There is so much that drew me to the Spanish region of Andalucía when it came time to choose a setting for my romantic trilogy. But given that core themes in the trilogy are roots and legacies, the rich history of the Andalucía was a big attraction.
Andalucía is steeped in history. I have written before about the Moors who ruled ‘Al-Andalus’, modern-day Andalucía, from 711 to 1492 (see my blog post http://hannahfielding.net/the-moorish-legacy-in-andalucia/), and today I want to focus on another important people who took control of Andalucía and helped to shape its history: the Romans.
The Roman occupation of Andalucía dates back to the sixth century AD. They conquered the region, which was controlled by the Carthaginians, and bought it into their empire, naming it Baetica (part of Spania). It became an important part of the Roman Empire: emperors Trajan and Hadrian hailed from here, and in mythology Hercules was said to have founded the city of Cadiz.
The Romans lost Andalucía to the Moors many centuries ago, and yet their influence is felt still, most especially in the distinctive architecture of the region. The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (the Mezquita) is a beautiful example of Roman-inspired Moorish architecture. It was in fact constructed using materials from Roman buildings, including a temple dedicated to Janus that had stood on the site and the Amphitheatre of Mérida.
For me, original Roman buildings are even more interesting. When I visited Andalucía, I spent some time touring archaeological sites. I especially loved the Roman amphitheatres: the Acinipo, near Ronda; the Italica, Seville; and the Malaga theatre.
[Picture credits: Apinicio Falconaumanni; Malaga Andy Nash; Italica Diego Delso.]
Baleo Claudia, in the Cadiz province, is really stunning. There, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient town, complete with basilica, theatre, market, and the temple of Isis – all at a spectacular stretch of coastline.
I found stepping back into the Roman Empire in Andalucía fascinating – and inspirational. When you read my Andalucían Nights trilogy, you will find echoes of the distant Roman past interspersed in these modern-era stories.
For example, in Indiscretion Salvador considers what makes the Andalucían horses the family breed so special:
‘Look at our cartujanos. Over the centuries, their bloodline lost its purity and was injected with new strains that have made it stronger. Today, not only does the blood of their Moorish ancestors run in them, but also that of the Nubian horse, which the Romans used in their chariot races.’
Also in Indiscretion, the heroine Alexandra visits Ronda, and feels a sense of the past when she steps into the bullring:
The following afternoon, La Plaza de Toros in Ronda was drenched with the blinding white glare of a fierce sun. The huge, tragic amphitheatre with its floor of red sand, reminiscent of the Roman arenas of old, had been the scene of many bloody and barbarous combats between man and beast since the end of the eighteenth century.
I could not resist drawing on the Roman influence in my characterisation as well. In Legacy, for example, the heroine finds herself likening Ruy to a Roman god.
He was coming towards her, bare-chested, his eyes shining. He looked like a primitive Roman god and the sexual stir she felt in her belly was instant, confusing her thoughts.
Of course, beyond Andalucía itself, another Roman influence can be found in all my writing – that of the great Roman philosophers, Marcus Aurelius in particular. I will leave you with one of my favourite Aurelius quotations from Meditations, whose sentiment guides my writing hand:
‘Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.’
Here’s a little quiz question for you:
Which bird features in my novel Burning Embers, set in Kenya, and my novel Indiscretion, set in Spain?
No doubt the photograph has given away the answer! Yes, it is the flamingo.
In Burning Embers, the heroine Coral takes a balloon ride over the Rift Valley, and as she passes over Lake Baringo she sees beautiful flamingos stalking for food and basking in the sunlight on the shores. Many miles away, in Andalucía, Spain, Alexandra of Indiscretion sees flocks of pink flamingos lying languidly in the sun beside the Guadalete River.
Even now, I can close my eyes and see those splashes of vivid colour in my memories. I grew up in Egypt, where flamingos migrate in the winter, and I now spend each summer in the south of France, not too far from the Camargue, where flamingos nest. But the Andalucían flamingos, which I saw on my travels, are particularly memorable. I visited the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a vast natural lake to which flamingos flock each spring to breed. The sight was absolutely beautiful – thousands of birds standing in the water, whose mirror-like surface glinted in the sun and reflected their vibrant colour to create a dazzling display of sunset pink.
My interest in the flamingo goes beyond its eye-catching colour, however. I love its elegance, its sleek lines, as beautifully captured here by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso:
I love the flamingo’s exoticism: it looks like a creature straight out of a fantasy novel. At the end of his poem ‘The Flamingos’, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described flamingos ‘strid[ing] off one by one into the imaginary’. They are like something out of a dream – something, indeed, out of Alice’s dream of Wonderland; no wonder they spark my imagination.
I think what most fascinates me about the flamingo, though, and inspires me to weave them into my own fiction, is that they are a very romantic bird. When it comes time to breed, both the females and males dance together in unison. See the following BBC footage from Patagonia (from the 2-minute mark):
Once the birds are paired, they build a nest and nurture the egg and then young together; they are usually monogamous for the duration of the breeding season. Each pair has its own love story that summer – romantic, don’t you think?
You may well associate flamingos with passion then, but be warned: if you do not wish to upset a Spaniard, don’t confuse the dance of passion for the bird of passion! In Spanish, the word for flamingo is ‘flamenco’ – which is a word that also means an Andalucían art form. But you always sing and dance flamenco, never flamingo.
Also, despite the fact that way back in history the Romans thought flamingo to be a real delicacy, their meat should certainly be off the menu these days (there have been reports of people eating them recently). Far better, instead, to respect this protected animal and in their honour raise a glass… of Pink Flamingo cocktail, perhaps?
Each of the Spanish regions has its own unique culture and history; but for me, the most beautiful and fascinating of them all is Andalucía. This southernmost region has a distinctive look and feel influenced by a history of Moorish occupation. It is a place characterised by legacy, and thus was the ideal setting for my recent romance trilogy: Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy.
The Moors were descended from Berber and Arab tribes of North Africa, and they ruled ‘Al-Andalus’, modern-day Andalucía, from 711 to 1492. More than 500 years later, their presence is still felt. Here are three important legacies the Moors left in Andalucía:
Under Moorish rule, sophisticated irrigation systems were developed, which greatly improved agricultural output. Not only this, but the Moors brought with them crops which were then integrated into Andalucían farming – and, subsequently, into the cuisine. Orange, grapefruit, lemon, peach, apricot, fig, pomegranate, artichoke, almonds, carrot, coriander, saffron, sugar cane, rice… these were all brand-new flavours to be explored. Consider paella, for example, that staple of Spanish cuisine, and the almond taste in so many Andalucían desserts and pastries; it is thanks to the Moors’ introduction of rice and saffron and almonds that such recipes were ever conceived.
Cooking methods that are still in use today were also taught: fish coated in flour and then fried, for example. The Moors favoured salt and vinegar for food preservation; their influence can be seen today in the tapas dish boquerones en vinagre, anchovies marinated in vinegar.
No doubt you know that Spanish is a Romance language: like French and Italian, it evolved from Latin between the sixth and ninth centuries. But did you know that in fact as many as 4,000 words Spanish words have Arabic roots, thanks to the Moorish rule? Most words that begin with ‘al’ are derived from Arabic, as does that most famous of Spanish expressions, ‘¡Ole!’
Hundreds of place names in Andalucía are derived from Arabic, such as Almería City (from Al-Meraya, the watchtower), Jaén City (from Jayyan, crossroads of caravans) and Sanlúcar de Barrameda (from shaluqa, meaning the Levant wind, and bar-am-ma’ida, water well of the plateau). Plenty of geographical features also have Arabic names, such as the River Guadalquivir (derived from Al-Wādĩ Al-Kabir, the big river).
Given names like Almudena, Fátima and Guadalupe can also be traced back to Arabic origins, as can Omar, Soraya, Zaida and Zahira. (Surnames are less commonly related to Arabic, because in the 15th and 16th centuries Muslims were persecuted and forced to adopt Christian family names.)
Last but by no means least, the most striking of all the legacies…
Out in the countryside of Andalucia, through the north of Cádiz and Málaga provinces, you find the pueblos blancos. Literally translated, they are the ‘white villages’, so-called because the villagers whitewash their homes. The result is luminous buildings that stand out in the landscape, reflecting the light – a contrast of brilliant white against the azure sky that is beautiful and unforgettable. The whitewashing tradition was begun by the Moors, who knew, from their African heritage, that it reflected the blazing sunrays and cooled the buildings.
Within and beyond these villages, you will find Moorish influence in so much of the architecture, in the colours, the materials, the symmetry, the domes, the elegant arches. The two most striking examples of Moorish architecture that have endured in Andalucía are the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Alcázar in Seville. You can read all about them in these articles from my blog: http://hannahfielding.net/the-alcazar-seville-a-setting-for-indiscretion/; http://hannahfielding.net/tales-of-the-alhambra/; and http://hannahfielding.net/the-hall-of-the-abencerrages/.
The Moors, then, have left a lasting legacy in Andalucía, and it is one that inspired me greatly as I wrote my Andalucían Nights novels. You will find references to the Moors throughout the books, with regard to everything from art to legends.
But what of the great spirit of Andalucía, the fiery passion of its people – does that come from Moorish ancestors? I will let you decide, and in the meantime I will leave you smiling, I hope, with a little joke from Salvador in Indiscretion:
‘Didn’t you know that in Andalucia, love is as inconstant as it is passionate and jealous? A liking for the harem has been handed down to us by centuries of Moorish civilisation.’
The city of Cádiz features in each of the novels in my Andalucían Nights trilogy. It’s such a vibrant, luminous city, it was an easy decision to set scenes there; this a thriving and beautiful place with a rich history and culture.
Here’s a glimpse of the city from the perspective of Alexandra, heroine of Indiscretion:
Not quite an island, it was a city of dazzling white houses set on a rocky peninsula, jutting into the sea with the sapphire-blue waters wrapped around it. A jewel that towered over the Atlantic, she well deserved her name. Brilliant and sparkling like a diamond in the sunshine, Alexandra found her beauty was just as arresting at night, under a velvet sky studded with stars, when the city was reflected in the almost unearthly phosphorescence of the ocean.
For me, travelling is all about the vistas: my memory is like a photo album packed with colourful, striking, beautiful scenes. Today I’m sharing with you ten unforgettable vistas in Cádiz city which, I hope, will make you want to travel there, whether in person or via one of my books:
1. Gran Teatro Falla
This theatre is one of the notable monuments of Andalucía, a lovely example of the neo-Mudéjar style. It stands in the Plaza Fragela, in the north-west quarter of the Old Town, a grand and historic theatre. Within, you find a handsome marble staircase, antiquated gold and claret décor, and ornate Moorish revival arches. The theatre is so-named in honour of Manuel de Falla, who is buried in the Cathedral.
The Cathedral de Santa Cruz dates back to the eighteenth century and is prominent in the Cádiz cityscape. It was built painstakingly, over more than a century, to exemplify all that is great about Cádiz and to put it on the spiritual map. It has an iconic gold-tiled dome roof, which gives it an exotic Moorish look. One of the towers is open to the public, and the views from there are spectacular, but quite honestly I find beauty enough in gazing at the cathedral’s façade.
3. San Sebastián Castle
On a little islet jutting out from the Caleta beach, the fortress dates back to the early 1700s and affords amazing views over the ocean and back towards the city. The tall tower within is a lighthouse, built a century ago. To reach the castle, you walk along the zig-zagging causeway, the Paseo Fernando Quiñones, and through magnificent old archways.
4. Roman theatre
The ancient theatre dates all the way back to the first century BC. One of the biggest Roman theatres ever discovered, it could hold an audience of 20,000. It was found in 1980, and is only partially excavated. On the steps, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the thought of who stood there before you.
5. Tavira Tower
The tower itself is quite beautiful, dating back to the eighteenth century when Cádiz was ‘a city of watchtowers’, with no fewer than 160 from which men would watch for merchant ships. But it is the view from the tower that is really special, a panoramic vista of the city in the cámaraoscura, a room in which the view is projected via a convex lens.
6. Monument to the Constitution of 1812
This monument is completely breath-taking, entirely dominating the Plaza de España. It is the combined work of architect Modesto Lopez Otero and sculptor Aniceto Marinas. It was commissioned in 1912 to mark the centenary of the Constitution of 1812, the country’s very first constitution, which established important principles, among them universal male suffrage, national sovereignty and freedom of the press.
7. Plaza San Antonio
The neo-classical and Castilian late Gothic architecture of the buildings on each side of this square is striking. Once, this was the place to live for the upper classes of Cádiz. San Antonio Church in the square dates back to 1669.
8. Genovés Park
With so many stunning buildings to admire, and bedazzled by the blue sky and even bluer sea all around, it is easy to forget that Cádiz also offers lush, verdant vistas. The Genovés Park is beautifully maintained, with many different trees and plants, plus a lake with a spectacular waterfall.
9. Centre for Subaquatic Archaeology
Not a place to visit, but to admire from the outside. The iconic white building is on Caleta beach, and was created in the 1920s. For some thirty years it was a spa, El Balneario de Nuestra Señora de la Palma y del Real, but these days it’s used by the university. Caleta is the smallest beach in Cádiz, but the most popular, and the houses behind give it a colourful backdrop.
10. The sea
Last, but by no means least, the sea. Wherever you go in Cádiz, you are quickly reunited with the ocean – the city is, as the Moors put it, a ‘dish of silver in a bowl of blue’. Whether you find a sea view soothing or stirring, you’re bound to be drawn to the waves lapping someplace nearby in their age-old rhythm.
Have you ever thought about the nationality of the authors whose books you read? Do you read books by writers from all different countries, or do you find you’re often lost in a story dreamt up by a British or North American author?
I was very inspired by a recent story in the news about a thirteen-year-old Pakistani girl who, having realised most of the books on her shelf were published by British or US publishers, has set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country in the world. Aisha Esbhani sent out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations, and she has received them from all corners of the globe.
Just imagine all that Aisha will learn, how these 197 books will educate her and inspire her, how enriching this multicultural journey will be. To quote George R.R. Martin: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
Aisha will have such a broad knowledge of literature; the kind of knowledge, I think, to which we should all aspire. ‘Write about what you know’ is a common adage. But I don’t think it should follow that we read only about what we know. We need to read books that transport us to foreign places and make us think and feel; books that can change us.
I believe that we should read books set in all different countries. Take my own fiction, for example. When you read one of my books, you’ll be whisked away to Kenya (Burning Embers) or Italy (The Echoes of Love) or Spain (the Andalucían Nights trilogy) or, later this year, to Greece (the forthcoming Aphrodite’s Tears).
I also believe that we should read books by writers from all different nationalities. Perspective, depth and writing style are very much rooted in one’s nationality. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, speaking Arabic, English and French, and at university there I studied French literature. Certainly, my writing is influenced by my education; by the rhythms and poeticism of the languages in which I think and daydream; by the importance of history and mythology in Egypt; and especially by the beautiful and colourful scenery of that country.
But I no longer live in Egypt. After leaving the country in my early twenties, I travelled widely, before finally settling in Kent, England. My husband and I subsequently bought a mas (farmhouse) in the South of France and renovated it, and for many years that has been our summer home, and then in recent years we have lived part of the year in Ireland as well. So, as you can see, I really do ‘write around the world’, and my books are not only set in different countries, but they are written in them too.
If this article has inspired you to ‘read around the world’, a great starting point for your journey is Goodreads, where you can find groups devoted to recommendations on this theme. I have also found it helpful to use ‘translated fiction’ as a search term – you unearth a veritable treasure trove of books (sadly, often overlooked). In addition, you can support Aisha at https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries, and see which books she has picked to read and her thoughts on them.