Four sabbatical months in Europe are coming to a close this week. We spent three of those months in Granada, Spain, until our Schengen tourist visas ran out. Since then, we have mostly stayed in Penzance, Cornwall.
It’s a study in contrasts. To name one: Andalusia is famous for fervent Catholic spirituality, although I’ve written a bit about how that reputation is exaggerated.* Meanwhile, Cornwall may be the most Methodist region on earth, with Methodists representing an outright majority of Cornish churchgoers since the 1800s. Few expressions of Christianity could be as different as a stark, sober Nonconformist chapel versus a whole city that pulsates with baroque, syncretic Catholicism during Holy Week.
But I want to mention water.
Andalusia has always been semi-arid, and its classic landscape is dry earth studded with olive trees between stony mesas. Right now, the region is suffering a catastrophic draught that is probably related to climate change. However, the Nasrid (medieval Arabized Muslim) rulers of Granada built a remarkable irrigation system for the city. Snow melts on the Sierra Nevada mountains, fills Nasrid aqueducts, flows through high-pressure pipes under the Alhambra to the Plaza Nueva, and then up to the area around today’s Church of San Nicolás, where a mosque covered a large public cistern. From that reservoir, pipes still fill more than a dozen other Nasrid cisterns, from which water irrigates backyard gardens and squares filled with flowering trees and other plants that attract an exuberant array of birds. The whole city is an artificial oasis, more than eight centuries old, which is surviving the ecological crisis so far. You can clearly see the distant snow that waters the trees around you.
When we arrived in Cornwall, it stopped raining here, as if we had brought the Andalusian draught with us. The skies have been almost as blue as they were in Spain. But this is a watery place. Everywhere, burbling streams rush down to the nearby sea. Most streams are overgrown, almost concealed in foliage, as is nearly everything. The entire county has been covered by a thick mat “Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown”–not inert, but luxuriantly growing as you watch; and flowers have been generously sprinkled over all that deep green.