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Autumn – gathering season in Andalucia

October 15, 2014 – 2:58 pm
olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

Ripe olives ready to pick.

olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

Jars of seasoned olives at a food fair - they're a very versatile ingredient.

There are many activities you can join in with around Andalucia at this time of year, as natural products are harvested in the sunny autumn, as morning mists rise, jumpers are pulled on and fires lit. Nights are chillier as the days get shorter, but daytime is still delightfully warm.

In the Sierra Sur of Seville, you can have a day picking and preserving olives - start off with a breakfast at the farmhouse featuring, you guessed it, olives. Did you know that Spain produces more than 250 types of olives, both for table and to be made into olive oil?

olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

An olive-picker in action.

Then you go into the fields with expert pickers to see how it’s done – there’s a lot more skill to picking olives than just grabbing the fruit off the tree. This process is known as el verdeo.

Later back at the farmhouse you can learn how to prepare and preserve the olives you collected - the aceituna aliña (seasoned olives) of the area is famous.

And naturally, the experience finishes with a tasting of different types of the popular Andalucian speciality, accompanied by wine, beer or other drinks. You can also choose the option of staying to have lunch in the farmhouse – a traditional meal of rice, meat, and pastries.

This activity takes place near the town of Arahal in Seville province – contact Foodies Andalucia for more details.

In November last year I went with my children to see olives being picked, this time to be made into “liquid gold” - otherwise known as olive oil – in deepest Jaen. It was a real eye-opener for me, and fascinating to see the journey from branch to bottle. Those olives were of the picual variety, and I’ve been a convert to this strong, spicy oil with a (natural) brilliant green colour ever since.


olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

Freshly-foraged fungi in the Sierra de Grazalema.

olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

A very tasty dish of freshly-picked wild braised mushrooms.

olive, olives, aceituna, aceitunas

Mushroom tapa route in the Cadiz hilltown of Cortes de la Frontera.


For fungi fans, many towns around the Sierra de Aracena and Sierra de Grazalema offer mushroom-hunting expeditions, and special seasonal menus featuring foraged fungi. Always best to go with an expert, so that the meal cooked with your spoils is safe. One of the hotels in our new Special Hotel Collection, Hotel Castellar, is in prime mushroom-picking territory.

If you prefer just to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour, restaurants in these hill towns, such as Aracena and Cortes de la Frontera, offer special mushroom menus and tapas routes.

Autumn in Andalucia is also the season for many other delicious natural produce, such as persimmons, figs and chestnuts, many of which have their own local fiestas.

These days it’s called agricultural tourism, but really it’s just learning about traditional techniques which Andalucians have been using for centuries, to gather and prepare their natural bounty for the table.

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Spain NOW!

October 3, 2014 – 2:51 pm
See the best of Spain's contemporary cultural scene this autumn in London.

See the best of Spain's contemporary cultural scene this autumn in London.

From next Thursday 9 October until Tuesday 25 November, you can see the best of Spanish creative talent in London, in the sixth annnual season of Spain NOW! – Contemporary Spanish Art and Culture.

The season, which first took place in 2009,  showcases cutting-edge Spanish arts: visual art, architecture, literature and dance at venues including the Barbican Centre, Sadler’s Wells, Maddox Arts, and 12 Star Gallery, with the creative hub at Hanmi Gallery in Ftizrovia.

These are some of the highlights:


14-24 October Photography exhibition by Ricky Davila at the 12 Star Gallery, Westminster, in conjunction with PhotoEspaña festival. Ricky has won the Best American Picture Prize and FotoPress Award.


23 October El Edificio, Screening of Victor Moreno’s documentary about the iconic Madrid building Edificio España, and talk afterwards, by Brendan Cormier, lead curator of 20th Century Design at the V&A.

This year's programme features art, film, literature and dance - the best of Spanish vanguard culture.

This year's programme features art, film, literature and dance - the best of Spanish vanguard culture.


7-9 November Open Studios Weekend – Spanish artists open their studios in various locations around London to the public


24-25 November Dance Performance at Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadler’s Wells


For more information, see the Spain NOW! website.

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Special Hotel Collection

September 30, 2014 – 10:20 am
Our new Special Hotel collection only features the finest establishments which we recommend personally.

Our new Special Hotel collection only features the finest establishments which we recommend personally.

When you’re booking your holiday in Andalucia, you want to make sure that you’re getting the best hotel in the best location.
With such a vast array of places available, how do you know which hotel to select?

We’ve just made it easier for you, by selecting an exclusive group of luxury hotels which we recommend as being among the most exceptional in Andalucia, and have visited personally to ensure they have the high standards we expect from a hotel in terms of outstanding style and service, and all in unparalleled locations.

Corral del Rey is an exquisite boutique hotel in Seville.

Corral del Rey is an exquisite boutique hotel in Seville.

Currently the Special Hotel Collection, which has just been launched, has three hotels: Corral del Rey, a boutique hotel in the historic centre of Seville, with gorgeous interiors mixing Moroccan and Asian influences in a 17th-century Sevillano house with patio; its sister hotel, Hacienda San Rafael, a converted 18th-century olive farm midway between Seville and Jerez, with a garden bursting with colourful bouganvillea and oleander, three swimming pools and endless romantic corners; and Hotel Castellar, an elegant spa hotel on the doorstep of the Grazalema National Park, Europe’s largest cork-oak forest.

Hotel Castellar offers luxury in beautiful natural surroundings.

Hotel Castellar offers luxury in beautiful natural surroundings.

So when you’re looking for somewhere special to stay in Andalucia, perhaps for a birthday, anniversary or other family celebration, or even just a much-deserved break, you know where to find the most individual, superbly-located and delightful hotels, for an unforgettable experience:’s Special Hotel Collection.

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La Vendimia – the grape harvest

September 17, 2014 – 4:05 pm
Manilva´s grape harvest takes place every year and is known as the ´Feria de Vendimia. Photo by Michelle Chaplow.

Manilva´s grape harvest takes place every year and is known as the ´Feria de Vendimia. Photo by Michelle Chaplow.

The calendar here in Andalucia is very much in tune with nature – marked by harvests of seasonal fruits, vegetables and other crops grown all around this fertile and highly productive area, from the lowlands with their rice, to the mushrooms in woodlands, and the rolling hills of olive trees.

One of the most important of these agricultural celebrations is the autumn vendimia, or grape harvest. Wine is made throughout Andalucia, but two of the most important regions are Jerez, where sherry is produced, and Malaga, home to the Malaga sweet wine, or moscatel as it’s made from sweet white muscatel grapes. This traditional event takes place on the Saturday closest to 8 September.

Even the smallest towns in Andalucia make their own wine – for example Manilva, a hilltop village in Malaga province, just inland from the coast, where a vendimia ceremony starts off with the grapes being blessed, as tradition dictates. The relationship between farming and religion in Andalucia is a close one; many consider the Virgin Mary to have qualities in common with a pagan “Earth Mother”. Manilva is known as Andalucia’s greenest village in summer, because of the abundance of verdant foliage in its terraced vineyards.

Then the grapes are ceremonially trodden – though don’t get the idea that this is just for fun: the grape-treaders may practise for up to a week to make sure that their rhythm of stamping is perfect. As they get tired from their highly aerobic grape-treading, the crowds will cheer on the treaders, encouraging them to continue with their labour. The first drink of this unfermented, foot-pressed grape juice is considered lucky, while as part of the vendimia festival the vineyard owner with the largest racimo (bunch) of grapes will often be awarded a special prize – and enjoy the higher status which this accolade brings.

Young, unfermented wine which costs less than 2 euros per litre.

Young, unfermented wine which costs less than 2 euros per litre. Photo by Fiona Flores Watson.


Bodegas Salado in Umbrete produces 300,000 litres of mosto every year. Photo by Fiona Flores Watson.

Bodegas Salado in Umbrete produces 300,000 litres of mosto every year. Photo by Fiona Flores Watson.

Mosto, or very young unfermented wine (must, as in musty), is available from October, and is best drunk within a few months. The mosto of Umbrete, an even smaller town in the Aljarafe región west of Seville city, is a local speciality, and townsfolk come to the Salado bodega, a family-run winery which dates from the 19th century, to fill and refill their plastic containers with the grapey liquid.

Such wines as Rioja, cava and sherry are already widely appreciated, but now more Spanish wines are finally being recognised for their superb quality, and excellent value for money. The Spanish wine industry is on the up, so the vendimia is a big reason to celebrate los vinos españoles!

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A fantastic choice of tours in Seville

September 7, 2014 – 1:28 pm
Seville's catedral is one of the city's most famous monuments which you can see on a guided tour. Photo by Sophie Carefull.

Seville's cathedral is one of the city's most famous monuments which you can see on a guided tour. Photo by Sophie Carefull.

If you’re visiting a historic city like Seville on holiday, and you only have a limited amount of time to see the highlights, a good option is to take an organised tour. The cathedral, Alcazar (Royal Palace), Santa Cruz former Jewish district, Maria Luisa Park and Expo 29 site – all Seville’s most important monuments can be visited with an expert to bring the city’s history to life.

A huge choice of ways to explore the city with a qualified guide is available, from open-top buses, enjoyable when the weather is reliably sunny most of the year, to boats and on foot.

You can take a Guided Tour around Seville, visiting the bullring, Santa Cruz, and the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the cathedral and Alcazar, finishing up with a glass of wine; or for those who prefer to see the city from the confort of their own seat Panoramic Sightseeing Tour, with a view of the bullring and Expo 29 pavilions from an open-top doublé-decker bus.

Another historical gem you can see on a tour of Seville is Plaza España.

Another historical gem you can see on a tour of Seville is Plaza España. Photo by Sophie Carefull.

If you prefer, you can go on foot to see the Torre del Oro, a medieval Riverside tower, and the 100-year-old Maria Luisa Park with its Plaza de España, centrepiece of the Expo 29, on the Walking Tour; or the Monumental Walking Tour, visiting the main monuments in the city – the cathedral and Giralda, and Alcazar. Or take a walking tour which includes a visit to the exquisite Mudéjar Alcazar: Historic Walking Tour and the Alcazar.

You can also take the hop-on hop-off bus around the old centre, and a Guadalquivir River Cruise to see the city from another perspective – the river Guadalquivir. For a bird’s eye view, go up to the Rooftop Walking Tour.

For a memorable evening out in Seville, the Night Tour with Flamenco Show - takes you around the city when the sun has gone down, and watch the most famous Spanish dance of all at a traditional tablao: flamenco, accompanied by traditional Sevillano tapas. Or you can see a Flamenco Show at one of the city’s top venues, accompanied either by a drink, tapas, or dinner.

If you’re coming with children, an excellent option is a day out at Isla Magica theme park, with rides and attractions galore, as well as a 4D cinema, boat rides and horse shows.

But you don’t have to be staying in Seville to explore this romantic city – there are also day trips from the Costa del Sol, which include return bus trip and lunch.

Whatever you want to see in beautiful Seville, whenever and however you want to see it, by day or night, from the road or river, there is a tour for you. Enjoy!

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New Kitesurfing World Record set in Tarifa on Sunday

August 29, 2014 – 9:26 am

The Kitesurfing Armada Spain in Tarifa yesterday - Sunday 31 August.

On Sunday more than 350 kitesurfers broke the world record on Playa de los Lances.

On Sunday 352 kitesurfers broke the world record in Tarifa, on Playa de los Lances.

    Yesterday, Sunday 31 August, kitesurfers in Tarifa broke the world record for the most kitesurfers sailing together at one time.

    A new Guinness World Record was set, of 352 kiters, breaking the previous one of 318 set in Hayling Island, UK, last year.

    A precursor to the PKRA World Kitesurfing Championship, which takes place in Andalucia’s “Capital of Windsurfing” from 30 August to 7 September, the attempt was hosted by 10-times World Champion Gisela Pulido, who won the Masters of Kiteboarding in Tarifa in June. Sadly Sir Richard Branson, whose global company Virgin sponsors the PKRA and is himself a keen kiter and serial record-breaker, setting a world record for oldest person to kitesurf across the English Channel in 2012, was unable to attend.

    The “parade” of kitesurfers sailed on their downwinder in a 3.5km-long area located 1km off Playa de los Lances, towards Valdevaqueros, starting from the Best Pro Center at km81.5 on the N340. All 352 of them had to be surfing at the same time within a stretch of one mile.

    Part of the proceeds from entry fees went to Virgin Unite, the company’s charity arm.

    For more information about the event, see Virgin Kitesurfing Armada.

Watch a video about last year’s Virgin Kitesurfing Armada event on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Branson himself took part in breaking the world record.

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Musing on an expat’s sojourn

August 27, 2014 – 8:53 am

Like many expats – indeed, most of the ones I know, especially those with young children – I’m coming to the end of my summer sojourn in England.

As always – this is my ninth August spent here, I’ve only missed one, during my first pregnancy, and never again – my thoughts turn to what I like and miss most about the two countries, my birth home (England) and my adoptive home (Spain).

I’ve now spent as many years living in or near Seville as I did living in London. Two different cities, two different experiences – one fast-paced, stimulating, stressful but with a certain monotony; the other slower, less pressured, more varied, and infinitely more fulfilling. Nine-to-five office job (with perks of lunches, parties and press trips), versus the freedom of freelance, with its crazy, unpredictable hours. Anyone who’s been lucky enough to make the change will appreciate the variation in financial stability, but also the increased “quality of life”.

So what do I miss about Spain when I’m spending a few weeks in England? My son’s willingness to chat to strangers – people in shops, in the pub, in the street – so normal and welcome in Spain, causes some consternation here in more closed England. People with dogs will usually chat, but others look confused and embarrassed by a small boy they don’t know talking to them. The friendliness of Andalucians is priceless.

The weather, obviously – it’s one extreme (we’ve had torrential downpours, electrical storms, hail and 2 degrees at night since we’ve been here) to the other (upper 30s, 40 in Seville today). But England when it’s warm and sunny, and you’re outside in the garden, sitting on the lawn, watching your kids run around playing hide and seek – that takes some beating. The fierce heat of the summer in southern Spain is what sends adoptive Andalucians back north in July and August, but the warmth of the sun is also what draws many of us there.

The food – sheer variety, fads – is as mind-boggling as ever – the new things, after cupcakes and macaroons, seem to be flavoured popcorn and salted caramel everything – even Tesco has this fashionable savoury-sweet flavour now. Chorizo is still in everything, from squid stew to chicken casserole to paella. Spain has its food trends too: burgers are big currently, as is unusually flavoured (non-tomato) salmorejo - beetroot, strawberry, watermelon.

The anniversary of the First World War, in 1914, has filled the TV schedules and book stores, and monuments have marked the occasion – the Tower of London has an installation with thousands of blood-red poppies. I tried to explain to my kids about all the young men who sacrificed their lives in unimaginable conditions, but it’s hard for them to grasp such a foreign concept. The pictures are from another world.

I love medieval fairs in Spain, but they are usually commercial rather than educational, even if in appropriate dress and with period food. Historical recreations sound dull and ditch-water, but we went to a marvellous Tudor Day at a local Elizabethan manor, Kentwell Hall, where actors dress up in costume, speak in English of the day, and explain about their craft – fletchers, felters, alchemists. I would dearly love to go to a similar event in Spain to find out what life was like in the time of the early Bourbon empire.

Do you visit your home country in the summer? What do you enjoy most while you’re there?

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La Bienal de Flamenco 2014 – A Preview

August 18, 2014 – 10:58 am
The Bienal de Flamenco draws the finest talent to Seville every two years.

The Bienal de Flamenco draws the finest talent to Seville every two years.

This autumn, flamenco fans shouldn’t miss a major event taking place in Seville: the Bienal.

Every second year, the finest performers and companies – singers, musicians, dancers – bring their shows to the city for three weeks of mesmerising performances of this striking art form, with its raw emotion, intricate rhythms, and astonishing footwork.

This year, some of the star attractions showing between 12 September and 5 October include:

12 September: The opening night gala at Teatro la Maestranza – a tribute to the great singer Enrique Morente, featuring his children, Estrella, Soleá and Jose Enrique; as well as Carmen Linares, El Pele, Arcángel, and dancer Israel Galván.

15 September: Farruquito in his brand new show Pinacenda at Teatro La Maestranza. The unfeasibly attractive dancer is always accompanied by his family entourage of singers, musicians and other performers.

19 September: Tomatito at the Alcazar – the guitarist is always one of the Bienal’s most popular performers.

20 September: El Baile de la Frontera at Hotel Triana. A group of performers from Moron de la Frontera, renowned for the excellence of its flamenco talent. The line-up includes Pepe Torres, Jairo Barrull, Carmen Lozano (invited artist), David el Galli, Juan José Amador; guitarists Dani de Morón, Eugenio Iglesias
and Paco Iglesias, with the special collaboration of Diego de Morón and Antonio Ruiz “el Carpintero”.

21 September: Manuela Carrasco with Naturaleza Gitana: Gitana Morena, a homage to Lorca, at La Maestranza.

28 September: Patricia Guerrero at the Teatro Central with her new show Latidos de Agua, which recalls the Polinario, a legendary place in the Alhambra.

29 September: Ariadna Castellanos plays at the Espacio Santa Clara – the young pianist won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London, and has played with Paco de Lucia.

1 October: Jeromo Segura at the Espacio Santa Clara. This up-and-coming star, who won the coveted Lampara Minera award in 2013, will sing in this intimate space.

5 October: This year’s flashmob will take place on the final day of the festival at 12 midday in plaza Nueva. Pastora Galvan has prepared the choreography of bulerias trianeras for this 3.5 minute group performance, which anyone is welcome to participate in. If you want to be in this flashmob, get your dancing shoes on now and start practising!

If you can’t wait till then to see some top-class flamenco, then go to the Alcazar on 30 August, to see Jeromo Segura sing as part of the outdoor summer concert season. Hearing any music at night in the gardens of this palace is an unforgettable experience, but the passion and spine-tingling emotion of flamenco adds an extra dimension.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution (but talking in Seville is)

August 10, 2014 – 11:06 am
A bar in Plaza San Francisco, a flashpoint for night-time noise in Seville. Photo credit: Michelle Chaplow

A bar in Plaza San Francisco, a flashpoint for outdoor night-time noise in Seville. Photo credit: Michelle Chaplow

When you come to beautiful, historic Seville, whether for a brief visit, a medium-length stay, or to live permanently, you will have certain preconceptions about this vibrant city. Its atmosphere, its colour, its buzz. In short, its noise.

In the warm, welcoming climate of southern Spain, you expect life to take place en la calle – people sitting outside in cafes eating tapas on balmy evenings, drinking cañas of chilled Cruzcampo beer, but above all, chatting animatedly until the small hours, possibly even breaking spontaneously into song. Having said that, when I lived in the centre, I do remember being kept awake by groups singing in the street – merrily making their way from one bar to another.

This street life is what makes Andalucia its charming, inimitable self, and is one of the reasons why I personally love it so much, after years of living in (mostly) cold, dark London, and why expats fleeing from the cloudy skies of Britain and northern Europe still flock here in droves. All Sevillanos love to be out, watching life, being seen, meeting friends, talking about the weather, the beach, the Feria, the children. In the street, literally, the lively, human, in-your-face intensity that is a city of energy, colour and excitement.

Which is why, when I first read about the city’s new anti-noise law, I honestly thought it had to be a wind-up. Sevillanos, being told not to make noise outdoors at night? That’s like telling Parisians to be scruffy, or Italians to be subdued. Ain’t gonna happen, not in their culture. In their genes. In their nature. But a petition of 4,000 Seville residents (out of a total 700,000) last year demanded action be taken against excessive noise levels in the street, in the city centre. Some native, or adoptive, Sevillanos can’t take the late-night ruido which prevent them from sleeping any more – El Arenal and Alfalfa are two top areas for wee hours disturbance.

As I scanned through the initial parts of the news reports – which mentioned games of dominoes and dice being banned, as they’re so notoriously rowdy, and so is eating or drinking while standing up while outside a bar – I thought the heat had got to the Mayor and his delegados. But when I reached the part about TVs outside bars being turned up too loud, then I started to believe it could actually be serious. Anyone who’s tried to have a drink in a bar when a football match is on will know what I’m talking about.

Under the new law, anyone having an “excessively loud” conversation on the street can now be fined, as can bar owners who set up televisions on their terraces or who serve patrons who are standing up outside.

Other activities which are prohibited include playing loud music while driving, having a car alarm that goes off for more than three minutes, or revving car engines unnecessarily. Fines for those caught transgressing the law, in all its intricacies of exact noise level and time of day, could be fined from €300 to €300,000, as well as – in the case of bars – the closure, either temporary or permanent, of the establishment. From boy racers to old men to friends chatting, it is as randomly sprawling as it is, in this writer’s opinion, ill-conceived.

Further evidence of its ad-hoc nature is that those charged with imposing the fines at night, a small number of police officers, will not carry technical equipment with which to measure the noise levels. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it?

So why? What’s behind this new law (since there’s always a motive)? There are several theories – in a dire economic situation such as we have currently, filling the coffers is always a priority for politicians. Any new infringement of the law, any means of relieving the public of some desperately-needed euros, will be seen as a legitimate means of extra income. One gallery owner, who often holds events in his city-centre space, told me it was about so-called “quality tourism” – too many terraces, to meet tourists’ demands to eat and drink outside.

Personally it strikes me that there are many, many more Seville residents who want the freedom to  go out at night and enjoy a beer, a tapa and a chat outside (the temperature here in summer doesn’t dip below 30 degrees until after 10pm), than those who are bothered by such activities.

The Feria will not have to curb its exuberant noise levels for the new law in Seville, unlike bars and cafes with outdoor terraces.

The Feria will not have to curb its exuberant noise levels for the new law in Seville, unlike bars with outdoor terraces.

One notable omission to which many have drawn attention is the fact that religious processions and festivals, such as Semana Santa , El Rocio, and the many other Virgin Mary outings which take place throughout the year, with their loud boom-boom bands and deafening early-morning rocket explosions, are exempt from this law, as are karaoke bars and nightclubs, where people often gather outside to smoke, chatting loudly in the street.

Neither is there mention of botellones, the street parties where hundreds of young people gather in an open public space; drink all night, shouting and singing, naturally; relieve themselves where they fancy; and then leave all their rubbish behind. Nice. Another glaring gap is the Feria, where music plays and high spirits keep the party going till 4 or 5am every night for a week in April.

Such anomalies makes a laughing stock of the law, as no one in a position of power in Seville would ever restrict the city’s most popular, traditional – and noisiest – events. Why? Because those are their preferred celebrations. Normal people can’t enjoy themselves outdoors in a bar, but We, those who govern, will continue with our regular revelries. Perish the thought anyone would try to prevent us from doing so. Double standards.

It seems to me there a vast, difference, nay chasm, between a crowded square packed with people talking at the tops of their voices, which is obviously going to disturb those living around, and a few people having tapas at a table in the street. How on earth will the police be able to keep track, decide whom to target with fines and even closures, implementing this wide-ranging, illogical law?

What do you think? Should people be banned from eating and drinking while standing up on a bar terrace? Does it seem reasonable that the right of those living nearby to sleep should be protected? Or is it draconian and over-the-top to protect people’s wellbeing when it impinges on the enjoyment of others?



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As I Walked Out: One man’s journey in the footsteps of Laurie Lee

July 30, 2014 – 8:33 pm
Laurie Lee

On the 100th anniversary of Laurie Lee's birth, the book takes readers on a revealing journey across 21st-century Spain.

To celebrate the centenary of Laurie Lee’s birth, Paul Murphy retraced the writer’s journey on foot across pre-war 1930s Spain from Vigo to Almuñecar, as recounted years later in the much-loved classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. For Paul, the voyage became much more than reliving a favourite memoir, as the ex-civil servant battled his own personal demons during the arduous five-month trek. Fiona Flores Watson talked to Paul Murphy about love, loss and literature. Has the idea to write this book been with you for years?

Paul Murphy: I guess the answer to this is: yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I have been fascinated by the book it is based on and its author, and the idea of walking across Spain, since I was 17 and first read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. No, in that the first time I seriously considered undertaking the journey as a book project was when I had to pitch an idea for a non-fiction book to my tutor on my MA Professional Writing Course at Falmouth University in February 2012. Somehow I had discovered that June 2014 would be Lee’s centenary and I thought my tutor would like the hook. She did, but cautioned me that she had doubts about whether I could do the walk/journey, write the book, and find a publisher, all in time for the centenary. She was right to be cautious, but I did manage to meet the deadline… by a week!

Paul Murphy, PD Murphy, Laurie Lee

Paul Murphy read Lee's classic Spanish travel memoir at the age of 17, and has been fascinated by the writer, and the country, ever since. Photo credit: Joe Wainwright Photography.

AC: When did you first visit Spain, and why?

PM: I first visited Spain as a 15-year-old in 1970 with my mother and brother. I had my O Level Spanish exam looming and I was supposed to be practising my Spanish. I was sent to do the shopping every day – not many supermarkets then in Estepona, so I had to ask for things by name. Ever since, my specialist Spanish vocabulary subject has been fruits and vegetables.

AC: What drew you to Spain, and what made you want to come back?

PM: After my first visit, I pretty much visited Spain every year as a visitor/student/teacher for the next 14 years. I am not sure why I fell in love with the country in the first place. I was brought up in London of Irish and Welsh parents, and am British by nationality, but do not feel very comfortable in that skin. Perhaps it is my Celtic roots that attracted me to the more emotional, sensual Spanish personality. I love language, so perhaps it was the sound and dialects that attracted me.

AC: What is about Lee and his work which attracts and inspires you?

PM: His lyrical style of writing. He is a poet who writes beautiful prose. I am not a great admirer of his classic childhood memoir Cider with Rosie; it is his writing on Spain that has always drawn me in. I think he succeeds in capturing the soul of Spain, its duende, in a way that no other English writer has ever done. It is no coincidence I think that Lee, like me, was fascinated by the Spanish poet Lorca, who for me defined the mystery of Spain and its culture. I never did meet Lee and perhaps that was a good thing, as I am not sure we would have clicked. The more I found out about him, the less I liked him as a man. At the end of the day he was an English eccentric, a pillar of a certain type of English establishment, a champagne (or cider) socialist. I admire him for his willingness to fight for the Republican cause and will always love his writing, but I’m not sure that we would have been kindred spirits if we had met.

Paul visited many towns and villages on his five-month walk.

Paul visited many Spanish towns and villages on his five-month walk. Photo credit: Toma Tours

AC: Why did you choose to make this journey, and write the book, at this point in your life?

PM: I think to a degree it chose me. I was at a low point following redundancy from my 20-year career in local government, and my wife demanding a divorce shortly after. I needed to reinvent myself as a person and choose a new career path. I went back to University and relocated to Cornwall. I needed a challenge, a new journey to complete, I needed to throw caution to the wind, do something unpredictable, something that my wife did not think me capable of doing.

AC: How much of the book (if any) was planned before you set off on your journey?

PM: Essentially the route was pre-determined, as I followed the path taken by Laurie Lee back in June 1935. He arrived at Vigo in Galicia by boat from Tilbury, London – the ticket cost £4. He walked via Zamora, Valladolid and Segovia to Madrid and then down to Malaga via Toledo, Valdepeñas, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and Gibraltar. I varied the route slightly by going up to the hilltown of Aracena, north of Seville, going inland to Ronda, and avoiding Gibraltar. I had planned on meeting certain people along the route – like the Guardian’s former Spain correspondent, Giles Tremlett, in Madrid – but also met people along the way who told me their stories and occasionally took me off the beaten track. What I hadn’t planned for was how the journey would affect me emotionally, and this was much harder to deal with.

AC: Had you always intended to write such a deeply personal book? Are you glad you did?

PM: No, originally the book was going to be a biography of Lee based on his Spanish Civil War years; the experience seemed to shape his life significantly and left him with a certain amount of guilt, I think. His actual record of fighting in 1938 is still mired in controversy, and many wonder if he made up his wartime exploits story as he went along. The book was also always going to be a travelogue of Spain, looking back to the 1930s and comparing how much modern Spain had changed since Lee’s time here.

The further I walked on my journey, the more I realised that the experience was becoming deeply personal as I battled with the grief of a lost and failed marriage. Also I gradually realised that Lee was, in effect, a surrogate for my father who had died 10 years previously, and with whom I had a difficult relationship. As well as being a hard physical journey, the walk took its toll on me emotionally and changed me for the better. I felt I had to reflect this in the book and found my own experiences led to a changed relationship with Lee and a deeper understanding of the man and the writer.

In the end I learnt a lot about myself as a person, and as a writer, as the journey took me in a direction that I had not foreseen.

Paul found the journey, which took him to stunning Spanish landscapes, a tough emotional as well as physical experience. Photo credit: Toma Tours.

Paul found the journey, which took him to many stunning Spanish landscapes, a tough emotional as well as physical experience. Photo credit: Toma Tours.

AC: While you were walking, how did you record your thoughts? Notebook, dictaphone, photos? Did you keep a daily journal?

PM: I used an iPad and took over a thousand photos, and made occasional notes; I did not keep a diary as such. The journey from start to finish, though, took five months, with a break in the middle to complete my MA Studies. The book took shape in this middle section of the walk as I had to produce a 15,000-word dissertation – essentially an early draft of the first few chapters. The photos served as my memory triggers.

AC: Did you ever find your own opinions and experiences of Spain conflicting with the course or content of the book?

PM: I don’t think this happened too often, my aim was to record my experiences as an observer in the main. However, on occasions I was not able to hide my personal views about how Spain seemed to have become a much more conservative society following its transition to democracy and membership of the EU. The country seemed as divided as ever, with the poor having got poorer particularly in the harsh austerity regime of the current and previous governments. The Civil War still seemed a subject that few were prepared to talk about and the “pact of silence” still seemed pretty much in place. I think I wanted to see more passion and fight against the injustice still prevalent in much of society.

I was quite shocked when I visited the Valle de Caídos and heard the commentary of the independent tour guide, who still seemed to respect and uphold the image of Franco as essentially a good man and saviour of the country. Perhaps it was also just the reflections of an older man reliving his youth and finding the world a different place. We all reinvent our memories to synchronise with the internal narrative that we have about our lives.

AC: Did unexpected meetings and unusual characters change the course of the journey (and book)?

PM: Yes, I met the grandson, Pepe, of a communist tank commander who had fought against Franco and then had to live the life of a fugitive after the war had ended. He had children of his own now who could not find work and who were living on the breadline. Indirectly he set me off on a path and caused me to meet Alfonso, whose grandfather and all of his great-uncles, bar one, had fought against the Republicans. The black sheep of the family sided with the Republic and was saved from certain death by his brothers, who smuggled him to safety and bribed Francoist officials to spare his life. The war did set family against family, but sometimes blood is thicker than water.

AC: How did the journey, and the process of writing the book, affect you as a person? Do you think you’ve changed, and if so, in what way (for better or worse)?

PM: The whole experience did change me. I set aside over 2 years to make the journey and write the book. I started out as a man whose life had been knocked off course by unforeseen events, a man embittered and saddened by his newly impoverished and lonely state. The journey and the book made me confront some long-hidden demons and work my way through the grief and loss of my marriage. In the same way that I changed my view of Laurie Lee, who I came to see as a flawed man who could write like an angel but was no hero, I also discovered a nicer, better version of myself and came to terms with the memory and life of a flawed and unhappy father. I learnt that writers often lie, heroes have feet of clay and fathers aren’t all as bad as their sons sometimes think.

The cottage in Slad, Gloucestershire, where Laurie Lee was born. Photo credit: Joe Wainwright

The cottage in Slad, Gloucestershire, where Laurie Lee was born and spent his childhood before 'walking out' to Spain. Photo credit: Joe Wainwright Photography

AC: What were the high and low points of the journey for you (including parts afterwards in UK?)

PM: The lows include realising that Lee would often play for his supper in roadside inns that were no more than brothels, and that sometimes his “extras” included sleeping with teenage prostitutes pimped by their grandfathers; and discovering that upright Spanish citizens, pillars of the community, often still gather together in community-run venues to sing the victorious hymns of Franco’s fascist troops.

Of the highs, well literally climbing up and over the Guadarrama mountains north of Madrid – breathing in the rarified air as you crest a peak and see the capital sprawled out below you takes some beating. Right at the end of the journey, I finally met Lee’s widow and daughter, who were thrilled to hear of my journey, and who told me that if their father were standing by their side at that moment, he would bestow his blessing upon me.

It is painful to realise that a hero is often not what he seems, but I still respect Lee as a writer and a man and try not to stand in judgement of him and his faults – after all, I am no angel – are any of us?

The biggest high came not so long ago, and I will reveal all at the end of our conversation.

Laurie Lee

The grave in Slad of Laurie Lee, one of England's best-loved writers. Photo credit: Joe Wainwright Photography

AC: Do you have any unanswered questions after writing the book? Has it left you with the desire to write another one?

PM: Oh yes, there is much that I don’t know about Lee, for example whether he fought and killed a man in battle – only he knows that, and the truth has gone with him to his grave. I think I know Spain a bit better, but I have no idea what its new generation of young people, over 50% of whom can find no work, or prospects of work for years to come, will make of their country.

I am still coming to terms with the emotional and physical effort of what writing a book entails – this was my first one. I have ideas and plans for a further book on Spain, but at present am taking stock and replenishing my energy levels. I have discovered that I can write well, I can tell a story, I can deal with rejection and setbacks, and come up smiling the next day. What I am not sure about is, can I continue to do it?

AC: They say biographers/those who write books about people have complicated relationships with their subjects. Do you like Lee more or less after writing the book? Did your opinion of him change over the course of your journey?

I think we have already established that my view of Lee changed a lot over the course of the project and tested my faith in him. I have a more informed view of him now, a different view, perhaps a more balanced view.

AC: Do you have a favourite town or city in Andalucia, and why do you like it?

This is an easy one: I spent a year living in Granada in 1976 as a student and fell in love with its melancholy beauty. A very favourite place is the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaícin overlooking the Alhambra. My special time of day in this special place is sunset, when the blood-red skies light up the white teeth of the Sierra Nevada’s snowy peaks, as the sun sinks down behind the Moorish palace, with just the African birds singing sweetly to the harem’d princesses of stories from home.

I had my own magical moment after writing the book, when the love of my life, the girl I should have married, found me through the book and we are together again. One day I will bring her to Granada to see the sun go down.

As I Walked Out in Search of Laurie Lee’s Spain by PD Murphy is available from Silverwood Books. Paul’s blog is The Little Summer of the Quince.

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