Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


Letter From Barcelona

One of many fine examples of Catalan Modernista architecture to be found in Barcelona is the Mercat del Born. For almost a century following its completion in the 1870s this striking building at the heart of the historic Born neighbourhood housed the city’s main wholesale market. Eventually, however, demand outstripped its capabilities, and business was moved to a larger and more accessible site out towards the airport. Following its closure in 1977 the old market building lay abandoned for 25 years while urban planners and local politicians pondered over its plump carcass.

Throughout the early years of my time in Barcelona I only ever saw the building from the outside, and so, like many others, I was curious to see what would happen when, in 2002, a formal plan was finally announced to house a new provincial library beneath the roof of the original structure. What happened, however, was that work soon came to halt, as excavation of the site’s foundations revealed ruins dating back to the early 1700s.

The first decade of the eighteenth century had seen the major European powers locked in war over who would succede to the Spanish throne. The outcome proved to have enormous consequences for Catalonia, which having backed the Hapsburg pretender rather than the victorious House of Bourbon, saw its centuries-old political institutions dismantled. As for Barcelona, the city was laid siege to and finally surrendered to the forces of Felipe V on 11 September 1714. One of the things that the Bourbon monarch then ordered was the building of a new military citadel just beyond the old city walls, and in the process of its construction much of the old maritime quarter known as La Ribera was razed to the ground. Almost three hundred years later, however, part of the Ribera re-emerged from beneath the abandoned Born market, and the people of modern-day Barcelona were offered a further reminder of the city’s political history. There was no way that a contemporary Catalan government could cover up a site of such significance, and so a new plan was drawn up that involved preserving the ruins within a public museum space around which, and under the same roof, a new cultural centre would be built. The restored building, ruins and all, was finally inaugurated on 11 September 2013, the National Day of Catalonia and the 299th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona.


Given its historical significance and symbolic value as a place of transformation it is perhaps not surprising that when parliamentary elections were held in Catalonia on 27 September 2015 the pro-independence coalition Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes) chose the Born Cultural Centre as the place to set up its election-night headquarters. A stage was erected on the pedestrianized area that fronts the building, and it was from there that the then-president Artur Mas addressed the cheering crowd. Amidst the jubilation, however, there were two major obstacles to be faced. One was that the coalition had fallen short of an absolute majority and so needed to seek the support of a smaller pro-independence party that had chosen to remain outside the coalition, a party whose leaders had made clear their opposition to Mas being sworn in as a returning president. The other was the intransigence of Spain’s central government towards any restructuring of the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state. For these reasons alone, I couldn’t help feeling, as I watched Mas’s victory speech on Catalan television, that the most he could really offer his supporters was hope.

On Thursday 15 October, less than three weeks later, Artur Mas appeared before the Spanish Supreme Court, having been accused by the Madrid government of what it considered an anti-constitutional act: on 9 November 2014 he had permitted a public “consultation” (a formal referendum had been prohibited) in which the Catalan people were invited to express their opinion regarding a future independent Catalonia. As I write this, no-one really knows what the outcome of this process will be, but needless to say, a president has yet to be named for the new Catalan parliament.

On the afternoon of the day that Mas was testifying before the Supreme Court I caught the bus into the centre of Barcelona. A crisp morning had given way to a bright and warm autumn day, and the streets were thick with tourists and locals going about their business. I ambled my way through the crowds and after thirty minutes or so I reached the cobbled street that leads to the main entrance of the Born Cultural Centre. Like those Catalans who had gathered here on 27 September I had come with the aim of hearing a politician speak, except the man in question was neither Catalan nor still in office. Yanis Varoufakis spent barely six months as finance minister of the Greek government that was elected in January 2015, although his resignation over the terms of the third bailout plan has simply shifted the focus of his engagement with the problems being faced not just by Greece but by the European Union as a whole. He had been invited to Barcelona to speak on the question of identity in Europe, and entry to the event, in which he would be interviewed by a well-known Catalan TV presenter, was free and on a strict first come, first served basis. With hindsight, I should have guessed that turning up an hour and a half before the scheduled start would be too late, but I hadn’t imagined that so many people would be there. By the time I arrived, however, a queue of hundreds was snaking its way along the front of the building, around its eastern corner and off into the distance. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make the cut for entry into the 300-seater auditorium, and although a sign had been put up saying that the talk would be streamed live onto a large screen visible from other areas of the building, I decided against joining the queue.


I loitered for a while, observing people’s expressions, their body language. Security guards were positioned at various points to make sure the growing line remained orderly, but they had little to do. The people gathering here had come not to cause trouble but to hear what might be done about it. For there is a lot of trouble out there. Just as there was three centuries ago, there is a struggle going on over how Europe should be governed – and by whom. As I headed off to catch my bus, none the wiser as to the mess we’re in, I wondered whether those who would soon get to hear Varoufakis speak would drift away later with more than a message of hope ringing in their ears. I hope so, for all our sakes.


Trail Music: Track 6

Here’s another track from my trail playlist (just click on the song title to watch a live performance). The Spanish-to-English translations that feature in this post are my original work. If you want to use or quote them elsewhere, please include a link to my blog. Thanks.

Cantares: Joan Manual Serrat

The career of the Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat spans more than four decades, and his songs form part of the cultural life of generations across the Spanish-speaking world. This song, Cantares, dates back to 1969 and to Serrat’s second vinyl release: Dedicado a Antonio Machado, poeta.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado was born in Seville in 1875, although by the age of eight he had moved with his extended family to Madrid. This proved to be the first of many journeys he would make during the 63 years of his life. He remained in the Spanish capital throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, although he also made two lengthy visits to Paris during his twenties. This experience not only contributed to his artistic development but also enabled him, once back in Spain, to earn a living as a schoolteacher of French while he worked on his poetry. In 1907, having already published his first two collectons of poems, he took up a permanent teaching position in Soria, a city around 200 km to the north of the Spanish capital. This period of his life culminated in the publication of a new collection of poems entitled Campos de Castilla [Fields of Castile]. However, it also ended in tragedy, for in 1912 his young wife, Leonor, died from tuberculosis. Distraught, Machado requested a transfer back to Madrid so as to be closer to his family, but he would have to wait nineteen years to achieve this goal: only in October 1931 was this lifelong supporter of Republican ideals awarded a permanent teaching post in the capital by the new government of the Second Spanish Republic. Further tragedy was, of course, on the horizon, and following the military coup of 1936, Machado, due to his age and public prominence, was advised to leave Madrid. He spent the next two years in the province of Valencia, from where he continued to write and speak publicly in support of the Republic. However, as the Nationalist forces took control of an ever increasing area of Spain, Machado and his family moved further north, to Barcelona. By the time of his arrival in the Catalan capital in April 1938, his health was failing, and conditions in the city were bleak.

On 22 January 1939, four days before Franco’s troops finally entered Barcelona, Machado embarked on what would be his final journey, one that would take him once more across the border into France. After a tortuous trip that lasted six days, he and his party reached Collioure, a small coastal town that lies some 30 km north of the Pyrenees. Had he been able to continue as far as Perpignan he may have been able to receive the medical care he needed. But it was not to be. In 1939 Ash Wednesday fell on February 22, and it was on this day, in a room of the Hotel Bougnol-Quintana in Collioure, that Machado died. His simple grave in the town cemetery might easily be overlooked were it not for the fact that it is forever adorned with words and flowers left by those who continue to this day to visit his place of rest. The words carved into the tombstone, however, belong to the poet himself:

Cuando llegue el día del último viaje, y esté al partir la nave que nunca ha de tornar, me encontraréis a bordo, ligero de equipaje, casi desnudo, como los hijos de la mar.

[When the day arrives to make the final journey, and the ship that will never return is about to depart, you will find me aboard, travelling light, almost naked, like the children of the sea.]

This image of a journey that can never be repeated is echoed elsewhere in Machado’s work. Among the poems that make up the aforementioned Campos de Castilla is a series of Proverbios y Cantares (Proverbs and Songs), and it is here, in the last of these short verses, that we find what are perhaps the most famous words of this poet who was also a walker:

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.

[Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking.]

These are the words that serve as the inspiration for Joan Manuel Serrat’s homage to the poet. The song Cantares begins with three verses from Machado’s Proverbs and Songs, the first two of which Serrat sets to music. The third – and most famous – verse is then recited. In the opening verse we are invited to reflect on whether the paths we follow in life have as solid a grounding as we often assume them to have:

Todo pasa y todo queda, pero el nuestro es pasar, pasar haciendo caminos, caminos sobre el mar.

[Everything comes to an end, and everything remains. To live is to go on, to go on making roads, roads upon the sea.]

This theme is then developed in the third verse, where we find Machado reflecting further on the fleeting and invented nature of our life’s journey:

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.

[Traveller, the road is what’s left of your passing, nothing more. Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking you open a road, and when you glance behind you see the path never again to be trodden. Traveller, there is no road, only a wake upon the sea.]

This spoken third verse provides the bridge into the second half of the song, in which Serrat offers three verses of his own that stand as if in dialogue with the poet and his fate:

Hace algún tiempo en ese lugar, donde hoy los bosques se visten de espinos, se oyó la voz de un poeta gritar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[Some time ago, in this place where now the forests are draped in thorns, the voice of a poet was heard to call out: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse…]

Murió el poeta lejos del hogar, le cubre el polvo de un pais vecino. Al alejarse le vieron llorar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[Far from home the poet died, and there he lies, beneath the earth of a neighbouring land. Along the way he was heard to cry out: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse

Cuando el jilguero no puede cantar, cuando el poeta es un peregrino, cuando de nada nos sirve rezar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso

[When the goldfinch has lost its song, when the poet is a pilgrim, when our prayers are said in vain: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse

My own route across the Pyrenees and into France this summer veered west before reaching Machado’s resting place in Collioure. However, the words of the poet, and those of Serrat, were ever present as I followed a mountain trail that had once been a conduit of hope for those fleeing oppression. As I climbed to the high pass on that early June day the only oppression I encountered was as a result of the heat. No-one asked for my identity papers, and my safe passage into France was never in question. The border was as fluid as the sea below me to the east. These are the freedoms that people of my generation have been granted as a result of the struggle and sacrifice of others, most of whom are either forgotten or remembered only by their living relatives. So in remembering Antonio Machado, let us also remember the words of the German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, himself an exile whose mortal remains lie elsewhere across a Pyrenean border: It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.