'In a situation from which there is no escape, I have no option but to finish here, in a small village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows that my life is draining away'
The Ruinist loves a good train journey. It's better than walking for nine hours over rugged mountain paths to find yourself arrested and holed up in a hotel with nowhere to move or turn. What better than a two hour regional train trip out of Barcelona and up the coast to the last of Catalonian soil, to Portbou where Spain arrives at France?
The first picture above is from 1930. The second one from 1939 shows the devastation the air raids of the Civil War were leaving at Portbou. Walter Benjamin arrived at Portbou after a long walk over the mountains from France on the 27 September 1940. 60 years later and Portbou remains a melancholic place and shabby place despite a beach and some mini-tourist economy. It is said that opening of the European borders in 1992 saw numerous customs workers leave and the town take on the feel of a 'ghost town'. Since then, a little bit of regeneration has been underway and obviously continues as the downtown market area was in complete upheaval with the pavements up and no choice but to pick your way along the way down to the sea front.
The moment you leave the momentous and cavernous train station (where train tracks are different gauges on the French and Spanish rail networks and a TALGO Automatic Track Gauge Changeover System has been running since 1969!!), you step down into the land of the Benjamin tourist trail, as The Ruinist was indeed, a commie tourist. Large metallic plaques with Benjamin's portrait on are posted here and there throughout the town at specific locations. As you follow them, you walk right back and into the tragic disaster of Benjamin's last hope for exile and his last night on earth. And as you follow these remembrances in the landscape, you first feel and then see that others have come to Portbou with the same mindset and intention as you have.
The story has been told better by others before and so I quote:
"On the afternoon of 25 September 1940, a group of three clandestine travellers arrived in Portbou, exhausted after a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees from Banyuls-sur-Mer in France (15 km distant as the crow flies). One of them was a stateless German Jew, who carried on his person a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseille, stamped with a Spanish transit visa, also issued in Marseille and good for the land journey to Portugal. A fugitive from the Vichy regime, he now aimed to reach the safety of the US via Lisbon. He had once visited Ibiza, but spoke no Spanish, although he had an excellent command of French. The Spanish frontier guards accosted the group and demanded their documents. They told the bearer of the US passport that he could go no further: his presence on Spanish territory was illegal because he had no French exit visa. However, in view of the traveller's evident ill-health, the police agreed to postpone expelling him back to Pétain's France until the next day. Impelled, perhaps, by inexplicable generosity or covert republican sympathies, they allowed him to spend the night, not in a police cell but in the less undignified surroundings of a cheap room in the Hotel de Francia - at No 5 in Avenida del General Mola, a street in the town centre near the police station, recently renamed after a Francoist commander. At 10 p.m. the next day, in Room No 4 on the hotel's second floor, the traveller was found dead.
The stateless refugee whose life ended in Portbou on 26 September 1940 was Walter Benjamin, now recognised as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. He had lived in exile in France since 1933."
Until recently the Hotel Francia had lain as a ruin, a fitting memory for Benjamin, the original ruinist. Now the building is smart again and residential. Down an alley, one of the plaques tells again the story of his morphine overdose and all the confusion of that tale. The Ruinist was trembling at this point and so the photo fails to tell the tale once more. This seems apt to The Ruinist as the tale has by now been so overtold and picked on and apart that just being in Portbou to see and to look at the past and to feel it alive felt enough.
At a kiosk on the seafront, the tiny tourist information shack will hand you a smart Benjamin leaflet and point you in the direction of the grave and the very site-specific newish (1994) memorial artwork 'Passages' by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan that rests nearby. The Ruinist had seen this in some photos on other people's sites but nothing prepared The Ruinist for what is an incredibly moving and beautiful monument.
Positioned on a cliff top to the right of Portbou, the monument consists of a massive rusted iron staircase that hurtles right down through the cliff top at a sharp angle that taking you suddenly into a darkened passage. You are covered by the chamber as you go down the steps until you reach the bottom few metres when suddenly are standing right over the sea itself and exposed to the elements. When The Ruinist made the trip it was pissing with rain, cold and very windy which, truth be told added to the experience of the monument. Having been around the block with a few monuments here and there that were nothing special, and maybe because The Ruinist is always moved by Benjamin's notion of 'the Angel of History' and because his final weariness at Portbou is still contained in the place, the Passages work is one of the few sites of memory and a continuing commitment to combating barbarism that The Ruinist shed a few tears at.
At the bottom, a glass suddenly stops you from going any further. It is bares an engraving - a quote from Benjamin in German - 'It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless'.
The glass itself is smashed and has been for a number of years. Smashed in anger at the communist Benjamin or smashed to make a way through, to keep going, it's impossible to say. From here, the rain and the obvious crash of the waves below combined with the sense of the mountain landscape to really throw you through an experience of blockage, of some kind of endpoint. There is no way ahead. The only thing ahead would be the elemental world in which we can only enter in a different form. Enclosed in rusty iron, oxidised red, the weight of the walls ever sensually present, we can only turn round and head back. But facing the waves, and the impossible, we do not know if we even want to turn back. It's a moment of absolute silence and immobility.
Nearby, in a tiny gated cemetery, Benjamin's grave can be found. A simple grave. It reads 'Walter Benjamin - Berlin, 1892 Portbou, 1940' and then the famous Thesis VII of the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' - 'There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism'
Later on, after some more of The Ruinist's Catalonian food of choice, muchos potatoes and muchos cheese, being feeble vegetarians afraid of animal flesh, The Ruinist attempted to battle the local elements in an attempt to walk the high road out of Portbou and to France. This was easier said than done as the road is indeed high and curvy, the famous Tramuntana, a fierce cold North blowing wind, was extremely strong that night and the light was going fast. Nonetheless, the journey had to be made to explore and investigate and to find something that was obviously there, for the town resonated with mysterious energies that seem to focus any adventurer towards the unknown.
The Ruinist set off, ill-equipped and lightly clothed against the ravages of the cold and wet, and walked and walked and walked on the road as it curves round on itself and goes up the mountain way. Earlier in 1936, this was the way, the reverse of Benjamin's exodus, that many of an estimated 450,000 Spanish refugees trekked towards the border to escape the fall of revolutionary Barcelona and the arrival of Franco's fascist forces.
At the border crossing ahead at Belitres-Portbou, thousands of people had arrived over a few days, were halted, and had to survive a grueling wait to be later let into France and put into shoddy detention centres (pictured above). Less than four years later, thousands of people attempt to cross back once more to flee from the Nazis.
This blurry picture, photographed at one of the many monuments to exile that are placed along this road, pictures the border crossing in 1936. By this time the wind was blowing so hard that it was impossible to hold the camera still enough to photograph the text and pictures that tell the story on a series of metal panels. It was also pretty dark so we missed a lot of the installation. The picture of the Espais de Memòria piece at Belitres-Portbou comes from the website which Memorial Democratica website which shows all the places where the great exile was enacted and where today various sites are remembered.
Opposite these, stood another monument, erected early on in the Franco era to the glory of the Spanish state and the church and all that usual Spanish nationalist crap and 60 years later and it still attracts the right attention befitting such a barbaric relic. The Ruinist heaved one or two heavy rocks at it in the deep and dark twilight.
By now, it was almost totally dark and the road was deserted. The Ruinist had no real idea of what was ahead but it seemed only right to go on, to keep walking, just to see what was round the corner, what was lurking. This mountain route is now called The Walter Benjamin route, lasting 7km's, it runs from Banyuls in France over Mont Querroig and down into Portbou.
From out of the gloom came a sign. Here was the interzone. A little stretch of road, a no-mans land of perhaps one hundred metres, where Spain has stopped existing and France would then begin. Suddenly, we were on the threshold of another country, the putrid demarcations of the nation state and the obscenity of the border. Here was the same building at Belitres-Portbou that can be seen in the photo from 1936. The sign announced 'Bar' but it had long since closed down and was in a shoddy state. The road says 'STOP'. Once again, the barrier, the blockage of freedom and movement. One more metre and we were somewhere else, in France although it didn't feel like anything had changed of course up there in that dark and freezing night.
It seemed like The Ruinist should go no further and so it was. Hitching back with some French locals who were probably puzzled by The Ruinist's appearance in the darkness, The Ruinist was fortunate to find a local hotel that was hospitable, the Argentinian owner happy for The Ruinist to occupy Room 2 for one night. All of the other rooms were empty and so The Ruinist stood on the balcony of the silent and perfectly atmospheric hotel and listened to the waves crashing on the sea front and feeling the body warm up once more and displace the day of melancholic treasures for the night ahead. Waves crash outside, The Ruinist finds peace and warmth inside.
The next day, The Ruinist set off once more into the mountains in the vain hope of following one of the signposted circular walks that promised dolmens, a castle at Querroig, old stone shelters (barraca de vinyas) and military bunkers. The Ruinist was good for an hour or two, chomping more tortilla until a wrong turn turned the afternoon into disaster. After a good and hearty walk up and along a high mountain track, The Ruinist was suddenly thwarted by a large pile of rocks and inexplicably a mass of baguettes strewn down the mountainside. It was here that The Ruinist could get no further. It seemed a fitting site to make a monument to Benjamin.