No day out in Seville would be complete without a visit to the Alcazar, which is exactly why the hero of my new book, Indiscretion, takes the heroine there:
They left the café and took a leisurely walk south through bright, tree-lined streets, eventually arriving at the Alcázar. Alexandra was dazzled by this palace straight out of One Thousand and One Nights, with its vast rooms covered in glazed tiles. Never before had she seen so many marble columns, arabesques, arcades, galleries and cool, echoing corridors. They walked through the silent gardens covered in clouds of roses, laden with the pungent scents of myrtle hedges and the sweet balmy breath of orange blossom.
An alcazar is a type of castle built in Spain and Portugal as a residence for royalty. The Alcazar of Seville is reminiscent of the Alhambra palace of Granada, and it too was crafted by Moors, but then was taken over by Christian kings. To this day, the Spanish royal family use the upper levels of the palace as their Seville residence, making it the oldest palace in use in Europe. It has been recognised for its unique beauty and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but visitors may explore parts of the palace and garden – as have I.
It was the history of the palace that most interested me when I explored it for Indiscretion. Its first occupants were King Pedro of Castille and his mistress, Maria de Padilla. Poor Maria lived in the shadow of another Maria, as Salvador explains:
‘At first Pedro the Cruel fell in love with Doña Maria Coronel, but she was married to another. He condemned her husband to death, but promised to spare him if his wife was accommodating. She refused to yield to him and her husband was executed. She sought refuge in a convent, but Pedro the Cruel tracked her down. In despair, she burned her own face, thus putting an end to the accursed love that her beauty had inspired. Don Pedro then consoled himself with Maria de Padilla.’
Still, Pedro must have loved Maria de Padilla: after her death from the plague, he had her remains interred at the Royal Chapter in the Cathedral of Seville. But Alexandra does not see any romance in the story: ‘So much for your famous Andalucian fidelity and passion. Not my idea of romance, I’m afraid,’ she tells Salvador.
And yet, there is something magnetic about the way Salvador challenges her on their visit to the Alcazar. In the magnificent Courtyard of the Maidens (Patio de las Doncellas) Salvador explains its purpose: every year, as tribute to their victory, the sultans received there 100 virgins taken prisoner in each of the Christian cities they conquered. It is a test of Alexandra’s metal:
Alexandra lifted a quizzical eyebrow, holding his gaze defiantly. ‘Has a liking for this barbaric custom left its trace in the Spanish people as well?’
This time Salvador gave his laugh full rein, delighting in her response. ‘I was in no doubt my independent and emancipated cousin would disapprove of such a custom.’
Thus does the Alcazar stand as a complex backdrop in this scene between two characters hovering on the edge of attraction. How will its legends, its history, its beauty affect their connection? Will Alexandra be seduced by the legacy of her Spanish background, and the man who is revealing it to her?
One thing is certain: there is a reason the Alcazar of Seville was recently chosen as a location for Game of Thrones filming. It is a stirring, atmospheric place that demands drama. And indiscretion?
My new novel, Indiscretion, is set in 1950s Spain.The story of love and families, lies and indiscretions, is steeped in the culture of Andalusia. Of course I could not write a book set in that time and place without weaving in the most emblematic and masterful of Spanish archetypes, the matador.
The matador is an experienced torero (bullfighter) who takes the lead at a corrida (bullfight). It is the matador who is at the centre of the spectacle, and who kills the bull – his title in full is matador de toros (killer of bulls). He has earned that title after a long period of fighting novillos (young bulls).
Bullfighting isn’t considered a sport, but rather a performance – and so the matador is handsome and charismatic and dramatic and fantastically flamboyant in his gold-embroidered suit, which the Spanish call the traje de luces (suit of lights).
Attractive, dominating, strong, powerful, brave: does the matador sound to you like a man my heroine in Indiscretion could admire?
The setting is La Plaza de Toros in Ronda, a huge, tragic amphitheatre reminiscent of a Roman arena. Alexandra is seated in the president’s box, along with the family of the matador who has invited Alexandra to the corrida (bullfight) today. Enter Don Felipe:
He was wearing the dress of the matador: black silk breeches drawn in at the hips and a bolero in gold brocade, decorated with sequins, tassels, studs and epaulettes, which set off his golden hair, his sun-tanned complexion and his proud bearing.
Taking the large red cape in both hands, he waited. The animal paused, sniffed the air, and then charged, head down, in a bold attack, horns gleaming.
Don Felipe stood motionless, defying his opponent. He leant slightly forward until the last moment; then, just as the horns were about to strike the cape, he moved his arms slowly in a sweeping motion, pivoting lightly on the balls of his feet, causing the head and body of the bull to pass by him.
His veronica was greeted by enthusiastic shouts from the masses. It was plain to Alexandra that Don Felipe was the star of this lethal duel, in which man and beast confronted each other in a game of skill and death.
After another round, in which Don Felipe stabs the bull, it is time for the third and final death match, the terciodelamuerte. Before it can commence, Don Felipe walks to the grandstand to salute the president.
Don Felipe suddenly stopped in front of her, a brilliant smile lighting up his hard features. He peered at her through long dark eyelashes that only partially concealed the smouldering look in his eyes. Against the blondness of his hair, his eyes appeared almost unnaturally black. He bowed low, then, his gaze becoming more intense, he threw Alexandra his black velvet hat with a theatrical gesture, thereby dedicating the bullfight to her. In a moment, he turned to face the danger alone, walking deliberately up to the bull, his sword hidden under the scarlet folds of his muleta.
What happens next? Well, of course I don’t want to spoil the story for you. But have I roused your interest in Don Felipe? What do you think of a man following the traditions of his predecessors like this? How would you feel in Alexandra’s place, looking on with the fight dedicated to you– thrilled, frightened, repellent, enchanted? Could a matador be the hero of a romance novel? Could Alexandra fall for Don Felipe?
Pick up a copy of Indiscretion to find out!
The closest city to the hacienda, El Pavon, where my characters live in Indiscretion is Seville, Spain. It is a city I know well, and love, and so I very much enjoyed describing my heroine, Alexandra’s, exploration of the place. As in my previous novels, where my heroines got to know Mombasa, Kenya, and Venice, Italy, I thought it important to show not only the pretty, admirable aspects of city life, but also the more colourful and darker side that lies beneath the veneer. In Seville, that meant taking Alexandra to Triana, home, in the 1950s, to a large Romani population – the gypsies.
In Indiscretion, there is a gypsy encampment on the de Falla land by the hacienda, and the story of the alluring gitana Marujita is interwoven with Alexandra and Salvador’s story. With gypsy culture and values featuring so prominently in the book, I wanted to take Alexandra to where I went as a young woman in Seville to learn about all of its people: the Triana bridge. In the book, Salvador is helping Alexandra to get to know her homeland, and to conduct research for her new romantic novel. So at sunset he takes her to Triana, which he sees as typical of Andalucia, and when Alexandra asks, ‘What’s so special about Triana?’, he replies:
‘Triana is the haunt of gypsies, the home of popular song and folklore dancing. In the days of Haroun El Rashid, it was the scene of magical Zambra festivals where they danced the ‘Dance of the Moors’, and since then Seville has become famous for musical culture throughout the western world, and Triana the heartland of flamenco. There is no place on earth I can think of where you can see so many bizarre and exotic characters. They are a different people, the Trianeros, with their unique traditions and a charm and wit all their own,’ he added, his face alight. ‘They have inspired the great musicians of the world. Rossini’s bumptious barber, Bizet’s bewitching Carmen, and Mozart’s frivolous Don Juan, all these characters are here.’
Triana sits on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, almost an island in the water. Once, it was cut off as an arrabal–separated from the main city. The trianeros have a strong collective identity, and as Salvador suggests, a very vibrant culture. Originally, it was populated by sailors, potters and artisans, and it soon became a hub for toreadors and flamenco singers and dancers – and then, gypsies. They often lived communally in corrales: buildings with rooms opening onto central, shared courtyards with fountains. Few remain today, due to a programme to displace the gypsies in the 1970s, but their influence on local culture remains.
To reach Triana, you cross the 19th-century Isabel II bridge (Puente de Triana). This is Alexandra’s impression of that bridge:
As they approached the bridge, the chorus of voices became almost deafening, some shrill, others boisterous, punctuated by the shaky rattling of carts, the tintinnabulation of tram bells, the flat, repeated cries of street vendors. And over in the distance, on Seville’s waterfront, the dismal shadow of the Golden Tower, the old prison watchtower of the Guadalquivir, rose like some baleful omen of misfortune, casting its fiery reflection on the shimmering surface of the river in the light of the setting sun.
Once in Triana, passing the beautiful Moorish Revival Chapel of El Carmen, you may enter the market and look at the foundations of the Castillo de San Jorge, once the heart of the Spanish Inquisition; cross Altozano Square and admire the monuments to flamenco and to bullfighter Juan Belmonte; visit the Centro Ceramica Santa Ana (museum of pottery); and stroll along the waterfront street Calle Betis, lined with restaurants and bars that offer amazing views of Seville. Perhaps over a glass of wine or an iced orange juice, you’ll discuss with your companion the legend of Triana. Allow Salvador to explain:
‘Some people say that the goddess Astarte, amorously pursued by Hercules, took refuge at the bank of the Guadalquivir river. … Astarte was semitic goddess of fertility. The Greeks knew her as Aphrodite. She was so taken by the beauty of the riverbank that she thought it an ideal place to build a city. Hence the creation of Triana. Astarte’s dual influence of sexuality and war certainly seeps through the place…’
If you are in Seville then Triana is well worth a visit. But I hope, unlike my heroine Alexandra, you manage to explore the neighbourhood. For Alexandra does not even make it across the bridge; she is accosted by Paquita, an old gypsy woman, who is determined to tell her a foreboding fortune.
Careful, my beauty,’ she rasped as she drew closer to Alexandra, waving a withered finger at her, ‘do not delude yourself, do not be deceived, the devil is cunning!’
One of the most lingering memories of my time in Andalusia, Spain – setting for my new novel, Indiscretion– is of flavours. Succulent tomato. The very freshest of fish. Fragrant olive oil. The salty tang of Serrano ham. Delicious!
It was a real pleasure, while writing Indiscretion and keeping the Andalusia spirit alive, to experiment in the kitchen with traditional dishes from the region, and my favourite of all is the gazpacho.
I first tasted gazpacho not in Spain but in Egypt. I was pregnant with my first baby, and we lived in Cairo at the time, which was hot, ever so hot. My husband suggested I try making gazpacho because his parents had lived for a long time in Spain and his mother used to make it in the summer when he went there on holidays. I loved it at first sip, and now we often have it in France on hot summer days.
Gazpacho dates back a long way. Some say it was developed from an old Arab soup made from bread, olive oil, water and garlic that the Moors brought to Spain; others cite the Romans as having invented the dish. Certainly, it has been a staple in Andalusian cuisine for hundreds of years, and has provided sustenance to all, from peasants and farmers all the way up to the gentry, for a starter, a main dish or a tapa.
Recipes vary, but the traditional gazpacho has a base of garlic, stale bread, olive oil and salt mixed to a paste, and then ripe tomatoes and vinegar are added, along with vegetables. In times gone by the ingredients were mushed up using a pestle and mortar, and some chefs still use this method in preference to a blender.
Gazpacho comes in three colours:
- Red is the most common, and contains plenty of tomato.
- White doesn’t contain tomato, but dried fruits instead.
- Green is the same as white but is coloured by the use of spices.
All sorts of additions may be made, from avocado to watermelon, grapes to strawberries, meat to seafood.
When I make gazpacho, I stick to a simple recipe, as follows, and then have fun with garnishes.
Slice of stale bread, soaked in water for 1/2 hour and then rung out
2 lbs very ripe tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 cup water
½ cup olive oil
½ onion, peeled and chopped finely
½ cucumber, peeled and chopped finely
Clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
- Mix the garlic, olive oil, salt and bread to a paste, using a pestle and mortar or a blender.
- Add the other ingredients and puree (roughly for a chunky consistency).
- Refrigerate for two hours.
- Taste and season.
- Serve with any of the following garnishes: cherry tomatoes, croutons, fresh bell pepper slices, diced tomatoes, cucumber, hard boiled eggs, chopped ham, chopped almonds, cumin, mint or orange segments.
A cultural symbol of Spain known around the world, the Spanish fan exudes romance and passion. So much so, it is an important symbol on the cover of my new novel, Indiscretion:
While the fan may have begun its life in Spain back in the 14th century as a practical object for staying cool in the sultry heat, when flamenco dancers began incorporating them into their dances, the nobility took notice. Then, when the design of fans became ever more beautiful, they secured a place as an essential accessory for all Spanish women. Soon, they came in all manner of colours and sizes, and were adorned with everything from lace to feathers. Many Spanish women built up quite the collection!
With fans so commonplace and so versatile in their movement, they became the ideal means by which to communicate without words – a sort of semaphore via fan. Thus the señoritas of the 19th century developed their own secret language of the fan. This was a time when young ladies were always chaperoned, and speaking to a prospective beau was nigh-on impossible. But in time an interested young man could discern the lady’s mood or desire simply by watching how she moved her fan.
Here’s a look at the some of the common ways to communicate with the fan:
- Short, fast sweeps across the chest: I’m unavailable to you.
- Slow, seductive sweeps across the chest: I’m available to you.
- Closed fan carried hanging in the left hand: I’m available and on the lookout.
- Open fan touched to the cheek: I like the look of you!
- Open fan covering the mouth with smouldering eyes: I’m blowing you a kiss.
- Closed fan tapped urgently on palm: Careful! We’re being watched.
- Hitting fan on dress: I’m jealous.
- Giving fan to the young man: I’m yours.
- Pointing the fan: Meet me over there.
- Covering face with fan: It’s over between us.
- Fiddling with fan: Hurry up!
Fascinating, don’t you think? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to attend a traditional ball, dressed up beautifully, and to forbid words entirely, so that the only sound is the room is music and all communication is carried out by way of the fan and facial expressions? I think that would make a beautiful scene in a film – imagine the seductive tension in the room!
If, like me, you find fans beautiful and their history very interesting, these museums worldwide are worth a visit:
- The Musée de l’Éventail (Fan Museum) in Paris, located within the Atelier Anne Hoguet, a workshop for fan-making and restoration.
- The Hand Fan Museum in Healdsburg, California, which has more than 2,500 fans in its collection.
- The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London, which has 4,000 fans, on rotation, the oldest of which dates from the 10th century.