A plunge into Spanish culture
Notes from a spanish diary
Author - Ranjita Biswas
Publisher - Niyogi, Rs 850
This book is ideal for anybody who is curious about the Spanish culture and wants to travel to Spain at some point, writes Ronica Wahi
Experiences of people of centuries past and experiences of the writer in discovering them blend to offer a richly delightful journey of travel through Spain. Ranjita Biswas, in her Notes from a Spanish Diary, offers the reader not only a treat in getting to know the Spanish landscape and must-visit places, but also a glimpse into the colourful history of the country.
Versed in travelling and travel writing, Biswas weaves an interesting narrative, reflecting her understanding of culture, art, architecture, literature, and cinema through drawing apt comparisons or making remarks, effectively leading the reader to a sound understanding of the topic under discussion. Right from the outset — from “Preamble to the Travelogue” — she establishes herself as a well-travelled individual, who values experiencing life in all its hues and flavours, while finding a sort of liberty in travelling, uncaring of what ideas or stereotypes people around her may have in their minds about her. Indicating her ability to go beyond the expected, she prepares the reader for a journey of exploration without hesitation, and in commenting that her book may not be as great as those of great travel writers, she gains the liberty of expressing what she wants to.
With the conversational tone, the reader is taken into the journey and explored are places rich in beauty and historic value — Barcelona, Sitges, Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Seville, Ronda, Malaga, Marbella, Granada, Cordoba, Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santiago de Compostella, Salamanca, and regions around these, such as areas beyond Segovia that “the eco-traveller and adventure-sports lover” (p. 72) can enjoy at. She maintains the sense of forward progression through vivid description of what she sees, learns, and eats, at times even pointing out the time taken to move from one place to another — keeping up the momentum and keeping the reader informed of what to expect if he/she takes up the journey. And her descriptions of what she eats, and where, tempt exceedingly.
The challenges faced by Biswas in her travels serve to engage and educate, and appreciable — though not mentioned — are the challenges she must have faced in presenting the story about each structure or artist she encounters. She shows the influence of different cultures that dominated in Spain since antiquity and the troubles that the nation has been or is going through — the numerous conquests and rulers, the exodus of the Jews and the gypsies, the Civil War and the dictatorship of the 20th century, the recent economic challenges and severe unemployment faced, and the ongoing struggle for Catalonian independence. She brings into focus the past and compares it with the present, making comprehension easier while providing key linkages — for instance, she compares the historical rivalry between the province of Castile where Madrid is located and the province of Catalonia where Barcelona is located to the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Barca football club. As she describes two visits, spaced by close to two decades, she mentions changes she does or does not see — a significant difference is that many more in the present day speak English as compared to the case in the early part of this century.
Many monuments reflect Spain’s multicultural past. A synagogue, in Toledo, for instance, was “built under Christian rule by Islamic architects for the Jewish people” (p. 60). Intolerance that later brewed cannot take away what was. Biswas asserts, “...art and crafts often do not differentiate between the winner and vanquished and develop their own language” (p. 80). At times, the descriptions and the writer’s sense of what she witnesses are enchanting — the reader is inspired for a visit to Prado in Madrid by what she says about the museum. However, the descriptions do not always offer a view into the writer’s perspective — for instance, while the discussion about La Sagrada Familia and the one who conceived it, Gaudi, is valuable, an insight from the writer about what struck her or remained particularly etched in her memory would have delighted more. In fact, some ‘diversions’ — though interesting and informative — seem extremely encyclopaedic, and mark a longish break before the writer is heard again.
Certain diversions offer interesting histories: of tessellations in art that go back to 4,000 BC, of the arrival of the tomato to Europe and India — now an essential ingredient in important dishes, of the gastronomic clubs of San Sebastian, of the beret cap Basque men wear that dates back to the Bronze Age, to mention a few. Myths, legends, anecdotes that she chanced upon or deliberately dug out enrich the narrative further. She often draws comparison to what she has seen in other countries and makes numerous mentions of similarities she finds with Indian culture — she well draws out the connection between Kathak and Flamenco, for instance, reflecting her affinity towards her own and other cultures.
Surprising discoveries enchant as the reader makes a mental note in case an opportunity to visit Spain pops up — Bandit museum in Ronda, fountain with drinkable water dating back to Middle Ages in Albaicin in Granada, olive oil tasting in the town of Priego de Cordoba, and others. And yes, Biswas offers helpful advice — tickets to be purchased ahead for Alhambra, and tapas cards to be bought in Zaragoza for free tapas tasting in listed eateries.
The photographs show natural beauty; sculpture, architecture, even street art; edifices old and new; restaurants; and artefacts for sale that indicate what a visitor can bring back, besides beautiful memories and enhanced perspectives. Thus, they add to the narrative, offering a further look into the essence of Spain.
Biswas often mentions being transported into another era, witnessing the lives of centuries ago, and then encountering a construction, hearing a mobile phone ring, etc, to come back to her reality. Past and present constantly mingle in the historically-rich world of Spain, and the reader is lost too. If a trip to Spain is planned, this book can serve as an able guide, and be that first step that starts a beautiful journey to exploring a culture.
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