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.
Whenever I visit Spain, top of my ‘to do’ list is going to a festival. The Spanish love festivals: it’s a wonderful reason to come together and celebrate everything from a religious event to the change of the season to the harvest.
Dancing, music, revelry – these are always on the agenda, as are all kinds of delicious foods and drinks. (In some festivals food is not merely an accompaniment but an essential element of the fiesta; for example, at La Tomatina festival, held each August in Buñol in Valencia, thousands gather to throw tomatoes at each other.)
The other essential aspect of a Spanish festival is the parade, and in many fiestas you will see traditional gigantes and cabezudos – essentially, ‘giants’ and ‘big heads’.
A giant is three to four metres tall, with a huge head made of a mix of papier maché and plaster of Paris. Here are some colourful examples:
Often, giants come in pairs: a gigante (male) and a giganta (female). The giants are modelled on archetypes that represent the history and culture of the town or village, such as peasants and noblemen and -women.
The giants are hollowed out for the costume wearer (the geganter), who wears a harness that controls the giant’s movement, making it twirl and dance to the music of the nearby band.
The tradition of the gigantes and cabezudos dates all the way back to the 15th century. At that time, the Church faced the challenge of educating people who could not read or write about the Bible. The Corpus Christi festival, they decided, was an excellent vehicle for this, because all the townspeople and villagers would come to the festival. The notion of a play acted out by costumed actors was conceived as a way to tell stories from the Bible. They had a dragon to represent evil, an angel, four evangelists in the form of a lion, an eagle, a bull and a man, and King David and Goliath – the first giant.
Over the years, the costumes evolved and became more sophisticated – and taller! The higher the costume, of course, the more people in the crowd could see it. In some places, organisations were formed to manage the giants, their creation and use. To this day the Coordinadora de Geganters de Barcelona is dedicated to the giants of Barcelona. Their website (pictured below) is a treasure trove of information on the gigantes and cabezudos: https://gegantsbcn.cat/.
The Spanish, then, are proud to stand tall, especially, it would seem, when you consider another festival tradition, this one particular to the Catalonia region. Take a look at this spectacle:
This is a castell, a castle, made not of stone but of humans! The castell-building tradition at Catalonian festivals dates back to the 18th century, but it is only in the past half a century that it has really taken off, thanks to women being permitted to join the castellers – being lighter, they have allowed for more ambitious designs reaching as high as nine and ten stories!
At the bottom of the tower is the pinya, which carries the weight, and this is formed first under the direction of the cap de colla (leader). Slowly, people forming the next levels climb into position. Then, once those in position are happy that the castell feels sufficiently stable, a traditional ‘Toc de Castells’ song is played as those in the upper levels move into position – quickly now, so as to minimise the strain on those bearing the weight. The upper levels are usually populated by children (my heart is in my mouth just writing the words!) Finally, the enxaneta – the person at the very top – climbs up. He or she raises a hand, the crowd cheers, and the castell is quickly disassembled.
As you can see in the photograph, the castellars have a uniform: white trousers, a shirt in their group’s colour, a bandana and – crucially – a black sash known as a faixa. This last item isn’t decorative but functional: it provides support to the lower back and is used by other castellers for traction as they climb (barefooted, usually).
Being a castellar means adhering to the castellar motto: Força, equilibri, valor i seny (Strength, balance, courage and common sense). They must have a great deal of faith in their fellow castellars, for one wrong move by just one member of the group could spell disaster – serious injury and even death, in some tragic cases – for others.
A castell is certainly a sight to behold at a Catalonian festival, but unlike the gigantes and cabezudos, this isn’t a source of great fun and amusement; it is the kind of spectacle that makes the heart pound until after everyone is safely down from the tower. It may seem like madness to the uninitiated, but in fact castellars are incredibly well practised and each construction has been carefully planned. This is an art form, and as such it was recently declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. What a heritage!
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?
Earlier this week, I was hunting in my files for a photograph when it struck me just how many images I was browsing through. Since I began blogging here back in September 2011, I have built quite the picture library!
When I write on this blog about the settings for my novels, I love to include photographs, because, so the English idiom goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. In my fiction writing, I have only words with which to transport my readers to the times and places of the story, but on my blog I can add extra depth by including images with my posts.
For this post, I have collated images for each of the settings of my books into collages, so that I can take you on a visual tour of my novels’ landscapes.
I hope you enjoy these vistas of my story worlds. I think you will be able to tell, at a glance, why I so love to travel. As Ibn Battuta said, ‘Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’; in my case, a storyteller who is passionate about taking readers on journeys to beautiful, historic, inspiring locations.
In my latest novel, Legacy, the love story begins when the hero and heroine cross paths in Barcelona. I very much enjoyed setting the scene in this colourful, lively city, especially because it is chock-full of works by one of my favourite architects, Antoni Gaudí.
Gaudí was a Spanish architect who lived from 1852 to 1926, and his distinctive Modernist style in architecture has been hugely influential for so many people. Here are six things that I find fascinating and inspiring about Gaudí and his work:
1. His greatest passion, besides architecture and religion (see below), was nature – mountains and caves especially. Many of his works are imbued with this love and admiration of nature, none more so than his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia; see how the roof above the nave, shown here, looks like overarching tree branches.
2. He envisioned and planned every single tiny detail of his many big works, not on paper, but through creating intricate scale models.
3. He was absolutely dedicated to his Catholic faith, and his works are so beautiful and reverent that some have named him ‘God’s architect’ and called from him to be sainted by the Pope.
4. He was a serious man, and yet not without a playful side. His buildings are often quirky, colourful and eye-catching. Here’s one of the most iconic Gaudí symbols, the salamander sculpture in Park Güell.
5. He fused all sorts of crafts into his architecture, from ceramics to stained glass. The Casa Batlló is a wonderful example; Gaudí pioneered the mosaic work on the exterior, made from broken ceramic tiles, which is called trencadís.
6. He was not afraid to dream big. His vision for the Sagrada Familia, a huge church in Barcelona, was so vast that builders are still constructing the church based on his plans. The finish date, it is hoped, will be the one-hundred-year anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
Readers of my Andalucían Nights series will spot an important homage to Gaudí’s style. In Legacy, my heroine Luna comes to live in Cadiz in a house that was inspired by a major Andalucían avant-garde architect and Surrealist artist, Eduardo Rafael Ruiz de Salazar. The house, which is right on the beach, is called La Gaviota, meaning The Seagull, and it is designed to look like a bird:
It was a small, two-storey, unusual-looking building with whitewashed walls, interspersed with floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, a domed roof and three terraces. The one at ground level led down to the beach, while the two on the upper floor jutted out on the north-east and south-east sides of the house, like wings of a giant bird about to take flight.
Over the years, La Gaviota has been a haven for artists and writers, who find inspiration in the arresting architecture and the beautiful sea views. Luna, too, finds this home to be a haven, a place where she can free her mind and explore her past and future – a place where her dreams can take flight.
When I envision La Gaviota, there is a good deal of Gaudí in the design. Especially, my mind takes me back to a hot summer’s afternoon when I visited Park Güell on Carmel Hill in Barcelona, which is all Gaudí’s design. The colours, the lines, the creativity, the boldness, the beauty – it is all so wonderfully evocative; like something out of a romance novel, n’est-ce pas?
For me, Gaudí’s work is the perfect exemplification of Goethe’s wisdom:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.