From Spain to the Spanish Netherlands. As I contemplate writing up this trip it dawns upon me that this is the first time I’ve blogged Belgium, and only my third visit to the country. Conclusion: I don’t get to Belgium half as much as I should. For so long Belgium was, to Britain, merely the butt of jokes in bad TV comedies. Yet the defence of this place across the water was what dragged us into World War I, and the swift Eurostar connection to Brussels means that these days we can go abroad and explore a relatively unfamiliar country without having to endure the awful experience of airports, and with a quicker journey time than we face going to Newcastle or Glasgow (although who knows what obstacles Brexit will place in our way). When Belgium was at its most unfashionable, Jonathan Meades made his celebrated film arguing that it was interesting because as devout Catholics, Belgians paired the same death-cult as Spain or Italy (where it is leavened by sunny skies and the blue Mediterranean) with perpetually grey skies that rain more than Yorkshire. My own great fondness for the place can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that its brilliance is unsung, under-the-radar, and a wonderful surprise. The tourist goes to Venice in full expectation that he will find one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but what knows the tourist of Ghent? Until recently, not so much, but its greater accessibility these days seems to be waking Brits up to the fact that Belgium has the best beer, chips and chocolate on God’s earth, and much else besides.
There are two Spains; the Spain you find if you go there, recognisably European and not wildly different from France or Italy, and the overheated, exotic Spain of vintage tourist posters that has existed in the British imagination since the days of the revenge tragedy. Andalucia has a fairly strong and separate identity, as so many of Spain’s composite regions do, but it fills in for the rest of Spain, which we tend to think of as all flamenco, bullfights and tapas. Historically, this presumably comes from our connections to the area via the rock of Gibraltar and the sherry trade. Built on a Moorish template, with its whitewashed buildings, its orange trees and the ghosts of its former selves (Roman, Islamic and Jewish), Seville fits the mythical Spain like a glove. There seems to be a perfume in the air, and an intoxicating one. It is perhaps telling that the two most iconic Sevillanos, Carmen and Don Juan, are fictional characters. Seville’s historic parts are well preserved and the city fitted the image I always had of the Naples of the Grand Tour, before it became a concrete developers’ free-for-all. The simple fact that every square and boulevard is lined with orange trees seems to stand for the city as a sort of pleasuredome.
Andalucia is Spain’s, and Europe’s, most southerly point, in touching distance of Morocco. It is probably inevitable, then, that we romanticise, exoticise, and Other the hell out of it. Carmen the gypsy femme fatale, Don Quixote tilting at windmills; Spain signifies the crazy, the exciting, the dangerous. Here we the Spain that people think of when they imagine Spain, as opposed to the cities around the Pyrenees and Atlantic that are not so different from the rest of Europe. It was the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors who called their Iberian empire Al-Andalus, after the Vandals that swept in when Rome fell, and the eight centuries of Muslim rule have left their strongest flavour here; the spices in the food, the beautiful craftsmanship of the mosques and palaces, the iron railings in front of the windows that separated the female and male domains of indoors and outdoors, and perhaps the cultural practices that just don’t happen in Bremen or Birmingham; flamenco, bullfighting. As much as Spain is friendly, cosmpolitan and as plugged into the modern world as anywhere, one wonders if the ghosts of the exiled Moor, the fact that fascism clung on here until the late 70s, or the strong presence of Counter-Reformation Catholicism makes this a land of contrasts between the sunshine, the gaiety, and something more sombre. See what I mean about Othering?
Some Italian cities manage to be what I think of as Goldilocks cities; big enough to be a living place of activity, bustle and plenty to see, small enough that everywhere is a relatively short walk, and the worst excesses of mass tourism are kept at bay. Typically these cities will not contain Top 10 artistic blockbusters to compare with Michelangelo’s David, but they will be elegant, quite genteel, have a centro storico that is both well-preserved and chiefly pedestrianised, an understated charm, and a good-life ambiance that replaces the desperate rush of major cities with tranquility. Simply spend some time there, and the place will begin to work its magic; as you adjust to the pace of life, you can feel your body and spirit start to relax. After Siena and Florence, Lucca felt like a luxurious Sunday morning of a city, and it was the feel of the city, rather than any box office masterpieces, that won me over to it.
This is Part II: containing the Uffizi, Brancacci, Ognissanti, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco. Part I, with Orsanmichele, San Miniato al Monte, Santa Croce, La Specola and Santa Trinita is here.
On our last night in Florence, we decided to splash out by booking a good trattoria and ordering the signature dish of the city; the bistecca alla fiorentina, a huge slab of beefsteak on the bone, cooked very rare. It is expensive, and priced by the kilogram. When we asked for it, the waiter said the smallest piece going that night was 1.2kg. A few minutes later, a mountain of steak was set down before us. Cooked to the brink of charcoal on the outside and scarcely at all on the inside, it was rich, juicy, well-seasoned, full of flavour and quite hard work; they talk about rare meat being pink on the inside but this was the purple of the Fiorentina football shirt. You have to apply some elbow grease to cut through the tendons and chew the meat, yet it is soft and slides gently down the throat. Our tactic was to dive in without abandon in the hope that most of the steak would be eaten by the time the message that we were full got from our stomachs to our brains. The mood of decadence was heightened by the fact that house wine was only sold by the litre, meaning that I put away a bottle of wine at the same time and left the place punchdrunk. The richness and the excess and the struggle to take it all in seemed to sum up the experience of visiting Florence.
With so much of the core of Italian cities preceding the creation of Italy by several centuries, it is perhaps inevitable that for all their cosmetic similarities, every one has a rather unique look and feel. Siena, however, perennially identified as the archetypal Gothic city, still struck me as a particularly singular place. Plague and foreign invasion meant that an important capital city of 100,000 was reduced within a few years to an insignificant market town of 8,000, giving the city the San Gimignano effect a thousandfold. Walk in from the bus terminus and you will begin to sense it right away; spend any length of time in the town and you will probably come to think that the unusual layout of the town, as much as the Assassin’s Creed look of the buildings, marks Siena out as extraordinary. Think of the famous, distinctively shell-shaped Piazza del Campo as a spider, and the rest of Siena is its web. The streets shoot out in rays from this magnificent centre, and it feels as if the whole of Siena consists of horseshoe-shaped corsos reflecting the shape of the Campo, like outward ripples; a sort of Gothic Amsterdam. The streets incline slightly downhill towards the Campo and if you go for an aimless stroll you will inevitably gravitate there as if the town were a giant pinball board (with the Campo’s tourist-trap pavement cafés perhaps acting as the flippers sending you rushing back out). Because of this, Siena might just have been the perfect place for us to endure a Dantean odyssey and be taught a salutary lesson…