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March Break Reading for real - or armchair travellers

As March break approaches, if you are planning a trip to Portugal and Spain, consider reading books set in these countries. I recommend a trio of books, beginning with Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. “The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left to discover the world.” So begins this memoir of Laurie Lee’s walk away from his home in Gloucestershire. I have read this book at least twice before, and still find it lovely in every way.

Laurie Lee, in 1934, began his travels, first to the city of London and then on to Spain in the years that followed. At the age of 19 he had already been working in an office for four years, and felt the need to be off to see the world. He worked for a year as a builder’s labourer in London, a city full of men seeking employment, “the treadmill of the 1930s”, before heading to Spain.

He travels, mostly by foot, occasionally in a donkey cart, from Vigo, to Cadiz, to Valdepenas, Seville, Tarifa and Algeciras. In 1969 he wrote about his travels, “at the time (1935) one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling….not even emperors could buy it now”.

This book is both a picture of a world that has long ago disappeared, and the memoir of a fascinating man who returned to Spain during the Civil War, and eventually to live for many years in Almunecar on Spain’s south coast.

The Forgetting River by Doreen Carvajal, sub-titled A modern tale of survival, identity and the Inquisition is set in Arcos de la Frontera, a lovely hill top town close to the more famous sherry producing town of Jerez de la Frontera. Doreen Carvajal is a descendent of Jews, who had converted to Catholicism, but left Spain in 1492, settling first in Costa Rica before coming to the United States.

 Deciding to explore her family history and their Jewish past, the author visits and then lives for a period of time in Arcos. There is little of the Jewish past to discover in Spain but her attempt to find what remains is an interesting story.

Completely different is The Queen’s Vow by C. W. Gortner, a novel of Isabella of Castile. This is the story of the woman who becomes Queen of Castile and is most famous for instigating the Spanish Inquisition and for funding the voyages of Christopher Columbus. I found her story entirely fascinating.  As a child Isabella had no reason to expect that she would ever become Queen, but when she did her absolute belief in the Divine Right to Rule and her equally strong Catholic faith influenced her every decision. Isabella is well known as the Queen who expelled the Jews, but is less well known for her work to better the lives of her subjects, and her vow to rule responsibly. This book is quite sympathetic to Isabella and her motives, she is portrayed as a woman who would have preferred to have all her subjects, Christians, Jews and Muslims live in peace. Travelling in Spain it is not difficult to find that there are many places where you will be literally walking in the footsteps of Isabella of Castile.

Bon Voyage and good reading.


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