The Armchair Traveler’s Spain: Books and Stories Guaranteed to Saturate Your Soul with Duende

To set the mood for the journey:

In describing art/literature/photography, we English speakers are limited by our language. Other cultures, other languages contain words conveying succinctly what it took James Elkins 28 pages – or 14,000 words – to describe in “What Photography Is”. In Spanish, he could have just said, “Duende”, a word loosely and inadequately explained as the “mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.”

The literal meaning pertains to elf or demon.

Duende is a concept strongly associated with the dance style of flamenco and the music of the cante jondo (deep song, from the Gypsy/Roma culture), but I think it applies to all art, including photography. For as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca said in “The Theory and Function of Duende” : “Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks … All the arts are capable of duende … .”

Lorca implies that some physicality is necessary, as with dance, but I think that the way a photographer sees/looks at/gazes upon an object can be a form of duende, as is the viewer’s physical act of looking at a photograph.

Or reading. In reading, duende exists, too. In cooking as well.

It’s no secret that despite my forays into many other topics, Latin America and Spain hold a special place in my heart. Both formed me into the person I am today. For me, that’s evidence of duende. And, after all these years, I plan on traveling deep into Spain again, mostly the northern regions. To prepare myself, to renew my passion for that magical place, I sought the counsel of many writers, some dead, others very much alive. For you, readers as besotted as I am about books, I list below the myriad works bringing Spain and Spanish culture alive again for me, through many pages and many years, past and present.

Shall we begin?

Art & Architecture:

Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain, by Mitchell A. Brown

Art Nouveau: Paris, Bruxelles, Barcelona, by Thomas Hauffe

Barcelona and Modernity: Picasso, Gaudí, Miró, Dalí, by William Robinson and Carmen Bellon Lord

Barcelona Street Art, by Khaled Sayed

Gaudí, by Juan Eduardo Cirlot


Barcelona, by Robert Hughes

Barcelona the Great Enchantress, by Robert Hughes

Homage to Barcelona, by Colm Tóibín

Cooking – Catalan:

The Barcelona Cookbook, by Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer

A Catalan Cookery Book, by Irving Davis

Catalan Cuisine, by Colman Andrews

Catalan Food, by Daniel Olivella

The Catalan Country Kitchen, by Marimar Torres

A Taste of Barcelona: The History of Catalan Cooking and Eating, by H. Rosi Song and Anna Riera

Cooking – Spanish:

1080 Recipes, by Simone and Inés Ortega

The Basque Book: A Love Letter in Recipes from the Kitchen of Txikito, by Alexandra Raij, Eder Montero, Rebbecca Flint Marx

Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise, by Marti Buckley

The Best 100 Tapas, by Esperanza Luca de Tena

Brindisa, by Monika Linton

Culinaria Spain, edited by Marion Trutter

The Food of Spain, by Claudia Roden

The Foods and Wines of Spain, by Penelope Casas

Recipes from the Spanish Kitchen, by Nicholas Butcher


Barcelona Tales, by Helen Constantine, translated by Peter Bush

Cathedral of the Sea, by Ildefonso Falcones

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

“The Queimada”, by Michelle Morano (short story)

Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The South, by Colm Tóibín

“Summer of ’38”, by Colm Tóibín (short story)


The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky

The Battle for Spain, by Anthony Beevor

A Concise History of Spain, by William D. Phillips, Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips

Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by J. H. Elliott

Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War, by Nick Lloyd

The Spanish Civil War, by Hugh Thomas

The Spanish Seaborne Empire, by J. H. Parry


Catalan for Dummies, by Ferran Alexandri

Catalan: The Ultimate Beginners Learning Guide, by Guillem Figueras

Personal Stories and Journeys:

The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family, by Aaron Shulman

As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer Morning, by Laurie Lee

Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, by Chris Stewart

Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, by Matt Goulding

The Gray Notebook, by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

Iberia, by James A. Michener

South from Granada, by Gerald Brenan

Spain, by Jan Morris

Spain on My Mind (anthology), edited by Alice Leccese Powers

Spanish Recognitions: The Roads to the Present, by Mary Lee Settle


Note: All photographs from Dreamstime stock photography, except for the Goya print and portrait of Carlos II, both from Wikimedia Commons. I did not include the myriad tales of walking the Camino, because there are so many. Note as well these sources are obviously not the only ones available to you. They’re simply material I’ve enjoyed in preparing for my own journey.


4 thoughts on “The Armchair Traveler’s Spain: Books and Stories Guaranteed to Saturate Your Soul with Duende

  1. I am astonished at the wealth of culinary offerings coming out of Spain, and perplexed as to why there’s not more awareness of that. Here, Spanish food is seen only as tapas. Thank you for commenting.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and loved it even more with the gorgeous mood music. What a great idea!! I’m currently reading Driving Over Lemons and love it. I’ll have to check out some of your other recommendations for Spanish cookbooks. Thanks so much.

  3. Love this list – I didn’t do anywhere near enough research so the laptop worked overtime every night for the next day! We spent our time in BCN with family rather than in the city but that was lovely, of course. If you have time for a garden & have a car, David will recommend the Botanical Garden at Cap Roig, falling down the cliffs to the sea, and the one at Gijon on the NW coast.

    Have a great time & keep in touch – Sue

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