By Angelica Recierdo, inside columnist
Nobody tells you that southern Spain is a desert. It isn’t common knowledge that it’s hot – not like how we know countries in the Middle East or Africa are hot. Looking out under the plane’s wing, you will see starchy yellow deserts for miles.
Madrid is over 2,000 feet above sea level, whereas Boston is nearly at sea level. It’s a heat most American East Coast natives can never get used to: a dry, insidious heat that makes you thankful for humidity. My first day there, I had a nosebleed, and for the rest of my time on the Iberian Peninsula, water bottle vendors and fountains were sacred.
I recall a time in Córdoba when I ran through a public fountain fully clothed for mere seconds of relief before the scorching sun dried my dress. July is the hottest time of the year, and I was visiting during an unusual heat wave. My vision was blurry as the extreme heat tends to vibrate the air and hang dense. On the clock tower in Seville, I read 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit).
Spaniards prefer to not use expensive air conditioners, which are usually single units rather than centralized like in the US; they say it dries their skin in an unpleasant way. To relieve themselves, they use ornate fans similar to Japanese fans, outstretched canopies to shade their streets, misters at outdoor restaurants to cool their customers and, of course, the siesta, a necessary break. The fire is in the air, hearts and bellies of southern Spaniards.
The markets – or los mercados – are the centerpieces of food culture. Some are hip and the place to be at night for tapas and sangria. Others are more informal, like the food truck culture in the US. These world-famous little bites are true gastronomic artistry. Salivating at the thought, I recall perfectly crisp calamari sandwiches, oxtail croquettes, churros that dust your lips with the sweetest sugar, deep pots of seafood paella and ham.
Like the rest of Europe, Spaniards eat slowly and thoughtfully, and stories and opinions have time to be slurped up with creamy gazpacho. The Spanish version of the affogato, blanco y negro, is something I’ve never been able to get over. The cooks seem to mix unlikely ingredients together so well it’s an art – coffee and ice cream, wine and soda. You’ll leave the country with newfound cravings for dishes with octopus or mayonnaise. Everything is made with gusto – not a single sprinkle or shaving is purposeless.
The fusion food shows Spain’s innovative culinary spirit. The close proximity to North Africa is reflected in southern cities with dishes including tagine or figs. Restaurants are a mix of mom-and-pop shops and cosmopolitan lounges, chasing after that European dining style. They have fresh seafood like their Mediterranean neighbors and a love for coffee like everyone else on the continent.
From my seat in the audience of my first flamenco show, every clap of hands and stomp of feet called my heart to action. I would physically lurch, grasp my face in my hands and close my eyes, as if doing so would take the strumming of la guitarra and lace it with my being. I’d never seen a physical performance so gut-wrenchingly fierce, passionate and strong.
The men wore white shirts and black slacks and sang like it was the last time their voices could. The women wore flowy red-and-black dresses, lifting them up at the ankles so we could see how furiously their feet tapped and moved to the music. They left their sweat, tears and scuff marks on life’s canvas – the stage.
Spaniards are proud of their art. A trumpeter or painter on the street is not looking for pity or loose change, but to command your ears and eyes. Art aficionados will be in good company in the many museums and historical sites like Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid or La Alhambra in Granada.
The mix of Arab and Spanish culture becomes more evident in the south, and cities like Córdoba still house places of worship for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The people are multilingual and the architecture is ambiguous, welcoming any visitor in the world. Spanish identity has permeated every continent. Whatever calls you to Spain, you will find it and be transformed.
– Angelica Recierdo can be reached at Inside@HuntNewsNU.com.