Scholars’ garrets suited me when I was young. “Che cosa faccio?” I would sing to myself as I crossed the quad in search of a lavatory, “Scrivo!” My first archival research was in Seville, where I lived under folded corrugated tin on the roof of a crumbling pensión. The sun heated it almost to burning point during the day. At night my hovel became a wind tunnel, or a tin drum in clattering rain. In La Laguna, I graduated to a room with real walls but no windows – just shuttered but unglazed holes. My booming landlady, Doña Candelita, who prided herself on the entirely false illusion that it never rained on her saint’s day, pounded my shirts clean with brawny arms in cold water, and magically transformed cheap scraps into nourishing soup. I saw no need for any greater comfort, or any more sophisticated service.
Since then, however, I have grown old, prosperous, fat and fussy. I can no longer tolerate threadbare sheets, imperfectly swept floors, tepid shaving water, unlined curtains, flickering lightbulbs, flimsy towels or dodgy taps. My distrust of the accommodation universities provide for visitors began in deceptively attractive-sounding “Fellows’ guest rooms”, where such amenities used to be standard. During a phase, between youth and maturity, when I was too timid or self-conscious to demand anything better, I developed a horror of temporarily vacated students’ rooms – robotically designed, claustrophobically cramped, shoddily equipped and soullessly decorated. Sometimes, the walls were scarred with traces of incumbents’ efforts – sticky stains or naked patches of gouged plaster – to hang posters or pictures. Sometimes, equally indecently, the pictures remained, exhibiting tennis players’ bottoms or silly, surrealist provocations on shiny paper. Eventually, I could stand it no longer.
“Please,” I used to say, “put me in a hotel.” Only now have I discovered how wrong I was – at least in the case of my previous visits to the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.
I have just been there for the fourth time. It is one of the most interesting academic institutions in Spain. There are no undergraduates. The degrees available are all at master’s or doctoral levels, supplemented by extensive adult education courses in most disciplines or on interdisciplinary themes, with a varied programme of public lectures, exhibitions and serious performing arts. The university partly grew from a private venture – a local and civic culture club – launched in memory of the unexcelled literary scholar, Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, by philanthropists in Santander; but it has been an institution of the Spanish state since 1945, publicly funded, albeit with an impressive record of securing additional patronage and sponsorship in the private sector. All coursework takes the form of intensive summer courses at a series of temporarily occupied campuses scattered across Spain.
The home campus is in Santander, where most of the work of the university is concentrated in the Palacio de la Magdalena, constructed more than a century ago by public subscription as a gift of the citizens to the royal family. It is, at first sight, an overgrown haut-bourgeois villa in an eclectic style that English beholders would probably call Tudorbethan. Large, airy windows punctuate towering walls of pale grey stone. A comically castellated turret rises above lots of little dormers, picked out in dark red paint, in the precipitous tiled roof. Inside, comfortable magnificence reigns: marble, cedarwood, shamelessly lavish plasterwork and gilding, in reassuringly proportioned reception rooms perfectly adapted for lectures. Everything is immaculate. Everything works. The location is magnificent, on a long, narrow spit of woodland that stretches between sea views amid gardens and beaches. I knew this when I first refused offers of accommodation in the same building. But I assumed that the bedrooms would be old servants’ quarters. I imagined hard little beds and rickety writing tables, thin scraps of towelling, dreary decor, echoing corridors and draughty bathrooms. The cheap cost of a room – €30 (£21) per person for students – seemed to bode ill. So I asked for a hotel, and stayed in an efficient but uninteresting hangar of an edifice in the town.
This time, however, instead of giving a single lecture I was involved in a week-long course of events and it seemed sensible to save time by staying on the premises. Apprehensively, I inserted the key in a door almost twice my height. Beyond was a vast floor of intricate parquet between walls stretched with fabric of soothing turquoise, shot with faint ribbons of gold. The chandelier was ostentatious without being oppressive, the ceiling discreetly moulded. An imposing portrait of a bygone infante smiled over the desk. A tall casement overlooked a glimmering sea. Foam curled like lace trim at the edge of the blue waves. The charm and delicacy of the furnishings – ladylike bonheur du jour, elegantly embroidered armchair – might remind guests that Queen Victoria’s daughter had supervised the original interiors. The scrupulous chambermaid laundered my linen to match the spotlessness of the ensemble at the rate of €0.80 per shirt.
I learned a lot during my visit, from fellow-conférenciants, about dietetics, terrorism, pilgrimage, asteroids and development economics, and from my students about my own subject. From my environment I learned something I had rarely suspected before: that universities can be splendid, tasteful custodians of historic property.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.