Franco died just after I first set foot on Spanish sand. I was a teenager who had never before left England and despite only witnessing the gaudy tourist Spain of the 1970s I was entranced by bone-bleached white towns and unforgiving blue skies. I fell instantly in love with a country about to change dramatically, and vowed to return.
I certainly did so, as I have been back obsessively time and time again, and have watched and witnessed many changes, mainly for the better, as this intriguing, complex country, for so long cut off by Francoism, has found its way in the modern world. But I have also seen Spain retain its compelling, sometimes dark, always mesmerising soul.
When I moved to Barcelona in the 1980s the city was deep in the decade-long fiesta known as the movida, a hedonistic celebration of new-found freedoms. Throwing off the shroud of the Generalisimo, the anarchic side of the Spanish character came roaring out and everybody went out to party. That wild nocturnal abandon has inevitably calmed down a little since. Even in insomniac Madrid the madrugada is not as busy with clubbers as it was when I first went there, but Spain is certainly no longer the quiet, censorious, devoutly Catholic country of old.
A remarkable tide of tolerance has swept over the land when it comes to matters of morality, sexuality and gender. Women’s liberation still has a way to go and machismo still exists, but many battles have been won, and young Spanish women have an inspiring confidence and competence. The big cities all have prominent gay barrios, but even in the small Andalucian pueblo where I have a home it is now normal to see same-sex couples holding hands and rainbow flags flying.
The diminution of the power of the church is one obvious cause, yet they still pull on their pointy hoods and parade their blessed virgins at every opportunity. The theatricality and communality of Catholicism still has great appeal, but it does not stop them flocking to the nearby naturist beach and shedding their clothes and their inhibitions.
I watched the television with transfixed horror on the day in 1981 that Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero and his fascist comrades stormed the Cortes and proclaimed a coup d’é tat. For years the fledgling democracy felt fragile and tenuous, as if the past was just waiting to usurp the future and plunge this historically fractious land back into darkness. But almost imperceptibly, just as Francoist monuments and street names have vanished, so that threat faded and diminished to the point where it now seems almost comical to imagine moustachioed men in tricorn hats holding the country to ransom.
Yet it is only in recent years that Spain has really opened up on painful questions about the past. The Pacto de Olvido, the agreement to forget, led to a kind of collective amnesia, a forced silence, with people reluctant to talk about the Civil War and its aftermath, as if still scarred and scared. The wounds are still raw, the graves still shallow, but at least they are now being openly discussed and healing can begin.
But there are still great divides and fissures. Regionalism has acted like a centrifugal force, almost tearing Spain apart. Ancient languages have thrived, but so have ancient antipathies. Up in that elegant northern town I first lived in, Catalanismo has asserted itself with ferocious effect, reshaping Barcelona into a more self-conscious, self-confident, avowedly European, much less Spanish city. Speaking Castilian is looked down upon, the siesta is forgotten, the corrida is banned and Madrid is seen as the enemy. But conversely, up in the once-tormented Basque Country, devolution has succeeded in stopping the separatist bombs and the bullets that once ravaged that beautiful corner of Iberia.
Culturally Spain has flourished through internationally famed actors and film makers like Almodóvar, Cruz, Banderas and Bardem, and writers like Rosa Montero and Javier Marías. Yet much of the excitement and energy in music and the arts has originated, not from native Spaniards, but from the former colonies. Once cultural diversity came only from those very varied regions, but the Latinisation of Spain has been an almost unnoticed process of enrichment, as Venezuelan expats abound, Cuban artists exhibit, Mexican telenovelas rule the airwaves and reggaeton fills the air.
Thankfully Anglo culture still has limited impact, and Rosalía is currently bigger than Taylor Swift. It’s relatively rare to hear British or North American music or see yanqui TV, but the other Americas now play an incredible role in Spanish life. Multiculturalism is a long way off though, and sadly there is sometimes a residual, casual racism against people who look markedly different.
One area where the indigenous culture has really flourished is in cuisine. Spanish food was once looked down upon as a poor relative of that from France and Italy, but not anymore. Star chefs abound and Michelin stars proliferate. From pintxos in San Sebastian to tapas in Sevilla, and just about everywhere in between, you can eat fabulous food in fine restaurants. There’s an easy sophistication to dining out in Spain today although you can still find good rough-and-ready local places.
Certainly if you’re in any of the big cities, with their swanky boutiques and designer bars, hip architecture and cool hotels, it can feel like Spain is now a fully paid-up member of the modern consumerist society. But get out there into the near-empty interior, lose yourself on the planes of La Mancha, explore baking Extremadura or wander in the distant hills of Granada, where the eagles fly and the dark rhythms of cante jondo float on the levante, the hot wind that blows in from Africa.
Drink cold sherry by the Guadalqivir, talk football in a dusty Costa Brava bar or watch a procession in the medieval alleys of some, once-grand, now near-forgotten town, and this beguiling country, for all the changes it has seen will still exert that age-old magic.
By Robert Elms
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