This post will talk a little about my recent travels rather than promoting anything new in my work field. It is another ‘while-I-write-my-novel’ post.
It has been a busy month in terms of travelling. I spent a week in Sicily – I have written about this for my 26th October post for the History Girls website – and last just returned from a very brief trip to Sitges in northern Spain where, every autumn, a Mediterranean documentary film festival is held.
Sitges is another of my favourite cities to return to regularly. It is a very tolerant place. There is a real sense of ease in the streets and it has a fascinating history.
It was put on the map culturally-speaking at the end of the nineteenth century when it became a very trendy enclave for artists, playwrights and poets, particularly those working in its local Catalan language. It was a fishing village surrounded by rich earth and fertile agricultural activity. The word Sitges comes from sitja which is Catalan for silo, grain storage. The town knew great prosperity during the 19th Century when trade routes to the States opened up and the local winemaking industry was flourishing. (This was a period when French wines were blighted with the terrible Phylloxera disease, a catastrophe for French viticulture.). Many of the Catalan merchants left their homeland and made their fortunes in America. Some returned, los Americanos they became known as, poured money into the economy and built the very elegant Art Nouveau-styled maisons bourgeois still to be be seen everywhere about town.
Sitges with Cathedral in background in 19th century
I first visited when I was in my adolescence. I hate to admit my age, but this was a time when Franco was still ruling Spain. It was the early 60s, and Spain was staggering into the last, long decade of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. The country was suffering isolation, poverty and repression. Sitges is situated 38 kilometres south of Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya. During the Francoist regime it was known for its very liberal stance against the dictator. Its counterculture was flourishing in the sixties, but I did not know it back then. How I wish I had!
Today, it is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. I returned to this coast for the first time since my early teens when I began travelling for The Olive Tree, the second of my Mediterranean travel books in quest of the secrets and history of the olive and its culture. Of course, by then I was fully aware of Franco and much of what had had taken place in Spain from the early 1930s onwards. Naturally it made me look back on that early “continental holiday” with my parents in a very different light.
Last week, Michel, my husband, and I drove from our olive farm near Cannes along the south coast of France and down into Spain. We took my mother with us. Her memories of Barcelona and northern Spain are all linked to the trip we made with my father in the family car in 1963. It was fascinating to walk the streets with her and try to identify which was the beachfront hotel we had stayed in back then. We did not find it, or we might have done – it could have been one of several overlooked by the city’s very splendid cathedral. What I have enjoyed during these last few days has been sharing memories of that childhood vacation with her. For example, my late father insisted on being told what kind of meat we were being served for dinner. Remember, this was a land buried beneath dictatorship and a city that had rebelled time and again against the dictator. The people were poor; they were hungry. Tourism was a very new industry and we must have been amongst the first wave. When the young waiter – seventeen perhaps? – finally admitted to my insistent father that we were eating donkey, Daddy nearly had a heart attack. He definitely suffered stomach upset and took to his bed, curtains drawn to darkness, for a couple of days of our blissful summer holiday.
I have been asking myself every year since I have started to revisit this resort what might have happened to that waiter, what sort of a life has he enjoyed? Is he still alive? He would have been in his mid to late twenties when Spain’s dictatorship finally came to an end with the death of Franco in 1975. Wouldn’t a plate of donkey meat have been a nutritious meal for that young man and his family back then? His salary a Godsend? Did he play any role in the cultural underground movement that was so active back then, openly challenging the rigidity of Franco’s Spain? Back when I was a callow traveller and but a girl worrying about a suntan, my figure and my future? Might I have passed him on the street during this last week in today’s liberated vibrant Sitges?
Mum and I laughed this weekend over an occasion when I crossed the wide avenue from our hostal to the beach, running in bare-feet and bikini. I was stopped by a policeman who threatened to arrest me if I did not return to my guest house and put on something more decent. Franco and the Catholic Church were the governing forces of Spain back then and, as I have written above, tourism had barely trodden a sandy foot into Spain. I was little more than a child and ignorant of the politics, but I had innocently flouted the law…
Last Saturday evening, I accompanied my mother to mass at the Cathedral, a sung service celebrated in Catalan. When we came out, the exterior of the church had been floodlit pink with the famous looped ribbon symbolising the fight against cancer. It looked spectacular particularly from a distance as we walked the esplanade en route to join my husband and other filmmakers for dinner. The message on the facade of the church read: Sitges joins the world in creating awareness in the battle against cancer on this World Cancer Day. I had offered up my mass for a cousin of mine who lost her fight against cancer three months ago and for Lynda Bellingham, fellow actress, second Mrs Helen Herriot who died yesterday. RIP, dear Lynda.
These days we always stay in the old city of Sitges at the Hotel Romantic. It is a three-star establishment that occupies three houses set down a narrow lane in the old city. It is a work of art in itself – little has been modernised except for guest comfort – and it contains a vast collection of pottery and paintings. Breakfast is served in its lush gardens. If you happen to be in the city, wherever you are staying, do stroll in and enjoy a quiet cocktail beneath the towering palm trees.
So, that has been my last few days. Back to the novel. I see light at the end of the typing tunnel!
Glad you dropped by to read this.