8 Great Books Set in Spain That We Love

8 Great Books Set in Spain That We Love

Tuesday, 22 August, 2023

Oh, Spain! Such a temptress! With her luscious food (churros! patatas bravas!), stop-you-in-your-tracks art (Dali! Velasquez! Picasso!), vermouth and wine and cava, plus the Gothic beauty of Barcelona, the sun-drenched streets of Seville, the sharp beauty of the Pyrenees, the mystical wonders of Montserrat — and so much more.

These eight novels will transport you directly to the wonders Spain. There are betrayals and heartbreak, the shadow of war and the peace of the countryside, life-changing art, big adventures and bigger love stories, all set against the backdrop of iconic cities — Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Salamanca — and the breathtaking natural beauty of Catalonia.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Spain: Valencia, Velázquez, and Vermouth.


When I Sing, Mountains Dance - Irene Solà

This compact, heartrending novel weaves together stories of life in a present-day village in the Pyrenees mountains of Catalonia. The plot is straightforward enough: A farmer — who is also a poet — is struck by lightning during a storm and dies on the mountainside. He leaves behind a wife and two children. The novel tells the story of their lives.

But the author Irene Solá is a word witch who casts a magic spell. The chapters are told from the point-of-view of various non-human narrators. So, we hear from the family Domenec left behind, yes, but we also get the perspective of black chanterelle mushrooms, a fawn being chased through the woods by hunters, a water sprite, a dog named Luna, and the Pyrenees mountains themselves.

The stories of each chapter lead to the next, braiding a tale of history, mythology, folklore, nature, the Spanish Civil War, and witches in a way that’s both sweeping and intimate. Although the language is lyrical, just this side of poetry, it’s accessible and packed with emotion, delivering an occasional kick to the solar plexus. To remind you that you’re alive and that sometimes being human hurts. {more}

An early yellow sun slips through the leaves of the trees. And I hear the river flowing happily. Once I step off the damp, sunken footpath and head up, I see a few scattered homes in the distance, on the other side of the crest. The mountains there in the background, they could even be France already, with Espinavell at the far end, and, my god, what a landscape. We have such amazing vistas and incredible mountains, we should be so proud, but sometimes, crowded together in Barcelona, we forget all about them. And they’re gorgeous as anything. Eye-piercingly gorgeous. You have to come up here in the fall, when the crest line turns from one color to another, now red, now chestnut brown, now the beige of a Pyrenean cow’s snout, now ochre, now orange, now deep garnet and colors you’ve never seen before in your life, with a sun yellow as an egg yolk. Man, I love walking through these mountains. I just love it so much. It’s thrilling. The cows, the crests. And there in the distance, the Canigou. That place. Oh, how it fills the heart. — Irene Solá


Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture - Matt Goulding

Grape, Olive, Pig
> Matt Goulding

Do you like to eat delicious things? Of course, you do! Spain is ground zero for delicious things to eat, and this book is an enthusiastic love letter to the cuisine that originated there.

Author Matt Goulding is a long-time ex-pat living in Barcelona. He is madly in love with Spain and wants you to know about it. So, maybe, you can fall in love with Spain, too.

The book’s narrative happily wanders through nine different districts in Spain, going deep into the food of each region. There are descriptions of particular dishes and lush tributes to entire meals. There’s also an engaging history of why each food is vital to that specific region and how it got there in the first place. This is a lively education in Spanish culinary vocabulary.

All of this objective stuff is framed by the author’s personal journeys. So sometimes you stroll through the winding alleys of Barcelona with him as he courts his wife. In the next section, you’re off to a pig festival in a tiny town in the province of Salamanca, or alongside Goulding as a judge at the world’s oldest paella competition. Through it all, he’s lively and entertaining company, unspooling a story that’s personal, sensual, exploring, romantic, and idealistic. {more}

Somewhere along the way, the intense bursts of wonder fade as the holy-shit moments are replaced by the little pleasures of daily life in a deeply visceral world… But every once in a while, out of nowhere, the holy-shit moment still hits me. Usually, it’s late at night, when my wife is asleep and I’m alone on the terrace, eight stories up, looking out across Barcelona. I see the low-lit arches of the Plaça del Rei where the Romans made fish sauce, the stone points of the old Stock Exchange where Picasso first learned to paint, the packs of drunk Brits kicking crumpled beer cans like soccer balls under the streetlamps, the shadow of the castle on Montjuïc where Franco unleashed the firing squads on his opposition, the Plaça d’Espanya steps where my computer and passport were stolen, the hundreds of Catalan independence flags that carpet the sides of buildings, the beautiful apartment facade below me, the plumes of steam from my neighbor’s kitchen, the arch of the crumbled wall where we start our morning walks. The little signs of a life taking shape. That’s when it hits me hardest. — Matt Goulding


The Seville Communion - Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The Seville Communion
> Arturo Pérez-Reverte

This book opens with an author’s note: ‘Clerics, bankers, computer hackers, duchesses, and scoundrels — the characters in this novel are all imaginary. And any resemblance to real events is entirely coincidental. Only the setting is true. Nobody could invent a city like Seville.’

What follows is a suspenseful story that could only take place in Seville, a sun-drenched city first conquered by the Moors in 711. It’s now an appealing blend of hardcore history — Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture, twisty medieval alleys, flamenco — and a vibrant waterfront along the río Guadalquivir.

Although the real action takes place in Seville, the story opens in Vatican City. The Pope’s personal email has been infiltrated by a hacker known as Vespers to deliver a desperate plea for help saving a 17th-century church. The crumbling Our Lady of Tears has been scheduled for demolition, but the neighborhood has rallied to save it — and two people have died in the church under very mysterious circumstances.

The Vatican sends an investigator to find out what the devil is going on in Seville. That investigator is the fantastically flawed Father Lorenzo Quart. Driven more by discipline than faith, Quart is committed to the church, his vows, and solving the case. His internal monologue is as snappy as his wardrobe. Were it not for the priest’s collar, he could handily go toe to impeccably-shined toe with Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

In the guise of solving a murder mystery, this story explores the boundaries of loyalty, loneliness, and what people will do in the name of faith. {more}

On his first morning in Seville it took Lorenzo Quart almost an hour to find the church. Several times he inadvertently wandered out of Santa Cruz and then had to find his way back. He realised his tourist map was useless in the maze of silent, narrow streets. Once or twice a passing car forced him to take refuge in cool, dark archways, their wrought-iron gates leading to tiled courtyards full of roses and geraniums. He came at last to a small square with white and ochre walls and railings hung with flowerpots. Tiled benches showed scenes from Don Quixote and there was an intense scent of orange blossom from the half-dozen trees. The church was small, its brick facade barely twenty metres across, and it formed a corner with another building. It looked in poor condition: the belfry was shored up by wooden struts, thick beams propped up the outer wall, and scaffolding partially obscured a tile depicting Christ, flanked by rusty iron lamps. — Arturo Pérez-Reverte


The Ladies-in-Waiting - Santiago Garcia, Javier Olivares

The Ladies-in-Waiting
> Santiago Garcia, Javier Olivares

This is a devastatingly good graphic novel about the painting ‘Las Meninas’ (Ladies-In-Waiting), created in 1656 by Diego Velázquez. For centuries, art lovers and experts have wondered — what’s it all about?

In case you’re not up-to-date on your Baroque Spanish masters, a brief primer: For most of his life, Velázquez was a portrait painter for the court of Philip IV, King of Spain and Portugal. Velázquez was very good at portraiture. He was the Instagram of his day, an in-demand painter who captured images of the rich and famous with their toys and their friends: Here’s the king, here’s his daughter, here’s the prince with a dwarf they kept around the court for amusement.

And then, just a few years before his death, he produced his masterpiece, a painting that some people have called ‘one of the most important paintings in art history.’ That painting came to be known as ‘Las Meninas.’

This painting is epic in all senses of the word, including its physical size. More than 10 feet wide and 9 feet tall (300cm x 275cm), it feels like it surrounds you when viewed in person at the Prado in Madrid.

‘Las Meninas’ depicts a large room with a high ceiling — Velázquez’s studio. The central figure in the image is the king’s daughter. She wears a fancy white dress, and the frame is crowded with people, some attending to her — the ‘ladies in waiting’ of the title. There’s a mastiff in the foreground and a man in the far background who seems to be leaving the room — or maybe he’s coming in. And there is Velázquez himself, painting at an easel. Perhaps most compelling, two figures are reflected in a mirror on the far back wall. Experts have said that these are the king and queen.

This boldly drawn graphic novel describes how ‘Las Meninas’ came to be and how it influenced other artists, including Goya, Dalí, and Picasso, who notably spent a summer making 54 copies of the painting in his style.

The story is told episodically, bounding around time to provide a complete view of the painting through the ages, from its birth in the 1600s to now. The authors Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares use strong black lines, bright splashes of color, and an entertaining narrative to explore history and emotion; the pages are both simple and rich.

They also present a compelling argument for their theory of this landmark painting — why it was painted, who it was for, and what the people depicted in ‘Las Meninas’ are doing. This book is a fantastic example of the power of cartooning, and it will bring you closer to a great work of art. {more}

 a panel from the graphic novel showing the artist talking about his art, drawn in black, white, and gray


The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Cycle

The last four recommendations on our list comprise the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He said that he wrote this cycle of novels to create a literary labyrinth that we’re invited to enter at any point; the characters and setting overlap, but they can be read in any order. All the stories swirl around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret library in Barcelona where beloved and threatened books are protected. Visitors to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are allowed to take out one title, thus becoming the protector of that book to ensure its existence.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s 1945 in Barcelona. The furor of the war years has diminished, but the city is still healing from its wounds. Shadowy and somewhat sinister, but not without hope, the city is home to a young boy, a good-natured family friend, a troubled author, and a mysterious book — all caught in a web of intrigue together.

When Daniel awakens on his eleventh birthday and can’t remember his mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine collection of books left behind by the rest of the world. The books on the spiraling shelves wait for someone to care about them again. When Daniel carefully pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf, he unknowingly sets in motion an adventure that will change the lives of everyone he knows.

At the heart of that story is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the magical, sinister place where the real story begins and ends. It’s a celebration of literature and what stories mean to us. How they help us cope, understand the world, and find the truth of ourselves. {more}

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel’s Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel's Game
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and ’30s — a volatile city populated by anarchists, communists, monarchists, and people merely trying to eke out a living.

Our hero, David Martin, lives in an abandoned mansion — alone — writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym and exploring the shadows of his imagination. To escape a painful past and troubled present, he hides in the words and worlds of his books.

But his home may be haunted by more than his flights of fancy: Within a locked room, he finds mysterious photographs and letters that imply the house has secrets. When an enigmatic French editor makes him an irresistible offer — money, fame, power — to write a one-of-a-kind book, David agrees, and his life takes on deeper shades of darkness. {more}

Before that, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was hidden under the tunnels of the medieval town. Some say that, during the time of the Inquisition, people who were learned and had free minds would hide forbidden books in sarcophagi, or bury them in ossuaries all over the city to protect them, trusting that future generations would dig them up. In the middle of the last century, a long tunnel was discovered leading from the bowels of the labyrinth to the basement of an old library that nowadays is sealed off, hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue in the Jewish quarter. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s a time of celebration in Barcelona. Christmas is coming. The War, over for a dozen years, is fading into a thing that happened once. Newlyweds Daniel and Bea have a bouncing baby boy, and their dear friend will soon be married. What could possibly go wrong?

On an otherwise uneventful day at the family-owned bookshop, a mysterious stranger appears and requests the rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo that sits in a display case behind the counter. He writes a cryptic inscription on the title page: For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.

These words send Daniel and his dear friend Fermín on a quest for a perilous truth that could upend all of their lives. Their investigation takes through the Gothic Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s imagination, to the 1940s and the early days of the fascist Franco dictatorship — and closer to learning a heart-piercing secret. {more}

I write these words in the hope and conviction that one day you’ll discover this place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place that changed my life as I’m sure it will change yours… I know that if you ever read these words, you’ll be overwhelmed by questions and doubts. You’ll find some of the answers in this manuscript, where I have tried to portray my story as I remember it, knowing that my days of lucidity are numbered and that often I can only recall what never took place. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In the final, epic installment of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes us back to Barcelona and Madrid, just before and just after WWII. Combining elements of fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and detective procedural, this story hinges on one of his most compelling characters yet. Meet Alicia Gris.

At just 29 years old, Alicia is already cynical and gifted with street smarts she earned the hard way. By all objective measures, she is also stunningly beautiful and a force to be reckoned with in Madrid’s secret police. The world-weary girl, suffering from an injury that won’t heal and the heavy baggage she carries in her heart, wants to get out of the business. Her boss coerces her into taking just one more case, and then he’ll let her go: She must find Spain’s Minister of Culture who just poof! disappeared from his palatial estate.

The scaffolding of this sweeping story is the investigation into what happened to the Minister. Gripping as the mystery is, it’s merely an excuse for Zafón to snare us in his spellbinding world where every conversation has subtext and truth hides in the shadows, even on the sunniest of days. And, as always seems to happen in Barcelona, the path to the truth passes through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. {more}

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands… in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Top image courtesy of TTstudio/Shutterstock.

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