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Places of Cycling: ghosts of Andalucia

Words by Paul Maunder w/images frm Getty Images

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By the first Sunday in September, La Vuelta España will be two weeks old. With thousands of kilometers already in their legs, the peloton will be looking forward to their second rest day. Before that, however, they will tackle the stage from Martos to Alto Hoya de la Mora, high in the Sierra Nevada. Martos is famous for its olive oil, celebrated every December at the town’s Fiesta de la Aceituna (olive festival). Alto Hoya de la Mora is famous for being, well, a very hard climb. As they pedal south, no doubt in the merciless heat that makes Andalucia so arid, the peloton will skirt Granada. On the outskirts of this ancient city is the small town of Fuente Vaqueros. Here, in 1898, one of Spain’s greatest poets was born.

View of The Alhambra. Granada City. Granada Province. Andalusia, Spain. Image: Gonzalo Azumendi.

Federico Garcia Llorca’s family was affluent and educated, his father a landowner and farmer, his mother a teacher. When Garcia Llorca was eleven, they moved to Granada so he could attend high school. He never lost the love of the countryside imbued in him from his childhood years, but in Granada, he could access the education he wanted in music, law, and literature. Garcia Llorca’s early love was music; he dreamt of being a composer. Then, in his late teenage years, he turned to literature. At the Café Alameda in the center of town he and his young intellectual friends sat and drank coffee and talked about books.

Garcia Llorca’s literary ambitions continued to broaden when he moved to Madrid to study. Enrolled at the University of Madrid, he lived at the Residencia de Estudiantes, a cultural center that had been created in 1910 with the intention of emulating the great cultural residencies in Oxbridge and Bologna. There, as he began to write plays and poetry, Garcia Llorca met many other artists and writers who were to influence his work, most notably the film-maker Luis Buñuel and Surrealist Salvador Dali.

While recognition for his plays was something of a slow-burn, Garcia Llorca’s poetry quickly made him famous. His 1928 collection Gypsy Ballads established his reputation as Spain’s leading poet. The ballads were Garcia Llorca’s interpretation of the folklore of Andalucia, a highly stylized and personal view of his home landscape. Of the book he said, ‘(it) hardly expresses visible Andalucia at all, but where the hidden Andalucia trembles.’

Garcia Llorca with Dali (r). Image: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

But sudden fame proved a dangerous ingredient to throw into the already volatile relationship Garcia Llorca had with Dali. According to Dali, Garcia Llorca tried to seduce him and the artist – whose sexuality was rather opaquer – spurned his friend’s advances. By 1929 their friendship had soured, and they became estranged. Garcia Llorca despaired of a situation in which he felt the public role of a successful poet was misaligned to his true, private self. Moreover, his poems had turned him into a ‘gypsy poet’, an epithet he never wanted. To escape Garcia Llorca traveled to New York in 1929, where he studied at the University of Colombia.

When he returned to Madrid in 1930 Garcia Llorca focused on theatre, and his outlook had much more political edge. He saw theatre as a tool for social change. His plays challenged the conventions of stuffy Spanish society, fought for the rights of women, homosexuals, and the impoverished. When he wasn’t touring with the student theatre company of which he was the director, Garcia Llorca would spend summers back in Granada at his family’s summer home, Huerte de San Vincente. Here he wrote the plays that have ensured his name will never be forgotten, including When Five Years Pass, Blood Wedding, and Yerma.

Garcia Llorca’s strong Socialist views, which he was unafraid to voice, and his homosexuality, put him at odds with the rising right-wing political forces of the time. Tensions were high in the summer of 1936 after the assassination in July of a prominent Monarchist politician José Calvo Sotelo. The civil war was only weeks away and Granada was a focal point for Nationalist militia activity. On August 18, 1936, Garcia Llorca was arrested by a Fascist group. The next day, along with other supporters of the left-wing Popular Front, he was taken to a desolate spot outside the village of Viznar, northeast of Granada, and shot dead. His remains have never been found. It was a brutal and tragic end to a talent that burned as bright as the Andalucian sky.