Recuerdos de Soria

If the last few summers were all about the staycation, this summer has gifted a greater degree of freedom. Airport chaos aside (let’s not even go there), the intrepid traveller has made something of a return. There is a purpose again, it seems, to one of the most tantalising publications of all: the travel guide.

One glance at my bookshelves will betray my weakness for collecting travel books. Even their very covers are things of beauty, etched with lemon trees and lavender, olive groves, medieval castles, and brightly coloured fishing boats moored in ancient harbours. You won’t find many books about Northern places in my front room. Mostly I go for the Mediterranean – I put this down to a desire to escape the cool damp summers and the even cooler and more damp winters we are accustomed to here in Ireland. Don’t get me wrong, cosy rooms with turf fires are great, but there is an irresistible delight for me in the sunlit mornings and balmy evenings under the stars to be experienced in southern climes.

In my dreams I might wander barefoot in a flowing calico dress onto a little balcony to water terracotta pots overflowing with geraniums, lavender and tomato plants laden with ripening fruit. There might be a little canary singing above me somewhere. Or I might be listening to the music made by water dancing in a little fountain on a patio, possibly in Seville, shaded by a flourish of trees bearing oranges and lemons ready to be eaten.

The incurable romanticism I seem to have been born with might explain, in part at least, my love of Romance languages and especially their poetry. Take Spanish, for example, and the evocative lyricism of Antonio Machado. We read his work at school in Ireland, and later at university. I fell completely for its wistful charm, and eventually followed Machado’s footsteps to teach in Soria, a sleepy Castilian town steeped in history and tradition, with medieval streets dotted with Romanesque churches, on the banks of the River Duero.

This summer, three decades later, I was able to spend a few days beside the same river. Even if this time it was thousands of miles downstream, there was something emotional about seeing it again. Since travel is back on the agenda, for now at least, I thought I might indulge my love of things Iberian by sharing some memories and impressions from my little expeditions over the years around the great Peninsula.

My 1991 self in Soria ciudad … retrieved from a very old photo album!

The source of the Duero lies high up in the Picos de Urbión. Its crystalline, glacial waters flow down through mountain villages with names that sound like the song of the river itself: Duruelo de la Sierra; Covaleda; Molinas de Duero; Viñuesa. At a lower altitude, it curves indolently around the town of Soria, before veering west towards Alamazán, El Burgo de Osma, and Valladolid.

It was in Soria that the Spanish poet Antonio Machado took up post teaching French in the local school, in 1907. And it was there that he found the love of his life in Leonor, the teenaged daughter of the landlords of the boarding house where he stayed during the teaching terms. Their life together was cut short by Leonor’s illness. She succumbed to tuberculosis three years after their marriage in 1909, and died within a year in Soria, where she was buried. Although Machado would never return to Leonor’s home town, his poetry preserves something of the spirit of its land and people and architecture. It also immortalises the Duero river, its banks graced by tall poplars shimmering in the breeze. These images and impressions were engraved and carried with him in his heart.

Machado wrote of the green river banks and their trees, of barren Castillian hillsides, of ancient oaks, and medieval buildings emblazoned with the coats of arms of bygone nobles. As we painstakingly poured over his work as students of Spanish, our vocabulary gradually grew. Some of the words he wrote did not translate neatly. Pardo, for example, a memorable adjective used to describe the colour of the dry earth of the Castilian meseta. It still speaks of dust in my mind. There were the names of different birds too. When I lived in Soria years later, I discovered that the image of the cigueño, the giant stork nesting high up in the church bell towers, was no figment of the poet’s imagination.

Machado lived through Spain’s terrible Civil War, taking exile across the border in France. He died and was buried beside his mother in the little French fishing port of Collioure. A few years ago I read the magnificent 2007 biography written by Irish Hispanist, Ian Gibson. This magisterial book helped me understand Machado’s life more fully. I felt much sympathy for him.

Machado’s poetry has translated into word pictures the life he came to experience in Soria. It was sober and provincial; a very different world than sunny Sevilla and the hectic Madrid he had previously known. But walks with Leonor by the verdant river Duero offered respite for the poet. I also cherish happy memories, of time spent with friends still dear to my heart, along its quiet banks.

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