My love for Spain began with food. Within the first few hours of arriving in Madrid in May of 2017, I met up with a small group of mostly retired Australian couples in Puerta del Sol for a food tour. I was waiting for a friend whose flight wouldn’t land until later that night, so I had an entire evening alone that I wanted to spend, well, not alone. I was the only one on the tour who arrived solo and without reading glasses. My new friends gasped audibly when I told them this was my first night in Spain, on my first ever trip to Europe.
The tour was one of the reasons I decided to come back to Madrid for a whole year. I met the love of my life, Spain’s Ribera del Duero wine, which is often overshadowed by Rioja but is the best-tasting red wine I’ve ever tried. I also tried octopus for the first time. I tried parts of a pig (tongue? cheek?) that I haven’t eaten since but in doing so I gained an appreciation for Spanish cuisine: they use the whole animal, nothing goes to waste, and it can all be delicious. I was alarmed and entertained by El Museo de Jamón where (virtuous vegans, skip ahead) the walls were covered with severed legs of cured ham as if in an exorbitant display of pride for this national treasure.
To my surprise, I also fell in love with the history of Spain. I think this is largely because the history here feels tangible in ways I’d never experienced before. Take Valencia, the port city where I caught my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, for example. The name (meaning valiant or brave) comes from the fact that it was founded as a Roman colony, where soldiers would retire after many years of fighting as reward for their service in the army. In 714, the city was invaded by Arab Moors from Northern Africa, who maintained control until the Catholic church’s Reconquest of 1238.
My jaw dropped during the walking tour in Valencia when our guide explained that this city is one of the only places in the world where sizable populations of all three major Western religions lived together in peace for 500 years. It seemed unfathomable, given the violence and hopeless conflicts of today. During the 500 years of Moorish rule, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together harmoniously in Valencia and the city prospered. Leaders implemented a “Water Council” consisting of landed families that would gather on the steps of the city’s mosque to settle disputes over scarce water resources. Their system de-escalated conflict, improved irrigation, and boosted agriculture in the region so that there was plenty for everyone to eat in the growing city. These years of harmony ended when the Christian king of Aragon conquered the city and forcibly removed over 50,000 Muslims and Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism.
Still, the large cathedral in the center (which, like many churches in Spain, was originally the mosque) stands as testament to this time of peace and prosperity. To this day, descendants of the original Water Council still gather on its front steps every Thursday at noon to hear the grievances of their constituents, which are few and far between. The building itself also features elements of all three religions. Despite having been rebuilt and used as a Church ever since the reconquest of the city, a Star of David shines through stained glass over the main entrance. On the opposite side, the original entrance to the mosque stands facing eastward towards Mecca.
The occupation of the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) by the Arab Moors had an enormous impact on Spanish culture, from language (ie most Spanish words starting with “al,” like algodón/cotton and albóndigas/meatballs) to architecture to food. The architectural impact is especially apparent in the southern region of Andalusia, which was the first area the Moors invaded and the last from which they were expelled. In Sevilla, for example, you can explore the strikingly beautiful tile artwork of the Alcázar, a series of palaces that once housed Moorish (and Dornish!) kings. To the east, in a seaside city called Alicante, you’ll find an entirely different cultural remnant of the Moors.
Like Valencia, Alicante has many Moorish relics, most notably the castle-fortress overlooking the city and its beaches. But it also has a fascinating, if not somewhat depressing, recent history. The city has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by bombings during World War I and then again during the Spanish Civil War. Alicante is known for having been the last Republican-loyal city standing against the infamous fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, who ascended to power in 1938. It was badly punished for this resistance. In a handful of years, Alicante was obliterated by both Mussolini and Franco on multiple occasions, but survived and has slowly rebuilt over time. It’s earned the Spanish expression “Pa’lante como los de Alicante,” which roughly translates to “Go forward like those from Alicante” or “Don’t let those fascist bastards get you down” (and is still surprisingly relevant today).
Apart from beaches, a giant castle, and a legacy of resistance, Alicante has turrón, a nougat-like sweet made from honey, eggs whites, and nuts. While there are many variations throughout Europe, Spanish turrón is believed to have originated as a paste in a town just north of Alicante called Jijona. The turrón typical of Alicante, however, is white, brittle, full of almonds, and can be cut into slices. Today, turrón is associated with Christmas; in Madrid, for example, grocery stores didn’t start adding towering pyramids of turrón to their displays until early December (though people in Alicante enjoy it all year). It’s a beautiful irony, in my opinion, that despite its current ties to a major Catholic holiday, turrón was originally introduced to Spain by (you guessed it) the Moors, who had a similar confection called turun. That’s right. The Muslims occupying southern Spain passed the metaphorical culinary baton (turrón) onto the Christians, who violently expelled them after 500 years of peace and who have been running with it ever since.
During a tour of Alicante, I was able to visit a retail store of a family-owned turrón business whose recipe hasn’t changed in over 200 years. We sampled a few different types of turrón, marzipan, and chocolate along with a couple of sweet liquors typical of the region. I scoured the store for a small bundle of the city’s classic white turrón to take home as an edible souvenir before continuing on, crossing over from the Muslim to Christian quarter (“old” to “new” town) and through small alleyways to catch the perfect angle of the castle on the mountain until we reached the market square and our final destination.
This is what I mean when I say that Spain’s history is tangible. You can taste it. It’s crunchy and sweet and it gets stuck in your molars.
(If you’re interested in reading a bit more about turrón, check out the links below!)
(If you’re ever in Madrid, here’s the food tour that made me want to stay forever!)