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Spain: One night in Valencia

by Dylan Taylor-Lehman
Master traveler Paul Theroux assesses in his book The Pillars of Hercules that the difference between the tourist and the traveler is that the traveler is vague but the tourist is certain. The traveler ambles, knowing that much pleasure can be derived from a lack of plans. Accidentally stumbling somewhere can foster a sense of connection with a place that is sometimes absent when you only have time to see things you’re supposed to see. Mr. Theroux later says that he is usually “vindicated in [his] ignorant decision” not to have an itinerary; and while I hesitate to call anything I do ignorant (ha!), I definitely felt vindicated by the results of having  shirked my non-existent responsibilities in favor of just watching and listening to whatever I could in one of Valencia’s main plazas.
           As I happily loped my way to the plaza, I noticed anew the qualities of a cathedral and a painting that I had passed many times before.
Valencia’s main cathedral, also known as the Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María, is a sprawling structure whose multiple buildings box in an open area to create la Plaza de la Virgen, the plaza where I was perched for the night. The cathedral is not as tall or nearly as gaudy as some of the other more ridiculous Spanish cathedrals, but for believers, its contents certainly trump any architectural flourishes: it houses the Holy Grail. Yes, thee Holy Grail, the cup of Christ, the hallowed subject of much pulp speculation and mythology. Needless to say, I was surprised upon learning this. In all of the interest and controversy surrounding books like the Da Vinci Code, I hadn’t once heard that the physical specimen exists, let alone can be viewed for three euros. Despite many sites claiming to possess the same cup, Valencia’s chalice doesn’t appear to be an unverifiable claim, as a considerable amount of Christian scholars agree that it is in fact the cup used in the Last Supper. Also of interest in the Cathedral is the severed hand of Saint Vincent the Martyr, a grey and mummified relic from one of Valencia’s two patron saints named Vincent. Both the hand and the cup rest quietly in the confines of the solemn cathedral, and to me it seems a slightly anticlimactic reality, for not once have I seen an intrepid scholar-explorer being chased by Nazi mystics or a powerful cult through the foot-fall echoing stone streets surrounding the church.
Continuing around the backside of the cathedral, what appear to be shrieking women or gargoyles leer down from the roof with their mouths/downspouts open to an extreme degree. They look ready to vomit forth copious amounts of water and their fearsome expressions give the impression that they are undertaking some sort of symbolic purge, the specific religious meaning of which evades me. The path curves under their gaze as it joins with the concisely-named Passage Emili Maria Aparicio Olmos, Capellà i Craniste de la Mere de Deu dels Desamparats. Built into the wall along this passageway is a nondescript altar enclosed by mock-ornate metal and glass doors. Two candles sit on top and flanking the altar are two flags. The horizontal surface of the altar is made up of tiles, on which is painted a strangely primitive depiction of what appears to be the Virgin Mary. I am not entirely certain who it represents because while the figure sitting on her lap is likely an infant Jesus, the baby’s proportions make it appear more like a miniature man than a baby. The figure’s head is surrounded by a halo and the man/child is giving the cryptic two-fingered hand gesture common in religious artwork, which makes the whole situation even weirder or more spiritual or both.
The whole point of the altar is to present a painting entitled Sant Jordi en la Batalla del Puig de Santa Maria, any 1237. It shows a battle in Valencia during the thirteenth century, when Catholic and Muslim forces were battling for control of Spain. Like the painting on the tiles, it too is an incredibly enigmatic piece of art, especially considering that the graphic violence it displays to the street. The viewer is placed right into the heat of battle, and it is not difficult to understand which army the artist feels is endowed with Heaven’s blessing.
In the typically gorrific style of artwork glorifying Catholic Warriors, the painting is startling in its violence. The horror of war is evidenced by the almost cartoon-like rendering of a horse screaming in agony, as its suffering is made all the more terrible by the multiple perspectives used to paint its contorted visage. Strangely enough, it is very similar to the wailing horse in Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ and anyone who has seen the painting knows how effective surreal depictions of animal distress can be. Another horse lays dead or dying in the lower left-hand corner and its intestines are squirreling their way out of a wound, infinitely creepy as they wave like flagellates. It is of course important to note the hideous, enormous globs of goo (blood?) that drip from wounds on the horses’ flanks as well, if one wants to feel the full effect of the painting.
None of the frank, triumphant depictions of slaughter should come as a surprise, for paintings, drawings, and stained-glass windows abound with butchered Moors. In many artworks and mediums, the white-wearing Crusaders stomp on severed heads, and disembowel, torture, and impale their enemies, usually while wearing serene expressions reflecting their no doubt sincere belief that they are doing their God’s will. This painting is no different; one soldier looks totally placid as the tip of his sword pokes through an enemy’s head as easily and cleanly as a needle through cloth. The impaler stabs with one hand and grabs the robe with the other; his cheeks are rosy and his jaw grey with the permanent evidence of facial hair that can characterize equally benign modern men who are simply waiting for a bus. The faces of the two warriors at the forefront are painted in amazing detail, which provides the main source of eerie contrast between the cartoonish horses and the vivid world of violent men around them

A hammer is brutally raised in the background and there is a shield with a painted scorpion whose metal rivets look like the eye-holes of a masked character – hooded men always look threatening. In the heat of the battle, one Moor is at least painted as if he is exhibiting some resolve though no harm at all befalls any of the Knights; even the bright white and red drapery on the horse is unsullied by the grime of battle. Honestly, the painting is pretty funny – it is so over-the-top that it’s hard to believe anyone would take it seriously, but given the abundance of artwork with identical subject matter, the holy butchery of enemies were in fact celebrated events. It’s not surprising that religious fanatics would revere such an idiotic painting, as all emotions relating to extreme religious devotion, whether they are to worship or to eradicate, likely stem from the same atavistic impulse. This isn’t to say that the Knights are unique with their violent perspective; without a doubt the teachings of any religion have glorified smashing their enemies into oblivion.
Above the shrine is an inscription:

“En este lugar, segun
Tradicion, se celebro la
primera misa al ser
reconquistada Valencia
por el rey don Jaime”

 Here, according to tradition, the first Mass of a re-conquered Valencia was celebrated by the King Lord Jaime

Clearly it is a site of historical importance, its history marked by an always-illuminated testament to the methods required to insure future masses. Nowadays, people seem to walk by without paying it much heed or perhaps they have already acknowledged its presence, internalized its teachings, and moved on. And therefore, while a newcomer observes the painting and ponders its philosophy, it’s easy to overhear the conversations and see the occurrences of everyday modern life: cops giving a ticket to a youth who arrogantly parked his scooter in the middle of a plaza; a strolling family whose father asks his eight year-old daughter how the day’s exams went; a rollerblader calmly skating backwards in a figure-skater’s pose, an entertainingly antiquated way to show off. And the icing on the cake is a troop of rambunctious six year-olds clambering all over a set of the basilica’s double doors, shrieking and pounding and playing as loud as possible while a mass is taking place right on the other side.
Like I was suddenly struck by the painting in the altar, I was also aware of many other things as I sat down in the nearby plaza. People were self-consciously carrying skateboards as fashion accessories moreso than skate equipment, and many people were waiting at tables alone, looking at watches in expectation of the people that were eventually to arrive. I hadn’t really noticed the grandeur of the plaza’s centerpiece fountain before, either. It depicts a reclining human representation of Valencia’s Turia River, surrounded by water nymphs that represent the river’s tributaries. The monument it is interesting because of its low-lying construction: its height is only as high as the water deity relaxing on its elbows on a short platform, and because he is lying down and space is needed for the bastion of helpers surrounding him, the fountain is much longer and wider than it is tall.

Looking around and watching what were primarily groups of friends chatting and goofing off, I couldn’t tell if I was happy being alone with my thoughts or if I hoped that I would run into someone I knew. The plaza was a frequent meeting place and many of my acquaintances who lived close by and it wasn’t out of the question that a group of them would burst in with a loud racket of voices from around a corner. All of my people-watching was like a vicarious social life that sparked a desire to be part of my own. Ultimately, I opted not to pay anyone any visits because my previous lack of appreciation for the fountain was thanks to being distracted by said company. Not that I am complaining about knowing people, but I knew I was more than happy to remain alone.

My gaze drifted over a woman at a nearby table and I congratulated myself on being able to tell she was Spanish based on her facial features. She then started speaking Yankee English, obliterating the smug appreciation of my detective work, though I quickly regained composure by noting that they were features I had seen many times in the US; had I concentrated a bit longer I would have noticed this. Directly across the plaza, two women were heavily making-out in front of the cathedral and cops and I cheered them on for sticking it to society, though I quickly realized that it’s important not to loose sight of the fact that everything that a gay person does is not necessarily a political action but can be simply a normal action from normal daily life; not to have every little thing pointed out as either a sin or a calculated political maneuver is something for which the battle for equality is fought: the ability to be left to live a normal life like everyone else; their PDA is/should be funny because it is PDA and not because of who is doing this kissing.
I sat on my step and made completed a couple more visual circuits around the plaza. I was bombarded with various thoughts concerning, among other things:

  • the abundance of incredibly beautiful women who just casually exist as if such beauty was commonplace;
    • my annoyance that every trinket-selling traveler thinks it appropriate to have a dog as some sort of nomadic status symbol;
      • that I can’t publicly read a goofy crime novel despite my constant proclamations that all written word is legitimate, a paradox that had reared its head earlier in the evening when I clandestinely tried to renew a novel called Cold Granite but whose secrecy was compromised when the librarian thought I still had it in my apartment and held it aloft for all literate patrons to laugh at as I tried to explain that I was renewing the very book in front of her;
        • about what I would say to the people who were approaching me, but  who turned out to be just throwing something away in the trashcan next to me;
          • that everyone was dressed exactly the same but nonetheless very fashionably;
            • that the guy walking slowly around the plaza might be part of the secret police but he was doing a terrible job of hiding it. Then again, that might be his trick: he is so bad at being undercover that nobody will believe he actually is, and thus he can successfully infiltrate whatever needs to be infiltrated;
              • and what one could do to change the allegation on a t-shirt that “You’re no good at the Englewood Neighborhood.”

              About this time an oddly appropriate wave of gentle mood music suddenly tinkled through the plaza. Some musicians I had seen earlier, identifiable as such thanks to their cool musician’s caps (small fedoras) were playing next to the entrance of a tavern. It was sub-Sarah McLachlan music for adults, the set comprised mainly of self-described “touching music,” as I was later told. I turned around to watch them. The two singers were both wearing evening dresses and the piano player retained his fedora and boasted a sport-coat and tiny blues patch. They were between a restaurant and its tables, leading me to assume they were there to class up the patrons’ dining experience.
              I saw two police walking towards me. With the fanciful notion of myself as someone suspicious, I stared at them in a vague challenge but they walked past me without a glance. I turned to follow their imposing police-officers’ stride, and it seemed that they were making towards the musicians. It was so improbable that they could find the music offensive that when they did in fact shut down the performance, I was overcome with giddy disbelief – how was it possible that a lounge act was causing trouble? I saw one of the singers produce what was presumably a permit, but the police were not to be swayed; the music had to stop. Perhaps it is illegal to play in a public place with amplification, but even so, the volume and content of the noise was equivalent only to that of the soft refrains playing inside a scented-candle store.
              I leaned against a lightpost and watched the drama come to an end. The three musicians milled around, slowly winding up cables and shuffling about, clearly trying to prolong their departure with the hope that the police would leave and they could start again. Baffled and curious, I walked over to talk to them and presumed they spoke English because of the effortless way in which they had been singing English lyrics. In fact, in every capacity their singing voices were absolutely impressive, and the very occasional off-key falter was the only thing that belied their unprofessional status. There were only slight traces of an accent on the English words, and it functioned more like a singer’s individual flourish than someone singing in a second language. Maintaining the usual modesty of a non-native English speaker practicing the language, one singer said “I can understand English if it is spoken slowly”  while of course carrying on the entire conversation with total fluency.
              They were three Polish musicians of indeterminate age, indeterminate because they mentioned that singing in public “used to be a lot easier to do,” an assessment that implied they have been doing it since way back when. Indeed, they informed me that they are not traveling musicians but that playing is what they are “doing for life,” explaining that they had come to Valencia to do so. In their experience, they had acquired a permit from city hall that allowed them to play and they had been hired by the dusky tavern as the nightly entertainment, but this still wasn’t enough to allow them to chill the plaza out with their red-wine charm. They were understandably annoyed by the police using only a hazy interpretation of the rules, as they were apparently allowed to start playing again at ten o’clock after the police left. I was correct in my guess that they had shown the police their permit, but to their chagrin, they didn’t think he had read it. “I don’t know if he can read,” they said in irritation.
              “Where are you from?” they asked.
              “Ohio, in the United States.”
              “Oh. You are probably used to freedom. Ohio is not a problematic state.”
              As I was apparently representing a bastion of freedom where street musicians can play without being harassed, we talked about life in Ohio for a few minutes. Even in their hometown by the sea in Poland, a city left unnamed due to my assumed lack of knowledge about Polish geography, they weren’t faced with such mild yet annoying impediments. I learned that buskers were a persecuted bunch in the area. The red-haired, purple-dressed singer proclaimed, not without reason, that it is “easier to sell cocaine or marijuana in the plaza than play music unannounced.” They were annoyed but fatalistic, for what could they really do? Their desire to “just play beautiful music” had been squashed by the cops, but then again, the moratorium was only to last until ten o’clock. By that time, much more people would be eating dinner anyway and so it would probably prove to be financially rewarding in the end.
              The police eventually left and the musicians unpacked and set out their instrument case to collect donations. I politely left them to go about their jobs. I found myself surprisingly cold but unsurprisingly hungry and I decided to leave the plaza for the night. On my way out, the theme of street-musicianship continued as I passed a man playing a miniature saxophone-like instrument made out of wood. The sound was just as warm and reedy as a regular sax and doubtless a tiny fraction of the price, but because of my complete lack of musical talent, I didn’t act on the opportunity to buy my own.
              It was as good a night for strolling as it was for people watching. It’s unfortunately not too often that one feels invincible but I was privy to the feeling that night, energized and content as I was to be part of the scenery, the ____ , the collective human heartbeat of Valencia. But there was still something I could do to make the night even better. If there is one thing I like to do it’s eat, and so I rewarded myself with a delicious dish from a newly discovered restaurant, a fair amount of which was consumed during the walk to my apartment.