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”.)

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.

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.

Mission Accomplished!

Well, kind of.

The Kindle version of The A to Z of Spanish Culture is finally out.

I have also uploaded a version to Smashwords and so it will also soon be available from all e-book stores. I’m on my way to creating the paperback version, for those of you who still prefer to hold your book with both hands.

John Wolfendale in his Eco Vida blog described this blog as a “light-hearted look at Spain”. I think his description is spot on, not just for this blog, but also for the book as a whole.

So, if you fancy something light (and let’s face it, at the moment we need some lightness when thinking about Spain) to give you an insight into Spanish culture, life, history, art, traditions and even its language, click through to Smashwords or the Kindle store now. For £2.88, I hope you enjoy the trip.

C is for Coche

The highway. That place where you can let your passions run free as you press the accelerator and enjoy the open space.

The Spanish love travelling by car. They use the car to go everywhere. To travel into the city, to get through the city, to get out of the city. A shame, because public transport tends to work rather well. The tube system in Madrid, for example, is fantastic – it’s clean, it runs on time and the carriages have air conditioning in the summer. The train system too can be quite impressive, especially if you are used to travelling in the UK. The carriages are comfortable and the network enjoys some high-speed lines. Though not affordable to everyone the high-velocity train (AVE) and those that use its tracks can save you a lot of time.

Traffic in Spanish cities tends to be as bad as in most European countries. Each city copes as best as it can, sometimes by adopting social norms which make everyone’s lives easier.

For example, in Valencia (which by the way also has a decent public transport system), parking spaces are very scarce. As a result, it is very common to find cars double-parked and sometimes, triple-parked. The valencianos have come up with a way of this being acceptable: double park, but don’t use your handbrake. In this way, if another car wants to leave and you are blocking their way, they can just push your car a bit until they have enough room to get out. Not bad.

Unfortunately, the transport network does not reach every town in Spain and so, the Spanish prefer to travel by car. Friday afternoons are a particularly bad time to leave a city, as everyone seems to be in a rush to escape for the weekend. (Avoid leaving a city around 2pm on a Friday afternoon.) The same goes for the evening before any public holiday.

If you decide to leave the city at the same time as everyone else to make the absolute most of your holiday, you will get stuck for hours in a traffic jam (embotellamiento) or travel en caravana at dangerously high speeds. Travelling en caravana often means driving dangerously fast and dangerously close to other cars. If at any moment anyone has to break, it will lead to the an accident en cadena (in a chain) accidents, common especially in bad weather.

As a result, the beginning and end of every holiday period operación salida (operation: exit) and operación retorno (operation: return) tend to be marked by images of smashed cars on TV and the latest number of fatalities on the road. The only silver lining to this very dark cloud is that as a result, the number of organs available for transplant is quite high. In Spain, you need to opt OUT of the transplant registry if you don’t want to donate your organs when you die.

In 2010, 1,730 people died on the road, but luckily, this number is falling every year as the roads and cars get better. The road system has improved much in Spain over the last 30 years, even to the point that it is rare not to find improvement works on your way when you travel. A journey by car from Madrid to Valencia used to take about 7 hours and can now be done in 3.5. The cars you see on the road are quite decent too. The maximum speed on the highway was reduced in 2011 from 120km per hour, to 110, apparently to reduce petrol consumption. The speed limit was then raised again to 120 km/hr as the traffic police refused to fine those who broke it.

For many years, alcohol seemed to be the car’s best friend. The fact that people drove didn’t seem to deter them from drinking. In the 80s, the artist Stevie Wonder headed the campaign, “Si bebes, no conduscas” (“If you drink, don’t drive.” It should be “conduZcas”, but Stevie turned the ‘z’ into an ‘s’.) I’m not sure it made a difference. Afterwards, the government’s driving campaigns got more and more hard-hitting, to the point that it sometimes becomes unbearable to watch them.

The time when I did notice a change in attitude to drinking and driving was in around 2010, when the government introduced a points system which meant it became easier to lose your licence if you broke the law. Suddenly everyone was drinking less and respecting the speed limit.

Alcohol is still a problem on the Spanish roads and so, every now and then, especially around Christmas time, the traffic police will set out to carry a control de alcoholemia. Police cars will subtly station themselves in street corners to see if they can catch anyone driving in a dangerous manner. So, if it’s your first time driving in Madrid, don’t be tempted to blend in by turning where it’s not permitted or accelerating when the light turns red at a junction – you might get caught by a strategically placed camera or policeman lurking round the corner in their car.

M is for Moros y Cristianos

My friend Fidel comes from Alcoy, a beautiful small town on the Mediterranean coast. It is through him that I learnt properly about Moros y Cristianos. Well, through him and his son Alvaro, who very kindly shared with me the school presentation he did on this fiesta.

This Moros y Cristianos tradition recreates a very specific battle that took place in 1276 in Alcoy. On the 23 April, having lost the city to the Kingdom of Valencia (Spain has quite a tradition of division, it was made up of lots of separate kingdoms until 1492) the Moors tried to conquer the city once more under the leadership of “el azul”, (the blue one), Al-Azraq – blue due to the colour of his eyes. A bloody battle ensued between Muslim and Christian troops.

When it seemed inevitable that the Arabs were going to win the battle, a mysterious male figure appeared, riding a white horse and displaying a red cross on his chest. With one blow, the warrior, identified by the Christian troops as St Jordi (patron saint on that day), took the life of the Arab leader, causing the rest of his troops to disperse.

The result of such an important day (the Spanish got their city back) is celebrated in Alcoy over three days no less. This trilogía runs from 22 to 24 April. The first day features different music bands playing through the streets of Alcoy and it ends with the whole town eating an olleta alcoyana, a caserol-type dish including pork, beef, potatoes, beans and morcilla, a kind of sausage made of pig’s blood and meat.

The following day starts early. At 6am, the trumpet sounds and both sets of troops parade through the city as the sun begins to rise. (My friend Fidel has impersonated a Moor for ages.) A beautiful reconstruction of medieval times ensues, with the Christian side parading in the morning and the Moorish side taking over the streets in the afternoon.

The second day is dedicated to St Jordi. It consists mainly of procesiones similar to those seen during Easter, but featuring an image of St Jordi which is carried from church to church.

On the last day, the whole thing explodes. Literally. Gunpowder features heavily on this day as the battle between Moros and Cristianos is reconstructed, showing the Moors victorious in the morning while in the afternoon, the Christians are able to take the city back.

Plenty of noise and celebratory behaviour then, but not nearly as much as that which you can see in Las Fallas in Valencia.

For more information on Moros y Cristianos, visit the web www.associaciosantjordi.org/

G is for Guernica

‘El Guernica’ was created as a response to the bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country. In April 1937, the German and Italian troops who were helping the rebels under Franco bombed the town with the aim of attacking its civil population. Following the request of the president of the Spanish republic, who still hadn’t succumbed to Franco’s rule, Picasso, already living in France, depicted the massacre in a painting to be shown in Paris that year.

The painting is a large black and white canvas, (3.50m x 7.80m) painted in a recognisable Picasso style (cubism). Picasso didn’t want the painting to return to Spain until the country became a democracy again and so it was housed in the MOMA in New York until 1981. It was then transferred to an annexe in the Prado Museum, the Cason del Buen Retiro. Since 1992, the painting has been hanging in Madrid’s Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, a public museum dedicated to contemporary art.

‘El Guernica’ is an emotive reminder of the horrors of war. As such, it hangs outside the UN’s security council’s entrance in New York. When in 2003, Colin Powell delivered a speech to convince the world of the need to attack Iraq, the copy of the Guernica was covered with a drape.

Picasso had wished for the US to keep his painting safe until Spain became a democracy once more. I wonder what he would have made of this.

During my research for The A to Z of Spanish Culture, I came across this video put together by the national TV channel, about the return of Picasso’s Guernica to Spain.

Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video here, but here is the link.



O is for Olé

O is for Olé, toros, flamenco, fiestas, sangría, cervezas, mañana…. and any other stereotype you can think of.

My friend Victor shared this link with me through Facebook. (He is a real friend too.)

It challenges the Spanish stereotypes. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/26/spanish-stereotypes-we-have-mondays-too?

Let me know if you have any favourite ones – those you love as well as those you hate.