taking a couple of years to make the arduous and often dangerous journey, usually on foot.  Millions of people came over the centuries, stopping off at the churches, monasteries and inns that sprang up along the way. 

I became aware how far the tradition had spread when I was in Tubingen, in Germany which is one of its stopover points. One fairly safe route runs through from France to San Sebastian and right along the coast road. All pilgrims carry a scallop shell which symbolized completing the journey.

I would love to have spent more time in Burgos – yet another treasure that deserves more than a brief stopover. However, I was happy to finally arrive in Madrid, and my next letter will be telling you all about it. I have found a lovely little family hotel in the centre of the city where I can rest a little, and also catch up with my correspondence.

Till then, much love to everyone ….