I always find I get more out of my travels if I read about a place before I visit and, when it comes to Spain, there is no shortage of books to choose from. Here is my personal selection of books to read before you visit Spain. And, if you’re travelling with the family, read on for my choice of children’s books.
Guidebooks and History of Spain
If you’re looking for a guidebook I can recommend Lonely Planet Spain. I particularly like Lonely Planet guides because you can download individual chapters in pdf format, ideal for reading on mobile devices. For a more immersive (and occasionally quirky) exploration of Spanish culture try Lonely Planet’s Experience Spain.
For a general, easily accessible, history of the country I would normally suggest the Traveller’s History series. However their book on Spain gets poor reviews, so a good alternative might be Spain: A History by Raymond Carr.
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There are several first person accounts of the Spanish Civil War. Try George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Laurie Lee’s account of Spain just before the war, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Possibly the writer most closely associated with the Civil War is Ernest Hemingway, with his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And, for a classic story of bullfighting and 1920s Spain, read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
Many of the well known novels about Spain focus on particular cities. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron is an atmospheric thriller set in post WWII Barcelona. And Victoria Hislop’s The Return explores the 20th century history of Granada (it also has quite a bit about flamenco dancing). Then there is Winter in Madrid, a spy novel by C J Samson.
I’ve also just discovered the Traveler’s Literary Companion series (I’m in the middle of their book on South Africa). These books are compilations of short stories and novel extracts from the country in question, allowing you to absorb the culture through the eyes of local writers. I will definitely buy the Companion to Spain before my next trip…
Art History… And Thrillers
If you are interested in art history, Painter to the King by Amy Sackville is a beautifully written portrait of the painter Velázquez and his time at the court of Philip IV. Or, if detective novels are your thing, you might like the novels of Jason Webster, such as A Death in Valencia.
Although Gibraltar isn’t actually part of Spain, it is a popular day trip destination for tourists. I found the thrillers by Thomas Mogford – particularly Hollow Mountain – to be an excellent introduction to the unique culture of The Rock.
Children’s Books About Spain
Children love to learn about the places they are visiting, so why not buy them their own guidebook. The Kids’ Travel Guide – Spain by Wendy Crawford looks particularly good, and doubles up as a journal so that they can record their holiday experiences. (I’d have loved something like this when my children were young – I always ended up writing my own kids’ travel guides!) You can also get them in the holiday mood with a bit of language learning: try First Words Spanish from Lonely Planet Kids.
Children between the ages of 5 and 8 might enjoy Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte (a story about flamenco dancing). Or James Mayhew’s Katie and the Spanish Princess (featuring some classic Spanish paintings). If you’re going to Barcelona you might like Building on Nature: the Life of Antoni Gaudi by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez (only available in hardback but it looks as if it is beautifully illustrated and inspiring).
For older children try Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (a story about bullfighting – the author was a friend of Hemingway). And a good historical novel is Theresa Breslin’s Prisoner of the Inquisition.
This is a very short introduction to the many books that have been written about Spain. If you have a favourite that I haven’t included, please let me know in the comments below.