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Roads to Santiago - Detours & Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain

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BOOKS

By Cees Nooteboom. Harvill, 1998. 352pp. £7.99

Cees Nooteboom is a Dutch writer who has been seduced by Spanish Romanesque architecture and particularly by the definitive descriptions of Walter Muir Whitehill, writes Ruth Slavid. He tries to follow in Whitehill's steps (the older writer is hideously stingy with directions), sometimes coming across an undiscovered gem, at others ending up at a ruined barn in a muddy field. Unlike his predecessor, Nooteboom is interested not just in technical description - he laments the difficulty of finding Dutch translations of abstruse architectural terms - but also in atmosphere, in history and in meaning.

He starts this book in Barcelona and ends it in Santiago de Compostela, but he manages to take in most of Spain; it is the story not of one journey but of several, and he discusses subjects as diverse as the paintings of Zurbaran, an eta funeral and the motivation of the conquistadors. Erudite and always interested and interesting, Nooteboom flits around the country and history, from the first invasion of the Moors to the death of Borges. Above all, as a resident of Europe's smallest country he conveys a sense of wonder at Spain's empty spaces and harsh climate. This book is too discursive to be a traveller's companion but it makes one want to pack one's bags and go.

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