Christmas In Spain

A brief look at some of the Christmas customs in Spain …

In Spain, Christmas begins on 22 December, the day of the fat lottery known as ‘el gordo’. It is a day of great hope, because most Spaniards play for a number or share thereof, and then wait with impatience for the outcome of ‘el gordo’ which can yield an enormous cash prize.

On Christmas Eve family members gather around the table to dine on seafood, meat, sweets … the most typical Christmas sweets being nougat, marzipan and shortbreads, which are placed in containers for offering to visitors. After dinner they sing Christmas carols and chat, the latter being something Spaniards are very good at! The most religious families usually attend the ‘Misa del Gallo’ or midnight mass.

Christmas Day on 25 December is celebrated with a special meal, as on Christmas Eve. After the meal, there is a toast with traditional Cava and the rest of the day is spent with family. Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day is not an official holiday in most of Spain. However, 28 December is the day of Innocent Saints, a day of jokes, false news reporting and general fun. Think of April Fools’ Day but with more gusto!

Dinner on New Year’s Eve is a popular event but not as family-orientated as on Christmas Eve, being a time to spend with friends. A superstition followed by many people is the wearing of red underwear, because they believe it will bring them luck throughout the following year. People usually watch television, since at a quarter to midnight, broadcasts connect with the Puerta del Sol in Madrid where a clock strikes the twelve bells announcing the new year. With each stroke, a grape is eaten and when finished, revellers celebrate with Cava.  Afterwards, friends usually hold parties or gatherings that last all night, only ending as the first dawn of the new year breaks, at which point they eat chocolate and churros (a deep-fried choux pastry).

Onc again, New Year’s Day is a time for family gatherings and more food but so many suffer from hangovers from the night before that the occasion is often subdued. On the night of 5 January, the Three Wise Men arrive  It’s the day for children’s parties, who on the preceding days, have written letters saying what gifts they would like to receive. When the children wake up on the morning of 6 January, the Three Kings have already left all their gifts. Breakfast that morning is traditionally Roscón de Reyes, a ring-shaped sweet pastry cake with a small gift inside.

Although the tradition is for children to receive their presents on the feast of the Epiphany, more families are now giving their offspring some gifts at Christmas in line with the more common practice around the world.


El Pimpi

During a recent visit to the city of Málaga on the Costa del Sol, I discovered this unusual and very popular bodega …

El Pimpi is a bar situated in the heart of the old town in close proximity to the Roman Amphitheatre. Literally translated as ‘the pimp’, the bodega was established in 1971 but is housed in buildings dating back to the 18th century. The ‘Pimpi’ was a local Málaga character who used to help the crews and passengers from ships that docked in the city’s port. Collectively, the “Pimpi’ soon became the first Málaga tour guides, becoming known for their service and good humour. The bar has one of the longest pedigrees of any wine bar in Málaga and became best known for its range of tapas due to regular poetry recitals by Gloria Fuerte.

The bar occupies several small rooms, each with its own theme. Décor is inspired by images of flamenco dancing and bullfighting, two symbols of Spain. The Barrel Hall is one of the most notable rooms in which famous names from flamenco, film, music, politics and other backgrounds have signed their names on wine barrels. Apparently, the actor and director, Antonio Banderas, whose home is in Málaga, filmed part of Summer Rain in the El Pimpi bar, and Juan Antonio Bardem used the bar as the setting for The Young Picasso. The bar continues to be a popular rendezvous for famous faces, locals and visitors alike where they can enjoy food, local wines, the traditions and culture of southern Spain, all set in a friendly, authentic atmosphere.

The evening I was in Málaga was Noche en Blanco (white night) or Nuit Blanche in French. It is an annual all-night or night time arts festival which will usually have museums, art galleries, monuments and other cultural institutions open free of charge. In addition, there will be open air performances of music, dance and art to captivate the attention of the public. The concept originated in St Petersburg with Paris following soon after, and since then the idea has spread globally across several continents. As one can imagine, the city was crowded with people and in order to get both food and drink in El Pimpi, one had to join a very lengthy queue! Sadly, owing to time constraints, the visit to the bar could only comprise a view of the rooms and soaking up the atmosphere before reluctantly moving to another, much quieter, drinking establishment.

This post celebrates eight years of my WordPress blog!



Semana Santa

Semana Santa (or Holy Week in English) is a major festival in Spain and celebrated in different ways throughout the country.

Rather than the Easter weekend itself, it is the week leading up to Easter that is celebrated here in Spain with both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday official public holidays. Most towns and many villages celebrate Holy Week in one way or another, ranging from small highly religious processions to lavish and ostentatious extravaganzas. One factor, however, is common to all events and that is the underlying gravitas and devotion to the Spaniards religious beliefs. Whilst there are some spectacular displays to be seen here in Andalucía, the nearest spectacle is staged in Lorca in the adjoining autonomous region of Murcia.

Semana Santa represents Spain’s brotherhoods’ processions and unique, age-old traditions specific to each region. There are several brotherhoods in Lorca, but the most important are the Blue (azul) and White (blanco) fraternities, both of which display vigorous rivalry. The procession takes place in the Avenida Juan Carlos I which is a long, straight street ideal for the spectacle of biblical and passionate processions, chariot races and floats depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments in which different historical characters are represented. Every character bears some relation to the life, passion and death of Christ, and the up swelling of Christianity as a major religion. As part of the procession, spectators will be rewarded with people dressed as Roman emperors, Egyptian troops, Roman gods in chariots and on horseback, and virgins adorned in lavish, rich embroidered robes. In fact, many of the costumes are outstanding because of their elaborate locally done gold and silk hand embroidery, as well as the various brotherhood banners. The procession embraces devotion by the brotherhoods by the chanting of Marian hymns and serenades as well as music played predominantly on drums and trumpets. Members of each brotherhood, dressed in their uniquely coloured and decorated robes, carry their religious statues which are adorned with flowers for the occasion. These statues are then displayed in local churches for the rest of the year.

Each brotherhood carries a huge float (paso) made from either wood or plaster, which display sculptures depicting different scenes from the gospels related to the Passion of Christ or the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Many of these floats are works of art by Spanish artists and some date back hundreds of years. They are huge structures and can take up to 150 people to carry them which is devotion in itself! On the more ostentatious side are huge floats adorned in gilt which depict different aspects of history including Cleopatra and the antiChrist.

Many of the participants in these processions will be seen wearing a penitential robe (nazareno) that comprises a tunic and a hood (capirote) with a pointed tip which fully conceals the face of the wearer. The use of these robes dates back to medieval times when penitents could show repentance without revealing their identity. Some people feel threatened by this garment as it is more recently associated with the anti-establishment Ku Klux Klan movement in the USA, but it has far greater religious significance. Dependant upon where the procession is taking place, nazarenos may carry processional candles or wooden crosses, be barefoot, or even carry shackles and chains on their feet to signify penance.

Regardless of religious viewpoints, the Semana Santa processions are not to be missed. Whilst the general atmosphere of the festivities is usually solemn, the grand processions are simply spectacular, yet simultaneously emotional. Spain knows how to party, however, and despite the underlying message of the Passion of Christ, it is a fun time and one easily becomes absorbed in the rivalry between the ‘blues’ and ‘whites’.

Next year, however, as a complete contrast, I’m looking forward to experiencing a re-enactment of the Passion staged by the inhabitants of a small village in Granada province.




Journeys Into The Unknown

Although it’s hard to realise, it’s twenty months since I relocated to Spain …

For many British people who retire to Spain, life basically consists of lying in the sun around the pool, consuming copious amounts of relatively cheap booze, and venturing out to local shops and bars owned by fellow Brits. Many appear to live in a comfort bubble within a 20 km radius of their homes and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned places that I’ve visited, only to be greeted with the ‘where’s that?’ comment. It has become very apparent that people simply don’t look at maps or, indeed, are incapable of doing so, but for those struggling to read maps, there are easier ways of finding places, notably the Internet, as well as enquiring at local information centres. For those who do make the effort, there is a wealth of history, culture and scenery to be discovered almost on the doorstep.

I appreciate that Spain is a large country and that many places cannot be visited in a day. I am fortunate in living in the north east of Almería province which affords easy access to Granada and Jaën provinces as well as the autonomous region of Murcia. To put things into perspective, Almería province covers 8774 sq kms, which is the approximate size of Cornwall and Somerset combined but somewhat smaller than the total area of Dorset and Devon. As well as coastal towns and villages, there is an abundance of secluded coves, and moving inland, one will find mountains, valleys, hidden villages, lakes, forests and ancient monuments. When navigating mountain roads, many of which are maintained to a good standard, one can expect ever-changing vistas with a surprise around virtually every corner. Admittedly, some roads are very narrow and twisty, even degenerating into dirt tracks, but persevering with these will reward the traveller with uninterrupted views and frequent hidden gems.

As a general rule, I do try and explore new places at least twice a month. Of course, this is weather-dependent but for the most part, the sun shines! Having said that, some of the mountainous areas can look stunning with cloud formations looming overhead, and their overall appearance changes to reflect the seasons. Quaint villages with their narrow streets, plazas and churches are a joy to wander around, and maybe partake of a drink in the local bar whilst soaking up the views! Obviously, to experience these hitherto unknown places, a car is essential, but seeing as public transport in this part of Spain is fairly minimal, almost everyone has access to private transport.

Much of the interior of Almería province consists of a parched, lunar landscape with low mountain ranges and dried-up river beds. However, two areas of the desert boast exceptional geological features, namely the Karst in the Yesos de Sorbas Natural Park which is the most outstanding gypsum landscape in Spain, and the eroded mountains of the Tabernas Desert Natural Park. Nestling in the shadows of the Sierra Alhamilla Natural Park is the town of Níjar, famous for its primitive earthenware ceramics, and further into the mountains at 550m above sea level is the village of Lucainena de Las Torres. This quaint Andalucian village boasts narrow streets with whitewashed houses, and the 18th century church faces a ‘mirador’ or viewing area giving panoramic vistas of the surrounding landscape. Of particular interest are the remains of large kilns used for iron extraction from the rocks. Mining began in 1895 and due to its secluded location, a special 35 km railway line was constructed to transport extractions to the Mediterranean coast. The industry functioned until its closure in 1942 and the recently renovated kilns are now a site of special historical interest. The eight round kilns, which were constructed in 1900, were used to transform the rock into a much richer material. The kilns were filled from the top with alternate layers of rock and charcoal, and after cooking, the nuggets of ore were removed from the mouth of the ovens and loaded into wagons for their onward journey by train. Each oven was capable of producing 50 tonnes of ore per day.

To the south east, and close to Almería city, is the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park. This is the largest coastal protected area in Andalucía comprising a wild and isolated landscape of specific geological interest. Offshore are numerous tiny rocky islands and underwater extensive coral reefs teeming with marine life. In the northern corner of the province lies the Sierra de María-Los Vélez wooded park, bordered by the towns of Vélez Rubio and Vélez Blanco, the latter boasting an interesting castle. For those wishing to stay closer to home, local fiestas are a great way to experience regional culture. As the Spanish are very family-orientated, with several generations often living in the same house, they are proud to share their country and heritage. And that is just part of what my home province of Almería has to offer …

So, to those who simply want to soak up the sun, I say good luck and beware the health risks. However, they are missing out on an enrichment of life, education, enjoyment, and fun! Travelling in this part of Spain is a pleasant experience with generally little traffic and discovering some of these hidden places is, indeed, a journey into the unknown!

¡Feliz viaje!

Living the Culture

All too often, the phrase ‘living the culture’ is spoken by immigrants residing in a foreign country, but what exactly does it mean?

Let’s start by examining the definition of the word ‘culture’. The Oxford dictionary defines the word as relating to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society and also relating to the arts and intellectual achievements. If the meaning is taken literally, then one becomes totally immersed into a new society, thereby adopting both good and bad behavioural patterns.

As a settler into a foreign country, albeit still within Europe, I see many behavioural differences from those to which I have become accustomed in a period covering well over five decades. Some customs are to be applauded, notably the ‘warm’ greeting one frequently encounters when meeting people, but there are many behaviours that I detest and would never adopt. Driving standards are a classic example. Here in Spain, many drivers show little regard for white line markings on the roads, drive with one arm projecting through the window, talk on their mobile phones, double park at random and on road junctions, and frequently tailgate the vehicle in front.

I am not saying that immigrants should make no effort to integrate into the local culture but simply illustrating that this should be rather selective. I have already witnessed British drivers adopting the inconsiderate practice of double parking, an action that would rarely be done in the United Kingdom. It’s often easy to identify British drivers as many who have moved to Spain have matriculated their UK car, which for  those who don’t know, has the steering wheel on the right! Indeed, it is often these people who claim to be living the culture, yet they steadfastly refuse to let go of their UK vehicle. Whilst the costs of matriculation aren’t cheap as it involves new headlamp units, registration documents and a compulsory vehicle road worthiness test irrespective of the age of the vehicle being imported, driving a RHD vehicle on the right side of a road can be hazardous. This is particularly so if trying to overtake, and whilst that isn’t a problem on motorways, many standard roads are very twisty and narrow in places.

An important aspect of integration is trying to learn the language, or at least to gain sufficient knowledge for ease of communication. Whilst I have a basic grasp of Spanish, my knowledge is somewhat rusty and I will soon be attending lessons to improve my fluency. Sadly, there are many who make little or no effort to learn the language and this is not helped by the number of British-owned businesses and native traders who speak a smittering of English. Still, with some 80% of Britons bring unable to speak their own language correctly, there seems little chance of them embracing a foreign tongue! Then there are the British food shops selling familiar products at highly escalated prices. It’s amazing how many people use them on a regular basis rather than patronising Spanish supermarkets which stock most things one needs on a daily basis. The British stores do have their uses for any special foodstuffs or infrequent treats. For example, mince pies are a seasonal tradition in the UK but not generally available in Spain, likewise certain salad dressings and biscuits. However, why people will pay €4 for a packet of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in a British shop completely baffles me when the same size pack is available in a Spanish supermarket for €2!

Some people dramatically change their drinking habits when in a new country. Spain is a vast wine producer, but to be honest, many of their wines are not to my taste. That is not to say that they aren’t good, although bars do have a tendency to serve up the cheaper quality stuff. It’s hardly surprising when you can buy bottles of wine in the supermarkets for under €2 but I’d suggest that, for a quality wine, one needs to be paying upwards of €5. Cava, however, is a different story with many of the cheaper brands offering a very acceptable drink. This resembles champagne as it is made in the método tradicional. So far as food is concerned, I’m a firm believer in eating what you like rather than being forced to embrace dishes that aren’t to your taste. Many local recipes involve copious amounts of seafood, of which I’m not a fan, so my taste in fish is very limited. I’m no real fan of tapas either unless made with wholesome ingredients. I suspect that places selling tapas for €1 are merely rehashing leftovers so thanks but no thanks! As you would expect, there are Indian and Chinese restaurants in the vicinity as well as numerous places offering traditional Sunday roasts with all the trimmings. These are well patronised by many ‘living the culture’!

An activity that many newcomers embrace is participation in ferias or street fairs. This is a very old Spanish custom but I have never been a fan of fairs, even in Britain. The thought of marauding crowds and being jostled about simply lacks appeal and I think they are far more suited to the younger generation. Likewise, I would never attend a bull fight, but thankfully, their popularity is on the wane and I can only hope they will soon be a thing of the past. It is nothing but cruelty to the animals, an aspect of Spain that I abhore. Numerous dogs and cats can frequently be found in the wild, often malnourished and unkempt. Whereas most Europeans are generally accustomed to having animals as pets and part of the family unit, many Spaniards have dogs simply as deterrents against intruders, and they are always kept outdoors. They may have the grounds of the property in which to roam, but taking them for daily walks is not a priority.

Finally, entertainment. I have already encountered several ex-pat homes where there is no Spanish television. I would be the first to admit that Spanish broadcasting leaves much to be desired and anyone watching it for a period of time will be eternally grateful for the existence of the BBC. However, it can be a useful tool in getting to grasp the language, especially when watching news broadcasts. With modern broadcasting technology, people here in southern Spain can watch UK television much as they did at home. There are several systems available, one of which is the trusted satellite dish. It can be quite amusing spotting the British-owned homes by the size of the dishes and sometimes being asked the question ‘how big is yours?’ I jest you not! For some inexplicable reason, both Belgian and Dutch residents require a much smaller dish despite the satellites all being in a similar orbit. There is something rather comforting about being able to watch favourite and familiar programmes, especially during the darker nights of winter.

To conclude, I would suggest that ‘living the culture’ is non-definable as it means different things to different people. Personally, I aim to embrace the aspects of Spanish life that are attune to my tastes and beliefs rather than encompassing everything for the sake of appearances. Conversely, I have no wish to simply emulate my lifestyle as it was in the UK, and I am fortunate in residing in a mixed European community. Whilst the majority are British and Spanish, there are also Belgians, Dutch and French residents so, hopefully, this makes for an entente cordiale! One certainty is that I will not be patronising the large number of British and Irish bars with their third rate performers strangling the hits of yesteryear. Instead, I shall veer towards the typical Spanish bar in the hope of experiencing some Flamenco dancing and music.

¡Hasta luego!

A Spanish Gem

One of the joys of being in a different country is the ongoing voyage of discovery …

It goes without saying that travel will fill a great deal of time in discovering new places and historical sites, but two things that can be discovered on your doorstep are food and drink. Some people rave about Spanish cuisine, especially the cheap tapas often enjoyed at lunchtimes, but experience has found that one needs to select these dishes rather carefully. Generally speaking, cheap is the all-important word, so quality ingredients usually will be in short supply. Personally, I prefer more traditional dishes utilising fresh ingredients especially as there is an abundance of fruit and vegetables available when in season!

However, drink is another matter entirely. Obviously, there are copious amounts of wine available depending upon where you shop, with many Spanish stores only stocking wine from Spain. The wine is marketed by the region from which it originates rather than the more usual way of identifying it by grape. As is the case with all wines, there are good and bad ones, although price is not necessarily an indication of quality. To ensure an acceptable beverage, it is best to select wines that are identified by Denominaciōn de Origen which fairly equates to Appellation d’origine Contrôllée in France and Qualitātswein in Germany. A natural progression from wine is the liqueur, often regarded as a luxury, and one liqueur in Spain is no exception.

Cuarenta y Tres

Nestled within the historic city of Cartagena is a family-owned distillery making the liqueur known as 43 or Cuarenta y Tres! It is so-named as it is made from forty-three separate ingredients combining citrus fruits, herbs and spices all found in the Mediterranean. The exact recipe is a mystery and only three members of the Zamora family know the secret behind the liqueur. The special infusion process yields a rich golden liquid with tastes of honey, vanilla and caramel, although there are many varying descriptions of the actual taste. It is believed that the recipe was discovered by the Romans over 2000 years ago and it is verified that all the ingredients were commonplace in Spain at the time of the Roman Empire.

As with any liqueur, how one drinks it is an individual choice. Personally, I enjoy it served with ice but it needs to be consumed quite quickly before the ice dilutes it! Some enjoy Cuarenta y Tres as a traditional after-dinner drink with coffee whilst it is popular as a longer cocktail drink with the younger generation. One thing is certain though … this drink is a real gem, and with Cartagena being within easy reach, a tour of the distillery with free tasting is on the agenda! As for price, it isn’t exactly cheap and costs more than the likes of Cointreau, which. of course, is imported. The drink undoubtedly plays a very important part in the history and heritage of Spain.

Spanish Roads

As in any country, motoring in Spain brings both challenges and pleasure … 

I think it’s fair to say that some of their motoring laws are overly complex and the roadsides are awash with signage which only leads to confusion for the non savvy motorist. Basically, there are speed restriction signs at the approach to most junctions outside urban areas, then once passed the junction, further signs reminding you of the maximum permitted speed. This also applies on motorways, so the countryside appears full of lollipops wherever you travel! On the plus side, many of the main routes and motorways across Spain are maintained to a far higher standard than in the UK but still fall short of the quality of road surfaces across much of France. On the downside, some of the minor roads are actually devoid of tarmac in places, simply resembling dust tracks! However, that simply adds to the charm of motoring in Spain, coupled with the complete lack of traffic on many secondary roads. Only recently, I drove in excess of 45 kms over mountain roads and only encountered four other vehicles in that distance, so saying many roads are quiet is something of an understatement.

One thing that won’t escape an astute motorist, however, is the average age of motor vehicles on the roads. According to a recent survey, the average age of a car on Spanish roads is now 11.5 years, compared with 8.89 years in 2008. This equates to some 11 million vehicles, and if the trend continues or simply stabilises, this figure could rise to 16 million by 2017. The average age is far higher than in the other four major European markets of Germany, UK, France and Italy. Statistically, 29% of cars on the roads of Spain are between 11 and 15 years old whilst a staggering 24% are over 15 years old!

The recession that took hold in 2008 is probably the main reason for this situation. Many families have struggled to make ends meet, especially in Spain where average earnings are considerably lower than in much of Europe, so updating a motor vehicle has either been unaffordable or lacked priority. A lesser factor is that cars actually last longer in Mediterranean climates as bodywork does not corrode as a result of adverse weather conditions. In an effort to try and encourage people to purchase a new vehicle, the Spanish government has run an incentive discount scheme, similar to that promoted by the UK government several years ago. Unfortunately, unlike the success of the UK scheme, buyers in Spain have not been quick on the uptake, so the scheme has been relaunched on several occasions, the latest version having started in March 2015. This will run for 12 months or until allocated funds have been exhausted, and will entitle buyers of qualifying new cars to a discount of up to €3000 (£2300).

People may well question the need to update an old car if it still serves their purpose. However, there are several major factors to consider when driving a vehicle considered to be past its sell-by date. The number one factor is safety. In tests carried out by the Royal Automobile Club of Spain (RACE), an impact between two vehicles with an age gap of 20 years saw the occupants of the new vehicle suffer serious but not fatal injuries, whilst those in the old car were killed outright. RACE stated that the chances of an accident increase proportionately to the age of the vehicle, as does potential fatality. Studies show that in a motorway accident in a car less than 4 years old, the fatality rate is 1:74 (one fatality for every 74 incidents) whereas in a car over 15 years old, this increases to 1:36. On ordinary roads, the comparable figures are 1:41 and 1:19! A second factor is the cost of running an older vehicle. On average, a newer vehicle consumes 30% less fuel and its emissions are 95% less, so it’s also kinder to the environment. It is acknowledged that perceived savings in fuel will depend greatly on the annual distance driven. Newer cars are also much safer with multiple airbags affording driver and passengers more protection, superior crush-proof zones, and often come with facilities that aid the overall driving experience. If Spain’s target figure of old vehicles were replaced with new models, in excess of 300 million litres of fuel will be saved each year, thereby preventing the import of over 1.96 million barrels of oil per annum.

Despite the recession, sales of new vehicles have continued to be quite buoyant in the UK market, with a particularly good performance in the first six months of 2015. However, unlike much of mainland Europe, the UK has a very large fleet of company cars, with many businesses updating their fleet every 2-3 years. The sale of these vehicles obviously impacts heavily upon monthly statistics which do not accurately reflect the number of private purchases. With more and more British families being squeezed nearer or below the poverty line, there is every chance that a higher percentage of older cars will ultimately be gracing the roads of the UK in the coming years.

Wherever in the world you may live, drive carefully and happy motoring!