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:

Rajoy: mystery or void?

Por: | 18 de octubre de 2012


The big question, we are incessantly told, is whether Rajoy is going to ask for a second bailout, using the EU’s ethereal rescue mechanisms. But here on the ground in Spain, there are countless questions which no one in the Popular Party (PP) government seems interested in answering.

Let’s start with a small day-to-day issue: How much does it save the government to make civil servants go to the doctor in order to justify one single day’s absence, clogging up yet further the public healthcare system?

Still in the healthcare department: Was the decision to strip illegal immigrants of their health cards, unless they pay into an insurance plan, really taken on economic grounds or was the aim to distract attention?

On education, it is not good enough that the education minister thinks it is amusing to wax semantics, saying this week that it is for “students to improve their performance in order to boost economic growth.” Before answers, in this case, a little humility is required to admit that billions of euros have been slashed from education spending. And that comes with a cost.    

Ok, now to money: What is the next move as regards the serious problem of tax evasion in light of the failure of the “fiscal amnesty” to so far raise more than some tens of millions when the government predicted it would bring in 2.5 billion euros? When and how will the authorities go after the tax dodgers? 

And are the IMF-touted macroeconomic gains of boosting indirect taxation ahead of raising levies on the wealthy worth the pain? We don’t know because the government is not deigning to explain its policies.

Faced by such a storm, it would be nice if we could all row in the same direction, but, to labor the maritime metaphor, Spain’s skipper remains locked in his quarters. Having coasted to power by merely observing the wreckage of the Zapatero administration, Rajoy clearly took a decision to eschew the media spotlight in the hope of avoiding a swift burnout. All well and good. But his government has been forced to dart hither and thither as the deficit-target dictates have commanded. When pressed, on occasion, the prime minister’s pitch is the message that “the right people are in charge now; rest assured, if anything goes wrong, it will not be due to our incompetence.”

It might be populist to yearn to maximize time spent on the podium, but a little verbal populism would surely be welcome at this stage. We might not all swallow the policies, but it would be nice to know where they are meant to be heading. Wait a minute! Damn nice, it is our right to know. On September 10 Rajoy offered his first TV interview since taking office nine months earlier. In his few press conferences, he has rarely taken questions from journalists.

Rajoy is not burning in the spotlight, but the masterplan is by no means taking a crystalline form as the waves of “reforms” (cutbacks) pass by. The draft 2013 state budget (coming close on the heels of the 2012 document which was held back until Easter seemingly with the ultimately frustrated hope of hoisting the PP candidate to power in Andalusia) contains virtually nothing by way of stimulus for the ailing economy, with the exception of a reintroduced car-purchasing subsidy. Business is to sprout by itself; the unemployed disappear – by going abroad or simply falling off the records as their entitlements elapse; growth will return by magic to fecundate fallow land.

Or is no one explaining any plan because there is no plan? Waiting for Rajoy could be the unfunniest political joke ever played.

Photograph by Uly Martín.

Human castles - a metaphor for the Catalan spirit

Por: | 11 de octubre de 2012


All eyes are on the tiny child, perhaps seven or eight years old, as she gingerly but quickly and purposefully scales up the side of the tower.  There is no safety net or rope to catch her if she falls.  All the more nail-biting given it’s a human tower on which she precariously balances, seven human stories high, perhaps 12 meters tall, that is beginning to creak and sway.  The buzz of the arena fades to a momentary silence as everyone looks to the barefoot girl in her traditional outfit - white trousers, cummerbund and team orange shirt, her ponytail trailing down her back beneath her safety helmet.  The gralles, primitive oboes, blast and drums rally her spirit, hurtling towards a crescendo.  Thousands in the arena call out and chant in support.  Then the whole stadium bursts into feverish cheers as the little girl reaches the top of the dizzyingly high apex, crouches on the shoulders of those beneath and raises her hand, crowning the tower - job done - or almost, she still needs to get down. 

She begins an immediate descent and reaches the base within a few seconds.  The thick bough of people that forms the tower’s foundation reminds me of the nature-inspired patterns of Gaudí’s architecture.  Without pause, the girl thrusts herself into the outstretched arms of her proud and relieved mother, who caresses and kisses her.  The little girl is delirious with joy.  She has learnt some of the most important lessons for a Catalan: “Strength, balance, courage and common sense” - the de facto essence of the Catalan spirit.

Welcome to the 24th Concurs de Castells competition, celebrating its 80th anniversary, in the stunning Catalan coastal city and 2012 “Capital of Catalan Culture”, Tarragona.  Declared a UNESCO “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” in 2010, the “castell”, human castle, according to the organisers of the competition, is a tradition that began 200 years ago in the small village of Valls, just 20km away from Tarragona after a village dance.  From these small roots the tradition spread around Catalonia until in 1932, the competition was inaugurated in Tarragona to mark these amazing feats of “human engineering”.  

In the competition there are currently 39 different types of human towers that can be built, varying in size and structure, with names such as “quatre de vuit” – four by eight, which represents the people width versus the people height of the tower.  A group of twenty experts calculate and debate the points to be awarded for each castle.  The teams get five rounds of tower building each.  The most stable towers have a girth of four people.  The highest and most difficult tower ever achieved was a tower three people wide by a staggering ten people high

We are human towers

Colour Tower Central

In the pit of the arena I speak to the red shirted, Maritxell Marti, team member of the reigning castell champions, Villafranca.  She says castells epitomise the Catalan spirit.  “I think when you build a human castle; all the things that Catalan people aspire to like solidarity, everyone helping each other, are there”. 

In fact the tagline for the castells competition is “Som Castells” – we are human towers; and many Catalans believe the demonstration of teamwork and courage demanded in these extraordinary displays reflect the region’s psyche.

Although teams from throughout Catalonia compete for the esteemed trophy and prize money, this year €15,000, it is the unity between them that one notices most.  As Martin den Ambtman and Anouck Wiggers, young tourists from the Netherlands said, what they liked to see was how different teams encouraged and even physically supported other team towers if they faltered.

Raimon Jene, of team Poble Sec, Barcelona, sweating and breathless after completing a third round of castell building, agrees that these towers are a powerful symbol of what it is to be Catalan.  He says the castells are built from “tradition, cooperation, strength, targeting an objective and overcoming challenges”.

And the castells increasingly seem to strike a chord amongst Catalans.  Jordi Suriñach, spokesperson for the castells competition told me that that this year was the largest in the event’s history - both in terms of competitor and spectator numbers.  32 teams amounting to an estimated 11,000 castellers took part and it attracted a crowd of almost 10,000.  The organisers even had to extend the competition duration from the traditional half day to over one and a half days.

So what is behind the sudden growth in interest in this uniquely Catalan tradition?

A groundswell of support


The groundswell of involvement and support in the competition has been interpreted as a reflection of the strengthening pride and regional identity amongst Catalans and the dramatic increase in support for independence.  Recent polls suggest backing for a referendum on independence is at an all time high of 74%.

A month ago, on 11th September, 1.5 million protestors took to the streets of Barcelona, marking Catalonia’s national day, La Diada.  From a sea of yellow and red Catalan flags could be heard the chant “Catalonia - a new European state”.  Many were calling for complete secession from the rest of Spain.  Those leading the rallying cry were high-profile Catalan politicians and personalities including Sandro Rosell, the president of FC Barcelona, one of Catalonia’s most revered global exports.

According to Spanish writers and commentators Ricard González and Jaume Clotet in a recent New York Times article: “The immediate cause of Catalonia’s sudden outbreak of secessionist fever is so-called fiscal looting.  Before taxes, Catalonia is the fourth richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.  After taxes, it drops to ninth - a form of forced redistribution unparalleled in contemporary Europe.” 

But it is not just economic woes that have driven Catalans to seek more autonomy from Spain.  Its population often feel out of sync with the rest of country.  This led to violent oppression during Spain’s Franco era that began in 1939 when democratic processes were annulled, the Catalan language was suppressed; and approximately 4000 Catalans were executed. 

Even after the transition to democracy in the late 1970s Catalans still found their values at odds with the rest of Spain.  In 2010 Catalonia banned bullfighting, a practice that purportedly represents the epitome of Spanish culture; sending a clear signal that Catalonia’s sensibilities were very different to those of the rest of Spain and more aligned with the rest of Western Europe.

Catalonia also punches above its weight when it comes to global cultural influence which gives it a real sense of regional pride.  Its famous sons include the genius architect Antoni Gaudí and artist Salvador Dalí; the region is seat of the legendary Barça football club; was the home of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, regarded as the best restaurant in the world before it closed in 2011 and whose influence revolutionised global cuisine; and despite Franco’s attempt to crush the Catalan language, its usage has enjoyed a renaissance and is spoken as the lingua franca in much of the region.

An independent Catalan state?


When I ask the beaming Maritxell Marti, whose Villafranca castells team has just won the 2012 Concurs de Castells, whether Catalonia will be independent one day, it is clear she has a taste for victory: “I hope so, I really, really hope so.” 

But despite the towering success of the Catalan independence movement, it’s still at risk of being toppled.  The Spanish government is not going to concede easily to increased Catalan autonomy, let alone independence; and has made its position very clear.  There’s a ban on secession in the Spanish constitution and Spanish Army Colonel Francisco Alamán Castro recently made the following ominous statement: “Catalonia’s independence will be over my dead body and many others’ too.” 

However, despite the hostile undercurrents, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia has called a snap election for 25th November, considered essentially a referendum on greater autonomy saying to regional parliament: "The time has come to exercise the right to self-determination."

If what it takes to build something as magnificent as the human towers is courage and solidarity I wouldn’t be too surprised to find that the Catalan independence movement powered by such spirit is heading towards a crucial tipping point.  Upon an ever strengthening base of grass roots support, it’s conceivable that the Catalans might just one day build a new architecture on which its children can climb towards a more autonomous future. 



 Photography: Charles Wardhaugh

Perez asemblea


Last weekend’s general assembly of Real Madrid’s socios was another triumph for club president Florentino Pérez, who announced some more bold construction plans and new measures to ensure the club remained in madrileño hands, while facing no questions about how the current economic crisis sweeping Spain might be affecting his stewardship.

The most dazzling announcement was a €250 million redevelopment of the club’s stately Estadio Santiago Bernabéu ground. Pérez put forward four different visions, from four leading international architects, of how the already outstanding stadium might look in future. Each design offers more protection from the elements for paying fans and also a new building fronting onto the Paseo de la Castellana featuring “a unique zone of great commercial quality,” Pérez said. A green light for the project could be given as soon as this month, with the work then taking place during the next three summers.

Construction was a theme of the assembly, as it has been throughout Pérez's tenure, which began controversially a decade ago when the club's previous training ground was sold to the city’s municipal authorities. This year there was also renewed talk of building a Real Madrid 'theme park' at the club’s present Valdebebas training facility, where a residence for the senior and youth squads is also planned.

Madrid’s members were also informed that the club’s annual revenues had risen to €514 million in 2011-2012, leading to an annual profit of €24.2 million, while over this period the club’s debt fell by 26.5 per cent to €124.7 million. “I would like to state that these results are spectacular, above all, given the economic circumstances we are living in,” Pérez said.

The Real president is well placed to comment on Spain’s currently troubled economic circumstances (even if he personally does not bear much of their brunt) as he is also the president of the country’s largest construction company Grupo ACS (Actividades de Construcción y Servicios). Its general assembly also took place in September, where Pérez announced that the company’s debt now stood at €2 billion euros, and had made an annual loss of €1.2 million. Shareholders were assured however that these results were due to a once-off misguided investment in ailing Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, and the company's underlying finances remained secure.

Not everyone sees ACS's future so favourably. Last May the New York Times used the construction conglomerate’s problematic debt-funded business model as an example to highlight the serious issues facing the Spanish economy, illustrating the story with a photo of a peeved looking Pérez and saying the company's poor financial situation had lead to “a frantic campaign to sell off assets, pay down debt and further distance itself from a Spanish economy caught in a spiral of austerity and deflation.”

Pérez’s football club has not been forced to sell off any “assets”, but its transfer business in recent years has been much less spectacular than previously. In his first term as president Madrid regularly broke the world transfer record to sign galacticos Zinedine Zidane (€73.5m), Luís Figo (€60m) and David Beckham (€37.5m), while on his return to the club in the summer of 2009 Cristiano Ronaldo (€94m), Kaká (€65m) and Karim Benzema (€35m) all arrived in big money deals, which were financed by borrowing money up front and then recouping it through increased sponsorship and other revenues.

This model has so far worked pretty well, but it is striking that the number of arriving galacticos has dwindled in recent years, especially under present coach José Mourinho. Fabío Coentrão and Nuri Sahin were the biggest signings in 2011, while last summer saw just one major arrival, with €30 million spent to bring Luka Modric from Tottenham Hotspur. The club actually made a profit during the most recent transfer window, raising approximately €35 million by selling a mixture of squad players and promising youngsters. There also seemed to be an attempt to get rid of the aging and injury prone Kaká, although Pérez denied this, defending the transfer by saying:  “From a financial point of view he's worked out quite well.”

The biggest talking point of Madrid’s season so far - the public ‘sadness’ of Ronaldo, Madrid’s biggest playing asset - was unsurprisingly not dwelt upon. One proposed reason for his supposed unhappiness was a lack of backing from Madrid’s boardroom, with the player unhappy that he had been left frowning empty handed on the podium as Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta picked up the 2011/12 UEFA Best Player in Europe Award in Monte Carlo last month. Iniesta (and fellow nominee Lionel Messi) had been accompanied that night by Barca club president Sandro Rosell and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta. Ironically (perhaps) Pérez could not attend as the ACS assembly was held the same night.

A more understandable theory put forward for Ronaldo's blue mood was that he feels undervalued at Madrid. Although he has said (via Facebook) that he is not seeking a pay rise from his current €10m a year, a rash of subsequent stories in the Madrid media showed that Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahmovic, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba and worst of all Messi all now earn more. With just three years remaining on the current deal, negotiations are about to begin between Pérez and the player's agent Jorge Mendes. Mendes appears to have the stronger bargaining position given his client's importance to Real on and off the field, and reports that rival clubs such as Qatari-backed Paris St Germain or Abu Dhabi-funded Manchester City are prepared to offer Ronaldo €20m a year.

The changes wrought on the European football scene by such billionaire foreign investors did impact more directly on Madrid's assembly. After listening to the exciting stadium news and impressive financial results, socios were urged by Pérez to vote in a number of changes to the club’s statutes. The most controversial was to raise the number of years membership required for prospective presidential candidates from 15 to 20. Challengers for the post would also have to provide a personal bank guarantee of 15 per cent of the club’s annual budget (i.e. €75-80 million) from a financial institution recognised by the Banco de España, while absentee votes would be cast using the services of a legal notary not, as previously, through the universal postal system.

Pérez argued these measures were needed to protect the club from a takeover by an outsider without its best interests at heart.

“We think it is reasonable that those who aspire to this responsibility have been soaked in madridismo,” he said. “The more you suffer, the more you hold the colours in your heart … We want the guarantee not from a non-existent island, but from a bank with a face and eyes. If a magnate wants, he can come and present himself, but as a candidate. I do not want to think bad of anyone, not of Arab sheikhs or Russians, but this is our own thing.”

Film buffs among Pérez's supporters might have winced at the reference to “our thing” (“cosa de nuestros socios”), but the proposals also raised some more serious concerns. 20 years seems an arbitrary amount of time, the bank guarantee means only the wealthiest of the wealthy can run, while the new postal vote regulations make it more difficult for members who cannot attend the event in Madrid to cast their ballot. Taken together the changes stop potential challengers (possibly including ex-Real player Manolo Sanchís, businessmen Juan Miguel Villar-Mir and José Manuel Entrencanales or even former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar) from running in next June’s election.

One of the more irate critics of the proposal was Vicente Boluda, interim Madrid president for a spell in 2009, who has said he would like the post full-time.

“The changes to the statues are taking the club away from its socios,” Boluda said. “I do not understand why you need 20 years as a socio to be president. It excludes 90,000 socios. There is no motive for this requirement, except that Florentino wants to eliminate competitors for the next elections. I do not know who might oppose him, but the few possible candidacies will be killed by these statutes.” Ramón Calderón, president from 2006 to 2009, suggested that a better way for Pérez to ensure his re-election would be to mandate that all candidates' first names must begin 'Flo..'.

Both Boluda (who is one of the 90,000 he mentioned) and Calderón (who resigned as president after being accused of electoral fraud) obviously have their own interested reasons for speaking out. But their argument was echoed by other concerned socios, including Eugenio Martínez Bravo, president of supporters group ‘Plataforma Blanca'. “Florentino Pérez is tailoring the position to perpetuate himself or his associates at Madrid,” Martínez Bravo told AS.

There were fewer complaints about Madrid's slimmed-down transfer policy, or questions about why the already super-modern Bernabéu needs a facelift when money might be required elsewhere. Neither was there much analysis of how the same economic swings and roundabouts which have damaged Perez's construction company could affect his football club. All proposed motions were carried by large majorities, Marca headlined its video report ‘A Placid Assembly for Florentino’ and the main story on the event on Real’s website lead with Pérez’s dreams of delivering the longed-for décima or tenth European Cup this season.

 Achieve that and Pérez's re-election will be ensured, whichever way the economic winds blow.

El País

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