Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

I arrived at Madrid airport a traveller from an unclean land. A notice, written in English, blocked the way: `Anyone arriving from the United Kingdom, because of the dangers of foot-and-mouth, is required to disinfect him- or herself in the trays provided.' There was no sign of a tray. The only disinfectant nearby was a half-empty bottle of sherry on a bench. Surely the Spanish did not expect their ancient foe to wash in wine? I addressed a Castilian official, who was upholstered like an ornamental ostrich: 'Excuse me. Where do I disinfect myself?' He regarded me with distaste. 'Are you dirty, madam? We have no shower facilities at the airport.' I attempted to illuminate him. 'Actually, I had a bath in London. I mean disinfectant against foot-and-mouth.' I tried it in Spanish: 'Pie y boca'. He looked at my foot and then at my mouth. 'Have you got the toothache?' We stared at one another, mesmerised, hopeless. This was an instance in which omission seemed the better part of valour. I bade the man adios. (For the information of Spectator readers, I subsequently discovered that in Spain the disease is known as 'fiebre atosa'.)

The glittering centre of Andalusia is Seville. At its ancient Torre del Oro, once covered with gold tiles, every ship was required to surrender its gold for weighing. Turrets, built by the city's one-time occupants, the Moors, reach out to the sky like the morning glories that push their way up between the cobbles. Around the small squares, orange trees, lovely and incongruous against the stones, provide the marmalade for which Seville is fabled but which the locals disdain. Beyond tall wooden doors, carved like the gates of Babylon, lie the treasures of the empire. A few steps away roses bloom in courtyards over which Roman heads preside in silent approbation. 'We will take you to a beautiful casa tipica,' said my friends from Madrid, Nina and Laszlo Bene. This was a late-mediaeval palace, now occupied by a charming Spanish couple and their sprawling family. 'Do you realise what you are treading on?' asked Laszlo, as we crossed an interior courtyard. I looked down. Beneath my feet, like a fantastical carpet, was a 2nd-century Roman mosaic. Picked out in blacks, reds and greys, the cavorting figures seemed almost as pristine as when they were first laid. I bent and touched one with my hand. It was cool and smooth. I supposed the closest analogy was to imagine fingering the Venus de Milo or the Elgin Marbles.

'Take me to your ancient Romans,' I commanded the Benes. They have four young sons, Nico, Ferdie, Marco and little Laszlo. They are blond and upright, with perfect features ranging from Ferdie and Nico's chiselled to Marco's cheeky and cherubic. We had come to Seville to watch the extraordinary religious festivals that take place during the Easter period. Seville has 400 processional brotherhoods, most founded in the 17th century. Every April the brotherhoods put on the kind of theological spectacle that you would assume to be long dead in our agnostic age. Seville's churches have ancient floats with life-sized figures of Christ and the Virgin, each depicting the Stations of the Cross. For a week they are carried through the thronging streets as part of a feria of thousands. The brotherhoods have between a few hundred and a few thousand members. The Macarena, which possesses the acknowledged ne plus ultra of Virgins, has more than 3,000. There are six or seven processions a day. The Macarena processes from midnight to lunchtime the following day. …

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