Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!


For the transcript, see below:


It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.

Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.

A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).

A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.

Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)

My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.

Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break. 

Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.

The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.

I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different. 

Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction. 

Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)

There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.

As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too. 

Happy holidays!

Christmastime in Andalusia: Málaga

Christmastime in Andalusia: Málaga

(Continued from my posts about Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, Nerja, and Ronda.)

The day started with another problem. We had flights booked back to Madrid, but both of us had forgotten to bring our passports. Before seeing anything in Málaga, therefore, we had to take a trip to the airport (luckily, easily accessible on the metro) to find out whether we could fly using our Spanish ID cards. Long story short, we couldn’t, and it was too late to get a refund. Travel can be a humbling experience.

It was a shame to waste time like that, since this was our only day in Málaga.

Málaga is the second-largest city in Andalusia, after Seville, and the sixth-largest in Spain. Like Cádiz, the city’s origins lay far in the past, founded by Phoenicians thousands of years ago, making it among the oldest cities in the world. Carthaginians, Romans, and Muslims Berbers have all ruled the city in turn. Nowadays the place is bustling—with a busy port and a thriving economy. Yet like everywhere on the Costa del Sol, the core of the city is tourism.

Today was a good day for tourism. It was December 30th and the weather was perfect.

After arriving back to the center we ate quickly in a kebab place, and soon were headed to our first stop: the Alcazaba. This is an old citadel in the center of the city; and as its name suggests, it was built by the Moors. The city of Málaga, by the way, was among the last to fall to the Reconquista, being taken by the Catholic Monarchs in 1487 after a long siege, just five years before Granada, the last Moorish stronghold, fell.

Street art in Picasso’s birthplace

The fortress stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding streets—a collection of tan walls and towers. Below the fortress are the remains of an old Roman theater; and the fortress itself is built over a previous Roman fortification. Thus the layers of history accumulate.

We paid the small fee and went inside. Most of the walking was uphill (which didn’t make the döner kebab in my stomach sit any easier). The place was attractive for its gardens and its promenades rather than its architecture. It was a fortress and not a castle, after all, and so free of ornamentation.

We spent a pleasant hour wandering around its walls and gardens, enjoying the ubiquitous Andalusian fountains and streams that flowed all over the place. These tiny aqueducts, carrying water down stairwells, across walkways, and into fountains, might be the most distinctive sign of Andalusia. These are a sign of Andalusia’s Moorish legacy: it was the Muslims who introduced irrigation into the region, which forever transformed the landscape and permitted the growth of new crops. Practical considerations aside, water has a special symbolic significance in Islam—a religion which grew up in a region even drier than Andalusia. Running water gives everything a touch of paradise, especially in a climate this hot and dry.


Below the Alcazaba is the aforementioned Roman theater. You can walk inside and sit on the top steps for free. By now, with my stomach in open rebellion from the greasy food, it felt magnificent just to sit down for a few minutes. Immediately below us were the ruins of where the stage had been. On the street beyond, a performer was playing John Mayer on guitar.


John Mayer thus collided with Ancient Rome in my mind, making me feel even more queasy. This odd juxtaposition of ancient and new, elegant and tacky, timeless and transitory, is what characterizes all trips to historical places. Just when you are getting lost in reveries of the ancient past, the constant crush of tourists with selfie-sticks and the peddlers with their overpriced baubles insistently shock one back to the present day.

Daylight was already waning, but there was something more I wanted to see: the Castillo de Gilbralfaro. It was in this castle that, in 1487, the Moors held out in a famous three-month siege against the Catholic Monarchs. The castle stands on the same hill as the Alcazaba, but much higher up. This hill, by the way, has the same name as the castle, Gilbralfaro, and is one of the foothills of the Málaga Mountains.

To get up to the castle, we had to go up a steep walking path that zig-zagged its way to the top. We took half an hour to get there, with fairly frequent stops for two unathletic Americans to catch their breath. The views kept getting better, though, so we pressed on, until finally we reached the entrance and walked in.

As the guard informed us, we only had half an hour before the placed closed. We didn’t waste any time. At the first entrance to the castle walls, we climbed up and began walking. The view from up here was incredible. (In clear weather it is possible to see all the way to the Strait of Gibraltar and the Rif mountains in Morroco.) We could see for miles and miles—the harbor, the city, and the mountain range to the north. The castle walls went all around the perimeter, allowing us a 360 degree view.


After walking across one wall, entering a tower, and climbing some stairs, I found myself standing on the highest point of the fortification, absolutely alone. The whole city stretched out before me. I could see the ships at dock and the massive cranes used to load and unload them; two large freighters were sitting in the water offshore; thousands of white apartment and office buildings spread across the hilly terrain; and green mountains curved into the horizon. From up here, everything looked so precious and so delicate. The town, in particular, looked like a bunch of toys scattered across the landscape.

Night was falling. To our right, as we faced the Mediterranean, the setting sun turned the sky a vivid orange. We descended slowly down the hill, by now completely cured of the stress of the morning, once more under the enchanting aura of Andalusia. The weather was perfect, the sky was cloudless, and everybody around was laughing. And in this state of reverie, we headed for the beach.

By the time we arrived, the sun had sank completely below the horizon, leaving the world in twilight. We walked alongside the water, listening to the soft sound of the waves. It was dark and a bit chilly now, and only a few people were on the beach. We reached boardwalk, walked to the end, and sat down.

The last light was just leaving the horizon, painting the western sky purple and the skyline red. The shore, the city, and the harbor were outlined against the sky. The skeletal silhouettes of cranes hung over the water. A lighthouse began flashing its warning. The wind whipped up, chilling us through our light clothes and sending waves splashing.

It was time to eat dinner and go to sleep. We went back towards town. Dozens and dozens of shacks lined the road, selling fireworks, dolls, toys, knickknacks, incense, candy, and nativity figurines. It was a Christmas market. In Spain, you see, gifts are normally given on Epiphany, or Three Kings Day (in Spanish called Tres Reyes Magos), which falls on January 6. Thus Christmas season extends a lot further than December 25 here.

The sidewalk was crowded with Spaniards; kids were all over the place, some sparring with toy swords, some slumped in sleep in strollers. We reached the main avenue and turned towards town. A long arch of Christmas lights extended over the packed sidewalk.—the famous Malagueño Christmas lights. Suns and moons and stars studded the glowing canopy, which extended hundreds of feet down the avenue. More than anything I saw that vacation, this walkway, crowded with happy people, awoke in me that wonderful Christmas feeling—the feeling of naïve wonder and excitement, the magic feeling of childhood when the world was simple and good and everything was new.


Our trip had come to a close. We were taking a Blablacar back the next day. To celebrate, we ate at El Pimpi, a restaurant and winery that was recommended to us. The service was astonishingly attentive for a Spanish restaurant, the food was excellent, and I drank several pintados (which the waiter explained was half sweet wine and half dry sherry).

In the morning we woke up early, said goodbye to our hosts, and walked to the train station, Vialia, to meet our driver. Five hours later we stepped out of the car into the cold Madrid air. It was New Year’s Eve. That night we celebrated with some friends of ours. As is the custom in Spain, we ate twelve grapes as the clock ticked down towards New Year’s, making a wish for each grape. Everyone was celebrating, the world was reborn, and the future was bright.


Christmastime in Andalusia: Ronda

Christmastime in Andalusia: Ronda

(Continued from my posts about Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, and Nerja, and continued in my post about Málaga.)

The drive from Málaga to Ronda is one of the pleasantest in Spain. The countryside is exquisitely rustic, with sun-baked fields and tiny towns full of white houses. We took a Blablacar with a nice young woman, on her way to her pueblo nearby. Ronda is about 100 km west of Málaga, and the drive takes about an hour and a half.

(It is a common thing, by the way, for Spaniards to have a “pueblo.” This is the town, not necessarily where they were born or where they grew up, but where their family is from. Work is scarce in these small towns, however, and so many people move to cities to find jobs; yet family ties remain strong and weekend trips to visit parents and relatives in “the pueblo” are ubiquitous.)

We were dropped off in the center of Ronda, and began making our way to Ronda’s most famous landmark: El Puente Nuevo, or the New Bridge.

This bridge is eye-poppingly massive—a stone structure standing almost 400 feet (98 m) above the Guadalevín River. Indeed, the huge effort necessary to create a bridge of this size struck me as out of all proportion to the city of Ronda itself, which now is home to about 35,000 people. And I am doubly astounded when I consider that, as the name “New Bridge” suggests, there was already a bridge in Ronda: the Puente Romano—which, despite its name, was probably built by the Moors.


Looking down from the cliff at the towering structure, I wondered: How on earth was it built? Indeed it almost wasn’t. The bridge that stands today, built between 1751 and 1793, was the second attempt to span this chasm. The first attempt, constructed from 1735 to 1741 with a single arch, was built hastily and poorly, and soon collapsed—resulting in the deaths of 50 people. The bridge which stands now, designed by José Martín de Aldehuela, is not only strong but beautiful—its graceful form tying the whole landscape together.

After we had taken our fill of photos, we began to walk around the promenade overlooking the cliff. The view of the countryside was, if possible, even lovelier than the bridge itself. A vast green field was divided into neat patches, some brown, some with rows of bushy plants. Here and there was a farm, looking like doll houses from so far away. And beyond was a patch of forest, which led to the sierra in the distance, the morning fog still sitting on the peaks. On a dirt road a pickup truck was making its way to who-knows-where, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust. Ronda_Countryside

To our left we could see a path leading down into the gorge below. It looked like too much fun to resist. We crossed the bridge, found the path, and soon were carefully edging our way down. The path forked several times, and each time we chose the one that led towards the bridge. At times it was quite steep and slippery, so we proceeded slowly for fear of falling.

We were getting close to the bridge now; it loomed overhead like a skyscraper. The white noise of the waterfall below turned into a steady roar.

After walking down a hazardous rocky path, made slippery by the atmospheric spray of water, we came upon a little shack. It was visibly run-down, obviously hadn’t been used in years. We took a peek inside. It wasn’t terribly interesting: full of old leaves, beer cans, and other garbage. On the walls, above a little hole in the floor, was spray-painted the ominous message: “It’s easy to descend into hell.”

“Wanna go down there?” I asked GF.

“No way.”

“Good idea.”

We turned around and began again to approach to the bridge. In fact, the path went right under it. A staircase that bounced too much to inspire confidence led down to a concrete pathway with a wobbly iron railing that went straight through to the other side. We passed underneath the bridge, and then under some impressively huge boulders sitting at the base of the bridge. Now we were standing between the two cliffs, which stretched hundreds of feet up above. Everything was quiet here.

Though it was broad daylight, and though we were following a public path, we felt like we were sneaking into a place we shouldn’t be. This impression of trespassing was reinforced after we found ourselves in a small working area. There was a concrete hut, empty on the inside, with plants growing on the roof; clearly it hadn’t been used in years. Nearby were all sorts of metal devices—a trough, a wheel used to raise and lower a barrier, and other things I didn’t understand—laying apparently unused and rusted. The place had that sort of eerie, post-apocalyptic feel that all abandoned places have.


After taking in the scene we started trekking back up. The steep ascent didn’t feel good on my knees, I can tell you.

By now we’d had our fill of the bridge. I knew of only one other thing to see in Ronda: the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. Built from 1779 to 1785, and designed by the same architect who designed the New Bridge, this is the oldest bull ring in Spain. Every year the Corrida goyesca takes place here—a traditional bullfight performed in historical costumes. For most of the year, however, it is a museum—of bullfighting and more.


I had never seen a bullring before, so I had nothing to compare it with. But it was quite pretty. Martín de Aldehuela designed the ring in a harmonious neo-classical style. Two floors of seats, four rows each, surround a circular area filled with sand. I stood in the center and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a matador, how absolutely terrified I would be if I was facing a bull, only armed with a cape and a little sword.

The little museum on the inside is about the history of bullfighting and other violent European pursuits, such as hunting and dueling. Most memorable for me were several pairs of ornate dueling pistols, in lush velvet cases, alongside plaques that explained which famous persons had used these weapons on one another. For my part, I cannot imagine any situation in which I would let somebody fire a loaded pistol at me purely for the sake of honor. As the honorable Falstaff said:

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honour”? Air.

I can’t help feeling that bullfighters would disagree.

After we spent enough time in the museum to get our money’s worth—staring at the rifles and pistols, the elaborate costumes for men and horses on display, and perusing the old bullfighting posters advertising bygone shows—we made our way to the gift shop, where I found a copy of Death in the Afternoon. This is Hemingway’s book on bullfighting, which I would recommend to anyone at all curious about the bloody art.

Hemingway, for his part, was very fond of Ronda. In that book, he says:

[Ronda] is where you should go if you ever go to Spain on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with any one. The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is romantic background and there is an hotel there that is so comfortable, so well run and where you eat so well and usually have a cool breeze at night that, with the romantic background and the modern comfort, if a honeymoon or elopement is not a success in Ronda it would be as well to start for Paris and both commence making your own friends.

Ronda has repaid the compliment by naming a street after Hemingway.


When we left the bullring, it was already time to go back to Málaga. We began to make our way up narrow cobblestone streets, back towards the train station where we would meet our ride. My shoes—cheap sneakers I bought here—have thin soles, so I could feel every stone sticking out from the pavement. Our footsteps made that distinctive thud that footsteps make in quiet, narrow, stone-paved Spanish streets.

Eventually we reached the main road, got to the station, and were again driving through the Spanish countryside. We had only one day left before our trip was over.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Cádiz

Christmastime in Andalusia: Cádiz

(This post is continued from my post about Jerez de la Frontera, and continued in my posts about Nerja, Ronda, and Málaga.)

As usual, the trip began with a problem. Trying to act with foresight, we bought train tickets the day before. But, as our host told us later that night, the tickets are only good for one day. Ours were expired. So we had to try to convince the train official to change our tickets, and do this with our halting Spanish.

The morning was thus off to a stressful start. We both had that sort of irritable cabin-fever you get when you spend day after day with somebody in a foreign country; every word we exchanged was peevish bickering. Things ran pretty smoothly, though. The man at the ticket office was very nice and understanding; it took him only a couple minutes to change our tickets.

Soon the train came and we were off. The ride from Jerez to Cádiz is gorgeous. We went through grassy wetlands; on either side of us we could see fields half-flooded with water, with irrigation ditches dug through them in a grid-shaped pattern. What crops are grown here? Outside the window I could see the aquamarine blue of the ocean, sparkling in the Andalusian sunlight like a sapphire.

We arrived. My first impression—and impression that gained in force throughout my stay—was that Cádiz is painfully pretty. I think it’s the prettiest city I have ever seen. The old city center sits on a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. The narrow streets—lined with pink, yellow, and skyblue buildings—lead you through the interior; and every few blocks you come across a little plaza, with sidewalks tiled in black and white, and tropical trees I can’t hope to name. Eventually you reach the water, lightly lapping the rocky shoreline, which is so bright and blue it looks like it has been dyed.


Cádiz is the oldest continuously populated cities in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians back around 1,000 BCE. It might even be the oldest in all of Western Europe. By the time Herodotus mentioned it in the fifth century BCE, the city was already hundreds of years old. This continuous occupation is no doubt due to the city’s fine port, though nowadays the beaches are more for tourists than traders and explorers.

We got to the shore and strolled. The scene was so intensely pretty that I felt simultaneously ecstatic and relaxed. A sublime cheerfulness flooded my senses. GF had a list of things to see and do here, but now I couldn’t believe anything could be better than the city itself.

We passed a church painted with pastel pink, built in a colonial style, and kept going. Eventually we reached a park, El Parque Genovés. A long promenade cut through the center, each side lined with ferns shaped into spirals and cylinders. Big, twisting, knotty trees, covered in rubbery broad leaves, jutted from the ground, their trunks exploding in multiple directions. Trees even more bizarre bid us farewell as we left—one with a bulbous, almost cucumber-like trunk; and another that looked like it had been turned upside-down.


We turned another corner, and now the prettiness started to sting my eyes. Directly before us was a bay, filled with little white row-boats, floating idly in the calm, sparkling waters. To our left was an old fortress, the Castle of Santa Catalina—a squat, square structure built of tan stones, standing over the water. And to our right was the beach, the Playa de La Caleta, nearly empty. The scraggly heads of palm trees dotted the shoreline, and a boardwalk extended into the ocean beyond.


I could not pull myself away; so we sat in the nearest café and decided to have lunch. I sipped a glass of sherry as I attempted to burn the view into my memory. The white boats and buildings, the yellow-brown sand and tiled walkway, the ocean breeze and the slightly sweet taste of sherry—I was enamored and intoxicated. It was one of those views that look immediately familiar because they are so classically picturesque.

Indeed, as it turns out I had seen this view before. It is the where a beach scene in the James Bond movie Die Another Day was filmed. In that movie, the beach is supposed to be in Cuba—which explains why I was immediately reminded of Cuba, although I have never been there. It’s funny how our memories work.

After lunch we went straight for the beach, stumbling over the sand in a kind of bewildered, euphoric daze. Only a few other people were there, most of them sitting on the sand and looked out towards the ocean. At the end of the beach was a boardwalk, leading towards a big structure sticking out a few hundred feet into the water. This is the counterpart fortress of the Castle of Santa Catalina on the beach’s right side: the Castillo de San Sebastián. 

“Oh, this was on my list,” GF said. “It’s a castle or something.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

The Castle of San Sebastián is connected to the mainland by a narrow walkway, only wide enough for two people abreast. When we were midway across the wind started to whip up; the waves were no longer gentle, but angry. They splashed against the platform, spraying foam onto the walkway and covering my glasses in salty droplets. The wind accelerated every few seconds, turning our clothes into balloons and making our hair dance wildly.

The further out we crept, the more of Cádiz we could see behind us. The city was no longer the pretty jewel it had been one moment ago, but a bold bulwark against the brooding power of the sea.

We reached the castle. This was built in 1706 to complement the Castile of Santa Catalina on the other end of the beach. Before the castle was built a hermitage stood on this island, where sailors recovering from the bubonic plague could be isolated. Nowadays the fortress is in a dilapidated state, consisting mainly of ruins and rubble; in any case it is mostly a collection of stone walls, never meant to be pretty. But the view from the tip of the island was splendid, allowing you to see the whole coast of Cádiz and far beyond. Yet it was really the ocean that captivated me. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt, and the feeling of the cool breeze chilling you to the bone.

We still had much to see. Our next stop was the cathedral. It isn’t very far off. The cathedral’s tall form towers over a row of apartment buildings. These buildings are painted in creamy colors; and the view of the marble cathedral looming above them is one of Cádiz’s distinctive views. Our road ran right along the sea; and to my right, separating the sidewalk from the ocean, was the breackwater: a pile of giant, perfectly cubic stones.


We reached the cathedral and went inside. Everything was smooth lines, rounded forms, and clean white marble. This was neoclassical—elegant and symmetrical. According to the audioguide, this cathedral was built when Cádiz began to profit enormously from Spain’s trade with her colonies in America. Thus this grand edifice resulted. By contrast with gothic cathedrals I had seen, this one looked more like a celebration of human reason than divine might. Its even proportions, its emphasis on balance, its ghostly white marble columns, all this reminds one more of a mathematical theorem made manifest rather than a vengeful deity who sits in judgment.


If you visit this cathedral, make sure to go to the crypt in the basement. There isn’t much to see, but the central chamber has really astounding acoustics. Stand in the right place, and even a whisper will be magnified into an omnipresent hiss. And the sounds of your footsteps bounce from the roof to the floor like a rubber bouncy ball sped up fifty times.

Next stop was the Torre Tavira, an old tower from the city’s golden age of trade. At first I thought it would be a scam—pay a few to climb a lot of stairs. But it turned out to be perhaps the best thing we did in Cádiz. The view from the top is worth the money, as it is probably the most impressive in the city. But the best part of the visit commenced when we were led by the guide to the cámara oscura. This is a very old and very simple device, consisting of a dark chamber with an angled mirror with a small opening. Light enters the aperture and is reflected by the mirror to a surface, where the image shows like a projector.

Our tour guide led us into the room, had us encircle the disc-shaped projecting surface, and dimmed the lights. The show began. Light poured in through the camara obscura above us, created a perfect image of the city on the disc. This image was magnified quite a bit; and by turning the mirror overhead the guide could focus on different areas of the city. Going on this way, we explored the city in every direction, our guide pointing out the notable buildings and briefly explaining their history.

The show ended and we went downstairs. By now I was exhausted. Being continually astonished really takes a lot out of you. I didn’t have the energy to gape at anything else. Besides, it was getting dark by now, and we had to get to our next stop. So we pulled ourselves away from this city, walked to the train, and returned to our Airbnb. Please, if you get the chance, visit Cádiz. It’s a jewel.

Christmastime in Andalusia: Jerez de la Frontera

Christmastime in Andalusia: Jerez de la Frontera

(Continued in my posts about Cádiz, Nerja, Ronda, and Málaga.)

The Voyage

On December 24, Christmas Eve—or Noche Buena (“Good Night”) as the Spanish call it—in the year 2015, at an egregious hour in the morning, we met up with a couple of guys that we had contacted through Blablacar to make the drive down to Jerez de la Frontera.

They were both extremely nice, agreeable fellows; but I’m afraid they had Andalusian accents and I could hardly understand them.

The people of Andalusia, you see, have something of a reputation. Their accent is distinctive and difficult for outsiders to understand. They speak in a rapid staccato, spitting out the words like a machine gun. Unlike in most of Spain, Andalusians do not pronounce c’s or z’s like “th” (often mocked, incorrectly, as the “Spanish lisp”); and instead pronounce all soft c’s and z’s like an “s,” as they do in Latin America. For most people this would not be a problem; but since I’m only used to Castillian Spanish this confuses me.

What is more, Andalusians drop the terminal “s” wherever it appears: tres becomes tregracias becomes gracia, and so on. To top it off, the consonants separating two ending vowels are also dropped, and the vowels are blended together into a dipthong: complicado becomes complicao. With all these factors taken together, the final result is, for me, an indistinct slur of sound that never resolves itself into separate words.

In sum, I could not understand them. So I slept; and GF slept; and we woke up and then fell asleep again.

The countryside of Andalucía, normally so flat and treeless that you can see for miles, was shrouded in a mysterious and impenetrable wall of fog. Apparently, mornings in the south of Spain are typically foggy, which I find odd considering how absolutely sunny and cloudless are the days.

But I had traveled this road before, when I went to Seville. So even though I couldn’t see much, memories flew by the window instead.

There are castles, I recalled: mostly run-down and in ruins, dotting the countryside; we must have passed five or six. Then there are the great, big, black silhouettes of bulls, which stood here and there, sometimes next to the highway and sometimes on a hillside beyond. These are the Osborne Bulls: signs that were originally set up as advertisements for Osborne brand sherry. Despite this prosaic commercial origin, they have since become something of a symbol for Spain, and you can find them on everything from T-shirts to book jackets to postcards.


I also remembered the livestock. The Spanish countryside has a rugged, rural, pastoral charm that I did not expect to find in an industrialized country. In what look like wild fields along the highways you can see cows grazing, sheep huddling in herds, and horses bathing their shiny coats in the sun. No human can be seen watching over them; not a fence is in sight—except perhaps and old, derelict stone barrier that looks short enough to hop over.

Then I thought of the wind turbines—those gigantic white towers, their blades meditatively spinning in the breeze—and the solar panels, glistening like the future itself in the sun. These new technologies served to break the spell of the castles and the wandering livestock, snapping you back to the twenty-first century. But they also showed a wonderful continuity; people still made their living here, and were still doing their best to achieve harmony with their environment.

But the castles and the bulls and the horses and the turbines were nowhere to be seen this morning; just the grey fog, the clouds overhead, and the few feet of road in front of us. I was having trouble staying awake, and still more trouble staying asleep. So I drifted in that unpleasant, cramped, confusing, groggy twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, my neck hurting, my knees in pain, my eyelids feeling as though a gigantic weight had been placed upon them.

But then we arrived. Our driver, very kindly, drove us right up to the door of our Airbnb, and soon we found ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, blinking in the familiar bright of the Andalusian sun, our bags sitting on the sidewalk, both of us tired and dazed, pressing the buzzer to get in.

Jerez de la Frontera

Our hosts were just as kind and friendly and welcoming as our driver had been. One of them, the husband, was a professor of Spanish and French from Switzerland; and his wife was a wonderful woman from Peru. They were hospitality incarnate; they gave us a tour of the neighborhood, told us about the bus schedule, provided us information about all the things to do and see in Jerez, and in general answered every question we had. Not only this, but they had the patience of saints with our halting, slow, mistake-ridden Spanish.

Soon we were on the bus, heading towards town. We arrived at 3:30 in Jerez de la Frontera, on Christmas Eve. The restaurants were jam-packed, the streets filled with so many people eating, drinking, and talking that there weren’t nearly enough chairs, so most people had to stand—not that anybody seemed to care. On Christmas Eve, apparently, the entire town celebrates by having an after-lunch drink.

With more hope than foresight, we thought we could visit some of the main sights of Jerez. First, we tried the Alcázar, a Moorish castle in the center of town. It was closed. Then we tried the cathedral. Closed. After that, we walked to a bodega (winery), to taste some famous sherry. (Jerez de la Frontera is the birthplace of sherry wine.) They were all closed, too. It was Christmastime in Andalusia, and the only places open were the restaurants.

So we walked around, somewhat aimlessly, feeling lost and out of place. What were we doing here? This was the holidays, a time for family, and here we were, just the two of us, alone in a strange city with nothing to do. After two hours of wandering, we decided we might as well eat, and sat down at the first restaurant we could find.

Two tables over an entire extended family was gathered together. They were playing flamenco. Three boys were strumming on guitars, others were stomping and clapping, and they were singing in unison, the women an octave higher than the men. It wasn’t professional by any means, but it was fun and exciting. As we sat outside in temperate sun, listening to this family play flamenco—not because they were being paid, but to celebrate the holiday—the day suddenly became ineffably romantic.

We sat at that restaurant as long as we could before they kicked us out—which was at about 5 o’clock. Then we walked back to the Airbnb.

It did not feel like Christmas Eve. We spoke with our families through Skype, but this only served to remind us of what we were missing. The loneliness was easy to forget during the day, when surrounded by crowds, overhearing small-talk, exchanging pleasantries with waiters. But as the sun went down and the shops began to close and the people retreated indoors to be with their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, we could not forget that we were not at home; that on another side of the globe, our own families were celebrating without us; and that instead of being surrounded by familiar faces, we were surrounded by faces entirely new, and even strange.

And with these thoughts, we went to sleep.


Christmas morning.

We got out of bed and went downstairs. Sadly, there weren’t any presents waiting for us, not even a tree; but there was breakfast. It was simple and delicious: bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, and Spanish ham. Even though our goodly hosts had eaten several hours before, they had sat at the table with us just to talk. As I sat there, I realized how odd it was to be staying at the house of a stranger—or, at least, someone we’d just met—during Christmas. It felt somehow intrusive and indecent. But then I remembered that our hosts were immigrants, too, and all their family was elsewhere as well. This made me feel a bit more at home.

We were off to town again, though we hardly knew what for. Just like yesterday, everything was closed; and today, not even the restaurants were busy. This time we didn’t even try to see anything. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered some food, and relaxed. I must admit, though, that I was getting a bit cranky by this point. Not only had I missed Christmas, but for what?

I calmed down a bit after I pulled out my book to read. I read and read, looking up now and again to observe people strolling by, kids playing, grandparents chiding, young couples chitchatting—and the day passed like this. I began to feel calm and happy. There is something strangely intoxicating about Andalusia. I don’t know quite what it is. A big part is just the weather. The sun is so bright that it’s hypnotic. The intense light is just so constantly present; it transforms everything, making colors brighter, laughter louder, people friendlier.

Then again, the people really are friendlier in Andalusia. Here the social instinct of the Spanish is expressed most fully. In New York, there are crowds, of course; but the crowds are always crowds of individuals thrown together more or less by accident, by force of circumstance. But the Andalusians, as I witnessed on Christmas Eve, congregate purposefully and joyfully—taking pleasure in the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie and excitement that good crowds generate.

The day wore on, and nothing much happened. I looked around the square; there wasn’t much to see. A cone-shaped, plastic Christmas light sat in the center. Beside that was a civic statue of someone riding a horse, surrounded by fountains and flowers. Palm trees were lightly swaying in the breeze. At another table, an elderly British woman was yelling at her dog every time it barked; but the dog didn’t seem to care, and kept on barking at every passerby.

Behind me some kids were riding around on a toy car ride that played cheesy music as it went by. Later, another group of kids were amusing themselves by exploding firecrackers in the middle of the plaza. These firecrackers were astoundingly loud, sounding like gunshots. I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time one went off. I’m still surprised that the kids’ parents, who were sitting nearby, didn’t mind their six and seven-year-olds playing with such powerful explosives. American parents would sooner let their kids eat gluten and get vaccinated.

We sat there four solid hours, until the sun began to set behind the restaurant, casting the square in shadow. Without the sun, I began to feel colder and more lonely. So we left. The walk back took us through several strip malls, all completely vacant. Although the sun was still out we could see the moon. It was full and seemed much bigger and closer than usual. Behind us the sun was setting, turning the sky a bright storybook pink and orange. By the time we reached the Airbnb, all was dark.

Everything was closed, even the supermarkets. What would we eat? Our hosts came to the rescue. In their freezer, they had cooked, seasoned pork chops ready to heat up, along with rice, potatoes, and salad. It was fantastic. We sat around the table, talking some more—the kind of supremely pleasant small-talk that is both interesting and easygoing, the kind that engages the mind enough to keep your attention but not so much to get you flustered.

We ate; we slept. Tomorrow we were leaving, so we only had the first part of the day to explore. Thus, even though I spent three days in Jerez, the time lost to Christmas closures resulted in only a half-day to visit the sites.


Jerez de la Frontera, translated literally into English, means “Sherry of the Border.” Indeed the English word “sherry” is an anglicization of “Xeres,” the antique name for this town. For it is here that the famous fortified wine originated. Situated just 7 miles (12 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Jerez enjoys a mixture of humidity and heat that has proven ideal for its trademark wine. This sprawling city has overtaken Cádiz, the regional capital, as the region’s most populous city; and apart from its wine it is know for being the home of the Grand Prix motorcycle race.

A statue of Manuel Críspulo González y Soto, founder of Tío Pepe sherry, with the cathedral in the background

Our first stop was the Alcázar of Jerez. The word “alcázar” comes from the Arabic word for “fortress,” and many cities in Spain have one: Córdoba, Segovia, Toledo.

This alcázar is located right in the center of town, surrounded on all sides by pretty plazas filled with orange trees. Today this area was also filled with people. The locals were holding a market around the old fortress—a flea market, more precisely. Tables and tables were filled with all sorts of delightful rubbish, old plastic toys, dusty books with broken spines, varieties of colorful knickknacks, tiny statuettes for nativity scenes, and much else. We wandered through the crowd as we looked for the entrance, passing around the entire building before we finally found it.

The Alcázar of Jerez is a compound surrounded on all sides by a high wall. It was originally built when Jerez was a small Taifa kingdom during the Moorish period. Many of the internal structures—likely built of wood and therefore perishable—have disappeared, and a garden now occupies the center of the fortress.


An old Mosque, the only one that wasn’t destroyed by the conquering Christians, still stands (though I couldn’t identify it); and you can walk inside an old Moorish bath with its roof pierced with star-shaped holes. Also standing is the oven and the machinery that the Christian used to make their pottery. Yet the best part of the visit was just the opportunity to stand on the walls and see the whole city spread out before us.

After this we went across the plaza to see the city’s cathedral. The Jerez Cathedral is comparatively small. Indeed it wasn’t originally built as a cathedral, but as a church, and was only elevated to that status in 1980. Stylistically speaking, the building is eclectic: gothic flying buttresses were fixed to neoclassical columns. We walked in the door, excited to explore the interior, but stopped in our tracks. They were having a service.

The whole place was packed, every pew totally filled. At the altar, several white-robed priests were gathered. One of them was speaking through a microphone, his old, tired voice projected throughout the cavernous space. He sighed rather than preached, seeming to exhale the words with minimal emphasis. Meanwhile, his proclamations were punctuated by the cadences of an organ, going from the dominant to the tonic minor chord. This might have been the first time in my life that I’ve heard an organ in a cathedral. The sound was duly impressive. But more interesting were the musical interludes provided by a group of flamenco singers and guitar players. Yes, here in Jerez they even have flamenco in their church services. It sounded absolutely great in that old building, and provided a welcome contrast to the old gentleman’s fatiguing voice.

“You gonna put that in your blog?” GF asked as we walked out.

“Of course,” I said. “I put everything in my blog.”

This was the end of our time in Jerez. We had to eat lunch, pick up our luggage, and catch a train to our next stop. I still regret that we didn’t get to visit one of the town’s famous sherry wineries. I suppose I’ll just have to come back.

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

Review: Washington Irving’s Sketchbook

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prose writers are voluminous and unwieldy; their pages crowded with commonplaces, and their thoughts expanded into tediousness.

I am a child of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and I have lived in Irving’s shadow almost as long as I can remember.

Every Halloween, this town is inundated with tourists, who come to wander around the lovely old cemetery where the legend is set, and where Irving himself is buried. Behind my house is where they put on the “haunted hayride.” I went every year as a kid. A pickup truck drags groups of twenty in a trailer through a stretch of forest, where volunteers dressed in masks jumped out and scared the kids half to death. And of course no hayride was complete without the headless horseman himself, riding out of the shadows on a black horse with a jack-o’-lantern on his knee.

The town nextdoor is called ‘Irvington’ in Washington Irving’s honor, and it is there that his old house, Sunnyside, is situated. The house is a delightful little dwelling, a small jumble of architectural styles—gothic, Dutch, Spanish—overlooking the Hudson River. Irving was an amateur architect and landscaper, very much of the Romantic school, and re-made the old farm he bought into a charming park, with a little pond, a babbling brook, and paths that wind through the forest nearby. On the property is a sycamore tree that has been growing since 1776, seven years before Irving himself was born.

When Irving bought the property, he had unimpeded access to the river; but that changed when, ten years later, the Hudson Line railroad was built at the river’s edge. Nowadays, trains rattle by every ten minutes or so. All the old train cars have names printed on their sides; and as I sat there on a recent visit, I saw that one of the cars on the passing Amtrak was named “Washington Irving.” He is simply everywhere. There is a statue of Rip Van Winkle outside the Irvington Town Hall Theater. On the walk back to my house I passed by the Washington Irving Middle School, which I attended, the Tarrytown High School, where our football team is the Horsemen, and the Christ Episcopal Church, where Irving himself worshiped, and where his pew is still preserved.*

Right outside Philipsburg Manor—an old colonial farm that now serves as a historical site—is an ugly metal sculpture of the Headless Horseman. Right next to it is where the old bridge stood where Ichabod Crane met his fate. There is not much to see now, just a modern concrete construction. But if you keep walking into the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery you can see the Old Dutch Church, and, a little farther on, you will come across the man’s tombstone. Like his house, his grave is neither ostentatious nor grandiose, just a simple stone that lays in a family plot.

The man’s influence is inescapable. It was Washington Irving who originated the nickname ‘Knickerbockers’ (after an imaginary Dutch historian he used as a nom de plume) for the denizens of New York. The New York Knicks owe their name to Irving, and the word ‘knickers’ also derives, through devious channels, to this writer. It was Irving who popularized the myth that Christopher Columbus thought the earth was flat, which he included in a biography of Columbus that Irving wrote while living in Spain. It was Irving, too, who originated the nickname ‘Gotham’ for New York City.

We even owe our holiday celebrations to Irving, since it was he, along with Charles Dickens, who helped to make Christmas into the secular holiday of gift-giving and merry-making that it is today. Irving played a hand in the creation of Santa Claus, too, with a story about St. Nicholas in his first book. With his love of ghost stories, Irving is also one of the architects of Halloween—and thousands still make the pilgrimage to visit his tombstone in that ghoulish time of the year. I cannot even escape his influence in Spain, since it was Irving who helped to spread the exotic, enchanted image of Andalusia, and who thus helped make Spain a tourist destination; and it was also thanks to his book of stories about the Alhambra that people began taking an interest in restoring that old ruin.

Washington Irving was named after George Washington, and was born just a few weeks before the Revolutionary War was officially concluded. He was a new man for a new land. An often-told story—difficult to verify—has it that he was taken by his maid to visit George Washington when he was just six years old; there’s a watercolor drawing, still hanging in Irving’s hold house, of the old general patting the young boy on the head. Whether it happened or not, the story seems symbolic of the role that Irving would play in American literature—exactly analogous to George Washington in politics—as a pioneering leader. For it was Washington Irving who was the first American writer to be respected by his English peers. He showed that these unruly savages overseas could aspire to eloquence too.

This book is often marketed as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories; but its original title is The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and was published under that pseudonym rather than Irving’s own name. The book, often merely called The Sketchbook, is a sort of parody of the sketchbooks that other wealthy American travelers made on their visits to Europe. It is framed as a travel book, and contains many vignettes about places Irving visited. But Irving does not stick to this theme very diligently. The book also contains some short pieces about Native Americans; and the two most famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” are both set in New York, and purport to be found among the old papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, another of Irving’s pseudonyms.

Although the collection is miscellaneous, Irving was not a writer of great breadth, and his distinctive style is consistent throughout. Thematically, Irving was a purebred Romantic. He has a taste for quaint customs, forgotten ruins, exotic places, and old yarns—in short, everything antique, out-of-the-way, and foreign, everything that allows his imagination to run wild with conjecture. These preoccupations lead him to investigate old English Christmas customs in the country, and to rail against their disappearance. It also leads him to treat the Native Americans as noble savages, the pure emblems of a disappearing culture, as well as to focus his eye on the old Dutch lore lingering about his native New York.

In truth there is not much substance to his writing. The closest he ever gets to philosophy is the Romantic, Ozymandian sentiment that all things yield to time. Rather, Irving is a stylist. His prose is fluent and easygoing—indeed, remarkably easy to read considering its age—so effortless that the prose practically reads itself. The subject-matter is usually a description of some kind—of what someone is wearing, of a farm or a tavern, of a funeral or a wedding—and he steers clear of all argument and dialogue, maintaining the fluid rhythm of his pen as it flies forward. When he is not describing a gothic ruin, an old curiosity, or a picturesque landscape, he is involved in some ghost story or traveler’s anecdote. Some of these, indeed many, involve love affairs between gallant soldiers and young women who possess “that mysterious but impassive charm of virgin purity in whose hallowed sphere no guilty thought can live”—it’s quite revolting.

But if Irving nowadays strikes one as lightweight and Romantic to the point of silliness, one should remember that he was a pioneer and an innovator—the first American man of letters, and one of the champions of Romanticism when that movement had hardly reached this country. And if he seems more style than substance, one should also remember that Irving wrote to amuse, not to instruct; and it is by that goal that he should be measured. Even now, Irving is a champion amuser; and even if he has some unfashionable tastes, he it still fresh and good-natured after all these years:

If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

Surely, surely, he has not.

*I recently went to visit this church. As luck would have it, I was about to knock on the door just as the rector, Susan, was on her way out of the building. When I asked about Irving’s pew, she very kindly gave me a quick tour. The old pew sits in a corner now, set aside to preserve it. The church also has Irving’s bible and prayer book—tattered old things in a glass case—as well as a copy of the 1859 issue of Harper’s Magazine that carried a front-page story about Irving’s funeral. “So many people came in, they were worried the floorboards would break,” Susan said.


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