Walter Benjamin Memorial: The journey

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This place is on my must-resee list. It has lingered in my memory since the day I visited it. The trip from Perpignan, France to Portbou, Spain and the coastline being so rich, I have decided to focus only on Walter Benjamin’s Memorial. Future visitors of the area, hold your horses, there will definitely be additional information and inspirations related to this coastline in the months to come!

The Catalan coastal town of Portbou, located right at the border between France and Spain, is splashed with the vibrant colors of flowers and the Mediterranean sea at this time of the year. This is where Walter Benjamin found himself on September 25, 1940. He had just crossed the Pyrenees from France in his escape from the French Vichy regime. He was found dead at the Hotel de Francia the following night. The man who would be recognized as one of the 20th century’s most significant philosophers died from a morphine overdose, following his final attempt to escape persecution by the Nazis.

Portbou’s municipal cemetery enjoys a clifftop location above the town, with remarkable views over the Mediterranean sea and the Pyrenees.

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Once emerging from the twisting path that leads up to the burial ground, one can only be struck by the serene magnificence of the premisses which sharpens the senses, and heightens concentration… Pictures do not capture the sheer size and beauty of this place. On the cemetery wall, a simple plaque reads in Catalan: “A Walter Benjamin -Filòsof alemany- Berlin 1892 Portbou 1940”. As you go inside the cemetery, Niche N° 563, is where Benjamin’s remains had rested during WWII. Further up, perfectly positioned just under a low whitewashed wall with a breathtaking view over the sea, one finds the memorial stone itself -a square slab of black marble between two bushes, surrounded by multicolored flowers-.

 

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A few steps back down, just outside his resting-place, the monument called “Passages”, erected right above the sea, overlooks the stunning, bright blue sea. This is the work of Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan. It is a tribute to Walter Benjamin and to all the victims of fascism; the name “Passages”, is an homage to the border-crossing and passage themes in the philosopher’s life and work. The name also refers to the several passages visitors can make: from the journey down a flight of steps between two dark walls, to the glass view of the ocean whirlpool and back up to the rectangle of sunlight in the dark, then to an ancient olive tree and a platform for meditation. On the glass barrier halfway through the steps, is traced a quotation from Walter Benjamin. The words are in German: “Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen zu ehren als das Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht” (“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”).

As one leaves the monument and walks slowly back down into town, one feels like back from a long journey… And ready for a quiet and peaceful stroll through the streets.

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