Friday, April 22, 2011 | Toledo
THE TWO MOST-heard phrases in this city today: Que pena! and Que lastima! Wherever your were — wondering lost in the alley/streets, sitting under a giant umbrella at an outdoor café, in a museum, in hotel lobbies – you heard either of these two phrases.
“What a pity,” they said.
“What a shame,” they said.
The phrases were uttered in response to the observation that, for the second night in a row, there would be no Holy Week processions. The reason: the rain, The never-ending steady rain. It rained most of the day again today, starting around 10:30. It was not a heavy downpour, and it was not a drizzle, it was just a gentle, steady seemingly innocuous rain. Several times during the day, the sun would shine through a break in the clouds, even as the rain continued, and you could hear the hope – the pleading? – in people’s voices as they wondered if, by some miracle, the rain would stop early enough to convince the church authorities to allow the colorful processions to begin.
But it was not to be, and so the dolorous laments continued: Que pena! Que lastima!
I DID SOMETHING today I boasted the beginning of the journey thatI would not do: I spent time in museums. I can blame the rain for that, but I’d rather thank it. I visited the Museo de Santa Cruz, the city’s preeminent art museum, which houses inside its beautiful building a number of spectacular El Greco works. It also has a great collection of
historical artifacts, some dating back to before the first century. My favorite was a collection of pottery from throughout Spain. I was in awe of the intricate designs of some of the works. The designs looked very familiar to me and it struck me that the doodles that I have been doing practically since grade school and which I have lately been incorporating into my art are very similar to what I was seeing. I had always thought that those doodles had their roots in the ancient Aztec or other Mexican Indian cultures, and I still do. But perhaps they were also influenced by the ancient ancestors who painted the designs on this pottery? Who knows?
Santa Cruz also has temporary exhibits and yesterday they had two, one of very modern art and another of Benjamin Palencia, a Spaniard known for his vivid landscapes of the Spanish countryside. Throughout the exhibit it also had, on the walls, quotes from the artist. My favorite:
I know not know how to draw. I don’t want to know how to draw, and that is why I do as I wish, without taking into account what others call knowing how to draw. I interpret poetically. I scratch the paper with my dreams and feelings.
The second museum I visited was the El Greco museum, which is a few hundred feet from my hotel. A beautiful place, in a restored old house that at was believed to have been El Greco’s home (but it turned out not to be). There were, of course, a number of magnificent paintings by the master, but there were others also, and there was a good historical perspective offered. A wonderful place. Again, thank you rain.
THERE ARE TWO things that you can say about this city without fear of being contradicted. The first is that you can get lost easily without a map. The second is that you can get lost easily with a map. Toledo – the old city’s center — is a maze, a series of narrow twisting and winding streets and narrower and even-more-twisting-and-winding alleys, plus a few travesias, shortcuts. I saw one with the name, Travesia del Angel. If you’ve ever been to Guanajuato, Toledo is sort of like that, only more so. Much more so. The streets and alleys are mostly cobblestoned, like those in San Miguel de Allende.
The maps handed out by hotels are intricate and accurate, but they are of little help if you don’t know where you are. There are few street signs, and the few that exist are often painted in smallish typeface on obscure sections of the walls of corner buildings.
There are some signposts that offer guidance, but most of them point the lost souls towards the cathedral or some other landmark. The problem is that if you follow those signs, eventually you’ll come to an intersection that has a set of signposts, but they are to other landmarks, not the one you were aiming for.
THERE IS A great way of telling apart the townspeople, the newly arrived tourists and the tourists who have been here a while. And by “a while,” I mean a few hours. The locals, of course, carry no map; they know their way around. The new tourists carry clean, crisp, neatly folded maps. The veteran tourists carry wrinkled, worn out and wet – this week, anyway – maps, indicating heavy use.
What makes moving around Toledo even more challenging (I learned to use that word instead of “problem” after I arrived in Washington. No body in Washington talks about problems; they talk about challenges.”) is that pedestrians must share the streets with cars buses. The buses mostly stay on the larger, wider streets, thank God, but the cars venture everywhere, which means that pedestrians have to often find a doorway to stand in while the cars pass or, failing to find an entranceway, simply stand as close to the walls as possible. Luckily, most people here drive small cars.
THE GOOD THING is that you really can’t get lost, as in really, totally, utterly, hopelessly lost. It’s not that big of a city. You just keep going round and round until you find a place you recognize, or you get to the cathedral (all roads lead to the cathedral, eventually, I’ve decided, but as beautiful that massive majestic structure is, eventually you would rather be somewhere else). My old colleague, Susan Hahn, used to tell about her aunt or grandmother in Missouri who would always say something like, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I think she was talking about Toledo, not Missouri.
This evening, for instance, after the visit to the Greco Museum, I made my way towards the cathedral area, hoping against hope that the processions would take place after all. When 9 p.m. came and went without any sign of a procession, I sat down for a meal at a modest outdoor restaurant, then I decided to try to find my way to the hotel without referring to my map. It took me all of 65 minutes to finally get here, and I did have to consult the map, many times. Each time I thought I was on the right track, I’d look up and there’d be the cathedral.
Finally, I was 100 percent sure I was near my hotel, but I looked up and saw, rising above the rooflines, a tall steeple with ornate spires. “Oh shit,” I told myself, “Not that damn cathedral.” It wasn’t, thank God; it was another big church. But it wasn’t supposed to be there, if I was near the hotel. I realized I had made a wrong turn somewhere and made a quick course correction, which got me home, but not the way I thought I was getting here. But that’s the point of Toledo: eventually, you get where you’re going. Or, as Susan’s aunt/grandmother used to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.”