Listening to the stories that my home tells me: My dad’s book about Diesel’s car drive in Europe in 1950/51 / 2

In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.

In my former blog, I have started to talk about Eugen Diesel’s book “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” or “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).

The book belonged to my dad and I have read it during the lockdown. In my former blog, I have talked about who Eugen Diesel was and how he drove to Auch in southern France. I now continue with his excursions around Auch and about his tour back to Germany, intertwining that with my own memories.


While staying with their friend in Auch, Eugen and his wife go for excursions in the south of France

In Auch, Eugen and his wife stay with their friend, and from here they go for various excursions, one of them being Pau.

In the Renaissance castle, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to the later king of France, Henri IV (born in 1553).

We know Henri IV for the words “Paris vaut bien un messe”. He may never have spoken them out, though he adopted the catholic religion to take over the crown of France, and, luckily, he was tolerant towards other religions.

Henri IV had children from various loves, and he played with his children. When this ambassadors entered, Henri asked him: “What do you do with your children?”. I believe that Henri IV is one of the most fascinating personalities of the history of France.

In Pau, Eugen visited the castle and he was invited to the local exhibition of furnitures, cars and engines at Pau; some people believed that it was him, Eugen, that had invented the Diesel engine, though it was his father.

In 2017, my friend and I were in Pau. We visited the castle and the medieval city center.

From Pau, Eugen drove up to the Pyrenees, to the Col de Pourtalet (1795m).

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 123)

The roads are narrow, but I do not think, he had to cross many cars coming down, as the border to Spain was closed. The customs officer let Eugen take a few steps in Spain. The sky was inviting blue south of the Pyrenees (Spain), while the north (France) was covered with clouds. Eugen had to return to the clouds, to France.

The Col de Pourtalet is one of the few passes in the Pyrenees that we have not yet used to get from France to Spain. I would love to take it, once the border to Spain opens up again and the situation looks safer after the current pandemic. This is the view of the Pyrenees in the direction of the Col de Pourtalet, taken at Pau.

In Lourdes, Eugen did not dare take photos, because it is a sacred place. But then he noticed an elderly lady take photos using an expensive camera, before laying down to pray. Lourdes is an important pilgrimage site that bases on Mary having appeared to a young girl in 1858. We were in Lourdes in 2017 and visited the grotto and the Rosary Basilica from 1899. When leaving Lourdes, the boot of our car would no longer open. A miracle? No, it turned out that the strip of one of our backpacks got caught in the lock, a problem that was solved all by itself later on a bumpy road. Perhaps not a miracle, but a reminder?

In Moissac, Eugen and his wife watched a lady ring the abbey bells manually. We saw the Abbey Saint Pierre in 2017 and in 2019. It has one of the most beautiful Romanic portals that I know; here, the 24 wise men playing music are looking up to Jesus,…

… and in the the cloister we found this beautiful Petrus.

After having visited Bordeaux, Mimizan and Toulouse, Eugen and his wife left Auch to return to Germany performing a round tour to the Mediterranean Sea.


Eugen and his wife leave Auch and return to Germany via the Mediterranean Coast

Eugen drives along the Pyrenees and tries to enter Andorra. But the customs regulations (two large books in a drawer) did not say, how to handle Germans, and hence the couple was not allowed to cross the border to Andorra. Eugen and his wife continued their way in France crossing the Cerdagne, a high plateau shared by France and Spain, with one Spanish exclave called Livía. Eugen could not find the reason for Livía being a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory. Today, we have the internet, “Dr. Google” and Wikpedia. They tell me that in 1659, Louis XIV did not know that Livía was a town. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees, he had agreed with the Spanish crown that France would integrate all the villages of the northern half of the Cerdagne/Cerdanya in France. Livía, once the capital of the Cerdagne and registered as a town, consequently stayed with Spain. If this is the reason, it could be an indication that, even as a powerful king, you may have to study the local details, before finalizing an agreement.

We were in the Cerdagne in May 2018, and we got caught in heavy snowfall, while on the way to Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia on the Spanish side.

Here we are on the road up to the Cerdagne. On the plateau, 1200-1600m, we will find some 10 to 20cm of fresh snow on the roads. We are in the mountains – “real” mountains – and even in May, the weather can be rough in the Pyrenees. My friend took the photo, while I was driving carefully; my car is a four-wheel drive.

Not far from here is the beautifully shaped sacred mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou (seen from Prades, where the road up to the Cerdagne plateau starts).

After having followed the river Têt down to the Mediterrenean Sea, Eugen stayed overnight at Collioure with the harbour and the lighthouse (“phare” in French)…

… that André Derain painted.

In the beginning of the XXth century Fauve artists around Braques, Matisse and Picasso used to meet here. Eugen enjoyed the atmosphere of this charming village with the castle and with the colorful narrow streets, and so did we in 2016.

Along the beautiful coastline, Eugen and his wife drove south from Collioure to the border between France and Spain, at the Col de Belitres.

The border to Spain was closed for Eugen and his wife, also here. The customs officer talked to Eugen’s wife, while Eugen was allowed to enter Spain, just for a few steps, to admire the landscape and the huge train station squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The small settlement, Portbou, has such a large train station, because the engineers in France and Spain had selected different gauges for their railways, as Eugen, son of an engineer, explained.  The enormous train station was required for the passengers to change trains and for the goods to be reloaded.

In 2018, we were at Portbou, and felt the tragedy of this border: Here, the philosopher Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain in 1940 with a transit visa in his pocket that should allow him to emigrate to the US, but Spain had just cancelled all transit visas. Walter Benjamin was about to be sent back to France. He committed suicide and since 1994, this haunting monument has reminded us of Walter Benjamin’s tragedy.

I found a beautiful blog “The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Catalunya”, by Martin Kalfatovic. He translated the German words facing the sea like this: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)”. Yes, in the 1940-ies, many of the “renowned” wrote history in a way that I prefer would not have happened and that I hope will never happen again – however, sometimes I am worried about our “renowned” now. Then and now, there existed and exist courageous “anonymous” that deserve to be honored.

After having seen Portbou standing at the closed border, Eugen’s next stop is Carcassone, the fortified town…

… with the charming small streets inside.

We were here in 2016. In a welcoming restaurant, we watched some Asian tourists eat the “Cassoulet”, which is a local hotpot made with sausages. It is heavy stuff for people that work in the fields all day. I was not sure, whether the Asian tourists liked the dish or just found it interesting. I had a delicious lamb dish with fine herbs.

Eugen and his wife stopped in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Coast in the Camargue. Three Saint Maries landed here with her Egyptian servant Sarah. This is the church that commemorates the landing of the sacred boat.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 155)

We visited the church in 2017, under dark blue sky.

The Romani  people venerate Saint Sarah, the Egyptian servant, in the crypt of this church.

In Arles, Eugen and his wife attended a bullfight. He described it in detail with the eyes of a German that did not really enjoy the elegance of the bullfighters and the killing of the bulls. The fight took place in the old Roman arena that we saw in 2017 (but without such action, fortunately, not something I would like to watch).

Still in the Camargue, Eugen and his wife stayed overnight in the small town called Les Baux which is the origin of “Bauxite” (a rock containing aluminium, needed to build cars).

The next day, they saw Nîmes with the arena and the Roman temple (called Maison Carrée). We stayed overnight at Nîmes in 2018 and admired the Roman arena with the statue of the bull fighter.

After having strolled through the city center with its narrow streets, we had a wonderful dinner (onglet steak) just across the arena, at Chez Hubert.

Not far from Nîmes is the Pont du Gard that, in Roman times, provided Nîmes (then called Nemasus) with water.

(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 181)

In 2011, I was here with Ernst. This was our last sightseeing point on our last journey that we did together – we were on our way home from Morocco. I keep wonderful memories of all the travelling I have done with Ernst during our 18 years and now he travels with me in my heart.

In Avignon, Eugen and his wife visited the Palace of the Popes. With my friend, I was here in autumn 2016, when the cold mistral blew down from the mountains. This is the second courtyard of the Pope Palace built in the 14th century, when six popes resided here (and not in Rome).

Since kindergarten, I had known the Pont d’Avignon, as we had been taught the song “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse… (on the bridge of Avignon, this is where you dance, this is where you dance).” Not yet understanding French, we created our own versions of the text; this was the version of the sister of my friend: “ooni Dasse, ooni Dasse”, which in Swiss German means “without cups, without cups”. The French word “danse” sounded like “Dasse” to her.

Now in my sixties, I saw this famous bridge for the first time, and I was so disappointed! Because it is not a bridge that crosses the river, as bridges ought to do, but it ends in the middle of the river Rhone.  In the attached museum, we learned that it was conceived as a toll point on the Rhone and not really as a bridge for people and carriages.

Eugen and his wife drove “up” the Rhone valley, with stops at Montélimar, the city of nougat, then at Vienne, another Roman city, and finally at Lyon and Bourg.

They crossed the border between France and Germany near Huningue (close to my home city Basel) using the ferry (the three countries bridge will be rebuilt 57 years later, in 2007). The French customs officer, Eugen remembers, was easy going, whereby the German customs officer was tense and eager to fulfill his duty according to the regulations. Eugen and his wife had left France with its somewhat light-footed atmosphere and are now back in “dutiful” Germany. From now on, he wrote about his tours in Germany and to Switzerland. In Switzerland, Eugen reflected about the fact that a German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, became – in a way – the national writer for Switzerland, as he wrote his play “Wilhelm Tell” about the Swiss legendary national hero of the 13th century.


Epilog: France… like Eugen I love the French atmosphere and I long for being there again, be it just across the border or be it travelling farther

While not being allowed to cross the border to France due to the pandemic until mid-June, I enjoyed to follow Eugen Diesel and his wife through France to places that I have been to as well. I like to be in France, in the rural towns, in the restaurants that serve soigné meals, soaking in the rich cultural heritage and enjoying the French atmosphere. I wish that France will recover well, having been hit seriously by the pandemic of spring 2020 and having been churned by turmoils recently. I look forward to returning to France.

Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling to the same places.




Le zoo de Rome – a charming novel intertwining reality and fiction, written by Pascal Janovjak

A year ago, in May 2019, Pascal Janovjak gave me his book “le zoo de Rome” (1) with the following words: “Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

Let me tell you more about this beautiful novel that evoked memories of “my” zoos, that taught me much about the zoo of Rome integrated in the history of the XXth century and that made me enjoy the related fictional story lines.


Prologue: “Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories; it might evoke yours as well

“Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories of “my” zoos in Basel (Zolli) and in Karlsruhe (Stadtgarten). You may have such memories as well.

At kindergarten age, in the 1950’s, my grand-ma invited me to the Stadtgarten in Karslruhe, whereby I was very cautious, when being confronted with animals.

Some ten years later, our teacher took us to the Basel Zolli to practice drawing animals; “my” pelicans and “my” penguin are from that time.

As a student, I took photos in the Basel Zolli and developed them in the kitchen-darkroom. The black-and-white polar bear is resting calmly on its paw on a frosty-cold winter day.

No more polar bears in the Basel Zolli today. However, polar bears still live in the Stadtgarten of Karlsruhe, in their “icebergs” built in 2000 (colour photos taken in 2009). A hundred years ago, the Swiss Urs Eggenschwyler created an iceberg in the zoo of Rome; it will play a role in Pascal’s novel.

Now I go to the Basel Zolli with my grandniece and grandnephew. They very much like the flamingos – or flamands in French. The “lagoon” is near the main entrance of the zoo.

Pascal also seems to like flamingos. He has selected this flamingo for the cover of his book.

My “le zoo de Rome” shows signs of use… I have read it three times and I have read it with great pleasure.


“Le zoo de Rome” is a puzzle of essays telling intertwined stories: My summary in a nutshell

Pascal tells his novel “le zoo de Rome” as a puzzle of small essays (two to four pages long) rolling out intertwined story lines. The real story of the zoo of Rome starts shortly before 1911 (construction and inauguration), ends in 2013 (two years after the centenary) and interacts with the historical events of one century.

Superimposed to the real history of the zoo, I identified fictional story lines that begin in 1940, focus on 2009/2010 and end in 2013.

  • The first fiction is the life of the architect Chahine Gharbi (born in 1970) and his tender love story with Giovanna Di Stefano. Chahine comes to Rome in December 2009, because a sponsor from Riyad has asked him to evaluate the project of a shopping city to replace the zoo. Chahine orders his room until 16th of January 2010. Mid-January, he has to leave his hotel room, as his sponsor has stopped paying for it. He lives in the iceberg for some time and leaves with unknown destination in May 2010.
    Chahine and Giovanna meet in the zoo. They are both about 40 years old. Their love culminates end-January or beginning-February 2010, when they make love in the zoo.
  • The second fiction is the saga of the family Leonardi that worked as guards from grandfather to grandson Salvatore. Salvatore was born in 1949 (there was rinderpest in the zoo then). Salvatore works with engagement for his animals and imagines the zoo being Noah’s Ark and himself being the captain. Salvatore meets Giovanna and Chahine several times. He is the guard of the last tamandin anteater, until sent to retirement in July 2010 – which leads over to the third fiction.
  • The third fiction is about the last tamandin anteater (a fictional animal) alluding to criminal energy and overtourism. During the war, in 1940, the zoo takes over his first tamandin from another zoo. In November 2009, the veterinarian Moro of the zoo of Rome kills the two tamandins in the London zoo. By doing so, he achieves that the old tamandin anteater of the zoo of Rome, Oscar, is the last representative of this species. For the zoo, so far having attracted only few visitors, the last surviving tamandin changes everything. Visitors flood the zoo. They are channelled to the Grande Volière (aviary), where the animal lives. It is a hype, which Giovanna supports with her marketing actions.
    Meanwhile, the veterinarian of the London zoo, Nadia Monk, finds out that Moro has thrown infected ticks into the cages of her tamandins, which was the cause of their infection and death. Moro is arrested in May 2010.
    During the tamandin hype, Salvatore looks after Oscar day and night. In July 2010, the faithful guard gets the announcement of his retirement, kills the tamandin Oscar and ends up in prison. No one asks why he has shot the tamandin. Small detail: It turns out that Oscar was a female, despite its name.
    At the same time, in July 2010, Giovanna visits the gynaecologist to get the confirmation that she is pregnant. She must have been pregnant for five to six months.
  • Fourth, without having a name (I could not find it), Giovanna’s husband supports her calmly during the exciting months at the zoo. During that time, they also make love in late winter/early spring 2010. In 2013, a happy future opens up for Giovanna and her husband: Giovanna has left the zoo and is again successful at her former job in government, and the couple enjoys the life with their son that they had no longer expected.

I enjoyed the rich and dense language of Pascal. The words are concise and placed exactly where they fit. I took notes to keep track of the artfully intertwined story lines presented in small puzzle pieces with hints dispersed all over. Some of the hints I only understood, when reading the novel for the third time, for example:

  • In the first chapter, the architect Chahine Gharbi notices a metallic sphere, when settling in room number 324 in the hotel adjacent to the zoo. A metallic sphere? Reading the novel the third time, I understand: What Chahine sees, is the “Grande Volière”, the “Large Aviary”, built in the 1930’s at Mussolini’s request.
  • Soon after having started work as the head of communications and administration of the zoo, Giovanna visits the animals and notices the tamandin, marked as “in danger of extinction”. Coming back to the office, she finds an angry letter from the zoo of London asking the zoo of Rome to deliver the tamandin immediately. First, I thought, Giovanna has taken over a messy office. When reading the third time, I understand this hint: Moro, the veterinarian of Rome, has recently thrown ticks carrying viruses into the cage of the tamandins in the London zoo. Now he waits for the tamandins to pick up the ticks, catch the infection and die. For that reason, he has no intention to send his tamandin to England, as there is a good chance that Oscar will be the last anteater of its species, which will attract visitors to his zoo of Rome, desperately needed visitors.


The novel taught me much about the zoo of Rome… and about “my” Basel Zolli

These are some of the facts that Pascal’s novel told me about the zoo of Rome and other zoos:

  • I was shocked to read that Hagenbeck, the designer of the zoo of Rome (and of the Tierpark of Hamburg), was a trader of wild animals; by designing zoos, I believe, he cleverly created the market for his business. I was also dismayed to read, how many animals did not survive the transfer from wilderness to Rome, when the zoo was to be inaugurated in 1911. I was appalled that just a few years after the inauguration, cost saving efforts deprived the animals from food.
  • Urs Eggenschwyler was an eccentric Swiss who knew how to build artificial cement rocks. In the zoo of Rome, he built various rock landscapes and the iceberg. In the Basel Zolli, he built the rock for the seals. I had never thought about this rock around the pool being artificial, when watching the seals playfully “hunt” their food. The iceberg landscape in Karlsruhe should show the visitors, how the polar bears live in the Arctic. Hagenbeck was the first architect of zoos to have planned landscapes that reflect the habitat of the animals shown. Pascal describes nicely, how Hackenbeck dreamt of the animals living in their habitats, when reviewing the plans for the zoo of Rome.
  • I shivered, when “a crazy man” entered the cage of his lioness called Italia. Pascal resolves the mystery later: It was Mussolini. He ordered to enlarge the zoo, because it was smaller than other zoos of Europe. The architect de Vito was in charge of the construction. I liked to follow, how de Vito proceeded: He watched the animals intensely, he visited other zoos to gather ideas, and then, accidentally, he saw the cylindric gas reservoir of the community of Munich that became the model for the “Grande Volière” or “Large Aviary” allowing the birds to fly in circles, which is natural for them. Furthermore, he built his aviary in a sustainable way – more than 80 years later, the metal shines in the sun (as Chahine noted, when entering his hotel room with the view of the zoo). I would love to see de Vico’s aviary one day.
  • I have mixed feelings about zoos. Might be, the student Guido watching animals is right: Zoos are like Noah’s Ark. In Mongolia, I saw the Przewalski horses. They had become extinct in the wild, but they survived in various zoos. Resettlement was a success. It was beautiful to watch these elegant horses against the horizon of the Mongolian steppes.
  • Another finely observed detail: Chahine and Giovanna struggle with the zoo map. Zoo maps do seem to be a challenge; with the map of the Basel Zolli I always get lost.


The zoo is the backstage to caricature observations about people in fictional story lines 

The zoo of Rome is the backstage for creating caricatures about people and their behaviours. The observations, painted using fine brushstrokes, resonate with me. Let me give you some examples.

  • With pleasure, I observed the tender love emerge between Chahine and Giovanna, which culminates, when Chahine helps Giovanna to get rid of her wet clothes, after having been in the pouring rain during the move of the tamandin to the aviary. Wet clothes are hard to take off – I have also experienced that. Then Chahine wants to disappear in Giovanna’s body. Later I understand what he suffers from. While hiding in the iceberg until May, he visits Salvatore Leonardi guarding the tamandin in the Grande Volière and, as they do not speak the same language, he uses gestures to describe, how his seven years old daughter died in the car accident and that he was at the steering wheel. I feel sorry for Chahine devouring the soup that Leonardi offers to him, because probably he is very hungry.
    After their love night, Giovanna looks for Chahine, but cannot find him – she just finds his accessories, including the white plush polar bear that he had bought, perhaps with his daughter in mind; he has left the plush bear on the iceberg.
    I feel sympathy for Chahine’s wife that probably never saw her husband again – she had let him go to Rome saying: “What you need, is a project”, when the request to plan the shopping city came from Riyad. What a sign of love.
  • The calm love between Giovanna and her husband ends happily with their newly born son. Pascal leaves open the detail who might be the father of their son, Chahine or Giovanna’s husband. He gives a small hint: Giovanna’s husband loved their son that resembled Giovanna so much – what a tender loving care.
  • From the very first moment, I have felt bad with the veterinarian of the zoo of Rome, Moro. I hated that he thought, he knew everything better than the director of the zoo and that he disdained Giovanna by telling her that she had ink at her fingers, while she was explaining to him her ideas about the next steps to be taken for the zoo (occasionally, I came across such unfair behaviour at work…). Later, I felt Schadenfreude (malicious joy, a word that only exists in German, I believe), because Moro failed to go unnoticed, when attacking the two tamandins in the London zoo, though he had prepared everything in detail acquiring an English coat and an umbrella as well as paying cash for the bus and metro tickets to Regent’s Park. But at the entrance gate to the zoo, he felt stressed because of the long queue and he got engraved in the mind of the cashier, as he forgot the change in coins and his umbrella, his coat was too warm for the sunny day and he was too stingy to make a donation. I can imagine the man clearly.
    The veterinarian Nadia Monk of the London zoo wanted to know, why her tamandins had died and found viruses from ticks. One tick had a tiny thread of wool around its body, as she noticed in the microscope. She spent eleven nights in the office of the night shift security guard to watch the video surveillance films. The guard was not amused, as he loved to read poems during his night shifts – great caricature. After eleven nights, Nadia Monk identified a man in a coat throwing ticks at her tamandins. The cashier remembered the man. Due to Nadia’s persistence, Moro was arrested (Pascal only says that two policemen knocked at the door leaving the conclusion to the reader).
  • I relished reading about the touristic turmoil around the last tamandin anteater. The tamandin was shy and hid away in its bush. The visitors could hardly ever see it. Nevertheless, hordes of tourists came to the zoo and to the Volière, where the tamandin stayed, guarded by Salvatore Leonardi. Leonardi, also hidden, observed that the visitors were not interested in the tamandin, but only in themselves. The hype around the tamandin is a well-pictured allusion to overtourism, I find. It reminds me of what I saw in Petersburg in the Hermitage Museum: Tourists rushed to “Madonna and the Child” by Leonardo da Vinci, stopped, turned round, took a selfie “me and the must see tableau of da Vinci” and went off, without looking back – they were not interested in this magnificent work of art.
  • With sympathy, I followed the saga of the Leonardi family up to their grandson, Salvatore Leonardi that felt engaged for his animals, while he was just a bit talkative. I am sad to see him end up in prison. No one asked Salvatore Leonardi, why he killed the tamandin. I believe he wanted to protect the old animal from having to adapt to a new guard or he just felt sorry for the tamandin being the object of gawping crowds that were not interested in the animal as such. This is another detail that Pascal lets the reader solve himself.

I love history and I love novels that unfold their fictions in a historical setting. One of my favourite novels is “natural history” (historias naturales) by Juan Perucho who selected the Spanish Carlist War of 1840 to intertwine the fiction of “pursuit of the vampire by a young scientist and the scientist’s happy end with his love” (2).  With Pascal’s “le zoo de Rome”, I found a second favourite novel that joins history and fictions.


Epilogue: Animals are the basic material of fables and the rose colour of flamingos conveys happiness

Let me come back to what Pascal wrote in the dedication, when giving his book to me:

“Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

In fables, the animals act like humans and convey a moral lesson. In “le zoo de Rome” the animals remain animals (some of them fictional) and are a wonderful backstage for the fictional story lines. Nevertheless, I sense some moral reflections that resonate with me: For instance Mussolini entering the cage of his lioness is underlining his delusion of grandeur. The bear Fritz greeting like a fascist does not know, what it does. The chimpanzee Bungo that the animal welfare activists save from the bar to transfer it to the zoo asylum seems to suffer in its cage (good intention of the activists, but…). The rose flamingos had to move to a pond near the entrance to convey the feeling of happiness to the visitors, but they suffer, because the pebbles on the ground are too large for them to walk on (the new owners of the “Natura Park” look more for appearance than for the welfare of their protégés).

Perhaps it is for the rose colour conveying happiness that Pascal placed the elegant flamingo on the cover. Do you remember the song “la vie en rose” by Edith Piaf (3)? It gave hope to the generation of 1945 to find happiness again, now that the war was over.

I sense that the novel begins and ends with optimism: It begins with the rose colour of the flamingo on the cover to greet the reader which invited me to open the book. In the last chapter, we see the happiness of Giovanna and her husband with their son, which may makes me dream about their future.

Let us look for facets of life that makes us happy, now, that this virus confines our freedom to meet. It was wonderful to use video conferencing for discussing “le zoo of Rome” within the framework of the Solothurner Literaturtage (4).



(1) Pascal Janovak, “le zoo de Rome”, Actes Sud 2019

(2) See my blog about Juan Perucho, “historias naturales”, edhasa, Barcelona 2003.

(3) Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose”, YouTube officiel  written in 1945.

(4) Solothurner Literaturtage 2020

Back to Catalonia (Hospitalet), with two stops in the mountains

On Saturday, May 19th, we drive from Zaragoza through the mountains to Hospitalet de l’Infant, south of Tarragona in Catalonia. On the way, we stop in Alcañiz and Horta de San Joan.


Alcañiz – domicile of the Calatrava order (still in Aragón)

We follow the road to Morella up to Alcañiz. Here we maneuver our Audi through narrow-narrow streets, find the last parking slot near the city wall and walk to the  Iglesia de Santa Maria Mayor – baroque  from the 18th century – where we have a café solo.

We do not find the way out of the small town and land on top with its castle (now a parador) and this gorgeous view. This was the domicile of the order of the Calatrava.

Does our famous architect Calatrava have a relation with this order?


Culture and lunch break in Horta de San Joan (now in Catalonia)

Horta de San Joan is a pretty small town in the mountains El Ports. Young Picasso was here twice, once as a teenager, when he stayed with the family of a friend of his and about ten years later again. This quote in Catalonian says: “Everything that I know, I have learnt at Horta”.

We visit the museum that tells the story of Picasso and Horta de San Joan. All the places that he painted are documented with photos. When he was here the first time, he recovered from an illness. And when he was here for the second time, he is said to have started his cubist way of painting.

Horta de San Joan also appears in literature. Perucho in his “Las historias naturales” described, how the scientist Montpalau (an invented figure) visited Horta de San Joan, when looking for the vampire Dip that terrorized the area in the first Carlist War, in 1840 (p. 164f): “Días más tarde… nuestras caballeros… abandaron Gandesa, en busca de la pista sangrante del vampiro… En Horta de San Juan visitaron la Plaza gótica porticada…

… y el convento de San Salvador…

… El aíre era muy frío y tuvieron que abrocharse hasta el último botón de la levita…El paisaje había cambiado ahora: Salvaje, grandioso, y como telón de fondo las altas montañas del Maestrazgo…”

(Some days later, our men left Gandesa, looking for the bloody track of the vampire… in Horta San Joan they visited the gothic square with the arches… the monastery of San Salvador… The air was very cold and they had to close their jackets up to the last button… The landscape had changed now: Wild, magnificent, and in the background the high mountains of the Maestrazgo…).

We do what  Perucho’s Montpalau has done… we visit the gothic square, enjoy the view of the wild mountains and the monastery and stroll through the narrow streets…

… adorned with Amaryllis…

… and barked at by cute little dogs,…

… until we lose our way and in the maze of streets and end up in front of this door. It is the restaurant “Gran Parrado”. It is one o’clock and we are hungry.

All tables are taken… the friendly manager offers a table in the bar. Lucky we are. We have a delicious lunch. This is the first course, cannelloni (yes, the Catalonians picked that up in Italy) and codfish salad. My second course is oxtail in chocolate sauce – very tasty. For dessert we choose fresh goat cheese with honey – a marvellous Catalonian specialty.

The host has a small wine cellar that he is proud of. Already Perucho’s Montpalau praised the wines from Terra Alta: “Se consumieron grandes bocoyes de vino de lágrima, finísimo al paladar…” (we drank large glasses of Lagrima wine, very fine in the palate”), p.163. I buy two bottles, one of them produced in Horta de San Joan (Els Costums made from Granatxa negra).


Back at Hospitalet in the apartment of or friends

About one hour later, we are in Hospitalet. The full moon welcomes us.

Two quiet weeks are ahead of us. Reading, swimming, going for excursions and enjoying the Mediterranean.


Looking back at our tour that we have completed in Northern Spain

Our route through Northern Spain started with a short break in Donzenac in France and then continued to

  • Hondarribia (with excursions to Bayonne, Biaritz, St-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye as well as San Sebastián)
  • Bilbao (visiting Getaria on the way)
  • Santillana del Mar (with excursions to Altamira, Comillas, Bárçena Mayor and the origin of the Ebro, Cabrales)
  • Oviedo (visiting Covadonga on the way)
  • León
  • Zamora (visiting Benavente on the way, excursions to El Campillo and Toro)
  • Santo Domingo de Silos (visiting Peñafiel on the way)
  • Zaragoza (or Sarragossa)
  • Back to Catalonia (visiting Alcañiz and Horta de San Joan on the way)

Exploring Morella with Perucho in mind

In November 2018 we spend three weeks not far from Tarragona.

After having crossed the mountains of the Maestrazgo with Perucho in mind, I now continue with Morella, also with Perucho in mind. 

Let us quickly recapitulate, what happened in the Maestrazgo and in Morella in Perucho’s novel “Las historias naturales”(see separate blog): In 1840, during the first Carlist War, the protagonist, liberal Antonio de Montpalau traverses the mountains of the Maestrazgo in search of the vampire, alias El Mochuelo, alias Onofro de Dip de Pratdip. Montpalau and his followers are captured by the conservative Carlist troups and taken to Morella, where the general of the Carlists, Ramón Cabrera, has his headquarter. Cabrera had been bitten by the vampire. Later Cabrera with his troups leaves Morella for Berga, where Montpalau will help Cabrera escape from the gloomy fate of becoming a vampire.


Morella – this eagle’s nest could well be the castle of King Arthur

We descend from Port de Torre Miró. Approaching Morella from the north, we see the medieval city towered by the castle. Actually, the whole City, with the walls surrounding it, might be part of the castle.

It looks like the nest of an eagle, as Perucho writes: “el escarpado nido de águilas realista” (p. 172, at that time occupied by the royal (realista) Carlists). Like Perucho, I could imagine King Arthur having resided here (p.181): “Llegando por la carretera de Monroyo…, uno cree estar ante de una de aquellas ciudades del Rey Arturo y de los caballeros de la Tabla Redonda, adecuadísima para albergar el Santo Grial”. (Arriving on the road from Monroyo…, one thinks to stand in front of one of those cities of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, well suited to keep the Holy Grail). Furthermore, Perucho compares Morella to Mont Saint Michel in France, just without the sea around it.

We park our car along the town wall and stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets. “Morella tiene mucho carácter,” Perucho says (p. 178, Morella has much character). It was an important city connecting the Ebro valley and the coastal planes around Valencia.


Strolling through the medieval city with its palaces

The strategic position of Morella is reflected in numerous palaces. The palace of the Cardinal Ram (built in the 15th century) is now a hotel.

Another Gothic palace has belonged to the Marquès de Cruilles.

Next door is the Casa Rovira. In 1414, Vincent Ferrer, a famous Dominican friar and preacher from Valencia, stayed in this house on his way to meet the antipope Benedict XIII and the Spanish king Ferdinand I (Vincent wanted to convince the antipope to abdicate, in which he did not succeed). The hosts of the Casa Rovira agreed that for Vincent they would prepare a meal made out of the best they owned which was their son. When being served the meal, Vincent understood, what had happened, did not eat, but revived the son successfully – the boy now lacked only one finger, because the mother had tried the meal before serving it. Vincent Ferrer later became Sant Vincent. Legend mixed with reality, explained on these ceramic tiles.  


The church of Santa Maria la Mayor – also valued by Perucho

Now I look forward to seeing the famous apostle portal of the Gothic church Santa Maria La Mayor (built around 1300). Here it is, hidden because of renovation. Bad luck.

Next to it, the virgin’s gate is still waiting for renovation.

Perucho’s description of this church is very much to the point (p. 182): “La cathedral es una joya de piedra profusamente esculpida y con un coro construido de manera ingeniosa, en medio de la nave” (the cathedral is a jewel made out of stone lavishly sculptured and with a choir constructed in an ingenious manner, in the middle of the nave).

This is the ingeniously constructed choir elevated in the middle of the nave and decorated with the representation of the Last Judgment. 

Spiral stairs with magnificent sculptures explaining the life of Jesus are leading up to the Choir.


The Convento San Francesco with its Danse Macabre

Above the cathedral we buy tickets for the Convento de San Francesc, now in ruins. This is the Gothic cloister.

We admire the Danse Macabre. Every one will be the victim of godfather death – and they are all sitting on this tree. 


Climbing up to the castle with Cabrera in mind

High above the Convento San Francesc is the castle. The access is in the cloister. This is the castle seen through one of the arches of the cloister.

“Who is this man?” a family father asks, “ah, hm, Ramón Cabrera, okay”, and he makes selfies of Cabrera with his children and his wife. Yes, Ramón Cabrera, the Carlist leader, has the honour to greet visitors of the castle still today. The castle was his headquarter in the First Carlist War. Cabrera had the title “Count of Morella” and his surname was “the Tiger of the Maestrazgo”.

Walking up to the castle I notice that there is no direct way up. I have to go around the rock, until I reach these steep stairs with high steps. A young man approaching the top of these stairs sighs “Madre!” Come on, you are much younger than I am…

From the top of the castle I enjoy the gorgeous view. It is almost impossible to approach Morella without being noticed from here. And with the clever system of defensive walls protecting the castle on top of the steep rock, it seems almost unconquerable.

I can well imagine, how Cabrera and Montpalau sat on one of the terraces of the castle and had a coffee, with the magic view of the stone city at their feet: “Una tarde, mientras tomaban un café en una de las terrazas del castillo, con el mágico visto de la ciudad de piedras a sus pies, …” (p. 183).

Not much later after that coffee break, Cabrera left Morella with most of his troops to retreat north to Berga. They did so early in the morning. It was very cold then and they intended to reach the warmer Ebro valley as quickly as possible. “Cabrera y el ejército emprendieron la marcha al rayar el alba. Hacía un frío que pelaba, y la tropa… llevaba tapabocas. El Maestrazgo era una región terrible y necesitaban llegar a la cálida ribereña lo más pronto posible.” (p. 190). My guidebook says that temperatures in winter can feel as low as minus 20 degrees centogrades, as wind and frost are cumulating.

Soon after Cabrera had left Morella, Baldomero Espartero (who fought for the cause of Queen Isabel II) conquered the castle and elevated the conservative flag of the Queen on the castle.

Zooming I can see the medieval aqueduct from the 14th century that up to the 19th century provided Morella with water from the near mountains. I believe that I see a ditch behind the aqueduct.

Now I understand, what Prince Lichnowsky experienced here, as described by Perucho. Lichnowsky was a nobleman from the Prussian Army that fought for the Carlists and Ramón Cabrera in the First Carlist War. Lichnowsky did not know that Espartero had taken over Morella in the meantime. He wanted to warn Cabrera of spies believing that Cabrera still resided in Morella. Lichnowsky approached the gate near the aqueduct. He noticed that he was received in a hostile manner. He retreated to one of the arches of the aqueduct. From here, he looked up and noticed the enemy’s flag wave on the castle. He understood, Espartero has conquered Morella and he, Lichnowsky, has to escape. He turned around, crossed the ditch to his right and disappeared towards Catalonia. (“El príncipe Lichnowsky… montó al caballo… y, a trote ligero, se dirigió a Morella… después de pasar bajo un arco del acueducto, llevaba, derecho, a la maciza puerta fortificida… Súbitamente vio como saltaban minúsculas salpicaduras de tierra a su alrededor… Oía las detonaciones agrias, … hacía dar la vuelta a su caballo. Encontró protección de uno de los pilares del acueducto, mientras una bala rebotaba contra la piedra, a un palmo de su cabeza. Entonces con mucho cuidado, miró hacia arriba. En la torre del castillo ondeaba la bandera de la reina… ¡Dio mío! Qué había pasado?… Lo urgente era escapar,… A la derecha se abría una barranca medio cubierto con matas de brezo florido. Espoleó a su caballo. El salto fue a la desesperada, cerrando los ojos y mientras sentía a la Muerte a su espalda… El Principe huía como un gamo hacia tierras de Catalunña…” (p. 229)).

This is the gate closest to the aqueduct (seen from inside the city) that gave the unfriendly welcome to the Prince Lichnowsky.  


Wrapping up the visit of Morella

After having visited the castle, we walk back through the city…

… and evaluate the woven blankets with the typical pattern of Morella.

All blankets that we looked at, were made out of synthetic fiber containing some 10 or 20% of pure wool. Not what we had expected. We buy some sweet specialties instead, flaons and mantecados.

We stop at the beautiful townhall dating from the 15th century.

Inside the courtyard we find some giants (used at Corpus Christi) and a film of the Sexenni that the town celebrates every six years to commemorate the end of the plague in 1672.

We return to the town wall to pick up our car. We notice a heavy fine behind our wiper for having parked where only those authorised are allowed to, not foreigners like us. On this busy Saturday with many cars parked all over, we had not noticed the prohibition sign… but we find it okay to leave some money to support the ongoing renovation in this charming town.

In the evening we unpack our souvenirs, the flaons and the mantecados.

The sweets accompany our afternoon coffee times. From our selection of sweets, our favourites the larger mantecados with the almond in the middle.

Yes, Morella is worth a visit.



David Navarro: “Morello”, Reihe Tourismus Spanien, Fisa Escudo de Oro.

Juan Perucho: “Las Historias Naturales”, Hurope, Barcelona 2003.

Morella in Wikipedia and tourist home site of Morella


The Maestrazgo: On the way to Morella with Perucho in mind

In November 2018 we spend three weeks not far from Tarragona.  

Having read “Las historias naturales” by Juan Perucho, I wanted to cross the mountains of the Maestrazgo and visit Morella.

Let us quickly recapitulate, what happened in the Maestrazgo and in Morella in Perucho’s novel “Las historias naturales”(see separate blog): In 1840, during the first Carlist War, the protagonist, liberal Antonio de Montpalau traverses the mountains of the Maestrazgo in search of the vampire, alias El Mochuelo, alias Onofro de Dip de Pratdip. Montpalau and his followers are captured by the conservative Carlist troups and taken to Morella, where the general of the Carlists, Ramón Cabrera, has his headquarter. Cabrera had been bitten by the vampire. Later Cabrera with his troups leaves Morella for Berga, where Montpalau will help Cabrera escape from the gloomy fate of becoming a vampire.

Now, let us follow the tracks of Perucho and Montpalau by crossing the Maestrazgo on the way to Morella.


Our routes to Morella crossing the Maestrazgo mountains

Montpalau crossed the Maestrazgo mountains coming from Horta San Juan and Valderrobres (just outside the map above, see the dotted red line). We traversed them farther south starting at Tortosa (continuous red line leading to Morella).

Source: Street map Michelin “España Noreste”


Approaching the Maestrazgo mountains

This is, how Montpalau approached the Maestrazgo (p. 164): “En Horta de San Juan visitaron la plaza gótica porticada y el Convento de San Salvador… el aire era muy frío y tuvieron que abrocharse hasta el último botón de la levita. El paisaje había cambiado ahora; salvaje, grandioso y como telón de fondo, las altas montañas del Maestrazgo.” (In Horta de San Juan we visited the gothic main square and the monastery San Salvador… the air was very cold and they had to close their frock coats up to the last button. The landscape has now changed; wild and grand and with, in the background, the high mountains of the Maestrazgo).

We, however, ascend to the Maestrazgo mountains via Más de Barbera where we have a wonderful view of the Montsia mountains and of the Galera plane with its utterly tidy olive groves.

We take a coffee in the Lo Racò that would make a good stop for eating, recommended in Tripadvisor. Nearby we find a signboard that lays out enticing hiking paths.


The Maestrazgo mountains – fresh pristine air and wild barren landscape

We continue ascending to the village La Senia where we reach the Maestrazgo mountains. The road becomes narrow curving through wild rocks.


The Cistercian monastery Benifassà is closed and opens on Thursdays from one to three p.m., just two hours per week, not more. Very secluded.

The village of Benifassà looks like an aery – a nest for eagles – in a barren landscape.


The road winds up and down along a rocky mountain ridge. We are on about 1000m above sea level.  

We agree with Perucho and Montpalau (p. 165) “Era un paisaje de maravilla. A media que se ascendían se renovaba el aire, se hacía más puro, y un perfume salvaje de bosque y de animal en libertad se mezclaban curiosamente… Pasaron por debajo de grandes cascadas de agua ensorcedoras…; descubrieron cuevas… enormes… En verdad, el Maestrazgo era una tierra muy extraña y sorprendente…” (It was a marvellous landscape. As they climbed higher and higher, the air refreshed, became more pristine, and a perfume of wild forest and animal in freedom mixed up strangely… they passed under large and ear-deafening waterfalls; they discovered big caves… as a matter of fact the Maestrazgo was a strange and surprising area).

We reach a barren high plateau with some lonely farms dispersed on meagre meadows. Ever once in a while we see some cows, some sheep, some goats. We are alone here – like Montpalau and his friends in Perucho’s novel (p. 165): “Desde que se hallaban en el Maestrazgo no habían visto a nadie. Se acercaba el puesto del sol. Vieron una masía, medio abandonada… Decidieron de pasar la noche en la triste masía… “ (Since they had arrived in the Maestrazgo, they had not seen anyone. The sun was about to set. They saw a farm, half abandoned… They decided to stay in the desolate farm for the night…).

The next day, Montpalau and his followers succeeded to escape giant fleas that were attacking them… their weapons were branches of pine trees that they ignited and carried like torches. Very fancy… but perhaps… why not… I could almost imagine giant fleas jumping around us in this wild landscape and if they came, thanks to Montpalau, I would know, how to fight them – with ignited branches of pine trees..

After more than two hours on narrow roads, we reach the Port de Torre Miró. We are now above the valley of Morella and enjoy the gigantic windmills and the view together with other tourists. We are no longer alone.

Mountains around us. Ursula captures them with a panoramic view.


We continue our way to Morella – and I will talk about this small and fortified in my next blog.



Juan Perucho: “Las Historias Naturales”, Hurope, Barcelona 2003.















Pratdip (Catalonia) and Perucho’s natural history of the vampire Dip

Again and again we traveled to Catalonia, south of Tarragona. Again and again we noticed the sign to the village Pratdip pointing to the mountains. One day, we followed them and we found Dip and Joan Perucho’s novel „natural history“ or in Spanish “las historias naturales”.

Let me tell you more about Pratdip and its vampire Dip.


Pratdip is a small village and the inhabitants are proud of their Dip

Pratdip is located in the mountains of Llaberia, some 40km southwest of Tarragona.

Narrow steep streets are overseen by the ruins of their castle that sits on a steep rock.

In the village there are various portraits of the vampire Dip in his incarnation as a dog-vampire (vampires can change their appearances rapidly).

When we enter the tourist office, we find another dip.

The assistant laughs: „You are looking for the vampire Dip“, she asks and proudly shows us the book of Joan Perucho with the title „Las historias naturales“. She adds: „Perucho tells you everything about the Dip and what he has done to Pratdip.“ The original version of the novel is in Catalan. I buy the Spanish version.

Then we walk to the hermitage of Santa Maria, along orchards with hazelnut trees…

… and enjoy the hermitage Santa Marina in the mountains…

… where we find a friendly restaurant.

To round our excursion up, we climb the castle rock and enjoy the view.


Back at home: I enjoy reading „natural history“ by Joan Perucho to learn all about the dip

Back at home I read the novel of Joan Perucho. In his normal life, Perucho was a serious judge. When writing his „historias naturales“ or „natural history“, he must have twinkled with his eyes. The novel can be located somewhere between fable and reality and is full of humor. I could find five threads of interlaced actions.

  • First, the novel is about the vampire Dip –  his full name is Onofro de Dip. In the 13th century, he had owned the „meadows“ around Pratdip (hence the “prats of dip”). He traveled to Hungary to prepare the marriage for his king James I with Yolanda (or Violant) of Hungary (James and Violant are a historical fact). On the way to Hungary, Onofro de Dip fell in love with the lady vampire Meczyr who turned him into a vampire and „Non-Dead“ (No Muerto). He returned to Pratdip in the early 19th century and terrorized the village killing inhabitants every night. The current owner of Pratdip, Baroness Urpí, asks her brother, Marqués de La Gralla, for help (Gralla is a „real“ noble family from Barcelona; they owned a palace that no longer exists today). A friend of the Marqués de Gralla, the young natural scientist Antonio de Montpalau (an invented person), travels to Pratdip, neutralizes the vampire with the help of garlic, parsley and wooden crosses. Then he finds Dip’s grave in the castle and expulses Dip from Pratdip. Onofro de Dip morphs into the solo guerillero El Mochuelo (the Owl) fighting for the (conservative) Carlists and terrorizing the region of Tortosa and Berga. Montpalau pursues him, finds him finally in a crypta near Berga (castle Mataplana) and by speaking out some magic words, Montpalau makes Onofro de Dip die „properly“ and find his peace.
  • Second, the novel is the portrait of the higher society of the Barcelona area in the early 19th century. Montpalau as a young scientist belongs to that higher society. The members of the high society enjoy meeting in the Gralla palace, eating and discussing history, natural science, mathematics or music. As a reader you feel the luxury and shake your head about the sometimes detached, elitist or even absurd discussions. Once Frédéric Chopin and George Sand are invited to a banquet, as they stop over in Barcelona.
    Antonio de Montpalau is a scientist focused on classifying animals and plants around him. He is also interested in geography and geology. Before going to Pratdip, he  researches all literature available and he finds scientific literature about vampires that recommends using garlic, parsley, portulak, wooden crosses and mirrors to fight vampires (I can feel Perucho smile, when he lets Montpalau buy ten dozens of mirrors before leaving for Pratdip).
  • Third, the novel has a historical background: The year 1840 in the first Carlist War in which the male pretendent of the throne, Carl V, fought against his niece, the actual Queen Isabel II.
    • One one hand, the Carlists that fought for Carl V, were conservative. Their target was a federation of several states unified by the king of Spain and the catholic church as the only two common denominators of the federation, conserving, what Spain had been before. A man made constitution was not required in their eyes. Federation, of course, was welcomed by Catalonia (or also by the Basque region). Carlists were strong in Catalonia.
    • On the other hand, the followers of the actual Queen Isabel II were classified as liberals, as they based their ideas on the French Revolution. The wanted the separation of church and state, a centralized state based on the constitution (as set up in 1812, like France). The idea of the centralized state was not, what Catalonia strived for, but the high society in Barcelona, including Antonio de Montpalau, was liberal.
    • Some real persons give a realistic background, the most important being Ramón Cabrera. He was the outstanding leader of the conservative Carlists in Catalonia. His liberal (pro Isabel) opponent was Baldomero Espartero.  In 1840, Espartero defeated Cabrera and his Carlists in Berga not far from the Pyrenees.
    • Montpalau and Onofro de Dip interact with the real persons. Ramón Cabrera has been photographed wearing a large scarf around the collar of his shirt. Furthermore, he has been reported to feel ill, when trying to conquer Gandesa. Perucho tells us the reason. Cabrera attacked Gandesa at the time, when Dip morphed into the Carlist guerilla „El Mochuelo” that wanted to become a Carlist leader himself. He bit Cabrera such that he will become an immortal vampire. This is why Cabrera felt weak and this is why, he had to wear a large scarf (to hide the stitches of the vampire – twinkle). Perucho continues to describe that the liberal Antonio de Montpalau was captured by the conservative (Carlist) troups of Cabrera, how he could ease the symptoms of the bite for Cabrera and how finally Montpalau succeeded to free Cabrera from his gloomy destiny by making Onofro de Dip die properly – as described in the first thread of actions – in the crypta near Berga, just after the Carlist Cabrera had been fully defeated in Berga by the (pro Isabel) Espartero.
  • Fourth, the novel is a travel report about Catalonia in the early 19th century. Antonio de Montpalau, his nephew Novau and his coachman Amadeo travel from Barcelona via Villafranca, Reus and Falset to Pratdip. After having expulsed the vampire-Dip from Pratdip, they leave to pursue the vampire-El Mochuelo, cross the Ebro near Miravet, stay for some time in Gandesa, continue to Morella. Cabrera resides in Morella and Montpalau and his followers are captured here. Then as prisoners, they accompany Cabrera to Berga. Our travelers visit places of interest on the way (e.g. the monastery Vallbona de los Monges where the Queen Violant from Hungary has been buried), admire the beauty of the landscape, eat local specialties and drink delicious wines from Terra Alta. The travel reports are full of humor, e.g. about real places of interest such as the cathedral of Tarragona that they like though their travel handbook by (real) Alexandre Laborde does not recommend to visit it. Or about less real events: The three heroes meet giant fleas, but luckily Monpalau knows, how to escape them: They inflame branches of pine trees and carry them like torches (twinkle).
  • Fifth, it is a love story with a very, very happy end. While Antonio de Montpalau is fighting the Dip in Pratdip, he and Inés fall in love. Inés is the daughter of the baroness Urpí that has asked her brother, Marqués de Gralla, for help against the Dip. Montpalau has to leave his love to pursue the Dip.  A historian has encouraged Montpalau to do so, as he found (historic-scientific) sources that reveil, it is Montpalau’s fate to defeat the Dip (twinkle). After having vanquished the vampire Dip-El Mochuelo near Berga, Montpalau returns to Barcelona. At the palace of Marqués de Gralla he finds his love Inés (the Marqués‘ niece) waiting for him. What a happy end!

Perucho’s novel was the first book that I accomplished reading in Spanish. In the beginning, it was a bit of a tough start for me, because Perucho takes his time to set the stage. But then, when the action of neutralizing and chasing the Dip-El Mochuelo accelerates, what a pleasure! And it was even more pleasure to go back to the start to enjoy the setting of the stage, once I understood more about the historical background. The novel is full of humor and of fantasy with links to real history and geography. I did enjoy reading about many places in Catalonia that I know and that Perucho moves to the early 19th century presenting them with the eyes of Antonio Montpalau and his followers. And I did enjoy to learn more about Spanish history which helps to understand what is going on in Spain today.


The Rainbow – the treasures hidden at its end make me dream of conciliation

The rainbow near Gjirokastra in Albania

It rained all day until late afternoon, when I was in Gjirokaster in September 2015. With Ben I followed the tracks of Ismail Kadaré’s “chronicle in stone” – his house, the airport and the castle… (see  “On the tracks of Ismail Kadaré“). Late in the afternoon, the sun started to emerge and we saw the rainbow.


This rainbow linked us up with Ismail’s rainbow. Ismail saw his rainbow in 1940 and he was 4 years old. “The houses in the town made of stone have cisterns to collect rain water… In the morning the river is flooding the road below the town, after having tried to get rid of the bridge. The child sees hatred between the river, the bridge, the wind, the mountains and the creeks attacking from the mountains – and between all this hatred is the town – all lonesome – with their stone walls that the boy loves. In the morning the boy sees a rainbow that makes peace between the elements, but Ismail is convinced that this is only a temporary peace (see my earlier blog)”.

Yes, seeing a rainbow near Gjirokaster linked me up with Ismail Kadaré’s rainbow.


The rainbows in Switzerland point to buckets of gold (Kübeli Gold) or treasure chests (Schatzkisten)

In Switzerland you have to run fast,  when you see a rainbow. Where it touches the ground, there are buckets of gold or treasure chests (depends on the canton; in Berne – buckets of gold and in Basel – treasure chests; I do not know precisely about the other cantons). Whatever kind of treasure, you have to run fast to reach it.


The Swiss – Albanian combination of rainbows made me dream of conciliation

Rainbows and their treasures, this made me dream of conciliation and peace. I wrote down my feelings for the turn of the years 2015/2016, first in German…

Ein Regenbogen…

Die Stürme – vorbei,
Die Kräfte – versöhnt.
Der Bogen verbindet
Zwei Schätze am Boden.

Zwei Schätze – verschieden?
Und dennoch – verbunden?
Zwei Schätze – versöhne,
Was scheinbar verschieden,

Du, mein Regenbogen…


… and then in some other languages to share my thoughts with more friends.

A rainbow…

The storms – passed,
The forces – reconciled.
The arc connects
Two treasures on the ground.

Two treasures – different?
Nevertheless – connected?
Two treasures – reconcile,
What seems to be different,

You, my rainbow.



Бури прошли,
Силы примирились,
Арка соединяет
Два сокровища в земле.

Два сокровища – они разные?
И всё таки – соединились?
Два сокровища – примири то
Что кажется разным.

О! Моя радуга.


Un arc-en-ciel…

Les tempêtes – passées,
Les forces – réconciliées.
L’ arc – relie
Deux trésors sur terre.

Deux trésors – différents?
Et pourtant – reliés?
Deux trésors – réconcilie
Ceux qui paraissent différents,

Toi, mon arc-en-ciel.


Un arco-iris

Las tempestadas passadas,
Las fuerzas conciliadas.
El arco conecta
Dos tesoros al suelo.

Dos tesoros – diferentes?
E sin embargo – conectados?
Dos tesoros – concilia
Los que parecen diferentes.

Tú, mi arco-iris.

Albania – on the tracks of Ismail Kadaré in Gjirokaster

Gjirokaster – a town made of stone

How much have I looked forward to this day. Today I will follow the tracks of Ismail Kadaré’s “chronicle in stone”. I had read the chronicle a year ago. It is the story of the three to seven year old boy that observed the war as a child: The first years from 1939-1940 and the second part from 1941-1943.

Today, we slender through the town where “it could happen that the basement of one house touched the roof of another house. It was a town made of stone.” As illustrated in the castle museum:


The houses look like fortresses:  Basement with vaults, then large windows behind which the guestrooms with the divans were.


Rich landowners lived here. They had farmers working for them. The town was wealthy due to agriculture, trade and craftmanship (eg leather).

Enver Hoxha’s house is now an ethnographics museum showing the rooms for guests, men, children and women as well as the kitchen.


In his chronicle, Kadaré talks about Hoxha. He was a communist partisan at that time and his house was a ruin. ““This ruin was his house”, Ilir whispers to Ismail in winter 41/42 and in the ruins they find this notice: “Wanted: The dangerous communist Enver Hoxha. He is about 30 years old and tall…”” (see my blog 1941-1943)

This is another example of a fortified house; it belonged to the Skenduli family.


The entry door is horizontal – what a clever design.



The castle above the town 

The castle above the town has been fortified by Ali Pasha around 1800 to become a stronghold that could withstand bombing. In Kadaré’s chronicle, there was a prison here. Later the whole city hid from the English bombs. ” The number of air raids by the English is augmenting. The citizens move into the castle above the town. Only Grand-Ma Selfixhe stays in the house of the Kadarés. ” (see 1941-1943)


The vaults were thick – here is a photo with the galerie of canons.


During his dictatorship, Hoxha added an ugly communist building (now hosting an exhibition of rifles) and in addition tunnels underneath the castle.


The house of Ismail Kadaré – it is stronger than all other houses and the boy is proud of it…

The house of Ismail Kadaré is on a horizontal street. From above it almost looks small.


From the hotel Kodra I can see, what a large house it is. Yes, Ismail, you are right to be proud of this house.


Ismail Kadaré has donated his house to the state. It is being renovated and is closed. We are allowed in. Currently they are redoing the room where Ismail was born, the foreman explains to us.


So – may be it was from this room that the boy Ismail stood at the window and watched,  how “… in summer 1940 the Italians have built an airport below the town. The boy has observed the process. The cows have disappeared… The  boy admires the parade of white planes. He is proud that Gjirokaster now also has planes… He watches the planes go south and he is always happy to see them come back.” (see 1939-1940)


Today the airport is not in use, but there are some plans to reuse it as a local airport.

The house has a cistern that collects rain water. ” … the rain drops land on the roof of the house – not yet knowing about their fate. Their fate is to get caught in the drainspout and to be captivated in the dark cistern, until mum lifts some of them into a bucket to clean the floors in the house. During the stormy night, the cistern fills with water – too much water. The boy shouts “huuuh” into the cistern, but it is angry and does not reply. ” (see 1939-1940). This must be, where the boy shouted “huuuh” and the angry cistern did not reply… it was too full with water and had to be emptied, with the help of the neighbours.


The foreman shows us, where the bunker is. How proud Ismail was of “his” house! “One morning the boy discovers a metallic plate next to the door of their house: “Air raid shelter for 90 persons”. Passerbies read the plate. The boy smiles proudly at them: “Look, this is a house, it is stronger than all the other houses, it is the only one with such a plate.” The adults do not notice him. The boy goes down into the vault and admires the thick walls.” (see 1939-1940)


In this bunker the boy listened to the conversations – one of them was about Albania: “The former artillerist Avdo Barbamo says that a Dervish wanted to know from him, what he prefers, his family or Albania. “Albania, this is evident”, the artillerist answered. His reasoning: You create a family over night, after having met a woman in a café. But Albania? You do no create Albania in a night, even 1001 nights do not suffice. ” (see 1939-1940)

I am very happy to have found the house of Ismail Kadaré. The foreman does not want any money – he is too proud, but in the end he accepts. I must have been the only tourist that has come to this construction site officially closed for tourists. I dream of a “tour Kadaré” that leads to all the places of his “chronicle of stone” displaying some relevant quotes on panels. Perhaps I should suggest this to the tourist office of Gjirokaster?


German support for border controls in the hotel Kodra

Under the square that once has hosted the memorial for Enver Hoxha there is the new hotel Kodra. We meet some German policemen that help control the border to avoid Albanians going to Greece. “Why only repression? What about coaching for business?” I ask. They answer: “Our mission is controling the border, we cannot do anything about it”. I am sighing. If only we could change the world for the better instead of only adding violence.


Our afternoon program: Hiking on the Lunxhëri hills and visiting a small church, the hermit’s cave and Antigonea, the ancient capital of Pyrrhus

It is no longer raining, just drizzling. Ben drives our car on to the Lunxhëri hills. We walk uphill. There are herds of sheep and goats with dogs guarding them. They bark at us, angrily. We find this church… the remains of a monastery called Shën Mërisë. According to Reise Know How Albania, p. 445, it contains frescoes.


Above the church, there is a small chapel in the rock. According to Reise Know How (p.445), this is the cave of a hermit and it is called Spile.


The stairs are dizzying. There are many excrements of goats – After having visited the cave, we wash our hands in a creek nearby. The weather starts to  clear up.


The shepherds come home and we have a chat with them.


The rainbow does not fit on to our photo lenses – and as we move, it moves with us…


Antigonea was the capital of Epirus in the 3rd century BC. It was destroyed in 167 BC. Pyrrhus (famous for his victory) named the town after his wife Antigone.


We say hello to Antigonea and, as it becomes dark, we return to Gjirokaster. We have dinner in the Taverna (I believe it is just across the building where the partisans had burnt the cadasters, as observed by the boy Ismail).


This has been another great day. Thank you, Ben.

Tomorrow, we will visit Ali Pasha in Tepelene and continue to Permet.

Albania – Ismail Kadaré and his “chronicle in stone” – 1941 to 1943

Continuation… the second world war in Gjirokaster, seen with the eyes of the child that Ismail Kadaré was. In 1941 he was five years old and he wrote his memories down in the novel “chronicle in stone”.

Changing hosts in Ismail’s town – and the beautiful black plane is back – bombing at the boy

After the Italians have left, the town is without government for 40 hours. Then the Greeks take over. After 70 hours the Italians are back and stay for 30 hours. The same story repeats several times. The citizens stay in their houses. But then the Greeks have left and the Italians do not come back. The citizens come out of their houses. The cows are back on the airport grazing.  Then the Greeks take over in town again and for now they stay. Gjergj Pula changes his name from Giorgio Pulo to Jorgos Pulos. The boy looks at the dark skin of the Greeks and wonders, whether they are gipsies.

All of a sudden there are planes in the air. Amongst them the black plane that Ismail had loved so much. The people are in the streets and so is the boy with his friend Ilir. The black plane throws bombs at them. The boys lie down in the open street – scared. Ismail thinks he lost his ears and his eyes and he is dead. After a while, all is quiet again. Ismail and his friend cry. Ismail cannot understand, why the beautiful black plane did this to him.

Greece was defeated and as refugees they leave the town asking for “psomi” which is “bread” in Greek. They boys, Ismail and Ilir, reflect whether in Poland and France they also say “psomi” for bread, as these two countries have also been defeated. It is cold and there is snow – winter 1940/41. The Italians come back, and Gjergj Pula changes his name back to Giorgio Pulo.

The vaults are no longer good enough, and the citizens hide in the castle

An engineer in a black cape (he must be a German – I am convinced about that with my German roots mixed into my Swiss roots) tests the walls of the vault with a knife and says that it is not safe enough for air raids. All vaults in the town are now deemed not to be safe enough. The plate “Air raid shelter for 90 persons” that Ismail had been so proud of is elimimated from the house of the Kadarés. The number of air raids by the English is augmenting. The citizens move into the castle above the town. Only Grand-Ma Selfixhe stays in the house of the Kadarés. The boy is scared, but she is confident that nothing will happen to her. Well, Ismail’s Grand-Ma remembers me very much of my own (Swiss) Grand-Ma, who survived serious air raids in Karlsruhe in Germany and also felt this trust that nothing will happen to her. I remember that I always felt safe, when as a little girl I was close to her.

Partisans are becoming active. The leader Enver Hoxha emerges and violence is increasing

The townhall is burning. The people are shocked: “The cadasters are burning”. “What are cadasters”, the boy and his friend Ilir ask. Javer explains that cadasters are  documents that show who owns what land, what fields and what houses. More such townhalls should be burnt, Javer says. The boys do not understand this. Ismail dreams that the fields and houses freed from ownership start to move and bend. Several suspects are arrested. I believe that Javer has joined the partisans and was the incendiary, but he escapes for now.

After a long summer with his Grand-Papa – (the parents of Ismail’s mother that live in the outskirts of Gjirokaster), Ismail returns back home in autumn 1941 and discovers that his town is empty and the doors are closed. Except the door to his home. His parents are shocked that he returns exactly now, because violence has escalated and also Gjergj Pula has been wounded.

In winter 1941/42, flyers from the communist party appear in town. Ismail recognizes the handwriting of Javer. People that “were against it”, are being arrested and deported in trucks. The town falls asleep – presumably without those that “were against it”… but… in the morning there are more flyers “against it” in town. Ismail and his friend Ilir climb a roof “to talk against it” paying attention not to be heard. They are six years old now.

More and  more people join the partisans, even Ismail’s aunt. The boys Ismail and Ilir play in a ruin. In the ruin, they find a notice in two languages: “Wanted: The dangerous communist Enver Hoxha. He is about 30 years old and tall…”. “This ruin was his house”, Ilir whispers to Ismail. At home, Xhexho says: “A new kind of war has surged, I do not exactly know, they call it something like the war of classes. In this war the brother kills his brother and the son his father. The worst is ahead of us.”

Xhexho is right. While the boys are playing in the street, they hear shooting. The town commander has been murdered. And in the night, they knock at the neighbor’s door and arrest Isa, the son who will be hanged later. Javer is also searched for. He goes into the house of his uncle, claims to regret all, and then shoots him down. Dead bodies are transported on a cart under a cover. The town is swimming in blood. The world around the boys Ismail and Ilir starts to decompose. The winter is cold and white. The boy is afraid of the white color, because he sees one word written on this white color: “Terror”.

Italy has surrendered and the partisans take over Gjorkaster violence is increasing even more

Refugees again. Italy has surrendered (in September 1943) and the Italian soldiers are leaving Gjirokaster. The town is dirty from clay and sludge. The partisans invade Gjirokaster in four crews, each crew carrying a read flag. The boy is surprised: The crews are small and come with a few mules that carry some munition and wounded persons. The partisans take over the town. A one armed partisan looks for non partisans in the neighboring houses, shoots them and is then shot by his commander, because he has also shot a girl that was not on the list.

The German occupation of Gjirokaster

In 1943, the Germans invade Albania from the south. The citizens flee the town and stay in a nearby village for some time. Only Grand-Ma stays in the house of the Kadarés.  While the citizens are in the village, the Germans arrive in front of the town. The partisans resist for three hours, until one citizen manages to raise a white flag. Now the German tanks enter the town. From their village, the refugees watch the town which is silent and dark in the night. On the next day, the citizens return to town. Dead bodies on the way. Among them friends of the family that had stayed in town. Grand-Ma is waiting in the house of the Kadarés. The boy looks at the German flag above the castle. Life is back in this town – now under German rule. But the ecosystem of the boys Ismail and Ilir has decomposed. In a way, Ismail was lucky: His parents and his Grandma Selfixhe have survived.

Ismail comes back many years later

Many years later, Ismail Kadaré returns back into his immortal grey town made out of stone. He feels that the cobblestones recognize him. Ismail’s ecosystem of people – Grand-Mother Selfixhe, Xhexho, Aunt Xhemo, Grand-Mama and Mother Pino – they do no longer exist. But Ismail feels that their shades are engraved for ever in this town made out of stone.

I can understand Ismail Kadaré. Whenever I come to places that I have been with my grand-parents, with my parents, with my husband, with persons I loved… I feel that they are engraved there – still being present for me and talking to me. I was lucky in my life to not have experienced such a war, but while growing older, the feeling of such places full of memories is very similar.

They say that Ismail Kadaré may be nominated for the nobel prize in literature and that his “chronicle in stone” may be his best book. So far I have only read this one book of Ismail Kadaré and I have been deeply touched by it.

Albania – Ismail Kadaré and his “chronicle in stone” – 1940

Ismail Kadaré – a child of Gjirokaster in World War II 

Ismail Kadaré was born in Gjirokaster in 1936. In his “chronicle in stone” he describes the events of the years 1940 to 1943 with the eyes of a child. The years were dramatic:

  • 1940 (Ismail is 4): After having invaded  Albania in 1939, the Italians build a military airport near Gjirokaster. In October Italy attacks Greece, and in December Greece – with the support of England –  conquers Gjirokaster. Gjirokaster is bombarded and the citizens hide in their vaults.
  • 1941 (Ismail is 5): With the help of the Germans, the Italians return to Gjirokaster in spring. The partisans emerge lead by Enver Hoxha (born in Gjirokaster in 1908). From the air raids, the citizens now hide in the castle.
  • 1943 (Ismail is 7): After Italy’s capitulation in September the Germans take over in Gjirokaster. Ismail Kadarés memories end now.

After school, Ismail studied in Tirana and Moscow and became a writer – and for some time he also participated in Enver Hoxha’s politics. The “chronicle in stone” was published in 1977. Describing the events seen by the eyes of a child allowed him to present thoughts he could not present otherwise in Enver Hoxha’s Albania. In a subtle way he was not fully in line with the regime.

I read the German translation by Joachim Röhm (Fischer Taschenbuchverlag). Let us look at how I experience some of the pictures that Ismail draws using the eyes of the child – 3 to 7 years old, if my calculations are correct.

Gjirokaster is the town made of stone climbing towards its castle

In the introduction Ismail takes the view of an adult person. He explains that his town is very steep, perhaps the steepest town in the world… it could happen that the basement of one house touched the roof of another house. It was a town made of stone. Ismail says that it was not easy to be a child in this town. – No, it was not easy – I understand that after having read his book.

The child’s view of the cistern and of the hatred between the river, the bridge, the wind, the mountains…

The houses in the town made of stone have cisterns to collect rain water. In a dark and stormy night, the rain drops land on the roof of the house – not yet knowing about their fate. Their fate is to get caught in the drainspout and to be captivated in the dark cistern, until mum lifts some of them into a bucket to clean the floors in the house. During the stormy night, the cistern fills with water – too much water. The boy shouts “huuuh” into the cistern, but it is angry and does not reply. With the aid of their neighbors the parents empty the cistern that has become a danger for the house. Now the cistern answers again, when the boy shouts “huuuh”. In the morning the river is flooding the road below the town, after having tried to get rid of the bridge. The child sees hatred between the river, the bridge, the wind, the mountains and the creeks attacking from the mountains – and between all this hatred is the town – all lonesome – with their stone walls that the boy loves. In the morning the boy sees a rainbow that makes peace between the elements, but Ismail is convinced that this is only a temporary peace.

How right the boy is! In 1940, there will be the fights between Italy and Greece. And there will be more fights in the following years.

The child is proud of the plate at the house of the Kadarés

It is end summer (I understand it is now 1940). The boy watches that everyone sews curtains. The Italians in town ask for “oscuramento”. One morning the boy discovers a metallic plate next to the door of their house: “Air raid shelter for 90 persons”. Passerbies read the plate. The boy smiles proudly at them: “Look, this is a house, it is stronger than all the other houses, it is the only one with such a plate.” The adults do not notice him. The boy goes down into the vault and admires the thick walls. With the first air raids, the windows in the upper rooms burst, but the vaults do not take notice of what happens outside. The boy is proud of his house with the safe vault that now has become the center of the quarter, as neighbors, guests and passerbies look for shelter from the ongoing air raids. As I understand it, the bombers are from England that supports Greece which has been atacked by Italy. One plane is shot and the citizens find the arm of an Englishman with a gold ring at his finger.

Even 1001 nights do not suffice to create Albania – the child listens to the debates in the vault

In the vault, the people debate nations, kingdoms and governments. Sometimes they mention “Albania”. The boy listens carefully trying to understand what Albania really looks like. “Is Albania everything around me, the farms, the bread, the clouds, the words – or only part of that”, the boy reflects. The former artillerist Avdo Barbamo says that a Dervish wanted to know from him, what he prefers, his family or Albania. “Albania, this is evident”, the artillerist answered. His reasoning: You create a familiy over night, after having met a woman in a café. But Albania? You do no create Albania in a night, even 1001 nights do not suffice. – Yes, Albania is a complicated piece of history, the people in the vault agree.

The child’s view of the Italian airport below the town

Also in summer 1940 the Italians have built an airport below the town. The boy has observed the process. The cows have disappeared. One day, a huge fleet of airplanes arrives frightening the citizens that have seen so many planes throw bombs. But these planes do not throw bombs – not here. The citizens come out from their vaults and watch the planes land on the airport. The  boy admires the parade of white planes. He is proud that Gjirokaster now also has planes. One morning, a huge black bomber stands between the white planes. It becomes the boy’s favorite airplane – he thought of it like a big friend. He watches the planes go south and he is alaways happy to see them come back. He cannot understand, why his parents are angry at those planes and at him admiring them. It is autumn 1940 and the Italians are attacking Greece.

But beginning of November the Italians give up the airport. The beautiful planes disappear, all the white planes and also the big black plane. They boy is sad and cries. Grand-ma Selfixhe cannot understand him: “The boy cries because of the airp… I can even not pronounce the name of this thing.” Also his parents do not understand their now almost 5 year old son. And the boy is sad.

… Let us continue later with the years 1941 to 1943.