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Damien Enright on Mainland Spain

*Andalucia, in the south of Spain, was covered in sunflowers as far as the eye could see. Yellow heads stretched to the horizon, miles upon miles of tall flowers. “Girasol” the Spanish call them, which means “turns towards the sun”. But is it possible that, at morning, all Andalucia turns towards China, and at evening turns towards Ireland? I tried to investigate, but the sun is everywhere in Andalucia, and it was hard to know. Sunflowers on the rolling, sun blasted plains of the south, then low vines carpeting the meseta as I drove north past Cordoba to Madrid.

*In Spain, ‘casta-as’ as they are called, are a valuable crop, sold roasted by street vendors, used for stuffing and ground for a kind of flour. Arracena is the chestnut capital of Andalucia, in the cool mountains north west of Seville. There was a mushroom festival in progress the same afternoon, so we stood around talking to chestnut farmers, drinking red wine and eating delicious ‘hongos’, the Spanish word for ‘toadstools’. Boiled ‘casta-as’ are often found on a autumn table in rural Spain or the Canaries, with a jug of local red wine.

*The capital of Andalucia is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. From the moment we arrived, we lost ourselves in Seville. One would think that, having been there many times before, we would know our way around but this, once again, was not the case. The labyrinthine ways of Sevilla are legion and the further one enters them, the more one is lost. Lost not only in the overwhelming beauty – the proportions of the buildings and parks, the elegance and loveliness of the women – but physically lost to friends and family, wandering the narrow streets and great avenidas for hours

* The Giralda in Sevilla: From April to September, every night, when the spotlights pick out the tower of the Giralda in central Seville, the sky all around, high and low, is full of lesser kestrels. They drift and hawk above the Moorish panels and the Christian crosses, and nest amongst them as they, no doubt, did when the tower was still a minaret, calling the Moorish princes of Seville to prayer. The magnificent mosque beneath was razed when the Reyes Catholicos won back Spain. In its stead, they built a magnificent Gothic cathedral, surely one of the wonders of the world, a symbol of the triumph of their faith that it would take a Moorish army a hundred years to knock should they ever come back.

*Between Valladolid and Burgos, in the heat of the afternoon, we see, opposite us, across the dual carriageway, vast fires raging over tens of square miles of rolling fields carpeted in mown straw. The wheat crop has, happily, long been saved but what a loss these millions of tons on straw must mean to the farmers! At five o clock on that Sunday afternoon, the plains of Spain were aflame and red fire engines plunged across the mown fields to do battle. As ineffective as Don Quixote against the windmills, stick men leap out and direct hoses that seem like water pistols against ramparts of shifting flame. A helicopter appears, flying through the smoke, a water tank slung beneath it, discharging a mere bubble onto an ocean of fire.

*Each time I visit Andalucia, I am struck by the beauty and productivity of its cork trees, which cover the rolling plains for miles. I have written about them often. The trunks look like they are wearing thigh-high black stockings; this is because the bark is stripped neatly away on the pale ‘leg’ of the tree, revealing a dark skin which ends just below where the branches begin. It is said that a squirrel could travel the length of the Iberian peninsula via cork trees, without coming to earth.

*Then, across vast Andalucia, with blue skies and fighting bulls in the fields, to Sevilla, with its great cathedral and the mighty Guadalquivir, once thoroughfare for the wealth of the Indies. North, then, on the Ruta de la Plata, the Silver Route, to Cac_res, a city ‘twice as old as time’, the remains of its ancient civilisations preserved within the walls as if baked into the clay of Estremadura.

*Salamanca; we stayed a the night and roamed into the vast central square filled with cafes and people. How well the Spanish know how to socialise, stepping out at midnight, after the heat of the day, dressed like princes (overdressed, my wife says) to sit in family groups and meet friends and gossip! And what a lovely city is Salamanca, with the elegance of old Spain.

*Between Valladolid and Burgos, in the heat of the afternoon, we see, opposite us, across the dual carriageway, vast fires raging over tens of square miles of rolling fields carpeted in mown straw. The wheat crop has, happily, long been saved but what a loss these millions of tons on straw must mean to the farmers! At five o clock on that Sunday afternoon, the plains of Spain were aflame and red fire engines plunged across the mown fields to do battle. As ineffective as Don Quixote against the windmills, stick men leap out and direct hoses that seem like water pistols against ramparts of shifting flame. A helicopter appears, flying through the smoke, a water tank slung beneath it, discharging a mere bubble onto an ocean of fire.

* Basque Country, Guernica: The north Atlantic coast of Spain is exceedingly green and beautiful. In places, it is so like Ireland that we wonder if we are already there. Orange montbretia lights up the road verges, creamy meadowsweet nods over the lanes. We have had constant warm weather, one day of lovely sunshine, otherwise an Irish-style summer climate of milky cloud and occasional light rain. The sea is much warmer than at home, and the sand on the huge beaches is very golden.

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