I tend to book my travelling several months in advance, which has its advantages when it comes to cost (flights are cheaper), but also disadvantages in terms of the political calendar. So when I arranged a few days in Spain, or Andalusia to be more precise, earlier this year, the date for the European referendum hadn’t been set and for several weeks I lived in fear there’d be a clash. Luckily I was spared logistical difficulties, and indeed spending a few days on the continent while the #EUref (a hashtag I’ve tried very hard to push on twitter) reaches its wretched denouement turned out to be an apt move.
Seville was my first stop, a charming but sprawling city which first rose to prominence on the basis of trade. There the European flag flies proudly from government buildings (and, I remember from a previous visit, at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid), something that's very rare at home (though of course Holyrood does so). Entry to the museum of fine arts was free for EU citizens, while the distinctive blue flag also flew outside the Andalucían parliament building in the north of the city, a reminder that it isn't just Catalonia and the Basque Country that have powerful devolved parliaments.
Indeed, it was an explicit feature of Spain's post-Franco constitution that not only would historic legislatures be restored, but new ones created to give decentralised government a tidy, even spread, what some called 'coffee for everyone' in the late 1970s. Writing about Spain at around that time, the Anglo-Welsh travel writer Jan Morris (formerly James) speculated that a properly federal constitution would evolve from this system of what Gladstone would have called 'home rule all round', but instead things developed in an ad hoc manner not unlike the UK's own asymmetrical system of devolution, so whenever Catalans and the Basques were unhappy Madrid made an effort to appease them with 'more powers'. Spanish Lord Smiths must have been kept busy.
As in the UK this is now creaking under the twin pressures of resurgent nationalism and populist political movements such as Demos. In one of Seville's many busy squares I had a couple of beers with the Andalucían government's advisor on EU affairs and he confirmed my impression that the Catalan question is essentially political rather than constitutional, as Madrid likes to claim. Of David Cameron's renegotiated settlement for the UK in the EU, my drinking companion was scathing. He and other Spaniards I spoke to found the UK's semi-detached approach to the European project both baffling and frustrating. For them membership of the EU was an unequivocal positive.
This part of Spain, of course, has always blended different cultures and national identities. My next stop – via an impressive high-speed railway; the Spanish take their trains seriously – was Córdoba, a smaller city to the north-east of Seville. Conquered by invading Islamic armies in the eighth century, it subsequently became capital of the Islamic Emirate and then the Caliphate of Córdoba, which included most of the Iberian peninsula. It returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista.
Embodying this fascinating history is the Córdoba cathedral-mosque, which dominates the historic centre of the city (alongside a Roman bridge from an even earlier period). Originally the site of a small Christian Visigoth temple, when the Muslims conquered Spain it was divided into Muslim and Christian halves, a sharing arrangement that lasted until 784 when the Christian half was bought out, demolished and replaced with a grand mosque, dominated by dozens of red-and-white striped arches.
In 1236, however, Spain's Islamic period came to an end and the mosque was converted into a Roman Catholic Church, although its architects chose to augment rather than destroy, adding a Renaissance cathedral nave in the 16th century. Today this more modern addition is impressive but pales in comparison to the earlier Muslim structure, and once inside it's almost too much to take in; everywhere gothic arches compete with distinctive Islamic motifs.
It reminded me of an old Victorian church I once visited in the northern, Turkish, part of Nicosia in Cyprus. There the transformation had happened the other way round, thus the gothic arches had been white-washed and the floors carpeted, with two minarets added to the exterior. The result of both architectural mash-ups was at once exhilarating and weirdly disconcerting.
I left this most Muslim of Spanish cities (though Seville's cathedral also sits beside an impressive minaret tower), appropriately enough, at the beginning of Ramadan, bound by bus for Granada, my last stop. I pondered on the journey (while writing this notebook on my iPhone) why I'd neglected Spain for so long, beyond short trips to Barcelona and Madrid.
I realised it was because I associated it with cheap package holidays, especially the south, where I'd spent a rather listless holiday as a kid in Malaga, full of sunburnt Brits (ironically just the sort likely to put a cross next to Leave in a couple of weeks) and boisterous stag dos. But this is like judging England on the basis of Blackpool, indeed it struck me that Spain, like Italy, is stuffed full of uncommonly attractive towns and cities. I made tentative plans to compensate, starting with the Basque Country later this year.
En route to Glasgow Airport late last week I spotted a rather haphazard sign on a bridge over the M8, declaring: 'The Vow Was a Lie'. On Tuesday evening I returned to the UK to read media conjecture to the effect that, spooked by polls giving the Leave camp a narrow lead, European leaders would make an indyref-style vow to give the UK even more of a 'special status' should it opt to Remain part of the EU. Karl Marx got a lot of things right, not least his observation that history repeats, first as tragedy then as farce.
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