As a young woman – after my university degree and before I met my husband and settled down in England – I travelled extensively through Europe. I was something of a nomad, moving from country to country in my eagerness to see new places, meet new people and experience new cultures. The impassioned need to explore stemmed, I think, from my childhood in Egypt, during which my family were put under a sequestration order and banned from leaving the country. As a young woman I was determined to beat my wings and fly free.
Of the countries I explored, Spain left a lasting impression on me, and that is how I have come to write not just one but three novels set in this beautiful land of tradition and passion: my Andalucían Nights series, of which the final book, Legacy, is publishing on Thursday!
Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy are set in Andalucía, in the south of Spain, but during my travels, and as part of the research for my novels, I visited other regions of the country as well. I loved the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona in Catalonia so much that I opened the action in Legacy there, but the other region that really captivated me is Galicia, in the northwest. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to visit on this very day, 25 July, which is a national holiday in honour of Saint James, and was at the hub of the festivities in Santiago de Compostela.
No doubt you’ve heard of this historic city, the capital of Galicia. It is home to the shrine of Saint James the Great, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and the first to be martyred, often known as Santiago. Legend tells that the remains of the apostle were brought to Galicia (in a miraculously stone ship) and buried, whereupon they were discovered by a shepherd guided to Santiago de Compostela by a heavenly light (Compostela derives from Campus Stellae, ‘Field of Stars’). The shepherd reported his experience to a bishop, who declared the remains to be those of James, and a beautiful cathedral was built on the burial site.
Many believe that the legend is grounded in fact, and that Saint James preached across the Iberian Peninsula. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have followed what is known as ‘the way of Saint James’ (Camino de Santiago) from places all over the world to the shrine at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. (For a wonderful modern depiction of this pilgrimage, I can recommend the film The Way written by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen; it’s very powerful and moving).
On 25th July each year, Galicia celebrates Saint James’ Day, which dates back as far as the ninth century. I arrived a few days before, and was amazed at the buzz in the city; it seemed that in every square at the heart of the city there was something to see, from dramatic productions to musical concerts, and on the eve of the special day, what a firework display!
I found that on the Saint’s Day itself the atmosphere in the city was electric. Along with so many others I stood in the street and watched the carnival procession – the Galician pipers were particularly memorable – and then I ate a delicious meal from a scallop shell, which is deeply symbolic in the city: the grooves on the shell meeting at a focal point represent the paths to Santiago de Compostela, and all along the Camino de Santiago one can find scallop carvings as directional markers.
What struck me most about St James’ Day was not, however, the fun and festivities: it was the moving poignancy of it all. So many years of historical legacy shape this day; it was a real honour to be a part of it. As I stood outside the cathedral, all I could smell was the incense from the botafumeiro (a great, ornate burner that swings from the ceiling, guided by tiraboleiros), and it triggered my sense so; all I could think of was how many people had stood on these old stones and breathed in the heady scent and been humbled and thankful for their lives.
My visit to Santiago de Compostela was short, but it has echoed with me since, and I am sure it played a part in inspiring my Andalucían Nights series, in which tradition and legacy are so integral.