Category Archives: Spain Books

Sunny Madrid

Madrid Retiro Park

Photo – Madrid’s Retiro Park

It’s still unseasonably sunny here – I mean it’s sunny every day, hardly a cloud in the sky – no snow this year. That was one of the things that most impressed me about Madrid when I first moved here 13 years ago, opening the curtains in the morning (or the shutters, to be more precise), and seeing bright blue skies, rather than the grey gloom I’d been used to for 3 years of London winters previously.

Epifanía – Guest blogger Hollis Duncan

Guest blogger Hollis Duncan walks across Spain …

My best friend, Thompson, and I walked the Camino de Santiago together in July 2004. We walked 813.3 km (505 miles) beginning in Pamplona and ending in Finisterre on the Atlantic coast of Galicia.

Although the Oficina del Peregrino in Santiago de Compostela will insist that you acknowledge “Spirituality” as one of the reasons for your pilgrimage before awarding you a Compostela, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to walk 28 days anywhere — never mind across a country as spectacular as Spain — and not have a spiritual experience … of some kind. Although many do not set out on a spiritual journey, the Camino ends up being one anyway. Quizá sea la magia del Camino de Santiago.

Along the way, Spaniards of every shape and size shout Buen Camino at peregrinos (pilgrims) wishing them a pleasant journey. Los peregrinos amble over mountains, through big cities, remote villages, across the hot, pancake-flat Meseta of central Spain, and finally, through the lush hills of green Galicia.

For every story I could tell ten more about all of the things we experienced on our way to Santiago. How I found a seashell on the beach at Finisterre and proposed to my beautiful girlfriend Luisa the night we finished, or how many charming churches we saw. Or about all of the amazing food we ate — jamón, chorizo, pulpo (y caldo) a la gallega, pimientos de Padrón, queso, aceitunas, y pasteles. Or the people we met — Gábor, a Hungarian hiker-converted-cyclist; les Québecois; John the Dane; the Americans Dave, Anne, and a power hiking couple from Mt. Diablo, Ca.; and the Austrians who led us by a mile with their trekking poles.

When you arrive in Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago and strain your neck looking up at la catedral más bonita de España, maybe, if you’re like me, you will notice your arms covered with goosebumps; your hairs standing on end as straight as little ropes!

That’s when I had an epiphany. Although I thought finishing the Camino at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela would represent the end of my journey, I realized the opposite was true: this was not the end of my journey but only the beginning …

El Camino is a metaphor for life — for our respective paths, the roads we each choose to take on our life’s journey. Some follow well-worn paths; others take less-traveled routes. No way is wrong, but everyone’s Camino is different.

On the Camino, there are many lessons to be learned. One of the best bits of advice we got was — despacio (slow down) — which fellow pilgrims and Spaniards alike kept telling us; after awhile we heeded this advice and traveled as far, but with fewer aches and pains and much more enjoyment.

I leave the ending open … to invite others who have walked the Camino de Santiago to share their experience; also to ask readers what other Caminos are out there? What epic walks / adventures have you done, heard about, or are planning to do that rate right up there with the Camino? Can’t wait to read your responses!

Buen Camino … a todos

Hollis Duncan is an independent graphic designer based in New York. He and his wife, Luisa, who is from Santiago de Compostela, are moving to Barcelona this summer.

Beating the Heat: Summer in Madrid

As far as I remember, most house buyers in the UK crave a south-facing garden. When we bought our current flat here in Madrid, Marina was quick to point out how lucky we were that if faced North. This didn’t make much sense to me until we spent our first summer here, but now it is something I’m constantly grateful for. It means we can open our shutters and let a bit of natural light in after about 11 am. Before that, as we actually face slightly north-east, we have to keep the shutters in the living room firmly down to make sure no sunlight gets in.

At night we sleep in the living room as well, on the sofabed, as the bedroom is far too hot to use during July and August. We keep the windows overlooking our roof terrace wide open, and enough air comes in to cool the room to about 25ºC by 7 a.m. (on a cool day). That’s the time I wake up, see the first rays of sun creeping in at an acute angle (it’s that north-east angle again), and quickly bring all the shutters down, in the hope that we can maintain something close to that temperature all day long. I then go back to bed for half an hour, before running round to the small spare bedroom/study (also too hot to use) to shut the window and blind there too, before the sun starts pouring in on that side of the building as well.

So in the mornings we work in the living room, in near darkness, ceiling fans spinning above our heads, and in the afternoon we sleep a little and work drowsily (no one can argue with a siesta when you’re only getting 6 hours hot sleep at night). All things being well the inside temperature maxs out around the 30º mark, and we sit it out until 8pm, when it’s cool enough to go out to the park.

Thank goodness this is a cool summer, with outside temperatures in the shade rarely topping 33º in the last couple of weeks. On a wine tasting course I went on recently, the girl in charge was explaining how alcohol content in wine is increasing as a result. I don’t remember the exact reasoning (something to do with the changing way the grapes ripen), but she basically said, “You just don’t get those crazy hot summers in Madrid any more, where you would see 40 degrees or more on a regular basis.”

It’s true, and such a relief. Otherwise we’d be moving the sofa bed onto the terrace every night. Or ourselves to somewhere a lot cooler… like the Basque Country or Asturias. Now there’s a thought…

Do Not See: The Oxford Murders

We were really looking forward to this film. It’s set in the town I grew up in (there’s a clue in the title), has a pretty good cast (John Hurt, Elijah Wood, Leonor Watling) and is directed by Alex de la Iglesia, who so perfectly depicted the horrors of living in a Madrid apartment building in La Comunidad.

So, what went wrong? Here are the top 3 disasters:

  • With the exception of John Hurt, who can probably act his way out of the worst script on earth, all of the performances were painfully flat.
  • The script is almost certainly to blame for this. I suspect it started out in Spanish… and that Google Translator may have come up with the final English version.
  • We weren’t allowed to work a thing out for ourselves. Every painful twist in the plot (people die, mathematical series may hold the key) had to be deliberately explained.

With the exception of young men who probably feel that seeing Leonor Watling in nothing but a kitchen apron is worth the price of admission alone (and Alex de la Iglesia may have been banking on this), there really is nothing to recommend this film at all. What a shame. It had all the makings of the kind of blockbuster that could have added a little shine to Spain’s spiraling film industry.

(God it’s hard writing film reviews at midnight on a Sunday night… I wish South of Watford had seen it first then I could have just linked to one of his great reviews instead! Still, I hope you get the message. The film was pretty crap. Apart from the apron scene. But don’t tell Marina I said that.)

What’s your all-time favourite, or worst, film from Spain?

In the Garlic – Spain from A – Z

3 years ago my youngest sister arrived in Spain for a 12 month Erasmus study abroad program with little or no Spanish. Within months she was teaching Marina who, of course, is as Spanish as you can get, new words and phrases she’d never come across before. Part of her secret ‘learn Spanish sickeningly fast’ recipe involved sitting up in bed at night reading through the dictionary, picking out words that both fascinated her and later just stuck, for good. Sickening.

Anyway, much the same approach that my sister used to get ahead in Spanish could also be applied to Spanish culture, with Valerie Collins and Theresa O’Shea’s book In the Garlic. It’s an amusingly written A-Z of practically every aspect of Spanish culture you could begin to imagine, from Almuerzo (mid morning snacks) to Zara (Spanish version of Gap, sort of), via Chiringuito (beach-side or fiesta bar or restaurant/shack), Gilipuertas (polite version of Gilipollas – idiot) and Payo (gypsy term for non-gypsies). Apply my sister’s bedtime reading technique to this dictionary of Spain and you’ll soon be teaching Marina things she never knew about her own country!

But seriously, do you need this book? Well, here’s a little test. If you know what all of the following mean then you are definitely en el ajo (in the garlic = in the know) enough not to need it at all:

Llave inglesa, pataleo, piñata, selectividad, callista, dominguero, Ikastola.

How did you do? Definitions in the comments below please, and remember, if that little list completely stumped you, the book is available here!

Las aventuras del Capitán Alatriste – Coming to a cinema near you?

Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s famous series of books comes to the big screen in Spain. My sister-in-law’s verdict: a bit convoluted and not always easy to know what is going on… Oh well, if you like slightly confusing historical masterpieces, here’s one to watch out for!

Pérez-Reverte is however a fine author who loves tangling with Spain’s complicated historical past. If you want to check out one of his novels in translation, The Fencing Master, a tale of political intrigue and wonderful sword fights in 19th Century Madrid, is a great place to start.

The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society – Chris Stewart

Almond Blossom Appreciation SocietyDuring my first three years in Spain I read every book on the country that I could get my hands on. The travelogues that I most enjoyed came from a bygone era – Orwell’s outstanding Homage to Catalonia, the brilliant Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis, to name two of my favourites. Apart from Duende (another great book, but is it all true?), the only contemporary book of this genre that I really enjoyed was Driving Over Lemons, by Chris Stewart, with its quiet and pleasant tales of setting up home and farm in Andalusia’s Alpujarra mountains.

Well, Chris Stewart is back, with part three, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. It’s much the same as the first two instalments, lots of amusing encounters with the locals, and local animals (in the first few chapters we cover dung-beetles, an escapee parrot, and the usual errant sheep), but if Chris Stewart is living your particular dream, then this book will be just as enthralling as the first two.

Personally, having been in Spain for a while, I now tend to judge contemporary Spain books on how much I can still learn from them about Spain, and on that count ABAS is doing pretty well. So far I have discovered that a Carmen (leafy enclosed patio in Granada) is only a Carmen if it has a view of the Alhambra, that the Moors would verbally threaten olive trees that produced no fruit, and that I must read more Michael Jacobs… Thanks Chris!

Pick up at copy at Amazon.co.uk

Spanish film… Introducing: Torrente!

TorrenteWhy is it that all Spanish women seem to hate the hard drinking, fat, womanising, disaster of a chauvinist cop known only as Torrente? For all those reasons no doubt. What is there to love about a figure who spends half his life in puti-clubs, calls his dog Franco, Moroccans ‘Moros‘, and refers to South Americans as a genetic degeneration of the Spanish master race? The reason Torrente is so often disliked is that he is so representative of the worst possible kind of Spanish male.

He’s a medallion wearing, bigoted, lecherous drunk. As a policeman he’s corrupt to the core. But once you accept that, you begin to see the Torrente films as classic works of Spanish cinema, and hilariously funny ones at that. Santaigo Segura, who directs and plays Torrente himself, has managed to perfectly caricature the worst side of backward thinking Spain and Spanish pride.

The second film, Torrente 2, is the finest, largely due to the classic role of Gabino Diego as Torrente’s junkie side kick. Once you accept Torrente for what he is, then a wonderful parody of the deviant side of the Spanish national character is there for the taking.

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past – Giles Tremlett

The New Spaniards   Book review by Marbella, with our thanks: “…I found it quite uncomfortable reading at times. If anyone remembers the initiation ceremony in the Richard Harris film, A Man Called Horse? Well, if you still love Spain/the Spanish after reading some parts of this book then you’ll see what I mean by the analogy. I passed the test but it wasn’t easy.

It is a real rollercoaster ride through the civil war, ETA, catalanismo, drugs, tourism, corruption, flamenco…the list goes on. Giles Tremlett has an easy going, quite punchy style which made the coverage of so many subject areas achievable. I’m not sure if it is a good or bad thing that after reading it I have more questions than answers.

Before reading this book, I thought that Spaniards were being shifty in not confronting their past in relation to the civil war. I think now that if Spaniards want to forget then outsiders (like me, like Tremlett by his own admission) should let them do so.”
Pick up a copy at:
Amazon.co.uk (Europe)

The New Spaniards, by John Hooper (Book)

The New Spaniards   10 years old and still one of the clearest insights into the sociology and culture of Modern Spain available today. A must. After the death of Franco, Spain underwent social and cultural changes on a level previously unseen anywhere else in Europe. One moment it was illegal to kiss in public, a year later the streets were awash with liberalism, democracy, creativity, pornography, and reemerging cultural distinctions. This incredibly informative book really is essential to an understanding of how Spain made that change.
Pick up a copy at:
Amazon.co.uk (Europe)
Amazon.com (USA)