Sunday, 10 July 2011

Jimena de la Frontera - thoughts on ruins, heritage and the price of historical interpretation

At Jimena de la Frontera in Andalucia there is a ruined Moorish castle above the town. You can see the castle from a fair way off (I suppose that's why they built it there) but to actually reach it you have to go up through the old town, up steep winding streets lined with white-fronted houses. The streets are very narrow - so narrow that the trip down is not for the faint-hearted or the owner of anything bigger than the Citroen we were driving. And, so typically of Andalucian hill villages, every second front step was occupied by an elderly man, woman or some small children.

There are no signs to the castle. One supposes that this is because anyone local knows where it is - at the top of the village - so directions would be a waste of space. Which problem provides our first clue about the attitude to heritage here. Back home there would be brown signs containing the appropriate castle symbol, there would be an expectation that visitors would arrive and want to visit the castle.

Anyway, we wound our way to the castle. You know you've arrived because there's no more road and a tatty little car park in which we found one of those international groups that bring a smile - a chatty Spanish chap with some very fine photography equipment and an elderly Austrian lady (who was really a local as she lived in the village and had done for a lot of years). A brief chat with this pair revealed that they were - I wasn't quite clear why - showing a young Irish couple around.

Now imagine what such a location would be like in England. There would be a barrier or gate, a little visitor centre and shop. And, of course, a charge of £4 or £5 just to go in and look at the ruins (you would be able to pay extra for a little guide book that explains the history). You get none of this in Spain.  No visitor centre, no shop and no charge. We simply have to walk up through the old Moorish gateway.

At some point in the past the local council had put up a series of "interpretative" notices. Over the years these had become rather tatty and, in some cases, difficult to read and where still legible really didn't assist much in understanding who had built the castle and how it became a ruin. It seems that Jimena has been there a long time though:

This gem of a village, has a fairly checkered historical past, having been inhabited at various times by the Iberians, Phoenicians and Carthaginians as well as by the Romans, who made good use of the rich metal deposits found there. Around the year 750, it was of great commercial importance to the Moors, who also used it as a strategic military point. Over the centuries Jimena was conquered and re-conquered on many occasions and twice fell into the hands of the Christians, but by in 1879, during the reign of Alfonso XII, Jimena was so highly considered that it was given the title of Cuidad (Town). With a present population of just over 9,000 inhabitants (some 1,000 of whom are foreign residents - many British), its narrow cobbled streets and white washed Andalusian houses, it certainly retains its village ambience and is a delight to visit.

Whatever the history, the ruins are just that - untidy, unkempt, uninterpreted by the mavens of plastic history. You can wander round at liberty, there aren't any don't go there, don't do that signs. There are no rails, no barriers - just the ruins of a Moorish castle with kites, kestrels and vultures in the skies and the most spectacular view.

It seems to me that, in our desire to inform, to educate, to manage our heritage, we have lost a little of the magic of looking at the ruins of what once was great. Rather than staring at the old tower, looking up through a hole broken in the ceiling. Rather than allowing the visitor's mind to wander, their spirit to soar in personal reflection and speculation, we force that visitor's eyes down to the approved, official interpretation of the heritage. Visiting an "interpreted" castle we come away better informed but less inspired than is the case with the uninterpreted place like this castle at Jimena.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't cherish our heritage but this needn't mean turning it into an "attraction" resplendent with a visitor centre, shop and cafe. Leaving it stark, allowing us to draw our own lessons, get our own undirected pleasure from the visit, might be as good, if not better. Maybe Jimena's apparent lack of care relates to past poverty rather that present decisions - indeed the big board by the castle bedecked with EU symbols suggests that the dead hand of officialdom is creeping closer. For once, I hope that the usual path of European funding in Southern Europe applies and it vanishes into the dusty hills rather than into shiny attraction management at this lovely little castle.

It was a delight to visit this castle, to wander its walls, to poke my head into the tower, to look out at the view - the reason the castle was built here I'm sure - and to ponder on how different is was a thousand years ago when the Moors were running Andalucia. Whether the cork woods were still the same, if the fields were filled with horses and fine cows - plus the great bulls destined for the blood and passion of the ring - and what the economic importance might have been? Above all it was a delight to look out and soak up the spirit of the place.

Maybe it will stay that way?



Paul said...

I know what you mean - when I'm in the UK, sometimes it's just nice for there not to be there a café or gift shop within eyesight of the attraction you're visiting. It feels like a real, living piece of history, rather than with a middle-aged woman trying to catch your attention, earnestly telling you what you 'should' be looking at.

Honorio said...

As George Santayana said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" . But the problem is that history usually is told by army victorious, so here in Spain, we promote that visitor give free rein to their imagination. Enjoy your visit!