Each trip, whether it is for bwd vacations or Insight Vacations, I always contact the guests 7 – 10 days before the journey starts. Along with the general information about the upcoming tour, I also include a list of books they may like to read on the plane.
For me, reading up on some places you will be visiting is one of the many ways to maximise your vacation. Not only does it give you some sort of background or introduction to where you’re going, but it also increases the excitement about your upcoming holiday.
Here is a list of my top ten books I think you should read before visiting Spain. I have tried to include classics, historical fiction, and some books from more recent times.
1. The Shadow of the Wind — Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)
Shadows of the Wind is not only one of my favourite books about Spain; it is one of my all-time favourites.
Set in Barcelona just after the Spanish Civil War, the story follows Daniel Sempere, the son of a local book dealer. To help him deal with the recent loss of his mother, Daniel’s father introduces him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Inside, Daniel finds comfort in a mysterious book titled The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. To discover as much as he can about this unknown author, Daniel sets out on a journey that includes murder, madness, and love.
“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
The Shadow of the Wind is the first book in a quartet which includes The Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven, and the Labyrinth of Sprits.
2. Ghosts of Spain — Giles Tremlett (2007)
For anyone visiting Spain, the Spanish Civil War is a theme in many cities. For the last 50 years, the Spanish government has embarked on a policy of “forgetfulness”, the idea that all events of General Franco’s rule should be left unexplored. Giles Tremlett, a British journalist, living in Spain, decides to find out why.
Ghosts of Spain is a fantastic journey that begins with Tremlett’s researching topics such as who caused the Spanish Civil War, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and why. The answers lead him to understand why there are Basque terrorists, why Catalans hate Madrid and the 2004 Madrid bombings. Tremlett’s “ghosts” offer an insight into the modern Spaniard with their dislike for authority, their education system, and their views on feminism.
“Calzada de Calatrava, as Almodóvar’s brother once put it, is the sort of place where people spend their whole life-saving for a decent gravestone in the cemetery.”
It is a good read, particularly for anyone who wants to understand Spain’s regions, history, and people.
3. Cathedral of the Sea — Ildefonso Falcones (2006)
Maybe for many outside Spain, this is a novel that most have probably never heard of. For anyone living in Spain, it’s a book that everyone knows. Cathedral of the Sea will invoke memories of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet and a must-read for anyone who likes historical fiction.
Set in the 14th century, Arnau Estanyol arrives in Barcelona and joins the powerful stone worker’s guild. Meanwhile, his best friend and adopted brother, Joanet, is studying to enter the priesthood. Through hard work and good fortune, Arnau acquires wealth and power and the status of a nobleman. When Arnau enters forbidden love with a Jewish woman, he finds himself hauled to face the Inquisition and his brother.
“There is no freedom with hunger.”
Ildefonso Falcones has also written several other historical fiction stories set in Spain. They include The Hand of Fatima, The Barefoot Queen, and the Painter of Souls.
I found this a tremendous story. It gives you a great insight into Spain of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, the brutality of the nobility and the relentless persecution of the Jews.
4. The Sun Also Rises — Ernest Hemingway (1926)
It’s hard to visit Spain and not hear about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway first travelled to Spain in 1923 on the advice of his good friend Gertrude Stein. It started a love affair with the country that would continue for the next 40 years.
The Sun Also Rises follows a group of young American and British expatriates as they journey from Paris to Pamplona in the mid-1920s. Against the backdrop of northern Spain, it centres around Jake Barnes, a journalist and World War I veteran, and his former lover Lady Brett Ashley. The two, along with several of their friends and colleagues, represent what would later be known as the Lost Generation. The Lost Generation refers to the many people who survived World War I but became mentally, emotionally, and morally lost. Their lives have little or no meaning, romantic attachments are fleeting, and they tend to centre around alcohol-fuelled parties.
“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”
Although Hemingway’s first work, many believe it to be his greatest. Hemingway based the novel on an actual trip he made, the characters based on real people and their actions based on actual events.
5. Don Quixote — Miguel Cervantes (1605)
Many people have heard of the book and may know a little about the story. But have you ever thought of reading it? First published in 1605, many critics argue it is one of the most outstanding books ever written.
The story revolves around a nobleman Alonso Quixano from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Quixano has read so many books on romance and chivalry that he loses his mind and decides to become a Knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha. He recruits a local farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, and together they embark on an incredible adventure.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up, and he went completely out of his mind.”
Many believe Cervantes came up with the story of Don Quixote was serving time in a Seville jail for several “mathematical irregularities” whilst working as a tax collector.
6. Tales of the Alhambra — Washington Irving (1832)
If you plan on reading only one book before visiting Granada, Spain, Tales of the Alhambra should be it. The American author Irving Washington visited Granada and stayed in the palace for the spring and early summer of 1829.
The book is a collection of short stories, verbal sketches and essays based on both myth and actual historical events. Unlike many compilations of short stories, Washington’s book is not just a collection of random tales. It is a network of interconnected fables, many forming stories within stories and some supplemented by the author’s imagination.
“We found ourselves in a vast patio or court one hundred and fifty feet in length and upwards of eighty feet in breadth, paved with white marble, and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles, one of which supported an elegant gallery of fretted architecture”
The city of Alhambra in California took its name from the title. In 1874, Ruth Yorba, the daughter of the politician and developer Benjamin Davis Wilson, convinced him to name his new development after the book.
7. Winter in Madrid — C.J. Sansom (2006)
I loved this book, not just for its setting in post-war Madrid but for the tale it told. I found the story a great insight not just into the Spanish Civil War but the possibility that Franco could take Spain into World War II on the side of Germany.
Winter in Madrid is a spy novel set in Madrid, Spain, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The story revolves around the Dunkirk veteran Harry Brett, contracted by the British Secret Service to contact an old school friend, Sandy Forsyth. Forsyth is a shady businessman who claims to have found gold deposits in central Spain. If true, this wealth could see Spain enter the war on the side of the Germans. Whilst there, Harry becomes involved in the search for a missing soldier who vanished on the battlefield of the Spanish Civil War.
“Funny, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be good. But I could never seem to manage it somehow. And if you’re not good, the good people will throw you to the wolves. So, you might as well just be bad.”
If you like English period stories, C. J. Sansom is also the author of the Shardlake mystery series set in sixteenth-century England.
8. The Last Queen — C.W. Gortner (2006)
One of the many figures of Spanish history is Juana of Castile, or as she is more commonly known, Juana la Loca, Juana the Mad. The Last Queen is a fantastic story that takes you through the royal courts of Spain, Flanders, France, and England.
Juana is the third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain and was born in an incredible period. Her parents were fighting the Arab world, and Columbus was sailing towards the Americas. At the age of sixteen, her parents sent her to Belgium to wed the Archduke of Flanders and strengthen Spain’s alliances. Meanwhile, her youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, is sent to England to marry Henry VIII. Content with being a wife and mother, she is thrust onto the Spanish throne after the deaths of her elder sister and brother.
“You may come as a proud prince today, young Habsburg. But you shall travel many more roads in Castile in death than you ever will in life.”
Traditionally, historians portray Juana as a woman driven mad by the death of her husband. Gortner, however, challenges many of the myths by creating a brave and determined queen.
9. The New Spaniards — John Hooper (1987)
There are countless historical books about Spain, but there aren’t too many that describe what it’s like today. Giles Tremlett touches on the subject towards the end of his “Ghosts of Spain,” but “The New Spaniards” by John Hooper gives you a great understanding of the modern Spaniard.
With democracy restored to Spain after the death of General Franco, the Spanish people started a journey of significant change. The New Spaniards looks at themes such as the role of women in Spain, attitudes towards religion, housing, education, gambling, and the army. There are chapters on the Catalans, the Basques, and the Galicians and their respective ideas on nationalism.
“I don’t know about you, but the reason I left my parents was because I wanted the freedom to sleep with girls. My sons have that — and they still have their mother to wash their clothes and cook their meals. No wonder they don’t want to go!”
Having lived in Spain for many years, I still discovered the origins of many Spanish quirks that I didn’t know.
10. Origin — Dan Brown (2017)
When you think of Dan Brown books, Spain is probably not the first country you would associate with his stories. Although the book was not widely acclaimed, I enjoyed it and would rate it as one of his best.
Robert Langdon, professor of symbology and religious iconography, witnessed the assassination of Edmond Kirsch, a former student and billionaire philanthropist. Langdon’s attempt to solve the murder takes him from Bilbao in the Basque Country to Barcelona in Catalonia as he navigates hidden history, extreme religion, and the Spanish Royal Family.
“Sometimes, all you have to do is shift your perspective to see someone else’s truth.”
Origin is the first Robert Langdon thriller to feature modern art; it opens in the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. Brown’s previous thrillers have all centred around classical art.
And one more:
11. The Alchemist — Paulo Coelho (1988)
Although it probably doesn’t belong to a list of books about Spain, I’ve added The Alchemist to the list because it has links with Spain. The book begins in Spain, and the main protagonist is Spanish; however, Africa is the setting for much of the novel. It is a great story, and Coelho created some incredible characters that you will remember for a long time.
Santiago is a humble shepherd from Andalusia in the south of Spain who has few desires other than tending his flock, the odd glass of wine and a good book. However, a reoccurring dream tells him a great treasure awaits him, thousands of miles away at the base of the pyramids in Egypt. Santiago decides to follow his dream and begins a journey that takes him across North Africa. The story is a testament to the power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.
“Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. When asked, how did you write the book so quickly? he explained that the story was already written in his soul.
So, there you have it, my list of 10 books about Spain you should read. Please note, this is just a small list to get you started. There are many, many titles that are worth reading also, including:
- All this I will give you — Dolores Redondo
- As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning — Laurie Lee
- Homage to Catalonia — George Orwell
- For Whom the Bell Tolls — Ernest Hemingway
- Grape Olive Pig — Matt Goulding
- The Hand of Fatima — Ildefonso Falcones
- The Assassins Mark — David Ebsworth
It seems for every book you recommend, there are countless more that are just as good. I hope you try one or two of my suggestions and if you do, please let me know what you think.
So, there you have it, my list of 10 books about Spain you should read. Please note, this is just a list to get you started. There are many, many titles that are worth reading also, including: