Travel: Passport - Paco Pena: `I have never found anywhere more beautiful than Rome ...'
Sunday 24 January 1999
I learnt to be more of a political animal in London, as people speak more openly about politics there, and I saw community life in a way that I hadn't seen before: these little, low houses, one next to another, with people talking to each other from their gardens. That sticks in my mind in a very particular way. I consider Cordoba and London both my favourite travel destinations and my homes.
One of my favourite "foreign" cities has to be Rome. I have never found anywhere more beautiful than Rome, and even though it is chaotic and neglected, there is so much culture and style there. But my favourite place outside of Cordoba is probably Istanbul.
Going there is almost like going home for me because the people are so friendly - almost like my own people. They eat a lot of fish, as we do at home, and I love it and have returned time and time again. Istanbul is such a generous, luscious country. It must have been a fantastic place throughout history and even now, with its many cultures, it is a jewel of a place. I first heard a minaret call in Istanbul. This felt strangely like being in Cordoba but somehow like being much further into the mysticism of my culture - flamenco has some of its roots in Arabic music. I am quite an emotional person and it was a striking, inspiring experience which definitely enriched me in a way that has affected my music.
I find Amsterdam a very attractive city. It combines tradition and conservative ideas with a very liberal, young outlook. It is quite small and is almost like a village in a sense, but it has this very open society that allows for anything to be tried. I will be very frank and say that I first went there out of a very basic curiosity about the sex shows.
To see this freedom and matter-of-fact approach to things, which in Spain were still shrouded in secrecy, was like an explosion for me. It seemed a very curious phenomenon and was a fun thing to do, travelling in a big group of boys.
My most enduring travel memory comes from Spain, however. In the 1950s, Spanish tradition was kept alive by sponsorship from the government. They promoted the folk art of different parts of Spain, and I was asked to go and play the guitar in Madrid. This was an amazing experience for me. I was so young and it seemed very far to travel then. I shall never forget the wonderful colours of the sky, late in the day in Castilla. That area is so hard and barren and I still don't understand how people manage to live there, but it has a striking beauty. Just moving through the country, sitting on the bus, and getting somewhere totally unknown was a really special, thrilling experience. Discovering something a little further from my front door for the first time has to be my greatest memory. I think it was then that I began to dream of being somebody, of seeing something more. Even now, even if I travel thousands of miles, it does not seem as far as those first few hundred that I travelled on my own.
I tour a lot in the States and find America both positive and negative. For example, when you first go to New York you think that you're going to find some kind of urban Mecca, but this is not the case at all. I did not discover much there in actual fact, but on the other hand, there is this amazing energy in America and you feel like you're on top of the world somehow. At least for a while. American people away from their country seem so self-confident and tend to dominate others around them. When you meet them in their own country they are far more generous, surprisingly uncomplicated and, in a way, really quite naive.
I had one of my most embarrassing travel experiences in America. I was on tour and some of the dancers' costumes hadn't arrived so we had to borrow some. I could never have imagined the American idea of what a Spanish flamenco costume is. Well, it was awful. We ended up with the most ridiculous outfits, including huge cowboy boots, which we simply had to perform in. It was not a nice experience then, but now I find it very funny.
Paco Pena brings his `Musa Gitana' to London's Peacock Theatre (tel: 0171-314 8800), from 2 February-7 March, as part of an international tour.
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