“Let’s try and get away early” suggests M, horizontal in his pit, unaware that it’s already 8:43, “Let’s be on the road by 10”
I respond, glancing at the clock. I forbear from sharing the truth – he looks really comfy and has taken to writing things – its not time wasted. I love his words. Another hour won’t hurt…
By a tremendous feat of effort and will, I’m behind the steering wheel at 11:06 as we pull out of the car park and back onto the road. It’s about 170 miles (3½ hours driving in this van) to the Park4Night place near the centre of Zaragoza, from where we can explore the city.
Our journey flashed past in plains of vast, eye-leading flatness. They are a patchwork of greens, greys, rust browns and sand-pale, rectangles, tessellating perfectly, unpredictable in colour from mile to mile. All flat. In the distance we see ridges and mountains, but up close… unruffled horizontalness.
We passed the Airport of Teruel, where you will never catch a plane. It is an air-park, not a junk-yard of disused machines of flight, but storage for excess capacity, planes that have legal issues, and others awaiting delivery. Huge jumbo jets dwarf a nearby village, standing out from the smooth agricultural earth like sculptures from outer space.
There’s a lot of un-lovely urbanization on either side of the A23 as it ploughs its way north. Huge factory buildings of corrugated metal surrounded by homogenous, efficient housing for workers, stacked high to minimize their footprint. We sail past these seemingly lifeless metropolises, hoping that our destination holds more promise.
Which it doesn’t to start with.
I used to live in Sheffield, North Yorkshire. I was miffed on hearing that the queen went past ‘my town’ on the train or in the car and commented about what an awful place Sheffield was. It wasn’t. But from the motorway/rail line, you only saw the industrialized, metallic and harshest view of the town’s digestive workings revealed in all their ugly glory. You didn’t see the parklands, the river running through the city, it’s sandstone library and town buildings or all the places to stop, ponder and think.
Likewise, Zaragoza has an unprepossessing set of outskirts. Row upon row of high-rise terracotta coloured apartment buildings. Built in the same pink-brown hue is Zaragoza’s penitentiary, plonked just outside the city’s perimeter and by architecture, largely undistinguishable from surrounding residential accommodation.
Then we find the river, gracious banks along the Rio Elba, and the pace slows, water glistens and a parking space accommodates us for a late lunch, a walk for Stan and the opportunity to stop. In the distance, along the river bank, an amazing collection of spires are calling to us: “Come and discover”.
Walking is one way of sightseeing; by car is another; also bikes. But we find two abandoned scooters at the roadside and after app-loading and payment, whoosh, we’re off! Level 23 takes us up to meteoric rates of around 14 miles per hour – enough to get your hair wafting out behind you and to fix a grin across your chops. Yahoo!
The search to reach those spires take us to a huge plaza, with water cascading down and across a sculpture of the world as a map, a stone-carved globe, and the Basilica. Where in Sot de Ferrer, the place of worship was ornate in structure but in simple white, the Basilica de Zaragoza is the polar opposite. The vast structure houses thirteen domes, on the outside capped in enameled tiles of blue, white, green and yellow. Inside each is decorated in fresco, cherubs gazing, holy wars waged, saints blessing, dying, saving others, and these works of art are as nothing compared to the marble.
Vast structures depict angels winged and floating on gusts of folding turbulence, arms reaching down to the gilt laden altars and chalices that send tumbling golden light to caress the bowed heads of kneeling sinners. It is wondrous. It is overwhelming. How could a simple soul enter this palace of worship, see a vision of such wealth and power and not feel awed into deferential gratitude, just to be allowed inside?
I cannot connect with this opulence, but I see those who do, for whom the visit is of benefit, amongst the mostly reverently-quiet tourists. Wheelchairs and walking stick bearers queue for their chance to hear the padre’s words of comfort and feel his gentle hand upon their hair. Others sit silent beside the confessionals, one penitent returning to his confessor and pressing something that glints into his hand. There are twelve smaller dome-topped chapels around the central, largest, most magnificent structure, and in each one, two or more heads are bowed in communication with their saints, their god.
I cannot enter into their acts of worship, any more than I could crawl on broken knees up thirteen, pebbled Stations of the Cross. But that reflects where I am, my spiritual journey. I see compassion here, amongst the fabulous physicality of what is around us, and I’m glad of it. There can never be too much compassion in this world.
And we send a prayer for dear friends of ours, who have recently revealed their struggles with illness. Their faith is strong and shared and Christian, so in this temple of Catholic holiness, surely here, God or one of his saints must have an ear. For them we both send up an application for support:
“Protect them and care for them, they’re going to need you.”