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A writer's perspective on Spanish life

My blog is about living in Spain and how the culture and history of the country have influenced my writing.

17 August 2014

El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James)

A couple of years ago I got the idea of writing a novel about a woman walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela.  I had visited the city of Santiago during the summer of 2010 in what, I later realised, was a Holy Year.  Holy Years occur whenever St James’ Day, 27th July falls on a Sunday, ever six, five, six and eleven years, in that order.  The last Holy Year was 2010 and the next one will be in 2021.  Knowing nothing about the pilgrimage I was amazed to see how many thousands of pilgrims descended on the city and its cathedral.  Although nowadays pilgrims from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Santiago every year, Holy Years remain special because the Church can award plenary indulgence to anyone completing the pilgrimage in those particular years.  These indulgences were first offered in 1095 for Christians who died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Then, in the14th century, documentary evidence tells us that they were extended to anyone making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during a Holy Year.

The modern pilgrim who wants to walk the Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St James as it is also known) has a number of routes open to him: Camino Francés, Camino de Madrid, Camino Portugués, Camino Inglés and more.  The most popular one is the Camino Francés, 790 kilometres from St Jean in France to Santiago.  This is the route I chose for my heroine, partly because I had the good fortune to meet a woman who had just completed the walk herself and partly because it runs through some impressive countryside.  At 76 years of age, June had walked the 790 kilometres in five weeks, on her own.  I was impressed.  Apart from a couple of occasions when she had arranged for her luggage to be sent on ahead of her, she had carried everything in a small rucksack on her back and she had slept in the cheap and cheerful hostels that line the route.  In order to stay in these hostels you have to present your credencial, the pilgrim’s passport that you collect before you start the pilgrimage.  The owner of the hostel will stamp the passport to prove that you were there. Some of these hostels charge as little as five or ten euros a night, but you have to be prepared to use communal showers and share rooms with complete strangers.

I talked to June about her experiences on a number of occasions and gleaned from her all those interesting, small details that were necessary for me to bring my story to life: the sore feet, the bedbugs, getting lost and most of all the people she met and became friends with.


More recently a group of my friends decided to walk the Camino but, being working women, they could not take five weeks leave to do it, so they started at O’Cebreiro in Galicia and walked from there.  Theirs was an alternative approach: they booked small hotels in advance instead of staying in the hostels and albergues and they had their luggage transported from one hotel to the next each day.  But they were still required to have their pilgrim’s passports stamped in order to receive their compostelas.

Both approaches will qualify you to collect your compostela or Pilgrim Record, a certificate that shows that you have walked at least 100 kilometres of the Camino and that your pilgrimage was made for spiritual reasons.  If you have other reasons for doing the pilgrimage they will award you a certificado, to prove that you have completed it.  Both can be collected from the Pilgrim’s Office near the cathedral.

The climax of the pilgrimage is, of course, arriving in the city of Santiago de Compostela in time for the 12.00 mass in the cathedral; this is held every day.  Even if you are not religious you cannot help being impressed by the cathedral with its Baroque facade and the relics of St James that it houses.  During the mass, while a nun sings in Gallego, a huge silver thurible containing burning incense is swung above the congregation; this is known as the Botafumeiro and was thought to have been originally used to kill the awful stench of hundreds of pilgrims who had been walking for weeks and months.  

The main entrance to the cathedral is through the Portico de Gloria.  On the north side is the Puerta Santa, Holy Door, which is opened on the eve of each Holy Year, 31st December and walled up again a year later.



A few tips for walking the Camino:

1 It goes without saying that comfortable walking shoes are a must and make sure you break them in before you leave.

2 Care of your feet is essential, so put a tube of vaseline, some plasters and spare socks in your rucksack.

3 Unless you plan to send your luggage ahead each day, take the absolute minimum - aim for a maximum of 5 kilos.  That rucksack will get very heavy after a few hours walking.

4 Take a hat to protect yourself from the sun.

5 Be prepared for all kinds of weather - Galicia in particular can be wet.  A lightweight poncho is ideal.

6 Learn a little Spanish and you will get more from the experience.  If you really want to get away from everything leave your watch, mobile phone and camera at home.

7 Don’t take unnecessary items - there are plenty of shops on the way, including chemists.

8 Choose your season carefully - spring and autumn are best; the summer can be very hot and crowded and in the winter it can be cold and wet.  There’s even snow on the high ground.

9 Always carry some water with you.

10 And remember to pick up your Pilgrim Passport - the credencial - before you start and get it stamped at every stage of your pilgrimage.  This can be obtained from the pilgrim office in Roncesvalles or from the Confraternity of St James in London

For anyone contemplating doing the pilgrimage themselves, I recommend the excellent guide book by John Brierley, ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago’ ISBN 9 781844 09 1928.  It is full of useful information for the trip itself and the preparation beforehand.


The novel I eventually completed was SANTIAGO TALES, a story inspired by the classic book Canterbury Tales, where each pilgrim has a tale to tell.

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How an ancient city inspired me to write my latest novel
01 June 2014



When I first heard about the ruins of Madinat al Zahra, I was intrigued by the idea that a palace-city of such magnificence should have lasted for such a short time.  Civilisations come and go, as any reader of history knows but for it to last no more than 75 years seemed a tragedy.  It was the summer of 2001. I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition that was to be held in the museum at Madinat al-Zahra, just outside Córdoba.  It was entitled The Splendour of the Cordovan Umayyads.  I remembered my childhood love of Tales of the Arabian Nights and I was hooked.  So we drove across from Málaga, on a blistering hot day to see what it was all about.  


I have been back many times since and the place holds a fascination for me; so much so that it inspired me to write a novel.  I decided to tell the story of the city through a family that lived there; I had the bare bones of my novel before me, in the stone walls and paved paths, in the narrow passages ways, the ornate gardens, the artefacts in the museum.  All I needed to do was to make the city come alive through my characters.  I've called the novel The Shining City because 'Madinat' (or medina) is the word for town and 'Zahra' means shining or brilliant.  It's said that the caliph called the city al-Zahra because, at the time it was being built, he was in love with a slave girl called Zahra.  It could be true; there are certainly written references to a concubine of that name but I think 'Zahra' referred to the magnificence of the city itself.  As the principle character in my book, Omar, tells his nephew:


‘It means shining, glistening, brilliant.  Possibly his concubine glittered and shone with all the jewels and beautiful silks he showered upon her but then so did the city.  It was indeed the Shining City.  When visitors entered through the Grand Portico, passing beneath its enormous, red and white arches, when they climbed the ramped streets that were paved with blocks of dark mountain stone, passing the lines of uniformed guards in their scarlet jackets and the richly robed civil servants that flanked their way, when they reached the royal residence and saw the golden inlay on the ceilings, the marble pillars, the richly woven rugs scattered across the floors and the brilliant silk tapestries, when they saw the moving tank of mercury in the great reception pavilion that caught the sunlight and dazzled all who beheld it, then they indeed knew that they were in the Shining City.’


Of course today, looking at the ruined paths, the piles of broken tiles, the reconstructed arches and pillars, we need to use our imagination to see it as it once was.


The construction of the city of Madinat al-Zahra was begun in the year 939 AD by  Abd al-Rahmann III and took forty years to complete.  Having declared himself the caliph of al-Andalus in 929 AD and with the country more or less at peace he wanted to follow in the tradition of previous caliphs and build himself a palace-city, grander than anything that had been built before.  The site he chose was eight kilometres to the west of Córdoba, in present day Andalusia and measured one and a half kilometres by almost a kilometre.  It was sheltered from the north winds by the mountains behind it and had an excellent vantage point from which to see who was approaching the city.  It was well supplied with water from an old Roman aqueduct and surrounded by rich farming land.  It had good roads to communicate with Córdoba and there was even a stone quarry close by.

The caliph left much of the responsibility for the construction of the city to his son al-Hakam, who continued work on it after his father's death.  One of the most curious questions about Madinat al-Zahra is why, despite its importance as the capital of the Omeyyad dynasty in al-Andalus, this magnificent city endured no more than seventy-five years.  When al-Hakam died in 976 AD the city was thriving; all the most important people in the land lived there.  The army, the Mint, the law courts, the government and the caliph were there; the city boasted public baths, universities, libraries, workshops and ceremonial reception halls to receive the caliph's visitors.  But al-Hakam's heir was a boy of eleven-years old.  The new boy-caliph was too young to rule, so a regent was appointed, the Prime Minister, al-Mansor, an ambitious and ruthless man.  Gradually the Prime Minister moved the whole court, the Mint, the army and all the administrative functions back to Córdoba, leaving the new caliph in Madinat al-Zahra, ruling over an empty shell.  Once the seat of power had been removed from Madinat al-Zahra, the city went into decline.  The wealthy citizens left, quickly followed by the artisans, builders, merchants and local businessmen.  Its beautiful buildings were looted and stripped of their treasures and the buildings were destroyed to provide materials for other uses.  Today you can find artefacts from the city in Málaga, Granada, and elsewhere.  Marble pillars that once graced the caliph's palace now support the roofs of houses in Córdoba.  Ashlars that were part of the city's walls have been used to build cow sheds


Excavation of the site began in 1911 by Riocardo Velázquez Bosco, the curator of the mosque in Córdoba.  The work was slow and hampered by the fact that the ruins were on private property.  Landowners were not keen to co-operate and eventually the State had to purchase the land before the excavations could begin.  The work progressed slowly but gradually over the years a number of government acts were passed which resulted in the site being designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest and in 1998 a Special Protection Plan was drawn up to give full weight to the importance of the ruins.  Today the site is open to the public and has an excellent visitor centre and museum.


The mosque was the first building to be completed, in 941 AD.  It was also the one which suffered the most pillaging. Until the 1960s, when the walls were rebuilt, only the foundations had survived.  The mosque was positioned so that all the inhabitants of the city had easy access to it.  Here is an extract from 'The Shining City' where, Qasim, the potter visits the mosque:


The sound of the muezzin rang out across the city.  Today he would go to the mosque to pray.  He grabbed his cap and throwing his djubba around his shoulders he hurried out.

He joined the queue of people heading for the mosque; there was a greater number than usual at this hour, probably because the news was spreading about the soldiers leaving.  The busiest time was normally at evening prayers which he sometimes attended although he usually only went on Fridays.  The mosque gardens were crowded with people cleansing themselves before entering the mosque.  He waited until there was a space at the fountains then washed himself down in the cold water, removed his shoes and went inside.  He found a space near the front, facing the mihrab and knelt down on one of the straw mats that covered the dirt floor.

The mosque had been the first building to be completed in the city; it lay outside the alcázar but adjacent to its walls so that everyone, the local people who lived in the medina and the residents of the alcázar, could use it.  It was a beautiful building, its craftmanship the equal of the mosque in Córdoba.

Qasim had barely closed his eyes and touched his forehead to the ground when there was a slight disturbance which caused him to look up from his meditation.  It was the Khalifa.  He had entered through a covered passageway which led from the gardens of the alcázar straight into the mosque and now he took up his usual place in the maqsura.  He was a devout man who took his role as Defender of God’s Faith seriously.  His son al-Hakim was also present today, praying for the success of his troops.  Qasim had read the notice plastered on the wall of the mosque informing all the citizens that their borders were under threat.  Today they would include in their prayers an exortation to Allah to bring them victory.  

No sooner had the Khalifa taken his position than the imam began to lead the congregation in prayer:

‘In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate...’

The prayer room was dark, its oil lamps unlit, the only light creeping through the openings in the ceiling high above.  Yet from somewhere a light infused the horseshoe arch of the mihrab with a warm glow.  The holy words of the Quran had been inscribed on this beautiful facade.  Men had created a masterpiece of coloured mosiacs on a background of pure gold.  Looking at it Qasim was reminded that he too was a craftsman, that all that he made with his hands was for the glory of Allah not for man, not for wealth and riches, not for fame, not for power.  How could he have forgotten that?  He, who loved God so.  He had sent his son into temptation, telling him to sell their pottery to the Khalifa.  Why had he not been content with the life he had in Córdoba?  Why had he strived for more?  Why had he coveted a new house and fancy possessions?  What use were they to him now that he had lost his most treasured possession, his son?


THE SHINING CITY is available as an ebook and in paperback from Amazon and other booksellers.


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What does Spain owe to the Moors?
29 May 2014

One of the advantages of writing books about Spain is that you have a great excuse to trot about the countryside investigating things.  During the research for my novel THE SHINING CITY we visited Córdoba numerous times - not an arduous task and only two hours drive from Málaga.  We made three trips to Madinat al-Zahra (my husband wanted to know why I couldn’t get it all down the first time) and made a couple of visits to Bobastro and Ardales.


10th century Spain was a period in history that I knew very little about and I was fascinated to learn just how much Spain owes to the Moorish occupation of the peninsula, even down to everyday items.  It wasn’t just the type of food they ate that has been passed down but also the way they ate it: the Moors introduced menus and a series of different courses for each meal; they used tablecloths and cutlery and different plates for each dish.  Some of their dishes were cooked exactly the same way they are today.  There is a restaurant in Córdoba that has a lamb tagine on its menu that is identical to a 10th century recipe. For those of you that like churros, you’ll be interested to know that it was as popular then as it is now.


The Moors were a nation obsessed with water and cleanliness and had not only ornamental lakes and fountains but public baths, individual latrines and running water to wash in.  They had an elaborate network of underground conduits for collecting rainwater from the courtyards and sewage from the latrines and kitchens.


Society was divided along ethnic and religious grounds but it was more egalitarian than one would suspect.  There were four main divisions: the Arabs, the Berbers, the Muwallads and the Dhimmi (Christians and Jews).  The first three were all Muslim.  The Arabs made up a small percentage of the population but they were the ones with the power and they brought their language and culture to Spain.  The Berbers were from North Africa and they mainly populated the countryside.  The Muwallads were Muslims of Iberian descent; they adopted the language and religion of the Moors and by 10th century there was very little distinction between them and the Arabs.  The last group, the Dhimmis was made up of Christians and Jews.  The Christians were numerous but the Jews only made up 5% of the population.


Jews, Christians and Moors lived in harmony; they were all montheistic faiths, all people of The Book.  The Jews and Christians were not persecuted by the Muslims and could hold important posts in society and even in government.  It was a society with great social mobility and people could move from humble beginnings to positions of power.  Muslim men could even marry Jewish women, but not the other way round.


Women too had more freedom than one would imagine; they did not have to cover their faces with a veil but wore a crotcheted cap instead.  Many women were educated and worked as physicians, scribes and teachers.  Some were wealthy in their own right and set up endowments for libraries and schools.  They were often allowed to keep their own dowries and were allowed to inherit property.  Those of you who have read my book DAUGHTERS OF SPAIN will see how different this was from women’s position under Franco a thousand years later.


It was a society that valued education and treated its scholars and artists with respect.  Córdoba in the 10th century had more than seventy libraries, fifty hospitals and some of the best universities in the civilised world.  Sadly much of that was destroyed when the Moors were expelled from Spain in the 15th century.


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