A graceful memoir of solo travel in post-Franco Spain, bookending the author’s equally graceful Turkish Reflections (1991).
“To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world,” writes National Book Award–winning author Settle. “I went to Spain alone. I wanted to discover it, not have it pointed out to me by friends, guidebooks, experts, or that most powerful of modern Big Brothers, controlled tourism.” Armed with copies of Cervantes and Garcia Lorca, as well as memories of the Spanish Civil War (as a teenager, she writes, she “fell in love with the Spain of that war”), she wanders the lonely mountain country of Extremadura and Andalusia, drops in on tertulias (“a daily meeting of minds, whether horse race or politics, fishing or philosophy or the teléfono árabe, the spreading of rumor”) that come straight from the pages of Pérez-Reverte, and seeks the ever-elusive essential quality of Spanishness, which she finally decides has something to do with defiance—not rebellion or resistance, necessarily, but the habit of fearlessly facing tyrants, “whether the tyrants be kings or windmills.” The notion of a stately Southern gentlewoman getting on in years and traveling alone promises moments fraught with peril, but Settle finds herself welcome just about everywhere, more so than on earlier journeys. (A quarter of a century ago, she recalls, a restaurateur put an American flag on her table lest, dining alone, she be confused for a hooker). For the most part, she finds in Spain a young, vibrant country that has thrown off the burdens of the fascist era and that has yet to be Disneyfied (though Palos’s replica of Columbus’s three ships comes close)—a place, in other words, that seems very attractive indeed, and that benefits by having so sympathetic and understanding a guide.
Travel-writing in the tradition of Jan Morris and Paul Theroux, recounting sojourns that are never entirely comfortable, never really dangerous, but full of surprises and pleasures.