Friday, July 31, 2015


D├ępaysement (n.): The feeling stemming from not being in one's native country; culture shock; disorientation. (French)

I'm afraid I'm a bit overdue for a new post, but I have an excellent excuse: I've been cloistered. Since we last spoke I've gone on arduously long hikes, spent almost 24 hours in various Spanish bus stations, avoided seafood almost successfully, and listened to an absurd amount of the Harry Potter series on tape (narrated by Jim Dale, 150,000 out of 10: would highly recommend.)

I left off in Zaragoza. Which, now that I think of it, feels like ages ago. Happy month-iversary, by the way! July is now a thing of the past (at least in this time zone) which also means that all of the other Watsons have now departed for their respective years of discovery. Bon voyage, future friends! I'll see you in a year.

So, to sum it up: Zaragoza was hot. Some highlights: wading pools in the center of the city, excellent for keeping your ankles lukewarm and looking like a silly tourist. Goya everywhere. The most impressive collection of medieval tapestries in Europe. Limon congelado, the best frozen lemonade to ever grace the earth. The Diocesan Museum of Zaragoza (which is one of the coolest museums I've ever been to, and I've been to a lot. Walls that slide away as doors, fantastic lighting and audiovisuals, and a great collection built into an archaeological excavation site. Not too shabby at all, and I had it all to myself.) Also a store that claimed to sell "All things America." They had Cheetos and Jolly Ranchers, so... nailed it.

I journeyed from Zaragoza to Pamplona by bus, and then to Aurizberri where I stayed in a hostel outside of Roncesvalles. I went to Roncesvalles to see a monastery, but I was flouted at almost every turn. Here my story, ye readers, and despair. And then get over it and keep moving. That's what I did, anyway.

The trip started with a major perk, in that I am almost certain the guy at the desk gave me the key to the wrong room. I had booked a bunk in an 8-person mixed dorm and was feeling incredibly anxious at the prospect of having so many roommates, but I opened the door onto a neatly appointed room with a full-sized bed and an ensuite just for me. No sharing, hurrah! And a bathtub.

The major draw of the hostel was that it said on the website that it was 3 km from the monastery at Roncesvalles, and I figured it would be a simple enough commute. I saved my directions on my iPod, shrugging at Google's silly calculation of an hour and a half walking time (what do they know? ohoho, I'm so smart and superior). I left the hostel at 9 am, ready for a brisk walk and a visit to some treasure at the top of the hill.

Turns out it takes the better part of three hours to get to Roncesvalles from Aurizberri. And walking on the side of the road is a Very Bad Idea. Suffice it to say I survived, and thank all my lucky stars it was a cool day with beautiful countryside, but I was rather discouraged when I got to Roncesvalles much later and much more tired than I had anticipated. Oh well, I thought. At least there will be so many things to see and investigate here!

Oh, my sweet summer child.

The museum and collections were only available through a very expensive tour not offered when I was there. I could walk through the church and a part of the cloister on my own, but that was it. I asked around for guidance from the staff, but most of them are pilgrim-hospitality oriented and not well-versed in the site. So that was a bit of a bummer.

It was, however, my first real encounter with the Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old and incredibly revered pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela. People come from all corners of the world and all walks of life, to undertake the pilgrimage. Since Roncesvalles, I have been (more or less) following the pilgrimage route towards Santiago de Compostela, and I plan to end up there in a few weeks. From Roncesvalles, it is 790 km as the crow flies to Santiago de Compostela, and quite a daunting walk; I've seen more peregrinos boarding buses with Camino-related injuries than I can count. But I do value the five hours I spent on the Camino route; it gave me a small glimpse into what it is like to undertake the pilgrimage. Maybe I'll come back and do it for real sometime--I certainly can't do it now. I'd like to see someone undertake it with the amount of luggage I have and survive. In any case, even though the monastery itself didn't yield much in terms of objects, the walk did wonders. I experienced a renewed passion for the objects and places that people are willing to put their bodies through so much to see.

I walked home in a lightning storm, which just made sense given the day I had. All bah-humbuggery aside, I really liked Aurizberri. It's one of those villages where if you sneeze as you drive through it you'll miss it, but the view can't be beat. What can I say? I'm a sucker for mountains.

I'm still playing a bit of catch-up, since I'm in Leon now, but I was in Burgos for a week and my time there gave me a lot to think about. Next time, Burgos!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Montserrat and Zaragoza

Resfeber (n.): The restless beat of a traveler's heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. (Swedish)

To be fair, I've already been travelling for over two weeks, so it's not quite resfeber I'm suffering from. Still, travelling place to place I feel a thrill of anticipation and nervousness when I set out. I hope I don't lose it as time goes on.

I left Barcelona on Monday and voyaged to Montserrat, a beautiful mountainous area that is incredibly popular with tourists. Bypassing the massive tourist magnet of a monastery that rests at the top of the hill, I made my way to the Monestir Sant Benet, an active Benedictine nunnery that is home to a community of incredibly welcoming women. I stayed there in descanso for four days, communing with my surroundings and reviewing my ideas of worship and spirituality in the context of cloistered nuns. Here's the view from my window:

The nuns of Sant Benet are known for the ceramics they make, both for sale at their own monastery and as commissions for other communities. I got to sit and talk with them and the other women passing through the hostatgeria about the importance of conservation and objects in spiritual pursuits. However, I must say the best part of living there was simply that: being part of a community, even briefly. I attended services, got teased by the nuns for being the slowest eater they'd ever seen, breathed mountain air, read books from the tiny library, and exchanged smiles with everyone I saw. Not bad at all. And some A+ calabasa soup, to boot.

On Thursday I traveled from Montserrat to Zaragoza, with a short stop in Barcelona to visit the Apple Store (buckets of soaking laundry and iPods do not mix, and I was not about to embark on the rest of this journey without my iTouch--but that's a conversation about object-dependency for another day) and then I caught a coach bus to Zaragoza. It was a beautiful trip, and I'm sad I don't have pictures--the guy next to me usurped my window seat ticket and honestly I was too tired to fight it out.

I'm staying now in a small hostel in Zaragoza (another third floor walk-up to match my digs in Barcelona) and using my own two feet to get around the city. Today I visited perhaps one of the most famous cathedrals in Catalonia, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. I've been visiting mostly Romanesque buildings thus far, and Pilar is Romanesque and Gothic on the outside but Baroque on the inside. If Romanesque interiors seemed lavish to me before (they have a quiet, stately grace) Baroque interiors are out of control. I mean this in the best way possible, but it's a bit of a shock to the system. Nonetheless I had a fantastic if slightly overstimulating time, and I had an excellent collection of encounters that I shall share here.

The Importance of Touch and Treasure. One of the many chapels within Pilar is dedicated to the worship of Christ and Mary, housing a massive wooden figure of the crucified Christ and an accompanying statue of the Madonna and Child. The practice is to approach the Christ and kiss His feet in supplication and prayer, in addition to holding His feet and legs, and then proceeding to kiss the feet of the Madonna. These statues are very old, and touched by hundreds of people a day, and the paint and form of each is being rubbed away by each new supplicant.

In short, they're a conservator's nightmare.

But what would they be without touch? There's something very visceral about touching the feet of Christ as you pray--I did it myself in the chapel. One of the feet's toes are now barely recognizable, having been worn down by thousands of supplications. However, it would be devastating to remove the Christ and Madonna from public access, and directly in opposition to the statues' purpose. 

Likewise a very popular place for touch and prayer is the pillar left by the Virgin when she appeared to Saint James and asked him to build a church in her honor. It's low to the ground and can only be "used" by one person at a time, so I waited my turn. The line of worshipers leads to a small kneeler set into the wall, with a framed portion of the pillar at face height once you get into the kneeling position. You kiss the pillar and pray to the Virgin for her protection, leaving your mark in the ever-deepening grooves of the pillar. It's an incredibly sacred place that slowly works away at an incredibly sacred object. But as a conservator I have to step back, and allow these objects to be used as intended. It's not my job to do the saving in these chapels.

There's a treasury in Pilar too, kind of like what I encountered in Santa Maria de Pi. It's called The Virgin's Jewel Box. A curious name, I thought, but as it turns out The Virgin's Jewel Box is a display of the finery that supplicants of the Virgin of the Pillar have donated to the Virgin in supplication or in thanks. There are crowns, mantles, earrings, necklaces, pins, hairpieces and rings kept for the Virgin, as well as more personal items. A composer gave his bow, a writer a golden pen; generals have given badges of valor, homeowners gave candlesticks. Are these objects sacred now? As I understand it, these are the possessions of the Virgin of the Pillar, kept safe by the Basilica. I wonder about that pen, and the violin bow, and how their significances have evolved. Or have they? Were they sacred to start?

Seems like I've got a lot to think about.

I'll be in Zaragoza until Monday, and then I continue West. Keep cool weather in your thoughts for me--it's been hovering pretty consistently around 100 degrees in these parts, and I'd like to make it through July gently braised, rather than cooked straight through. Hasta pronto!

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Vacilando (v.) : Travelling when the experience itself is more important than the destination. (Spanish)

It's official! I've been in Barcelona a week. It's incredibly hot here, which makes travelling around the city less than fun, but at least cathedrals are generally cool temperature-wise, and there are public drinking fountains scattered around the city. Aside from being a respite from the heat, churches in Barcelona are also hugely popular tourist destinations; Sagrada Familia is the number one spot to visit in the city.

Before I regale you with witty tales of my adventures, I would like to address the ever-popular concept of language barrier. In my innocence, I figured that having mastered Spanish to a good extent travelling to Spain and speaking to everyone would be easy-peasy. FALSE. I am in Catalonia, friends, and Catalonia means Catalan. Now when I was in school, I got the impression that Catalan was sort of an ephemeral language, not terribly necessary to know and easy to circumvent. ALSO FALSE. I had to translate the directions on my microwave pasta because I had no idea how to follow directions written in Catalan. I'm picking up pieces here and there (Sortida=exit, si us plau=please, etc.) but it is tiring for the brain. That being said, I am furiously studying my Turkish, and praying for mercy when I start travelling west and everything turns to Basque. But I have persevered through the throngs of tourists, the language and the loneliness, and this is what I've been up to so far:

Barcelona Cathedral. A fantastic Gothic specimen of a church, with spectacular side chapels dedicated to saints and about a thousand manifestations of the virgin, plus a beautiful choir and crypt, which I couldn’t get into because they were being used for services. It was breathtaking, and it took me a moment to realize that the lightness in my chest was the absence of the homesickness I have been fighting--for me, churches (especially cathedrals) inspire a quiet awe in me that I find very grounding. The panic of leaving home was gone, and I could lose myself in the space.

Santa Maria del Pi. Located in the same general area as Barcelona Cathedral, quite beautiful and less touristy. I found a room labeled “Treasure” which immediately caught my eye--this must be where the magic happens. I was right--I found five reliquaries, about a bajillion monstrances, and even more chalices. It turns out, this church has a special relationship with its objects because the interior was burned out the day after the civil war started. The surviving objects are few and precious--even the chairs are on display. I might go back and investigate--there’s a cleaning lady too, whose uniform indicated that she is hired by a third party. I wonder what it’s like to clean churches?

Sagrada Familia. I got up nice and early to get to the cathedral ahead of the crowd. I got to the end of the line at 9:30 just in time for the teller to inform us that the next ticket would be sold for 1:30pm. We could come back later (hahahaha) or buy online (hahahahahahahahahahahaha). So I spent a good long time looking at the exterior, and then went on my merry way. I came back later in the day when they told me to and tried to get in again, but they were all sold out for the day. Hopefully I'll have the chance to return when it's finished.

Sant Pau Reciente Modernista. In a bit of a tiff after my battle with Sagrada Familia, I headed off in the direction of what looked like a church (it had Sant in front of the name, so I foolishly thought it couldn't be anything else) and walked for a while. I would like to give a shoutout here to my sandals, the real MVP--they are holding up better than I am. However. Sant Pau Reciente Modernista is not a church. It’s a museum--sort of, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was once the foremost hospital in Barcelona, and now the collection of buildings is an empty shell. An empty shell, however, in the manner of a pysanky egg. The buildings are exquisitely gilded inside and out, looking like a village of palaces, and I can only imagine how it must have been to be a patient in bedazzled wards. The style is dubbed “Catalonian Modernism” and I’ve never seen anything like it--in the best way possible.

Tarragona. Unlike the other spots I've been to, Tarragona is not in Barcelona. Rather, it is a city in its own right (a walled city, I might add--the best kind of city) about an hour's train ride south of Barcelona. The train ride itself was actually quite pleasant. Here is a List Of Things Learned On A Train Trip In Spain:
  1. Fanny packs are in. Like, way in. Like, I’m pretty sure they were never out. Pick up yours today from Louis Vuitton, Coach, or anywhere fine fanny packs are sold.
  2. Public transportation makes people rude. And old Spanish women with tiny dogs are no exception. In fact, I think they are the reason for this rule.
  3. Nude beaches sneak up on you. All you wanted to do was stare out the window at the surf instead of at the eight prepubescent Spanish Justin Biebers sitting next to you, and suddenly there is nothing but naked people for miles.
  4. Gayland is, in fact, a fantastic beach shack decorated entirely with rainbows that looks out on the Mediterranean. It is also inaccessible except for by crossing high-speed train tracks. Be careful, my friends!
  5. The nude beach will still be there when you go back in the other direction.
In all seriousness, Tarragona might be my favorite spot so far. The cathedral there is absolutely beautiful, and I'm particularly partial to it because I had it to myself for half an hour in the morning, and the silence of a cathedral is the best kind of silence there is. I did some digging into all the recent conservation work they have had done there, but everyone I talked to either knew nothing or could only talk about history. Not quite what I was hoping for. I got a website to look into of the conservators who had most recently worked on the cathedral, so we’ll see where that goes. I also found an enormous monstrance that was made by a goldsmith to replace an original that was stolen in 1939. Curiouser and curiouser. One of the most interesting pieces of the cathedral for me, however, was a corner in the gardens near the cloister, where hundreds of names had been scribbled onto the stones. At first I was outraged--how dare they? And then I saw that the names went back in some cases almost a century, and my view began to change. Why leave your name in a church? Are they part of the church now? Can they be sacred like the building?  Hm.

Museu Nacional d'Art Catalunya. The National Museum of Catalonian Art is very beautiful, and at the top of some very, very tall stairs. My recommendation? Bring a water bottle and a jet pack. I headed straight for the Gothic exhibition halls and dug in. I scoped out a couple of guards and chose one that looked nice, and a conversation followed something like this:

“I have a question. Well, I would like your opinion.”

“Go for it.”

“In this exhibition space, a lot of these objects depict sacredness, or were used for spiritual acts. But now that they’re here, are they art objects or sacred objects?”

He didn’t miss a beat.

“Art objects.”


He then gave me an incredibly eloquent explanation that I wish I could replicate, and it went along these lines: the place of these objects is now within the history of art. Even if they were once sacred, they cannot be anymore. The fact that they are in a museum, with white walls and people looking at them, makes them useful to study history and the evolution of artistic style, but these objects have no impact on “el culto” (sort of "cult" but not really--more like religious persons) anymore.
He recommended very strongly that I visit the Romanesque hall before I left, which I did, and I could immediately see why he suggested it. The Romanesque exhibition hall is room after room of replicated churches, displayed for the sake of the MNAC’s very impressive collection of Romanesque wall paintings. If anything were to be creating an aura of sacredness in the museum, it wasn’t the Gothic spaces--it was the Romanesque. They’ve also done a fascinating job of integrating modern art pieces into the Romanesque spaces. It was altogether more like what I had been expecting from a museum with so many religious pieces, but still the didactics were all about evolution of style, subject matter, or history. No spirituality at all.

I know that this has been an incredibly long post. Perhaps I'll have to do this more often so I don't overload you with all my musings. But I can promise you I'm doing a lot of thinking and planning, and my brain can't be stopped by the heat.

TL;DR, Barcelona has been and continues to be great, and I'm squeezing every last bit out of the city before I leave on Monday. Ciao!