Next time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.
Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.
There were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.
However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.
The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”
One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’ published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:
“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”
Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:
“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”
In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:
“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”
‘A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.
If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.