The essence of old Andalucía

The Albaicín district of Granada.
The Albaicín district of Granada. / EFE
  • books

  • Laurie Lee (1914-1997) A Rose for Winter (1955)

This series ends as it began, with the great poet and Hispanophile Laurie Lee. ‘A Rose for Winter’ is a love letter to Spain’s most iconic region, written when Lee returned with his wife Kati, after a fifteen-year absence, for a three-month tour of “the great white cities of Andalucía”. It displays, even more than Lee’s other two great books on Spain, his gift for capturing the essence of people and places in just a few unforgettable words or phrases. Rich in colour and characters, overflowing with sights, sounds and scents, Andalucía lends itself perfectly to the luxurious prose in which it was enshrined by Lee.

Andalucía has undergone enormous changes since the mid-1950s, the most notable of these being the transformation - and some would say, destruction - of its beautiful southern coastline into a multi-million-euro tourism machine. But the old Andalucía, the Andalucía that Lee loved and wrote about with unmatched affection, is never far beneath the surface even today, and in many of the cities Lee visited it is still very much on display. Andalusians, certainly, still show a pride and pleasure in simple everyday tasks that stir profound admiration - even envy - in their more industrialised northern European cousins.

Lee is reminded of this when idling one afternoon in a square in Albaicín, the enchanting old Moorish quarter of Granada. Here, he and Kati are surrounded by an ebullient group of local girls eager to show off their sewing skills. Later, in Algeciras, Lee overhears a group of old men discussing bread-making in a bar with great passion and appreciation: “Here was speech and movement,” he writes in wonder, “not yet enslaved by either jargon or the machine; phrases out of Homer and the Bible, by men who had read neither.” This, thankfully, is still true in parts of Andalucía, especially the rural areas: last Christmas, in the small country town of Villanueva de la Concepción in Malaga, I had an hour-long conversation with a group of local barflies about olive oil. The best kind, of course, came from the dusty groves just down the road, made by hand using centuries-old techniques.

The legendary hospitality of Andalusians - especially to foreign visitors - is also celebrated in these pages. Within seconds of spying the exotic-looking couple wander into their square, the sewing girls of Albaicín call over to Lee and Kati: “‘We need some conversation,’ they said. So chairs were brought, and wine and biscuits, and we were invited to rest.” They adore Kati - who was quite stunning - and treat her like a visiting queen, delighting in her every utterance. It is also in Granada that the couple are warmly invited into the happy chaos of the family who run ‘The House of Peace’, an inn near the cathedral: within days they are treated as part of the family and invited to their Christmas feast. Such graciousness and utterly spontaneous, heartfelt generosity are hardwired into Andalusian DNA, and will be familiar to anyone who knows the region.

Having lived in Granada for almost a year now, I was particularly fascinated to re-read Lee’s chapter on this ancient Moorish settlement, with its mighty Alhambra palace and other-worldly neighbourhoods of Albaicín and Sacromonte, the latter of which is the heart and soul of gypsy Spain. Granada was the last Islamic city in Spain to be taken, in 1492, by dual monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and signs of its distinguished Arabic past are everywhere. But these days, as it was when Lee visited it, Granada is a conservative Catholic town that does not overtly celebrate its Islamic legacy. There is a conspicuous absence, for example, of an Islamic counterpart to the city’s Semana Santa celebrations, which are enthusiastically pursued, day and night, for a whole week every Easter.

The author attributes Granada’s famous ‘malafollá’ - a type of bad attitude, an irritable melancholy encountered only in Granadinos - to the city’s schizophrenic history: “[Granadinos] remain to inhabit an atmosphere which fills them with a kind of sad astonishment, a mixture of jealousy and pride.” Granada is truly a city of conflicting identities, and the paradoxes that define its uniquely affecting ambience - bohemian yet conservative, joyful yet heavy, scruffy but stately - are exquisitely captured in this book.

I wrote this series to share and explore what I think is the finest writing we have in English on Spain, a country I have come to love as much as - and perhaps more than - my own. These books, I think, together constitute a great accompaniment to exploring a culture that still defies neat categorisation and definition. Probably, it always will. “Spain is but Spain,” Lee writes at this book’s close, “and belongs nowhere but where it is.” That is still true: the culturally indifferent forces of globalisation can only ever encroach so far among a population whose irreverent individualism is matched only by its attachment to tradition.

Returning to the UK from holidays in Spain throughout my teens and 20s, I was always panicked by the thought that, for some reason, I’d never be able to come back. It was an imagined loss, but one that made me return for another dose every year and that eventually compelled me to live here, in Lee’s beloved Andalucía. That feeling is given expression in this book’s last sentence, one which I won’t quote in consideration of those who still have the pleasure of reading it ahead of them. But anyone who has felt that sudden wrench when leaving Spain behind - with all its life, beauty and vigour - understands how much this endless country has to offer.