Travel: Memorable Journeys: The plaza-hop pilgramage

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The Independent Culture
QUENTIN CREWE went to Spain for the square-bashing. From plaza to plaza he hopped, from Seville in the south to Santiago de Compostela on the north-west tip. 'Hopped' is perhaps not quite the word. Since his childhood, this journalist turned author has suffered from muscular dystrophy which now makes merely turning the pages of an atlas a tricky proposition, quite apart from reaching the places it contains. To 'Squirrel', as he calls his powered wheelchair, a high kerb is as insurmountable as the Andes.

Yet this has not stopped him from trotting all over the globe for his researches. For In Search of the Sahara he roamed through parts of the desert where even the camels go in pairs. In the Realms of Gold alone involved journeying 24,000 miles in South America, 1,000 of them with his car loaded on a barge going down the Amazon. 'The road was flooded,' he explains.

Crewe once edited a travel magazine entitled Go] and filled it with wonderfully written articles on places the advertisers had no interest in. 'Go]' he said later - 'a magazine that didn't'. Last year he spent seven months in India for a series of articles. The year 1991 saw him journeying all over France for a book, to be published this summer, on the raw materials of French food.

Back in the days when he could still walk a little, he set off with a car, a driver and his wheelchair on a pilgrimage through Spain. At the time he was more into squares than any Freemason (for whom four right angles make up a secret symbol) and the towns on the route were chosen entirely for the plazas they contained. He planned to write about the squares of Europe.

'The Greeks had the Agora and the Romans had the Forum, and these were the meeting-places. They are still places of assembly think of Trafalgar Square, for instance. In the Mediterranean a plaza is for parading and being seen in.'

Seville was just the place to begin his square dance. In the old Jewish quarter are Plaza de los Venerables, enclosed by some of the city's finest houses, and Plaza Santa Cruz, where Murillo who lived and painted nearby is buried. Plaza de Dona Elvira is a magnet for local guitarists. Plaza de Pilatos contains Casa de Pilatos; after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a 16th-century duke built this mansion in what he fondly imagined was the style of the real Pontius Pilate's dwelling.

But it is the Plaza del Triunfo that remains firmly in Quentin Crewe's memory bank. This has the entrance to the Alcazar a palace with high, fortified walls built in the 14th century by the charmingly named Pedro the Cruel.

On the other side of the square is the cathedral, whose builders were determined to erect a structure so vast that everyone would think them insane; since it is the largest Gothic building in the world, there is no denying their derangement.

'There is the story of a nun who had been walled up here,' said Crewe. Some British visitors, accidentally locked in after hours, saw a procession escorting the unfortunate nun down to the crypt. She never came up and there was wet plaster on the crypt wall. 'They went to the British consul, who told them to keep quiet about it.'

The cathedral is one of several places where Christopher Columbus is said to have been buried. In his life, he had been twice to Crewe's next destination, Cordoba, 100 miles east up the Guadalquivir.

The building where he went, cap in hand and seeking sponsorsorship for his New World expeditions, is on Plaza del Potro ('the Foal'), and it was in this square 'plain, whitewashed, really simple and pretty with hanging baskets' that Quentin Crewe made his next stop.

'There was a plaque commemorating 'the writing of the greatest novel in the world', with no indication that it meant Don Quixote, and a funny little hotel called Meson del Potro, which had hardly altered since the time of Cervantes, who had stayed there. You had a rudimentary cell in which you could lay a mattress.' Other guests must have agreed that the place was too rudimentary by half, because the building has since been relegated to the status of town hall offices.

Escaping from his cell, Crewe took the road east. 'To go via the hills of Ubeda' traditionally meant to stray off the beaten track. Ubeda was, though, decidedly on his itinerary, thanks to its Plaza de Vazquez de Molina. The square contains a 16th-century palace now converted into a 'parador', one of the stately hotels scattered throughout Spain.

The town of Baeza is very close. He remembers it for its 'Plateresque' architecture (a style resembling a silversmith's work) and for its beauty. One particular beauty, in fact. 'I saw the prettiest girl I've ever seen, riding past in a carriage. It was during a fiesta of some sort. It is strange: people whom you never met but remember all your life.' What he cannot recall is the square where he spied her. The Plaza de la Fuente de Santa Maria, with its 16th-century fountain? The Plaza del Populo, where weatherbeaten stone lions guard the statue of Hannibal's wife? Either way, he tore himself away for a leap north to Toledo.

Toledo turned out to have a triangular square, which didn't count, so he hurried east to Trujillo and its Plaza Mayor, which possessed the requisite four sides. Surrounded by the palaces of the conquistadores, it is vast and contains the statue of Pizarro, the local hero who conquered Peru. 'A rather grim, sombre city,' thought Crewe.

Another long haul led up to Salamanca and another Plaza Mayor. 'It is a terribly elegant square with arcades; it is terrific, just like a drawing-room.' The square, which some praise as the finest in Spain, glows from the sun falling on its sandstone buildings. It was begun in 1729 and completed in 1755 and, until 100 years ago, was used for bullfights; audiences used to stand on the three floors of balconies.

Between the arches are bas-reliefs of famous or infamous Spaniards, from El Cid to Franco. On a wall here students write their names in bulls' blood.

Salamanca was once a halting point on a pilgrimage. Santiago de Compostela, in the top left-hand corner of Spain, was the ultimate destination, thanks to the grave of St James the Apostle, whose body was discovered in the ninth century by some shepherds who followed a wandering star (yes, it does sound familiar) the saintly corpse to be miraculously preserved from decay. A rectangular square, Plaza del Obradoiro, was the end of Crewe's own pilgrimage. 'It is the most marvellous square with the cathedral, a grand hotel and a palace, now the town hall.' Incidentally, Puerta Santa, the cathedral's east door, is opened only when St James's Day falls on a Sunday; when Crewe was there, it was neither.

The book of squares? Having returned home and written enough on merely the Belgian part of his researches to fill an entire volume, St Quentin the Scribe dropped the whole unwieldy project. Not a word of his Spanish trip was ever committed to paper until now.

(Photograph omitted)

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