Wading in the Tagus, part II

Mountain path in the Alto Tajo gorge

Mountain path in the Alto Tajo gorge

Returning from a second jaunt to the mountains northeast of Madrid, it strikes me as inconceivable how a place to which I had never been, even two months ago, could have impressed itself onto my working memory so indelibly in such a short space of time. 

Again, I have stood and gazed out over the deep and wide tree-cloaked gorge which the waters of the Tagus have created over the millenia.  As before, full frontal gasping has been my only response.  I have walked on paths probably originally created for donkeys up the side of the mountains–and very hard underfoot the soldiers 200 years ago would have found them. 

I have seen the huge rocks overhanging the paths and thought it’s no wonder Napoleon and the French couldn’t hope to control Spain…what were they thinking to even attempt such a thing?  A small group of well-armed guerillas might lie atop those rocks and just wait, ready to pick the French troops off like flies…which of course is what happened all too frequently for Napoleon’s liking.  (The French army’s casualty rate in the Peninsula was something like 10,000 a year, over and above losses in battle…) 

Rio Tajo

Rio Tajo

Again, I have found standing in the cold waters of the Tagus the most refreshing thing on earth on a hot August afternoon…it doesn’t taste half bad either. 

And all the while, one of the larger colonies of vultures which live in these mountains sends out these majestic, massive birds–their wingspan as wide as a car’s windscreen–sweeping and gliding so far overhead they appeared the size of sparrows.  And I stood or sat enraptured just to see them, “riding of the rolling level underneath [them] steady air, and striding high there, how [they] rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…then off, off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend…” as G.M. Hopkins wrote.

Who would have thought research for a novel might be so sesqui-superlative? 

Alto Tajo

Alto Tajo

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Wading in the Tagus

Jose Quintana by Goya

Jose Quintana by Goya

I’m just back from a week in Spain, where I was beginning the field research for a book set there, starting from late summer 1812.

I have known of and continued to study the Peninsular War for much of my life, but whereas before I had theory, names, dates, actions, battles, and uniforms, now I have faces…

I have seen the diabolically impossible terrain over which the soldiers had to march and ride; the heat was in excess of 40 degrees celsius; and so I, like them more than 200 years ago, found comfort, refreshment and unalloyed joy wading in the cold, clear water of the Tagus as it runs along the bottom of a tree-lined gorge…and in my mind I could see that small area peopled with just one or two characters, or even a whole regiment…ripping their jackets and shirts off and throwing themselves into the water, while the horses stood with the water lapping about their hooves, just drinking freely.  Nothing could have been finer.