Wednesday, June 29, 2005


"Another scabby, vacant town..."

As with Shrek, the introduction of a scene-stealing donkey co-protagonist/antagonist is the key to most of the entertainment value in Tim Moore's Spanish Steps.

The blurb on the back and on the inside cover hails Moore as "without doubt the funniest travel writer in the world" and "a writer of considerably more substance" than Bill Bryson. Still, I have to say that I treated the first few chapters as something of a guilty pleasure. Comic and well-written it certainly was, but was there going to be a subtle poetic payload too?

The author has picked a "sin-deductible" itinerary inherantly purged of the "empty decadence" of normal holidaymaking or touring. Yet some way into his pilgrimage he asks himself whether he has "remained a spiritual pigmy, scrabbling foolishly around through the transcendental low-ground, as all the Big Answers pass overhead". Fortunately, his amusing travelogue answers its own charge of "cosmic inadequacy" by asking most of the Medium-sized Questions. As is entirely appropriate to an account of a pilgrim's progress, the prose within expands and deepens, while its author attains life-changing insights like "treat all strangers as if they had paid for your dinner."

Amongst the greatest challenges of such a trans-iberian burro-lugging journey are food that offends "every sense except taste", "the oppressive nudity of bulbous strangers." and daily "getting out of synch with the bed hogging army of enduro freaks".

Moore reveals how, as if in exchange for all the feral donkeys and camels that the Aussies have had to chase around the outback with automatic rifles, northern Spain has become lined with "VapoRub" eucalyptus forests, the result of an experimentation with antipodean fauna back in the 1860s that didn't quite go according to plan. He describes eastern Galicia as "Wales with Lizards".

Today the camino may be a lifestyle choice for the brittle, emotional refugees of consumerism but it was the Medieval world's most well-trodden track - up to one million pilgrims set off for Santiago de Compostela from the Pyrennees each year during the twelfth century. Today however, the camino dissects the Spain I most adore - a country characterised by a unique unevenness of population density, both geographically and temporally, a land of simple pleasures, packed with beautiful locations "nobody can be arsed to catch".

At Astorga Moore pauses to relate the true-ish story of Don Suero de Quiñones who demanded of any that wished to cross the bridge ("el paso honroso") there that they avow the incomparable beauty of his lady, Doña Leonor de Tovar. Terry Jones included similarly daft knights-erratic in both Mony Python and the Holy Grail and Labyrith, but the best parody was undoubtedly belongs to Cervantes. On of Don Quijote's first abortive jousts is with a group of travelling merchants who are inappropriately sceptical when asked to confess that Dulcinea is the fairest maid of them all. "Can we at least see a little portrait...?"

Antigua Guatemala (or La Antigua - the old one) was originally called Santiago, and it is the apostle in his gung-ho matamoros garb who is seen on horseback leaping all three surrounding volcanoes on the city's ancient seal.

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