A friend lent me this, and it’s an absolute treasure. Fabled Shore, from the Pyrenees to Portugal, by Rose Macaulay is a travel book like no other!
Rose Macaulay was a British writer who travelled along the southern coastlines of Spain and Portugal in 1949, not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Touring alone by car, at a time and in a place where solo female travellers were a novelty and cars equally so, she explored the cities and towns she had read about in histories dating back to the fourth century. She was extremely well-read and was knowledgeable about art and architecture; she drew on a wide range of classical references and an eclectic assortment of travel writers who were her predecessors; and she coped with all the vagaries of travel with humour and aplomb. She was a witty and elegant writer whose tales still bring the region so vividly alive that a modern reader can’t help but feel nostalgia for the vanished small towns and villages that have now been swamped by mass tourism.
I liked reading Fabled Shores for the same reason that I enjoy reading the travel books of H.V. Morton. Morton died in 1979 aged 87 and his last original publication was in 1969 so his books are well out of date too, but he is so knowledgeable about the classical history of the places he writes about that they are still well worth reading. Like Macaulay, he has keen powers of observation, a dry sense of humour and a perceptive interest in the people he meets on his travels. I read In Search of London (1951) before I went there on my first trip to Europe with The Spouse, and A Traveller in Italy (1964) before my last trip in 2005. I read A Stranger in Spain (1955) last year and I hope to get to In Search of Wales and In Search of Ireland before we set off this year. I would recommend any of these books to anyone who likes to learn about the history and soul of the places to be visited – you will learn more from Morton than ever you will from a Lonely Planet or DK Guide, useful as they are for finding hotels and restaurants – and this is why his books are still in print after all this time.
(Morton, in fact, is highly collectible (I have a dozen or so) and there is a society (to which I belong) which promotes interest in his work.)
Macaulay is still in print too, mainly her novels. She has a lively style and a wry sense of humour. Here she is writing about the state of the roads:
There are, it is true, some roads still vraimant impracticables for cars, parts of which seem to have been irrevocably pot-holed by the chariot wheels of the Romans and Carthaginians and barbarous Visigoths, and never adequately repaired. (p20)
Here she is at the beginning of her trip, on the shores of Catalonia:
The road, the old Roman road from Gaul to Tarragona, sweeps up from Port Bou in wild and noble curves, lying like a curled snake along the barren mountain flanks of the Alta Ampurdan, climbing dizzily up, darting steeply down into gorges and ravines, above deep rocky inlets where blue water thrusts into rock-bound coves, and small bays of sand where it whispers and croons in its tideless stir. Points and capes jut boldly through thin blue air above a deep cobalt sea; rocky islets lie offshore; the road dips down to the little bay of Culera, where once throve a little fishing port, where now is an almost abandoned village, pounded to pieces by the bombarding naval guns of the civil war, which ranged down the Catalan coast with their capricious thunder. Here, in a quiet valley behind the quiet village of San Miguel de Culera, moulder more ancient ruins, those of a great Benedictine convent, one of those great monasteries to which Ampurdan gave its feudal allegiance in the Middle Ages. There is a little cloister left, some Roman arches, a few columns and capitals, three Romanesque apses; they and the church are twelfth century, built on the ruins of an older, probably Visigothic, convent and church; they have an air of having been there since the earliest Christian times, brooding, remote, fallen, but still dominating those bare, pine-clad hills where little vines sprout like cabbages out of the stony mountain sides. (p21-2)
Wonderful, isn’t it? And the whole book is like this: erudite, entrancing, observant, compassionate and always alert to the human spirit behind the landscape and the buildings she describes.
Rose Macaulay died in 1958, aged 77.
Author: Rose Macaulay
Title: Fabled Shore, from the Pyrenees to Portugal
Publisher; Oxford University Press, (paperback) 1986
Source: Loan (private)