Sacred Mysteries: Christopher Howse revisits a place that 20 years ago took possession of his sleeping imagination
Three real places recur pleasurably in my dreams: the West Bow, Edinburgh; Hallgate, Hexham; and a street in Tui, a little city in Galicia, north-west Spain.
They have in common being old, stone-built and marked by a change in level. It wasn’t my choice that they should be in my dreams, of course, but I decided to go back to Tui, to see what had first impressed me, 20 years before. I’m glad I did.
Tui (as the Galicians spell it; the Castilian spelling being Tuy, pronounced the same) is set on a hill of steep medieval streets above the river Miño. Down a shaded street that turns into steps you can see the full, shining river. The sunny green fields opposite are Portugal.
It is no more difficult to reach from London than Hexham or Edinburgh. A plane goes to Santiago. From there I took the train – not the superfast train of the kind that crashed in July, killing 79 people, but the slow train that heads south toward Vigo on the Atlantic seaside, which looks Cornish with its drowned river valleys. I enjoyed a terribly clever piece of timetable work, too complicated to describe, that entailed changing at Redondela and delivered me and a couple of other passengers at Tui in good time for dinner.
From the wide street where people sit outside busy bars in the evening, Rua Ordóñez, the street in my dreams, led towards the quiet cathedral, at the brow of the hill. Its bell is heard a mile away marking the hours. With its shadowed cloisters, it is prettier than I remembered: a Romanesque heart (carved with lions and gryphons and two-headed amphisbaenae) with Gothic developments.
From the river its silhouette bristles with castellations, for no sooner had the people of Tui pushed back the Moorish invaders in the eighth century than ships of Vikings turned up in the river. Tui has been on the frontier of Portugal too, ever since it established itself as a separate kingdom.
Inside, the cathedral is distinguished by stone arches across the nave at the height of the capitals of the pillars each side. The arches rise so slightly that they resemble girders of stone, held in place by the massive force of the walls leaning inwards. The reason for them became clear from a visit to the vaults and roof of the cathedral.
It was six euros well spent. No one else was waiting for the guided tour, so it was just the guide and I. Up 46 steps, we looked from the West gallery down the nave above the transverse arches, foreshortened like hurdles on a running track. On each side was a wide triforium, a floor above the aisles below. “Upstairs” seldom applies to churches, but Tui was modelled on Santiago cathedral, and the upstairs space would have been used in the Middle Ages by the chapter and by worshippers. It looked like the attics of a big house, some of it left abandoned – such as the chapel of San Vicente with its capitals of twined dragons.
By now I realised that my guide was deaf. He was none the less informative, but I was excused architectural conversation in Spanish. Another 36 steps and we came out on to the roof. Here was the reason for the strainer arches: we were standing on the ridge of a roof built of thick granite slabs weighing incalculable tons. Within the city walls, this formed part of the defensive carapace of Tui.
Unlike the granite roof of Santiago, which is like an immensely wide flight of steps, the roof of Tui is ribbed. Below, tight stone streets clustered. Beyond the Miño stood Valença, a town nested in a polygonal fortress of glacis and ravelins.
Climbing down, we saw close-up the pinnacles of the astonishing Baroque chestnut-wood Holy Week baldacchino, on which stands a statue of of San Telmo, the eponym of St Elmo’s fire. But that is another story.
Tui hasn’t appeared in my dreams since, but I shan’t mind if it does.