C is for Cesta de Navidad

La Cesta de Navidad – the Christmas hamper.

The way in which businesses thank their employees at the end of the year. The way in which businesses remind their clients that they exist. From large boxes full of drink, food and sweets to the more trendy fruit baskets or luscious boxes of expensive chocolates. I wonder what’s going on this year…

If you are curious as to what’s inside a Spanish Christmas hamper, have a look at the one Graham Hunt from Houses for Sale in Spain got this year…

G is for Goya

Maybe you were waiting for something a bit more original, a little bit more obscure, but Goya IS my favourite painter (up there with Hieronymus Bosch, whose work can also be found in the Prado Museum), so I really have no choice.

What I find interesting about Goya is the range of his work – from wonderfully frothy paintings of picnics in the Pradera de San Isidro
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes 021

to his Dark Paintings, including my favourite Saturno devorando a un hijo (Saturn Devouring a Son).

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823)

Like all great artists, Goya commented on the world around him. He reflected the horrors of war in his series Los desastres de la guerra (The War Disasters) where he shows the effects on society and the individual of the Independence War that Spain fought against the French from 1808 to 1814. One of his best known paintings, currently at the Prado Museum in Madrid is the Fusilamientos del tres de mayo (3rd May Executions), which shows Napoleon’s troops executing the Spanish population that had rebelled against them in Madrid in 1808. The painting saw the light in 1814, after the French were expelled from Spain.

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado in Google Earth

Through his Caprichos, a series of 80 prints, he laughed at ignorance, superstition and society in general. (To see the whole series, visit wikipedia.) By the way, if you teach any kind of performance art (or creative writing) and ever need inspiration, these drawings are wonderfully surreal and inspiring.

Nobody saw us.

Francisco de Goya was one of Spain’s most prolific painters. Born in 1746, he painted over 2000 works of art, including paintings, sketches, drawings, portraits and self-portraits until his death in 1828.

He left an amazing legacy and through his varied artistic styles, he showed that variety is the spice of life.

F is for Felipe el Hermoso

Felipe el Hermoso, who ruled Spain in the 15th Century, is interesting in a “gossipy” kind of way, as he has gone down in history as the man who drove Juana la Loca to madness with his infidelities.

I could have also talked about Felipe González, who played an important part in post-Franco politics as the leader of the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party.

Or this post could also be about Felipe de Borbón, Spain’s handsome Prince. It will be interesting to see what happens to him as the country becomes disenchanted with Spain’s monarchy (the King breaking his leg while shooting elephants in Botswana in the middle of the crisis, his son-in-law being judged for corruption and his nephew shooting himself in the foot, literally.)

In the end, I have gone with Felipe el Hermoso, because of his connection with Juana la Loca, Spain’s mad queen. (Who knows, I might have to come back to write about Felipe de Borbón and his fairy-tale marriage to ex-journalist Letizia soon.)

Felipe, el hermoso? There’s no accounting for taste.

Felipe El Hermoso

Felipe el Hermoso heads a story of intrigue, scandal and power struggle.

Felipe “the handsome one”, ruler of Burgundy, became part of Spain’s royalty when he married Juana, daughter of the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Kings) in 1496. This arranged marriage protected their kingdoms from the French threat. It suited Felipe, who already owned a few dukedoms, (Luxembourg and Flanders amongst others) and was hungry for power, just fine.

When the Queen of Castille, one of Spain’s biggest kingdoms, died in 1504, Felipe began to lick his lips as he saw himself sitting comfortably on the throne next to his wife Juana, who would inherit the land. However, the Queen had asked in her will that the throne remain with her husband Fernando if Juana showed any signs of madness. Oops, Juana eventually became Juana la Loca, and already then she began to show signs of mental instability.

Juana’s jealousy was slowly beginning to drive her mad and became visible in actions such as her attacking with a comb one of the court’s women, whom she suspected of having an affair with Felipe (or pulling out her hair with her hands, depending on which internet source you believe). However, King Fernando was not able to hang on to Castille for very long, and soon Felipe became the ruler of Spain. (If you are interested in the long list of coincidences which resulted in Felipe becoming King, visit the Wikipedia page.)

His ruling did not last long, which was probably a good thing as it was characterised by corruption and cronyism. In September 1506,  six months after becoming King, Felipe died after drinking a glass of cold water during a game of ball.

Poisoned? Most probably typhus fever, but that was one of the conspiracy theories at the time.

Shed No Tears

In any case, Felipe’s death threw Juana into even deeper madness.

For a start, she didn’t weep at all for her husband’s death, even though her love for him was uncontested. There were rumours that the mad Queen asked for Felipe’s heart to be taken out of his body, so it would not belong to anyone else. A few months later, when Juana was adviced to leave the City of Burgos to escape an epidemic, she decided to take Felipe’s body with her, to stay close to him at all times. Her journey became a pilgrimage with her husband’s body and it wasn’t until her father came to look after her, that she was separated from Felipe.

Juana’s father, Fernando, came back to Castille to reclaim the throne. Fearing his daughter would at some point try to reign again, he confined her to a convent in Tordesillas, Valladolid, proclaiming her insane. One of her six children, Carlos, eventually became King and also made sure his power wasn’t challenged by making sure his mother remained in the convent.

Juana died in 1555, aged 51, having spent the last year’s of her life wailing in captivity.

(You can find out more about Juana in the book The Last Queen by C.W.Gortner or in the film “Juana la Loca” or “Mad Love”.)

E is for Espinete

I can hear you saying:

“Come on, Pilar, is that the best you can do?”

All I can say is:

“Yes. Sorry.”

I could have changed the unwritten rule about this series and placed Enrique Tierno Galván at the centre of this post, but he was known as “Tierno Galván” and so should be under “T”. (Tierno Galván was a politician who was very active during Franco’s time, opposing the regime. He became mayor of Madrid in the 80’s and was incredibly popular amongst the capital’s citizens.)

I could also write about Esperanza Aguirre, who must be the most unpopular or popular woman in Spain at the moment (depending on who you are talking to) as she heads the Comunidad de Madrid. As much as she is playing a key role in Spain’s current political climate, I don’t think I should be placing her alongside Cervantes or Plácido Domingo.

So, I’m taking a big risk and giving Espinete pride of place in this post.

Espinete was the star of Barrio Sesamo, the Spanish version of Sesame Street where the “street scenes” were replaced with ones taking part in Spain, with Spanish actors and children. Espinete is representative of Spanish children’s television in the 80’s. For those of us who grew up in that decade, he represents an era now full of nostalgia.Don’t take my word for it, you only have to surf the net to see the number of blogs that have been opened with the 80s at their centre, or the number of children’s programmes from that decade that have been released on DVD.

When I first moved to London in 1990, nobody understood why I talked about the 80s with affection. In the U.K., the 80’s were marked by greed and an iron lady. In Spain, however, they signified freedom and artistic expression.

Following the death of Franco in 1975 (and no, he’s not going to be heading the chapter on “F”), the country went wild. It took the population a few years to understand what it was like not to have to worry about what your beliefs were or with whom you could share your opinions. To understand what’s going on in the country today, it is worth remembering how young Spain’s democracy is and that Spaniards are still experimenting with ways to influence the government.

Now back to the 80’s when everything exploded, particularly in Madrid, with La movida. Movimiento means “movement” and so, la movida referred to all the movement that started to take place in the arts and in the streets as people discovered the freedom of going out and speaking their minds.

Espinete had nothing to do with this movement. In fact, thinking about it now, he was theanti-movida, nice and cuddly and sweet and maybe that’s why we liked him so much. For those of you who’ve ever watched Sesame Street, he was Spain’s answer to Big Bird. (Well, that’s not strictly true as we used to havela gallina Caponata,who was more a cheap copy of Big Bird than a localised version.)

This pink hedgehog was proud to have spikes on his back but not on his front, so that he could hug you without hurting you. By the way, Espinete comes from espinas, spikes. It is an endearing name, such as Juanete  for Juan or Tomasete for Tomás. In the blog “Yo crecí con Espinete” (“I Grew Up With Espinete”), the blogger mentions how odd it seemed that, an animal that walked around naked, should put on a pyjama to go to sleep.

If you want to get to know this endearing character a bit better, you can visit this wikipage. For a quick insight into a different type of programme for young audiences that marked an era, see E is for Electroduende.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, or have read The A to Z of Spanish Culture, then you will know that the years I remember best in Spain were the 80’s. For that reason, I just couldn’t leave Espinete out of the A to Z of Spanish Personalities. He certainly was one.

D is for Plácido Domingo

Picture this.

The place: Santiago, Chile.

The time: the night of the 8th July 2012.

The weather: cold, very cold. 8 degrees below cero in some areas of the capital. The coldest night so far this year.

Rows and rows of people, in fact, millions of people, queuing. What are they waiting for?

They are waiting for the tickets for the cultural event of the century: Plácido Domingo brings Pablo Neruda to life in the operatic version of “Il Postino”. (For more information, you can read the article in Spanish by clicking here.)

Plácido Domingo is unique. He’s not only one of the most respected and revered opera singers in the world, but also a producer, administrator and general champion for the arts. Yes, he became incredibly famous worldwide when he toured with the three tenors (although anyone who knew anything about opera or classical music would have heard about him way before then) but I have allocated him the letter “D” because of what he is doing for music in Spain and the rest of the world. (For more information on this than I am able to give you in this humble blog, see his official website.)

At the age of 71, he continues to draw crowds, not just because of his artistic talent, but also because of his charismatic personality. I’m not an opera fan myself, but in a similar way to how I grew up hearing about Severiano Ballesteros (see B is for Seve Ballesteros), I grew up hearing about Plácido Domingo. Last year, I watched him being interviewed on the BBC and realised how, even after being the most successful opera singer currently around, he remains humble and committed to his audience. (Don’t take my word for it and have a look at the interview on YouTube.)

If I rest, I rust.
Plácido Domingo

You can clearly see how the man doesn’t rest. He was the General Director of  the Washington National Opera for fifteen years; he was the man responsible for kicking off the Musical Theatre genre in Spain when he produced Los Miserables for the first time in Madrid in 1992 (for more on this see the A to Z chapter Z is for Zarzuela); and he is directly involved in ensuring the world has a new generation of singers and musicians through the Centre de Perfeccionament Plácido Domingo in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia.

His wonderful name (which means “peaceful Sunday”) has even made it into the Spanish jargon through the (bad) joke:

?Qué viene después de Plácido Domingo?
Jodido lunes.

I leave you now on this very pleasant Tuesday afternoon.

C is for Cervantes

C has to be for Cervantes in the same way as S would have to be for William Shakespeare if I was writing the A to Z of British Culture.

For Cervantes has become an icon representing high-quality Spanish literature, to the point that the organisation dedicated to promoting the study of Spanish and Spain’s culture does so under his name, the Instituto Cervantes.

The works of Cervantes are comparable to those of Shakespeare in both quality and quantity, and both writers died on the same day, 22 April 1616, a remarkable coincidence.

In 1571, Cervantes fought in a battle in Lepanto against the Turks and was severely wounded. His injuries left him with a paralysed left arm, which in turn earned him the label of “el manco de Lepanto” a rhyming phrase which means “the one-armed man of Lepanto”.

Cervantes is best known for his novel Don Quixote. (I won’t go into any detail here about this book, as you can easily find information about it somewhere else, including a post on my personal blog and a few lines in the chapter Q is for Quijote of The A to Z of Spanish Culture.) He also wrote a collection of “exemplary novels”, (the novelas ejemplares) which included Rinconete y Cortadillo, set in Seville and featuring two rascals who gave the novel its name.


Rinconete y Cortadillo by Antonio Muñoz Dergrain

Rinconete y Cortadillo are a pair of pícaros. The closest words in English are probably “rascals” or “rogues”. The word comes from “picaresca” which is a genre in Spanish literature but also refers to an aspect of society known as picaresca española. This is the ability to use your intelligence to con instead of to work. In Cervantes’ novel it’s reflected in the way the two teenagers con and steal from those around them. In modern days, you can see it in the way people slyly skip the queue, ask you for a donation for a charity that doesn’t exist or pocket the tips that someone else left for your grumpy waiter. These acts could also be labeled as petty theft or fraud, but the fact that all of them often come under the label of picaresca española says something about society’s history in Spain.

Cervantes, like all great artists, managed to capture the essence of  society, the underlying thrill of doing things just a little bit beyond written and unwritten laws. Sure, these pícaros were just trying to survive, pretty much like the Lazarillo de Tormes tricked all his masters to ensure his survival, food and a bit of comfort. (The Lazarillo de Tormes, the blind-man’s guide from Tormes, is the protagonist of the first novela picaresca, called by the same name.) The underworld they inhabit was also found outside Spain and reflected in other works of literature, like Oliver Twist. It’s interesting that, even though the two characters were well into their teens, they are often depicted in illustrations as young boys. Are their actions more palatable if we think of them as children?

Rinconete y Cortadillo was placed in the public’s eye before it was edited, as it made its first appearance in the first part of Don Quijote as the inn-keeper gives the novel to the priest. Was Cervantes the first person to create a spin-off?

B is for Severiano Ballesteros

I’ve never really followed sports much – well, maybe the odd championship or two. I never had any interest in golf, but I grew up hearing the name Ballesteros over and over again, mainly associated with sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication.

I never had any personal connection with the man. I never had any emotional connection with the game of golf. Yet reading about his death as I researched this post still brings tears to my eyes.

Seve, as he was known, didn’t learn to play golf in the comfort of a golf course, but on the beach, a fact that many think was key to his success. Only every now and then, at night time, when there was a full moon, would he sneak into the golf course next to his house in Pedreña (Cantabria, in the North of Spain).

At 16, he took part in his first professional national championship (Campeonato de España) and came 20th. Two years later, he came second in the British Open, alongside Jack Nicklaus.

Ballesteros rapidly became well known and respected in international circles. Tom Kites said of him:

When he gets going, it’s almost as if Seve is driving a Ferrari and the rest of us are in Chevrolets.

He was the first European player to win the Masters in 1980 at the age of 23 – and the youngest player to win the title at that time.

During his lifetime, Seve won 87 championships but his greatest achievement was to put European golf up there with its American counterpart. It was under his leadership that the European team won the Ryder Cup in 1997. The public’s adoration of the man only grew as, unable to play himself due to his status of home ground captain, he passionately rode alongside the team in a golf cart, encouraging the rest of the team.

In 2008, Ballesteros was diagnosed with a brain tumour, after which he set up the Fundación Seve Ballesteros, dedicated to promoting and financing brain cancer research.

On 7th May 2011, after numerous operations and chemotherapy, Seve died at the age of 54, becoming a legendary figure representing hard work, sportsmanship and decency.

To find out more about Severiano Ballesteros and his foundation, visit his official web.

A is for Agustina de Aragón

To begin with: a little bit of history.


Remember Napoleon? He decided to take over Europe. It would have been foolish to neglect his neighbours, the Spanish.

La guerra de la independencia (the War of Independence or Peninsular War) began in 1808, lasted six years and brought plenty of death and devastation to Spain, as well as a period of famine in 1812. There was one good thing that came out of this war, and this was the series of sketches and drawings that Goya named Los desastres de la guerra. Through them he showed the horrors of war as well as a few acts of valour and hope, such as the one shown here, featuring Agustina de Aragon.


¡Qué valor!
Agustina de Aragón by Francisco de Goya.
Francisco de Goya [Public domain], undefined



Agustina de Aragón was the wife of Joan Roca i Vilaseca, a corporal serving in the artillery during the war of independence.  On June 15 1808, having come to bring food to the troops in Zaragoza, Agustina found herself in the middle of the battlefield, watching all the Spanish soldiers go down. Realising that they were about to lose to the French troops, she loaded a canon, lit the fuse and dispersed the French men.


Agustina was soon named sublieutenant and fought to defend her country alongside the Spanish men. Her brave actions and encouraging cries during battle turned her into a legend. Having survived prison and many a battle, she died at the age of 71. Not bad.



T is for Tres Veces Campeones: Spain Wins the Eurocup

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to write a book on Spanish culture. Things in Spain keep changing and I keep thinking I should go back to the e-book to update it.

Luckily, now we have blogs. So here is my update for

F is for Fútbol.

Over the next few days we can expect the front pages of Spanish newspapers to demote stories of economic debt, unemployment, corruption, social unrest etc to second place while the country celebrates the victory of La Roja.

A second Eurocup in a row? Unheard of. With a World Champion title squeezed in the middle? Even more unheard of.

I loved the headline in El Mundo newspaper yesterday:

“La España que Cambió el Mundo”.
The Spain that Changed the World.

Señores, please, a little bit of perspective.

I can’t underestimate the buzz felt in the country at the moment and it was, let’s face it, a fantastic match. Clean, exciting, exuberant, energetic football, there is no doubt about that. On top of that, the players continue to guide our thoughts to those young stars who are no longer with us by paying homage to them on their white t-shirts (see below and also see F is for Fútbol).

But unfortunately, I’m not sure that this shot of adrenaline will have any long-lasting effects. There has been a lot of money spent by consumers because of the football, great: it would be interesting to know how much public money will be spent as a result of this victory: probably not so great. If we are to believe Aleix Saló, author or Simiocracia, let’s hope that this time the Spanish players leave their bonuses in Spain and don’t deposit them in Austrian banks, as Spain could surely do with the taxes.

Does anyone have the numbers? I’m sure they would provide an interesting read.

Another troubling thought.

Yesterday, after the team received the cup, what flag did Piqué and Fabregás pull out?

I think in the name of the “happiness bubble” currently covering Spain, the newspapers haven’t picked up on it today. But have a look at this photo (from El Mundo) and you will see a Spain that, far from united, continues to be divided.

F is for Fútbol

It’s here, the Eurocup is finally here. And “La Roja” is playing its first match today.

For a month, we can all look forward to some interesting news about Europe that have nothing to do with the incredibly gloomy, complicated economic situation. Spanish writer Javier Marías, in one of his recent articles defined the championship as a “very welcome opium”,  a dose of 90 minutes during which Europeans can get high on football and forget about everything else. (You can read his article in Spanish, here.)

We’ll see whether this is the case. What’s true is that two years ago, Spain won the World Cup and the whole country became united and proud. Here’s how I recall it in The A to Z of Spanish Culture, let’s see what happens this year, in Spain, or anywhere else.

F is for Fútbol

Some of the Spanish league teams are amongst the best in the world, there’s no doubt about it. Unfortunately, the Spanish national team was never glorious… until 2008, when they won the European cup. And then, they did it again in 2010, winning the World Cup.

La Roja

Football fever swept the nation. The goalkeeper, Iker Casillas was referred to as an “héroe nacional” (national hero) on Spanish morning TV shows. La Roja (“the red” squad – luckily the Socialists were in power then) became a symbol of the Spain everyone wanted to see: vivacious, vibrant and victorious.

The national flag began to fly again. No longer a symbol of fascism but of unity and success. The country re-conquered its flag and re-instated the pride in being Spanish.

The Spanish squad represented the country in all its glory: young guys, playing very clean football, persistent and gelling together on the pitch. To top it all up, when Andrés Iniesta scored a goal, his thoughts weren’t on the pitch but back with his friend and colleague Dani Jarque, who had died earlier that year from a heart attack. As he celebrated his goal, Iniesta lifted his shirt to show a white t-shirt underneath with the words “DANI JARQUE, SIEMPRE CON NOSOTROS.” (“Dani Jarque, always will be with us.”)

Unfortunately, Iniesta got sanctioned as the rules forbid removing your t-shirt on the pitch. Still, I’m sure the thrill of winning the world cup made up for that.

The beautiful Casillas, the goalkeeper, had been getting all sorts of unwanted attention from the Spanish press for being in a relationship with an equally beautiful reporter. Just after the match, said reporter interviewed Casillas, asking the usual question of “How does it feel to be king of the world?” Casillas, speechless, could not but express his elation through a full kiss to his girlfriend, on camera. The country cheered at this metaphorical middle finger at those who had said he was under-performing because his girlfriend was watching the matches in the stadiums. (You can watch this for yourself below.)

Against the backdrop of rising unemployment and political corruption left, right and centre, the 2010 World Cup flooded the country with a new wave of hope. The story of this victory had it all: honour, pride, respect, romance, emotion and even the knowledge that Nadal (who became world champion himself just a day later) had celebrated the victory with his fellow sportsmen.