cover image Roads to Santiago

Roads to Santiago

Cees Nooteboom. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $25 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100197-2

The pilgrims' route to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain has long been a favorite subject of travel writers, but few have covered it as entertainingly, quirkily and, finally, movingly as Dutch essayist Nooteboom (The Following Story). Beginning in Barcelona and taking detours over the next decade that range as far off the track as Portugal and the Canary Islands, he slowly makes his own unorthodox pilgrimage as travelers have done since the Middle Ages. He visits Zaragoza, the Escorial, Guadalupe, Navarre, Leon and Madrid, and discusses subjects that range from the silence of monasteries to royal dwarfs to the conquistadors to Basque terrorism to St. Jerome and the problems of translation to the legacy of the Spanish Civil War to the ""apocalyptic nightmare"" of an eighth-century monk named Beatus. He sees the roots of form-follows-function modern architecture in Cistercian churches and can trace the history of Spain simply by placing side by side the Arabic inscriptions on the fountains of the Alhambra with the royal tombs in the cathedral in nearby Granada. Repeatedly he returns to what he sees reflected in the paintings of Zurbaran. At one point, Nooteboom compares writing history to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Anyone who hopes to find a compact history of Spain here will find some pieces missing. But what's here is an idiosyncratic, informative, introspective reading adventure. Photos. (Mar.)