This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 142: 80th Anniversary of the Final Offensive 26 March – 1 April 1939

March 26

General Yagüe and his troops advance north and east from the Sierra Morena mountains, on the Andalusia/Castilla La Mancha border. Any remaining Republican soldiers in the country are ordered to drop their weapons and retreat from any remaining front-lines. Nothing can be done to stop the Nationalists now. In a single day, the Nationalist troops take 200,000 square kilometres of land and take 30,000 Republican prisoners. Escobar Huerta surrenders the city of Ciudad Real to Yagüe inside an old casino, and is then shipped off to be executed.

March 27

General Solchaga’s Navarre Corps, General Garcia Valiño’s Army of Maestrazgo, and General Gambara’s Italian troops are ordered to take the city of Toledo, which has spent much of the war on the front-line, and just 70 kilometres from Madrid. The city suffers unconditional surrender and prisoners are quickly captured. Anyone Republican must be swiftly rounded up.

Troops head from Toledo to Madrid

March 28

Republic Colonel Prada officially surrenders Madrid to the Nationalists, who have had the city surrounded for almost three years, and the Nationalists are able to enter the city without a fight. All remaining leaders of the Republicans who are in Madrid flee to Valencia in the hope of escape, including General Casado, who had been trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Franco.

Troops mingle with locals as they enter Madrid

March 29

The Nationalists now hold the main centre of Jaén, some 90 kilometres north  of Granada, and have also marched 250 kilometres southeast of Madrid to Albacete and Cuenca, so most of Castilla La Mancha is now occupied. The port town of Sagunto, just 30 kilometres north of Valencia city, is occupied, leaving Republicans refugees almost nowhere else to go.

March 29

The ports of Valencia, Gandia, Alicante and Cartagena are still in Republican hands, and 50,000 Republican refugees are stranded along the coast, without any Republican navy to aid them from the coming onslaught. British and French ships in the regions cannot take refugees, as their governments have recognised Franco’s control over Spain. Hundreds of Spaniards rich enough to bribe foreign ship captains are able to escape, General Casado included.

Refugees wait in Alicante

March 30

The Nationalists take Valencia, marking the final demise of the Republican effort to save their country. Gambara’s Italian troops take Alicante and its port, taking 15,000 refugees prisoner at the port. Gambara is prepared to allow political refugees to leave the country, but the Nationalists shall not allow it. At the port in Alicante, refugees start committing suicide in huge numbers, to avoid the Nationalists, who are only one day away from arriving.

The British Stanbrook leaving Alicante with rich refugees, bound for Algeria.

March 31

After taking the regions of Almeria, Murcia and Cartagena in the far south-east, all of Spain is now under Nationalist occupation. All remaining refugees in Spain are huddled in Alicante port, hoping their chance to be evacuated will still come. The Nationalist troops arrive, and the refugees are slowly lined up to be taken prisoner. But there are 20,000 terrified people, and they have to suspend capturing people until the next day, giving more the chance to commit suicide at the port before being taken away. The suicide toll runs into the hundreds.

April 1

Generalissimo Francisco Franco broadcasts what will be his last radio message of the war:

Today, after having disarmed and captured the Red Army, the Nationalist troops have secured their final military objective. The war is ended. Burgos, April 1, 1939. Year of Victory.

As of April 1, only the Soviet Union does not already recognise Franco’s government. Franco already has a new Non-Aggression Pact with Portugal and a treaty of friendship with Germany, leaving Spain to be neutral in WWII, while they recover from civil war. Within a week, Franco backs the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan to denounce Communism. German and Italian troops leave by June 1939, in preparation for the coming European war.

The Final Offensive saw 150,000 Republic soldiers and civilian rounded up in the concentration camps, bringing the total of Republic prisoners in April 1939 to upwards of 500,000. Within just several years, over 50,000 will have already been executed. 

Franco celebrates in Madrid

After three years of bloody battles, of murder, rape, pillaging, looting, of destruction of cities, towns, communities, ways of life, ideals, and families, evil emerges the winner. All sides of political spectrum have fought, the rich against the poor, the workers against those desperate to hold onto the monarchy, religion, and landowning feudal rulers, everyone and everything has been pitted against one another for a horror show of gore and misery. Approximately one million people are dead, murdered by people of their own country. From the sprawling rural plains to the ancient cities, everything has been reduced to nothing, every way of life hacked to pieces. Civilians have been herded and lined up to be executed, women raped until they died and left sprawled in the dirt. Bodies of nuns were dug up and displayed, family members ripped from their homes in the dead of night and shot in ditches, their families still to scared to speak up eighty years later.

Nationalist victory parade in San Sebastian

While April 1st marks the end of the Spanish Civil War, the war didn’t end for many. Franco’s first decree was to ensure all Republicans would suffer for their choices. More than 1000 concentration camps were erected in Spain, holding people well into the 1950’s. Many didn’t survive the camps. How many people died between 1939 and 1975 isn’t known, but one estimate is almost one million. Fascism and staunch Catholicism wormed its way into every part of Spanish life, its people silenced as Franco systemically destroyed everyone who hated him. Right up until Franco died, he signed death warrants, a miserable old bastard who got to die warm in his bed.

With WWII starting just a few months after Spain was brought down, Franco and what he did has been largely ignored, by history and anyone not directly affected. Franco couldn’t have won the war without Hitler and Mussolini, whose European exploits shot memories of their fascist cruelty into the hearts and minds of everyone, unforgettable despotic hatred. Franco allowed the Germans and Italians to aid him, and they used Spain as their own practice killing fields, testing new methods of warfare, such as carpet bombing, testing men and artillery, preparing for the fight to take Europe. Countries such as the UK and France sat idly by, hoping to avert a European war by doing nothing, when they could have potentially stopped Germany, Italy and Spain before the Nazis took over. But not the UK, France, nor any other country in the Non-Intervention Committee bothered to help, countries overrun by Germany soon after. The Germans and Italians assumed the UK would quickly intervene when the war started, and  were surprised that nothing happened in retaliation. The US was as unhelpful in the Spanish Civil War as it was in the first two years of WWII. The only people desperate to stop all this were the Spanish Republicans, and the thousands of individuals who risked their lives to find their own way to Spain to help. Many never made it home, many who did were punished for their bravery.

I will do a separate post as to the fates of the main players of the war on both sides, as well as the struggles faced by the people in their home cities and towns in the aftermath. I will also post about the ongoing discovery of ‘disappeared’ Spaniards still being reburied, the fates of the refugees who walked into France, and what happened to the International Brigades. I will also do a post on the many sources I have used for these three years of postings.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom

Winter in Madrid

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories.

Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

A vivid and haunting depiction of wartime Spain, Winter in Madrid is an intimate and compelling tale which offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.

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I must confess that Winter in Madrid is ‘that’ book for me – the one everyone seems to rave about, but I never ended up reading. I got this book five years ago, but after the first two chapters, put it aside, finding its ‘rich British toff’ language to be tiring. Then my father ‘borrowed’ the book, and I only got it back 18 months ago when he passed away. Still, only now could I push on and finally read.

The first forty or so pages set up the story of Harry Brett, a British war veteran invalided out after Dunkirk. Harry is recruited to be a spy in Madrid, thanks to his Spanish fluency and his connections within a public school upbringing (often called private school in most countries. Rich bratty kids). With all of the snobbish upper class language of Downton Abbey, but with none of the poise, Harry is convinced to fly to Madrid in 1940 and spy on an old school mate, who is claiming to have found gold deposits outside Madrid. If Franco has gold, he will rely less on the frugal aid Britain provides, and will be compelled to ditch their neutrality in the Second World War. Hitler is winning, England is looking weary, and newly fascist Spain could be a threat.

That is where we meet the star of the show – Madrid, 1940. The only word to be used is stark in its portrayal, and rightly so. The author has done an unquestionable job in his research of the time. The lives of those in Madrid are intolerable, and the spirits of the proud people are well and truly starving and crushed by the fascist regime. Slightly annoyingly, the book jumps between time periods, of Harry’s days in his snobby school, 1931 where he and friend Bernie first go to Madrid, and the city is down-trodden but on the verge of change, and 1936, when the war starts, and the souls of the working class are surging with hope. I suppose the schoolyard sections are there to show the life of Harry, his interaction with best buddy Bernie, and that of Sandy Forsyth, the rich brat who had gone to bigger things under Franco. The jumps in time period fill in all the blanks, but it means the book leaps about more often than most stories.

Along the way, we meet Barbara Clare, former lover of Communist Bernie, who spurned his upper-crust lifestyle for new ideals, and was listed as missing presumed killed in Jarama 1937. Barbara fell head over heels but Bernie left her in Madrid to fight on the front lines. Three years on, Barbara has moved on to Sandy, who ‘made her’, as he says in the most rapist-like way when he’s angry. Barbara is difficult to love – she had the courage to be in Spain during the war with the Red Cross, but has been reduced to being a borderline alcoholic, chain-smoking rich housewife (without the ring). She sighs her way through concerts with Franco while wearing fur, while most are freezing. She laments on her misery while living in almost paradise-like surroundings while Madrid languishes with hunger. She can’t get over poor  Bernie, who was never a smart guy but had plenty of good intentions. I rather hoped lung cancer would kick in through all Barbara’s cigarettes and waif-like point-of-view.

Harry pushes on, spying on Sandy and Barbara, meeting many nasty characters under the Franco regime. He attends lavish parties hosted by wartime murderers, but walks the streets of the poor as he remembers Bernie. As the web begins to twist around the characters, Harry meets Sofia in the most unusual circumstances. Sofia has had a tough working class life and is the epitome of the locals in the area. Harry spends more time with her, and finally realises he is sleep-walking through life thanks to his rich, snobbish school education. As the push to uncover Sandy’s gold mine continues, Harry and Barbara each keep a variety of secrets which unthreads their fragile minds and pits their survival against evil characters.

Bernie’s point of view tells the story of a British communist stuck in a concentration camp outside the town of Cuenca, and the harsh conditions imposed. Many people fail to realise the existence of Spanish concentration camps under Franco, never photographed and dismantled completely after use. All these characters conspire against each other and those around them, resulting in a massive twist ending where not everyone survives and all the characters are left with blood on their hands.

I know Madrid well and know Cuenca like the back of my hand, and reading about the places in this time period genuinely interests me. If you know little about the Spanish civil war or the Franco regime, this book will give you a realistic insight. The locations and descriptions are exquisite, and the author’s work on detail and political alliances of the time is stunning. But the conversation, the wealthy British language can be hard to take, leaving the conversations feeling stiff and unfulfilled over endless glasses of whiskey. The book lets down its female characters – Barbara is a flake (maybe weighed down by too many bad Madrid coffees?) and Sofia doesn’t get the prime position she deserves. Harry, the main character of the story, is a nice enough guy, though his fate never concerned me. Sandy is a terrific passive aggressive scumbag and Bernie left me so furious that I threw the book down in anger at the end. Not many books have that effect on me!  But rest assured, you will find yourself reading all the way to the end to see what happens to Harry, Bernie, Barbara, Sofia and Sandy. Whether you hope they live, or die in a fire-ball, is up to you.

My rating – 4/5 stars. Madrid is a scene-stealer and a study of eternal struggle, but those inhabiting her are too weak to challenge her dominance.

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 9: Thunderstorms, Jesus and Ghosts in Cuenca

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You will long know by now that Cuenca is one of the central locations on my novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil. What you may not know is that when I wrote the novel, I worked purely on information given to me when researching the real characters that inspired their fictional counterparts in the book. While I know the outlying areas around the town, I never made it to the small hilltop town the entire time I lived in Spain. So, once the book was finished, I decided that while on my trip to gain information for my second Spanish novel, it was time to visit Cuenca in the flesh.

Name a town anywhere in Valencia province and I can almost certainly say I’ve been there. The mountainous region north of Valencia city is one of my favorite places. I have also spread out north-west of the city into the Aragon region many times, but Cuenca was last on the list of places to visit.

Whilst the town of Uclés was the ‘real-life’ town that my 1939 book characters worked in during the war, I moved the story to Cuenca for the later war storyline, and the town did not disappoint. The views of Cuenca are well-known, the cliffs, the hanging houses, the parador, but the place largely gets ignored during the lists of places to visit in Spain. Personally, the (albeit oddly shaped) triangle that runs from Valencia to Barcelona to Madrid is my favourite part of Spain, and it lies mostly untouched by tourism.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a high-and-mighty speech about the ‘real Spain’. What Cuenca does offer is an opportunity to have a day trip to a town where there are no set rules on what you should experience.

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The trip started well enough, out of Valencia. I was torn by leaving my  favourite city; while I could easily stay in the place forever, heading for Cuenca was 200 kms closer to getting back to Madrid and on a flight home, which I am not ashamed to say I was missing. The A-3, while a quick route inland, does mean you miss little opportunities to explore the Valencia region more, but I was not the driver (I hate driving); instead I settled for a familiar sights along a familiar road (my ill-fated trip to Teruel had the exact same problem).

We headed up the N-320, and Spain’s quiet interior peace settled in. It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind and head through small villages. For me, just seeing little places and knowing their wartime history was a great experience, though I had no one to share any of the information with. To be honest, I did wish I had taken the train, which I had in my original plans, but never mind.

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We arrived in Cuenca at about 2pm, and quickly bypassed the new town, filled with your standard Spanish locales, since obviously the locals require these businesses for work and life’s daily needs. My car-ride companion had a desire to get through the area as fast as possible, complaining of its ugliness. We arrived at the parador, the former Convento de San Pablo, one of Cuenca’s most enduring sights. As it is a location in my novel, I was determined to stay there, despite the fact a single night cost me more than three nights in a classy Madrid hotel on the same trip.

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View of the parador

I applaud anyone who has the desire to take care of a historic building and those at the parador have done just that. With a quiet, well maintained yet basic courtyard in the building, and hallways that give you the chance to feel the soul of the place. With a room on the second floor, I felt lazy taking the elevator, despite carrying my bag, and opted for the stairs for the rest of the stay, since the elevator is slow and filled with tourists not quite as agile as me.

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Main hallway

The room – I paid for a view, hence the slight increase in price and the view did not disappoint for a moment. Located above the main entrance, the room gave an instant view across the bridge over the gorge and over the old town dangling over the precipice of silent cliffs. A huge thunderstorm hung over the town, reminding me to stay inside for a little while. After an irritating car trip, I didn’t particularly want to hang out in a dated and poorly decorated room with terrible wifi, but the pouring squall slashing its way over the town was best viewed from the behind the windows.

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I left my dark depressing room and headed down the hallway to a charming area where seating was laid out, with a view over the interior courtyard of the building. I met a charming man named Jesús, on holiday with his parents from Madrid. He said the town has become a popular place for visitors from the capital over the past few years, but as we sat together, all that passed us was a Japanese family eager to do some sightseeing. The silence of the building made us wonder if the nuns were still running the place! Jesús was the only person my age (ie. 30’s) I saw there. Maybe the price puts younger travelers off; Jesús had just got a new job and wanted to treat his parents because he hadn’t had a job for over a year.

I bid farewell to the flirty Jesús and headed outside into the frail sunshine, amazed (though not surprised) by the cool temperatures of the mountainous area. Still free of my car-ride buddy, I started a walk down to the base of the Huécar gorge, and I was entirely alone the whole time. Not a soul walked by and as I wandered around the base of the town, and back up, popping out on the side of the old town, skipping the gorge walk bridge entirely.

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San Pablo bridge all to myself

After the frenetic tourist-ridden locations like Barcelona, to stand alone in this picturesque area is a real chance to breathe. I took about 1001 photos of the area, which could easy take up your whole day. With my handy copy of BITVS in tow, I got to see the areas that has been so accurately described through photos and friends while working on the book.

Past the Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses (which houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art), I wandered in the Barrio San Martín, a labyrinth series of streets, portrayed regularly in my book. More photos and some glorious time to be alone, something I wanted more of, I got to see the places in my book, which made me immensely happy. I didn’t pass a soul in the area, and walking along the steep and easily confusing area, it would be easy to think you have gone back in time. The silence is stunning and the town speaks to you instead.

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Legit street in Barrio San Martín

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House used as inspiration in BITVS

Onwards to Plaza Mayor, the heart of the old town. After popping out onto the square by luck rather than planning, it was interesting to see a main plaza with almost no people. For all the talk of the place being a tourist area these days, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen, and not many locals either.  I went straight in the direction of the cathedral, another pivotal location in my novel, and will also feature in subsequent books.

The interior of the church doesn’t disappoint. The solemn religious works sit in an air of silent and cold (almost as cold as Segovia’s frigid cathedral) peace. I sat at the altar for a while, the first time I had taken a break on my whole trip (or so it felt), to soak in the moment. It may sound crazy, or juvenile even, but being in Cuenca made my own book come to life for me, more so than Valencia and Madrid. I could imagine Cayetano Beltrán praying in the same seat, with Luna Montgomery watching in silence, wondering what the hell she was doing there with the bullfighter.

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Cuenca cathedral 

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With the intention of walking up Calle San Pedro, the ‘main’ road leaving up out of Plaza Mayor (try watching a bus go up there with a car coming down the other side – impressive skills and nerves), I instead peeled off along tiny and intriguing little alleyways, in search of my Cuenca (mine, as in ‘in the book’ Cuenca). The lack of people and noise makes it easy to develop your own opinion of the town and indeed imagine yourself in a novel.

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I reached the 18th century San Pedro church. Though basic, it’s home to a bell tower,  is a must-climb. The few hundred stairs are an easy climb and the views once up there are amazing. The climb is a real highlight (see what I did there?)

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Parador view from bell tower

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View of Júcar gorge from bell tower

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odd bit of artwork looking to old town from Júcar gorge

For me, I felt exceedingly lonely in Cuenca. I missed my family, who weren’t on this research trip with me. Without them, the majority of sights seemed hollow. Cuenca is a sight best seen with someone you love (or at least like!). I wandered back to Plaza Mayor, and grabbed a map from a nice young guy named Carlos at visitor information. I prided my lack of maps on my trip, but it was quite handy for a quick walk up and down stairs on the hillside to view the Júcar gorge on the other side of the old town, and then I was officially tired of the whole area. My enthusiasm had gone. I went back to the parador, this time over the San Pablo bridge, and took a break.

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Creepy homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, see the little Falangist symbols beneath? I nearly fell over when I saw this on the cathedral wall near the entrance to the Archbishop’s palace. Odd in 2013.

Surely evening could be interesting. With exhaustion ruining the trip, my car-ride buddy suggested a drink at the restaurant in the parador. Before even poking my head in, she said that everyone looked too old and boring (note from me – if you are in your 50’s, I’ll happily share a drink with you). Instead, we headed over the gorge and into the old town, to a random little in Plaza Mayor bar where I spent my evening mulling over several white wines from Cuenca – all of which I would recommend. The barman brought so many tapas over that dinner wasn’t required!

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The walk home at about 1am was a highlight, I’m not one for heading out late at night, but walking the pitch dark and silent alleyways, suitably spirited with wine and relatively lost makes you feel like someone is creeping up behind you, or that you’ve stumbled into a Jason Webster novel. The cliffs lit up at night is a sight to behold, even if my iphone couldn’t capture them very well, as is crossing the bridge in the dark.

A rough attempt at sleep on a bed so hard I thought it had been built from nearby rock, I got up at 4am and went for a walk on my own, to the amusement of hotel staff. I did this on almost every night of my trip and it’s interesting what you can see and hear when out when no one else is stirring. I crossed the bridge in the freezing air, and heard what I think were owls, the sound echoing through the gorge like an eery cry. It took little imagination to feel like it was 1913 or even 1713. I sat between some trees on a lonely bench and felt very alone, which felt strangely liberating. The oddest thing, and I don’t believe in ghosts et al, but I felt very watched. I walked down under the bridge and walked the lonely road that arches through the waterless gorge. The sun had began to ease its way through the darkness as I headed back along the path to the hotel. A solitary figure stood on a driveway at one of the basic houses in the gorge, an old woman, who placed a hand on my shoulder as I passed her with a hello. ‘Women are always busy here, even when the men sleep’ she said and then simply turned away. I felt like I had found Spain, there that moment in the dark gorge, the wild Spain I had been looking for, one filled with a presence that was intangible.

After the fear of loneliness and darkness combined with bitter temperatures chased me back into the hard bed for an hour or so.  The creepy quiet night walk was worth staying in the town, otherwise I would recommend Cuenca as day trip rather than an overnight.

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one last look

I checked out of the parador as soon my car-ride buddy was ready to leave and we headed for Madrid, just 165 kms away. I felt great for having seen Cuenca, but more than ready to catch up with friends in Madrid.

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legit two-way street!

Must see and do –

Covento de San Pablo, even if only from the outside, just to see the view of the town staring back

The San Pablo bridge, were you must add your pledge of love to

Plaza Mayor, were tourists don’t exist

The bell tower at Iglesia San Pedro

The narrow streets of Barrio San Martín, and stop in any almost medieval-looking bar you can find

The view over Júcar gorge tends to get forgotten in postcard snaps but it just as beautiful and wild, and has a long nature walk in and around

The Cathedral, even if you just take in the facade

The alleys that lean against the edge of the Huécar gorge, try Ronda Julián Romero for a quiet alley walk

The wilds that surround the area. The landscape makes you want to cry, especially this civil war nerd

Drink the wine, eat the snacks. Nobody ever regretted that

The not-so great – 

Unless you are planning to take on the wilds around Cuenca, I would recommend taking the train. Cuenca is an easy place to get to by public transport and having a car was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even drive it! Plus you meet fun people on trains, unlike in tedious car trips, especially if you can’t stop along the way. Plus I don’t like being yelled at for not knowing where to go/park in locations I’ve never been to, or haven’t been to in years

The parador – iconic, yes; but worth the costs? Neither Jesús or I were convinced of that. With other options available, do your homework first. If you’re determined to stay there (as was I), you should. I got the chance to visit the restaurant for breakfast (included in room cost) which served a buffet of both Spanish and English choices. Any day with churros is a good one. The rooms are not that nice or big, so be careful who you room with. Prince Felipe stayed there on his honeymoon, but I’m guessing he had more fun things to do and had well-chosen his companion! The cost of the bar/restaurant has been debated as over-priced, but I saw plenty of unusually pricey menus in windows while out on my walk. But, not every place is attempting you rip you off.

Spain is not hot all year around, despite what some think. Cuenca is located in a gorgeous but unforgiving landscape, so take a jacket unless its August.

Don’t expect Cuenca to be lively and exciting like a city. You might be disappointed. The place met all my expectations, but if you want to meet a sexy 19-year-old man-boy in an old town bar to engage in a fling with, you might be pushing your luck (What?! Some people like to judge people on looks and dream of Spanish interludes. Not me, but some people, it’s how romance novels are born). Likewise, if you’re not interested in war history, don’t travel with me!

The same generic Made in China souvenirs are available, like with anywhere. I did manage to buy a heavy stone model of the hanging houses, which was made locally.

Want to go but don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Spanish Thyme Traveller, who have just added Cuenca to their list of already well-planned holidays. Here is their latest blog post, all about a trip to Cuenca – A Visit to Cuenca Spain

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people declare their love on the San Pablo bridge so I did just that!

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 8: I Don’t Trust Anyone in Spain… or their Sangria

Blogging has been tough lately. I read about Spain and the posts are mostly about food experiences, or “oh, Spain is so pretty and shiny”, or “Spain is going down faster than a $2 hooker”. What does someone like me, who stands in the middle, post about without sounding like a whiner? It’s impossible.

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A not-so typical holiday snap

I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m the first to admit that. Fortunately, Spain is a place that allows people to make mistakes and move on. I once had the opportunity to spend a few years living in Spain, and get to experience being an expat in a country where few of my countrymen and women go to live life abroad. So, when I found myself with the opportunity to have the chance to go back to Spain purely as a tourist, I thought that would be a piece of cake. Turns out I was very wrong.

I first went to Spain in 2005, and landed in Valencia on a hot summer day. After the tidiness of the airport in Auckland, the ruthless chaos of San Francisco, the soulless efficiency of Munich, (the then) basic and dilapidated airport was a real sight. I joked to my husband that it was the kind of the place you expected to see live chickens in cages moving along on the luggage carousel. Imagine the laughter when we heard the call of a rooster only moments later – it turned out to be the ringtone on the phone of our friend who had come to pick us up. With suitcases, prams, portable cots and many other baby items, myself, hubby, and our one-year-old and newborn sons got to see Spain for the first time. Lucky I was 24 and had the exuberance of youth on my side; because after Spanair broke my $1000 double pram, my mood wasn’t terrific. I met another friend at the hotel, who said I could get straight into flamenco classes. Bless him, he had only been in Spain a few months himself, and still full of the joys of expat life in Spain. Of course, Spain wasn’t full of flamenco and sangria – it was real life instead.

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How many friends can fit in one photo for a magazine shoot? Which magazine? Gente in Italy, I think. Don’t quote me

After my complicated permit to live in Spain was revoked in late 2007, I had only just got the hang of Spanish life. There is a beauty of living abroad; you get the reality of living there, combined with only having to take on the customs you choose. You can understand the place, but not be weighed down with a lifetime of expectations or stereotypes. Expats can really live it up; life is filled to the brim with experiences, trips are taken, foods are tasted, wines flow freely, friends are made, and rose-tinted glasses can get you a long way. You also have reality to pull your head from the expat clouds – your health insurance is a constant drama, your language skills always need work, if your gas stops working you know you will wait two weeks for the repair guy to show up, and visiting the bank is an exercise in endurance. Don’t get me started on the hassle of registering a birth of a baby that has foreign parents, and was born in the Alacant region, not the Valencia region, so you need to blah, blah, blah.

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Expat odd moment – because everyone has given money to a billionaire while he wears your homemade apron, that happens all the time

What I learned is that I couldn’t trust anyone in Spain, because as with living there or being a tourist, no two people experienced the country in the same way. One week after I arrived in Valencia, I shared a lift ride with an American woman. Turned out we were going to visit the same friend. Her husband and my husband had come to Spain for the same jobs, and she had been in Spain for several months. She asked me how long I had been in Valencia, and I said one week. Her reply – “give it two weeks before you decide you hate Spain. Everyone hates it, but give it at least two weeks”. (SERIOUSLY – to this day, we still laugh about that). How does that advice help me learn about Spain? It doesn’t. I suspect the reason her husband was a cheat was because he got sick of her complaining. I lived in a community that left me surrounded by expats from many different nations, due to the reason I went to Spain (it was the America’s Cup, that may mean something, it may not. Your call). I had the best of everything in Spain and felt no need to apologise for that. I loved my life there. However, the bubble I existed in was not Spain, it was a lie. It got to the point where many people had no idea about the place, hated so many things and formed a comfort zone around themselves, until we could leave again (note – that’s a generalisation, some people are amazing friends with open minds and hearts). One guy took years to go into Valencia’s old town and then went to the Mercado Central, and had to panic call a friend to rescue him. The notion of Spaniards, speaking Spanish and buying fresh food freaked him out because it wasn’t like home. True story.

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I’ll pass, thanks

About a year into my adventure, two friends were talking. One said “should we go to  (insert generic closed down bar here)”, and the other said, “no way, it’s always full of whining Aussies and Kiwis.” Ouch. I felt relieved to have never gone there. It burst the expat bubble with spectacular success. When I left Spain, I thought I had built up a realistic opinion of the country. To understand the nation and the culture, I studied the history. I grew to understand the politics and the origins of customs (alas, the freedom of time!). I left Spain with double the number of children I started with, and that in itself opens the eyes. An expert on the place? Hell no, it takes far longer to fully understand Spain. It was never my intention to stay away from Spain, but more important things came my way.

Fast forward six years, far more study, novels written and passionate debates abound, I decided to go to Spain for a few weeks just to help me out with writing, to see friends and soak up the ambiance, which I knew had changed remarkably in my absence. So, would it be easier to be a tourist, after knowing so much about the country? This time, would it be all sangria and sunburn? Nope. I fear knowing Spain well only made it harder.

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Valencian manhole cover – as you do

This is why I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because no two people see Spain in quite the same way. If you’re from the UK or Europe, a trip to Spain sounds like nothing much. Everyone does it, all the time. Most go to the same few places, like the Brit and German invasion of the beaches (I hate the beach). I couldn’t read guide books before my trip because a) they suck, and b) I wouldn’t learn anything. After booking my trip, my enthusiasm plummeted. Had I shot my own holiday in the foot faster than King Juan Carlos can take aim at an elephant or family member? But, as I did when I lived in Spain, I decided to grab the opportunity and shake it until its balls hurt. No time-wasting for me!

Talk about mixed feelings. One morning was spent on a tour to El Escorial (yes, a organised tour group – don’t hate me, I’ve done enough self-loathing for us both) and those on the trip seemed to have a good time. They felt like they were educated and saw all the sights. I felt rushed and given info I already knew.

Toledo – you will have to hold a gun to my head to make me visit again. I imagined the battle for the Alcazar during the civil war, but all you will find there are tour groups led around by disinterested chain-smoking guides who don’t take you to the best sights. But who decided which are the best sights? That’s the trouble, the Spain I know and want to see and that of others are totally different. I remembered that piece of my own advice and carried on alone.

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All I could hear was the sound the customs officer would make as he had a heart attack upon my return home

Avíla and Segovia – two places I don’t know well. I met up with a gay couple and a lovely English woman, all on a getaway from work and we had a good day out. Was it Spain, or the people I met? The people and the upbeat attitude.

Barcelona – I felt conflicted the entire time. I went out one evening and had laughs with friends and had a good time. Was trying cheese the highlight? No, it was getting an evil glare of a balaclava covered riot policeman outside the town hall building during a protest. Some people don’t put that in their holiday scrapbook, but I thought it was awesome (until the batons appeared). I was relating to the angry mob who are upset at the state of Catalonia. I got to tour civil war Barcelona and feel like I had received a meaningful connection to a city, but got plunged straight back into Americans complaining outside Starbucks  that the coffee doesn’t taste like it does at home. (Tip – YOU’RE NOT AT HOME) But then, many don’t give a toss about the history of Barcelona, so who is right and who is wrong? No one.

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Romantic postcard image meets reality of living here

Madrid – I wanted to see a bit of civil war-ness and the weather thwarted me. There is still the park, the art museums and the hell that is Gran Via to see, but I didn’t want any of them, though I wandered briefly for specific paintings. I popped into the Dalí exhibit at the Reina Sofia and got crushed by tourists, but then went to their civil war exhibit and had the place to myself (happy dance time). Many other people did enjoy the Prado et al, though. But, the city redeemed itself, in the people I met there. You gain more Spain-ness in a ten minute chat at a bullfight with a guy named Emilio than you can standing in the Prado (Disclaimer, I have ‘done’ the Prado in the past, so whip me with the tourist cane again). I see the Prado paintings and think of them being smuggled to safety during the war and how half a million refugees in France were left to freeze and die while paintings were covered and warm. Does anyone else care? Maybe, maybe not.

Valencia – finally a place where I could breathe! Familiarity with the world’s greatest little city makes a holiday. But do you gain anything out of sangria in a cheap restaurant with English-speaking waiters? So people might, but I didn’t. People flock to the Arts and Sciences, and it’s great, but I feel like I’ve only seen the city when I see a couple kissing in the park (wow, that sounds pervy). Showing a Valencia tourist around the city makes me want to cut my eyes out, but standing at the baseball field watching a portable cricket pitch being set up feels like a good way to spend an afternoon. If I recommend that as a sight to see, people would think me mad.

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Easy little streets to navigate. And by easy, I mean you will never get anything delivered – ever

Cuenca and Teruel – I didn’t give either of these places enough credit. I just didn’t want to visit (is that awful?) I might try Teruel again (with the right people) while meandering out in Awesome Aragon, but Cuenca? No way.

See what I’m saying? You can’t trust anyone in Spain. No two people can see it the same. I went there with no expectation, and found it hard to dig through the shiny veneer of tourism to find what I felt would make a successful holiday. Every time I sipped a sangria, I felt like I had let myself down (because I don’t like it much, a bit meh. Don’t worry, I tried plenty of other drinks too. No glass went undiscovered).

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See? I visited the craft beers, like any good tourist

I Spain I loved –

Buying hairspray at the Mercadona where I used to go food shopping

Sipping wine in Cuenca

Imagining fascist troops in Teruel

Standing the summit sign at L’Oronet

Getting evil looks for talking about Franco in Madrid

Laughing with a maid because we couldn’t get a door open

Taking the No. 19 bus in Valencia

Paying for an umbrella in a Madrid junk shop

The young guy named Carlos at the Cuenca tourist office. He got to try his English, I got five minutes company in an otherwise dull excursion

The Spain I hated –

People who ignore the ‘no photos’ rule! It’s not there to ruin your holiday, they have a reason!

How much Valencia has changed (total foreigner nostalgia moan right here!)

Barcelona – I failed to have anything in common with the place (and I tried!) Though, El Raval was nice

Driving anywhere (and I was only the passenger! Should have gone by train)

Walking around Madrid (the place seems so down on itself these days) Wander Lavapies to wipe out this feeling

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Not finding the right mix of alone time and time with friends (yes, my own fault)

The fact my old Valencian neighbourhood is not only devoid of my family and friends, but devoid of all life and soul (thought I was on the scene of a zombie movie!)

English menus (who orders the ironed sepia?)

Complaints from others about Spain (yep, I’m complaining about complaining)

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Oh, it’s that time yet again

I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because they won’t see the place like I do. By that theory, no one can trust my opinion either! You will just have to go and experience it for yourself! Will I go again? Hell yeah, I have no doubt about that. The beauty is, I have the power improve my Spain experience every time I visit, because the country gives so much choice. However you enjoy Spain, all power to you. Pick your holiday companions carefully, because if they see it totally different, you could find frustration under every tapa. A civil war researcher and heavy on the political and economic conversationalist like me can’t enjoy Spain with tea-sipping, bullfight and flamenco inquisitor with the dream of Spanish romance in the orange groves.  Lucky Spain is big enough for all of us!

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When the everyday places are this beautiful, who cares who is right and wrong?

Up next… back to serious posts… Teruel and the back roads of Valencia and Aragon

Click here to see previous posts in the series – Spain 2013 in Review

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 4: On the road with ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

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The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see – Gilbert K Chesterton

There are two things I don’t like – being mistaken for a romance novelist, and being called a tourist. I went to Spain without maps, guidebooks, or a plan for my trip. Yet, I decided to do something that would mix in two things I don’t like, and walked around like a tourist, taking photos of a book about love affairs destroyed by the Spanish Civil War. People in Valencia didn’t look twice at me, such is their relaxed nature. Madrileños looked at me like I was crazy, which was pretty fun. Either way, for several hours, I took photos of my last novel in some of the locations in the book.

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Caught being a tourist at Valencia’s Pont del Real

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Valencia’s Turia is a central point in the book through most of the novel, and in the titles to come in the ‘Secrets of Spain’ series. Who wouldn’t want to visit? I enjoyed sitting in the grass every day of my time in the city.

So here we are, in rough order as they appear in the novel, photos of my book and locations in BITVS. Even if you haven’t read the novel, you can still enjoy some beautiful parts of Spain –

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Chapter one – 1939: view of the Cuenca Convent San Pablo from the Beltrán family home in Barrio San Martín

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Chapter one – 1939: Cuenca’s Casas Colgadas, Hanging Houses, where Cayetano, Alejandro, Scarlett, Luna and Sofía discuss the civil war

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Chapter two – 2009: Madrid’s Plaza de Toros near where Luna meets Cayetano ‘the bull-minder’

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Chapter two – 2009: a walk in Madrid’s Retiro park

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Chapter three – 2009: a night at Madrid’s Ritz hotel

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Chapter seven – 1939: the drop from Luna’s window

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Chapter eight – 2009: Cayetano follows Luna in Valencia’s Turia

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Chapter 11 – 2009: Luna and Cayetano go to Cuenca in search of their namesakes

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Chapter 12 – 2009: Cayetano and Luna get into a fight at Cuenca’s cathedral

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Chapter 13 – 1939: Luna, Cayetano and Scarlett panic run up Cuenca’s Barrio San Martín steps

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Chapter 14 – 2009: a stolen night in Cuenca’s parador

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Chapter 19 – 2009: another visit to Madrid to uncover the Beltrán family secret

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Chapter 21 – 1939: a secret burial in the Valencian mountains

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Chapter 21 – 1939: arriving in Valencia as the war comes to an end

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Chapter 21 – 1939: Placa del L’Angel, where a plan to survive the war is hatched

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Chapter 24 – 2009: a disasterous night out in Valencia’s El Carmen district

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Chapter 26 – 2009: a secret hideaway in the Valencian mountains is found

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Chapter 29 – 1939: panic at the clock tower at Valencia’s port

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Chapter 33 – 2009: Luna goes back to work as a Valencian bike mechanic

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Chapter 34 – 2009 and 1939: a declaration of love (written on Cuenca’s gorge bridge) that is broken and forgotten

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Chapter 35 – 2009: Cayetano hears a painful truth, another barrier to getting back in the bullring

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Chapter 39 – 2009: a bullfighter and a bike mechanic at the Valencia’s Plaza de la Virgen fountain

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Chapter 39 – 2009: the entrance to the Valencia cathedral where the Water Court meet

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Chapter 45 – 2009: a new grave discovered in the Valencia mountains

There you have it! Because I am doing posts on Valencia, Madrid and Cuenca, I didn’t feel the need to go into specific detail about each location, I will save that for other posts. In the spirit of not planning my trip, I unexpectedly ended up in Xátiva. I didn’t want to visit the town again, but the fun trip gave me this photo, standing in the spot where, in 2005, my husband took a random scenic photo. It ended up being the photo that graces the cover of BITVS, but I didn’t have a copy of the book on me that day!

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So, what happened to the copy of the book in the photos? It got autographed and given to a friend who was kind enough to accompany me on a very cold day out in Madrid as I took the photos. Thank you for your good humour and an arm-in-arm stroll in Retiro, in the spirit of the novel. Being able to talk about Spain and the civil war every day was the highlight of my trip.

Up next… Part 5 (of 10) – Madrid Tapas and History Tour with James Blick

*all photos are authors own, with the exception of photos 1 & 2. Owner – Sabine Kern.