In my home, there was a copy of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, an unsophisticated book with white covers and a colourful ilustration of a gentleman in Moorish attire. I was a precocious -an avid- reader, and I can still remember devouring that book, captivated by its mystery and its magic long before I could grasp the social or historical background. Thus, I was deliciously suprised to learn, a few years later, that -unlike most of the places in my fairy tales books- the “Alhambra” did exist, and not in the land of far far away, but in my own country, in Granada -just a train or a car drive away… Whenever I visit the Alhambra I see it through the eyes of the fascinated five years old child who read those tales, I inhale its scents with the senses of the fifteen years old girl who read Antonio Gala’s “The Crimson Manuscript”, and I immerse myself in the timeless spell of that enchanted palace.
I have always read about the places I visit. Not travel guides… or at least not only. There is nothing wrong with travel guides, but they usually provide little more than cold facts (“… with a population of 100.000 people, and a density of …” “…built in 1788AC….”) that do not help me get into the atmosphere of the place, nor give me that frisson of delight that I felt wandering around Khan el Khalili in Cairo after reading the masterful “Miraq Alley” by Naguib Mahfuz…
If you are thinking about coming to Spain, read about Spain, read books by Spanish Authors… or even better, read books about Spain written by Spanish Authors!
If you can read Spanish, look for “La Tesis de Nancy”, by Raúl J. Sénder, a novel about an American student who travels to Seville in order to learn about Spanish culture. It was written in 1962, and the social and cultural clash between Americans and Spaniards that it portrays may be quite outdated, but still, the book is truly hilarious and deeply enjoyable.
You can find an English translation of “Viaje a la Alcarria” (“Journey to Alcarria”), by the Nobel Price winner Camilo José Cela, though for those of you who are proficient in Spanish, I would strongly recommend the original: a masterpiece about travel and travellers written by a genious.
English and American classics have much to say about Spain, too… look for Gerald Brennan’s enticing “South from Granada”, or read Hemmingway’s delightful “The Sun Also Rises”, or -if you are in for a touch of suspense- investigate a “Problem at Pollensa Bay” with the Queen of Supense, Agatha Christie.
This post does not intend to be an exhaustive list of all the highly recommendable books about Spain that exist out there… I would not need a post for that, I would need an Encyclopaedia! My only wish is to convey that, in my own experience, literature makes your travel much more enjoyable and helps you connect much better with the land that you are visiting.
I cannot finish this post without a word about poetry. Spanish poetry is magnificent, and if you are fortunate enough to be able to read Machado, Lorca or Aleixandre in their own language you shouldn’t deny yourself that pleasure. Rejoice in books… but later do not forget to visit the real places… unless you want to sing, with Rafael Alberti, “…Mi cabeza cana, los años perdidos/Quiero hallar los viejos, borrados caminos/Nunca vi Granada.”