The name Borges is synonymous with Spanish literature, with the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges a famous and vital part of flourishing of Latin American literature in the Sixties and Seventies. Authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes were other major figures, and Borges became associated with (or at least regarded as a pre-cursor to) Magical Realism. This genre came about as a reaction against realism and naturalism that flourished in the Nineteenth Century, with a depiction of a recognisable reality where magic was simply an everyday fact, accompanied by mythic and fairy tale flourishes.
After World War One, Borges lived in Lugano, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and Majorca. He became part of avant-garde literary movements and discovered writers such as Schopenhauer and Meyrink, and had his first poem published.
However, there’s another Borges associated with Spain who may have more impact on your day-to-day life: Borges Mediterranean Cuisine produce a range of olive oils, vinegars and sauces which can be found in British supermarkets. Based in Tarrega and founded in 1896, they export products to hundreds of countries, having started selling olives and almonds, who first industrialised in 1914 around the time Jorge Luis Borges was coming to the country. In different ways they were to have a longer lasting legacy than could have been imagined at the time, and in different ways they would go on to become household names.
Say ‘Scottish alcohol’ to someone and they’re pretty likely to think of whisky. Most Scottish whisky is aged in American Oak barrels that were previously used for Bourbon. According to American regulations they can only be used once for Bourbon so these are available relatively cheaply (they are not cheap to make and the UK could not support demand for new barrels by itself). The barrels, and their previous usage, lends the whisky specific flavours and colouring. Prior to this sherry, port and madeira barrels came into British ports, and these were re-used for whisky. The European Oak and the sweet wines within influenced the whisky’s colour and taste.
While a lot of whisky nowadays is lighter in colour and taste drier (due to the more economic use of bourbon barrels) some distilleries still use sherry casks from Spain, specifically Oloroso Sherry from the South West of Spain. This actually uses American oak in its ageing process, and as a result of being used to age sherry it gives whisky a nutty taste, with fruits such as fig and spiced orange in the mix as well. The whisky is oilier and takes on a darker hue, often a deep red mixed in with the amber.
While this sort of whisky is less easy to find in supermarkets than the Bourbon-barrel aged types, it’s still common enough to find in specialist shops, starting at around the £30-£35 mark for Glenfarclas 10 year old (which is the sherry-aged whisky most commonly found in supermarkets). Sampling such whisky is akin to stepping back in time to the Victorian era, albeit without the Grandfather paradox/diptheria type problems, as this is how whisky tasted in those days. It helped keep the Scottish whisky industry going and for that we have Spain to be thankful for.
Yesterday was a big day in the Spanish calendar. October 12th is always a holiday, the national day of Spain. It commemorates the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, known as Columbus Day in the States. The first festival in Spain was held in 1935 in Madrid, celebrating Spain’s connection to the international Hispanic community.
Since 2000, a military parade has been added to the ceremony, with the King watching on. The Armed Forces Day involves a parade of dignitaries and a display from the Air Force, but this only occurs in Madrid. Overall it’s not an event that the Spanish people make a huge fuss over. It is overshadowed by Fiestas del Pilar – the Saint Day of Virgin Mary of the Pillar.
Columbus Day has – more in the Americas than Europe – been rife with controversy. Columbus traded in slavery, his quest was backed by investors and he paid them back in people. Thus, his reputation is tarnished to many contemporary eyes. In Spain it’s a lesser holiday by virtue of the religious festival taking place. The sins of man are less important than the grace of a saint.
Combining our two great loves of stomping on things cathartically and wine, grape stomping is the traditional means of producing grape must, and it’s a delightful way to spend your time.
It is, you may be unsurprised to learn, no longer a common industrial practice. Other, more efficient means of squishing the heck out of grapes have been found. Many grape stomping sessions are simply held for the benefit of tourists, and despite real grapes being used the resulting stomp-fluid (stop me if I’m getting too technical for you) will not become wine as a result.
However, grape stomping is still practiced in the Rioja region. Due to the Rioja Alavesa wine being made from grapes that are fermented in the skin, grape stomping is ideal as it presses the fruit without breaking the skin. Shortly before the harvest the grapes are pressed, which means the ideal time to get in on the action is…round about now.
So. Maybe next year. For this event takes place in remote locations and you will need to be driven (NB. You will not be able to drive on the way back) there, or you can book a tour. If you start now, perhaps you’ll be in time.
Around Spain, especially on the coast, are Roman remains. In Cartagina (Murcia, on the South East coast), there is a festival that commemorates the taking of the city in the year 209 A.D. by the Roman troops of Escipión, led by Scipio Africanus. As you may have guessed from the name, it’s a city founded by the Carthaginians (227 BC by Hasdrubal the Fair, fact fans). Due to its location it was an important strategic port, and became vital to both the Carthaginian and Roman conquest of Iberia.
As the city has been conquered by – and has remnants of – both cultures, it holds a festive week in which alternate days are dedicated to both Carthaginians and Romans. There’s a re-enactment of marriage between Hannibal and Himilce (an Iberian Princess who was married to Hannibal – the General of the elephants and alps fame – for alliance purposes), and a Roman style Circus forms the basis of a huge parade which takes place on Saturday. This is the most important day of the festival, when the troops and legions march through the city, culminating in the usual fiesta.
Taking place at the end of September each year, it’s a chance for history buffs to revel in re-enactments amidst the impressive surroundings, noting the legacy of Hasdrubal the Fair’s decision all those years ago to use the city as a stopping off point to expand the Punic Empire.
The controversial sport of bullfighting is still popular in Spain, and every July the Pamplona Bull run and many like it take place.
The issue divides the Royal Family, with the Queen opposing bullfights in contrast to the King and Princess Elena fans. While it is still popular in Spain, it has been banned in Catalonia since 2010.
King Alfonso VIII introduced the sport to the country in the year 711 AD, and at this point the bullfighters were on horseback. It was a sport for the aristocracy for the next thousand years until – like with football in England – the King disliked it. Felipe V thought it was a bad example to set to the people, and banned the aristocracy from taking part. Clearly, the people were already too far gone from this bad example, because they took up bullfighting as their own sport. As they could not afford horses, they did not use as many horses.
A rider on horseback is involved (the horse is armoured, as previously they were attacked by the bulls and killed in higher numbers as a result), as after the bull’s introduction this rider will stab the bull in the back of the neck with a spear.
Before the most famous aspect of bullfighting – the matador with the red cape attracting and then avoiding the bull – takes place after the bull has been weakened by other bullfighters. The animal will be stabbed in the back of the neck and the shoulders, losing energy through bloodless and attempting to attack the bullfighters. Once the matador has demonstrated their ability to attract and avoid the bull, they will try to kill it with a sword. It is not a guarantee that they will do this on his first attempt. Very rarely does the bull survive, granted a reprieve if it is deemed to have fought well.
Bullfighting is a bloodsport. Opponents are against the slow, prolonged death of the bulls. Fans say that these bulls live longer, are treated better, and die only as badly as those meant for abattoirs.
It is part of Spanish culture, and if bullfighting is ever to be banned, it too will be a slow and protracted death.
Spain first competed in the 1900 Olympics in Paris. Since competing in 1920, they have only missed two Olympic games: the 1936 event in Berlin and the 1956 games in Melbourne (the latter in protest against the Soviet Union invading Hungary). They hosted the 1992 games in Barcelona, which readers of a certain age may remember for Linford Christie, Kriss Akabusi and Sally Gunnell. While Spain haven’t been as prolific in the medals table as the UK, they have quietly excelled at specific events.
The Comité Olímpico Español (or COE) puts Spain’s medal total at 141, but the International Olympic Committee puts it at 140. This is because the COE counts a silver medal won for live pigeon shooting in 1900, which the IOE doesn’t recognise. Indeed, the event only took place at the 1900 games. This is not because live pigeon shooting was deemed cruel and outdated, but because there was a cash prize for the event and so it was deemed un-Olympian. This was despite the top four shooters in a separate pigeon shooting competition deciding to split the prize money amongst themselves in a clearly sporting gesture.
You may be surprised to read what sport Spain have the highest medal tally for: it’s sailing.
You may be unsurprised to learn how many Winter Olympic medals Spain have won: it’s two.
In their current Olympic team, the most famous medal winner is Rafael Nadal, the tennis player, who won a Gold in the Men’s doubles event. They have won thirteen medals thus far, with four of those being gold. They have won two golds in canoeing but no medals in sailing as of yet, with gold and bronze medals achieved in swimming.
Clearly, the Spanish take to water like a duck.
After a while, Spanish festivals may seem to blur into a strange blend of processions, fire and building giant figures (you’ve got to have giant figures and fires), but they’re all driven from local customs and culture, their idiosyncrasies coming to the fore in the way they mix these ingredients. Turns out there are a lot of different things you can do with similar materials.
In the industrial Basque city of Bilbao, home of a Guggenheim museum, the Aste Nagusia festival (translating into English as ‘Great Week’) began as an attempt to revitalise a festival that had flagged under Francoism. Now it’s a week long festival of fireworks and concerts, with groups of people developing their own stalls, processions and parties.
Nightly firework displays are arranged, but the entire thing is kicked off by the town crier or herald launching a rocket to commence festivities, which they will also do daily throughout the festival. The week sees fairs, workshops, theatrical performances, and a variety of musical concerts throughout the city.
The organisation of the festival comes from the city council and party groups (comparsas, or konpartsak in Basque) who supply the heralds. These groups were invited to instigate a competition of ideas and boost the festival’s popularity by making it something that the residents actively participated in. As a result the vitality that ensued to this day is a genuine enthusiasm and zeal, embodied in the festival’s mascot Marijaia.
Marijaia is the official symbol of Aste Nagusia, and is a representation of a plump lady raising her arms while dancing. A puppet of her is revealed at the start of the celebrations, and then burned ceremonially at the end.
Even in the Basque country, you’ve got to have giant figures and fire.
Game of Thrones recently finished its sixth and perhaps most ambitious series recently, and the multi-million dollar production will be returning to shoot in Spain for its shortened seventh season. It has utilised a lot of Spain, all across the country, in order to depict the lands around Westeros, the fictional continent where much of the story is set.
Ever since the show’s fifth series, and the introduction of Dorne into the show – inspired by Medieval Spain – there has been filming in and around medieval Islamic palaces. This led to filming taking place in Seville, notably in the Alcazar Palace which is recognised by UNESCO World Heritage. It’s certainly the right place to go, as if you type ‘Andalucia M’ into Google, autofill’s first suggestion is ‘Moorish Architecture’. Nearby Cordoba also saw some filming during Series 5, doubling for a city on Westeros.
Series 6 saw the shoot visit Almeria in Andalucia, Castellon in the East near Valencia, Navarre in the North (next to the Basque Country), and Girona (north of Barcelona). Only the West of Spain is yet to see any filming.
As George R.R. Martin was inspired by medieval European history for much of the books, it’s unsurprising that Spain is so widely used as the TV show expands its locations. With such grand medieval castles and palaces, plus its relative proximity to the production base in Northern Ireland, it’s the obvious choice for recreating a fantasy medieval land, due to so many of these buildings still being in tact.
You can visit or indeed hire out some of the locations, such as the Castell de Santa Florentina in Catalonia (which doubles for the Tarly’s ancestral home in the HBO show). More information on the filming locations can be found here, in the show’s Wiki page.
The economic situation in Spain, particularly for the younger generation, is such that many have had to emigrate in recent years. Britain is currently a popular destination, largely because many Spaniards speak English and also due to the fact that our economy has performed better than most of the rest of Europe. There are some very able Spanish people now in Scotland with skills that many employers seek.
I know of at least one, an ethical hacker, whose CV makes him very attractive to potential employers in the growing field of cyber security. He’s come to Scotland to improve his English and to seek employment. And while he’s perfecting his English it still helps him to be able to converse with potential employers in his native tongue. If you want to hire him (as lots of companies certainly will), how much easier will it be to persuade him if you can talk in Spanish as well as English?
I appreciate you may think that’s a one-off and it’s not worth spending time and money to go and learn Spanish in these circumstances, but what if your new Spanish employee has contacts in Spain – and these can generate new business for you? There is also the added satisfaction of being able to go to Spain and converse with the locals – whether it’s with the waiter in your hotel, a shop assistant or the friendly passer-by who has just given you directions to the local market. They’ll appreciate it too. I once remember striking up a conversation with some local people in a restaurant in Murcia only to find out they owned a bodega! We unexpectedly found ourselves back at the bodega being treated to some fantastic wine and tapas – Spanish hospitality at its best! Had I not spoken Spanish I might have missed out on what proved to be a fantastic evening.
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Muchas gracias y hasta pronto!
Ricky Kemp, Lorca Spanish.