Autumn has come, and the lawns surrounding my house in Ireland are carpeted with leaves in glorious colours. The view from my writing desk over the countryside is beautiful, and different, which brings a new energy to my writing. Still, a part of me misses the Mediterranean, azure beneath a cloudless sky, and the scent of lavender and sweet oleanders, and the drone of bees, and the dreamy, hazy heat – I miss my French home.
Every summer I travel to the Provence-
Our mas is set on a hill that affords wonderful views over the bay of St Tropez. Whether I am inside or outside writing, I am always positioned so that I can see the sea – the Mediterranean of my childhood. I write in the drawing room and at my desk, which has the most beautiful view, and all around the grounds.
As you can see, I am a keen gardener, and I like to grow plants and flowers whose colours and aromas inspire me. Vivid purple bougainvillea climb the front of my house, while in the beds I have delicate pink and yellow oleanders (beautiful and yet so poisonous; il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences!). My favourite of all is lavender. Parts of the garden are overgrown with lavender, so that the fragrance permeates the air and attracts bees and so many butterflies.
My time in France is not wholly spent at the mas, however. I also spend a lot of time at the beaches near Ste Maxime, sitting for hours, dreaming and plotting; and in the many pavement cafes in nearby towns, like Les Issambres, where I can sip a café latté and people-watch to my heart’s content. I love to explore the local area, too. The scenery within an hour’s drive of my house is absolutely breathtaking.
I especially love to visit the Gorges du Verdon, a stunning nature resort half an hour from our house. It is France’s Grand Canyon, a deep gorge through which the turquoise waters of the River Verdon flow. After a walk, I go to the village of Moustiers (pictured top left), which is quite simply one of the most beautiful villages in all of France. It is a village built on the side of a cliff, with a spring cascading down as a waterfall. Suspended between two cliffs is a golden star strung on a chain which, according to local legend, was hung by a knight during the Crusades. It is an ancient place, and a deeply inspirational one for me.
Of course, there are other places beyond France that I find inspirational, too. Ireland, where I am living this winter, has so captured my imagination that I have been reading up on its legends and thinking of a novel set on the Emerald Isle; and my travels over the coming months will no doubt spark my creativity as well. But my French home has a special place in my heart. Still, I am not sad to have left my little haven, for I know that it is waiting there for me, full of promise and serenity, and that next summer I will return and be inspired to write all over again.
Did you know that the plaza – a large, open urban public space, especially a square – originated in Spain? The Spanish built them to be the hub of towns and cities. There, in the buildings, resided the religious authorities (usually in a cathedral), the administrative staff and the law court. In the middle, in the open space, people of the community could come together: for market day, for meetings, for military parades, for fiestas.
In my travels through Spain, I have seen many beautiful plazas, but the one that stands out most in my memory is in Seville: the Plaza de España.
The plaza was built for a world fair called the Ibero-American Exposition, held in Seville between May and June of 1929. As is the case in any world fair, the host was very keen to impress on international visitors their stature and style, and so the design of the square and the surrounding buildings was carefully conceived to impress – and so it did, and does to this day!
The plaza is situated in the Maria Luisa Park, whose gardens were designed by French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier (the man behind the gardens at the Eiffel Tower, Paris) to be lush and paradisiacal, with pavilions and fountains and Mediterranean tiling, along with palm and citrus fruit trees.
The plaza is vast: some 50,000 square metres, the size of five football pitches. The 500-metre canal in the plaza has earned it the nickname ‘Venice of Seville’; you can even hire boats and row around the square. Access to the buildings is via four bridges over the canal named for the ancient kingdoms of Spain: Castille, Aragon, Navarre and Leon.
The buildings stand grand and elegant, forming a semi-circle. They were designed by Aníbal González, who was influenced by the Renaissance, Art Deco and Neo Mudéjar (Morish Revival) architectural styles.
My favourite part of the design is the huge central fountain, designed by Vicente Taverner (who took over the design of the plaza when González resigned in 1926), and the many ceramic-tiled alcoves in the walls of the plaza, each devoted to a different province of Spain. Here is the alcove for the province of Zaragoza:
Beautiful, don’t you think?
For a breath-taking bird’s-eye view of the plaza, I recommend climbing up to one of the first-floor balconies – the central one is particularly grand, and affords an amazing view. (The view may, in fact, look familiar, if you are a Star Wars fan; the Plaza de España features in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones as a city on Naboo.)
If you can bring yourself to walk away from that view, there are two wonderful museums housed in the old buildings, the Archaeological Museum in the former Fine Arts Pavilion, and the Museum of Art and Popular Costume in the Mudejar Pavilion.
Have you visited any Spanish plazas? Do you have a Spanish-inspired plaza, perhaps, in a town or city near you? I would love to hear about your own travels.
Readers of my novels will know that I am a very visual writer, especially when it comes to describing colours. Not for me grey, dreary scenery – I love bold, vibrant colours that catch the eye and touch the soul. Do you remember the key line in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple? To paraphrase: it is a travesty to walk past the colour purple in a field and not notice it. I quite agree!
Recently, an article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘The infinity of blue’ – all about books written about the colour blue and the subsequent desire to collect them – got me thinking about which colours in particular I am drawn to in my reading and my writing.
In my Andalucían Nights trilogy, two colours stand out.
Red: the colour of passion, which is at the heart of Spanish culture and this trilogy. It is the colour of the flamenco dancer’s skirt and the lipstick on her pouting mouth; the colour of the toreador’s outfit and the flag he waves daringly at the bull; the colour of the flag that embodies such nationalist spirit; the colour of the sangria that lifts the spirit; the colour of blood, of all the sensations and struggles and triumphs of life – of love, of hearts beating as one.
Blue: the colour of beautiful clear skies in which the sun beats down and against which ancient ruins and astonishing architecture loom; the colour of the ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see, so many different shades of blue for every mood and meaning; the colour of daydreams, of longings, of legends; the colour of Cadiz, the Bride of the Sea, the city the Moors compared to a ‘dish of silver in a bowl of blue’, founded by no less than Hercules himself.
My publisher, London Wall, recently released an all-in-one edition of my Andalucían Nights trilogy in ebook format (https://www.amazon.com/Andalucian-Nights-Trilogy-Award-winning-Romantic-ebook/dp/B06XKZ2XKC/). The challenge for my cover artist was to devise a new cover that would convey the feel of all three books. I was delighted with the final cover, especially because it blends together the two colours at the heart of the trilogy.
What do you think of this new cover? Do you think colour is important in a book cover? Are you attracted to certain colours in books – are your bookshelves dominated by greens or blues or pinks or golds? I would love to hear your thoughts.
As part of my FANtastic Fiesta, running until 14 August, I’m giving away three lovely wooden Spanish hand fans, as featured on the covers of my Andalucían Nights trilogy:
No doubt you know that the hand fan is a classic object that blends both fashion and function. But how much do you know about the history of the fan? In this article I will share what I’ve learned through my research. I hope you find it interesting background, and you feel inspired to enter my FANtastic giveaway at http://hannahfielding.net/fan-tastic-fiesta/ and have your own beautiful fan.
The first recorded hand fans date back to Ancient Greece, but they were not widely used until the 17th century: Japan and China led the way in developing fans, and once traders introduced them to Europe, they were widely adopted as objects of beauty and practicality. Fans were soon deemed the accessory to have, especially for noblewomen and royalty; they feature in several portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, for example.
Many of the fans at this time were rigid, and ladies would hang them from their skirt belt, but soon the more practical and enchanting folding fan came into favour. What was painted on your fan when extended was of great interest, and it became quite the art form to design the leaves: challenging, because at that time the sticks of the fan, made from ivory or tortoiseshell, were closely spaced.
By the 18th century, specialist fan makers existed, and they used a broad range of materials for their art, including silk, while the painting on each fan was more intricate and artistic. The fan really had become an object d’art.
The handheld fan was now an integral part of a lady’s attire for dedicated followers of fashion, but it was not only used to impress and beautify. The fan served other core purposes: to cool, to conceal and to communicate. In the 18th century, pallor was considered beautiful in a woman, thus at the fireside they would use a fan to conceal flushed cheeks and to protect heavy makeup. At the same time, in regal courts fans were used to communicate non-verbally. At the end of the century, print designer Charles Francis Badini created the ‘Fanology, or Ladies Conversation Fan’, which featured instructions for how to use the fan to spell out messages. Here is the fan, as featured by Christies of London:
Of all the European countries, Spain is most associated with the hand fan to this day. The Spanish embraced the fan, and it would become an integral part of the emotional, sensual flamenco dance that evolved in Andalucía. An entire ‘language of the fan’, the abanico, evolved. For example, holding your fan open and covering one cheek meant ‘I like you’; holding your closed fan over your heart meant ‘I love you’; waving your open fan quickly at your side meant ‘Keep a distance; we’re being watched’.
There are some spectacular hand fans on display at the Museum of Costume in Madrid. This one, for example, dates from 1880–1890 and has beautiful peacock detailing:
Here is another, painted in 1829 to commemorate the marriage of King Ferdinand VII with Maria Cristina of Naples:
Beautiful, don’t you think? If you’re interested in fans and you’re based in the UK, you can visit a museum dedicated to these items of beauty, practicality and communication: the Fan Museum at Greenwich: https://www.thefanmuseum.org.uk/. There you can see fans from all over the world, such as this one by the iconic Spanish artist Salvador Dali, inspired by Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
My latest novel, Legacy, is set in Cadiz, a city in Andalucía that is almost entirely surrounded by sea. This is the view from my heroine Luna’s home at dusk:
The port of Puerto de Santa María glowed in the distance, accompanied by the steadfast wink of the lighthouse. Fishing boats were still out on the ocean and to the east, the faraway Sierra de Cádiz was edged with the fading sky, making los Pueblos Blancos dim to a soft violet.
The fishing boats are especially intriguing for Luna. Having come from New York, she is no stranger to fresh fish on a menu, but she has never had an opportunity to watch traditional fishermen at work, nor to sample some of the delicious fish available in Andalucía.
At the market, she sees stall after stall heaped with fresh, colourful local produce from land and sea:
Luna paused to admire the day’s catch of fish lying on slabs of ice, their silver scales glistening under the neon lights; some of which were specimens she had never heard of. She wondered how they were able to keep them looking still so appetizing in the heat.
‘We have the best red tuna in the world, fished locally in Tarifa,’ the fishmonger proudly told her.
Later, her new boss Ruy takes her out for a meal at a fish restaurant, and they enjoy a delicious meal of tuna Basquaise: tuna with tomatoes, onions and peppers cooked in herbs, fish stock, white wine and olive oil.
The tuna is caught, Ruy explains, through an age-old practice called the almadraba. The name is derived from the Arabic word meaning ‘a place to strike’, and the practice dates all the way back to the Phoenicians. Between February and July, the Andalucían fishermen trap tuna in a series of nets.
Eager to learn more about this ancient custom, Luna agrees to accompany Ruy on his yacht, the Vela Gitana (Sailing Gypsy), to the coastal town of Conil de la Frontera, where the fisherman are landing their catches.
En route, they stop off at an island and go snorkelling:
As they sank beneath the surface… the visibility was extraordinary, the water a crystalline blue with beds of coloured coral on the floor of the sea. They drifted further down into a magical underwater garden with an infinite variety of textures and shapes. Rainbow-hued fish cruised by, ignoring the newcomers, weaving themselves in and out of the fields of strange grasses that waved in the submarine currents, darting about and feeding off the fronds and ferns of the sea. Pretty variegated fish and other luminous ones came into vision from time to time…. A group of seahorses floated past and a large fish, which Luna couldn’t identify, chased a shoal of smaller fry, swimming only a foot away from her.
The sight of these sea creatures in their natural habitat is beautiful – and makes the sight to come all the more shocking for Luna.
When they reach Conil de la Frontera, Ruy explains to Luna how the almadraba works:
‘There’s a maze of fixed vertical nets stretching for several kilometres from the coast out to sea… They’re attached to floating barrels and corks, kept in place by very heavy anchors. As the blue-fin tuna migrate from the Atlantic to lay their eggs in the Mediterranean, they find their path blocked by the barrier net of the Almadraba. As they try to escape, they enter through a funnel into the cuadra, the holding net made up of several pens, to end up finally in the central pen, the copo, the only one with a horizontal net.’
Luna is intrigued, but when the next stage of the almadraba commences, it makes for difficult viewing:
Ruy led her to a good vantage point not far from the action. They could hear the fishermen’s excited shouts and laughter – ‘Anda! Vamonos!’ – as they hauled in their huge nets.
‘Look, the fish are trying to get away,’ Ruy pointed to the surface of the sea, which was turning white and frothing as though in ebullition, heaving with a multitude of enormous fish, their fins slicing through the water.
Men armed with sharp knives were jumping into the copo to hook the bluefin tuna, forcing them to the surface and hauling them into the boats, battling for supremacy with the fish, a couple of which looked as if they must be three times the fisherman’s body weight. The slaughter had begun.
Now the churning waters had turned blood red. In a frenzy, the huge fish were bucking and roiling, their slithery dark backs arching out of the water in the scarlet urgency of their death throes.
Should Luna have stayed to watch this part? Perhaps not. Ruy is certainly concerned that the sight has upset her. But this is history, right before them, an ancient custom. And history, whether beautiful or gruesome, is important. It has a certain pull. It can, if you let it, define you. So when, on the day of the almadraba, Luna crosses paths with a shadowy figure from her past, she must decide: be like the tuna, trapped and bleeding – or escape the net and swim free?