4 classic British travel books on Spain

Gardens at the Royal Hospital, Albaicin, Granada, Spain

Spain has been a favourite destination of the British since long before the package holiday boom started in the 1960s.

As far back as the 1930s, southern Spain in particular was attracting independent spirits who wanted to wanted to experience a different way of life and escape from whatever they disliked about British society. This led to a whole genre of British travel books on Spain.

Some of these freedom-seekers ended up staying permanently.  One of these was Gerald Brenan, who settled in a remote mountain village in Andalucia. His book South from Granada inspired many subsequent travellers, including Chris Stewart, who moved to the same area in the 1980s and wrote his Lemons quartet.

The other two writers featured in this post were wanderers: Laurie Lee, who was walking through Spain at the same time as Gerald Brenan was settling into village life in Yegen, and Honor Tracy, whose early travels also began at that time although she did not start writing about them until the 1950s.

All these British travel books on Spain give a fascinating snapshot of the country’s evolving social, political and economic history and development, in their very different ways. But the most important aspect of any good travel writing is the storytelling – and these four are all great storytellers.

One word of warning: if you are vegetarian or vegan, you probably shouldn’t read these books unless you are capable of strong detachment.

Gerald Brenan, South from Granada (Las Alpujarras, 1920s and 1930s)

Gerald Brenan's book, South from Granada

Gerald Brenan had fought in the trenches of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele during the first World War, and was awarded a Military Cross for his efforts. Returning to his middle-class civilian life in England proved to be difficult. He found society over-conventional and oppressive and he longed for ‘a modicum of anarchy and non-compliance’.

Eventually he decided that Spain was the perfect place for him, particularly since life was cheaper there, and he was certain that he could live modestly on his ‘officer’s bounty’.

South from Granada is about the author’s life in Yegen, a remote village high in a mountainous region of Andalucia called the Alpujarras. He spent various periods of time there between the years of 1920 and 1934. The book was actually written in 1957, and therefore benefits from hindsight and postscripts.

Brenan’s stated purpose in writing the book was “to entertain a few armchair travellers”! This objective is certainly achieved. He tells great stories about the folklore, foods, foibles and fiestas of his village neighbours and the Alpujarras region as a whole. Witches, children with magic powers, crazy housemaids, a whisky-drinking reclusive Scottish resident and amorous priests and doctors all feature.

The characters are colourful and spirited, doing their best to get on with life despite their poverty. I particularly enjoyed the ribald description of Almeria and its brothels, and the swanky but eccentric British community that lived in Granada during the 1920s.

Aside from the storytelling and literary references, you get a potted history of the area, and its many invaders and settlers – the Visigoths, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Moors, French – all of whom left their mark. You learn about the industries that made Andalucia wealthy, such as silver, lead and copper mining, and gold panning. I didn’t realise that the area was also known for silk production. Silkworms, very sensitive creatures, apparently liked the environment and temperatures in the Alpujarras, and there was plenty of mulberry for them to feast on.

Portrait of British author Gerald Brenan

Brenan describes beautifully the wild landscapes around him, and his treks through the mountains. Most travel was done on foot or by mule, and walking long distances to get somewhere was nothing out of the ordinary. He talks about walking the 57 miles to Almeria in a way that I would talk about taking a bus 10 minutes down the road.

This proved to be something of a culture shock for some of his literary friends from the UK who came to visit him, including Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.

Brenan’s accounts of these visits, which include affectionate but candid assessments of his friends as people and authors, are fascinating. They were all members of the famous so-called Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and philosophers. Although Brenan admired the group and had taken part in their meetings when in London, his self-imposed exile at Yegen had clearly influenced his thinking.

He describes Virginia and her associates as ‘ivory tower’ intellectuals – clever, but limited in their perspective by having been born into a well-to-do class of Victorian society, and knowing no other kind of life.

Luxury cave house in Guadix, Spain

I enjoyed reading about the cave-dwellers of Guadix and other cities. Having spent time as a student in Granada, I was aware of the gypsy cave homes on the Sacromonte, but had not appreciated how many cave homes there were in other villages and towns.

In Brenan’s time, a simple cave house could be bought for £5. A larger one cost £75 and a luxurious one with 2 storeys, a balcony and a telephone, up to £500. Cave houses are still desirable in Andalucia today because of their year-round stable indoor temperature, and can be purchased from €15,000 upwards. At the time of writing, this luxury one in Guadix is on the market for €524,000!

Although Brenan is modest about his own intellect, knowledge and writing abilities, my observation is that he is a very clever man and writes like a scholar. The book is, of course, of its time, and the writing style is inevitably a little more formal than is usual today. The storytelling is interspersed with discourses on history, politics and especially, botany, which seems to be a particular passion of his.

Some readers might find these passages of the book a little rambling unless they share Brenan’s interest in the topics, but they are easily skimmed through otherwise. I found some of his observations incredibly perceptive – such as this one on the homesickness of the expatriate: “In most kinds of happiness there is an element of añoranza, or longing for what is absent, because the mind focuses best on those things of which it is deprived.” Isn’t that so true!

Overall, this is a highly entertaining and informative book, well worth a read – especially if you love Spain. It will throw a lot of light on the Spain of today, and why things are the way they are.

Laurie Lee, As I walked out one midsummer morning (Vigo to Almuñecar, 1930s).

Like Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee wrote his book later in life, some 30 years after the events it describes took place. Also like Brenan, Lee was brought up in a Cotswold village, which he describes in the prequel to this work, Cider with Rosie. He eventually left at the age of 19 in search of adventure.

The book opens at the moment of his departure from his country home, when he turned to look back at his mother as she watched him walk down the road, waving silently. It is one of the most beautifully poignant pieces of writing I have come across. If Brenan was the scholar, Lee was the poet.

After a brief detour to the south coast of England to see the sea for the first time, Lee headed to London, where he spent a year as a labourer on a building site. Once the job was completed, he chose Spain as his next destination, for no particular reason other than someone had once taught him how to ask for a glass of water in Spanish. “I saw myself there, brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.”

Inevitably, the reality turned out to be a little different. After taking the ferry across to Vigo in Galicia, which “seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck”, Lee walked his way south via Zamora, Toro, Valladolid, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo, Valdepeñas, Seville and Malaga. The Spain he found was struggling with grinding poverty, unworldliness and hopelessness – all the perfect conditions for revolution, although this was not immediately evident.

Like Brenan, Lee did most of his travelling on foot, walking impossibly long distances in the blazing sun, sleeping in fields and accepting gifts of figs and cheese from pitying strangers. He tells colourful tales of the characters and villages he encountered on the way: tramps, gypsies, drunken inkeepers, bored officials, under-employed conscripts and seductive señoritas.

Like the strolling minstrels of mediaeval times, he earned a meagre living by busking in the streets, playing popular melodies on his violin. Occasionally, he treated himself to a bed for the night in a humble posada, and enjoyed bouts of drinking and merrymaking with locals and fellow travellers. It’s hard to imagine how a naïve 19 year-old, who had known little of life outside rural England, could have adapted so uncomplainingly to such a wildly different land and culture. I am full of admiration as I follow his journey.

Portrait of author Laurie Lee

In Toledo, Lee met the South African poet and satirist Roy Campbell, who was renting a house in the city with his family. They had been living in France, but fled in order to avoid a lawsuit. (Interestingly, Campbell, like Gerald Brenan, was known to the Bloomsbury set and had originally been in their circle. All turned sour, however, after his wife’s alleged affair with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West, which led to Campbell’s blisteringly critical verse about the Bloomsbury Group – The Georgiad).

The Campbells warmed to the footsore, lyrical young wanderer and he stayed with them in their villa for a week or so. He enjoyed the luxury of their book collections, plentiful meals and philosophical drinking sessions.

Eventually, Lee ended up in Almuñecar, which he said reminded him of Wales! He stayed there for the rest of his time in Spain, working as an odd-job man and musician in a hotel.

By that time – early 1936 – the early signs of civil unrest were apparent. A general election victory for the socialists was not sufficient to quell the uprising. War eventually broke out in July of that year, and Lee’s time in Spain came to an abrupt end. Events left a deep effect on him, however, and although the book ends with his departure, the story is by no means over. His subsequent book A moment of war continues the tale.

Almuñecar today is a lively seaside resort, popular with the residents of Granada who escape there from the city at weekends. It’s hard to imagine it ever looking anything like Wales, let alone the ‘tumbling little village built on an outcrop of rock’ which Lee describes!

In earlier versions of As I walked out one midsummer morning, he concealed the real name of the town ‘for political reasons’, calling it ‘Castillo’. Only in 1995 did he feel that the time was right to reveal its true identity, even though many had already guessed. A plaque in the Paseo del Altillo commemorates his link with the town. In 2014, celebrations were held in honour of the centenary of his birth.

Honor Tracy, Silk hats and no breakfast (Algeciras to Vigo, 1950s)

Silk hats and no breakfast: notes on a Spanish journey, by Honor Tracy

From the scholar and the poet, to the journalist. Written in 1957, Silk hats and no breakfast is a very different book from the previous two. The title is a play on the expression ‘silk hats before breakfast’, which means that keeping up appearances is more important than anything – even sustenance.

In the Spain visited by Tracy, many people were too poor to eat breakfast at all, but they still strove to put on a show. This theme of appearances concealing a bleaker reality runs through the whole narrative. It’s a warts-and-all denunciation of Franco’s ‘new Spain’ and the hypocrisy of its institutions, notably the fascist government and the Church.

Don’t let that put you off, however, because you’ll still find lots of great travel notes to follow up on, and besides, Tracy’s writing is wickedly funny. If you’re old enough to remember pre-EU Spain, or have travelled around staying in budget hostals, you’ll instantly connect with some of her experiences.

Unlike Brenan and Lee, Tracy was not a first-timer. She had been visiting the country for 20 years before undertaking the journey described in the book. Her desire was to see “something of Spanish life away from the familiar paths and the great cities”, and one of my enjoyments of the book was in reading about towns and villages I had never previously heard of.

Arriving on the ferry from Gibraltar, she began her journey in Algeciras, heading next to Malaga. During her time there she visited Gerald Brenan, who by then had moved on from Yegen, had married and was living in somewhat more comfortable circumstances in the village of Churriana.

Portrait of British writer Honor Tracy

Armed with helpful tips and suggestions from the Brenans, Tracy travelled north through Extremadura and Castile, mostly by overcrowded bus or train, or the occasional hired car with eccentric driver. She made stops in various towns and villages, visiting local churches, beauty spots, monasteries and monuments.

Being a woman travelling on her own, with no husband in sight, was bad enough in those days, but being a woman writer gave even more cause for suspicion. Tracy tells of hilarious encounters and amorous advances from unlikely suitors.

Her descriptions of chaotic bureaucracy run by pompous officials; elaborate religious ceremonies presided over by self-important clerics; dysfunctional infrastructure and crazy drivers certainly struck a chord with me. Those same conditions prevailed during my own travels in the 1970s! I laughed out loud at some of her stories, such as her description of a dire hotel in Jerez de los Caballeros. The hotel’s name was ‘El Brillante’, an irony which she exploits with relish.

Like Brenan and Lee, Tracy describes in detail the many fiestas and celebrations that take place along her route. Some of the more raucous ones, which involved firecrackers, gun salutes and lots of smoke, led her to recall London during the Blitz (she worked for the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force during the second world war).

Silk hats is certainly no rose-tinted travel journal, and Tracy’s writing style will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s acerbic, direct and irreverent. Be prepared for squalor, cruelty, beggars, penniless cripples and emaciated animals. Not to mention the bullfights. But there are also beautiful descriptions of landscapes and architecture, and admiration for the fortitude of the Spanish people. Some readers have commented that Tracy is a little too unkind and critical. I don’t share that view. If you enjoy the kind of direct humour that pulls no punches, you’ll love this book.

Chris Stewart, Driving over lemons (Las Alpujarras, 1980s to the present)

Front cover of Driving over lemons by Chris Stewart

Chris Stewart and his wife Ana moved to the Alpujarras in 1988 to escape from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. He is, in my opinion, the master storyteller of our quartet.

A man of many talents, he had previously been a musician, pig farmer, circus employee, sheep shearer and travel guide. His chief claim to fame, before he became a sought-after writer and public speaker, was that he once played the drums for Genesis.

Luckily he was asked to leave the band within a short time and was replaced by Phil Collins, otherwise we might never have been treated to his brilliant books about life in the Alpujarras.

Driving over lemons was the first. The title is taken from the instructions of a bossy estate agent and back-seat driver who was giving him directions to the property that was eventually to become his chosen home, El Valero. Stewart had been trying to avoid the many lemons scattered all over the road.

Before he knew it, the property deal was sealed by the majestically assertive estate agent. Stewart had to telephone the news to his unsuspecting wife, still back in Sussex at that stage, that they were now the proud owners of a remote farm with no access, no reliable electricity and no water supply.

The story of the Stewarts’ relocation to this rather unpromising new life, and how they adapted to it with the help of new-found friends and neighbours, is a wonderful read. As he says, “we had tossed aside all that was comfortable and predictable about our lives and hurled ourselves out into the cold.”

If you’ve ever grown tired of your daily routines and longed to do something completely different, like move to another country or change your career, this book will either inspire you or put you off. It’s engaging and hilariously funny, with a gentler humour than that of Honor Tracy. Like Brenan, Stewart’s deep love for the country and its people seeps constantly through the pages, even when he is describing the trickier characters or the more exasperating aspects of Spanish life.

The Alpujarras of the 1980s was, of course, somewhat different to how it was in Brenan’s time. But some familiar aspects remained. Mules were still an important method of transporting goods and chattels up the steeper mountain thoroughfares that were still impassable by Land Rover. Peasant farmers still struggled to make ends meet or generate any real wealth beyond subsistence living.

Superstition and a mistrust of modernity prevailed, particularly among the older generations of the communities. The Stewarts were warned about winds of death blowing through their house at night if windows were left open, and the need to carry out tasks such as planting and pruning on specific dates in accordance with phases of the moon – otherwise disaster would befall them. Sometimes they followed the local lore, sometimes not, much to the chagrin of the locals.

Portrait of British writer Chris Stewart

In the early days at El Valero, Stewart portrays himself as the bumbling clueless foreigner attempting to learn how to be a farmer in an unfamiliar environment. Inevitably he is ripped-off or ridiculed by merciless locals, but sometimes he scores memorable victories and gains respect as a result.

Over time, the addition of a daughter and various family pets to the household adds further rich seams of comedy to the story. Then there’s the constant battle against nature, the elements and the wildlife. You get to know all the neighbours and characters from nearby villages, including a fair sprinkling of eccentric foreigners who have taken the same life-changing step as the Stewarts.

As with the other books, there are beautiful descriptions of the dramatic landscape – mountains with sheer faces, the ever-changing light in the peaks and valleys, fragrant wild flowers and herbs, and cascading rivers rising and falling in response to the seasons.

The grinding physical hardship of farm work in this difficult terrain does not deter Stewart from falling in love with his new home and his country life, which he is still living today, in the same house. Although life for the family has certainly not been easy, everything seems to have worked out for them in the end – as in all good stories.

I had the good fortune to hear Stewart speak at a public lecture in England a few years ago. He was just as I imagined from reading the book – a genial gentleman who could not quite believe his good fortune, humble, warm and very entertaining. If you fancy meeting him, he leads occasional walking tours of the Alpujarras.

If you enjoy Driving over lemons, you can continue to follow the story in the sequels, A parrot in the pepper tree, The almond blossom appreciation society and Last days of the bus club.

UPDATE! – AUGUST 2020

A special anniversary edition of Driving over lemons has been published, with an additional chapter to bring the story up-to-date. The original book has sold well over a million and a half copies, so there are lots of us eagerly waiting to read the latest news!

So which is my favourite?

I love all of these books so it’s hard to put them in order. Each has its own particular attraction. I learned so much about Spain that I didn’t know before after reading South from Granada, and it tells some great stories. Then again, I’d love to be able to write like Laurie Lee. This was the writing that moved me the most, and tugged at my soul.

Honor Tracy and Chris Stewart both made me laugh. Stewart’s book is probably the most accessible – it’s a great entertaining holiday read without going too heavily into politics and poverty as the others do, although he doesn’t spare any detail on some of the gorier aspects of farm life such as animal slaughter. So it really all depends on my mood and whether I’m looking for education or entertainment. Forced to choose one from the four, I’d go for Laurie Lee.

If you’re interested in Spain, you might enjoy my post on language learning holidays, which includes a description of my experience of studying in Granada.

Also by Gerald Brenan

The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account Of The Social And Political Background Of The Spanish Civil War (Canto Classics)

When Moors Ruled Spain

The Face of Spain

Also by Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie – the prequel to As I walked out one midsummer morning

A Moment of War (Penguin Modern Classics) – the sequel to As I walked out one midsummer morning

Also by Honor Tracy

Spanish Leaves

Winter in Castille

Also by Chris Stewart

The ‘Lemons’ quartet sequels:

A Parrot in the Pepper Tree: A Sequel to Driving Over Lemons

The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society: From the author of Driving Over Lemons

Last days of the bus club

‘Lemons’ prequel: Three ways to capsize a boat: an optimist afloat

Chris Stewart’s web site and blog

© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission


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2 Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating. I read Laurie Lee at school and this lovely article transported me back to his writing. I very much enjoyed these tasters of four intriguing books.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, Marion. I remember my mother loved ‘Cider with Rosie’ which we had in our house, but I didn’t get around to reading ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’ until much later in life. I read a quote from his daughter recently saying that he was a difficult father, with strong opinions and a controlling personality. Hard to imagine that someone who writes with such depth and sensitivity would behave in that way without understanding his impact on others. But I’ve heard similar things about other writers. Artistic temperament and all that!

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