Susan Wilson writes:
I have a dog eared copy of Robertson’s Blue Guide to Spain which I bought in 1977. I had hitchhiked around Spain in 1976 for three months curious to see what was happening to the country-after the death of Franco. I was 25 and interested in politics.
Many journeys followed, always with the Blue Guide. I would read it aloud to my companions, in a tent in Toledo or a pension, at night, in simple plain rooms devoid of tv, radio, or devices! We would laugh at hilarious, indignant passages where he expressed himself in trenchant terms. Here he is, noting that ‘although Spain no longer admits to being a police state, the police are still very much in evidence…’
‘In the countryside, where they now serve little purpose, the ubiquitous olive green uniformed Guardia Civil, always patrolling in pairs (and known familiarly as “La Pareja”, the couple) wearing incongruous but distinctive patent leather tricorn hats. Formed in 1844, members of this strong but singularly ineffective arm of the law, raised originally to combat rural banditry and who have since regularly intimidated rural peasantry, are seldom-officious, but are not invariably civil.’ He continues, ‘In addition…when students, Basques, crowds, demonstrations, or “Manifestations” may, in their opinion require “Supervision”… the autocratic police, recently designated “Policia Nacional”…in the process of changing from a grey uniform (when they were familiarly know as “grises”) to a brown (and already called “chocolate con porras”- the latter being a truncheon shaped fritter!). They also guard embassies, ministries, ministers, nervous capitalists, stations banks, etc. Some of them have met with violent death in recent anti-authoritarian disturbances.’ (p. 93 Blue Guide to Spain).
There is a wealth of excellent quotes from Richard Ford. Some years later I was given the three volume Handbook to Spain by Sir Brinsley Ford as part of The Richard Ford Award to Spain, but took Ian Robertson’s guide with me on the several journeys I made.
Mine is underlined, my routes marked on maps, as I followed the Guide along roads, hills and in unbearably slow forever stopping overnight trains. One, from Atocha to Granada one spring, where passengers in a compartment with eight seats told funny stories, mimed silly antics, and shared food and wine with us.
I wandered alone and with various companions to obscure churches and towns in Extremadura … and over bridges (the Alcantara bridge, Roman, still in use, was one).
Informative, scholarly and amusing, it remains a definitive guide although I am afraid that it is no longer in print and that publishers of guide books began to underestimate their readers’ appetite to see and understand a culture. Robertson made a huge contribution to the travellers’ understanding of Spain.
If you can find a copy, don’t part with it. Reading this in the pandemic is strongly recommended!
by Susan Wilson