Tag Archives: Oviedo

Rivers

I’ve just been swimming in a chemically-treated, lightly-perfumed, over-lit indoor pool in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain. I loved it. On my way to the pool I pass this fountain.

Oviedo fountain fireworks – waterworks doesn’t quite describe the uplift and spray, does it?

It’s the centre piece of a roundabout which illustrates the cycle of water showering through it every minute. Round and round we go. Up and down, through the pipes, over and over again. Humans have used water, in more or less elaborate ways, to enhance our lives as long as we’ve been drinking liquid to survive. You do know you’re soaking in it? In my time in Spain I’ve seen fountains in plazas, roundabouts and parks. I’ve also seen viaducts.

Segovia viaduct built with no mortar

As I’ve said before, imagine having to work in a frock and sandals to make this big old drain run from mountain to castle for your Roman leaders.

There’s plenty of sculptures too, like this one in the city of Valencia, remembering the river that used to run through it.

Valencia remembers their river with a colossus striding over water

One of the most amazing things about Valencia is that for the last thousand years a group of Spanish farmers, or their representatives, meet, every week, on the steps of the Valencia Cathedral; the tribunal de las aguas. They’re there to debate water; who gets how much, when. You can see them on a Thursday. They don’t keep records and their decisions are final.

Tour guide in Valencia explains the democratic nature of water decisions on the steps of the Cathedral

Compare that to negotiations around the Murray Darling basin in Australia. Irrigation is the largest user of water from the Murray/Darling rivers. Admittedly white farmers haven’t been there for a thousand years yet but they are certainly having trouble working out equitable ways to share the water and keep a healthy river. Couple of Aussie blokes made a tv series about it, if you’re inclined to view a cruise down a river?

The farmers downstream in South Australia do not stand a chance against the farmers upstream in New South Wales and Victoria. There are regular scandals on the border of Queensland and NSW.

Cubbie Station, a Japanese and Chinese owned cotton empire, has a dam described as the same size as Sydney Harbour. Down the other end of the river in SA, Goolwa’s water sometimes slows to a trickle. There’s no regular meeting to solve this ongoing crisis. Just earnest attempts, bitter blaming and ecological desperation.

Back in Spain, Valencia went so far as to move their river away from the city.

Old Valencia river bed is now a running track

Now a lovely park featuring running tracks, modern architecture and playgrounds, the river bed flooded too often and the civic powers showed the flow who was boss and shoved it out the back somewhere.

Valencia tamed their river beds and turned their minds to the future

The same thing happened in Seville. The Gualdaquiver, once a bustling shipping artery, was split to control potential flooding.

Seville’s quiet backwaters

I suppose in Spain climate change may be working for humans because there’s been less rain than normal for many years.

El Torre de Oro – The Tower of Gold – built in the 13th Century – across the river Gualdaquiver

 

The public face of the river in Seville

On the other side of the Iberian Peninsula, I lived last year on the border of two provinces, Barcelona and Girona, in Catalunya. The border was a river, La Tordera.

Standing on the bridge looking out to the sea and the railway bridge on one side and up to the township of Tordera on the other

In the summer La Tordera dried up. You could walk across it. In the winter it was a full, flowing river. I used to take a photo every time I walked home. There’s no sound track on the following slide show. Do you want to listen to Al Green while you check out the pretty Spanish river?

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In the beginning of my little compilation, you can see the mouth of the river at Blanes beach. In the summer, the mouth is closed. As the waters build up through the cooler months, they breach the sand. Water will find a way.

With my back to Blanes beach, here’s the mouth of La Tordera in cooler days.

Also, the nearby city of Girona features a river bed dry and bare in the summer. The winter rains and their outpourings created marvellous reflections for tourist photos.

Girona quiet waters in autumn – not a marvellous tourist photo

This year I work in the Valle de Nalón in Asturias. When I arrived, El Rio Nalón was a mere trickle.

Tiny little Nalón in autumn

Nalón in the Winter

Now spring is here and the snows are melting in the nearby mountains.

Nalón in spring

Churning white waters fleck the brown flood that chunders down the river bed.

Rivers come and go as seen in two stories in the Guardian today. When Nature’s had enough https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/01/argentina-new-river-soya-beans and farmers have taken all the deep-rooted trees away from the water table, is it surprising that nature will take her own course?

But more achingly important is this story about giving nature a right to exist; https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights

The idea of giving a river legal personhood is pleasantly close to finding Naiad or a River God swimming along the Yarra, or the Thames or the Seine. But remember, “No river, no people, no life.”

They know that in Cape Town, they know it in Los Angeles. Around the world it’s estimated 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water.

I don’t have to tell you, do I, that we’re all part of nature!

There’s a lot of charities about clean water; the tap project, charity; water, lifewater, water.com

The Source of the river Aube, one of the tributaries of the Seine, in the Haute-Marne region of France

When I stayed near Auberive, Champagne-Ardenne, France, I was fortunate to visit the Source of the river Aube, set in mysterious forest and retaining an atmosphere of magic. For about twenty metres around this area, the ground is wet and the steady seepage from below begins a flow that ends up joining the Seine. Here was a place it was easy to imagine a Naiad living.

Would we be more interested in protecting water if we returned to the days of worshipping? Would that be enough for us to form a human shield against the likes of Nestlé and Coca Cola? Remembering corporations already carry their own personhood, like Deities!

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, hydro-electricity is looking a lot greener these days. And rivers are so beautiful that Don McGlashan wrote a song about them. Made famous by singer Hollie Smith, here’s a version featuring the composer, a casual rehearsal to swim in.

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Thanks for getting into this river of thought. What, and where, are your favourite rivers? Have you been involved in any water charities? Let me know in the comments section below!

Places of Power

Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain is a place of power and communications

The first time I understood the land itself could be a place of power was when reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone. Ley lines (pathways to and from geographic or historic structures) provided points where people of magic could travel through time and correct elemental balances. Bruce Chatwin explored this notion in The Songlines, a book about the network of power across Australia as utilised by different Aboriginal nations. Patricia Wrightson believed the land was the heart of Australia. She wanted to bring Aboriginal philosophy to white settlers as exemplified in her wonderful books, The Song of Wirrun

Many years ago I was fortunate to visit the Dharug National Park, near Sydney in Australia, to see the great rock whereupon ancient carvings depict a variety of creatures and symbols. As I watched my guide pour water into the channels to make them more visible, I imagined a great market place, bustling and full of invisible vigour. With no clear theory of their purpose, the carvings might have been signs of each product for barter or symbols of each tribe or hold ceremonial significance. But most certainly that smooth rock was some kind of meeting place, a place of transactions and a definite place of power.

American Gods, by the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman, resulted from his year-long road trip across the States. As he travelled he realised that certain road-side attractions were based on places of power. These were the locations where his homeless gods, brought by settlers from Europe and Africa, found their source of energy. I thought of places of power often as I followed the ancient pilgrim’s route across the North of Spain, El Camino del Norte.

Irun, the first Spanish town on the border with France, features a very old looking church

The gateway to El Camino del Norte de Santiago is in Irun

but it was not until Oviedo Cathedral that the concept of powerful places really began to crystallise in my mind. With its wealth of extraordinary relics, Oviedo, a kind of religious Disneyland, is the start of the Primitivo, the first Camino de Santiago.

Alfonso II of Asturias, the Chaste, the first official pilgrim immortalised outside Oviedo Cathedral. Check those walking legs!

The camino itself was designed as a kind of border patrol system by Alfonso the Chaste, who wanted to keep Moors down south – out of the pure and Christian North.

Which way to protect the border of Christianity, Pilgrim?

As we walked from Oviedo to Lugo, images of Saint James (Santiago) feature in most churches – the saint flying through the air on a gleaming steed, brandishing a sword and killing Moors left, right and centre.

Saint James (Santiago) lays waste to the Moors in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Luckily, your average modern pilgrim in breathable clothing just wants to think about peace and personal salvation and is probably humming ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon as they march along.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral Pilgrims Mass – religion by technology

But these Cathedrals were most certainly built on places of power as are many monuments in Spain: the Cathedral in Santiago, the Alhambra in Granada and the Mesquita in Cordoba. The Mesquita (with Cathedral insert) exists now as a mash up of religious history but surely the site itself was a place of power to start with? Perhaps Neanderthals held parties there?

Saint James galloping through the middle of a mosque – the Mesquita, Cordoba

History tells us it was known as a Christian Visigoth temple and when Muslims invaded in 711, a mosque was built to share the site, allowing Christian and Muslims to worship side by side. In 784 the Christian side was demolished and a new mosque built on the site. Further additions created the second biggest mosque in the world after Mecca.

The Cathedral erupts in the middle of the mosque, Cordoba

In the thirteenth century Cordoba returned to Christianity but it was not until the sixteenth century that the Cathedral was inserted into the middle of the mosque. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t bowl the mosque, as they did with fourteen other religious meeting places in Cordoba that were once mosques but the Mesquita was huge and probably prohibited its own destruction by its sheer force of existence.

This mosque could once hold 40,000 worshippers

From outside this block seems to dominate the area by the river. All roads lead to it, tourists are going and coming, and the surrounding merchants have set their nets accordingly. It is imposing with high straight walls and golden doors.

Exterior Mesquita by night

But from the inside? Overwhelming. As soon as I entered the Mesquita I wept.

Jesus in a Mosque

For over a thousand years people have come to this place to draw strength. Now, it is a Christian Cathedral but surely Muslims should be allowed to pray here too? Why not revert back to sharing?

Recently, visiting the monastery in Monserrat, another obvious place of power, I became intensely aware of sounds. The dog barking, the birds swinging across the sky and muffled chatter as we waited in line for the funicular, while the great stones of the mountain loomed over us.

Yellow belljar to take us up the hill – fun fair ride to the big attraction!

Waiting to travel, the cheery tourists took selfies, and the high tensile gnawing slowed to an intermittent grind as the yellow belljar aproached and docked, clunk, into the infrastructure. The noise of the cables muffled as we clustered together inside our tank, travelled over deep crevices in the land and people tried to record distant geology in their phones or ipads.

Recording geology on technology

In the information centre, sounds of the instructional video describe the origins of the monastery in 888 and the Napoleonic destruction in 1811. What compelled soldiers to climb the mountain? What were they looking for as they looted the monastery and printing press? What did they carry away in glee?

Taking photos and memories away from the Basilica, Montserrat. La Moreneta, the Patroness of Catalonia, is up and centre in the altar piece. Off to the right is a queue of people who will touch the sculpture. Eventually.

There were strange noises in the basilica, a distant roaring noise as if we were on a boat, and the tolling bells at 10:45 bringing the congregation into the church for 11am mass. The lights snapped on just as the crowd was exhorted to put away their cameras by quiet attendants. The orderly parade of monks entered, the first voice; clear, Catalan and commanding. The other monks more hesitant, following, elderly men, one trying unsuccessfully to cover his yawns (half dozen or so younger fellows around forty) most with thin white hair and bent backs.

The sounds of the organ rose, quiet but welling music – with a wide roaring of wind supporting the tones – not unpleasant but there. The individuals near me shaking hands, turning to greet their friends and neighbours, and hesitantly, me, saying Pau – peace, I supposed – and immediately caught into their own need to receive communion. Afterwards the eager pilgrims who rose up the stairs and arrived behind the altarpiece to touch the orb of the Black Virgin (another false idol like that adored statue of Santiago) who draws thousands to worship and adulate. They touch the globe of the universe. Tenderly. The rest of the statue is behind plastic.

They exit through a tunnel where people push hard, eager to buy a coloured candle, three euros for a big yellow, red or green tube to place in a line under a ledge of rock darkened by ages of wax smoke. The smell of dead bees and the warmth of the many flames urged me out and up to climb the mountain itself, seek the highest peak of Sant Jeroni, the clear air and whoops. Why, I even heard coo-ees as I reached the sunlit summit.

Heading up to the tallest peak of Montserrat, Sant Jeroni

How many people had climbed these concrete steps up the conglomerate stone lumps, like those sand castles that children dribble with wet sand as they play on the beach? How many Napoleonic soldiers took their sandwiches and lay under a wind tortured shrub to avoid the sun as they admired the view to the coast and down to the city of Barcelona?

Distinctive shapes of the conglomerate rock shapes of Montserrat – a massif that stretches for over 25 km.

The opening of the film Rabbit Proof Fence features aerial footage of the earth seeming, for all the world, to show the skin of the country as the surface of a breathing living being. The outcrops of rocks and sediments that make up Montserrat seem like a wart or growth on top of a natural force. Of course people would build shrines and contemplative structures here. It is a human urge to find a place of power to connect with each other, to communicate and seek strength, together.

Monastery tucked in among the hills of Montserrat

Donald Trump is currently visiting the great centres of religion in the world. Right now he is in Saudi Arabia, the place of Mecca, the home of Islam. Next stop, Jerusalem, the home of Judaism, and finally, he will go to the Vatican, home of Catholicism, proving all roads do indeed lead to Rome.

How deliberate is this journey to the great triumvirate of places of power? Is there something compassionate about the current President of the USA’s pilgrimage? Can we hope for communion, understanding and benevolence for fellow human beings? Dare we hope for peace? What do we think when we observe the enormous arms deal he takes with him? As described in Troy Kennedy-Martin’s 1985 tv drama, The Edge of Darkness, I recall Gaia’s black flowers that will grow to heal the world and feel that all we can do is hope.

Or perhaps there is more to do; may I humbly suggest finding your own place of power? Perhaps climb a mountain or find a ley line or some ancient place of religion and pray to your God/energy/force of choice? At least commune with like-minded people and gather strength from the earth. For, by God, it appears we’re going to need it.

 

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