BY Vani IN Book Reviews

Book Review: ‘Notes From a Spanish Diary’ is a Grand Ode to Travel [Quint]

“Spain is a country for living and not for dying,” American novelist and Nobel Laureate, Ernest Hemingway famously said. It is no secret that he paid homage to his favourite country in several of his works, most notably, his non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, where he explored the metaphysics of Spanish bullfighting. Hemingway was a regular at Chicote Café on Gran Via in Madrid, as also Botin, the world’s oldest continuing restaurant – they have still preserved that corner where he used to sit, made it out into a tourist attraction, too, if you are willing to believe it!

Bringing such and other interesting anecdotes together is a new travelogue by renowned journalist and award winning writer, Ranjita Biswas, titled, Notes from a Spanish Diary. In the book, Biswas not only paints a vivid picture of Spain’s famous tourist attractions, but also introduces her readers to its chequered past and how it has affected the architecture and design of its monuments. However, what is bound to fascinate her readers and evoke a sense of intimacy and familiarity is the way she flavours the narrative with frequent references to India. Here’s an excerpt from the book that puts things into perspective:
“The Alcazar (in Seville) is an astounding example of the fusion of Christian and Islamic architecture, what is termed as Mudejar art… (It) lays special emphasis on the…ornately decorated coffered wooden ceiling. The spaces within the beams are covered with wood carvings, using geometric designs and plant motifs, or calligraphy…(However) walking on the corridor skirting the gardens of the Alcazar, the first thing that struck me was, “Why, it looks like the garden at Taj Mahal!” The jali work on the walls, the geometric designs on the tiles all echoed the same thought.”
“Before arriving in Spain, I had some preconceived ideas about the country – that it would be like its Flamenco; robust and feminine, at the same time, passionate and enticing…a chiaroscuro of images gathered through the years from pages of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Picasso’s anti-war painting Guernica, Ernest Hemingway’s description of bull fights in Death in the Afternoon,” Biswas says in the book. But, what she discovered on her travels was a country that was an eclectic mix of people and ideas, more vibrant and multifaceted than she could ever imagine, a Mecca for art lovers, the land of Picasso, Gaudí, Bacardí, Goya, Velázquez, and many more, a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities that have left their mark on everything.

What also perks up the book is the way the writer shifts her focus from Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Malaga, Ronda – cities that are really popular with the tourists, to quaint towns and cities. The little village of Mijas, for instance. Located in the South-East of Spain, it is ensconced on top of a hill overlooking the sea and famous for its donkey taxis. Surprised? Well, apparently, the donkeys are profusely decorated with colourful gear, just as elephants and camels are in India, and used for transport here (see pictures attached).

Another example is that of the historic city of Segovia that lies North-West of Madrid – a mere “side trip” for many, but exciting all the same. It is not only famous for its Roman aqueduct, well preserved even after 2000 years, its 118 arches greeting visitors at the entrance of the city, but also its Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral. The monument has more than 20 chapels and contains the first book to be printed in Spain, the Sinodal de Aguilafuente (1472) by the German printer, Johannes Parix.

In a prose that is evocative, Biswas entices the reader to step out of his or her comfort zone and explore Spain in all its glory. Here’s an excerpt about the Andalusian breads that left me slavering:

“Andalusia has all sorts of breads to choose from. The mollete, a soft, flat wheat flour bun from the town of Antequera, pan tumaca (toasted country bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato and dressed with a pinch of salt and extra virgin olive oil), ham bocadillos (subway kind of sandwich)…Pan de Alfacar, from the small town of Alfacar…”

This one as well:

“While talking about Segovia how can its cuisine, world-renowned, be far behind? The most famous is, of course, the suckling pig. So soft it is after roasting for hours that it is not cut with a knife but a dinner plate and then it’s thrown to the floor to be broken into smithereens.”

When I started reading Notes from a Spanish Diary, it promised to send me on an adventure with every turn of the page. The book pretty much delivered on its promise, is all I can say in the end.

This article is also available to read here.

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