“Olé! Toma toma!” I moved in a euphoric frenzy, the beats getting faster and faster between the spins and the claps. Is this what happens when Kathak meets Flamenco? Well, there is no manual.
No manual pretty much sums up my journey to Spain, halfway across the world from the car-choked city of Bengaluru. But the dream had simmered long and slow—over the 10 years that it took for a young Indian Classical dancer to chance upon the Spanish musical documentary Iberia, scoop up her savings, pack her bags, and arrive in the country.
And here I was. In the ‘cave classroom’ of Escuela Carmen de Las Cuevas, a Spanish Language school in Granada hosting its weekly flamenco jam session… working in the intense kathak footwork of teentaal (16 beats rhythm) to the fast-paced bulerias (12 beats rhythm). Around me were flamenco artistes who had mastered the art of tornado spins and rigorous footwork, of tender expressions one second, and angry stomping the next. I was here to tell them a story, about another dear dance form that I’d met at the age of five. The only way to tell it was to keep dancing.
Growing up, my mother, also my first guru, would say: “Beats are nothing but a play of mathematics.” I’d brought little other than her wisdom and some freshly converted euros when I arrived in Granada, after playing tourist in Barcelona for two days. It is here that I was set to pursue my two-week course in flamenco. And here, in the dreamy neighbourhood of Albycín, I’d found myself the perfect little shared residence, a brisk 10-minute walk from my new school. Oh the walks around Granada! Long and glorious, spoiled silly with sunsets of crushed rose and violet. My favourite place to watch a drowning sun was the terrace of my school, overlooking a city of white walls and brown tile roofs.
Of course, it was not all sweet languor. In Granada, I developed a chink-proof routine. Wake up, practise my yoga, cook and eat breakfast, grocery shop on alternate days, cook and eat lunch, share coffee with my French roommate Lucy—some days we managed to communicate in broken Spanish, French, or English, some days we gave up and laughed at our struggle. Afternoons would bring with them the coveted dance lessons, delivered in Spanish. As I scrambled to understand my instructor Maria, her proud smile kept me twirling—I’d turned out to be one of her fastest learners. Lessons were followed by more aimless ambles, more live wire sunsets and the occasional glass of vino tinto. Time acquires an ether-like quality when you’re walking narrow cobblestone alleys, stopping under white-washed balconies splashed with pots of flowering plants. Some evenings, I’d walk from Plaza Nueva to Calle San Gregorio Alto through the Moroccan streets of perfume, shawarma, lamps, and sheesha. Nights were reserved for terrace dinners with friends, and laughter tossed into starry October skies—for greedy mouthfuls of penne cooked by my friend Pauline, and heavy jasmine air colliding with the aroma of chorizo, a speciality of Lucas from downstairs.
Food, as you can tell, was a big part of my time in Granada. On Thursdays, I’d walk 15 minutes to the market at Plaza Large, to savour the ritual of sifting through fresh fruits and vegetables, cured ham, and cheese. I’d never been a fan of salsa de tomate, but faced with Spanish tomatoes (as fiery as Spanish women), I caved. The result of my weekly jaunts? Spinach fettuccine pasta with bacon and parmesan cheese, goat’s cheese and aubergine salad with pear and cherry tomatoes, and on hasty days, deconstructed Spanish omelettes. Every meal was baptised with extra-virgin olive oil.
Some days I’d ruffle the routine. On the morning of sasthi, the first day of Durga Puja, I woke up homesick. So I draped the brightest red saree I’d carried, and climbed three kilometres up an incline to collect yet another sunset from Mirador de San Miguel Alto. To my delight, my saree—dubbed “bellisima!”—made its way into the camera rolls of strangers. That night my friends and I had a special dinner of gazpacho, seafood paella and Spanish flan. Thanks to the ubiquitous Coviran supermarket, I even found a substitute for the Bengali payesh in sealed boxes of arroz con leche (rice and milk).
Well before my 14 days in Granada were up, I started missing it. Here’s this beautiful, beautiful place in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, home to gypsy quarters brimming with music, dance, and history. Here are the brick bell towers, and here are the lanky coniferous trees protecting an old seat of Moorish art and culture from the cruel desert sun. Here, the Alhambra palace, its honeycombed domes rinsed shiny by the moon each night.
In the Granada of my dreams, I am never too far from my school. I can step inside anytime, pushing through the giant wooden door leading into a gravelled patio. The grapevine too, preserves its burnt autumn colours. And I? I am caught in an eternal loop of palmas (claps), keeping rhythm to tango tunes and fingerstyle guitar.
Ronda was my impulsive weekend trip. A tough little town perched atop the deep El Tajo gorge, it brings back memories of sunny afternoons, freshly squeezed glasses of pulpy orange juice, mouthwatering tapas, and gelato and nougat shops.
A three-hour train ride from Granada, the town can be covered on foot. Without a pre-booked stay to my name (a first), I did just that. Ronda lays claims to being the birthplace of modern bullfighting, but I chose to concentrate on its tapas, cheap and delish. Much of my time was spent exploring the hulking Puente Nuevo (new bridge), built on the gorge. A few hundred meters down a man-made trail, the babble of tourists was replaced by sounds from a gurgling stream, undisturbed but for the rustle of leaves.
Meals in Ronda were whimsical and hearty. For lunch: grilled prawn salad with aioli sauce, and pork curry with potatoes from Bodega Patatin Patatan. Dinner was an excuse to gorge on more tapas, washed down by rosé. Ronda empties out by 8 p.m. So I was left to the company of lights freckling this medieval city that holds hundreds-of-years-old bull rings (Plaza de Toros), the town square from Hemmingway’s tale (Plaza de España), and a rousing history of civil wars and rebellions. As I frittered away my last few hours at Calle Pastor Divino, kitchens of strangers sent my way whiffs of garlic frying in hot olive oil, and broken verses of Spanish songs. A few more hours and Ronda would be tucked in. And I’d be on my way.
Sitges, a vibrant beach town about 40 kilometres southwest of Barcelona, welcomed me with a burst of sea air after a short train ride. The vibe was one of permanent holiday: classy promenade restaurants, seaside churches (Sant Bartomeu and Santa Tecla) and friendly English-speaking Sitgeans.
I’d travelled for the 52nd edition of the International Fantastic Film Festival, it was a Sunday morning and buses weren’t to be seen. So I dragged my humongous backpack for the 30-minute walk from the Sitges train station to the Sitges Port Hotel. Then, I trekked uphill to the Melía Sitges Hotel for the matinee marathon of five back-to-back movies. That noon the auditorium saw 1,400 people, one French dark comedy (Le Daim), a zombie flick (Little Monsters), an adventure comedy (Guns Akimbo) and a nerve-wracking science fiction thriller (Vivarium). Five hours later, I came out ravenous.
In a place flecked with fine dining restaurants, I picked out a dinner of cod fish steak, rosé, and a few pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country, devoured under the warm lights of Restaurante Bonanza Sitges. It was all I needed.
Two-day unlimited public transport pass in hand, I explored Barcelona non-stop. At a glance, the city was master architect Antoni Gaudi’s playbook, coloured in spasms by his modernist architecture. Get off at Liceu (station) to head to the Gothic Quarter, and the dark dreads of your imagination will be replaced by medieval lanes housing funky trinket shops, colorful ice-cream parlours, outlets selling hemp seed products and erotic toys, flamenco boutiques, and cafés serving hot tapas. Move away to the south, towards Playa de la Barcelonata, and suddenly you’ve got a beach where teenagers somersault and brightly dressed street actors make passers-by laugh. Not very far from the beach lies Mount Tibidabo from Joey’s (Friends) backpacking story, where one can gather vivid views of the city bustle while sipping on wine from Cafe Mirablau. Then there’s Ras Ramblas, mimicking the chaos of an Indian fish market, where owners of makeshift tapas bars shout out deals to hungry tourists. I had the best sangria of my life here.
On the way out (I started and ended the trip with Barcelona), my eyes welled up thinking of my friend Camila’s parting gift of handmade earrings, and Maria’s face, alight with childlike joy as she tried out my ankle bells for the first time. I thought of the Bangladeshi owner of a grocery store in Passeig de Gràcia, unable to hide his excitement or his Bengali accent. I remembered the protests in Barcelona for an independent state of Catalonia, and my first pair of Flamenco shoes and skirt from Menkes. I remembered how it felt sitting on fresh grass in Parque El Retiro, leafing through the Tales of the Alhambra. It was clear. I had to return. I had to return soon.
Hasta luego España!