SPAIN WEEK: Living With the Fishermen


After two reviews of mystery thrillers set in Spain, I thought you might appreciate a quieter look at a little fishing village by a classic travel writer.

Mª Agustina
Boat on the Costa Brava

Book: Voices of the Old Sea (1984/review of 2006 edition) by Norman Lewis

In the 1950’s Norman Lewis went in search of “vanished times” in the small Spanish fishing village of Farol, north of Barcelona. He found a land more like the Spain of classic literature than the energetic modernism of post-war Europe. But in the three years he spent summers working alongside the fishermen of Farol, he witnessed a transformation. He says:

By the end of my third season it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural evolution was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms.

In Voices of the Old Sea, the reader meets an unforgettable cast of characters whom Lewis introduces with respect and a careful neutrality.  He rents a room from the most powerful person in the community, known as the Grandmother, whom he describes thus:

She was large, dignified and slow-moving, dressed perpetually in black, with the face of a Borgia pope, a majestic nose and a defiant chin, sprouting an occasional bristle.

Everyone accepted the Grandmother’s meddling in family affairs. She decided when a couple could afford to have a child, advised on birth control, and named all children born in the village.

Il tempo passatoThe countryside had once supported wealthy “cork barons” making their fortunes from the forests of cork trees. In order to maintain control over their workers, the cork barons kept roads in such poor condition that the communities remained isolated from outside influence. When metal bottle tops replaced corks in most bottles, the economy collapsed and left only fishing in Farol and poor farming in neighboring Sort.  However, a wealthy developer arrives and during Lewis’ three year stay he pushes the communities toward tourism as an economic staple.

Lewis presents the point of view of people like the developer, the priest, the Alcade (mayor) in a non-judgmental fashion.  Don Alberto de Soto, largest landowner, supports a paternalistic feudalism mixed with a sort of anarchism that he sees as only beneficial to the people. Working as a common laborer, Lewis gains the trust of the community members and reports the deeply held beliefs of the villagers without the condescension that so often marks this kind of memoir.  The community runs on a complex system of beliefs and superstitions. Lewis genius lies in his ability to present the lives without favoritism for anyone’s point of view. That gives the reader a vivid portrait of the whole community. His physical descriptions are as crystalline as his descriptions of lifestyle and mindset.

This was Spain as I never thought of it, and had never seen it before, one of immense green prairies under the soft sun of spring.  Hares were streaking in all directions, only their heads showing, leaving little comets’ tails of waving grass, and we passed a white horse, hooves out of sight, poised absolutely motionless…Miles away these green pastures met an horizon of toy villages with windmills, each surmounted by a church.

In Voices of the Old Sea, though, Lewis is not presenting a guide to the landscape so much as an almost anthropological view of a culture and the effects of change.  He describes his friend Sebastian,

who typified in so many ways the country of his birth; this thin man with a bold but melancholic eye and a head full of poetic fancies, this passive but successful resister of despots, living on little more than air and with no demands upon the future  other than that it should show some slight improvement on the present.

Costa Brava fish nets
Costa Brava fish nets

It seems that the village of Farol was even more of a “disappeared past” than we are led to believe.  According to a , not only is there no evidence of a village by the name of Farol–and I couldn’t find it on Google or on maps–but according to Lewis’ biography, he did not travel to the Costa Brava solo as indicated in the book, but instead with wife and children. It does not matter to me. In fact, I would think it a good idea to change the name of the town to protect it.  Lewis was, after all, a novelist as well as a travel writer, and he had a point to make.


Costa Brava resort
Costa Brava resort

The major question we are left with is whether the changes in the community will be an improvement.  Interestingly, the theme of destructive development in Voices of the Old Sea, describing the early 1950’s in Spain, parallels the themes of two other creations I have recently reviewed–the first, Junior Bonner, was filmed in Arizona in the early 1970’s. (You can see my review at Reel Life With Jane.)  This book also relates to The Sadness of the Samurai in that the lasting effects of the Facist regime and civil war continue to reverberate.

I am eternally grateful to a hotel manager in St. Lucia who recommended Norman Lewis to me years ago. He was right–he is one of the best and most travel writers of England. We have previously talked here about his wonderful Naples ’44, his war experiences immediately preceding this sojourn in Spain, and The Honoured Society about the history of the Mafia in Sicily.

Some people think that the only way you can truly know another culture is to spend extended periods of time with them, as Lewis did with the fishermen of Farol.  What’s the longest you have spent in another culture?

Disclaimer: The links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything after clicking on those links it will support A Traveler’s Library and we thank you. (It doesn’t cost you any extra to shop that way.) All the photos here are from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photo to learn more about the photographer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “SPAIN WEEK: Living With the Fishermen

  1. Possibly he was playing with a similar name, but the commenter in that blog post I reference had apparently tried even harder than me to find it and failed. Besides, there IS a “Sort” but it is no where near the coast, so I think it is clear he just changed the names.

  2. when I read what you said about not being able to pinpoint the town, it occurred to me that in many romance languages the word farol, or something close to it, means light, lamp, or lighthouse. perhaps a clue, or a metaphor.

  3. What an intriguing book. I sure wish I had some of that ‘grandmother’ power :)….unfortunately, I’m just grams- and no one listens to my advice 🙂 ha ha!!

    As for longest I’ve been in another culture- all my life? ha ha- I’m still trying to figure out which culture is actually my own 🙂

    1. Connie: I was thinking the same thing about Grandmother power. I think we should move to a society where the elderly female is accorded the respect WE are entitled to!

  4. All travel writers romanticize; it is part of the craft and the only question is whether they have done it well. A common trope is to present yourself — or at least allow your reader to imagine you — wandering alone in a foreign place, even if you were in fact accompanied by wife and family and/or mistress, secretary, publicist, interpreter, guide, cook and servants. Famous writers have always done this. Honesty does not demand describing the quotidian details of your party. F. Scott Fitzgerald told us about traveling with Zelda and as a consequence described Rome as “I chiefly remember Rome as where Zelda and I had an awful row.” That is why we do not remember F. Scott as a travel writer.

    1. Good analysis, Davis. If you go back a few months you’ll find a flap about John Steinbeck having made up stuff in “Travels With Charlie”. Another writer is trying to make hay on “revealing” the Steinbeck didn’t always tell the truth. Oh, really? And where is that other writer’s Nobel prize for literature?

Comments are closed.