This is a transcription of Episode 45 — Spain: Valencia, Velázquez, and Vermouth.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to season five of Strong Sense of Place. We are excited to be back. Today we get curious about Spain.
[spanish folk music]
David: Today in Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you a story about a little known but delightful statue in Madrid. And then we’re going to talk about five books we love.
Melissa: I’ve got a smarty pants thriller with a hot priest set in Seville.
David: Oh, like Fleabag. And I’ve got an award winning book that’ll make you hungry for the flavors of Spain. From patatas bravas to churro con chocolate.
Melissa: Patatas bravas.
David: But first, Mel is going to bring us up to speed with the Spain 101.
Melissa: All right, we’re just going to start with the basics. Spain is found in southwestern Europe and shares the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal. The population is 48 million. That’s about the population of Florida and Texas combined. But Spain is only 75% the size of Texas. The capital is Madrid, and it is almost smack in the center of the country. In the north, Spain shares a border with France and has a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. In the south, it sits on the Strait of Gibraltar and just about nudges up against Morocco in North Africa. Fun fact: You can take a ferry from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangier, Morocco, in about 35 minutes.
David: Whoa! You go from one continent to another.
Melissa: I know.
David: It’s very exciting.
Melissa: Now seems like a good time to mention that we visited Spain recently.
David: We did. We went to Madrid and Barcelona and the little seaside town outside of Barcelona called Sitges, which was one of my favorite parts of that entire trip.
Melissa: The first thing we did when we got to Sitges, with our suitcases in hand, was go to a little bar and have a cocktail and watch the people walk by.
David: Yeah, it felt very touristical.
Melissa: And then we walked to the beach and I dropped everything and went into the sea up to my knees. And it was amazing.
David: I have a little crush on Spain right now.
Melissa: I have an enormous crush on Spain right now. We were there for a week, and really, I would like to go for about six weeks minimum. What was your favorite thing that we did?
David: The first thing that comes to mind was that first night we were in Madrid. We went to that little bar and had tapas. I’m not sure what it was, but it was just the combination of the food and the space and the drinks and the company. And it was just magic. It was was fantastic. It was everything I hoped it would be.
Melissa: It did have a really perfect vibe.
David: Yeah. What was yours?
Melissa: We saw a lot of amazing things, but mine — I don’t know. My favorite moments are always kind of the silly kind of small ones. We were walking in Barcelona down this little twisty alley in the Gothic quarter and walked by a bar that had two tables outside in the alley. And inside there was a TV playing a football game, soccer. And there was this old easy chair parked about maybe ten feet from the TV with like a butt shaped groove in it where you could see that that’s where the barman sat to watch football for decades probably.
David: It was an indent for the ages.
Melissa: We just ordered some vermut and a sandwich and sat at one of the tables in the alley and played cards. It wasn’t on our agenda. We weren’t looking at anything that you would find in the guidebooks, but it was just one of those lovely perfect moments and no one else was in there, so it felt like our secret place.
Melissa: I loved it.
David: Yeah. I had sort of an omelet that was also a sandwich.
Melissa: That thing was so good. Okay, first it was a ham omelet cooked in a ton of butter.
Melissa: And it was thin and folded and then put onto a piece of baguette with this tomato spread that they have in Madrid that’s just, like, garlicky and tomatoes. And it’s just — it looks like they were putting it on to take it off. It’s just the thinnest little layer. And it was perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and it was greasy and salty and chewy and crispy.
Melissa: Oh, Spain.
David: Do you want to get back to the 101?
Melissa: If we must. So there are 17 distinct regions in Spain, and each one of them really does offer things that are different than the others. We saw this over and over again because we you know, we were in Barcelona, which is on the eastern side and then Madrid, which is in the center. The food is really different. There are some similarities, but the food is different. Architecture is different. We went into this pottery shop in Madrid that had handmade pottery, and it was a small shop. It was the size of a large closet, and it was just filled with pitchers and dishes and knickknacks. And each shelf had a map of Spain with a little star indicating where that pottery was made, because how they make it and how they decorate it is different in every region.
David: Yeah, I feel like my education is a US citizen was to think of Spain as one thing. Spanish people do not think of Spain necessarily as one thing. I feel like they’re unified, but to them, those 17 districts have marked differences.
Melissa: Which makes it a really fun place to travel in. And makes the language really interesting, which is what I want to talk about next. Obviously, people in Spain speak Spanish. They refer to it as Castellano or Castilian to differentiate it from the Spanish that’s spoken in say Mexico. Yeah, there’s also Euskara. That’s the language spoken in the Basque region in the western Pyrenees mountains along the border with France. So up in the north.Catalan is spoken in Catalonia. That’s the region that includes Barcelona, and Galician is the language of Galicia in the northwestern corner near the Atlantic.
David: Fun fact: There are more Spanish speakers in the United States than there are in Spain.
Melissa: Whoa. I didn’t know that.
David: Yeah, it’s just because the United States is so much bigger. There are also more English speakers in the United States than there are in England.
Melissa: That seems like a good bar fact.
Melissa: So I mentioned all of the languages in Spain. Not to be a completist, although I do love to be a completist, but because it was a really fun part of traveling there. Signs and labels on things appear in multiple languages. So if you’re a word nerd like I am, it’s really cool to see Castilian, Catalan, and English all in the same sign and kind of see the similarities and differences.
Melissa: Let’s talk a little bit about history.
Melissa: Here are three major dates you need to know to put a visit to Spain into context.
Melissa: First 711. That’s the year Islamic Arabs and Moors from Berber across the Strait of Gibraltar and made themselves at home for about 800 years. Before Spain was the Catholic country that we know now, it was Muslim. Along with Islam, the Moors brought other things that influence Spanish culture. So flamenco music. Chess. Delicious things to eat like olives, almonds, apricots, dates. Paella has a moorish influence. That’s a rice dish made with saffron and seafood or chicken.
Melissa: Flan, which I know you love, Dave. That’s a caramel custard. And of course, Moorish architecture. That’s the stuff that looks like it’s out of the Arabian Nights. So arched windows, fancy domes, courtyards with gardens. That’s all the Moorish influence.
Melissa: Our next significant date is 1492.
David: When Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Melissa: Yes, that should ring some bells for people educated in the United States. Two decades before that, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile were married. Their nuptials helped unite the disparate regions of Spain. And 1492 was a banner year for this political power couple. [sigh] They expelled the remaining Jewish population from Spain. They drove out the moors, and they sponsored Christopher Columbus to sail west in search of gold, spices, and new converts to Catholicism.
David: A lot of unintended consequences coming out of 1492.
Melissa: Yes. On one hand, they were wildly successful.
Melissa: We actually stood in the little square in Barcelona, where they welcomed Columbus back.
David: Yeah, I didn’t know that until after we were home. Because when you’re in that square, it doesn’t feel like something momentous happened here. It’s a nice square. But we stood on the steps where they welcomed Columbus back.
Melissa: We took a selfie.
David: We did not knowing.
Melissa: It was just a really nice stairway.
Melissa: The third key date is 1939. That may also ring some bells for you that year already has ominous connotations because that’s the year Hitler invaded Poland.
Melissa: It’s also the year that the fascist leader, Francisco Franco, won power in Spain after a brutal civil war. He stayed in power until 1975. Obviously, that was a very fast romp through what’s a much more detailed history. But those things will be helpful for putting the books that we talk about into context, and will help you understand the things that you’re seeing and experiencing if and when you visit Spain. Now, I want to talk about that.
David: Visiting Spain?
Melissa: Yes. The reason we’re all here, Why would we want to visit Spain? There are so many fantastic things to do and see. I thought it would be fun to put together an imaginary itinerary for the ultimate day in Spain. And we’re pretending that the constraints of time and reality don’t exist.
David: Oh, that’s fun. [laughter]
Melissa: So we might start with a walk on the beach, soaking up the warm sun and splashing in the water. Maybe in the Canary Islands or in Ibiza. Next up is breakfast.
Melissa: I recommend hot chocolate with churros. Or there are these soft biscuits called soletilla. They’re kind of oblong oval shape and they’re pretty bland on their own. But then when you dip them into the hot chocolate. Heavenly.
David: We had those in a fancy little bake shop in Madrid.
Melissa: We did with a crystal chandelier over our heads. They know what they’re doing with some chocolate.
David: They do.
Melissa: Now that we’re energized from the infusion of sugar, we’re going to explore some architecture. Oh, to see colorful Moorish architecture, we could head to La Mezquita in Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada. Both of these are beautiful examples. For something completely different, we’re going to go to Barcelona to see the work of Antonio Gaudi. You can tour three different houses that Gaudi designed in Barcelona, but he was also the mastermind behind La Sagrada Familia, which is just this stunning church in Barcelona.
David: I think the Sagrada Familia is the most beautiful building I’ve ever been inside. The light, the space, how it’s all designed and laid out, the sound like the whole experience is just amazing.
Melissa: Now it’s time to get out of the city for a while. Maybe head to Montserrat in the mountains of Catalonia. There you can take a cable car to a Benedictine monastery and tour the basilica, then ride a funicular even higher and hike around the mountain top. After that, it’s back to town to visit a cloistered monastery and buy cookies baked by the nuns who live there.
David: We had done cookies that were delicious.
Melissa: It was a really fun experience, too. We talked about that in an episode of The Library of Lost Time. We’ll link to that in show notes in case you missed it. After the nine cookies, we’re off to a market for picnic supplies like jamon, olives, manchego cheese, because we’re going to have a picnic in the seaside town of Cadaques. That is where Salvador Dali once lived and worked. The little town is just a picture-perfect blue and white village on the sea, and his house has been turned into a museum. And it is just as fanciful as you might think. Now that we’ve got the art bug going, we’ll go to the Prado in Madrid, where you can see the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch and paintings by Francisco Goya and Los Meninas by Diego Velasquez, which I know, Dave, you’re going to be talking about when we get to books.
David: I will, yep.
Melissa: After all of that input, it’s time for a siesta. And then top us, we’ll go to a historic bar with lots of locals. Find some comfy chairs, maybe start with a glass of vermouth.
David: Vermouth was an unexpected pleasure. I’m used to vermouth. The idea of vermouth as the mix in for martini. The vermouth in Spain is not that. It is a wine that is fortified with. I don’t know what —
Melissa: Herbs, herbs, delicious herbs.
David: It has for me a taste a little bit like Coca-Cola, like in the direction of Coca-Cola.
Melissa: There’s something caramel going on in there.
David: Yeah. But it you know that on ice.
Melissa: With a slice of orange and a green olive.
David: I agree.
Melissa: Oh, and then you have some patatas bravas on the side. For people who aren’t familiar, those are, like, really crispy home fries. And then they have aioli, which is like a garlicky mayo. And then brava sauce, which is this spicy sauce made from tomato and smoked paprika.
David: The combination of those two things, the vermouth and the patatas bravas is sort of the flavor profile of chips and a Coke, but like, way, way higher.
Melissa: [laughter] You’re right. That’s really funny.
Melissa: Experts say that you should really only have two servings of vermut at a time. So we’ll have one more, and then we’ll hit the road and go to Granada to watch a traditional flamenco performance and maybe have some Andalusian wine. Around 10:00 pm. we’ll find ourselves in a dark restaurant in Valencia where we’ll have chicken paella, because in Valencia they don’t make it with seafood — and the smell of saffron and love will just be wafting around. Finally, we’ll bring our perfect day to a close with a moody walk through the Gothic quarter of Barcelona and probably will be nibbling on some roasted almonds or maybe a little bit of turrón.
David: Tell them what turrón is.
Melissa: Turrón. There’s two kinds. There’s the nougat kind, which is made from honey and egg whites and marcona almonds, and it’s like a little chewy and sweet. And then there’s the other kind, which is smooth. They grind the almonds to a fine powder and then make it into what’s essentially like, I don’t know, it’s almost like a gold brick of almonds and honey. [laughter] And you just eat a tiny piece of it, maybe like an inch square with a cup of coffee, and it melts on your tongue. It’s absolutely delicious. And there’s our perfect day in Spain.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Or a six week trip, whichever.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I’m very excited about Two Truths and a Lie.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is true. First one, the national anthem of Spain, has lyrics that honor national unity and the olive. Two: There were plans for the Eiffel Tower to be constructed in Barcelona. And three, there’s a statue in Madrid that honors a rock fan.
Melissa: One at a time.
David: All right. The first one is the national Anthem of Spain has lyrics that honor national unity and the olive.
David: That is false.
Melissa: Man, I was hoping. Give me a national anthem that’s just about food.
David: The Marcha Real, the royal march, is the national anthem of Spain. It is one of only four national anthems that have no lyrics.
Melissa: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
David: Yeah. There three are Bosnia and Herzegovina, San Marino, and Kosovo. The Spanish national anthem, though, used to have lyrics. As recently as 1978, the anthem had lyrics, but those lyrics were adopted during the Franco regime.
Melissa: Oh, yeah.
David: They had lines like ‘Glory to the Fatherland,’ and that all sounded a little too much like totalitarianism to the Spanish, so they were dropped. And since then there have been a few attempts to put lyrics to the tune. The last was a contest organized by the Spanish Olympic Committee in 2007. 7000 people entered. A winner was chosen. The winning lyrics were written by an unemployed 52-year-old man from Madrid. People thought those lyrics were a little obvious, little uninspired, little Franco-istic, and the whole project collapsed about five days later.
Melissa: That didn’t take long.
David: No. And right now, the Spanish thing a la la la. To the tune of their anthem.
Melissa: I like that. [laughter]
David: Which brings us to the second statement, which we now know is true. There were plans for the Eiffel Tower to be constructed in Barcelona. So, as you might recall, the Eiffel Tower was built for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. There are lovely pictures of that exposition, also known as the World’s Fair. It looks like a dreamscape.
Melissa: It really does. I love the photos, too, where the Eiffel Tower is only partially constructed.
Melissa: Yeah, it looks really magical.
David: It does. But nobody talks about anymore is that just the year before, in 1888, Barcelona hosted the Universal Exposition. There is a persistent rumor that Gustave Eiffel went to Barcelona first and pitched them on the tower he wanted to build. It would have been at the time, the tallest structure in the world. And the World’s Fair Committee looked at his idea and they said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to pass.’
Melissa: So iconic now.
David: Yeah. And so Gustave Eiffel went to Paris and pitched them.
Melissa: And people there didn’t really like it when it was built either, right?.
David: Some. Yeah. There’s a story about the short story writer de Maupassant. He used to eat at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And when people asked him why, he said it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to look at it.
Melissa: So rude. [laughter]
David: Yeah. The Eiffel Tower was originally intended to be a temporary structure. It was going to be up for 20 years, but it’s been 134 years and there’s still no sign that they’re going to take it down any time soon. But I like to think of a slightly parallel universe where the Eiffel Tower is a much loved symbol of Spain. Finally, there’s a statue in Madrid that honors a rock fan.
Melissa: I need to know more.
David: There was a woman in Spain: Angeles Rodriguez Hidalgo. She was born in 1900. She lived in a working class neighborhood in Madrid. She was married in 1923 and then widowed in 1941.
Melissa: Oh, sad.
Melissa: Civil War.
David: Yeah. With five children. I couldn’t find any details about how her husband passed, but I have to assume. She worked as a maid and a postal clerk after that. And her kids grew up and they left the house. And then in 1970, when she was 70, one of her grandchildren asked her if she wanted to go to a show, a rock show, a hard rock show. I’m trying to figure out what motivated that grandchild to ask.
Melissa: Her 70 year old grandmother —
David: Uh huh. Maybe his parents wouldn’t let him go without adult supervision. Maybe Grandma had always been curious, but he asked and she said yes. And she went and she loved it. She left that show and she wanted to see more. And over the next 20 years, she became a fixture on the Madrid heavy metal scene.
Melissa: [laughter] That’s so cute.
David: She’d go to shows. She saw the local heavy metal bands. She saw ACDC and the Scorpions. Eventually she got invited on stage and then when she did, everybody wanted to have her on stage. She had a semi-regular appearance on a radio show. She embraced the lifestyle and she bought herself a leather jacket and a motorcycle. She had a weekly column in a music magazine called Grandma Consults.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: And then in 1993, she died.
Melissa: 93. Good for her.
David: Yeah. Three years later, a bunch of people put together a fund. They made a statue of her. It’s a bust of Angeles in action and a plaque that says goodbye. Grandmother, rocker friend. Only time separates us. And that’s why there’s a statue of a grandmother in leather throwing the devil’s horns on the streets of Madrid.
Melissa: I love that story. I wish we’d known that when we were there.
Melissa: I guess we’ll just have to go back.
David: We’ll have to go back. That’s two truths and a lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: 100%. I love the books I’m talking about today.
Melissa: My first recommendation is When I Sing Mountains Dance by Irina Sola, and it was translated from the original Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem. This is a short novel. It’s just about 208 pages, and it weaves together stories of life in a village in the Pyrenees mountains of Catalonia. The plot is pretty straightforward. A farmer, who’s also a poet, is struck by lightning during a storm and dies on the mountainside, and he leaves behind a wife and two children. The novel is basically the story of their lives. However, the author is a word witch. The chapters are told from the POV of different narrators. So we hear from the family that Dominik left behind, but we also get the perspective of black chanterelle mushrooms, a fawn being chased through the woods by hunters, awater sprite, a dog named Luna. And the Pyrenees Mountains themselves.
David: So there are passages narrated by mushrooms and a dog. And a mountain.
David: That’s fantastic.
Melissa: It’s pretty amazing. The first chapter. The very first page. The clouds are talking. And they’re explaining that they’d arrived in the mountains with their bellies so full of water they turned black. Burdened with this cold, dark water and lightning bolts and thunder claps. They go on to talk about the man that they see below and how they’re dampening his head and watching the water slide into his collar and down his shoulders. And they laugh when they realize that they’re making them cross. He’s cursing out loud and they continue to rain on the mountain and on Dominic, and then their lightning flies loose and they watch as the lightning goes where it wants to — and where it wants to is into Dominic.
David: I never thought before about how clouds feel when they’re full of rain.
Melissa: It was amazing. So beautiful. And they’re kind of snarky. So each chapter introduces us to a person or an element that leads into the next. So when Dominic dies on the mountainside, four women see him. In the next chapter, we learn they’re the ghosts of witches, and we get their perspective. And then something that happens in their story transports us into the next one.
David: Okay. So they’re kind of interlinked narratives.
Melissa: Yes. And it comes together really well into a whole. It’s not a series of interconnected short stories; it is a novel. The author weaves together threads of history and mythology and the folklore of Catalonia and nature into a really intimate, poignant story of one Catalonian family. Now, at this point, you might be thinking this all sounds too tricksy for me. It’s too intellectual, it’s too precious. And I get that. But I’m here to tell you, it is none of those things. It is delightful. It’s really accessible. It’s really fun. It’s really moving.
Melissa: You know how sometimes when you read a poem, it just kind of like, hits you in your solar plexus. You don’t have to really analyze why, it just creates feeling. This novel is like that. In addition to kind of joining this family on their journey through grief and love and loss, you also get a really rich picture of how connected we humans are to nature. We like to think that we’re separate or above nature. Somehow we’re in control, we’re the humans. But in truth, those chanterelle mushrooms and the granite of the Pyrenees are going to go on without us. The clouds actually say after they accidentally kill Dominic: We didn’t wash away any villages. We didn’t kill any birds in their nests. It was one human. oops, sorry.
Melissa: There are also some very sweet and funny passages, so I want to finish up with a bit from the chapter that’s narrated by the dog Luna. I’m reading you one short paragraph. This particular section of Luna’s chapter is a whole page of her being really excited about her woman.
David: Okay, so this is the dog talking?
Melissa: ‘What I like best is when she whistles. With her fingers in her mouth. Because then I come running. I run as hard as I can… When she whistles I run over the grass and the fences and rocks… And I would run, I’d jump over the car if I had to, and over the house, if need be, and over every danger. Over and through and around all obstacles. Fast, because if she needed saving, I would save her from every bad thing… Because I love her. Because when I get to her, I’ve saved her. And sometimes, when I get there, panting, she gently touches my forehead, and my back, and tells me I did good, and tells me sweet things I don’t understand but I do understand. And all her love is in that touch, and all my love is in my running to save her.’
David: Oh, that’s so nice.
Melissa: Isn’t it beautiful.
Melissa: This book reminded me a little bit of a book I recommended in our Tasmania episode. That one is called Flames. It’s by Robbie Arnott, and it also explored the human experience and our relationship with nature by using really unusual narrators. There was a river rat that thought he was a god.
David: Oh, I remember you talking about that. Yeah. In our Turkey episode I talked about, My name is read by Orhan Pamuk. One of his narrators is money, actual cash, talking about their experience and what they mean. And that was amazing and similar kind of thing.
Melissa: I’m charmed by the idea of non-human narrators, but I also feel like in the wrong hands, it could go terribly.
David: Oh, really poorly.
Melissa: Poorly, yes. But all of these books are very good. If you want to do a whole reading project of non-human narrators, you could read those books and also Metropolitan stories. By Christine Coulson from our museum’s episode. There’s also a book I haven’t talked about on the show, but which we read with our patrons, which is the pages by Hugo Hamilton. And that one is — oh so good. That one is narrated by a book saved from a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. Yeah, that one’s the pages by Hugo Hamilton.
Melissa: So there’s a reading project for you. This book, this fantastic book, is When I Sing Mountains Dance by Irina Sola and translated by Mara Faye Lethem.
David: My first book is Grape Olive Pig Deep Travels through Spain’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding.
Melissa: I almost read this book. I’m so excited that you read this book.
David: It’s a really good book. It’s an enthusiastic love letter to the Foods of Spain, and that Golding is an expat who’s lived in Barcelona for eight years at the time of writing this book and 20 years now. He loves Spain and he wants you to know about it. Grape Olive Pig walks through nine different districts in Spain and talks about the food there. There are descriptions of particular dishes and whole meals. This is a lively education in Spanish culinary vocabulary. You’ll also get a history of why that food is vital to that region and how it got there. All of this is framed by the author taking you on personal journeys. So sometimes you’re going to go through the back alleys of Barcelona with him as he courts his wife. In the next section, you’ll go to a pig festival in a tiny town in Salamanca. There’s a chapter where the writer is a judge at the world’s oldest paella competition, and another where he looks for bluefin tuna with commercial fishermen. The whole book has a magazine-like layout. There’s a Kindle version of this book, but that’s not what you want. You want the print version. There are lovely full-spread pictures of dishes with callouts explaining what you’re looking at. There’s also a good chunk of travel photography, so there are shots of people making sausage on the streets of La Alberca and another of a cheesemonger in a cheese cave.
Melissa: Cheese cave!
David: Yeah. And because of the layout, it’s very easy to flip through. It’s dimmable. The book was some kind of joint effort between the author and Anthony Bourdain.
Melissa: Oh, interesting.
David: Yeah. It was one of three books written under the imprint Roads and Kingdoms, which Bourdain led. The book feels a lot like Bourdain. It’s personal and sensual and exploring and romantic and idealistic. They’re swearing. He describes experiences that I’m very unlikely to replicate.[laughter] There’s an enthusiasm in this book that might be a bit much, but at the same time, I think it’s honest.
Melissa: I mean, having eaten some of the food in Spain, I don’t think you can be too enthusiastic.
David: Yeah, well, I’ll give you an example. There’s a bit where he calls a particular tapas plate, ‘the most delicious, thought provoking food on the planet.’
Melissa: [laughter] Okay. That might be too much.
David: And it stopped me as a reader. Right. But I also think that Goulding believes that. Or maybe just felt it at the time.
David: It’s, you know, it’s there. So I want to read you a few paragraphs to give you a sense of this book. This is from his chapter on Barcelona, his new home. Goulding is describing getting used to the city as an expat:
David: ‘It takes time and trial and error to figure this stuff out. At first, as you work to assimilate into a new world, your daily life overflows with holy-shit moments. They hit you unannounced, often with a vicious force: as you stand in line at the fishmonger, riding your bike to the beach, smelling the Mediterranean from your window. It took me a full year just to stop being blown away by the fact that I spoke to my girlfriend in Spanish, and that she spoke to her father in Catalan.’
David: ‘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: the small design details that go into everything in this city (the streetlamps, the rooftops, the tables at dive bars), the immigrant vendors selling hot samosas and cold beer for a euro on street corners at all hours of the night, the hush that falls over the city during an FC Barça soccer game, and the cloud of hashish that rises from the narrow streets afterward. This is the secret language of your new home; somewhere along the way, you stop saying -them- and you start saying -us-.’
David: ‘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.’
David: So I don’t know about you, but I read that and I thought, ‘Man, I wish I was in Barcelona right now.’
Melissa: I was just thinking that very same thing.
David: I would recommend this book to anyone traveling to Spain who likes food. Get the get the print version. It is grape Olive Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding. I also want to mention the other two books in this series. The first is Rice Noodle Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture. And the second is Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy’s Food Culture. I haven’t read either of those, but they’re on the list.
Melissa: My second pick is The Seville Communion by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It was translated by Sonia Soto. This author is beloved in Spain. He’s a novelist and journalist. He was a war correspondent for 21 years, and he’s written 34 novels, including the Club Dumas, which was adapted into the Roman Polanski movie The Ninth Gate, starring a very nineties, Johnny Depp.
Melissa: He’s also the author of a popular series about the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Alatriste. Yes, a 17th century Spanish soldier. I just learned that was made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen.
David: We watched that trailer yesterday. And based on the three minutes I saw, I think Viggo Mortensen is probably the best thing in that movie.
Melissa: It was a long 3 minutes.
David: It was. [laughter]
Melissa: Having said that, I read the first chapter of the book and it was fantastic. Almost all of the author’s novels are big adventures that weave together history, references to literature and art, and really vivid settings. One of his books is called The Flanders Panel. That’s a murder mystery that is solved by playing the chess game depicted in a 15th-century painting.
David: [laughter] Wow.
Melissa: Yeah, I read that one. It’s really intricate and suspenseful and I enjoyed it, but ultimately decided it had way more chess than Spain in it. So in my quest for the right book, I read the first chapter of Captain Alitriste. I read The Nautical Chart and The Fencing Master. All of those would have been good for this show. If you want to go deep with this author, I feel like you would be in good hands. I finally decided on The Seville Communion for three reasons. It’s set in present day Spain. I was immediately taken with the hero of the story. That’s the hot priest I referenced in our intro. And the action takes place in Seville, which is a city I didn’t know much about. Before I get into the story. I think it’s important for everyone to know that this book opens with a hand-drawn map and a vintage photograph of the church at the heart of the mystery.
David: Strong opening.
Melissa: And an author’s note that says this, ‘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.’
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: So let’s talk about Seville a little bit, because this story could only take place in that city. Seville was conquered by the Moors in 711 and became the first capital of the Islamic kingdom of Al Andalus. Now, that area is Andalusia in southern Spain and Seville is its capital. The architecture is pretty stunning and it covers many eras. So there are fanciful Moorish buildings. There’s a spiky gothic cathedral. There are Renaissance palaces, ornate Baroque churches, and an ancient Jewish quarter. And they’re all connected by twisty medieval alleys. It’s warm and balmy most of the time, and it gets only 52 days of rain throughout the year. It’s also the birthplace of flamenco. [flamenco guitar music] And all of that plays into this story. So here’s the setup. In Vatican City, the pope’s personal email is infiltrated by a hacker known as Vespers. The email is a desperate plea for help to save a 17th-century church called Our Lady of Tears. The church is literally crumbling and has been scheduled for demolition. But it’s really important to the people of the neighborhood, two supporters who are very vocal about saving the church, have died under mysterious circumstances. And the hacker’s email even hints that the church itself killed them.
David: The church itself, the building? Not the gathered people who make up the church. But the actual building killed them.
Melissa: Yes. So the Vatican sends an investigator to find out what the heck is going on in Seville.
Melissa: That investigator is Father Lorenzo Court, and he is a fantastic, flawed hero. The hot priest I mentioned earlier.
Melissa: Yeah. He’s really loyal to the church and committed to his vows, but that’s mostly out of a deep reverence for discipline, not faith. And almost everyone else in the book agrees that he is stupidly, ridiculously handsome. There’s a lot made of the fine figure he cuts in his perfectly tailored black suits and impeccably shined shoes. The other thing I loved about him is that he’s got a very hardboiled vibe. His internal monologue could easily belong to a classic detective like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. During his investigation, Court meets a really entertaining cast of characters, including a very seductive duchess who’s, like, just on this side of being a femme fatale.
Melissa: And there’s a trio of crooks who I dubbed the rogues in my imagination and in my notes. There’s a washed up boxer, a heartbroken flamenco singer, and a down on his luck dandy, who was once one of the top lawyers in Seville until everyone found out that he wasn’t actually a lawyer.
David: Yeah, that could hurt your career. [laughter]
Melissa: Yeah. So they’re like three lovable losers who get caught up in this almost crime caper. There are times when the tone of the book is very like we’re on a caper. And then there are other times when it’s dealing with a lot heavier issues, which I found really interesting. In the guise of solving this murder mystery, the story explores loyalty and what people do in the name of faith, both for good and for ill. Loneliness is the theme that runs through this story most strongly, especially our hero Father Court. He makes being a priest seem very lonely.
David: Yeah. I could see how it might lean that way.
Melissa: Yeah. All of the characters are desperately looking for connection. That’s what makes them do the things that they do. I loved everything about this book. It was really entertaining. The mystery was very suspenseful. It really stuck the landing. The ending was fantastic. I would love to read more books with Father Court. I don’t think they exist, but I feel like he should write them.
David: Get to work.
Melissa: Yeah. That’s the Seville Communion by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
David: My next book is Ladies in Waiting by Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares. This is a graphic novel about Las Meninas, Ladies in Waiting, a famous painting by Diego Velázquez. The book is really good, but first we have to talk about the painting.
Melissa: The painting in the Prado.
David: Yes. So I’m going to assume you’re not up to date on your baroque Spanish masters. Forgive me if you are. For most of his life, Diego Velázquez was a portrait painter for the Court of Philip the fourth, king of Spain and Portugal. This was back in the 1600s. Velázquez was very good at portraits. He was the Instagram of his day. He did 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. All that.
David: Things have changed. But late in life. A few years before his death, he produced 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.
Melissa: I have to say that before we went, we were doing research because we knew we wanted to go see Las Meninas, and I was inwardly rolling my eyes at everyone being like, ‘Oh, this is the greatest painting ever. Changed everything. Most important painting you’ll ever see.’ I was like, ‘Oh, come on.’ Yeah, But then.
Melissa: Shut my mouth.
David: Yeah. So first of all, I’m going to try to describe this this, this painting to you a little bit. It’s a it’s a huge painting. It’s over ten feet wide and nine feet tall or 300 by 275 centimetres. I n person this painting almost surrounds you. The painting is set in a large room with a high ceiling. This turns out to be Velázquez studio. The central figure in the image is the king’s daughter. She’s in a fancy, white or maybe cream-colored dress. It’s hard to tell because painting’s age, but the frame is crowded with people. Some of them are attending to the daughter. The ladies in waiting of the title. There’s a dog; there’s a mastiff. There’s a man in the far background who seems to be leaving the room. But maybe he’s coming in. And there’s Velázquez himself. He has painted himself into the painting. And in the painting, he is painting at an easel. There’s also a mirror on the far back wall. There are two figures visible in the mirror. Experts have said that these are the king and queen themselves. And it’s all masterfully done. There’s volume and light and texture. The composition is balanced in a few different ways. Some of it looks almost impressionistic, like there’s he’s trying to capture a little bit of movement.
Melissa: We watched a video that broke down the painting and having an expert explain the composition and draw all the sight lines that converge was really fascinating. ‘Oh, that’s why it feels so complete.’ Yes, because the way things are lined up, it’s amazing.
David: Yeah. But the painting sort of brings so many questions with it as you’re looking at it in the image. Velasquez is painting something. What’s he painting? Is he painting what we’re seeing? Where are the king and queen standing so that they appear in this mirror? Is the man on the stairs coming or going? Is it important? Why is the daughter the central figure of the painting, standing with her back toward Velázquez? Which gets me back to the book. Remember the book? We started talking about the book.
Melissa: I’m very envious. You got to read this book.
David: The book is called Ladies in Waiting, and it’s a graphic novel about the painting. It describes how it came to be and how it influenced others. We visit with Goya and Picasso and Dali. Notably, Picasso spent a summer making 54 copies of Las Meninas. The book is episodic and it bounces around in history. The creators are giving you a more complete version of the painting by moving around in time and perspective from the 1600s until now. And it does an outstanding job of doing the short, powerful expression that great cartooning can do. For example, there’s a two-page spread that presents the wives and children of Philip the fourth, and it’s got narrative and emotion. It is just simple and rich at the same time. There’s a bit of conversation that Velázquez has with one of the nobles. He’s a man who’s been sent to verify whether Velasquez should receive an honorary knighthood. The Noble says, ‘You will never be one of us.’ and leaves. And Velázquez says to an empty room, ‘You will only be remembered because of me.’
Melissa: [whisper] Oh, snap.
David: Right. There is something to me that is heartbreaking about both of those statements because they’re true, right? You will never be one of us and you will only be remembered because of me.
David: And I don’t believe that conversation ever happened. But I also think that conversation happened over and over. Just probably not like that. But this book’s best trick is to present a unifying argument for Las Meninas. This might be a spoiler. So if you want to read the book cold, flip ahead about 90 seconds. The book suggests that Las Meninas was painted for an audience of one person: Philip the fourth, the King of Spain. The intent of the painting is to recreate a moment when the king is sitting for his portrait. His wife is next to him. His daughter has been called in to amuse them. To lighten the mood. With this painting, Velázquez wants the king to stand in front of the painting and feel that moment again. I would imagine that would be an intensely surreal moment for the king right to have the moment of his life represented to him with all of Velasquez’s skill. Velasquez is saying, ‘Look at what I can do. I can stop time. I can bring the past back. I can capture emotion and memory. I’m not just a portrait painter. Painting itself is an art.’ And all of that is expressed in the graphic novel in two panels.
David: First, Velasquez introduces the painting to the king, and then he has him stand in front of it and the king reacts. I also enjoy thinking about how if that’s true, everyone who stands in front of that painting is cosplaying as Philip the fourth. Whether they’re aware of it or not. I really love this book. It is a fantastic example of cartooning and it brought me closer to a great work of art. It is Ladies in Waiting by Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares.
Melissa: My final recommendation is kind of a modern classic: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zephan and translated by Lucia Graves.
David: I love the Shadow of the Wind.
Melissa: I’ve been waiting since we started this Strong Sense of Place to talk about this book.
David: And that moment has come.
Melissa: Because between us friends, this is one of the books that kind of inspired the entire idea for our website and podcast. For me, this is one of those reading experiences where I’m just whisked away to another place and time. I am in it. It’s very atmospheric, and it weaves history and food and architecture and great characters to make me feel like I’ve been somewhere, even when I have not.
Melissa: So let’s talk about the plot. The story is set in 1945 Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War and World War Two have passed, but the city and its people are still healing, still reeling from the trauma of all of that.
Melissa: Our hero is Daniel. When the story opens, it’s his 11th birthday. And to mark the occasion, his father takes him to a very special place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This is a fantastical, meandering library filled with seemingly endless shelves of books and shadowy corners. And Daniel’s father tells him this: ‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel. A sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it, and of those who read it and lived it and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive. It’s a very important promise for life. Today it’s your turn.’
Melissa: It’s impossible for me to describe how much I wish that experience would happen to me. Daniel wanders through the labyrinth of books searching, and then he pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf. This simple choice sets off a chain of events that immerses Daniel in a decades-old mystery and changes the lives of everyone he knows. I mean.
David: Yeah. Wow. Just go read it.
Melissa: I know. We’re done.
Melissa: This is an epic story that combines elements of historical fiction, gothic romance, magical realism, and just a straight-up mystery. They are trying to figure out what’s going on.
Melissa: Here are some of the things I love about this book. It has stories within stories. Daniel is drawn into the fictional novel The Shadow of the Wind, and he becomes obsessed with its author, Julian.
Melissa: As he digs into Julian’s real history, we get the back stories of all of the people in both of their lives. So the story of this book, the way I always visualize it, it’s like a web. You’re not going from A to B to C, you’re meandering around like you’re walking through the alleys of Barcelona and picking up little stories along the way.
Melissa: And all of that is unfolding against the backdrop of the early 20th century. There’s magic. There’s ill-fated love and madness and betrayal and murder, all the good stuff. The second thing I love is that Barcelona is a primary character. It’s a gothic layer cake of secrets and atmosphere and places you can actually go visit in Barcelona. When we were there, we went on a Shadow of the Wind walking tour.
David: We did.
Melissa: We visited a lot of the spots that inspired Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s the story. The characters are the third reason this book is on my all-time favorites list, and specifically the relationship between Daniel and his friend Fermin. Oh, Fermin, this guy, he is the kind of person you want as your sidekick. He claims to be a former spy. Unclear if that’s true or not. We don’t know.
David: No, we don’t.
Melissa: And he’s definitely spent some hard time in jail and on the street. Yeah, He literally meets Daniel when he’s sleeping on the street. And I think Daniel gets beaten up by someone, and Fermin, this broken-down, homeless man saves him. But Fermin, despite having all of these terrible experiences in his life, has an irrepressible sense of joie de vivre. He loves being alive, and it is infectious. He’s going to drink wine. He’s going to carouse with women. He’s going to sing songs. He’s going to read books. And Fermin has an opposite, a formidable enemy, which is the fourth reason I love this book. It has a truly despicable, hateful, evil villain. There are many haunting, dangerous things flickering around the edges of this story. But Francisco Javier Fumero, a corrupt, murderous police inspector, is the worst of all.
Melissa: Oh, Fumero! The number of times when I’m reading this book that I clench my fist and say, Fumero!
David: And he’s motivated.
Melissa: Very well motivated. They all are. Everyone’s back story is —
Melissa: Complete. His dark presence makes the sweet moments in the story all the sweeter.
Melissa: This book is suspenseful and sad, exciting and endearing, and some parts of it, honestly are pretty brutal, both physically and emotionally.
Melissa: There are fascinating bits about Spain’s history. There’s a deep understanding of grief and loss.
David: And love and relationships and how complicated those get as you get older.
Melissa: Yes. And the characters, even the ones that you love and you root for, do some unthinkable things. And it just feels like your heart is being ripped out of your chest. And then Carlos Ruiz Zafón puts it back in and puts little stitches around it. So it’s whole again. I should mention that The Shadow of the Wind is just one book in a cycle called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The four novels were written so that you can read them in any order. You might remember that I recommended The Labyrinth of the Spirits in our episode about libraries. The author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, died in 2020, which still breaks my heart. But before he did, he wrote a short story collection that’s a companion to the Cemetery of Forgotten Book Cycle. That’s called City of Mist. So if you wanted to do a big reading project, this is right for that. These are the kind of books that make me so happy to be a reader. And it’s kind of the benchmark that I compare books to. Which is pretty unfair.
Melissa: But for me, this is just a really magical read. It’s The Shadow of the Wind, and it’s by Carlos Ruiz Zephan and translated by Lucia Graves. I also just want to take a moment to shout out to Lucia Graves. She has translated all of the novels in this cycle, and they are just beautiful.
David: Those are five books we love set in Spain. Visit our show notes. It’s strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Be on the lookout for our Friday newsletter. This week we will be bringing you yet more awesome stuff about Spain.
Melissa: There will probably be some recipes in there honestly, and some of our photos from our trip.
David: Yeah. Yeah. True. If you are not subscribed, go do that. It’s strongsenseofplace.com/signup. Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re going to pack our sense of adventure and our appetites into a carry on bag and get ready to laissez le bons temps rouler at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
David: Thank you for listening. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Florian Wehde/Unsplash.
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