Many Britons and other English speakers live in or at least find themselves passing through Spain. Only some actively try to get to know it. We cannot all be Hemingways, but we want to share our impressions in the same language.

Semana Santa Sevilla
A procession files past Las Setas in Seville. Picture: James Bryce

As I write, scores of Spaniards are preparing to heave crosses, Virgin Marys and Jesuses through the streets, or watch as others do so. And Seville’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) parades are perhaps the most extravagant of all. A total of 62 processions – some containing up to 3,000 penitents – will take to the streets between today and Easter Sunday. Unless, of course, it rains.

The preparations, as always, have been thorough. Anybody wandering through the old town from January onwards may have noticed white-clad costaleros (carriers) packed tightly under heavy wooden floats loaded up with weights. Because it certainly takes practice to be able to carry a 2,000kg flower- and candle-laden paso (float) through narrow streets for up to 14 hours. Others may have seen the same men in bars enjoying well-deserved cañas (beers) after rehearsals, or perhaps heard trumpets and drums playing that evocative – and somewhat repetitive – music somewhere in the distance.

The question is, will this year's hermandades (brotherhoods) make it safely back to their chapels without squabbling? This was certainly not the case in 2013. The controversy of the Panaderos brotherhood, which become a trending topic on Twitter and even made the national press, began on the afternoon of Holy Wednesday. An 80% chance of downpours was forecast, prompting several processions to cut short their trajectories. Two others were called off completely. "It's been cancelled," said the owner of the hotel where my dad was staying in Barrio Santa Cruz. The hotelier, who had been anticipating watching the San Bernado procession pass his home at about 9.30pm, was visibly extremely disappointed he was going to miss out. But then, when you’re talking about airing wooden statues that are up to 500 years old, one cannot take any risks with the weather.

And the rain was to have even bigger repercussions that night. The more the clouds formed, the less the brotherhoods kept to their itineraries. At 10:30pm, when the Panaderos had been out for under an hour, the heavens opened. They decided to cut their losses and immediately head back to San Andrés chapel. Unfortunately the route they chose to take, via Calle Campana, cut right in front of the on-schedule La Lanzada procession. The La Lanzana members had no choice but to stand getting soaked for close to an hour while all 1,200 Panaderos passed by.

The fallout to this decision was substantial, with accusations and insults flying in all directions. The Panaderos were criticised for not doing anything to speed up – instead continuing to sway to the rhythm of the slow, mournful brass music. The audience was shamed for shouting, whistling and even booing the Panaderos (see video below). Some said they heard insults being exchanged between Nazarenos (the ones who wear tall, cone-shaped hoods). On the internet, devotees took to Twitter and YouTube to air their grievances, with heated exchanges still flowing months after the event. Some called for sanctions to be taken against the Panaderos.

Video: Heated moments during Semana Santa 2013: The crowd's reaction

“This is a disgrace. The Panaderos could have easily have waited until the La Lanzada had passed,” said Alejandro, from Cordoba, on YouTube. Meanwhile a member of the Panaderos brotherhood, Joaquin Mañes, had tweeted late on Holy Wednesday: "I would like to apologise to La Lanzada...I hope there will be some resignations tomorrow. Shameful."

Indeed, this degree of altercation, described by one local paper as “reminiscent of conflicts between brotherhoods at the beginning of last century,” is perhaps surprising for a festival where followers are performing penances in what one would hope would be a respectful and orderly religious event.

For some, the rivalry will have come as no surprise. "Semana Santa has nothing to do with religion," said Rafael, my Sevillano conversation exchange partner, as we sat in a cafe in late March, 2014. He added: "It's just a competition to see who can have the biggest paso and the most brothers following it.”

Rafael is not a fan of Semana Santa, dismissing it as a money-making exercise and pooh-poohing the entire concept on the basis that worshipping idols breaches the third commandment. While some would stress that Semana Santa penitents are not technically worshipping the effigies, the monetary gains associated with Semana Santa cannot be ignored.

Switching to English in case he offended any eavesdroppers, Rafael told me what is needed to join a brotherhood in Seville. Surprisingly, it is not necessary to be a member of the church whose effigies are to be carried, or to even attend it regularly. Instead you must join an association attached to that church. A monthly fee is required, and eventually brothers are told they have been selected to be part of the procession. "If they miss one payment, they’re put right at the end of the list again," said Rafael. Waiting lists for the most prestigious brotherhoods can be years long. Similarly, where Rafael lives in Dos Hermanas (on the outskirts of Seville) there are two brotherhoods, with only one shop selling the correct Nazareno uniforms. This means a pretty penny is made from their sale each year. All in all, being a brother is an expensive business.

For some Spaniards, however, Semana Santa is worth every cent. Jose Ruiz, a brother interviewed for a local paper I worked at in Ronda, Malaga province, said: “It’s a tradition for my family as we’re all members of the church. I grew up watching the parades and have always liked the imagery. When you see and feel something special like that, it makes you want to be a part of it.” Like Seville, Ronda is renowned for its traditional approach to Semana Santa.

For others though, Semana Santa is simply a reason to get out of Seville for a week – not only because you can rent your flat out for four times what it'd usually fetch, but also because any hope of leading a normal life – or, in some cases, getting to your own front door – needs to be put on hold until it’s all over for another year.

Semana Santa Sevilla 2
Nazarenos. Picture: Samuel Sánchez


Picture: Billy Ehrenberg 


Additional reporting by Nassos Stylianou (@nassos_)

Spain has the highest number of empty houses in Europe: 3.4million of them at a time when many are facing evictions for defaulting on their mortgages. House prices in Spain are also at an all-time low, according to Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) numbers for December 2013.

What is more with prices so low, record numbers of foreigners have been flocking to buy houses, with numbers tripling since 2009.

These things in themselves are not news; we’ve know this for a while and it’s been well publicised in the press both in Spain and abroad.

What is an interesting exercise is to look at where these empty homes are and how much house prices have dropped in those regions.

We don’t have the data for where exactly expats are buying the most houses, but we can make an educated guess that it will be on the Costa del Sol and the Costa Brava.  

So first lets look at where the empty houses are. I’ve plotted them on a map, with the bigger red bubbles corresponding to larger amounts of empty homes:


Click on the bubbles to get the stats for each region.

The first thing we notice is that the largest numbers of empty houses are in the Valencian Community and in Andalucía. This figure holds true, even when we look at the percentages:

18.5% of houses in Andalucía are empty - almost a whopping one in five. Valencia isn’t far behind on 14.7%. These are big numbers.

Surprisingly, Cataluña is third with 13% - despite being one of the few regions to have seen a drop in the total number of vacant homes.

As you may have suspected it seems that a large number of houses were built in theses areas because they are popular for second homes, both for Spanish nationals and ex-pats.

So where are the cheapest houses? Or rather, where have the biggest drops occurred?

The INE published the figures, and as you can see from this graph they’ve been dropping steadily since 2007 in some communities, with all areas having experienced large declines.

You can use the drop-down menu in the top-right of the graph to choose which regions you want to include or exclude. Click on the names of the regions in the legend to select the line for that Autonomous Community.

What is interesting is that, despite having the highest number of empty houses (both by volume and %), houses in Andalucía and Valencia have held their prices far better than other regions.

Andalucian properties are going at 73% of their 2007 value and the Comunidad Valenciana is seeing houses sell for 68% of 2007 prices; the third and eighth highest on the list, respectively.

Not so Cataluña. Prices have dropped to 55% of their 2007 level for the Catalans, despite that overall reduction in the number of empty properties.

Why might this be? One possible conclusion is that the number of foreign buyers snapping up cheap properties could well be preventing more pain in Valencia and Andalucía, where the areas around Benidorm and Malaga/Marbella remain favourites for ex pats.

Let’s have a quick look at who it is buying the most properties. Click on the tabs at the top to change between numbers and percentages. 



By far the biggest buyers are the Brits - which will surprise few - but the figure fails to take into account is that 12.85% of all new house purchases in the fourth quarter were by non-Spaniards. El País has a more in-depth article here.

How long that support will last is anyone’s guess, but the number of foreign buyers is higher even than before the crisis, perhaps showing how any recovery from the crisis is leaving Spain behind.

How long it will last is anyone’s guess.


Nassos Stylianou is a freelance data journalist working in London. You can read his blog The Data Party here.


Festivals of Spain: More tea than bull

Por: | 01 de abril de 2014

“Do you want to know a secret?” grins Jorge Martín, mayor of Algo, a village hidden in the mountains behind Málaga’s Costa del Sol. “If we have a problem, we can work it out.” He is talking about one of Spain’s wonderful festivals, but one of the few with British connections. On this occasion, it’s an annual tribute to The Beatles, which includes music, fashion, and the obligation of using their song lyrics in conversation. As a festival influenced by British culture, it’s not alone. Two other locations have also chosen to extol different aspects of our lifestyle.

Our much-loved British fish and chips are the basis for the festival in Salyvinagre, a small village near the port of Santander. The weekend celebration originated in the 1950s, when ships from the UK docked in the city. Many English seamen preferred to head to the little village to escape the hustle and bustle, and inevitably they told tales of the cuisine from their homeland. The villagers, always eager to welcome visitors, tried to create the dish for them, albeit with varying degrees of success and confusion. At first, as a seamen’s diary confirms, it was hit and miss. “Sometimes fish with no batter, sometimes batter with no fish, but the biggest problem was mushy peas. The villagers asked why they had to mush all the peas together. To be honest, we didn’t have an answer, so in the end we told them it was because it was easier to keep them on the plate.”


Festival ingredients: Fish, chips, mushy peas and tea.                             Photo Flickr (CC): Kevin Hutchinson

Nowadays, participants wear appropriate costumes, with some villagers dressing as fish and others as chips. During the Saturday end-of-festival party, they all run around the village plaza chaotically, until music starts and each fish undertakes a choreographed routine with a chip. The intention is to make calm out of chaos and to emphasize the harmony of the dish. Matches have been made here. “I was a chip and I met my future wife because she was a fish. I immediately knew I had the most wonderful piece of cod in the village,” says Juan Porshon, a keen festival attendee.

Whilst fish and chips are waltzing near Santander, the British love of tea and theatre is celebrated at another village, Escenamiedo, in the north of Extremadura. Originated by the De Quetelisson family after a visit to the UK in the 1970s, their eldest son, Gladwen, now oversees the events. “My late parents were besotted with the British way of life, but especially tea and acting, so they decided to start an annual festival to celebrate both,” he explains. “We call it Tea-atre, and the idea is that all of the productions have a tea theme. It takes a lot of imagination to adapt a script in a suitable way. For example, last year we did Teatanic, about the sinking of the great ocean liner, but from the perspective of all passengers drinking tea. We decided that, under those circumstances, there would have been considerably less panic. We’ve also tried a stage version of the movie From Here To Eternitea and, of course, E M Forster’s A Room With A Brew.”

Popularity has meant the festival has been extended to incorporate other initiatives. “A sculpture competition was introduced in 2011. The works have to be made from dried tea leaves and each sculpture must include the word ‘tea’ in its title, in the same way as the theatrical productions. Winning entries for the last three years have been an aeroplane called ‘Prioritea Boarding’, a strange taxidermy-style creation named ‘Reflections on Immortalitea’, and 2013’s controversial ‘Nuditea’,” concludes Gladwen. For the closing party, or par-tea, the village plaza is cordoned off, with sugar cubes taking the place of tickets. One lump will get you a normal seat, whereas two permit you to enter the VIP area.

Back in Algo, meanwhile, Jorge Martín is musing on the plans for this summer. “I feel fine,” he smiles. “If things get difficult, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.” I ask if he’s expecting a good attendance. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he laughs, “It’s not unusual.” He thinks for a second, and then adds, “Sorry, that’s Tom Jones!” I tell him not to worry, and that we’ll just let it be. He has to leave the interview a little early as a delivery lorry arrives with a consignment of Beatles-style wigs. The mop-top additions are obligatory for the final day of the three-day event, although many festival-goers wear them throughout.

The British flavour makes all three of these events an unusual diversion, far removed from the normal delights of bulls, tomatoes or olives. However, the timing of the celebrations can change from year to year, so it’s highly recommended to check the date of all information carefully.


“Spring,” I say, looking out from the balcony at a beautifully sunny day, “has sprung.”

My Catalan girlfriend looks at me suspiciously.

“No,” she replies, “spring starts on March 20, the first day of the vernal equinox. We’ve talked about this.”

And indeed we have. Many times. There are not many things we argue about, my girlfriend and I, but the passing of the seasons is one.

Let me explain: as someone who grew up in Britain I have a rather hazy, non-constrictive view of the seasons. They start, I have always believed, on a rough date that has everything to do with the weather and little to do with the calendar. So if there is a day of beautiful spring-like sunshine in early March, say, then spring has to all extents and purposes started.

For my Catalan girlfriend, however, the seasons have very definite dates for starting and finishing. These are based on the vernal equinox (March 20), the summer solstice (June 21, when summer kicks off), the autumnal equinox (September 22, when autumn boots summer out of the way) and the winter solstice (December 21, when winter takes its grim hold).

As you might imagine, this inconsistency in definition, tied to the depressingly real differences between the weather in Scotland and Barcelona, gives us very differing views indeed about what each season contains. And this leads to arguments.

In the interests of inter-European peace, then, I have decided to explain definitively here the differences between the Barcelona seasons - as my girlfriend sees them – and the British ones, in the hope that you, too, may avoid an argument one day.


In Britain, winter is the evil overlord of the seasons, typically running from November to March, inclusive. It will be cold and / or wet, the trains will probably stop running and most foreign visitors will finally realise why central heating is in fact a very good idea.

It is a depressing season, in other words, only enlightened by Christmas, drinking and the very slight possibility that heavy snowfall will keep you off work for a couple of days. Needless to say, going to the beach and – heaven forfend – swimming, should only be done a) as a dare or b) for charity, preferably both.

The Barcelona winter, meanwhile, is seen as something of a relief after all that relentless heat. You will need that heavy coat you so usefully brought from the UK for, maybe, one week total, during which time you will also wonder for the first time why your flat doesn’t possess any heating.

All this will be soon forgotten, though, when March comes around and you realise you could, just about, go swimming in the sea, even if only to tell your friends you did it.


In Britain spring is the most elusive of seasons. It lasts for about a month and mainly consists of moderately sunny days, which each last about 12 hours before winter kicks back in. Spring is a tease, then, and the most deceitful time of the year.

The problem, really, is that spring is actually rather nice in Britain: the sun comes out at last – although not enough to merit the suntan lotion – plants show their bedraggled faces and you can finally ditch the heavy winter coat in favour of the optimistically thin one you bought in the sales. At the back of your mind, though, you know it’s going to be raining again tomorrow.

In Barcelona, “spring” runs from March 20 to June 20, a time when temperatures average about 24 degrees centigrade. You can go swimming, sunbathe on the beach and invite your friends to a barbecue, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be too cold. This, you will hardly need me to tell you, doesn’t exactly constitute spring weather for the British.

Ah but it does rain, the Catalans will say. True: they even have an expression for it: “En Abril, aguas mil, el Maig cada dia un raig” (basically, “In April, lots of rain, in May, a little bit every day”).  But spring in Barcelona is so hot that this rain will be a genuine relief, rather than the guaranteed party pooper it proves in the UK.


Summer is the blessed season in the UK: the sun comes out, everyone goes to the park and not stopping to have a pint in the local beer garden is punishable by law. It’s lovely.

Then again, it only really lasts about two months – July and August – during which time some 80% of the population will go abroad to somewhere warmer anyway. Even then, you’ve probably got about 10 sunny days, unless there’s a “heat wave” (three consecutive days over 30 degrees) during which the trains will stop working again.

Expect to see at least one newspaper headline during the British summer that declares “Britain hotter than Majorca / Ibiza / the Costa Brava”, which you will inevitably read in a thunderous deluge of rain. Nevertheless, summer is basically everyone’s favourite season in Britain and if anyone disagrees they’re just trying to be different.

By contrast, summer is, for many Barcelona dwellers, their least favourite part of the year on the grounds that it is – brace yourself for this, British readers – simply too hot, as if averaging above 30 degrees for three consecutive months was somehow a bad thing.

This partially explains why everyone who is anyone abandons Barcelona in August, leaving just American tourists who spend much of their time wondering why they can’t find a dry cleaner that is open.


Autumn is, according to John Keats, the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Accordingly many British people will put up an argument for autumn being the most beautiful season and it is, certainly, rather attractive, as the leaves turn a goldy red and the fog rolls in.

Rather like spring, though, it is marred by its elusive nature: it is pretty much guaranteed in Britain that the moment you conclude that autumn is here it will be replaced by the freezing winds and rain of winter. And, quite honestly, who wants to go outside to look at the lovely trees when you know you’ve got a 50% chance of picking up a cold and the pub’s fire is incredibly warming?

In Barcelona, however, autumn is essentially summer 2. There’s a little less humidity, sure, and the mosquitos may retreat an inch. But essentially it is still summer, with all the warmth and outdoor leisure that implies.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for having to go back to work and the fact that the local dry cleaner is open again, then you probably wouldn’t even notice the season had changed. Which is how it should be, surely?



 Madrid abortion protest 1
Police and protestors during February 1 protest against the Ley Gallardón

A leading official in the Spanish Catholic church has likened abortion to a ‘silent holocaust’ and said abortions were evidence of a ‘backward society’.

Bishop of Alcalá de Henares, Juan Antonio Reig Pla, was speaking last week in the run up to Jornada Mariana por la Familia y la Vida, a religious event involving the defence of family values, which will take place on 29 and 30 March. Reig said that women’s freedom cannot be “corrupted” by the defence of “the right to terminate the begotten child”.

His comments come against the backdrop of the controversial Ley Gallardón, a new abortion law recently approved by the Spanish Cabinet, and, unsurprisingly, championed by the Catholic church.

The new law would make it illegal for women to have an abortion except for in the case of rape or if there was a proven risk to their physical or mental health - it would be illegal to abort in the case of fetal malformations. Women would need the signed permission of two separate medical professionals before being allowed to seek a termination.

Contrary to Bishop Reig’s claims that abortions are evidence of a backward society, it is the new law which threatens to set back women’s rights over thirty years.

Spanish women’s groups have said the new law will plunge women’s rights back to the days of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, “The changes represent a reversal of our right to decide, which will take us back to another era,” said Feminist Coordinator, an umbrella organisation of women’s rights groups.

The new law would make Spain one of the most restrictive European countries on terminations, along with Poland and Ireland and the first EU country to do a U-turn after legalising abortion. The previous Socialist government relaxed abortion laws, giving women the right to abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The vast majority of Spaniards disagree with the Reig’s comments - four out of five Spaniards are against the bill and even most Partido Popular (PP - the ruling party) voters think it is unnecessary, with several PP politicians speaking out against the law.

Polls show that over 80 percent of Spaniards, including practicing Catholics, support abortion on demand. 

Madrid abortion protest 2
Protesters during the February 1 march in Madrid 

Protestors have taken to the streets in recent weeks, armed with placards decrying the bill. “I'll be mother if I want to be,” “Bishops and PP, against women” and “Get your rosaries off our ovaries,” were just a handful of the signs carried by protestors in Madrid on 1 February. 

The new law is an issue that cuts to the heart of Spanish society - traditionally Catholic, but increasingly socially liberal - Spain was the third country in the world to legalise same sex marriage, in 2005, and the previous Socialist government of Jose Luis Zapatero made a concerted effort for gender equality - Zapatero’s first government comprised of eight men and eight women.

Critics have pointed out that severely restricting the availability of terminations will not stop terminations, it will merely make it more dangerous and difficult for women to terminate their pregnancies, resulting in women either travelling abroad or going through with unregulated illegal terminations.

The law has even been debated in the European Parliament, with Social Democrats, Greens and other left-wing parties joining forces to reject the proposed changes. Women’s Committee Chairman, Mikael Gustafsson, expressed concern over the new legislation:

“It’s a question of human rights; that women can decide about their own body and that it is not men who decide.”

Many have questioned why the Spanish government would reopen an always controversial and divisive issue when it should really be focusing on the issues most important to Spanish people - the economy and the unemployment rate of 26 percent. 

Spanish inquisition
"Nobody expected the Spanish inquisition"

Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy has consistently defended the bill, arguing that he is fulfilling an election promise.

Justice Minister, Albert Ruiz-Gallardón, has defended the law. “You have my word that no screams or insults could provoke me to abandon my commitment to comply with the (Partido Popular's) platform to regulate the rights of women and the unborn.”

By shifting so far to the right Rajoy risks alienating centre voters, a risky move for an already unpopular prime minister, distrusted by the majority of Spaniards, a year before elections.

Bishop Reig’s comments this week are reminiscent of a time when the Catholic church had an iron grip on the politics of Spain and shows that it still enjoys a great deal of influence among certain sections of the Partido Popular and the right.

Many Spaniards would argue that the backwards society is not the one that allows free access to terminations, as Bishop Reig claims, but one that returns to Franco-era abortion policies, forces women to seek unregulated terminations and most importantly, ignores public opinion, which is clearly and overwhelmingly, against the law.

Authors (Bloggers)

Our regular bloggers develop their own themes related with life in Spain and the interaction of Spaniards with the wider world, while guest writers add spice.

Jessica Jones. Hailing from the north east of England, Stockton-on-Tees native Jessica has had a passion for all things Hispanic from an early age. She has lived in and written about France, Chile, Spain and Germany and has been contributing to the Trans-Iberian blog since 2012, when she moved to Madrid after graduating from Durham University.@jessicajones590

Joseph Walker. A graduate of Leeds University, Joseph is a sports journalist based in Madrid, and has written on and covered a wide range of events, from the Champions League to Gibraltar’s first ever UEFA match and Spain’s national rugby team. He writes columns for several websites and will pen his thoughts on the latest goings on in sports-obsessed Spain. You can find him on @joe_in_espana

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Jeff Wiseman is an experienced journalist and comedy writer. He was formerly editor of ‘InMadrid’, a monthly English-language newspaper in the Spanish capital, and has contributed scripts and sketches for radio and television in the UK. Published his first book, ‘Shawley Nott: Comic Tales from England’s Strangest Village’, in 2013.

Billy Ehrenberg is an Journalism MA student at City University in London. He lived in Spain for three years, in Granada, Madrid and A Coruña, translating and teaching English. He has written for The Times, The Western Morning News and The Plymouth Herald in the UK and has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2013. He enjoys telling stories with numbers and infographics, data visualisations and general statistical tomfoolery. He tweets from @billyehrenberg

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