The dust-jacket of Christopher Howse’s second book on Spain points to its contents. In the province of Huesca a tiny caterpillar of a train is passing beneath the Cyclopean sugar-loaf rocks of Riglos, a magnet to climbers and home to the griffon vulture. This, then, is not a book about Spanish railways. Rather, the network serves simply as structure for a much wider survey of the country’s past and present.
Howse’s previous excursions centred on the old kingdom of Castile. This time he goes right round the country in an anti-clockwise direction. Although he is not writing for railway buffs, his insatiable curiosity unearths much of interest about train travel. At Canfranc in the Pyrenees he discovers an astonishing old station, its 790ft façade comparable to that of a great European palace. Inaugurated by the King of Spain and the President of France in 1928, it was at one end of a single-track railway under the mountains to Pau. In 1970, after a goods train accident on the French side, the line closed.
The direct route between Burgos and Madrid was even shorter-lived. Opened, following decades of delay, in 1968, it was abandoned in 2008 after one of the tunnels collapsed. Passengers now have to travel via Valladolid and Ávila. Fans of grand railway projects, beware.
Ironically, given the title of Howse’s book, one of his most memorable journeys is by bus between Guadix and Lorca, the train service linking the two having been terminated in 1985. The landscape is Spain at its most desolate, the vehicle like an erratic oven. “An air of stupefaction fell upon the six passengers on the bus, as its engine laboured on uphill stretches, making the seats vibrate. Sometimes the air-conditioning sent gusts of cool air through the nozzles above the seats; sometimes it saved up the stale, hot air until sweat broke upon every brow.” After a stop at Vélez Rubio, during which the ventilation had been switched off, “the smell was not just of sweat but like the greasy clothes that a tramp had not taken off for many days”.
This is one of the byways of Spain in whose description Howse excels. He invites us to Zamora to see a medieval tomb in the Church of St Mary Magdalen on which the serene effigy of the deceased woman and of her soul being carried up to heaven is in stark contrast to the monsters locked in combat on the canopy.
In Tudela he reveals the prodigious architectural wealth of the cathedral, with its Gothic west doorway, the 15th-century tomb of a Chancellor of Navarre and his wife, and the exuberantly Baroque chapel of the Holy Spirit. At Medinaceli, on the fluvial watershed of the Iberian peninsula, he gazes onto a typically vast Spanish landscape through a Roman triumphal arch dating from the first century AD. And at well-known sites he points to attractions often ignored: the wall paintings in the narthex of the Church of San Isidoro in León or the Museo de Bellas Artes within the walls of the Alhambra in Granada.
On his journeys through Spain, Howse remains the self-contained outsider. Compared to those of a travel writer like Colin Thubron, his contacts with the local population are minimal. He hints that he may have narrowly missed jumping into a void at the castle in Chinchilla or suffered from eating raw garlic for breakfast, but we cannot be sure. He even refers to himself in the third person when mentioning his previous book, A Pilgrim in Spain. For him, as for Pascal, “le moi est haïssable”.
His appeal to the reader lies in his deft visual observation; in seductive digressions away from his immediate impressions as a traveller, whether about the vulture-loving soldier Willoughby Verner or the Nobel Prize-winning histologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal; and his encyclopaedic knowledge of matters historical, literary, artistic, architectural, botanical, theological, ornithological, etymological and gastronomical (including a recipe for acorn pie).
The amount of information imparted is immense. To make digestion easier, the ten chapters are sensibly split into sections, each of which can be read like a newspaper column. The text is well served by maps, illustrations and coloured plates. There are one or two missing accents on place names, irritating in a book so meticulously researched, but an improvement on A Pilgrim in Spain.
Having started in the Pyrenees and covered thousands of miles, Howse comes to rest in the centre, at Chamartín station in Madrid. His has been an illuminating odyssey through a country which he obviously loves. He rekindles the desire to visit Spain and provides a charmingly erudite companion for the journey.