What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.
When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.
Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?
For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.
What I read before visiting Barcelona
Black Bread by Emili Teixidor
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food
I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.
And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt.Of course, Barcelona sits on the Mediterranean Sea and is a beautiful coastal city. And, yes, Spaniards, as a group, are a cultured, charming, and frankly attractive people. The convivial atmosphere of Spanish social life does make it relatively easy for a tourist to come and be embraced by what can seem like a never ending party.
However, to look at Spain and see only her bars and beaches is shockingly myopic. We have here ancient Roman settlements, one of the great melting pots of Western history, and a complex, multilayered nation that has never fully reconciled itself internally after its brutal Civil War.
With the news before my trip full of the Catalan independence referendum(s) and Madrid’s resolute rejection of hearing the voiceof the region on that issue, I couldn’t help but direct my reading toward Spain’s internal strife.
The fact that the novels I found—bestsellers in their native Catalan—also leaned heavily on themes of post-war discord and the fractious process of resuming normal life under Franco in its aftermath, led me down the same path.
I’m not sure one can even begin to understand Spain without peering into the murky depths of the struggle between Republican and Fascist. Franco may be dead, and his authoritarian rule ended, but his actions haven’t finished haunting the Spanish public.
This plucks at my heartstrings as an American with my own sense of the lingering damage done to my own nation by the historical wrongs of the slave trade, the simple and the less obvious issues that prompted our Civil War, and the dogged persistence of the same damn problems into our modern age.
The gritty, noirish Shadow of the Wind circles around a “straightforward” human mystery, but the undercurrents which bash its characters against each other are rooted in the Spanish Civil War and the sociopolitical divides which precipitated it.
In addition to mind-boggling issues of internal politics, the second most prevalent theme I encountered in my reading about Spain was food and eating and its centrality to family and community life. Black Bread, whose title literally describes the staple food of the poor in the post-War era “hungry years,” bridges the divide from politics to the cooking pot.
In part, this was also a conscious selection on my part because of Barcelona’s current reputation as a paradise for foodies. I wanted to know more about Spanish food generally and Catalan food in particular. This is also a handy type of research when one travels with dietary restrictions!
I planned to bring my child along to Spain. I pressed him to put some mental effort into preparing for the trip, but his desire to read histories instead of studying the language was stymied by an almost total lack of sources in English for elementary aged readers about Catalunya. We read our library’s scant offerings of picture books about Ferdinand and Isabel, tomes about explorer Christopher Columbus, and dull general guides full of mediocre maps, major exports, and trite cultural observations, then turned our attention to food and cooking.
If you are sharing adult level reading material with a child who still wears footie pajamas, cooking is a safer topic to explore than general history or most grown up novels. We wanted an audio book to enjoy together and stumbled upon The Telling Room, the story of an American writer’s mild obsession with a charismatic Spanish man with a family recipe for cheese that he brought to international prominence.
The Telling Room is really a story of the mesetas in Central Spain north of Madrid, not of Barcelona or Catalunya, but the tight interconnection between family, food, and culture can probably be generalized to most of the country.
The story’s primary figure’s frequent references to the importance of a man shitting* on his own land and the vital importance of eating good food so that said act goes well certainly dovetailed with our discovery of a Christmas/Navidad tradition in Catalunya of El Caganer, or the pooping figure.
You can follow the link to Wikipedia to learn more about why someone pooping is integral to a Catalan nativity scene, but the connection struck both my son and myself the moment we saw a display at a Christmas market. Perhaps you can trust me when I suggest that the link between what one eats, who one is, and how one fits into society seem intimately connected in the Spanish mindset.
Where I stayed in Catalunya, Spain
Our Barcelona lodging was chosen by the conference DH attended during our stay there. It was lovely, but not particularly evocative of my understanding of what it means to be Spanish or Catalan.
My wish to learn more about the heart of Catalan culture was more adequately expressed by my choice of locale for the last two days we spent in Spain: B&B Wine & Cooking in Penedès. Here was my chance to live with what I had read. We stayed in a 400 year old masia (farm house) where the owner was available to cook with us.
This experience transformed my suppositions and dreaming into a live experience of a culture that celebrates family, the farm to table ethos, and fierce pride in its heritage.
Our gracious host was also willing to discuss current politics when I brought the subject up, though we spoke more about the local actions of people with divided opinions and how that impacted life in a small village. She did seem to agree with my take that there exists a deep divide in her country that remain, as yet, from differences openly fought over decades ago.
One needn’t delve into politics or sociology to enjoy a visit to Spain. Travel shows suggest to me that few tourists do. Such reflection can add depth to a short visit, however, and peel back one more layer from a place with a rich, varied, and fascinating complexity. I found the process well worth the effort, and the books I’ve mentioned very good reading.
*Euphemisms won’t serve us here, and, if you can’t tolerate that particular language, or cope with at least some frank discussions of bodily functions, you shouldn’t read The Telling Room.