An Evening In: Ghosts of Spain

I read far less non-fiction than fiction, but I do make forays into travel books. Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Michael Palin and Wade Davis are all writers I make time for. I am particularly keen on the sort of journalistic social history style of country guide, like Germania or The Dark Heart of Italy, and best in show of this breed must be Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett.

I read Ghosts of Spain while trying to learn Spanish, already in my twenties and having very limited success. Part of the reason was my sad lack of enthusiasm for Spain itself. I knew a vague outline of Spanish history, but it went something like this: there were some moors and some Christian kings, Don Quixote tilted at a windmill, Philip II was prudent and argued with Elizabeth I and then Franco ruined the whole thing for everyone. Somewhere along the line there were pirates, Zorro, Spanish gold and conquistadores, but these much more exciting things didn’t happen in Spain itself.

Pictured: Tenerife


Ghosts of Spain has a wide scope; the history and society of the different regions, the sad legacy of the Civil War, flamenco, bull-fighting, football and food all come within the remit of Tremlett’s pen. He ties together chapters that could be stand-alone articles (may in fact have begun life as such, for  Tremlett was the Madrid correspondent for the Guardian when the book was published and now fills this role for The Economist) into a volume in  which you follow historical breadcrumbs and social mores towards understanding and appreciating a genuinely fascinating country.

After reading this I spent a year in Tenerife, teaching English in Santa Cruz, the capital in the north. I would not have been half so informed on Spanish history and culture, or half so interested in it, without this book to set me on the way.

So the drink. No, I do not suggest sangria. I rarely suggest sangria, it is not a favourite of mine. Spain is wide and many such classically ‘Spanish’ things – paella, flamenco, pintxos, gazpacho – are the specialities of one region or another. Spanish wine is often excellent, particularly that from Rioja, and I had one of the nicest white wines I’ve ever sampled from a local vineyard near Guimar in Tenerife.

Pictured: Spain

But because it’s unusual and a speciality of Tenerife, I’m going to suggest a Barraquito. This is a drink you can only get in Tenerife; I tried to order one in Gran Canaria and the waiter gave a hollow laugh and shook his head. Well, I defy that waiter and am happy to suggest a Barraquito on a sunny afternoon anywhere you might wish. I had a dangerous fondness for cafe condensada, or a cortado leche leche. Yeah, condensed milk. It should be horrible. It’s delicious. For a proper Barraquito, start with condensed milk in the bottom, espresso and Liquor 43 on top, then foamy milk, with lemon peel and cinnamon added last. Liquor 43 is something I haven’t encountered outside Spain, but I haven’t looked for it. Tia Maria is an acceptable substitute.

If you have any interest in Spain, or an appreciation of informed and well-written travel books,  you will not go wrong with Ghosts of Spain and your coffee with a kick.

Book: Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett

Pair with: Barraquito


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