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Spain is a mixture of history, architectural beauty with a pop culture connection

When George RR Martin wrote the Game of Thrones series of books, he set them in a fantasy world.

But there were clear parallels with medieval history. Some of the conflicts were based on the War of the Roses. And the world that Martin created owed something to Europe.


Martin has not been forthcoming about the real places he had in mind when he wrote the books. But most thoughtful readers have always believed that the sunny kingdom of Dorne is based on medieval Spain. When the producers of the TV show began scouting for locations, they went to places that Martin never had in mind: Croatia, for example. But as for Dorne, there was no question: it had to be Spain.


   As some of you may have noticed, I have been going to Spain a lot over the last few years. (I was there three times last year.) Originally I went for the food. But, soon enough, I fell in love with the whole country. Spain is what France would be if it smoked a few joints: great food, great art, great buildings, and beautiful countryside. But it is relaxed, friendly and secure about itself. (For some reason the French continue to view the rest of the world with suspicion.)


   This time, I went to Madrid and Andalusia and almost without realising it, found myself in the middle of a Game of Thrones trip. It wasn’t just the locations that they used in the show (though that was a large part of it) but it was also the slightly unreal, melting-pot, melange of cultures and influences that make up modern Spain. Plus there is also the sense of warring kingdoms within the country itself. The Spanish pride themselves on having peacefully resolved the Basque separatist issue. But they are now busy coping with Catalan separatism and a year ago, there seemed a real chance that the local government in Barcelona would push for secession.


   One of the reasons I love Spain is because it has such a complicated history. The Romans were here (and built many of the structures that became Game of Thrones locations) and so were the Visigoths. But the most distinctive strand in Spanish history comes from the Islamic influence. We tend to think of Europe as a Northern monolith filled with blonde, white people. But the reality is more complex. Southern Europe almost touches Africa. On a clear day, if you gaze out at the sea from Cadiz, the fishing town near Seville, you can see Africa.


   And so, most of those who came to Spain in the ancient and medieval periods were either from Africa or Southern Europe (the Romans). Over a thousand years ago, the Berbers from North Africa, relatively recent converts to Islam, conquered parts of what we call Spain today. We use the generic term “the Moors” but, in reality, the Muslim conquerors came from all over the Islamic world and they did not all necessarily get on with each other. The Arabs, for instance, had contempt for the Berbers and fought wars with them within Spain.


   But, one way or the other, the Muslims stayed in Spain. Some empires lasted three centuries. In other parts of Spain, the Muslim rulers held sway for 700 years. Though, this is not easy to believe when you look at today’s Middle East, in that era the Arabs had one of the most advanced civilisations in the world. They brought astronomy, science, art, architecture, gardening and especially, mathematics to Spain and had a civilising influence on the region. The magnificent buildings they constructed still stand, a testament to their craftsmanship.


   Of course, it was not to last. Eventually, Christian armies drove the Moors out and then embarked on a barbaric plan to stamp out all traces of Islam. Muslims were either executed or exiled. Jews (who had done the Spanish Christians no harm) were ordered to convert or to face death. At least 200,000 Jews were forced out of Spain. (Some of them sought shelter in India: they became the Pardesi Jews of Kochi.)


   This barbarity led directly to the Spanish Inquisition, a Christian version of today’s Taliban/ISIS, which brought so much misery to so many hundreds of thousands of people (including Spanish Christians) with its torturing and murderous ways.


   In many countries, the suppression of a diverse culture through religious extremism would be regarded as a matter of shame. But unfortunately for Spain, it spent part of the 20th century being ruled by General Franco, a fascist dictator (and ally of Adolf Hitler) with close ties to the Catholic Church.


"All you can do is recognise that history is complex and that the battles of the past are over. Now, we must celebrate the present."

   So history was rewritten. The gradual process of winning back Spanish kingdoms from Muslim rulers was compressed into a single event, the Reconquista and celebrated as a glorious victory. (In actual fact, it took over 750 years).


   It was only after Franco died in 1975, and Spain became a democracy, that the country flourished. The vibrant Spain we knew today, with its art, culture, food and wine did not really emerge till the 1990s. As part of that emergence of a new Spain, there was also a reconciliation with the legacies of history, the Moorish period and the terrible injustices done to innocent people.


   To go to Spain now is to see centuries of history laid out in front of you. You can see the restored Islamic buildings, but you can also see memorials to Franco, who is still revered by some Spaniards. All this makes for an extraordinary tapestry of history and culture, not unlike, I dare say, the universe of Game of Thrones.


   And indeed, throughout this trip, there was no getting away from Game of Thrones. I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Alfonso XIII, where the show’s cast are accommodated when they shoot in Seville and the hotel’s staff told me how mad it could get with fans thronging the gates for a glimpse of the stars.


   One of the more unlikely Game of Thrones locations in Seville is the old Roman amphitheatre called the Italica. If you are familiar with the show, then you will recall the sequence where Khaleesi, under attack from the Sons of the Harpy, escapes when her dragon lands on the centre of the pit. It is also the place where Jon Snow and Tyrion hold a summit meeting with Cersei to persuade her to join the battle against the Night King.


   In real life, it looks like what it really is: a Roman ruin. But it is atmospheric enough and I guess CGI took care of the rest.


   Then, there is my favourite building in Spain: the Alcázar. This was a Muslim palace in Seville that Christian Kings converted into one of their residences. (The Spanish royal family still occupy the top floors.) It is a spectacular building that combines ancient Muslim architecture with Christian grandeur.


   Of course, you may have already seen it. It doubles as the Water Gardens in the Kingdom of Dorne in Games of Thrones and for once, very little CGI must have been required. It is such a stunning structure with beautiful sprawling gardens that it is not hard to see why the producers shot here. Was it, I wonder, what George RR Martin always had in mind when he wrote the Dorne sequences in the book?


   In Cordoba, not far from Seville, is the ancient Roman bridge that has been restored to become the Long Bridge of Volantis in Game of Thrones. But the structure to see in Cordoba is the Mezquita Cathedral. As the name suggests (mezquita means mosque), this was built as a mosque and then converted into a church by later Christian monarchs. I found some of the Christian stuff a little trite. But as a building, the original mosque must have been stunning.


   And then, there is the Alhambra in Granada. This is the most famous and popular monument in Spain and among the top attractions in Europe. Built originally by the rulers of the Nasrid dynasty, it is a little like a mixture of Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri with (inevitably!) Christian influences added later. It is a huge complex but the star attraction (which you have to book months in advance) is the Nasrid Palace, a building that is so spectacular that they won’t let anyone – not even Game of Thrones! – shoot there.


   I loved it all. Who can resist a mixture of history, architectural beauty with a pop culture (Game of Thrones) connection? But I liked it even more because of the care that the Spanish take of these buildings. Their pride in them reminds us that this is a nation that has finally come to peace with its heritage. You can’t wish away the Moors and nor can you forget the horrors of the Inquisition.


   All you can do is recognise that history is complex and that the battles of the past are over. Now, we must celebrate the present. (Ideally, over patatas bravas, some spicy chorizo and a cool glass of Fino!)


Posted On: 30 Jun 2018 04:20 PM
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