Here is the post that you were actually promised for last week, but which this week did not allow me to deliver early as I’d hoped. You may recall from two posts ago that in July 2017 I was in Lleida to examine a thesis. I recall a lot less of that trip now than I would like, but the photos I have tell me something still, and now they can you too.
Other than the Universitat de Lleida, where I was laden with so many free books that I actually had, as first priority the next day, to go out and buy another small suitcase to bring them home in, with concomitant extra cabin bag payment—still cheap at the price, however!—I went to four places in the city, in two of which I had time to do no more than look around for a few minutes. First of these was the church of Sant Llorenç.
There’s very little exterior signage to this impressive building, or if there was I didn’t photograph it, so I have to admit to looking up the following details on the internet like a poor student, but: it is a thirteenth-century church with some Gothic bits added in the fifteenth century and now houses quite a lot of artwork, and I did not have time to look inside because of that thesis thing I was there for. So this run round the outside is all I can offer, but it does show that the building itself is surely not the least of the art on display, once you get round the other side from where I started.
The next day I had more time, before I needed to board a train back to Barcelona where my plane home would be, but I also had two great afflictions: one, two bags stuffed to the gunnels with books hanging off my shoulders on inadequate straps, and two, though I didn’t realise it, limited camera battery. So the photos sadly stop before the top, as it were, and you’ll see what I mean. I had two clear destinations in mind, and the first was the Museu de Lleida.
Now, the Museu is a fine collection despite its prison-like exterior—we have seen here before how Catalonia seems to like that look for its cultural institutions—but it is also, it turns out, a diocesan museum as well as a civic one. It took me some time to figure this out, as it’s not named as such on the outside or the tickets, and the progress through the collections starts you with the geology of the area and the Bronze Age.
It then takes you through the Iberian period into the Roman one, with admirable use of numismatics throughout. Lleida was an Iberian oppidum and then a Roman city and indeed a Visigothic one, though there was more Iberian than Roman on display here, and very little Visigothic. And by now some of the signage, about conversion to Christianity, was beginning to make me detect an editorial agenda I hadn’t expected.
The city’s most glorious periods for these displays were either the Islamic one or the subsequent Christian one, and once you’re into the latter, the focus of the exhibits just narrows and narrows, from architecture, handicrafts and material culture generally to religious architecture and art, then just art until, finally, by the time you reach modernity pretty much all they have to show you is bishops’ copes (not illustrated).
There is some beautiful stuff in it, don’t get me wrong…
… but if you wanted to know about the city’s proud industrial heritage or modern culture, this place is not your ideal destination. Time well spent for this medievalist, all the same. Now, after this, I had only one other place in mind, but I found that on the way I was passing the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs, and it called me like a scholar.
As it was, really all I could do was glance in… but that was worth it.
And then it was on to the real destination, which was the old cathedral, la Seu Vella.
This is a site with a complicated history. The first cathedral of the city was here, in the Roman period, and that lasted through the Visigothic period and was, presumably, the basis of the subsequent mosque. When the city was conquered by the Count of Barcelona in 1149 the church was reinstalled in the structure—I can’t believe it had held up for 600 years without rebuilding or expansion, but we don’t know much about that because the present structure completely replaced all of that in a building program that lasted 1203 to 1278. Some parts of what now stands go back that far still.
The cloisters, however, were not completed until the fourteenth century, and are consequently much more Gothic, and also amazing.
Now as you may detect, the place is not in perfect shape any more, and that is because of the War of the Spanish Sucession. This is not the time or the place (or the author) for a retelling of that sad story but the short version might be: in the end, everybody lost. During the particular part of the war that was between Philip V, son of Louis XIV of France, and Charles III, son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, it was Lleida’s turn to lose when in 1707 it tried to hold out for Charles III against Philip and failed. The final defence centred on the old cathedral, by this time nearly as old as its predecessor, and once victorious Philip therefore had it stripped of much of its artwork, fortified and converted into a barracks. It served in that function until the era of Franco, as is still pretty visible on site.
Since then it has been maintained as a monument, but it’s still not a church.
There was also previously a Muslim ḥisn, or refuge fortress, up here, and that may form part of the upper levels of this fortification, but the 1707 buildings took in the whole hilltop.
Weirdly, aside from a few bits of remaining art…
… the main thing that is left here from the church’s period of religious dedication is the burial of a king, Alfons IV of Aragón (and III of Barcelona). By the time I found him, my battery was dead, so I have no picture, but no-one seems to have thought it appropriate to move him, and I suppose it was still a royal fortress, even if not the church where he’d have hoped for eternal prayer for his soul. Oh well.
This was the last part of my venture. Much of the place was not open, but the tower was, and so I had to climb it. That was not as easy as it sounds, because of the two heavy bags I mentioned. The weight I could have managed, in a rucksack; but these two just had shoulder straps, and aside from making me somewhat oddly balanced, they also increased my breadth through narrow spaces considerably. Add all this to a certain level of vertigo and it was not an easy climb. I wish I had a photo to prove I’d done it, not least as I can only dimly remember the view from the top; but I did, and, if you can manage it without ten kilos of books slung awkwardly off you, I do recommend it. The site has a weird pride still breathing through its empty windows.