By Rick Steves
Spain is overwhelmingly rich in history, art, and culture. To learn more about Spain’s past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
Spain has undergone incredible changes since the death of Franco in 1975 and the end of his nearly four-decade dictatorship. The New Spaniards (Hooper) is a survey of all aspects of modern Spain, including its politics, economy, demographics, education, religion, and popular culture.
For a sympathetic cultural history of the Basque people, their language, and contributions from Roman times to the present, read The Basque History of the World (Kurlansky).
George Orwell traded his press pass for a uniform, fought against Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, and then wrote an account of his experiences in his gripping Homage to Catalonia. The Battle for Spain (Beevor) re-creates the political climate during the Civil War.
James Michener traveled to Spain for several decades, and his tribute, Iberia, describes how Spain’s dark history created a contradictory and passionately beautiful land.
Hemingway shows his journalistic side in two books on bullfighting: Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer.
How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain is vividly brought to life in The Ornament of the World (Menocal).
Travelers’ Tales: Spain (McCauley) offers dozens of essays about Spain and its people from numerous authors.
Penelope Casas has written many popular books on the food of Spain, including tapas, paella, and regional cooking. Her Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide blends references to history, culture, and food with travel information. For deciphering menus in restaurants, foodies like The Marling Menu-Master for Spain.
The nature of pilgrimage is explored along the famous Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain in Following the Milky Way (Aviva) and On Pilgrimage (Lash).
The eccentricities of village life in the mountains south of Granada are lovingly detailed in a British expat’s 1920s experiences in South from Granada (Brenan). A contemporary family’s adjustments to living in the same region are described in Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain (Stewart) and the author’s later books.
Two cultural histories focus on the city of Barcelona and the Catalan psyche: Homage to Barcelona (Toibin) and Barcelona (Hughes).
Fans of classic literature will want to read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Another classic, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, weaves fact, mythical tales, and descriptions of Granada and its beautiful Moorish castle complex — the Alhambra — during the author’s 19th-century visit.
Hemingway fans will enjoy The Sun Also Rises; this story of expats living in post-WWI France and Spain introduced many readers to bullfighting. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a tale of idealism and harsh reality, is set against the complexity of the Spanish Civil War.
That ugly period of Spanish history is also the subject of The Carpenter’s Pencil (Rivas), an unsentimental tale of an imprisoned revolutionary haunted by his past.
The brutality and intolerance of the dark years of the Spanish Inquisition are illuminated in Winstein’s The Heretic, with Sevilla as the backdrop. The Last Jew (Gordon) is one man’s story of survival in Inquisition-era Spain. Stories from Spain (Barlow and Stivers) relates well-known Spanish legends that chronicle nearly 1,000 years of Spanish history.
The 2005 best-selling thriller The Shadow of the Wind (Zafón) takes place in 1950s Barcelona; sequels include The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven. Robert Wilson’s popular police thrillers, including The Blind Man of Seville, are set in Spain and Portugal.
In The Mystery of Picasso (1956), Picasso is filmed painting from behind a transparent canvas, allowing a unique look at his creative process.
Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren star in the musical version of Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha (1972).
In the first of Carlos Saura’s flamenco dance trilogy, Blood Wedding (1981), he adapts Federico García Lorca’s play about a wedding imposed on a bride in love with another man. Carmen (1983) shows a Spanish cast rehearsing the well-known French novel and opera. El Amor Brujo (1986) is a ghostly love story.
L’auberge Espagnole (2002) tells the story of the loves and lives of European students sharing an apartment in Barcelona.
In Barcelona (1994), two Americans in Spain try to navigate the Spanish singles scene and the ensuing culture clash.
The Spanish film Open Your Eyes (1997) inspired the 2001 Tom Cruise thriller Vanilla Sky, where a car accident sets off an intricate series of events.
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) stars Javier Bardem as a macho Spanish artist romancing two American women, when suddenly his stormy ex-wife (Penélope Cruz, in an Oscar-winning role) re-enters his life.
Pedro Almodóvar’s piquant films about relationships in the post-Franco era have garnered piles of international awards. Spanish actors Bardem, Cruz, and Antonio Banderas have starred in his films. Almodóvar’s best-known films include Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), The Skin I Live In (2011), and I'm So Excited (2013).