The first few drops began to fall on Tuesday evening, the 10th of September. During the following three days the skies opened and rain fell in torrents on the Mediterranean Coast. Now it’s Saturday and the rains have stopped. Valencia seems to have been spared from the worst damage, but outside the city and along the coast south towards Murcia, dams and walls have collapsed, thousands of people have been displaced, crops are drowned under chocolate-colored lakes created by the floods, innumerable houses have been destroyed and six people have died, two swept away in their cars. It was awful to watch the video on the news, the cars tumbling like toys in the muddy waters, headlights still burning.
Older Valencianos recall the worst rains in memory that occurred sixty-two years ago, on the 14th of October, 1957, when the River Turia overflowed its banks, destroyed a large part of city and left at least 81 corpses in its wake. The devastation was so catastrophic that the city and the Spanish government decided to re-rout the course of the river. It took engineers and workers nearly ten years to accomplish the task, but since 1973 the Turia still carries water from the mountains into the Mediterranean, but it flows around Valencia, not through it. In its place the old bed of the river has become a seven-mile-long park with gardens, a concert hall, innumerable trees, playgrounds, bicycle paths, a zoo, soccer pitches, even a baseball diamond.
When I first came to Valencia thirty-one years ago, I knew nothing about the city, the biblical flood or the meandering park. Many things attracted me, but the most curious were the bridges crossing a river that no longer existed, and statues of saints looking down on the people crossing it.
During that first visit, I painted these two watercolors within days of each other, put them away in a portfolio with some other sketches and nearly forgot about them. But when I returned to Valencia a few days ago, I thought it might be fun to paint the bridge again. Here is a photograph of El Puente del Mar as it looks now.
How silly it was not to have imagined the changes that would have happened during the years. But the evidence is clear: trees don’t lie. Neither does a calendar. Nor a mirror.
2 thoughts to “A River of Trees”
Nice read, Miguel. Glad you arrived safe, and that the rains of stopped. FYI, it just poured in Grass Valley. Enjoy.
I wrote these comments in a brief letter to you, but I decided to leave them here too in your blog in case they might be interesting to someone:
I really appreciate this posting, River of Trees. The watercolors from 30+ years ago naturally ring true to me. I recall once Manolo advising me that the “pretiles,” those architectural features of the bridges that look like double prow boats that start down near water level and rise up to the level of the crossing, are very special. Special in the sense that they must never be altered or demolished, sort of national monuments in themselves. I suppose they were functional when the Turia flowed and overflowed, in the sense that in high water, the water couldn’t beat up against the pilings of the bridge itself and weaken the piers. The water was forced to split left and right and leave the bridge intact. (That’s my understanding. I’m sure it is more complicated than that. Perhaps the waters were calmed or channeled by the “pretiles.'” That’s another possibility.) In any case your watercolors capture the “pretiles” above what would have been water level, in a matter of fact but also majestic way. They are features that define the bridges as much as the saints that adorn the balustrades.
I appreciate what Valencia did with the odd circumstance that a flood gave it: an opportunity to create something right down in its heart. Old cities have to have so many “work arounds” because of the need to preserve the past while making way for the future. In the “antiguo cauce del rio,” Valencia had an opportunity to have “tabula rasa” right smack square in the city, without demolition of the past. In fact the past remains permanently in place in those untouchable “pretiles,” while the present and future grow up all around.
I do love your ironic look at the present and at yourself (and ourselves) in the discovery and re-discovery of the past.