Every summer and winter for the last 361 years, France and Spain have been passing a small, unpopulated island back and forth between them.

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The Bidasoa River flows north from Erratzu, in the Navarran Pyrenees, picking up the snowmelt from the mountains on the way. As it rushes down towards the sea through dark green hills, it becomes the border between France and the Basque Country in Spain. Because both countries are now part of the Schengen Area, many parts of the French-Spanish border are barely noticeable today, marked only occasionally by an obelisk on a hill or a disused and decaying customs post by the side of an old road. But this border was once one of the most heavily defended in Europe.

Within living memory, this border was fortified by the dictator Franco with sentries every hundred metres along the river to stop outsiders getting into Spain, and internal enemies getting out. …


Some of Spain’s most cherished foods have origins in times of scarcity, and some surprising original ingredients.

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A Valencian Paella

Valencian people are fond of telling outsiders about what Paella can and can’t contain. It’s not actually that complicated — Paella is a lunch-time dish which gets its name from the pan used to cook it. It contains chicken, rabbit, lima beans, flat green beans and a few things to give it flavour, along with — naturally — the rice, and sometimes snails. One can also make the seafood version, which has become the defining version outside Spain. …


The rivalry between a right-wing journalist and left-wing government minister has spilt into the courts, with each accused of going to illegal lengths to bring down the other.

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‘I will not let this mob destroy my country,’ declared Eduardo Inda, editor of news website OkDiario, in an interview with the conservative El Toro TV in early March. The mob he was referring to was Podemos, a left-wing populist party which currently governs Spain with the PSOE — the larger, older and milder socialist party. This was bold, fighting talk from Inda; a man who styles himself as the defender of the Spanish people against the morally debased socialism and feminism of the Left. Months later, Inda is being investigated for stalking a politician’s children.


How the evolution of Francisco de Goya’s art reflected the disintegration of his country and his own descent into insanity.

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Fight With Cudgels, Goya

Francisco de Goya was born in 1746 in Fuendetodos, Aragon, a village famous for the production of ice. From humble beginnings, he grew up to be a genius painter.

For much of his earlier career, Goya painted portraits and colourful tapestry cartoons to hang in the palaces of Spain’s ruling class. He was a social person, and this helped. It was the intimacy of his portraits which made him so renowned; an intimacy he could not have achieved without a sense of love and fascination with those around him — be them aristocrats, builders, or beggars.


A large number of Spain’s most traditional local tapas bars are now run by members of the Chinese community. Why?

Spain has more bars per head of population than any other EU country — in 2017, there was one bar for every 137 people. Spain’s bars aren’t just places to get drunk in (though you can do so easily and cheaply). In the mornings they serve breakfast — toast with tomato or oil, or a croissant — to folks about to start work, which they can then wash down with coffee. …


Though Spain’s dictatorship ended years ago, Franco’s descendants refuse to leave the stage.

Last week, a Galician court ruled that the Francos’ long-term summer residence, Pazo de Meirás, should pass into state ownership. The grand estate had been gifted to ‘the Founder of the New Empire, Head of State, Generalísimo of the Armies and Caudillo of Spain, Francisco Franco Bahamonde’ by a group of his supporters in 1938. Franco gratefully accepted it, before conducting a fake sale to himself in 1941 so that it was registered in his personal name, and not as a possession of the head of state. …


While Spain’s urban centres become ever more crowded, its villages are quickly emptying. Some have no residents left.

Mislata, Valencia, with more than 21,500 people per km2, is the most densely populated urban area on the continent. But there is a dramatic divide between the towns and the country. Despite places like Mislata, Spain is one of the lowest-density countries in Europe. There are large areas of Spain which are emptier than Lapland, in the north of Finland. Drive for an hour away from any of the cities, or hop on a cross-country train, and you will see that Spain, despite its bustling cities, is mostly a deserted land.

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Above: Population density map of Europe

This hasn’t always been the case. Most developed countries are familiar with the flight to the cities which began with the industrial revolution and has continued since. But until the 1960s Spain was behind other countries in this regard. For a long time after the civil war ended in 1939 and Franco’s ultra-conservative regime took over, the county’s economy and culture stood still. People continued an agrarian lifestyle, seeing no need to move. In Valencia they picked oranges. In the Canary Islands, bananas. The Catholic Church played its part in this stagnation, keeping a stranglehold on education, social life and chastising any urge for change or progress. …


When a young nation’s president decreed that 95% of all music played on the radio must be Zambian, he didn’t expect it to lead to a psychedelic rock revolution.

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There are few experiences as joyous as being introduced to an entire genre of music previously unknown to you, from a part of the world you’ve seldom thought about. This recently happened to me with Zamrock; a brand of psychedelic rock which sprung up in Zambia from a particular set of political and cultural conditions, and faded away just as quickly a few years later.

Zambia was once Northern Rhodesia, a British colony. The name Northern Rhodesia distinguished it from Southern Rhodesia; predecessor to modern Zimbabwe. The land which Zambia now occupies played host to the most ancient of human societies, with archaic humans having lived there over 200,000 years ago. …


How the building of a motorway through a public park in Glasgow taught a new generation of working-class Scots about their past

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I’ve written about motorways cutting through communities before; in the story of Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego. Those events weren’t a one-off. A BBC Alba documentary called The Birdman of Pollok Park tells the story of Colin MacLeod, a local man who tried to stop the same from happening to Pollok Country Park in Glasgow. Both describe a clash between two opposing cultures: one based on the principles of honour, kinship and community and the other based on the aggressive pursuit of progress, profit and territorial domination. I find the brutal arrival of a new motorway in the middle of a close-knit neighbourhood a great metaphor for this global and eternal conflict.

Glasgow didn’t do well from the mid-20th century rise in car ownership. Charing Cross and Anderston were razed to the ground in the late 60s to accommodate the M8 motorway. …


How a filmmaker created a meme and then the meme fought back.

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It was 2000 and FuckParade was in its third year. FuckParade began as the Berlin underground scene’s answer to LoveParade, a commercialised techno festival which FuckParade has now outlived. That year, German video artist Matthias Fritsch took his camera to capture the ravers cutting through Berlin’s Rosenthaler Straße.

Fritsch uploaded a section of footage to his website as part of an experimental series, calling it ‘KNEECAM NO.1’. The 4-minute clip begins with a group of people dancing to techno in the middle of the road. A man in a black vest stumbles into shot and clatters into a woman with blue hair. He is clearly inebriated. Another man, shirtless, muscled and wearing a Thor’s hammer pendant, grabs him by the arm before sending him back to where he came, pointing his finger at him to make sure he behaves. …

About

James Crocket

I’m a writer and musician living in Valencia, Spain. Every week I write a newsletter of lesser-known stories from Spain https://weirdspain.substack.com/

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