NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AGO I WENT ON MY FIRST TRAVEL JUNKET – to the north of Spain in a bus full of writers and photographers on the trail of Cervantes and the Spanish language. I had never done any professional travel writing or photography so I was making it up as I went along, and I needed to make some mistakes I could learn from.
It was an ambitious trip – from Madrid north to Burgos, Logrono, Silos, Salamanca, Valladolid and Avila, hitting pretty much every cathedral and monastery along the way. I had been coaxed on to the trip by a friend, a novelist who loved the country, and along with another friend of his and a journalist from Montreal, we formed an unruly little cabal on the coach, hitting the bars in every town and waking up hungover.
My first mistake. One I would never make again.
My guidebook for the trip was a perverse choice – The Cities of Spain by Edward Hutton, published in 1925 and out of date within a few years, thanks to General Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Hutton, a lover of Italian culture, didn’t seem to like Spain much, and his book was full of passages like the following:
“The journey from Paris was a nightmare hideous and full of horrors: the continual noise of the train, the groans and attitudes of the sleepers, the shrieking as of lost souls that came now and again out of the darkness, the hear of the long night spent with seven strangers, the inevitable contact with that grotesque, weary, fetid humanity, in so small a space, for so long a time – the brutality of all that.”
Hutton only visited three of my destinations – Burgos, Salamanca and Valladolid – and didn’t seem to have much nice to say about them. (“In any distant view of Burgos how glorious she appears; so that when we come nearer and look at her from her own hillside we are disappointed.”) I quickly learned to leave Hutton in my hotel room and enjoy what I was seeing without his dubious aid.
This was only my third trip to Europe and I was still tripping mightily on all the antiquities, so my best shots are of cloisters, tombs, statues and the details I found in dimly lit corners. Looking over my old contact sheets, I thought that I’d shot so little colour film to save money, but then I remembered that two decades ago the internet wasn’t really a thing and most newspapers still printed black and white photos everywhere except the covers of sections.
Some memories still linger: The alabaster floor of a church, scarred from when Napoleon’s troops used it as a stable during the Peninsular War; a wall covered in bullet holes from firing squad executions, though I can’t remember if it was Napoleon or the Civil War that did that damage. Perhaps both.
In Salamanca, a university town that’s basically the Oxford or Cambridge of Spain, there’s an Old Cathedral (begun in the 12th century, finished in the 14th) and a New Cathedral (begun in 1513 and consecrated in 1733). There are wine cellars in ancient stone buildings and wine cellars in modern industrial parks. It’s difficult to tell which wine came from which one.
I brought an awful lot of cameras with me, desperate to capture everything I could see in every possible way. This was, of course, the final days of film photography – though I didn’t know it at the time – and one of them was very analogue: A Chinese-made Holga camera with a plastic lens that, while terribly primitive, ended up producing some of the most evocative photos I brought back from the trip – shadowy and a bit blurred and evocative of all the old places I had been.
Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved