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Monday, 04 December 2006

Spain: Reading Hemingway in the Land of Contradiction - Page 3

Written by Evan Thoreau Heigert
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The train out of Barcelona leaves at a quarter to noon. On the wall of the station, the iron clock reads 11:23. I turn to the line of dusty travelers in front of me. This is going to be close. I reach the window

Up in the hills the air is even cooler. It takes on the fresh scent of fall even though we have barely reached July. We pull up to a heavy-timbered hunting lodge, wood smoke trickles out of the flagstone chimney. Inside it is dimly lit and smells of burnt oak. He shows me to a room that is clean and modern; twin doors open onto a small balcony. I step out and understand instantly of what he spoke. Below the hills stretch out in three directions, rich green turned charcoal in the approaching darkness. In the V of two slopes the little city pools against the black of the sea. Streetlamps and tavern lights flicker on like fireflies appearing in the night. The breeze is steady and carries the smell of the sea and the light sounds of a town at play.

spainA shower warms my weary bones, but my stomach has yet to come to peace. As I towel dry, I am assaulted by a sultry smell. Throwing on light clothes, I walk down to the rustic dining room. Under candlelight a feast has been laid and the aroma is simply intoxicating. Other guests trickle in and soon everyone is seated. The innkeeper speaks a few words of prayer – provincial Spain is notoriously Catholic – and the food begins to be passed. Mussels, breads, fruits and nuts make the rounds. Spain’s national dish, paella is the coup d’gras, a steaming cornucopia of seafood, saffron, rice, and vegetables. Wine bottles, empty and unlabeled, begin to collect on the table like a centerpiece to our pleasure. The chatter ranges from Spanish to Catalan, Euskera to French, English to German – truly a nod to a country that has witnessed the come and go of innumerable cultures. Full and sated, I retire to my room. I put on a sweater, pull out the old Hemingway, and lie across the bed. With the cool breeze and the careful, unhurried prose, sleep comes to me easily.

The morning brings with it a low fog. It slides in slowly from the ocean and settles in the deep valley. I take coffee on the porch – thick and strong, with a touch of cardamom and nutmeg. I follow the gravel road down the mountain and catch a bus into town. The morning is fresh and cool, but with the rising sun comes the promise of warmer temperatures. I get off at the edge of the Parte Vieja – directly across the river from the train station. People are strolling through the cobblestone streets, peeking in shops, lounging at outdoor cafés.


The old town dates back to just the mid-19th century when a fire ripped through its tight streets. The relative youth of the quarter gives the buildings a dignified, colonial air. The streets here are much narrower than in the city proper. Wandering through the limestone canyons, it is easy to get lost among the shops, boutiques, and outdoor campas. It is meant to be traversed without hurry. Life in Spain runs at a tempo all its own. The Basque take their time, out of necessity as much as leisure, and all shops and businesses close for the afternoon siesta.

beachEnjoying the sun, I take mine on the beach. San Sebastián is renown for la Playa de la Concha, a stretch of golden sand that curves like a seashell for two miles along the bay, where icy Atlantic waters are warmed in the shallows by the Spanish sun. In its heyday, the town rivaled the beach resorts of Biarritz, St. Tropez, and Nice as the summer playground for the famous and beautiful. Today it is more accessible, but still retains those luxuries of the golden age: sparkling jewelry shops, designer boutiques, and above all, la Concha.

Before long the sun gets the best of me and I strip and dive into the frothy surf. The water on the surface is warm as a bath, but a body’s length below the cold currents of the ocean remain out of the sun’s reach. I swim out into the sparkling harbor where a large raft floats tranquilly. I pull myself onto its wooden deck and lie with my face in the sun. A chorus of mast lines from anchored yachts chime along with the sharp call of sea birds. It is easy to understand how Papa found inspiration and calm here along the edge of a continent. In this quiet solitude it is hard to imagine that tomorrow will bring the utter chaos that is the most quintessential of Hemingway’s Spain.

(Page 3 of 5)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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