It will come as little surprise to many of my blog readers that I consider Spain one of my spiritual homes. I love the country, though it's a kind of love-hate relationship: I've had devastating, almost annihilating experiences there, as well as spiritually uplifting ones. You can't ignore Spain. It gets into your blood: a potent mixture of strong Rioja wine; darkly enticing Catholic rituals; the agony and ecstasy of Lorca; the protean genius of Picasso; the passionate duende of flamenco; the stark, arid mountains; the occasional, unexpectedly lush pastures.
The night was silent. No circle of barking dogs or crowing cocks. No loud, harsh voices interlocked under the window. Then dawn came, and with a clicking of hooves on cobbles and a patter of goats and cows, the village emptied itself into the fields. We drank some coffee and went out. And there in front of us, at the first break in the street, stretched the great plains of air with beyond them an inextricable tangle of coloured mountains. The sound of water was all round us and there was a sense of greenery and freshness. No, I said to myself, the picture I formed of this place was not an illusion.
GERALD BRENAN South From Granada
The singer´s voice quavered and droned, thin and nasal like a muezzin´s. Jazzy chords spilled from a guitar: major then minor, fast then slow, confident then unresolved; cool and dark as a shaded courtyard in old Seville. Suddenly the dancer, Ascunción Pérez — dressed in red and black, with flashing eyes and jet black hair — strode quickly through a high doorway and mounted the small, wooden stage on the patio of the nineteenth-century palace which is the Casa de la Memoria. All three — singer, guitarist, dancer — were young, local artists from Seville, performing flamenco in a modern style: fresh, unsentimental, but still firmly rooted in the old tradition. This was the real thing — not the castanet-clicking touts chasing the quick euro, not the rough amateurishness you get from the hillside cave-dwellers above Granada. These were three serious students of the dance.
Complex rhythms flowed, faltered, petered out. Then began again, sinuously following a different direction, half-scripted, half-improvised. Hands clapped on the beat, off the beat. The dancer arched one arm over her head and stamped diagonally across the stage, head bent back, her body-shapes changing second by second, fingers stuck out at crazy angles like the tentacles of an octopus. She hitched up her dress, slapped her thigh. She was proud, provocative, defiant, sexy, coy, tragic, strong, yielding, ecstatic; one moment a majestic matriarch, the next a bashful señorita. Studied awkwardness gave way to still composure. She squatted, legs akimbo, as if giving birth — grotesque as a figure from a Paula Rego painting — then became all beauty and grace, like a Velázquez princess.
Her red heels went clack, clack, clack. Clack, clack across the wooden floor, as the tempo rose and quickened. All hands clapped in unison, as faster and faster she twirled and spun in a vision of red and black, in a frenzy of movement. Clack, clack, clack. For a moment she became all the women of Andalusia rolled into one: the smart, Spanish women parading in the gardens of the Alcazár, the Arabic gypsies scraping an existence in the shacks by the Guadalquivir river. At the crescendo she stood face-on to her spellbound audience: stiff, erect and proud; all fire, all heart, all corazón. The house erupted in swift, spontaneous applause. Olé! The lights came on and we shuffled off, mesmerized, as if a dream had ended.
THE SOLITARY WALKER Flamenco Dancer, Seville
(A quick word of explanation: the centrepiece of the above word-image-word triptych is a Spanish collage created by my wife, Carmen (who is not Spanish!); the first piece of prose is the last paragraph of my very favourite book on Spain, Gerald Brenan's unforgettable memoir, South From Granada; and the concluding piece is my own impression of a flamenco evening at the start of my Via de la Plata pilgrimage in January 2010. The three 'panels' are emotionally rather than strictly thematically related, and are meant to form a collage in their own right.)