When Eliana, a young flamenco dancer from Madrid, stepped out from behind a curtain into the red-hot glow of the stage, little did I know how much she would profoundly affect me.
My wife, Mona, and I were seated in a small underground cave waiting to experience our first live flamenco performance. From a tiny stage, four musicians filled the space with highly melismatic singing, rhythmic clapping patterns, and the sound of flamenco guitar. The simplicity of the setting was in stark contrast to the complex ensemble of these accomplished musicians. Moments later, Eliana appeared, her face twisted in intensity, and began a slow, seductive dance. She glided across the stage, her chest and hips pulling her in a circle. Her hands floated above her head in fluid movements. Slowly, she worked herself into a frenzy until the sudden explosion of rhythmic stomping jolted my core. Her baile (dance) was at once passionate, graceful, and violent. The musicians behind her wailed and clapped and strummed as if to stir her even more. That night I experienced something intensely raw and beautiful. It was only the first of many incredible experiences during my trip to Spain the summer of 2019.
Spain has always been on our bucket list, and when our long-time friends suggested we travel there together, we jumped at the chance. My connection to Spain is rooted in an ancestral and musical heritage. A genetic test that I took recently revealed that 20% of my DNA could be traced to Spain and Portugal. As we began to map out our journey, I realized that our itinerary had been unknowingly predestined years ago when I was an undergraduate music major in college. My piano professor suggested that I listen to the music of Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz to inspire me. Since then, my musical life has never been the same and I have learned several of their pieces.
So, I thought, what better way to explore Spain than through a musical journey of Andalusia, the region that inspired so much of the music I have loved, learned, and played over the years?
We scheduled our trip for the latter half of June. I packed my journals, my favorite pens, and my Leica CL camera with three lenses: the 18mm f/2.8; the 18-56mm f/3.5- 5.6; and the 60mm f/2.0 lens (on loan from Leica USA). As a relative newcomer to Leica and the CL system, I loved its unassuming size and spectacularly sharp lenses. For me, the CL is the perfect travel camera. It fits in flawlessly with my vacation philosophy, which is a mix of journalism with landscape and street photography.
Our flight took us from Dallas to Madrid where we stayed in the Puerta del Sol section of the city. It is near several must-see sites that we took in over the two days we were there, including the cathedral, the Prado Museum, and the Palacio Real de Madrid. Our musical journey began with a visit to the Prado, home to the largest collection of paintings by the 19th century painter, Francisco Goya. His paintings inspired Enrique Granados to compose his masterpiece, Goyescas, a suite of six virtuosic piano pieces he later turned into an opera, in particular La Maja Vestida (the dressed maja), La Maja Desnuda (the nude maja), and El Pelele (the straw man). I was mesmerized by the vibrant colors and uncluttered structure. They reminded me of the most essential elements of photography: composition, lighting, focusing on a central point of interest, and simple backgrounds.
After our first taste of Spain and a night of unforgettable flamenco in Madrid, we took a train to Toledo, a small hill town an hour south. Our arrival there unexpectedly coincided with the feast day of Corpus Christi, an important Catholic tradition for people of Spain marked by a long procession of priests, nuns, community leaders, and others. It is tradition to carpet the procession route in some kind of greenery, in this case, rosemary. The smell of it filled the air and the locals held sprigs of it in their hands as they lined the narrow streets.
We visited the Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo, a perfect example of how architecture reflects the very essence of Spain: the historic and current blend of Moorish, Muslim and Christian beliefs and culture. The cathedral was originally a mosque and took 250 years to build. Its altar is one of the most ornate I’ve seen and the choir loft one of the largest. The sacristy housed its own mini art museum. At its center is El Greco’s famous painting The Disrobing of Jesus, and there were Goyas, Rembrandts and others on display. Everything about the cathedral speaks to symbolism, wealth and power, adoration, and reverence. Of course, photographing the cathedral presented certain lighting challenges and the CL performed beautifully, especially when I used the exposure compensation dial and real time viewing to balance the exposure.
The next day we traveled by train to Seville, the capital of Andalusia. We rented an apartment on the banks of the Quadaquivier River in Triana, which is the gypsy quarter of the city and known as the soul of Seville. The enchanting view from our window looked out across the river to the city and the glorious Cathedral of Seville.
Triana held a special interest for me because it inspired the famous piano showpiece, Triana, composed by Isaac Albeniz.
As we walked the streets, I listened to the music through my earphones and strolled down Calle de San Jacinto with my Leica in hand. I saw young and old out for a stroll, old men sitting on a bench talking, clusters of women out shopping.
One of the highlights was the Triana market. It had everything from fresh fish and meats to cheeses, sausages, and produce. It was a veritable mecca of home grown and locally supported foods and businesses. An experience not to be missed.
I had always heard that the night life in Spain begins late, around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. It’s true. The second night in Triana, we set out after a delicious dinner and the streets were bustling with activity. I could feel the energy pulsing beneath my feet. We walked past the Triana Bridge, its reflection sparkled in the waters of the river, and worked our way into the heart of Triana. We went by the restaurant Las Golondrinas (the Swallows), where we’d had delicious tapas earlier in the day. Our smiling waiter, Juan Miguel, recognized us from before and brought us a small glass of sherry, which we sipped as we watched the locals walk past us hand in hand and arm in arm. Near midnight, we found a long line of people waiting to get into a bar, so we decided to wait with them, not knowing what we would see. I struck up a conversation with a trio of friends who’d traveled from Valencia and a couple on holiday from Italy. The conversations were as delicious as the sound of different languages that floated around us.
Eventually, the bar opened, and we took our seats. A guitarist, two singers, and a percussionist entertained us with folk songs and popular music. As the night went on, locals filled the bar until it was standing room only. I was dumbfounded to see how everyone knew the words to every song, and they sang like a chorus at the top of their lungs, swaying and smiling and laughing with the music.
Food, Tapas & More The rest of our journey to Andalusia took us across the southern edge of Spain along the coast and inland. We started in Madrid and Toledo, and after Seville we drove to Malaga and Granada, with stops in Cadiz, Nerja, and Ronda in between.
For us, the experience of culture and cuisine is as much a part of travel as being in a new place. One of the most universally known and popular Spanish foods are tapas, which are small snack-sized portions of food that can be enjoyed between meals or combined to make an entire meal. It isn’t uncommon for a restaurant waiter to say, “May I order for you?” The first time this happened, we looked at each other in disbelief and decided to take a chance and said yes. What came next were plates of sumptuous bites of beef, swordfish, salmon, mushrooms, pork, and cheeses. Our waiter kept bringing us more and more until we finally had to say “enough.”
One can’t go to Spain without tasting jamón, which is dry-cured pork similar to Italian prosciutto. It is sold in almost every grocery store and in specialty shops that are everywhere. Along with paella and gazpacho, jamón is most associated as being of Spanish cuisine. The nuances in taste and quality make it a delicacy and quite pricey. It is typically served in paper-thin slices and is a real treat to have with cheese and wine. The first time I ordered it, it was a little unnerving to watch the server slice the meat right off the pork leg with the hoof fully intact, but it was simply delicious.
In Malaga, a coastal town, we had a fish stew, called a zarzuela, and seafood paella at a little restaurant called Piyayo. These dishes were out-of-this-world delicious and there was a lot of moaning around the table as we savored the blend of spices and smells. Standing by were a couple of pitchers of sangria, our go-to beverage. In Spain, an excellent bottle of wine can be had for as little as three or four euros. And it flowed everywhere. It was almost as cheap as the cost of bottled water in a restaurant, so of course, we had sangria by the pitcher with most meals and it tended to replace water as our main source of hydration.
Our road trips to Malaga and Granada were interjected with two stops along the way. The first was Ronda, a delightful town full of character and charm. It sits atop the Tajo ravine that runs through the middle and is over 360 feet deep. The bridge that crosses over the ravine showcases magnificent views of the valley. I put on my earphones and listened to Rondeña by Albeniz and got a double dose of visual and aural stimulation that enhanced everything around me. Ronda is also the birthplace of the bullfight. The stadium, where some of the most famous toreadors in history created their legends, is near the center of town. A magnificent bronze statue of a bull stands at the entrance, symbolizing a part of Spain’s culture that goes back for hundreds of years. The second stop was Nerja, a small town parked at the edge of the Mediterranean and known for its main attraction, the Balcon de Europa (The Balcony of Europe). It offered spectacular panoramic views of the Mediterranean and the rocks and beaches below. The water sparkled and was so clear that we could see the ocean floor.
One of the main attractions in every Spanish city is its cathedral. It seemed there are as many cathedrals in Spain as there are Starbucks! One of the most beautiful we visited was the Cathedral de Granada. Unlike other cathedrals that are dimly lit, this one had an abundance of natural light. Its massive white, wooden columns rose up to support an ornate, plaster ceiling. In the middle were two mighty organs standing across from each other.
The church sacristy is always an interesting place to see. It is the place where the priest’s garments are kept and where linens, altar cloths and other equipment used in the Mass are stored. In the steps leading up to it, the marble checkerboard tiles were worn and shiny. I thought of the centuries of priests who said prayers over each of the garments they wore and imagined them emerging from the sacristy, into the ambulatory, and up to the altar to begin the Masses that were said century after century. Then I looked up toward the glorious ceiling and was awed by the fact that every inch of the cathedral had been touched by human hands: artisans, artists, builders, architects, parishioners, people who were no different than us. People who worked hard every day and built the cathedral, worshiped there, and saw it become what it is today.
Music I think it is nearly impossible to overstate the impact from seeing the towns and areas of Spain that inspired the music to which I am deeply connected. To walk the narrow winding streets of Albaicin, the medieval district of Granada, or to amble along the port in Malaga and smell the ocean, or to stroll beside the river in Triana, all the while listening to the music they inspired, was an intensely emotional experience.
It is one thing to play this music, but to see and smell the places that inspired them, well, imagine seeing the magnificence of the Grand Canyon or the Pietà in the Vatican for the first time and you can begin to understand the effect these experiences can have. It changes everything, and for me it was like hearing the music for the first time all over again.
We spent our last night in Spain at our third and final flamenco performance at the Arte de Flamenco in Seville. It was a perfect way to bookend our trip. Flamenco dancer Lola Jaramillo emerged on stage with castanets rattling in her hands like a coiled snake. She floated across the floor one minute and suddenly, broke into a zapateado (shoe dance) the next. Her arched back and swollen chest formed a regal “S” curve from her neck to her hips, accenting the sensual nature and physical strength of her body.
The dances with her partner, Francisco Mesa, were equally tantalizing. They moved together in unison and individually, and for all of the eroticism of flamenco, they never touched, but were entirely in touch with each other. In between, they paced back and forth on stage like animals waiting to break out of their confines. Every part of them, and us by extension, was immersed in the frenzied energy that climaxed in the quiet and thunderous roar of flamenco.
The next day on the train back to Madrid and the airport, I watched the arid Spanish landscape filled with olive tree groves, hills and fields of golden wheat, and distant mountains speed by like pages from a book. I reminisced about the two glorious weeks we had in Spain and felt grateful for the opportunity to experience a stronger connection to my ancestral and musical homeland. To say that it was an unforgettable experience is cliché, but still undeniably true. I know that we will return to Spain in the future, and in the meantime, the living memories I have of the cities and towns we visited will be enhanced through the music and images they brought to life.