Spain: a romantic prison for foreign writers

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

“Spain is a very special country and one must approach it with respect and with his eyes and ears open,” wrote James A. Michener in his introduction to Iberia. “He must be fully aware that once he has penetrated the borders he runs the risk of being made prisoner.” Over the centuries Spain has made “prisoners” of many foreign writers who have come to travel here, to call it home (Washington Irving, Gerald Brenan, Michener, George Sands, Somerset Maugham et al) and in several cases to fight for it (Laurie Lee, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, William Herrick).

Any country that can claim a book that is as vividly alive and entertaining after four centuries as is Don Quijote must be considered one of the great literary nations in its own right, but it is particularly interesting to try to understand what it was about this beautiful, diverse and romantic land that captivated such a celebrated “literary international brigade”.

Such classics as For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, South from Granada and Homage to Catalonia are still relevant today: attracting new visitors with their timeless portrayals of what V.S. Pritchett called “the Spanish temper”; and charming confirmed lovers of Spain with visions of a way of life that is slowly disappearing.

Laurie Lee’s Granada

In 1935 Laurie Lee tramped his way through Spain, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning still seduces readers with its descriptions of Cadiz (“a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass”), Seville (“a creamy crustation of flower-banked houses”) and even the Valladolid that he hated (“a dark square city hard as its syllables”).

He returned during the civil war to fight with the International Brigade and then again 15 years later when he visited Granada for the first time and, in A Rose for Winter, called it “probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow”.

The Alhambra Palace is less decaying and decadent than it was then but its myrtle-fringed fountains still conjure images of “pastoral kings, trousered girls and poet shepherds” and from across the valley it still appears to ride “on green waves like a ship of fantasy”. The narrow alleyways and high walls of the Albaicín (the old Moorish medina) – also richer and better-preserved – give the impression that the townspeople barricaded themselves in against the immensity of the Andalusian landscape, like a besieged camel-train.

“Half the country is mountain and wilderness,” Lee wrote in an article on Spain for Mademoiselle magazine, “it knows a savage climate, vast aching skies, interminable landscapes of distance and silence. But within the bright walls of its towns and villages it has developed a gregarious and extrovert ritual of life in which there are few outsiders and little loneliness.”

Old Granada seemed to appeal to Laurie Lee’s sense of tough country living: “The climate is as ready with death as with birth,” he says in A Rose for Winter. “And in Granada, in the burnished, bright, but evil air one is never surprised to find dead in the morning the friend with whom one walked and drank the previous night.”

The city still echoes with the passion of the days when Moors and Christians battled for “The Land of Light”, but times have changed and the people of Granada count themselves among the most blessed in Spain…at least you can now be fairly optimistic that the person who shared your evening tapas will still be around to keep that breakfast appointment.

Read about George Orwell’s Barcelona here.

If you’re travelling Spain, here are 25 festivals you really shouldn’t miss.


  • Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” is a good recount of his actions joining the Spanish Civil War events.

  • Thanks Frances. “Homage to Catalonia” is one of the best books written about the civil war (Herrick’s ‘Hermanos’ too) but have you read Laurie Lee’s ‘A Moment of War’ – he came within a hair’s breath of being shot as a spy. Lee wrote what were probably the most beautiful words ever written about Spain by a foreign writer (even including Hemingway). Don’t forget to follow, Frances – Orwell’s Barcelona next week. Tx ME

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