These are the best books to read before visiting Spain. Travel to a time or place in this eclectic, complex, frustrating, yet lovable nation.
- 1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
- 2. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
- 3. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom
- 4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
- 5. Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
- 6. Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving
- 7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
- 8. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
- 9. The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky
- 10. The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
Spain evokes images of ruthless conquistadors, Don Quixote’s idealism, courageous bullfighters, lively flamenco dancers, and masterful painters ranging from Goya and Velazquez to Picasso and Dali.
The Spaniards are special. They are known to be lively and welcoming, which may surprise and charm tourists. Spanish people are loyal, generous, fun, and passionate.
This is my list of the best books to read before visiting Spain. They delve deep into the nuanced human aspects of Spanish culture. And some reveal how Spain’s geography and history have fostered regional disparities and shared ideals and behaviors.
Pick up one or more of these books if you want a deeper understanding and appreciation for the country upon arrival.
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1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
If you want to feel like a local in Barcelona, this book is for you.
Barcelona, Spain’s Gothic quarters provide a fitting backdrop for this mysterious and ominous story. Elements of mystery, tragedy, and an ode to great literature all come together in this multifaceted novel.
As the son of a Barcelona bookseller, Daniel stumbles into a copy of The Shadow of the Wind. A book that has mostly remained unknown to the general public.
Daniel becomes so engrossed in the book’s tragic plot that he searches for further works by the anonymous author, Julian Carax. He discovers that someone has been destroying all of Carax’s novels. Daniel may have one of the surviving copies.
His quest to keep the book safe and uncover more information about Carax thrusts Daniel into a web of shadows encompassing forbidden love and Barcelona’s tumultuous past.
Zafón has incredible writing skills, with an uncanny ability to put the reader right in action with vivid imagery and heartfelt sentiment. Lucia Graves, the book’s translator, deserves praise for producing such a lovely English version of those Spanish words. Reading this book will make you feel you have an intimate knowledge of Barcelona.
2. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Get to know the picturesque La Rambla, Barcelona’s main street.
During the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell enlisted to fight for the Republican side. Socialists, communists, and anarchists were only some left-leaning groups that comprised the Republicans. They fought the right-wing Nationalists, led by Franco.
Orwell is easy to read and breathes life into a sometimes dull topic. He presented details of trench warfare in great depth. Reading this book is like being transported to the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War.
The beautiful La Rambla is Barcelona’s main thoroughfare. It’s a long street lined with historic buildings, boutiques selling fresh flowers, and newsstands selling the day’s headlines. Upon his arrival in Barcelona, Orwell discovers a city nurtured by its citizens. It’s a community where tips are taboo, and everyone treats each other like friends.
The author tells how the normally peaceful La Rambla becomes a bloody battlefield. After disagreements arose among republican factions, violence spilled out onto the streets.
One of the most striking aspects of war Orwell witnessed firsthand is the dishonesty of propaganda, both in Spain and in general. He notes the line spinners’ separation from the action. Propaganda’s shifting perspectives are evocative of 1984.
Homage to Catalonia warns against misinformation. And it deepened my comprehension and admiration of Orwell’s two notable works, 1984 and Animal Farm.
Homage to Catalonia is one of the best books to read before visiting Spain, especially if you are a history buff. It’s a terrific way to learn more about the life of a famous author from the twentieth century and an excellent resource for learning about a pivotal moment in Europe’s recent past.
3. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom
Imagine the hopelessness, desperation, hatred, and poverty that followed the end of the Spanish Civil War.
The novel Winter in Madrid has the makings of a rousing romantic thriller. But CJ Sansom’s true talent is in his almost supernatural ability to evoke a natural feeling of place and time.
This portrayal of Spain in 1940 is incredibly intriguing. It is so frank and devoid of sentimentality. In the ashes of the once-grand capital city, hungry inhabitants, traumatized feral children, and packs of vicious canines fight for food and refuge.
General Franco weighs whether to break his neutrality and join Hitler’s side. Meanwhile, communists, falangists, monarchists, disgruntled public schoolboys, and opportunists of all stripes play a dangerous game where allegiances shift overnight, and nothing is as it seems.
The heroes’ courage is compassionate and compelling. But clashing ideologies and authorities, global corruption, and Catholic church pieties doom it.
Sansom’s research appears effortless, and he easily enters his characters’ heads. The end product is a beautiful achievement: a dramatic, literary page-turner full of twists, genuine detail, and realistic tragedy.
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway provides an expansive and in-depth look at the qualities that set apart the Spanish spirit.
Undoubtedly, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of Ernest Hemingway’s finest works. As his crowning achievement, I wouldn’t be shocked if many consider it his best work.
It’s fascinating from beginning to end and delves into the human side of the Spanish Civil War in a way that few other works have even attempted. This book is an excellent option for anyone who likes war fiction and wants to learn more about this legendary author.
Hemingway’s experience in Spain inspired his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. At the story’s beginning, we meet Robert Jordan, a young American who has joined the International Brigades. They were volunteer militias formed to aid the Popular Front Government in the Spanish Civil War.
In this book about the war, Hemingway focuses mainly on the impact on the individuals involved. The author expertly uses a few words to describe deep emotions and complicated concepts.
Many writers like to delve into a conflict’s politics, ideologies, and military operations rather than focus on the human cost. In contrast, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls demonstrates a much more favorable tendency toward investigating the flip side of the coin, where all the poor souls and innocent bystanders reside.
He writes poignantly about mountains and landscapes. They’re crucial for making you feel like you’re Jordan and accepting his point of view as the story’s foundation. The small details leap out at you. You can virtually feel the breeze, blood, and dirt.
5. Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones
A tribute to the inhabitants of a region who, in the then-unusual stretch of fifty-four years, constructed one of the most beautiful churches in the world, the Church of Santa Maria del Mar in the Ribera district of Barcelona, Spain.
Arnau Estanyol’s life has been fraught with difficulty and sorrow since before he was even born. After his mother died, Arnau’s father fled the cruel nobility who owned the land his family had cultivated for generations. He intends for Arnau to mature into an independent adult by taking him to Barcelona.
Arnau and his father eventually gain freedom. However, in reality, they are beholden to the whims and authority of the city’s rulers.
At 14, Arnau becomes an orphan. By some twist of fate, he finds himself a member of the bastaixos. They are tough men the city relies on to load and unload ships. They spend their free time lugging big stones for the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral.
The plot revolves around Arnau’s love, anguish, passion, and revenge. Significant events in the narrative include conflict, famine, disease, and the Inquisition.
Despite everything that has happened, Arnau still looks to The Virgin, the only mother he knows, for comfort and direction. And even if he wonders why bad things have happened, his unwavering devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary never wavers.
Incredibly rich in information, the book is a delight to read. Research into topics as varied as peasant and noble life, warfare, politics, and the church is evident in Cathedral of the Sea.
The novel vividly depicts the cruelty of the Inquisition, the hatred towards Jews, and the exploitation of the poor. Cathedral of the Sea is a hefty read at more than 600 pages, but every word is well worth it.
Having first become a success in the author’s native Spain, Cathedral of the Sea has since become a worldwide phenomenon thanks to its emotional depth and resonant themes. It is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth or appreciated well-written works of historical fiction.
6. Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving
The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex in Granada, Andalusia, Spain, and this masterpiece provides a glimpse into its cultural heritage.
Though he wrote in several genres, Irving’s 1832 masterpiece Tales of the Alhambra showcases his talents as a brilliant storyteller.
Irving’s time at the stunning Alhambra palace in southern Spain inspired the stories chronicled in this excellent travelogue. It is a palace and fortress from the Middle Ages, built at the end of the Moorish occupation.
The book provided an account of Irving’s travels around Andalusia in southern Spain in 1829.
It’s an in-depth portrait of Granada and its welcoming locals. The novel meticulously describes every room and corridor in the palace. The author liberally sprinkled the work with intricate legends he was told by locals while enjoying the palace grounds on warm summer evenings.
In The Legend of the Arabian Astrologer, Irving writes eloquently of the sultan’s first vision of a Christian princess, the daughter of a Gothic prince.
“Pearls of brilliant whiteness were interwoven amid her raven locks and jewels shone on her forehead, rivaling the brightness of her eyes.”
The book’s appeal lies in its insight into Alhambra’s cultural background. I hope you read it and go to Alhambra if you ever get the chance.
7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Inspired by the author’s bittersweet recollection of growing up in the world’s most influential country.
Don Quixote, released in two parts in 1605 and 1615, is the story of Alonso Quijano, a Spanish hidalgo. It tells how his love of literature inspired him to seek out chivalrous exploits.
Alonso takes up the title of the valiant Don Quixote de la Mancha. He gives his life purpose by acting out the exploits of the fictional heroes he admires. He saves damsels in distress, takes on ginormous villains, and sets things to the right, albeit primarily in his imagination.
But Don Quixote goes well beyond that. It is a book about literature, reading, writing, idealism against materialism, and living and dying.
To put it bluntly, Don Quixote has lost his mind. It was considered humorous at the time because of how “his brain’s dried up” from reading and how he couldn’t tell fiction from reality.
However, Cervantes also used Don Quixote’s madness to investigate the age-old conflict between free will and destiny. The deluded hero is but a man trying to break free from his self-imposed constraints.
Don Quixote illustrates a period in Spain’s history that might be an inspiration for our own day, which is seeing a rise in racism and sociopolitical prejudice.
Don Quixote’s culturally odd behavior, which the other characters call lunacy, reflects a more significant subject of social intolerance. After realizing the library’s insidious influence on her uncle, Don Quixote’s niece burns his books to free him from his delusions.
Cervantes’s refusal, implicitly at least, to portray Spain as a monocultural realm is made clear by his use of various character identities. Don Quixote is among the many converts, Arabs, and Catholics he includes in this mishmash of a community. Cervantes may have reflected his longing for Spain’s more tolerant past in Don Quixote.
8. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s ode to the tranquility of the Spanish countryside
In Europe during the Roaring Twenties, The Sun Also Rises follows a band of aimless expats wandering from country to country in quest of happiness. They waste money, consume alcohol at an alarming rate, exhibit bigotry and misogyny typical of their period, and fail to do much of anything worthwhile.
The protagonist and narrator, Jake Barnes, served in World War I and was wounded before relocating to Europe. He’s the type of protagonist you’d expect to see in a Hemingway novel: gruff, masculine, and somewhat likable than his pals.
The author’s extensive travels lent authenticity to the novel’s descriptions of nature and the characters’ daring journeys through rural Spain.
The healing powers of nature were woven gently throughout the story. It’s a haven from the harsh outside world, a place to start again and find oneself.
Some of Hemingway’s descriptions of events will give you the feeling you’re participating in them. As Jake dove into the San Sebastian sea, I felt the cool water on my shoulders and the scorching raft planks on my legs.
Hemingway’s stunning descriptions of the Spanish countryside and the outdoors brought the setting to life. Paris is where artists and intellectuals go to forget the past and regain their sense of wonder. But the Spanish countryside is where they truly relax.
A further paradox, this tribute to the peacefulness of the Spanish landscape stood in stark contrast to the chaos of the bullfights.
No wonder Hemingway loved Spain.
9. The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky
Discover the Basques’ biggest contributions to society by reading engaging anecdotes about the region’s political, literary, and gastronomic history.
As much of a cultural resource as a political one, The Basque History of the World contains the author’s strong opinions. Kurlansky supports the Basque independence movement. He claims the present Spanish government’s actions against the Basque minority are vestiges of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. He also believes the Basques are the original Europeans because Euskera, the Basque language, has no linguistic relatives and is possibly the most ancient European language still spoken.
The Basques’ imprints can be found all over the globe. They came up with the beret and pelota or jai alai. They were instrumental in developing the modern resort industry by luring affluent Europeans to the seaside towns of Biarritz and San Sebastian.
Entrepreneurial and banking vigor in the Basque Country helped transform the port of Bilbao into a global hub for steelmaking and shipbuilding.
This massive book covers many areas, yet it does so with remarkable clarity, sparkling with exciting information and highlighted by perceptive observations about the Basque people.
10. The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
The story uses alternating points of view to reveal a sinister secret lurking beneath Spain’s glitzy tourist facade.
In 1957, Franco’s isolationist policies and the Catholic Church kept Spanish women as chattel, babies without medical care, and Republican sympathizers enslaved. The majority of Spaniards, even in the capital city of Madrid, are poor and live in constant terror.
Young photographer Daniel accompanies his parents on a work trip to Spain. He sees a stunning nation with lovely people, landscapes, and rich traditions. This is before he meets Ana, one of the hotel’s maids.
Over time, Ana relaxes her guard, and Daniel learns about the Spain that Ana knows, Spain ruled by General Francisco Franco, a true tyrant. Not only does Ana’s family have something to hide, but so does the nearby orphanage.
Sepetys includes an oral statement from American officials outlining the US’s ethically problematic but mutually beneficial connection with Spain to ground her novel in history. If you’re asking, “Did all of this really happen?” archival sources can help answer your question. There are also excerpts from fascist periodicals and curricula promoting misogyny.
Despite its length, this is an easy read. The novel unfolds a dark mystery behind touristy Spain’s shiny surface through several perspectives.
Your time in Spain will be much more rewarding if you take the time to get to know the locals and their culture. Spain is a vibrant, welcoming, and incredibly diverse country. It’s a place that values the individual, and pursuing happiness is essential.
The selections are subjective and by no means exhaustive. But the best books to read before visiting Spain will take you to a specific era or location in this diverse, complicated, frustrating, yet utterly lovable nation.