Saturday, April 28, 2012

1066 and all that


I often think that one of the most difficult things about settling into a new country, after the language, is getting a handle on the culture. As a Briton I know the significance of 1066, Morecambe and Wise, Alf Ramsay, Big Ben and the SAS. For most of us reeling off a similar list of Spanish dates, people or events would be much more difficult. Yet in every town and city there are clues plain for all to see in the names of streets, plazas and avenidas of all Spain.

The number one street name in Spain is Calle Miguel de Cervantes – named for the chap who, in 1605, published the first of his two part work Don Quixote or more accurately el Ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha probably the most famous Spanish literary work of all time. It's the book about the would be knight and his squire wandering around Spain having adventures - he's the bloke who tilted at windmills.

In the number two spot, the second most popular street name, is Ramon y Cajal named for the 1906 Nobel prize winning Spanish scientist for his work on the microscopic structure and processes of the brain. 

Next up is Cristóbal Colón, who we all know. Maybe it's easier if we use his Anglicised name – Christopher Columbus.. 

Federico Garcia Lorca was a poet, dramatist and essayist – he was killed by the nationalist (Franco) side at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and dumped in a mass grave partly because of his socialist leanings but more so because he was openly Gay The row about exhuming is body is still going on to this day – that doesn't stop him being number four on the best street list. 

And, pop pickers, just to show that greatness of any nationality can be recognised the next most popular name for a street in Spain is Doctor Fleming; that's Alexander Fleming, the Scottish penicillin man. 

Another poet Antonio Machado, at number six - definitely a man with a way of painting a picture with words, he died in 1939 months after seeing the Republic that he believed in beaten into submission by Franco's armies. 

Painters next though painters separated by quite a few years, Velásquez, who worked through the first half of the 17th Century, the man with a reputation for being a genius with light, the man who painted Las Meninas, the must-see painting in the Prado and the man who seemed to have a thing for painting women of restricted growth spraying milk from their breasts! A Century and a half later Goya started out as a court portrait painter, going on to chronicle action in the War of Independence against the French and finally to paint some nightmarish scenes that seemed to have invaded his head. 

Goya at number eight in the street list whilst at number nine we have Hernán Cortes, the conquistador from Extremadura who won what is now Mexico for Spain when he took the Aztec Empire apart in double quick time in the 1520s. 

Finally, to complete the top ten Rey Juan Carlos I, our King, the man who steered Spain back to democracy despite being named by Franco as his direct successor, the man about whom “normal bloke” stories abound and whose wife used Ryanair to fly to the UK earlier this year proving that they still have the common touch.

You'll notice that all the top ten are people but there are lots of other common names too. For instance, Cervantes, lost the use of his left hand at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 where, against the odds, the Spanish beat the Turks in a sea battle and in so doing gave the name to countless more streets . Other battles like Bailen - Spaniards won, Napoleon lost or Covadonga - Moors sent packing by Spanish Guerrillas - and Almansa, where a French/Spanish army commanded by an Englishman beat a English/Portuguese army commanded by a Frenchman and so helped to put a Bourbon King on the Spanish throne are pretty common too. There are lots of others.

Some street names are pretty safe bets whatever the political situation La Alameda (tree lined avenue), Calle Mayor (Main street) and San Francisco. Things change though. There may have been a Gary Glitter Drive somewhere in the UK but there isn't now! So all those names in Spain that echoed Franco's triumphs and allegiances have gone - no more José Antonio Primo de Rivera (Founder of the “Fascist” Falange party) and no more Avenida del Caudillo (Führer equivalent). Perhaps all those streets have been named for pop groups or some such – Calle Amaral anyone?

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