In the footsteps of Buñuel
James Dyson explores a monastery north of Madrid which fascinated Spanish film director Luis Buñuel for 50 years
Madrid is a bustling and lively city but as summer approaches and temperatures rise into the 90s, the land-locked Spanish capital can sometimes feel a little oppressive. So, to escape the noise and heat, a friend and I decided to drive up to the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama.
Our objective was to visit the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de El Paular, some 50 miles north of Madrid. It must be said that neither of us are religious – but then nor was the profane prophet of modern cinema, whose steps we intended to follow.
Despite his recognised atheism, the iconoclastic Spanish film director Luis Buñuel developed a 50-year fascination for the Gothic solitude of El Paular, which came to represent for him a kind of spiritual retreat.
In his autobiography My Last Sigh, Buñuel puts it like this: "I like cloisters, with a special tenderness for the cloister of El Paular. Of all the endearing places I've known, this is one that connects with me most intimately."
It was on another summer’s day, in 1934, that the young director of Un Chien Andalou made his first visit to the monastery in the company of his great friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. They drove up to the mountains in Buñuel’s old Ford. When my friend and I stopped to admire the view over the plains of Madrid and the dirt roads that Lorca and Buñuel probably had to navigate, we could not help speculating that our one-hour trip had probably taken them the best part of the afternoon.
Top: plains near Madrid, and the dirt road leading to El Paular monastery; above: the monastery
Such expeditions were nothing unusual for artists and poets of the time. In 1918, the monastery of El Paular had been converted into an artists’ retreat, following the expulsion of the Carthusian monks in the previous century.
During the summer months, the Escuela de Pintores del Paular offered accommodation to young artists in the old monastery cells, as Buñuel recalls in his memoirs: "The place was in ruins, but six or seven rooms, very sparsely furnished, were reserved for the fine arts. You could spend the night in them, provided you brought a sleeping bag."
In the years preceding the Civil War, the two friends returned several times to El Paular, although Buñuel notes that: "It was hard to talk about painting and poetry when we felt the approach of the storm."
Finally, just three days before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca made the fateful decision to return to his hometown of Granada – leaving Buñuel with memories of his friend and a lifetime attachment to the monastery.
Today, the cloister is run by Benedictine monks, who were assigned the responsibility in 1954.
Father Martin has lived within its walls for nearly 40 years and remembers Buñuel’s visits in the 1970s well. "Buñuel and his friend, a Frenchman I think, came on several occasions. Sometimes they stayed to eat with us around a very large table in the dining room." (It is almost certain that the French friend was Jean-Claude Carrière, screenwriter and Buñuel’s collaborator for the last 20 years of his life.)
Although the large table has disappeared and the monks now prefer to eat in a more modest room, Father Martin showed us the great gothic refectory. He drew our attention to a copy of the Last Supper by Titian that dominates the room, and which made me think of the more profane scene from Buñuel’s film Viridiana.
Given the provocative nature of some of his films – such as Simon of the Desert or The Age of Gold – Buñuel acknowledges the monks’ diplomacy in his autobiography: "The superior knew the diabolic reputation of my films, but only smiled. ‘Never go to the movies’, he said, almost apologetically."
However, there is one thing that has probably bothered the monks more than his films. It is a rumour that the film director himself originated about one of the graves in the monastery cemetery. Several tourist websites about El Paular still include the following curiosity: “According to Luis Buñuel, there is a tomb with a marble headstone in the monastery’s cemetery where the pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb is buried.”
When I asked Father Martin about the rumour, he let out a small sigh of exasperation. "I always get asked the same thing. It's just a legend. There is no American pilot buried here."
In a way, I had anticipated his denial – because the pilot of the Enola Gay was Paul Tibbets and he died in his own country in 2007. But Father Martin was not over: "What is true is that there was an American who died in the hotel next door and having no family he was buried here. If I remember correctly, he was called 'James'."
As several aircraft took part in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , each with a crew of about 10, I showed him a list of all the personnel. There were seven of the crew with the name of 'James' and some of the surnames rang a bell with Father Martin, but he was not sure.
Anyway, the rumour does not correspond exactly with Bunuel’s own account of his discovery in the cemetery: "On a simple stone tomb, already covered by dried grass, is inscribed the name of an American. The man who lies beneath this stone, monks told us, was one of Truman's advisers at the time of the Hiroshima atomic explosion. Like many of those who participated in this destruction, the plane's pilot, for example, the American had had a nervous breakdown. He left his family and his work, and spent some time wandering around Morocco. From there, he went to Spain. One night he knocked on the door of the monastery. Seeing him exhausted, the monks welcomed him. He died a week later."
It is clear that the film director refers to an advisor of the then President of the United States, and not to the actual pilot. But as the public is no longer allowed to visit the cemetery, we had no choice but to head for the hotel that Father Martin had mentioned.
Above, left to right: El Paular monastery; barman Felipe Matesanz serves a dry martini; hotel bar with photograph of Buñuel
In fact, the hotel occupies the former palace of the El Paular monastery, and here is where Buñuel used to stay when he visited the monks.
As a great fan of cocktails, his place of choice was, of course, the hotel bar – where a photo of its most celebrated client now adorns the wall.
Buñuel especially appreciated the adjoining room, whose appearance has hardly changed: "I used to have an aperitif in the evening in a very long room with granite columns ... surrounded by reproductions of paintings by Zurbarán, one of my favorite painters. In the distance, the silent shadow of a waiter occasionally passed, respecting my alcoholic meditations. I can say that I came to love the place as much as an old friend."
The "respectful waiter" still works as the hotel barman. His name is Felipe Matesanz, and he remembers well the visits of the great director. "He used to come in the afternoon for a drink, which he took at a small table at the entrance or in the lounge next door. Sometimes he was accompanied by Mr Carrière or Fernando Rey. They spent hours telling stories or working on a script."
There is little doubt that the "alcoholic meditations" of the filmmaker were an essential part of his creative process. Buñuel even recounts how his drink of choice helped him solve a problem with the casting of his last film That Obscure Object of Desire: "Suddenly – but yes, after the second dry martini – I got the idea of having two actresses interpret the same role, something that had never been done before ... the film was saved thanks to a bar."
Throughout our conversation, it became clear that the bartender Felipe knew much more about cocktails than he knew about the American who had supposedly died in his hotel.
He showed me a small book containing the recipes for all the cocktails he had prepared since 1974. One of the first was that of the "dry martini" and the promised alcoholic inspiration was irresistible. At the end of the day – between Lorca, the atomic bomb and the monks of El Paular – who knows what Buñuelian story I would be able to invent.
Note for travellers
Unfortunately, the Santa María de El Paular Hotel is currently closed for renovations. However, the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de El Paular can still be visited – and for those wishing to experience monastery life, it also offers full-board accommodation to both men and women for periods of three to 10 days.
James Dyson is a British journalist and communications consultant based in Madrid. At Dysoncommunications.com, he publishes a blog on cultural and professional events, as well as communication tips and advice. His Spanish-language blog Teosiesta focuses on the similarities and differences between British and Spanish society and culture.
Green Adventures July 2015