Spain in Focus

Full of Splendid Spots and Character

Their feet hit the floor like the hoofs of the bulls that are part of the national sport here: tapping, tapping, tapping. It is much more powerful and passionate than a simple-tap dance…because it is not so much a dance, but an expression of emotion and art, combined. The dancer feels the beat, feels the moment, and lets it out in an unrestrained fashion through her feet and the movement of her arms. Several musicians, usually a guitarist, a percussionist of some sort, and a vocalist, who usually claps (palmas) along with the instruments, provide the background music to this artistic flare, which greatly intertwine into the movements of the flamenco dancer/dancers.

This is flamenco, traditional song and dance of the Gypsies (flamencos) of Andalusia in Spain’s most southern region that survived and was influenced by the Moorish period and then came into its own in as café entertainment in the 19th century. Flamenco was once a dramatized display of sorrow of the Gypsies and was used as an expressive medium to retain a culture that was being suppressed. And, then, it caught on…became a song/dance/art on a widespread level, in both a counterculture, hipster, beat poet sort of way and also as a mainstream high-culture, opera sort of way. Today, it remains ingrained in the culture, catering to people that want to taste the passion of a dance and music style that is exhilarating. Flamenco is a both a snap shot of Spanish culture, but also of its journey of Spain as a nation; Spain, like flamenco, has undergone similar transformative effects, because the country’s history has been so winding, its land so fought over, the empire so expansive and then contractive, those in power so overpowering in their motives and their vision. * * * Spain was originally inhabited by a combination of the Celts, Iberians, and Basques, and then was conquered and subsequently swallowed up into the Roman Empire, around 206 B.C. In 711, the Muslims Spain from Africa and began rule over the country. It wasn’t long after that the re Reconquista ("Reconquest"), the effort of empire expansion under the banner of Christianity, began to nibble at Muslim power and territory. The Muslim monarchy symbolically toppled, though Muslim territories still existed inside Spain, when forces took Toledo in 1085; with the 1492 re-conquest of Granada, the presence of Islamic rule was deemed to be over. Then followed the Inquisition, the process of expulsion and execution of Jews and Muslims who had not sincerely converted to Christianity. It began a long period of internal bloodshed—also directed at Protestant reformers—as the monarchy sought to unify the nation under the banner of the Catholic Church. Despite the government’s myopic attention on purging Jews and Muslims, Spain as a nation, thrived in this period, thanks to its exploratory and colonial endeavors. In the 16th century, Spain was the supreme European power and laid claim to much of South and Central America, including Mexico and parts of the United States. After attaining its zenith as a nation, Spain’s power began to diminish as the country used many resources—capital and people—to wield its military to engage in conflicts throughout Europe, sparked mainly because of religion, either Islam or Protestant related. Mounting tensions between France and Spain finally boiled toward the end of the 18th century and the two went to war, with France being the main provoker; France, led by Napoleon was the victor, and Spain was forced to become a client state of France in 1795. With the help of the British and Spanish nationalists termed for the time guerilla fights, Spain would reclaim its independence, officially reinstalling a Spanish King in 1814. The dramatic victory of the guerilla fighters created a watershed moment for the Americas, as those nationalists fought and won their own kind of independence against Spain. As the 20th century broke, internal turmoil within Spain led to civil war first in 1923–1931 and then again 1936-1939. The outcome of the latter created the regime of Francisco Franco, who ruled with an iron fist up until his death in 1975, at which point Spain went through a grand liberalism and has slowly morphed into the economically savvy, Western-minded, immigrant-welcoming nation (among an assortment of other characteristics) that it is today. * * * Perhaps because of this long history, one where much bloodshed was spent, one where cultures and beliefs clashed, where people had to assimilate to the ruling government or else be kicked out or face violence/repression, Spain is now a place of peace and diversity, seeking to sort of ‘fit in’ within a conglomerate of European powers while also retaining its unique Spanish identity. Flamenco, part of Spain’s culture for centuries, is a part of the country’s new identity, where such expression can now be openly celebrated, among an assortment of other activities, like religious and political that were once restricted. Flamenco now represents the passion of the country and a vitality that is to always be harnessed. The perfect venue nowadays for the open exchange of ideas and just life-sharing, in general, is the café or the tapas restaurant/bar, which sometimes may be housed in the same institution. Grab a café con lech (coffee with milk)—way coffee is prepared here—and a pastry for a nice start to any morning. The tapas restaurant is all about tapas, the small appetizer-like creations that are fancifully put together and are eaten in one big grouping as part of a regular meal. Tapas come in all varieties and forms, from meats to cheeses, to a shrimp and salmon combo on a slice of the baguette bread. Other top picks are the Tortilla Española, or Spanish Omelet, which is sort of like an egg and potato quiche; Calamares Fritos, Fried Squid; Gambas al Ajillo, Garlic Shrimp; and Croquetas de Jamón, Ham Croquettes. Take a walk in Spain’s largest cities and this history and renewed present unfold. Madrid stands as the capital city, home to 3 million, 5 million if you count the smaller towns and urban areas that surround it. Puerta del Sol, "Gate of the Sun", is the Times Square of Madrid, a central meeting spot for everything. Calle de Alcalá near Puerta del Sol was the area depicted in Francisco Goy’s The Second of May 1808, when France came to bear arms on Spain. Goya’s other famous work, The Third of May 1808, shows the execution of those that stood up to resist the advancing French army. The works are a part of a grand array of famous works in the renowned Prado Museum, which also includes paintings from Spanish masters such as Diego Velázquez , El Greco, Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Pablo Picasso. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is the other famous art museum in Madrid, hosting Picasso and other more contemporary artists. Reina Sofia hosts Picasso’s Guernica, a painting that displays the bombing of the Basque-populated Guernica, which was a key territory for the Spanish Republic, by Italian and German war planes during the Spanish Civil War; the artwork, is meant to display the horror of war, as innocent lives were last, and is another telling image of the long and bloody history of Spain, though onlookers now see the hope and the peace that is ever-evolving as a result of that tragic time. A special place in Madrid where one can certainly experience peace of mind is the Parque de Ritoro, a grand park, nearly 350 acres, that sits right at the edge of the city center. Lots of green space abounds here, as well as a public lake that sits in front of a monument dedicated to Alfonso XII, one of the many monarchs to lead Spain and one that was put in power, reversing the effects of a coup, in 1874. Spain’s royal past and present is viewable at Madrid’s Palacio de Oriente. The site of the palace dates from a 10th-century fortress, called mayrit, constructed as an outpost by Mohammed I, Emir of Córdoba. After Madrid fell to Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085, the structure was only rarely used by the kings of Castile but Philip II moved his court to Madrid in 1561 and Madrid became the capital. * * * Barcelona, set adjacent to the Mediterranean Ocean, has the same mix of architecture and green space abounds, marked most by the Segrada de Familia, an amazing Cathedral (still unfinished due its creators untimely death), that is its own kind of artwork. The creator, Gaudi, was a man who was brilliant and tried to create everyday things, chairs, tables, but make them look like art. In Barcelona, it is often best just to pick a neighborhood and get lost in it, just marveling at the stone alleyways and different cathedrals you’ll find along the way. The Gothic neighborhood, called the he Barri Gòtic, is perfect for this, known for its narrow alleys and its Gothic monuments to include the Barcelona Cathedral, also featuring a mix of architecture dating all the way back to the Roman era. The La Rambla is an outdoor mall, complete with vendors selling birds and gerbils, as well as a plenty of human statues for your viewing pleasure. Lots of great cafés are along the way to satiate any thirst or hunger that evolves from touring. Spain today, as its history has sort of come to a resting point, is full of splendid spots. Other great destinations include Granada, San Sebastian in Basque Country, and Bilboa. Spain is by no means free of the ills that has plagued its past, as evident of the 2004 train bombings and as it tries to integrate the mass influx of immigrants into its culture; however, the country seems to have found a rhythm of life, centered around the café and tapas restaurant, that fits better than the bombings and other violence that have determined its past. In any flamenco performance, the dancer gives his fullest and most furious moves at the very conclusion. While Spain’s history continues on into infinity alongside the world’s, it seems today to be emulating the flamenco dancer.