I’ve recently been to Malaga and when I’m away, I like to take along a novel or travel book set wherever I’m heading. I actually bought Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter last year to take to Granada, and indeed read that chapter while there. Planning my reading for Malaga, I couldn’t find anything actually set in the city, but as Lee’s book is about Andalucia then I thought I should give it another airing and read more. In the end, I became captivated by his writing and read the whole thing (not actually very long at 112 pages), including the ‘Granada’ chapter again.
Lee (aged 37) and his wife Kati set off to Andalucia in the winter of 1951 and travelled around the area for 4 months. Lee had been there 15 years before, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Thus the ‘new’ journey with Kati revisits some of the ‘old’ places and people from the earlier trip. He was a successful poet by now and making some money from it, but they still had to travel on a budget and walked most of the way, stayed in cheap hotels or lodgings, and Laurie made some extra money from busking with his violin. He was working on Cider with Rosie, his most famous and successful book, but it wasn’t published until 1959.
I think it is because Lee is a poet that his writing is so poetically wonderful. Laurie and Katie visit five places in the book, including Seville and Granada. It’s not a travel book in the sense of being a guide or giving historical background and discussing the major sights. Lee doesn’t even discuss the politics of the day much (and this is the age of Franco). It’s about a personal journey and the book shimmers with radiant life and truly transports you to Andalucia and gives you an insight into the land and its people. It opens: ‘A brilliant November morning with a sky of diamond blue above the bay and the red flowers of a long summer still glowing darkly on the rock‘ and the country they had come to seek ‘crouched before us in a great ring of lion-coloured mountains, raw, sleeping and savage.’
Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘perhaps the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow.’ Of Seville he writes: ‘Seville of sweet wines and bitter oranges … the city where, more than in any other, one may bite on the air and taste the multitudinous flavours of Spain … acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening, but flavours which, above all in a synthetic world, are real as nowhere else.‘
Allowances have to be made for the book’s age and sometimes it seems dated. It has also been criticised for employing some ‘poetic’ licence, yet don’t the best travel books do this? If you want pure facts, read the guide book or history book; A Rose for Winter is about the experience and feeling of being in southern Spain in the 1950s and even in the 21st century it provides a wonderful backdrop to any visit to Andalucia and Lee’s writing is pure literary joy.