Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

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

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

Copa del Rey final turned into political football

Por: | 24 de mayo de 2012


Once Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola announced he was retiring, the season ending Copa del Rey final was set up as a fitting send-off for the most successful trainer in the club’s history. That the game was against an Athletic Bilbao side overseen by his friend and mentor Marcelo Bielsa seemed just right. All seemed set for a memorable shared football occasion between two of La Liga's most storied clubs.

Then news started circulating that Athletic and Barcelona fans groups (i.e. Basques and Catalans) were planning to whistle the Spanish national anthem before the game. This was not a huge shock, as you can’t follow Spanish football for long without learning that clubs work as containers of and symbols for local culture and pride. Foreign football writers soon learn to be careful about respecting different points of view - using ‘La Liga' club not ‘Spanish' club for example. Match reports and previews generally steer clear of political points, with the different rivalries just bringing some nice extra colour for readers. So a few whistles were to be expected.

The first hint that the Copa final might be more politicised than normal was Real Madrid declining to offer their Estadio Santiago Bernabéu as a neutral venue. There was also the Elephantgate scandal which looks to have ruled the King out of the game through injury, but the real feeling that something really different was brewing came on May 10th, when an outraged group of ultra right-wing organisations received permission from the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Madrid (TSJM) to march “for Spanish unity” on the day of the final. The groups (which included La Falange, el Nudo Patriota Español, el Movimiento Católico Español, la Asociación Vieja Escuela Madrid and others) were claiming they needed to respond to “Basque and Catalan separatist provocation” and an intention to “insult all of Spain and all Spanish people”. ‘One flag against separatism' was to be their rallying call.

Such talk of provocation and insults moved things beyond the usual squabbles between competing supporters and club delegates. The last I’d heard of La Falange was when reading about the Spanish Civil War, and the references were generally not positive. I’d assumed the group had faded away in recent decades with democracy replacing fascism and all, but a quick google search brought up a website which had nothing about football or sport, but featured an article entitled ‘Democracy, the loincloth of tyranny’.

Permitting these guys to march seemed like a strange idea. Cristina Cifuentes, head of the central (PP) government's delegation in Madrid, justified the decision by invoking free speech, saying you can’t ban a march just because you don’t agree with the marchers’ views. This had me for a while, until I remembered that in three and a half years living in Spain I’d seen that not everyone gets to protest exactly when and where they want. It just two weeks since there were indignados forcibly removed from Sol.

Surely the authorities could let the right-wingers march, but maybe not when lots of football fans were also in town. It is not that unusual for there to be some trouble around big games. The last few months have seen Madrid police charging young Atlético supporters celebrating their Europa League success in the city centre, and, more seriously, a 28-year-old Athletic fan Iñigo Cabacas dying after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by Ertzaintza (Basque police) members reportedly trying to break up a disturbance after a game.

It was clearly time for some senior political figure to weigh in with a considered and balanced statement to satisfy all sides and take some of the heat out of the situation. On Tuesday Comunidad de Madrid president Esperanza Aguirre (also PP) decided to get involved. This was promising as she'd been keen to be associated with successful Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid teams in recent weeks, but her contribution was not as I’d expected.

“Insulting the flag or the anthem are crimes under the Penal Code,” said Aguirre. “We must not stand for this, and my opinion is the Copa final should be abandoned if there are whistles during the anthem, and played behind closed doors. This trophy was awarded by the President of the Republic when there was a republic, Franco when Franco was here and now by his majesty the King. This is a Spanish competition. If there are teams that do not want to play in a Spanish tournament, then don't play. But what cannot be the case is that it is converted into an act of hostile protest against Spain and Spaniards.”

Unsurprisingly, bringing Franco into the debate did not calm things down. Barcelona football club president Sandro Rosell and defender Gerard Piqué responded by saying supporters should be free to express their own personal views. Others in Catalonia showed impressive memories. Ex-Barcelona president and current vice-president of the RFEF (Spanish football association) told Onda Cero Catalunya radio that he recalled a final between Barca and Espanyol (in 1957) when there were protests against the then head of state: “If in those times the game was not abandoned by a dictator, I don’t believe that after so many years of freedom and democracy you can gag people attending a game of football.” The president of Cataluña Acción, Santiago Espot, went even further back (to 1925): "Aguirre is talking about doing the same as Primo de Rivera, when he closed Les Corts for whistles during the Royal March".

Then, as chance had it, on Wednesday I was speaking with football author Jimmy Burns who is currently in Spain promoting his new book 'La Roja, a journey through Spanish football'. As someone closely plugged into Spanish culture and society (his grandfather was doctor and writer Gregorio Marañon and his father worked in the British embassy during WWII), Burns brings his own personal perspective to the development of the game in Spain.

The book is filled with knowledgeable interviews and choice anecdotes and shows how in Spain football and politics have been entwined almost from the first kick-off. Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was shot by nationalist forces during the Civil War. Athletic’s Estadio San Mames was the safest place for expressing Basque identity during the Franco years.

You should always however be careful to avoid any simplistic or mythologised readings of the game's past, Burns told Trans-Iberian, and unfortunately the opposite had happened this week:

“I know Esperanza Aguirre quite well, and she is a very dynamic, charismatic and generally intelligent politician,” he said. “I think on this particular issue what she said was unfortunate. She made a political calculation and said something which clearly appeals to a certain section on the right wing of her party. In Catalonia and the Basque country it has gone down like a ton of bricks. Ironically, her justification for doing this was that football was becoming too politicised. But clearly she herself has politicised the final in a way it probably would not have if she had kept her mouth shut.”

Burns was not wrong. Basque politicians understandably felt they had to reply to Aguirre. Socialist ‘lehendakari’ Patxi López asked her to take back such “unfortunate comments”. PNV leader in Bilbao Andoni Ortuzar suggested that instead of whistling during the Spanish anthem, fans could sing songs in Basque or Catalan.

Politicians in Madrid were also called in. The minister of the interior Jorge Fernández Díaz stopped short of actually criticising his party colleague, but said the authorities would be better transmitting “serenity, calm and tranquility” and added that he “completely disagreed” with the TSJM ’s authorisation of the right-wing extremists’ march. PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba took the opportunity to say that clubs should contribute to the policing costs for such high-risk matches.

From a sportswriter's perspective it looks like the whole controversy has less to do with historical rivalries than with current issues facing Spain. Politicians have plenty of more important problems to be talking about and working on, and football has been deliberately dragged in to get people talking about something other than austerity, bank bail-outs, unemployment etc etc. That is what politicians do I guess, but heating up an already volatile situation is neither big nor clever. Some right-wing politicians in particular appear to be taking advantage of the situation to promote a particular conservative agenda. Guardiola's last game has already been overshadowed. And now it’s difficult to know what to expect from the day of the final.

About 60,000 Basque and Catalan fans are expected in Madrid, including 10,000 travelling without tickets for the game. Both clubs have been given designated ‘fans zones’ - La Casa del Athletic (or Athletic Hiria) is by the Puente del Rey on Madrid Río. Barcelona fans are asked to gather in the Parque Matadero. These are both sensibly close to the Estadio Vicente Calderón venue, and well away from the Falange-lead march, which begins at 6PM and goes between Plaza de Alonso Martínez and Plaza de Chamberí (a map is here). 2,300 police will be around to control the situation, including mounted officers, canine units and helicopters.

All this made me almost forget about the actual game, which kicks off at 10PM Friday and is previewed here. The previously all-conquering Barcelona side will want to send their coach off with a smile, while Bielsa’s exciting young Athletic team are well capable of springing a surprise. The hope is that everyone afterwards is just talking about the football.

Galicia. Go Figure

Por: | 17 de mayo de 2012

“To come here on a bright, sunlit day, or glimpse it when the clouds suddenly roll away, is to gaze with awe on dramatic landscapes conjured up by sea, rock, wind and rain." (Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.)

Part II: On Boundaries and Bonds, the Sea’s the Limit

There are things, I find, that Galicians guard jealously as their own, and their own only. The Galician language is arguably one of them. I remember my first go at saying a complete sentence in galego; it was silly but earnest: “Escoito Radio Galega Musica.” And I smiled, waiting for my sugar cube. “That’s Portuguese, not galego!” (I’d mispronounced the final “o” in “escoito.”) As I persisted, in time I got a good range of responses, from glassy looks to suggestions that my linguistic leanings were potentially exotic, and, of course, light snacks of retranca (“Eso sí que es bueno!...”). In any case, they shall not praise. Rather, recoil: “Why would you want to speak Galician??”

That again may have a historical explanation: in times past, faced with the incoming march of Castilian, Galician was forced to withdraw from the public space. It became the language of home. It was safe to speak in one’s inner circle: family and close friends. As such, an outsider’s use of highly idiosyncratic words like riquiño or morriña is, in a way, trespassing, and consequently calls for firm reaction. For example, I once had a lovely argument with a couple of Galician women, when I remarked that morriña has pretty much the same meaning as English “homesickness” and Portuguese saudade. They gave in on the translation front, but still made it crystal clear - with that scarily non-negotiable spirit which surges up in as galegas at times when you’d better shoot off, and silently!... - that morriña is a Galician feeling. Only. If you’re not Galician, help yourself, say the word. But you most definitely can’t experience or understand that feeling it expresses.

Not understanding Galicians is actually a bit of a pastime on both sides of the Cordillera Cantábrica. On the one hand, “meeting a Galician on a staircase, other Spaniards like to say, it is impossible to know whether they are going up or down,” as Tremlett puts it. On the other, Galicians themselves will readily confess, whenever not asked directly, that their prime feature is being closed. Full stop. I often sense a quirky sense of pride in that statement, so let me do the figures: if it’s common knowledge that somebody who’s closed is hard to understand, and if somebody deliberately closed shares in that piece of knowledge, does it not follow that Galicians would rather not be understood? That they may actually enjoy making it hard for outsiders to figure them out? (Souls naturally inclined to take things personally are kindly asked at this point not to read the lyrics of the Galician anthem. Ever. If they really need to, they should at least skip lines 21-24. That’s where the hermeneutics gets a bit muddy.)

Nevertheless, outsiders will be provided with a few clues as to how Galicians construe themselves. First, there’s Breogán, the Celtic founding father of the nation. Galicia’s claim to Celtic origins has been disputed time and over again, yet one cannot ignore the fact that, if it’s been around for so long, then it must be for a good reason. Obviously, bagpipes and certain design patterns are traditional Celtic stuff that Galicia does share with Ireland and Scotland. Secondly, there’s a rather pervasive sense around Galicia that it makes up a distinctive northern identity of Spain alongside Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, with which it shares the same “gene pool,” according to Tremlett. Northern Spaniards are reportedly hardworking, more productive, reliable, as well as resilient under Atlantic weather conditions and the follies of history. (Another sense of joint Galician-Portuguese identity used to linger on here, but that’s not cool anymore because of the International Monetary Fund and Mrs Angela Merkel.)

But let me change my tune. In August 2010 I’d been a resident of A Coruña for a year and still had no clue about that “Galician soul” which Tremlett says Galicians are so determined to keep hiding. It was the Fiestas de María Pita and I joined in the celebrations going to a concert in Parque de Santa Margarita. Cristina Pato and Rosa Cedrón were going to put out a new album, “Soas” (“Alone”), and in the gig they mixed some new pieces with old ones. Their music, a fine fusion of Galician folk and universal classical, was flowing from the modest stage out into one of those rare balmy nights that Galician summers let slip. It was pleasant. Very.

At one point, they started singing a song that, from bar one, sent ripples of something around the small amphitheatre. It was “Quen puidera namorala,” composed by Luis Emilio Batallán, based on a poem by Álvaro Cunqueiro. Rosa beckoned to the audience to join in. They did so, very gently. Murmuring along. In tentative steps, the music was gathering mass from their voices. Spiralling off the incense of that something - was it intimacy? - with the kind of tender, luxurious slowness that a keyholder of Time might afford. An old, an ancient dream was unfolding. I thought to myself: “This is the Galician soul!” It came from way beyond retranca, Breogán, and all that factual information. This was something else. It was millennial, whole, basic. And serious; replete with atoms of mesmerising seriousness. It was so beautiful, I could not move.

Awe and lyricism - these are, I believe, the reservoirs unique to Galicia in the whole of Spain. Galicians seem to have preserved them since time immemorial, and I can see why: because of the Ocean. El Mar. When Galicians pronounce these two words, there’s deep love, and deeper respect, in them. El Mar up here is powerful. On clear sunny days, as it stretches out towards America, its unmistakable deep blue is a blinding magnet, as frightening as it is seductive. Galicians have experienced the full range of its potency, from the most destructive, most recently in January, to the most alleviating. El Mar feeds them, inspires them, challenges them, and teaches them humility and resistance.  

Galicians love gazing at El Mar. Some do so for hours, abstracted and absorbed in it. Seeing them, “Costa da Morte” sounds out of tune. What’s more like it is Costa da Morriña.

Galicia. Go Figure

Por: | 13 de mayo de 2012

Cosmos pe Terra (Parque de Santa Margarita)
“This mountain range dips south along Galicia’s border with neighbouring Asturias and León. It forms a formidable natural barrier that sets Galicia, and the Galicians, apart from … the rest of Spain.” (Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.)

Part I: The Mysteries of Saint Depende and the Rest of Us Mortals

On any idle afternoon, it’s well worth grabbing a map of the Iberian Peninsula, holding it like a wheel and turning left. 12 o’clock, Basque Costa Verde. 12.10, Costa Brava. Quarter past(ish), Costa Daurada and Costa del Azahar. Keep on turning: Costa Blanca, Costa Cálida, Costa del Sol, Costa de la Luz, Costa Prata. And Costa da Morte. After gold, warmth, sun, light and even orange blossom, where do you go with that name? 

You go to Galicia. The strangely Antipodean-looking eucalyptus grove near Alvedro airport was giving off a ghostly mist. The air was slightly blue and dilemmatic. The world could have begun again. It didn’t, though. I breathed in, breathed out and got on the bus. It took me to the city centre in 20 minutes. Plenty of time for goddess Galician Weather to discharge a shower, halt, flash a bunch of sun rays on their commercial break (a teaser ad for one of the other Coasts, no doubt), and then properly start pouring. Down. Heavily.

As I was wading with my suitcase, laptop, umbrella and Lonely Planet guide open at “A Coruña – Orientation” along the wrong street and in the wrong direction, snippets of Tremlett’s outlook on Galicia came to my mind. “Spain’s misty and mysterious north-west corner.” Realm of meigas (witches), holy land to pilgrims, cocaine traffickers’ gateway to Europe, country of troubadours once upon a time, Franco’s homeland, and the cradle of Zara. Where the weather is “unpredictable and unforgiving,” and storms can buffet you “with near-horizontal rain and wind.”   

That prepares you for just about anything. Even so, my first conversation with a local gentleman came as a bit of a surprise. By the time I had the pleasure of engaging in it, I was severely drenched, so it was a very sore figure indeed that asked the kind taxi driver how she could get to Calle Alameda. He didn’t say, “Take the third turning on the left.” Or “See that bank on the corner? That’s where your street is.” Instead, he said: “See this street here on the left?” I nodded. “This is not the one you’re looking for.” “Oh!” I let out. “See the second one over there?” “Yes?...” I followed expectantly. “Well, that’s not it, either.” “I see,” I tuned in. “See the third one, a little bit further up?” “I do,” I confirmed with élan. “That is Calle Alameda, effectively.”

When I left him I was the happy bearer of a broad, broad smile: I had experienced the Galician retranca first hand! What is retranca? I’d say it ought to be UNESCO heritage, but Giles Tremlett argues it’s just “one of the great Galician characteristics” and locates it anywhere between “a devious refusal to let others know what you are doing or thinking,” irony (i.e. taking the mickey out of people, please see above), and “a good-humoured attempt to confuse those who try to read the Galician soul.” Other more muted voices imply, particularly on foggy days, that retranca is also a way of saying what you’re not saying, and vice versa: not really saying what you’re actually saying. Quite. Conspiratorial coded messages? A remainder of the freedom of speech in Francoist times? After all, Galicia did have a little crush on spies, once.

Be that as it may, the typical interface of retranca is “Depende” (“It depends”). It’s the answer you’re bound to get whenever you ask direct questions. This leads to conversational gems which a dead Dadaist would be dying to be able to make up. For example: “Have you finished the exercise?” “Depende.” “Are you tired?” “Depende.” “What time is it?” “Depende.” Only one word can describe it sublimely enough: ubiquitous. However, a brilliant challenger might topple it soon in the retranca charts. It’s “más o menos” (more or less), starring outstandingly in this other real-life little chat: “How are you?” “Más o menos.” And one should never forget the classics: “Is it true that a Galician always answers a question by asking one?” “Who told you that?” 

Although possibly frustrating on occasion, Galician retranca is Spain’s best contender for attaining the unattainable: British humour. Ricky Gervais brings up its undertones in a (more or less) recent article. “We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take the piss out of people we like or dislike. And ourselves. This is very important… [It] can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s play fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is.”

Rub off the Gervaisian extra bit of acid, and you get retranca, I reckon. It’s a game of mirrors, after all; a double-edged social tool; and a mutual testing ground. Look at this exchange between a supermarket cashier and a customer: “Buenos días!” “Buenos días - por decir algo...” “Algo hay que decir.” (“Good morning!” “Good morning - just to say something…” “One’s got to say something.”) Do they or don’t they like each other? Are they pulling each other’s legs? Their own? We don’t know. How could we? We’re not Galicians.

 (To be continued)

No pigs, no pulpo, no problem: a vegetarian in Barcelona

Por: | 04 de mayo de 2012


“And jamón ibérico?” A bemused look, a shake of the head and the discussion changes tack. Such has been the outcome of many a conversation I’ve had since moving to Barcelona last summer.

The Catalans, I have to conclude, don’t really get vegetarianism. They’re not against it, as such; rather the subject tends not to trouble their thoughts, until faced with an odd foreigner who’s not tucking into the fuet they’ve so diligently chopped for the table.

They may then feel a certain sad bewilderment at the whole state of affairs, as if they personally feel sorry for the pig whose tastiest cuts are being ignored. But it’s unlikely to overly trouble them as they tuck into their own meaty dinner later that night.

It’s not that the UK, where I come from, is overrun by vegetarians: a 2009 survey found that just 3% of the British population is “completely vegetarian”, with an additional 5% describing themselves as “partly vegetarian”.

That’s not a particularly high percentage but vegetarianism undoubtedly has more of a high profile in the UK than over here. For example, in Britain you generally wouldn’t invite someone to dinner without asking if they eat meat, while almost all restaurants will have a vegetarian option on their menu. The same cannot be said for Barcelona.

Why this might be is less clear. People have mentioned the influence of the hardships and hunger of the post-War years, when meat was a privilege to be eaten rarely, as a key factor in Catalan thinking. But then Britain had its own period of rationing during and after the Second World War which, while almost certainly not as extreme as the hunger suffered in Catalonia and Spain, clearly marked the nation’s psyche.

Possibly the most likely explanation I’ve heard for the lack of vegetarianism is cultural: food is indelibly linked to the local culture, the argument goes, while meat is eternally linked to food.

In this way meat dishes – and in particular local specialities like pollastre amb escamarlans, ànec amb peres and peus de porc – are an important part of the Catalan cultural legacy. To eschew them, then, is to turn your back on the heritage of which Catalans are so justifiably proud.

Britain, of course, has its own culinary traditions, many of which involve meat. But these are nowhere near as ingrained in British culture as Catalan dishes are here. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the Catalans embracing chicken tikka masala as a national dish as the British have done so enthusiastically over the past 30 years.

Meat being so closely linked with food in the Catalan mind also means that many locals feel a “proper” meal just isn’t complete without some element of meat to set it off. And, with food invariably related to feelings of parental love in households throughout the world, a lack of meat at the table may trigger feelings of neglect and pity in the average Catalan.

As a result, I’ve seen some truly heart-breaking looks as Catalan friends and family set down a vegetarian dish, which clearly doesn’t constitute a proper meal for them, for me to eat. It’s as if they’ve failed in the particularly Catalan game of feeding a foreigner to make them feel at home, no matter what I might say to persuade them.

The irony is that the vegetarian dishes they serve are inevitably excellent. In my nine months in Catalonia I’ve enjoyed fluffy potatoes from people’s gardens twinned with eggs from their hens; I’ve had clever and brilliantly executed salads; I’ve had variations on tortilla to make you cry with pleasure; and I’ve had smoky escalivada straight from the fire.

The same is true in restaurants and even the local bars. Of course, cutting out meat and fish does mean a rather limited choice sometimes – menús del día are often a casualty – but it’s hard to argue with a good plate of patatas bravas, a tapa of pimientos de Padrón or the ever popular aubergine chips with cheese and honey.

Naturally, there is a skill in cooking these dishes. But their success is also down to the excellence of the local ingredients. Catalonia is full of superb – and relatively cheap – fruit and vegetables, often sold in local markets. And this makes vegetarianism very easy to follow here, so long as you pay attention in restaurants.

You won’t be able to partake in jamón ibérico. But when you’ve tried a plate full of delicious, burly rovellon mushrooms, cooked with garlic and parsley, you may be a little less inclined to miss it.

El País

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