Monthly Archives: October 2007

Let’s Talk About the Spanish Inquisition

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I am sorry. I got it all wrong.

In my blog entry dated July 18th, Better Late Than Never, I was under the wrong impression that the Catholic church would beatify 498 Spanish martyrs as a late but somehow inevitable gesture to make amends about their role during the years of the Spanish Civil War. I even thought that the announced beatification was meant as a way of saying ‘Sorry’, albeit a bit late. But, as I suggested, it would be better late than never.

Well, last Sunday was the big day in Rome. 40,000 Spaniards apparently attended the largest mass beatification that the Catholic church has ever celebrated. But, it was all wrong, from my point of view, and from the point of a balanced historical assessment.

Amongst the 498 martyrs beatified and postumously honoured, it seems that there was not a single name that can be attributed to the Spanish Republican cause. All of the dead martyrs were Catholic priests and nuns, and all of them had died standing up for, and siding with, General Francisco Franco and the totalitarian regime that the Generalissimo stood for. 

Critics other then me accuse the Vatican of playing politics by promoting recognition of one side of the Civil War’s protagonists.

Spain remains deeply polarized, even today, as it struggles to come to terms with its past.

 

Spain is currently governed by the PSOE party of the Socialists, under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. His government is in the process of passing a bill later this week, called Ley de la Memoria Histórica, under which Spain would try to come to terms with the atrocities of the Franco regime. Spain’s Catholic church on the whole sided with the Fascists led by Francisco Franco, who overthrew the elected leftist government, eventually won the war and ruled as a dictator for nearly four decades, granting wide power and influence to the church.

The Catholic church in Spain has a history of doing dark and wicked deeds, and getting away with it. Let’s just look at another chapter of Spain’s history, a possibly even darker one than the Civil War. Yes, I am talking about the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1478, Queen Isabel established the Spanish Inquisition under the leadership of the Dominican monk Tomás de Torquemada. The Inquisition was initially founded to ensure the sincerity of former Jews and Muslims who had recently converted to Christianity, known as Conversos and Moriscos respectively. Insincere converts were suspected of disloyalty and punished. 

As an institution that operated in both Castile and Aragón, the Inquisition was an instrument for unity in Spain. It brought both monarchies closer to the Roman Catholic church and it helped guarantee that Spain would remain a profoundly Catholic country.

In its first decades, the Inquisition tried and punished thousands of people, including many Conversos involved in commerce and trade. However, it soon turned into a general witch-hunt. The Inquisition turned on any and all royal subjects. People judged to be heretics were executed, often by burning at the stake.

 

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In 1492, all unconverted Jews were ordered to leave Spain, and as many as 100,000 emigrated to Portugal, North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and other parts of Europe. In the early 17th century the Spanish inquisitors turned their attention to Muslims. Between 1609 and 1614, more than 250,000 Spanish Muslims were driven out of Spain. Later, the Spanish Inquisition sought to discipline citizens suspected of practicing Protestantism.

At the time, many Spaniards considered the Inquisition a triumph for Roman Catholicism. The church, with Royal cooperation, also censored books, and students were prohibited from studying abroad to prevent the importation of Protestant ideas into Spain. These practices eventually cut Spain off from intellectual developments in Europe and turned Spanish universities into academic backwaters. This isolation made it more difficult for Spain to modernize in later centuries. In addition, the urge to protect royal legitimacy, power, and prestige, led Spain to fight wars it could not win, at great cost to Spain’s society and economy.

For the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) - a title given to Fernando and Isabel by Pope Alexander VI for their religious devotion – religious observation was central to achieving domestic peace. The Spanish monarchs, like their European counterparts, were believed to rule as trustees of God. This direct link to divine authority is what made rulers legitimate in Europe. It also made non-Christians or heretics dangerous because their rejection of Christianity implied that they did not accept the monarch’s right to rule.

Spain, in my view, is to this day a rather conservative country. The country is polarized, not unlike it was in the Thirties, between those, who think that Franco was not a bad man after all, and those who would prefer to live in the present world rather than in the Past. The old divide continues to exist, between those on the Left and those on the Right.

 

The previous Spanish government was ousted three days after the deadly Madrid train bombing of 2004, which many people understood to be a consequence to the government of José María Aznar’s decision to go to war in Iraq with the Big Boys, against the expressed wishes of large parts of the Spanish population.

The Church in Spain now wants to gain some of the influence back that it had in the old days. The Vatican’s ceremony two days ago was not an attempt to come clean and to offer an apology, but an attempt to turn the clocks back to a Spain that is conservative, that is non-democratic and that is xenophobic

I would not be surprised if the Church somehow, secretly, would want to resurrect the days of the Spanish Inquisition.  

May God save us all from his or her Catholic disciples.

 

The Tramontana, With Enthusiasm From Spain

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Before you get all excited, let me tell you a secret: I am not a car man. I do not like cars very much. I am not in awe of sports cars. I do not follow the Formula I antics. I am definitely not a fan of Michael Schumacher (who collected his Príncipe de Asturias award two days ago in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain). I also would not like to own a Porsche. If they gave me one for free, I would most likely sell it.

So, what drives me to write a blog entry like this one, which is about the latest car, designed, constructed and built in Spain? The Tramontana does, a custom-made, hand-crafted vehicle that comes at a price. Highfaluting madness. Admirable though for the single-minded enthusiasm that created it.

What I like, apart from the general chutzpah, is the enthusiasm that is evident behind the story of the creation of this strange car. The fact, that the new car is made to the ergonomic measurements of the buyer. That the car is custom-designed and built according to each client. This includes using the materials of the buyer’s choice and, finally, by differentiating each unit with an engraving of a poetic verse by Catalàn poetess, Carme Pagés, in the chassis of the car. These characteristics assure that each Tramontana is a unique work of art modelled on the specific desires of the client.

The Spanish automotive industry used to have a name for excellence and superior craftsmanship. Those times are long since gone. No more iconic Hispano-Suizas. No more innovative Barreiros. Today, only Fords, Opels, Seats, VWs, some French and some Japanese cars are assembled in Spain. No more engineering required. No more craftsmanship. No chutzpah. Not a single Spanish make (SEAT having been bought by VW many years ago). No enthusiasm.

But now, a group of young and very enthusiastic Spanish engineers has developed a new automobile instilled with the same old values. It is the ambition of the young team of Tramontana car engineers to focus on the values and feelings that have been forgotten in the car-making world.

A. D. Tramontana S. L. in Catalunya has now created a custom-built, hand-crafted vehicle that is distinguished by its unique character and which is tailored to specifications, such as fixing the seat and pedal positions to the driver’s personal dimensions. And only 12 units will be built per year.

If you have to ask how much the cars sells for, then you are obviously not in the position to buy one. Just as well, I would say. You could most likely not drive the car’s powerful central V12 bi-turbo engine with over 700 horsepower to its cruising speed of 300 km/h in the country of your residence, anyway. At least not on the road, and not legally.

If you want one of those strange automobiles, here’s the Tramontana website. There you will find all the technical blurb, and some of the story behind the car.

I understand from the national press in Spain, that 3 Tramontanas have been sold already. Only 9 more to go. Now, they just have to be built.

I also understand, that a more family-oriented car is already on the drawing boards. Hopefully, that family saloon car to come will be somewhat more economically priced than the 680,000 € of the Tramuntana extravaganza

Love Thy Brother (and His Beliefs)

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I somehow don’t seem to manage to do too many of my blog entries without referring to the Spanish Civil War. Well, here I go again.

The Spanish House of Congress in Madrid has just passed a Law of Historic Memory (Ley de memoria histórica de España). With this legal framework, the misdeeds of the Franco regime are finally declared bad practice, even illegal. Some relatives of victims of this Spanish civil war between brothers will now be able to claim compensation, or recognition, or at least might have their dead family members unburied from mass graves, to put them to rest in a civil manner.

There was indeed a war, often between members of the same family, with wounds that are still not healed, even now, seventy years on. Perhaps the new Ley will help the healing process.

The point that I am trying to make, though, is that nothing unusual occurred in the Spain of the Thirties of the last century. Nothing, that has not occurred elsewhere as well, at other times, or that is occurring right now, somewhere, at this very moment. Just look at the American War of Independence. The Armenian genocide. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. The Hutus-Tutsis conflict in Rwanda. The current Turkish-Kurds conflict. The Burmese confrontation between the Military dinosaurs and the Buddhist monks. In fact, any war. Any conflict. Any genocide. Any confrontation. Any fight: a pub brawl, a football match gone wrong, a rugby match lost.

It is the old Biblical conflict of Cain and Abel, of the first and second sons of Adam and Eve.

The problem is that us humans seem to be in conflict with our brothers, our neighbours or our compatriots because of a code system that has been instilled in us from the earliest of our days, and that we seem to want to fight tooth and nail, to uphold, even at the cost of committing murder. As I say, not a problem restricted to the Spanish, but inherent to the Human race.

Each group of people, each community and each segment of society seems to establish some code of conduct, as to what is allowed and what is not, or what is desirable, appropriate, conforming, or what is to be achieved in life, etc.

You have the gender groups. You have males, females, children, adolescents. You have religious groups: Catholics, Jews, Muslims. You have desert people, city people, rural people, western people, Asian people, black people, money people, stock market people, left wing people, conservative people, students, artists, rich people, widows, gay people, punks, military people, hippies, indigenous people, Amish people, politicians, backpackers, hikers, pilgrims, religious zealots. You have the fundamentalists and the Anti-Abortionists. Mothers. The Greens. The Neo-Conservatives. And you have zillions more human categories. 

Each of those groups or communities appears to love everyone who belongs to the same group and at the same time, seems to loath everybody else who is outside of their own defining characteristics, belonging to a different group, race, creed, uniform, religion, language, code or whatever. The herd instinct, if you want. The hatred of the black sheep.

Each of these group entities conforms to the code of practice of their own particular group, it seems, and those who do not conform within that group seem to get punished by the other members of this clan or tribe, or otherwise reprimanded.

Those group code rules appear to be most vital to the members of the group that adhere to that specific code, whilst often seeming ridiculous or bizarre to other groups. 

I suppose a group conformity code even exists amongst some species or packs of animals, as well. Wolves, let’s say, for example.

A rather good and current example amongst humans is the ongoing battle of belief systems between the Western world and the Islamic world. The one world does not understand the viewpoint of the other one. Many mistakes are continuously committed by assuming that the population of the entire planet should follow the same code of behaviour as one does oneself, which is of course not feasible. The antipodals tick in different ways from the Alaskans, shall we say, and the Sunnis prefer to differ from the Shias. In fact, the Republicans differ from the Democrats, and the Labour from the Tories. Cain versus Abel, everywhere.

A telling example is a rather ridiculous photo that I saw the other day of an American pinball bowling track being newly inaugurated in Baghdad, Iraq, to bring the blessings of U. S. American values (bowling and democracy) to the underprivileged people of the Middle East.

It seems bizarre to me to think that a victim of war torn Iraq would like nothing more, right now, than to learn the rules of pinball bowling. 

To a Muslim, it also seems quite obvious that one would happily adhere to the Islamic fast of Ramadan, whereas a non-Muslim would most likely not succumb to the rigid restrains of this annual practice, or even to Western style Lent. Catholics might have adhered to Lent, a few generations ago, but do on the whole not follow this practice any longer.

Social patterns and codes seem to change, then. Some groups of society are quicker to give up on a code then others, or adapt new codes. Sexual behaviour patterns are one such code, virgin chasteness for instance. Divorce, or drug consumption, binge drinking or hooliganism, are others. 

I should think that this Cain & Abel conflict would be a very compelling phenomenon to look into at greater depth, and the problems and errors that this obviously involves. Perhaps it becomes evident, though, that this conflict also possibly provides a safety net for people who want to feel more secure as part of a group/community/family/network, or simply, herd. 

Perhaps people prefer to be wrong in union with others, rather than be right, but stand out and feel stigmatized.

 

Barcelona, Here We Come

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It might have been some while since you last spent time in Barcelona. Fancy a weekend there, perhaps?

I am suggesting Barcelona, because it is right on our doorstep. It is easy to get to, and it is exciting, whatever the time of the year. Right now, Barcelona is immersed in some autumnal bliss.

Barcelona has, as most coastal towns in Spain, a long and interesting history. Since its foundation in around 200 B. C., it has been dominated in turn by Carthaginians, Visigoths and the Moors. It was not until the 9th century when the Muslims were defeated by the Christians that the city was inhabited by Cataláns. During the 14th century the Catalán mini-empire reached its splendour, extending to areas such as Valencia, the Balearics Islands and even parts of southern France. In 1473, the kingdom of Castilla invaded Catalunya after various conflicts. In 1700, the Catalán language was forbidden for a long period after the Cataláns had joined forces with the English army against Castilla.

 

During the regime of Franco, the Cataláns were repressed and their language was again forbidden, this time by the threat of death. But, when Franco died in 1975, the Cataláns got back their freedom. Today, Barcelona is a very sparkling city and Catalunya as a whole, a very independent region. Both are very proud of their very own language and a certain nation-within-a-nation status. Do not always expect to get by with your usual Castellano idiom once you stray away from the tourist trail.

 

Be that as it may be, I would suggest you fly to Barcelona. Although I have taken ferry boats plenty of times (and you may not even come, as I would, from the Balearic Isles), I do not recommend you take your car, as Barcelona is rather arduous when it comes to parking, and traffic in general.

From the airport, you can take the bus to Plaça Catalunya. From there you will best be going to your hotel by taxi. I do not suggest you stay at the rather fashionable Hotel Arts, flash and stylish as it may be, because it is just too expensive. Also, I have heard comments that the hotel service is not on the same level as are the room rates. A hotel to my liking, with a very central location and with quite a bit of historic flair, is the Majestic on Paseo de Gràcia. Josephine Baker stayed there in the Twenties.

Barcelona of course, would not be Barcelona without its glorious heritage of buildings, parks and other wonders, created by Antoni Gaudí. If you have not done the Gaudí trail yet, now is a good time. And if you should be staying at the Hotel Majestic, you cannot be better located to appreciate some great works built by Gaudí’s genius.

 

There is too much Gaudí in Barcelona and its surroundings to see them all in just a few days, but the do-not-misses are Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Palacio Güell, and Parque Güell. And most of all, of course, this wonderful cathedral of all cathedrals, La Sagrada Familia. This one has been under construction since 1885, and it is still unfinished. But I assure you that you have not seen the likes before. In 1984, Gaudí’s buildings were awarded the status of being UNESCO World Heritage sites.

 

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Next on your list of priorities will have to be some concert, opera or theatre performance. The best would be a visit to the newly rebuilt Gran Teatre de Liceu, where concerts are given this weekend of works by Igor Stravinsky, at the occasion of the composer’s 125th birthday, but I am afraid that tickets have to be booked well in advance. I suppose that the front manager at the Majestic will be able to help you, but I do not know.

Apart from the Liceu, I would recommend a visit to the Mercat de les Flors for Ballet, the Espai Escenic Brossa, the Teatre Borras, Teatre Nacional de Catalunya or the Teatre Principal. For music, mostly classical, I recommend the Auditori and the Palau de Musica Catalana with its beautiful Modernist architecture. For Pop, the Palau Jordi.

 

For more information about Barcelona see the Barcelona City Guide.

Barcelona is Spain’s creative capital, and Art with a capital A keeps the creativity going. That is Art in its widest sense, including fashion, architecture, music, design, as well as street cred. For fine art, I recommend visits to the Miró Foundation, the CaixaForum, the MOCBA Museum of Modern Art, the CCCB, the Fundación Tàpies, and the Centre Cultural Caixa de Catalunya, inside of Gaudí’s La Pedrera. And most important of all, the Picasso Museum. For friends of Pre-Columbian art, the Museum Barbier-Mueller is a must. And do not forget a visit to the Catedral de Barcelona, the cathedral.

After all that theatre and art, Picasso and Gaudí, you will want to wine and dine in Barcelona. Barcelona is one of the World Capitals of good food. There are too many restaurants (more than 10,000), tapas bars, bodegas and cervezerias to choose from, and some of them of a very good quality. I suggest that you buy yourself a copy of B-guided or of Guía del Ocío for guidance. What I would do, in any case, is to go either to the Barrio Gotico, the Port Vell area, or the Olympic village. There you will find seafood restaurants galore, plus restaurants specializing in Catalán food, or Mediterranean food. Just enter the establecimiento that seems busiest of all. You will not be disappointed. Or you could try Restaurante Hofmann, in Calle Argenteria, 74-78. Pricey, but first class.

If time allows, and your fancy takes you, you could head North-East to Girona or Figueres. In Figueres, you could pay an unforgettable visit to the museum of that other Catalán artist genius, Salvador Dalí, whereas in Girona you would visit that beautiful medieval old town centre, including the historically unique Jewish quarters, the Call.

North-West takes you, instead, to the Monasterio de Montserrat. And also to Terrassa, where you can enjoy the annual Festival de Jazz, in full swing right now.

I hope you will enjoy your trip.

 

A Quite Unique Spanish Town – Llívia, in France

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Llívia is a very special Spanish town, that most people have never heard of.

To be honest, there is not all that much to know about Llívia, other than it is small, charming, and rather laid back. The town sits at an altitude of 1,223 m due south-east of the Principality of Andorra, and its municipal boundaries extend to an area of less than 13 square kilometres. The area is quite pleasant for serious walking or some rather challenging mountain biking. Of course, the spellbinding Pyrenees mountains rise to an impressive height in the very near distance. There is a small museum that houses the complete remnants of what is said to have been the most ancient pharmacy in Europe. Some decent café solo, some proper tapas and a truly scrumptious tortilla are served in the local bar, and the 1,300 inhabitants are really friendly if you speak to them in Catalán.

 

Hey, that’s what makes this place so special. Everybody else in the area speaks French.

 

What and why and whence and who?

Llívia is a unique Spanish town in as much as it is completely surrounded by French territory (Pyrénées-Orientales département). Llívia is plainly situated in France and should normally be French, if you ask me, if it were not for the ominous Treaty of the Pyrenees.

The town of Llívia is part of Cerdanya, a province of Spain, and forms a Spanish exclave surrounded by France. The exclave is separated from the rest of Cerdanya, and Spain, by a corridor with a width of about 2 km, a corridor which also includes the French communes of Ur, and Bourg-Madame. Access is provided between Llívia and Puigcerdà, the nearest Spanish town in the Pyrenees, via a road that is considered neutral and that is administered in turn by France and by Spain, with a rota of 6 months each.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659 to end the war between France and Spain that had begun in 1635 during the Thirty Years’ War. It was signed on Pheasant Island (called Isla de los Faisanes by the Spanish and Île des Faisans, Île de l’hôpital or Île de la Conférence by the French, or Konpantzia by the Basque people), a river island on the border between the two countries.

A long time ago, Llívia was the site of the Iberian Oppidum (Roman settlement) commanding the region and was named Julia Libica by the Romans. It was also the ancient capital of Cerdanya up to the early Middle Ages.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) ceded the Spanish territories of Roussillon, Conflent, Capcir, Vallespir, and northern Cerdanya (called Cerdagne in French) to the French Crown. Llívia did, however, not become part of the French kingdom as part of this agreement, because the treaty stipulated that only villages were to be ceded to France, and Llívia was considered a city and not a village due to its status as the ancient capital of the region.

Julia Libica, now Llívia, is a charming political anomaly in our contemporary European knit. You might want to visit and perhaps enjoy some tortilla and a copa, if you are anywhere near, any time soon.

But, please, don’t tell anyone in Brussels of the fun you had amidst this curiosity, or else the peaceful days at the foothills of the Pyrenees might soon be over.

 

Things used to be even more complicated a few years ago when the French neighbors in the area had their French Francs, whereas the Llívia folks had to pay for their vino tinto in Spanish Pesetas, but, with the onset of the Euro, there now is one less problem to deal with.

And thanks to www.klyk.net for the photo of the forlorn Llívian cow. Small wonder that the bovine creature looks a bit confused.

 

All Saints

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Spain is a country where religion has played, and still plays, a considerable part in daily life. More so than in Northern European countries, or in Canada and the USA. Much more so. And religion in Spain, ever since the days of the Inquisition, has been exclusively Roman Catholic. That is 500 years by now, roughly speaking.

 

One significant difference to life, the way we know it, is the patron Saint.

Each child at birth is given a name, which most often has been passed down within the family. Traditionally, the oldest son is given the name of the paternal grandfather, and the oldest daughter the name of the maternal grandmother. The second son is given the name of the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter the name of the paternal grandmother. And so on.

 

As a consequence, you have an abundance of Miguels, Jaimes, Pedros, Antonios, Tomeus and Juans. And many Marías, Catalinas, Joannas, Antonias, Barbaras, Claras and Magdalenas.

All these names, of course, are borrowed from Saints. Each day of the year has been assigned to one particular patron Saint, and the child who is given the name of this Saint, will celebrate the day of their Santo with as much fervour and joy, if not more, as they will their day of birth. You get more presents as a Spanish child on your Saint’s day.

 

Today, by the way, is the day of Sant Calixt. Yesterday was San Teófilo. Tomorrow will be Santa Teresa de Jesús’s day. Enhorabuena.

If you look around, you will probably find it very hard to find a Tamara in Spain, or a Timothy. It is not unheard of, but it is extremely seldom. It is much more common to meet a Vicente, or a Gregorio. Or a Teresa, or an Apolónia.

Of course, churches are most often named after a Saint as well, here. That’s why we have the Basílica de San Francisco, here. The Oratorio de Sant Blai. And the Parroquia de San Nicolas.

It seems that more churches are named after Santos than Santas, but that may be for a future blog entry to look into.

 

Anyway, your very own Saint plays a very big role all of your life, if you live in Spain, or in a Catholic country. You celebrate your Saint’s day at every opportunity that might present itself. But you also live in a parish that has its own Saint. And you live in a village that also has its own Saint.

Santanyí for instance, has San Jaime as its patron Saint. Felanitx, where I live, has San Augustín. And Palma has San Sebastian. Another day off, every time. Sounds confusing to most of us, but it is an important backbone to people in Spain, and to your very own next door neighbour, provided he is not Swedish, German or Dutch. Or Moroccan, as it may be.

Unlucky is the person in Spain, who is first born in a village who’s local Saint is San Pedro, whose paternal grandfather was called Pedro and who goes to his parish church that is also named after St. Peter. He will only have one Saint day’s worth of celebrating a year.

 

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate our Muslim neighbours on completing their fast of Ramadan, and celebrating the Eid al-Fitr festivity to mark its joyous end.

 

Time to Talk About Salt: Flor de Sal

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Nothing enhances the taste of food like salt.

We all use salt, sometimes without knowing it, every day of our life. Without salt, animals cannot survive, and this includes the human animal. Too much of it can be dangerous and cause illnesses, and too little can cause dehydration.

 

If we need to use it, does it matter what salt we use? Or is salt just … salt?

 

The answer is, of course there is a difference. 90 % of salt today is refined, the same as sugar. The refining process kills all the goodness, in sugar as well as in salt. Natural salt consists of 84 different minerals and trace elements, which all occur naturally in the human body. However, according to the European Union food regulation, 82 of these 84 elements are lost from the salt when refining it to common table salt. Common table salt consists of almost 100 % sodium chlorine. Sodium chlorine from a medical point of view is a pure cellular poison and hence unhealthy for our bodies.

 

Enter two German ladies, Katja and Sabine, who a few years ago started to harvest the Queen of Salts, or Flor de Sal, on the island of Mallorca, Spain, near the Nature Reserve of Es Trenc.

 

Flor de Sal is an age old extraction method originating from the French Atlantic coast. Here, only the precious flakes of the first layer on the surface of the salt marshes is tenderly crystallized. Once harvested, this salt, pale pink in colour, becomes whiter when it is dried, naturally, in the sun. The salt obtained is 100% pure and it reaches your palate without having suffered any alteration.

 

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Flor de Sal is the purest of all salts. Leading chefs all over the Balearic Islands recommend Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc.

 

If you happen to live in Mallorca, like I am in the lucky position to state, Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc comes to a market, or a delicatessen, near you. It is available in four flavours: Natural, or with extract of black olives, or Mediterranean (herbal), or with Hibiscus (flowers). It retails for about 6,80 €.

 

If you live elsewhere, check the Internet and the Flor de Sal website, and enquire about distributors. The two ladies’ set-up is getting better and better all the time.

 

Give it a try. Flor de Sal d’Es Trenc is the purest salt imaginable.

 

You may never again say that salt is just salt.

 

I know, all of this sounds like a commercial endorsement. Well, it isn’t. The two ladies don’t even know me. They certainly don’t pay me. I discovered their salt a few years ago. I have used it ever since. I have recommended it to friends and relatives. Everybody likes it.

 

Now you can consider yourself a friend as well.

 

Ernesto Che Guevara’s Day in Santa Clara, Cuba

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October 9th, 1967, was the day when Ernesto Che Guevara was executed. That’s forty years ago, today.

He was captured by the Bolivian army on October 8th, in Vallegrande and executed the following day in La Higuera, in the jungles of Bolivia, at the age of 39. His death only enhanced Che Guevara’s mythical stature as a legend, not only in Latin America but also around the world. 

Che Guevara’s body was later exhumed from its communal grave in Bolivia and offered to Cuba. The remains were reburied in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba (see photo), the site of Che’s decisive victory against Fulgencio Batista‘s forces at the end of 1958. 

I visited Santa Clara twice, in 2003 and in 2005. In 2003, I was not allowed to enter the mausoleum where Che and his seven guerilla mates are enshrined, due to some building work or whatever, but in 2005, I could go in and have a look. Photography was not permitted once inside. There was a large wall with 7 or 8 embossed wall plaques commemorating the dead, and an eternal light underneath Che’s allotted central panel. The mood inside appeared a tad contrived, especially if one considers that there seem to be reasonable doubt as to whether the bones found and repatriated to Cuba were in fact those of the man himself.

In any case, it seems important to remind ourselves that Guevara was neither Cuban nor Bolivian. He was born in Argentina and was a doctor by training. He gave up his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth. In 1956, along with Fidel Castro and a small number of other badly armed rebels, he had crossed the Caribbean in a rickety yacht called Granma on the mad mission of invading Cuba and overthrowing the US sponsored dictator, Batista. Landing in a hostile swamp and losing most of their contingent, the survivors fought their way to the Sierra Maestra.

Two years later, and by now named Comandante, Che was victorious in this very same place, Santa Clara, in derailing a train full of Batista soldiers and thus stopping them from reaching their destination, Santiago de Cuba in the far east of the island of Cuba. Two days later, Batista fled Cuba, and Castro and his revolutionary men took over. The rest is history.

I went to see the remnants of the derailed train waggons In Santa Clara, now equipped as a museum to the Revolution. Santa Clara is certainly a place worthy of a visit for those who are interested in the Che Guevara trail.

Yesterday, Raúl Castro and other survivors of the 1958 train assault paid homage to Ernesto Che Guevara, hinting again at the need of a change of direction in present day Cuba. His ailing brother, Fidel, expressed his respect and gratitude for Che, in an article published in the Cuban publication, Juventud Rebelde

Rumours never ceased that Fidel Castro and Che did not really see eye to eye some time after the Cuban revolution had been won, because Ernesto soon started criticizing Communist Party doctrines. He revoked his Cuban passport, left Cuba for Africa and the Congo, and later for Bolivia, where he tried to fight for the oppressed indigenous people of the Andes. His Bolivian battle was never really successful.

You may wonder why I should concern myself with Cuban affairs on my supposedly Spanish-themed blog. In my mind Cuba and Spain are intrinsically linked due to Cuba’s long time domination by the Spanish. Cuba was linked to Spain’s wealth, to the Spanish slave trade and to Spanish history. As such, in my opinion, Spain may well have an active role to play in Cuba’s, hopefully peaceful, transition into the 21st century, especially in the light of big brother, USA, not being trustworthy with such endeavours. 

As for Che Guevara, it seems important to me to remember his 40th anniversary even though Che’s methods are no longer relevant in our day and age.

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I want to recommend the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), by Brazilian director, Walter Salles, if you want to know Ernesto before he became Che.  

How to Win the Lottery From a Blind Man

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Spain, as a country, is pretty poor.

Yes, there are countries much poorer, but if you compare Spain to other modern European countries like Britain, France, Holland, Italy or Germany, Spain is definitely in a different league. The average national income here, last year, seems to have been under 14,000 € (make that £ 9,000, or $ 18,000). Not a lot, really, unless you live in Burma, or Myanmar, now Burma again, or else in Cuba.

Relative poverty is one of the reasons why lotteries are so popular in Spain. One of the most popular lotteries in Spain is the ONCE lottery. ONCE was not set up to be a lottery company. ONCE is the Spanish organization for the blind people. This organization was founded almost 70 years ago in 1938, in the midst of the mean struggles of the Spanish Civil War.

There seem to be a lot of blind people around in Spain, as well as other ill or handicapped folks. Perhaps one finds a similar percentage of disabled people in other countries as well, but it seems, that one see mores of them on the streets here in Spain. Maybe they are in hiding, elsewhere. Or, joking apart, there are perhaps better medical facilities available elsewhere that Spain can not financially afford to offer.

ONCE has managed somehow to become a rather large and influential institution over the years. Apart from setting up a national lottery scheme, they have also wisely invested their money in some key industries such as the media, radio stations, TV, and magazine press. In all, they rank amongst the top fifty enterprises in Spain, in volume of turnover. You might compare them to Oxfam perhaps, except that ONCE seems to be more economically minded in how they manage their money and make it grow successfully.

The way the lottery works nowadays, is this: any day, from Monday to Thursday, you can buy a décimo from one of the green kioscos that can be found in Spanish towns and villages, anywhere. Or from one of the many impaired street vendors like the one shown in the photo above. One cupón will cost you 1,50 €, and with that small outlay you stand an – albeit small – chance to win 30,000 €. A good enough reason for plenty of Spaniards to buy their coupon regularly. On Fridays, the cupón sells for 2,50 €, and prize money increases to 600,000 € per décimo. Again, a very tempting amount for a lot of people to chase that special dream. Including yours truly. I bought a tenth of a Friday ticket, yesterday. My number did not come up, sadly…

 

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On Saturdays, there did not used to be an ONCE lottery draw. Very recently though, they have introduced a scheme called Combo, that I have not quite managed to work out, yet. On Sundays, the ONCE lottery ticket sells for 2 €. First prize on Sundays is the sum of 100,000 €, paid annually every year for 25 years. Tax-free. Wow.

Apart from the ONCE lottery coupons, there are other Spanish lottery schemes galore. The most famous of them all is probably the Lotería Nacional, playing twice every week, and every so often, putting on a special draw. You may have heard of El Gordo which is Lotería Nacional’s Christmas lottery, on sale from now. Coupons cost 20 €, and the main winnings are quite phenomenal, as a total of 2,201,500,000 € will be paid out in prize money. Spain goes crazy on the morning of December 22nd every year, when the winners are announced on television, the numbers being sung by children from an orphanage.

 

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There is a special Lotería Nacional draw today, October 6th, with a ticket price of 12 €. The big win per ticket today will be 5,000,000 €.

Perhaps you might have a go yourself, when you next come to Spain.

 

Frédéric Chopin’s Hapless Trip to Mallorca

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Mallorca always had an infatuation with famous people. Be that the Spanish Royal family, the British Princess Diana, filmstars Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Goldie Hawn, Danny DeVito, or even longer ago, Frédéric Chopin and George Sand. As long as they all are rich and famous.

I told you about Amandine Aurore Dudevant, aka George Sand, on an earlier occasion on this very blog (see August 3rd). She came to Mallorca in 1838, accompanying Frédéric Chopin, the Polish composer and pianist.

 

Born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré and a Polish mother, Frédéric François Chopin won early fame in the relatively limited circles of his native country, before seeking his fortune abroad, in Paris. 

 

Chopin began to play the piano with verve at the age of 5, taught by his older sister Ludwika. His talent was immediately apparent, and the services of a piano teacher were soon enlisted in order to support his practice. Chopin was a highly dedicated student. It is even said that at the early age of 7 he slept, by his own free will, with wine-corks between his fingers in order to achieve a wider grip. He knew his destiny. 

 

After the studies, Chopin went to Vienna, where he was recognized as a decent pianist with some nicely written compositions, but altogether, it was not the success he had hoped for. Thus, he went back to Warsaw and, later, set his course for Paris. In Paris, Chopin did not immediately achieve success. It took a couple of hard years of composing and performing before he had worked himself into the High Society where he gave lessons to Royals and received the highest appreciation for his compositions. Chopin quickly became famous not only as a composer or teacher but also as a pianist.

 

Chopin was never to return to Poland again and made very few trips outside of France, mainly because of his weak health. The most famous of his trips may be a disastrous one to Mallorca which nearly cost him his life and another one, to Scotland, which was equally bad for his health. 

 

Chopin was diagnosed with Tuberculosis early in his life and it is quite surprising that he even reached the age of 39 before the illness finally took his life, after about 15 years of struggle. At this young age, Chopin had composed an amazing amount of works from a wide range of piano genres.

 

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In 1836, at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult, the mistress of fellow-composer Franz Liszt, Chopin was introduced to George Sand, who had been granted a divorce one year earlier from a marriage of convenience. She fell in love with him and offered to become his mistress. Chopin, however, did not find her attractive at first. “Something about her repels me”, he told his family. But George Sand had strong feelings for Chopin and pursued him until a relationship developed.

 

Chopin was already in poor health at the time, which is why he took his physician’s advice to leave Paris and go for a milder climate during the winter, in the Mediterranean. 

 

In the autumn of 1838, Chopin set off with George Sand and her two children, to spend the winter on the island of Mallorca. They arrived on November 8th, 1838, in Palma de Mallorca by boat from Barcelona. They rented a simple villa and were apparently quite happy. On November 15th, Chopin wrote a letter to a friend, saying “I am in Palma (…) I am close to that which is most beautiful”.

 

When the sunny weather broke, however, Chopin became ill. On December 3rd, Chopin wrote a letter to the same friend, saying “I have been ill for the last two days like a dog”.

 

When rumours of Chopin’s suspected tuberculosis reached the villa owner, they were ordered out and could only find accommodations in the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa (Real meaning Royal), a Carthusian monastery from 1399 until 1835, but now defunct, in the then rather remote village of Valldemossa. They stayed there from December 28th, 1838, to February 11th, 1839, when they left Valldemossa, Chopin being seriously ill.

 

He had been ill-advised to come to Mallorca. Even though temperatures here rarely drop very low, there is a sometimes quite unpleasant humidity in the air in Mallorca, rain or no rain, which can be uncomfortable and extremely damp in the winter. Not so healthy for someone with a tuberculum problem. Anyway, the hapless party left the island on February 13th, by boat from Palma de Mallorca, heading for Barcelona on their way back to Genoa and, eventually, France.

 

Although his health improved, Chopin never completely recovered from this bout. He complained, with his habitual wit, about the incompetence of the medicos in Mallorca: “The first (doctor) said I was going to die; the second said I had breathed my last; and the third said I was already dead”.

 

Chopin convalesced during the summer of 1839, in Nohant, George Sand’s manor house, 300 km from Paris.

 

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In 1845, as a further deterioration occurred in Chopin’s health, a serious problem also emerged in his relations with George Sand. The affair was further soured in 1846 by problems involving Sand’s daughter Solange. This was the year when Sand published her book Lucrezia Floriani, whose two main characters – a rich actress and a prince in frail health – might be interpreted as Sand and Chopin; the story was in fact somewhat derogatory to the composer. In 1847 the family problems finally brought the relations between the two to an end, which had lasted for ten years. Chopin died later that same year.

 

Although Mallorca has treated its guests, Chopin and spouse, not in a very commendable way, as one can easily read in George Sand’s travel memoirs of A Winter in Mallorca, published in 1842, Mallorca has since made the most of the couple’s stay in Valldemossa. One could quite rightly say, that Mallorca’s most famous tourist attraction, after Palma’s Cathedral, for those visitors that do not come only for sun, sea, sex and sangria, is Chopin and Sand’s legendary 45 days stay at the Carthusian monastery. Today, the Claustro houses a Chopin Museum, mainly for the purpose of celebrating the composer’s visit.

 

Two of the pianos that Chopin played in Mallorca are exhibited there, including the one which he had shipped over all the way from Paris.

 

During the tourist season, short piano recitals are offered to visitors at the Valldemossa Cartuja, four times a day. A real treat, every time, even if only for a brief duration. In August every summer, Mallorca celebrates the annual Chopin Festival of Music, the Festivals Chopin de Valldemossa, with its 27th edition just concluded.

 

If you ever have a chance, come for yourself one day and see how Mallorca treats you.