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The Independent Travel
Andaluca (Pallas Guides, pounds 15.95), by Michael Jacobs

On one of the more than 400 pages that make up Jacobs' thought-provoking study of the history and culture of Spain's southernmost region, he quotes the reaction of the 19th-century travel writer Dundas Murray when presented with a bowl of the local gazpacho: "Of this savoury mess, he offered me a share; but half-a-dozen spoonfuls were enough to satisfy my curiosity." There is a sense in which Jacobs' book sets out to challenge just this kind of response.

The author recognises that the Andalucian character is itself a mysterious and complex mix of ingredients. But, unlike his predecessor, he is unflinchingly willing to plunge his spoon into the hotchpotch he describes as "a vast and perplexing region", and we can only be grateful that he is equally ready to share his fare with the reader.

This is a dense and at times wordy tome that has little in common with the usual guidebook. In fact, it is only in the final 100 pages that the author provides the sort of local, contemporary information and advice that the casual tourist would find useful. Although many of his reflections on the region's ferias, flamenco events, pilgrimages and gastronomy are both humorous and insightful, this is obviously a writer whose love of Andaluca goes beyond accepted cliche.

Jacobs is also very aware of the dangers of trivialising his subject. As he comments: "Flamenco, bullfighting and gypsies are vital components of Andalucian culture, but not the only components; similarly, Andalucia has its smiling and tragic face, but it also has a wide range of moods in between."

This admirable book is both heartfelt and informed, but I sometimes found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of narrative that testifies to the enormity of Jacobs' erudition. Not recommended to anyone who loses interest after a few spoonfuls of gazpacho.

Rating: 8/10

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