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Ship to Shore

I hope you're having a good puente, if you live in Andalucia, where yesterday - 28 February - was Andalucia Day. I am sure I'm not alone in thinking that three-day weekends are the way to go, especially when the weather turns out to be considerably better (warmer, drier, sunnier) than predicted. We here in southern Spain were lucky to escape the worst of the fierce storm, called Xynthia, which wreaked havoc on the peninsula’s north coast and south-western France on Saturday night. I opened my door on Sunday morning to find a branch from one of our trees sitting on the terrace. People in Portugal, France, Germany and northern Spain were killed by falling trees, while those who live on the French coast were flooded in what makes Jerez’s recent problems look like little puddles. Winds of up to 180kph, along with 20-metre waves from the Atlantic, battered a swathe of western Europe from Portugal all the way up to Belgium. Immediate direct results, in addition to deaths and damage to property, were devastated woodland in France, forest fires in Spain, and nearly two million people without power in France (where four deaths were caused by inhaling carbon monoxide from faulty generators). Some of the inhabitants of a village called La Faute-Sur-Mer in La Vendee, just north of La Rochelle, died before they even realised what had happened to them, since they were asleep in bed at the time (which might even be a good thing). The levees protecting the village broke and water poured in, reaching the rooves of the houses in a matter of minutes. Some people didn’t even have time to wake up, while the lucky ones were rescued from their rooves – a few having slept the night there - by helicopters. The death toll will rise as more bodies which were carried away in the torrent are discovered. One woman, in another town, reached safety by swimming out of her bathroom window. Oh, the irony. Will I ever get off the theme of rain/floods/rivers/sea, I hear you ask? Well, you have to admit, it has dominated the last couple of months to an amazing extent, with the heaviest rainfall on record in Andalucia and the worst floods in 60 years. I guess it’s so much more shocking to me when it happens here, as this naïve newish expat thought Andalucia was all sun, sun, sun, with the odd light shower. How wrong I was. My original planned topic for this week is actually water-related, but in a much more positive way. So, excuse the slightly creaky link, and let’s segue from the Atlantic as a lethally destructive force of nature, into the Atlantic as a route for commerce, transport, exploration and navigation. One of the countless local events which was delayed by the recent inclement weather was the departure of the Galeon de Andalucia from Huelva, where it was launched (the ship was built in Punta Umbria), on its voyage to the Expo in Shanghai. This 40-metre reconstruction of a 17th-century galleon is currently moored in Seville, at the recently refurbished Muelle de las Delicias, next to the Pabellon de Argentina. It will stay there, open for visits, until 7 March, when it departs on a 9000-km tour to France, Italy, Malta, Egypt, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, before arriving in China in late June/early July. When I visited - on Sunday, Andalucia Day, with unexpectedly beautiful weather - many families were milling around on the broad, cobbled riverside quay, enjoying the sunshine, admiring the nao; the more dedicated were standing in the long queue to board the ship and look around. Children on their bikes were asking their parents, ‘Is it a pirate ship?’. The galleon is indeed a dead ringer for Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl, although there’s an unmistakeably Spanish image on its stern of the Esperanza de Triana, while the lamp above the Virgen Inmaculada is a copy of one from an Hermandad de Silencio paso. Its national and regional identity are made even clearer by its two flags, flying Spanish and Andalucian colours. It’s an impressive nao (Spanish word for vessel), if not huge, built of oak, teak and pine, with three masts for its billowing sails (it also has a motor) and 10 cannons. These galleons were used for trading routes such as Acapulco and Manila, back when Spain was a force to be reckoned with, if not one of the most powerful Empires in the world, trading tobacco, precious metals, textiles, porcelain, ivory and spices with America and Asia. And where did these ships leave from? Seville? And where were they built? Huelva. Now, as the unusually down-to-earth director of the Fundacion Nao Victoria, the organisation which built the ship, explains, ‘It’s important to have been an important country, in order to be one again.’ So here’s someone, unlike most andaluces, who doesn’t think he lives at the centre of the world. The director continues, in a comment as astonishingly blunt, and extraordinarily modest, as any I have ever heard about my adoptive country, ‘For some countries we don’t exist’. Rather than bringing goods, as in yesteryear, the ship will bring the name of Andalucia to the world. It will serve as an ambassador from one former economic powerhouse, selling Andalucia’s name, legacy and reputation, to the next one, China. It’s promotion, history, tourism, marketing, economics and diplomacy all rolled into one. Bon voyage.
Blog published on 1 March 2010