Traveling with Hemingway

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Following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway’s “Travelogue” in Spain, on St Anne’s Day we found ourselves in Tudela, a historic town in Navarre, full of bell towers, on whose summit storks nest.

Every year in this town, 24 July marks the beginning of seven days of uninterrupted festivities; the dance of the ‘Revoltosa’ draws many people to the kiosk in Plaza Fueros.

After midnight, the dancers put their stamina to the test, spinning around the kiosk to the rhythm of the dance, which becomes more and more whirling until it reaches such a speed that the square seems to spin in a dizzying spiral.

It’s a crazy event, an artistic ‘performance’ that involves everyone present, locals and tourists alike, without the presence of the Pamplona bulls, but equally worthy of the crazy spirit that animates the characters in ‘Fiesta’, the American writer’s masterpiece.

Tudela , the capital of La Ribera, is best known for the centuries-long coexistence of different cultures, encouraged by King Alfonso the Warrior after the city was reconquered from the Muslims at the beginning of the 12th century. For four centuries, the coexistence of the three monotheistic religions produced the highest development in the city, and this high degree of civilisation is reflected in its urban landscape, culminating in the Plaza Fueros.

Navarre, the last independent kingdom to become part of the unified Spanish monarchy (1512), is also a lot of other things. For example, its inhabitants speak two languages: in the south, on the plain of the rural Ribera, they speak Spanish or Castilian, while in the north, in the mountains, they speak that linguistic mystery called Basque, Euskera. But its real peculiarity lies in the fact that, in just a few dozen kilometres, it alternates climatic zones, natural environments and cultural traditions that are so different from one another that the region can be considered one of the territories with the greatest variety of landscapes and cultural heritage in all of Spain.

After crossing the bridge over the Ebro river, in that hot summer of 1994, after a few kilometres, we found ourselves immersed in the ochre-coloured landscape of an unexpected and fascinating desert, the Bardenas Reales, where torrential rains had shaped a chalky, clayey terrain.

The north wind that came down fast from the mountains, blowing through the narrow rocky passages, softened the heat of the sunny day.

Large granite stones protected the land below like an umbrella, but the violent autumn rains deeply eroded the soil, creating sandy columns and towers that slowly but surely crumbled and thinned until they could no longer support the weight of the stone. Wide plains alternate here with ravines, precipices and hills up to 600 metres high.

The old Ford van trudged along the narrow paths of the Bardenas Reales, 415 square kilometres of spectacular landscapes between the rivers Aragon and Ebro, inhabited since ancient times; an extraordinary and unique cosmos, a reality steeped in mystery and poetry where man cannot help but feel like a tiny little being.

The desert, as a metaphor, is the blank page, the limitless void that opens up to every artistic endeavour and every interior journey; the desert as a “landscape” cannot be described, it must be experienced and leads to “disorientation”.

We are crossing the “Bardenas Negra”, south of the border with Aragon, formed by dark reddish clays and calcidic rocks, resembling the Monegros of the Aragonese desert, over which Aleppo pine forests rise. Here, among chalk cliffs, populated by Pyrenean oaks and patches of rosemary, owls and golden eagles, griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures nest.

In the central area of this magical desert, a “unique” European landscape and a special biosphere reserve, is the Bárdena Blanca, made up of saline sediments and chalky rocks that give a yellowish and whitish colour to the sand dunes. To the east is the steppe of the Bárdena Verde, which has now been recovered for agricultural use thanks to an irrigation system and the channelling of water from the surrounding rivers; The great bustard, skylark, skunk and dog rose nest here, while to the north the Meseta del Piano rises hundreds of metres above the heath, offering spectacular scenery. This area has always been the point of departure and arrival of the flocks that in spring climb up to Roncal and the mountain pastures, to then descend to the valley and overwinter in the warmth of the plain, cheered by the fluttering of thousands of moths and very rare butterflies.

As we arrived at the edge of the desert area, a typical Mediterranean landscape appeared: houses dug out of the rock, what remained of the ancient local living tradition, when farmers and shepherds took refuge in the coolness of the cuevas to protect themselves from the sun and the summer heat of the plains.

It is evening, we get off the bus, we have arrived in Arguedas. Would you like to know who my travelling companion was?

Hemingway, of course!