V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Give Spain a whirl

Photos by Vivian Song--For more, please go to Photo Gallery

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers July, 2006.

Inside the notes of the singer's chanting, and traced along the arch of the dancer's arm is a short history of Spain's colourful past.

Strain your ear and in the "cante," or flamenco song, you hear a distinct Punjabi influence as the undulating voice weaves a melody for our dancer.

Watch the dancer's intricate footwork and forceful rhythmic expression and see a persecuted people acting out their spirit of defiance.

I'm sitting in Madrid's Corral de la Moreria, which bills itself as "The most famous Tablao Flamenco in the World."

Indeed, the entrance wall is studded floor to ceiling with celebrity pictures of Natalie Portman, Michael Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant and Mariah Carey posing with the dancers and singers.

Performers act out a short history lesson for the packed house: Gypsies, historically the main peformers of the flamenco, migrated out of the Punjabi region of India and settled in Europe, arriving in Spain as early as 1425, bringing with them their music.

Not long after, in 1492, Spain's King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella decreed that everyone living in their kingdom -- Muslims, Jews and Gypsies -- must convert to Catholicism under threat of death. Still, it wasn't enough to quash their spirit as they performed the dance in secret.

There is nothing coy about the dancers' movements.

Every leg extension, flourish of the arm, and sway of the hip is bold and blunt.

The quartet of Flamenco dancers tonight share the same ruby red lips, kohl-lined eyes, strong brows and slicked back raven hair, accented with a crimson flower. More than technique, it's "passion, fire" that dictates a dancer's movements, says Victoria Perez, 35, one of the performers.

Perez is a Spanish beauty with dark hair and surprisingly green eyes, framed with mile-long lashes.

When asked what it takes to become a flamenco dancer, she pauses before saying, "Some people have it, some people don't."

Tonight's experience is a fitting introduction to Spain, its fiery people and its vibrant culture.

At the heart of the Iberian Peninsula is the country's capital, Madrid, home to three million residents.

The pulse of the city is its business and commercial hub, but tradition still runs deep along its broad avenues and narrow, winding alleyways.

A good starting point is Plaza Mayor, the sprawling old town square that used to be a stage and marketplace for bullfights, festivals and public announcements.

Along the square perimeter, diners - mostly tourists - munch on tapas and people-watch under terrace umbrellas. Aside from shops and outdoor cafes, nine arches around the square act also as gateways to other parts of the city.

At night, follow the soft strains of an accordion's La Vie en Rose, and inevitably you will find yourself descending a flight of old stone steps and happening upon a young couple snuggling up to a glass of vino.

The city's Royal Palace or Palacio Real, is an impressive vision of white grandeur, housing 2,800 rooms. Though King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia don't live here (they live in the city outskirts), the royal family still uses it for ceremonial purposes, making it the biggest actively used palace in the world.

The original castle was the ancient Alcazar, a fortress built by the Arabs that burned to the ground in 1734.

Some say the palace was deliberately set on fire by order of Felipe V's Italian wife who hated its medieval coldness. To appease his wife -- who had decadent taste -- the king called on an Italian architect who then created a castle fit for...well, a queen.

As the capital city, Madrid also houses some of the world's finest art along an elegant, tree-lined boulevard, The Avenue of Art. Here art aficionados will find three leading galleries: Prado, Thyssen Bornemisza and Centro de Arte Reina Sofia National Museum.


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