It’s near, I can tell by the way the approaching hallway was quickly filling up with people as I walked through. Hopefully, the crowds won’t be a distraction. Knowing that I would be spending some days in Madrid in 2012, I made it a point to come to the Musee de Prado to view, among other pieces, artist Hieronymous Bosch’s, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the controversial 15th Century triptych that formed a college research project and began a lifetime passion for the arts and natural beauty in general. As my eyes quickly brushed across the piece, left to right, I noticed an attractive, middle-aged woman, her brown eyes also fixated on Bosch’s bold images.
The left panel has been described as depicting Creation, the serenity and beauty of its namesake forming a blissful scene while God introduces Eve to Adam. In the large central panel, the artist begins to question our morality with scenes of increasing vice and unheeded warnings of future danger. Chaos begins to emerge, presented theoretically with images, such as a man struggling to carry a large mussel shell partially encasing naked bodies, a curious metaphor. Having done some research on the painting, I would have loved to spend an evening with Bosch, picking his fresh brain on details, after he completed the work in 1510.
The right panel is clearly Hell and Damnation, represented in an abstractly modern way, a fantasy of grotesque images, even by today’s standards. We see musical instruments inflicting torture while a large rabbit carries a human corpse on the end of its spear. Then, there he is, hiding behind some gnarled skeletal remains, Bosch, in self portrait, observing the carnage, looking unsurprised and expressionless.
As the crowd began to dissipate, my mysterious compatriot moved in for a closer look as did I. Finally approaching her and, putting my hand on her shoulder, I whispered into her ear, “This may sound corny, but I have observed this painting twice in my life, 43 years apart and, both times, the same woman was standing next to me.” Smiling, my wife responded, “I don’t think its corny, it’s kind of romantic. Forty-three years doesn’t seem like much after looking at this. And, before I forget,” she continued, We must see “Guernica” before we leave, it’s here in Madrid somewhere.” “Guernica” is a famous Pablo Picasso abstract painting depicting the horror and aftermath of the bombing of a small village in northern Spain by Nazi and Italian planes. Picasso had controversially submitted it as his contribution to the Spanish Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. We had learned more about the painting at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and Karen had already labeled it a “must see.”
Since that day in 1969, when we both, as undergraduate students, traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and selected a piece of art to research for my final paper, our passion began to grow into what has been has become a major part of our lives over the past 47 years. Together, we have seen Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Musee’ de L’Orangerie in Paris, Chagall’s stained glass “Windows” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cristo’s “Umbrellas,” Richard Serra’s 100 meter long “Snake” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, James Turrell’s evening exhibit at the Chichu Museum on Japan’s Naoshima Island and the Impressionists at the d’Orsey, always an aphrodisiac, enhanced during our last trip by a small room on Rue Clare and a cheap bottle of French wine.
The month of April 2012 in Spain was extraordinarily wet. It was raining, days later when, after visiting “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia Museum, we boarded a train and left Madrid for parts south, Granada, Alhambra and Sevilla. We were also bound for a cave that Karen had researched, located somewhere near the base of the Andalucia Mountains, containing art of a more primitive form. She justified her desire to see the Pileta Cave by reminding me that we had a car reserved in Ronda and that we could visit the famous white hill towns nearby.
Karen had done most of the research for our 28-day journey, but the itinerary fluctuated as she immersed herself into each experience that generated new “must sees.” Our normal paradigm is that I am initially reluctant to her changes and later, as men do, boast about them as if they were always my idea. This experience was no different as we were about to discover more than Andalucia’s hill towns.
Most images of old Spain are based in Andalucia. It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and, to our discovery, breathtakingly majestic landscapes and ancient history. In Ronda, rain pushed us into a taxi from the train station to the hotel. Curiosity and the need to walk sent us out in the rain, staring directly at Spain’s oldest bullring as we exited out into the street. A hotel clerk directed us to turn left and keep walking until we came to Plaza de Espana and the new bridge. I am always entertained by the Old World’s interpretation of time and this “Puente Nuevo” project dated back to 1751, back when they made them like they used to. As I asked for clarification, the clerk responded with very good, broken English, “Don’t worry, you will know it when you see it.”
The walk down to the plaza was pleasant, but unremarkable. Aside from the old bullfights and being the home of Ernest Hemingway, Ronda was a very charming city, but we anticipated that the true scenic drama would come from the white hill towns at hand. Walking across the plain stone surface of the plaza, Karen, approached the railing first, looking out across at the bridge and softly muttered, “OK, this is pretty spectacular.” I turned, responding to her and it appeared, a view so breathtaking, so unforeseen, that fresh words were not necessary. Continuing to stare in silence, we could not have imagined that this unassuming bridge would span, both vertically and horizontally, the gorge locals called “El Tajo,” 400 feet deep, 200 feet wide, connecting us to La Cuidad, the old Moorish district, its ancient structures perched along the cliffs on the other side of the chasm. As we continued to explore with a new adrenaline rush, more staggering cliffs appeared and it was soon clear that Ronda was the most magical hill town in Andalucia.
Our month in Spain had left us with enduring memories but these cliffs, “El Tajo” with its bridge and the ancient structures were majestic, as awe-inspiring as the recent visual images by Picasso, Goya, Bosch and others. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao were magnificent, but did not overpower the striking natural beauty of Ronda. Without much discussion, I realized that this was another “Garden of Earthly Delights” moment. We had, again, discovered something together that moved us, two very visual people, sharing a moment, locking in a memory. This rainy afternoon in Ronda was mesmerizing, leaving us wanting more, but we had a “Ford something” reserved the next day and alluring places to be. Both of us knew that we had not finished exploring Ronda.
The early morning rain made the white-knuckled drive over the steep and winding Cadiz Mountain pass the most quiet of our trip. Healthy fear always trumps complaints of one’s driving or navigating. More relaxed to be driving on the gently winding valley road, we soon approached the cozy village of Grazalema with its whitewashed buildings, red roofs and bright floral window boxes. The extraordinary picturesque town, Zahara, with white buildings spread out below an old fortified Moorish castle and the cliffs, simmering from the afternoon sun in Arcos were truly indelible images, a consistent theme of
Andalucia. The evening return to Ronda on a two-lane highway was dry and flat, stimulating more conversation than the unnerving morning jaunt over the mountain. We discussed our schedule for the next few days but it was difficult for me to think beyond wanting to explore “El Tajo.”
We started early and the sun was shining. Crossing the bridge and stealing yet another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad seeking trail access to descend its walls. Passing the old building entrances that innocently faced the street, it is difficult to imagine that they are resting directly upon the top of the cliffs. “I think this is it,” Karen proclaimed as a small path dissecting two structures appeared. We followed it and soon were descending down into “El Tajo” with a perspective that seemed to reshape itself with every step. The surrounding flora changed, the deeper we plunged. The gorge became a series of unique ecosystems complete with waterfalls, blue ponds and green foliage, rooted in the rocky cliffs. Our desires to photograph kept us mostly to ourselves but the experience was and will be forever ours.
The walk back up the canyon was equally stupendous, ending with a late lunch in one of those buildings roosted atop the cliffs with a view of the bridge. It began to rain again and, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I suggested that we
forgo the Pileta Cave. With a challenge disguised as an option, Karen replied, “You can do what you want, but I’m going to see what’s in there.” Soon, I was making the somewhat unpleasant, dark, damp and slippery descent into a cave to view prehistoric finger painting, depicting animals and fish, evidence that the artists were familiar with the sea. The experience was beyond description and, once again, I was appreciative of the spousal nudge.
We left Ronda by train, vowing to return. Although our next few days would be spent in Sevilla, Karen had made arrangements to debark the train for a few hours in Cordoba so that we could visit the Mezquita, an ancient temple with both Moorish and
Christian influences. Our time in Ronda and the Andalucia was still very much on my mind. The experience, days after we revisited a significant piece of art in our lives, was a reminder that there are vast earthly delights to explore and, more significantly, that we still had the passion to find them.