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:

The plight of the Spanish autónomos

Por: | 30 de mayo de 2014


Employment Minister Fátima Báñez - but is the Spanish government doing enough for its self-employed workers? Picture: Uly Martín

With unemployment as it is in Spain – currently around 25% (54% for under-25s) – you'd hope the government was making it easy for enterprising individuals to get off their butts and start earning some euros. But although the wheels have been oiled to some degree for self-employed workers (autónomos) over the last 18 months, there is still plenty of work to be done in order to create a system deemed fair by all.

The autónomos of Spain are faced with a barrage of problems. By far the biggest fly in the ointment is that, each month, they have to cough up an eye-watering €261.83 per month in social security payments. Ouch.

This fee, payable regardless of how little or much the autónomo earns, is obviously problematic for those whose incomes are low, insecure, or seasonal. Many self-employed teachers, for example, find themselves having to deregister in July and August in order to avoid paying the €261.83. The problem is, you can only deregister for full calendar months – so even if you work just one day in a given month you are liable for the full month's payment.

Granted, some steps have been taken to alleviate the situation. In February 2013 the government announced the monthly social security payment would be reduced for young people. Under 30s (under 35s for women) were to pay a flat rate of just €50 in social security payments per month for the first six months – leading to savings of around €1,200 - with a 30% reduction for the 24 months to follow. The changes were part of a series of meaures that, according to Employment Minister Fátima Báñez, aimed to "reduce youth unemployment and tackle the structural causes making it so high".

This measure was popular, and encouraged 170,000 people to register as autónomo in the first year. So successful it was that in March 2014, the €50 flat rate was extended to all new autónomos, regardless of age. Which sounds like good news, but it sadly does not benefit everyone in need. For example, the lower rate is not offered to anybody who has already registered as self-employed over the last five years. What's more, anybody on a part-time contract as well as being self-employed is not eligible.

Anybody Googling the word autónomo will soon discover a huge number of forum discussions between baffled would-be workers, both Spanish and non-Spanish, trying to make sense of a system that seems to be penalising them rather than supporting them. "I've really tried so hard to do things by the book and pay into the system as I think it's only fair, but when your outgoings exceed your incomings and that's just for social security, accountant and tax, I don't know how they expect anyone to continue," says contributor Jukim on a discussion entitled 'Can't afford autónomo' on the information site

Indeed, because the system is so complicated, most autónomos decide to hire an accountant to help them make head and tail of it - adding, of course, further to their costs. Sarah Farrell, an Alicante-based travel writer, pays her accountant €100 per quarter on top of her social security and tax outgoings. "The laws keep changing on tax, and it can be a minefield," she explained in an article in The Local.

In other European countries, self-employed workers are supported more by the government. In Germany the newly self-employed can apply for grants to help them with initial costs until they find their feet, and in the UK the system seems to have been created to encourage self-employed workers to flourish. "Look at the UK, Mr Politicians," writes one disgruntled PP voter, who calls Spain's €50 flat rate a "swindle". "There the self-employed can sign up on the internet, without having to queue at the social security or tax offices, and end up paying less than £100 per year." Under the British tax system, the self-employed enjoy annual tax-free earnings of around £10,000 (€12,300), and pay no National Insurance (social security) for earnings up to £5,900 (€7,200).

A similar 'exemption' for low earners is available in Spain – kind of. This article claims it is acceptable for low earners to avoid signing up as an autónomo thanks to a loophole in the wording of Spanish law. The website suggests that if you earn less than the Spanish minimum wage (currently €645 per month), and are later fined for failing to register, you can appeal, and you will probably win. "It is not legal, but it is possible," it states.

Some have found their own ways of opting out of the clunky autónomo system and still staying legal. Javi*, a lighting technician from Fuengirola in Andalusia, is operating using a system he considers much more reasonable. "Instead of being self-employed, my brother hires me and invoices the company I work for. This is cheaper for me. It's a favour from my brother," he said.

Javi, a father-of-one, explained why the autónomo system was not for him. "If you are an autónomo you have to have an accountant, which is another €50 or €60 euros per month. Then you need health insurance. When you pay into the autónomo system you are entitled to no - or very little - unemployment benefit. And if you get sick it's really hard to get sick pay. It's really hard to recover your money. It might be possible if you earn like €2,000 euros a month."

Javi can earn up to €300 per day – but his work is by no means regular. One month he might work 22 days, and the next just two – which makes the prospect of a €261.83 monthly flat fee pretty scary. "When you are self-employed you end up paying out between 40-45% of the money you earn just to be an autónomo," he explained. "With my way I pay about 25%."

As Javi explained, his brother charges the companies he works for an extra 30%. They are happy with this arrangement because it is cheaper than taking him on as a contracted worker. "It's not the normal way, but it is not illegal," he said, adding that he knew many people doing the same thing – and was also aware of many more who choose not to declare their incomes at all.

*Not his real name

Cava with everything

Por: | 26 de mayo de 2014

One of the privileges of living in Catalonia is the ubiquity of cava.  

Since I’ve been living here I’ve had cava for breakfast, lunch and dinner; cava to mark births, deaths and anniversaries; at the opening of a community arts centre; in a jacuzzi; for Valentine’s Day, St Jordi and Christmas; and, well, just because it was a Tuesday (and not even a very special Tuesday at that).

By contrast, I think I’ve had champagne maybe once in the same time period. You can drink champagne in Barcelona but it is considered an unnecessarily foreign opulence, like adding butter to your pa amb tomàquet or having separate flip flops for both beach and house. And inevitably I’ve grown to love cava as a drink in and of itself, rather than as a substitute for champagne.

Sadly, I don’t think many of my fellow Britons agree. The UK may well be the second largest cava market outside of Spain but sales fell 16.7% in 2013, with British bon viveurs consuming some 2.34m fewer bottles than in 2012.

The main reason for this is said to be the rise of prosecco, imports of which leapt 40.2% in Britain last year

But this points to a wider malaise. Cava and prosecco clearly have their similarities but each wine has its own brands and regions, with subtleties of taste and texture. Most importantly, perhaps, cava is produced using the traditional méthode champenoise, while prosecco is made using the méthode Charmat, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle, lowering the price of production.

Clearly, then, we are talking about very different wines and surging prosecco sales shouldn’t necessarily harm those of cava.  That they have done so is largely because Britons tend to lump cava and prosecco in a nebulous category entitled “not quite champagne”. (Or even worse “like champagne but cheaper”.)

They are celebratory sparkling drinks, in other words, but not quite to the standard of champagne; something for you aunt’s birthday but not for your wife’s.

“If it's a ‘statement’ present then it'd have to be champagne,” one British friend suggested. “Trend-wise I think cava was kind of cool for a bit but has been superseded by prosecco now.”

This is not just a failing of the cava industry, though. It is a failing of the Catalan “brand” as a whole. And that makes it particularly interesting for a British Barcelona dweller.

Catalonia (largely represented by Barcelona for the British, whether the Catalans like it or not) generally has a strong brand in the UK, if a slightly contradictory one.

Leaving aside the appalling history of robberies in the Catalan capital, the city is seen as being young, fashionable and arty. It is the city of FC Barcelona’s footballing elegance, Sonar’s electronic experimentation and Gaudí’s architectural genius. It is also cheap, sunny and cheerful: a place for stag dos, €10 lunches and beer on the beach. 

These two points may seem rather inconsistent but in fact they fit together well, helping Barcelona to attract millions of foreign visitors every year (some 2.3m in August 2013 alone). These are people who like culture and sun; architecture and beaches; a cheap paella and a blow out visit to Tickets.

This should be good news for cava: British people on the whole appreciate Barcelona and by extension Catalonia. A Catalan sparkling wine, then, should be able to trade on these good feelings.

The problem, though, is while Cava should summon up images of Gaudí - that’s to say a unique Catalan product that holds its head high on the world stage - it too often feels closer in image to a paella on the Ramblas: nice and all but hardly anything special.

I’m far from an expert in marketing. But the problem, I would suggest, is one of price. Cava in the UK is seen as “affordable” and “cheap”, both admirable qualities in themselves but hardly helpful for a sparkling wine.

“I reckon part of the image problem in the UK is that you often get cheap/own brand cava reduced to about £4.99, while prosecco is seen as higher-end and is almost never below £6.99,” another friend explains.

And this is reflected in stores: I recently tried to buy a bottle of good cava in a London supermarket, only to find some rather dusty looking bottles on the end of a shelf, hanging around apologetically like a 16th Century serf while the champagne lorded it behind the counter. Needless to say, I left without cava.

This problem, to be fair, is something the government here has already noted. In January Miguel Arias Cañete, the minister for agriculture, food and the environment, said that cava should not be positioned as a “cheap product”, adding, “We already export volume, now we have to export price.”

To do this successfully, though, cava companies need to change people’s perceptions of the wine and this is no small task. We need posh cava, deluxe cava, snobby cava, even: appeal to people’s sense of prevention and one uppery.

Get cava in the best restaurants; get it on TV; get it visible, standing out proudly on supermarket shelves rather than skulking at the back like a lapsed pervert. Have a cava festival in London and show off the different brands of cava: cava and fish; cava and cheese; cava and chocolate; cava for breakfast. We need cava with everything, in other words, just like good Catalans.

Why not find some cava champions: Ferran Adrià, for example, was named Cofrade de Honor del Cava (essentially member of the brotherhood of cava, something I’d certainly like on my business card) in 2009 and is a globally renowned chef. Or how about Gerard Piqué, who’s not only a great footballer but young, good looking and married to a pop star?

Changing the perception of cava might be difficult. But why shouldn’t the cava makers think big? 

After all, we don’t see Barcelona as a cheap alternative to Paris. So why should cava genuflect before champagne?



Uniting the left of Europe: Owen Jones in Barcelona

Por: | 22 de mayo de 2014

The policies of austerity are in full destructive swing in Spain: the public sector is being cut to the magnitude of €38 billion, low-wage, short term contracts are the norm, draconian housing laws unfairly evict tenants who have lost their jobs due to the rise in unemployment (currently at 26%), and tax is avoided by multinational companies on a scale of €80 billion a year.  The struggle against these policies in Spain has been well documented and despite attempts by the government to outlaw protest, the fight continues.

It was to this situation that Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, spoke to sold out audiences in both Barcelona and Madrid this week.  The Guardian columnist, who has sold more books in Spain than anywhere else outside of Britain, called for a unity of the left in Europe against the continuing spread of this neoliberal agenda.  “All social gains and rights”, he told the audiences “were won through the struggle and sacrifice of those from below, not handed down by the goodwill and generosity of those above.”

Much of Jones’ work and thinking are deeply relevant to Spanish society today and it’s no wonder he’s gained such a high Iberian readership. La Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), who have over 200 subsidiary groups spread across Spain, have for five years been loudly showing up outside apartments that are due to evict their tenants. Defaults on mortgage payments have risen along side spiralling unemployment rates following the 2008 crisis and have become a symbolic example of the fight against austerity.  Here in Spain the importance of the PAH is not simply the success of stopping evictions – 800 and counting.  Rather, as Jones argued for in his lecture, the left must resist certain ideas becoming commonsense, mainstream and acceptable. Throwing out a tenant who has defaulted on their mortgage, while forcing them to continue paying 40% of that mortgage once they are homeless – all the while thousands of properties stand vacant - is not an idea that has been allowed to become mainstream. 

One of the main reasons, Jones explained, that austerity policies have increased at such a rapacious speed is that when the financial collapse took place, the left as a movement offering a coherent alternative to how society was organised with a mass popular base was fragmented and demoralised.  Since 2008 the PAH have collected 1.5 million signatures across Spain and have set out their demands: an end to evictions, an end to liability for an un-payable debt, and an end to empty apartments. While the crisis has raised long-standing concerns about Spain’s regional constitutional settlement, a movement like PAH is one that uniquely unites the left across the whole country in the interests of homeowners on the verge of homelessness. 



 Owen Jones. Álvaro García.

Intently listening the audience pressed their headphones close to their ears to the translation as the author spoke of organizing against tax avoidance.  In the UK a non-party political organization he campaigns with, named UK Uncut takes grassroots action against companies that pay disproportionate amounts of tax in contrast to their sales.  This movement has successfully edged the issue onto the political agenda in the UK, so much so that while commitments may be hollow, the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne has spoken of new plans to discourage tax avoidance. 

Questions on mobilizing a pan-European movement in support of these issues were risen in a long Q&A session.  The important question on the relationship between the neoliberal policies embedded in the structures of European Union and its members states was asked, and the importance of fighting for women’s representation in politics was strongly applauded – something that seems more pertinent in Spain this week given the fallout from the European Union election debates.

Jones’ second book is due for publication towards the end of the year.  Titled “The Establishment: How They Get Away With It”, it explores the murky world behind our democracies that preserves the power of a small elite.  I’m sure he’ll be back next year to speak again with his Spanish readers.

A video of the Barcelona lecture is available online at

You can follow Chris Finnigan at @chrisf3757

The game of the name

Por: | 19 de mayo de 2014

On 25th May, two votes will take place in Spain. The first will elect new members of the European parliament, and the second will occur in the community of Castrillo Matajudíos, where the residents will decide whether to change the village name, which literally means ‘Killjews’, on the grounds that it really doesn’t sound very nice in this day and age. The two votes are quite distinct: one could be seen as lacking in importance with the result serving only a few people in a far away place, whereas the other could see a historic village name disappear.

As anyone who has travelled in Spain knows, spotting unusual names for small communities is great fun, rather like spotting red telephone boxes or finding a motorway service station with decent food in the UK. Castrillo Matajudíos may be stronger than most, but that’s not to say that it’s unique in its curiosity factor. From an English perspective, tourists who like being surprised may wish to visit the village of Boo in Cantabria, those wishing to avoid public transport could perhaps take in Busdongo, north of León, or those feeling sleepy could head for Tobed near Zaragoza.

As far as killing is concerned, Castrillo Matajudíos is certainly not alone, and a number of other places can thrust their sword into the body of contention. La Matanza, near Alicante, means ‘the slaughter’, originating from ancient battles that were fought in the area. There are also the villages of Matamorosa and Matarrepudio, both south of Santander. Regardless of origins, morosa can mean ‘in arrears or slow to pay’, whilst repudio means ‘repudiation’ – the refusal to acknowledge or pay a debt. Should you wish to visit, avoiding any financial difficulties may be a good idea. Matalobos del Páramo, in Castilla y León, basically means ‘kill the wolves of the plain’, whilst Asturias veers from killing to death with the villages of La Degollada and El Pozo de las Mujeres Muertas. The first translates as ‘a woman with her throat cut’, although it actually refers to a cut or pass in the landscape, whilst the second means ‘the well of the dead women’. The good news is that Mujeres Muertas seems to have originated due to terrain and linguistic changes, so don’t worry too much about the local water supply.

Bypassing killing and death, it’s not all compliance or eternal happiness elsewhere. Paganos, in País Vasco, translates as ‘pagans’, even though the location boasts a 16th-century church. For those who are finding it hard to smile under the current economic crisis, maybe the best option would be Triste in Aragon, which means ‘sad’. However, as recently as March last year, an advertising campaign by an ice cream company chose to convert the community temporarily to ‘the most joyous in Spain’ and gave the locals the chance to show that their character was contrary to the village name. As Triste is wonderfully situated at the side of a reservoir, perhaps the only slightly sad aspect is that the population has fallen from 399 in 1941 to around 12 today. EP_village_xornalcerto
A village sign can be an important part of its anatomy.     Photo:Flickr (CC) xornalcerto

For sheer good fun, Malcocinado (badly cooked) in the province of Badajoz and the unforgettable Villapene (penistown) near Lugo, where residents are fed up with the sign for their village being stolen, are both recommended. If you’re looking for a good hen night, then perhaps you should head for Pollos (chickens) in Valladolid, whilst for salad-lovers the villages of Cebolla and Pepino (onion and cucumber) can be found in Toledo, although it’s open to question whether the residents refer to themselves as onions and cucumbers. Toledo also hosts Buenasbodas (goodweddings). Close to Murcia, Nonduermas (don’t you sleep) may sound the perfect village for insomniacs, but its name is believed to have come from the instruction given by officers to soldiers during the period of the Christian reconquest.

In trying to select the most curious, Venta de las Ranas (sale of the frogs), in Asturias, certainly jumps out of the pond of choices. The name seems to have originated when some local land was sold, became flooded, and was then inundated with, not surprisingly, frogs. The village used to be a centre for barrel making, especially for cider, but there is no suggestion of a link between the consumption of the beverage and the vision of countless amphibians. EP_crop_village_frog_S_Rae
Names can be spawned by strange events                        Photo: Flickr (CC) S.Rae

Returning to Castrillo Matajudíos, the mayor, Lorenzo Rodríguez Pérez, points out that there is no evidence to connect the village with the act of its name. In fact, the name has existed for almost four hundred years, and there is a likelihood that it was created long ago by a spelling mistake in an official register, having originally been Motajudíos, with mota meaning ‘hill’. Clerical errors have always caused problems, so the theory raises questions about how some areas of London may have fared at the hands of a careless script. Would Notting Kill have become the pleasant location it is today? Would you shop in Coven Garden? Worst of all, would you land at an airport called Deathrow?

Spain set for emotional international rugby league debut

Por: | 16 de mayo de 2014

Head coach Darren Fisher will struggle to contain his emotions when he takes charge of Spain’s historic international rugby league debut against Belgium next week.

Los XIII del Toro, as the Spanish national side are affectionally nicknamed, will travel to Brussels on Saturday, May 24 for their first-ever competitive match before welcoming their opponents to Valencia on Sunday, June 8 for the second game of the Nassau Trophy Test series.

Selección formacion artes ciencias

The Englishman, who was appointed national head coach last November, has named a 20-man squad honoured with pulling on the famous red kit for the first time in an official Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) match and admits emotions will be running high when his side take to the pitch at the Centre Sportif de Neder-Over-Heembeek in the Belgian capital.

“It’s the first full Test for Spain and everybody is really excited,” he said. “We’re all looking forward to it, it’s a big thing for me, the players, the country and everybody involved with Spanish Rugby League Association (AERL).

“I’m trying to keep level-headed about it but I’ve got a beaming smile on my face; it’s going to be a great honour for me to take charge of Spain’s first official international match. Everyone is excited but we’re all a bit tense as well given the nature of the game. I’ve brought in a psychologist, Diego Ruano, to try and help but I have confidence in the squad of players I’ve selected and I’m sure we’ll be able to compete going on what I’ve seen in training.”

The 30-year-old, who also works on the coaching staff with English Super League club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, watched his side take on the British Asian Rugby Association (BARA), coached by former London Broncos player Ikram Butt, in Valencia on Wednesday as preparation for their first international venture. Spain went down 40-16 but Fisher could take plenty of positives from seeing his men in competitive action for the first time.

España 16 Bara 40 2

Belgium, who sit 21st in the European Rankings, are set to offer a sterner test for his side but the former Barrow Raiders and Batley Bulldogs player says his men will not be making the trip to the Lowlands just to make up the numbers.

“I’m the type of coach who is positive and will be going to Belgium to win,” he confirmed. “I have that confidence from watching the players in training and seeing the passion they have for the game. They’re all ready for it, the training has been intense and they just want to get out on the pitch now.”

Fisher has been keen to build his squad around players based in Spain and not follow the route other blossoming rugby league nations have taken in bringing in players from the sport’s leading countries such as Australia, New Zealand and England who qualify to represent Spain through their family roots. He’s stuck to his beliefs. Seven players in his first squad come from Valencia’s Ciencias Rugby League club, with five hailing from Irreductibles Mislata RL (Valencia), three from Valencia Warriors RL, two from Valencia Warriors RL Alba and two from CR Alcoià-Comtat.

The only player to hail from outside of Iberia is Danny Garcia, who plays for Rylands Sharks RLFC in Warrington, England. The utility-back was born in Spain and Fisher told the player he has to come and play domestic rugby league in Spain to ensure his place in the national squad, something Garcia has complied with.

Fisher, who has been receiving advice from Wakefield and France head coach Richard Agar, has also been buoyed by the commitment of José Luis Conejero, who turned down the chance to represent Spain in rugby union, the more popular code of the game, to commit to Los XIII del Toro. “It’s a positive sign,” he confirmed. “We’ve made great strides forward here in promoting rugby league in such a short time and hopefully that will continue with these first international fixtures.”

Spain’s first captain for their international rugby league debut has yet to be confirmed. Fisher admits the choice will be a tough one, although it’s a welcome selection headache. “The passion and leadership qualities that all the players have shown in training has made it a really difficult task for me,” he admits. “I have a few names in mind but it might be a case of waiting until the morning of the Belgium match, it’s something I need to make sure I get right.”

The Englishman, who is improving his Spanish week-by-week and will be assisted by Spanish-speaking Matt Dulley, has also been contacted by Malta, ranked 14th in Europe, about a possible match. It’s a positive step and something he hopes could come to fruition in early 2015. “They want to give us a game but they have a few Super League and NRL (Australia) players and I don’t want us going up against that quality just yet,” he said. “It’s good that these teams are getting in touch though so hopefully it’s something we can arrange for early next year.”

All eyes will be on the double-header against Belgium first, however, and the match will give Spain, who unveiled their kit for the historic fixture at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia on Tuesday, their first chance to climb up the RLEF rankings. Saturday, May 24 will be marked in the history books for the Spanish Federation and a victory in Brussels would provide the icing on the cake.

Squad to face Belgium: Adrià Alonso, Aitor Dávila, Alejandro Gordon, Daniel Garcia, Daniel Ruiz, Ezequiel Perez-Fuster, Morro Gonzalo, Hadriel Gonzalez, Ivan Ordaz, Jovi Gomez, Juan Pablo Range, Luis Thorp, Matt Dulley, Paul Hickey, Richi Perello, Sebas Zuleta, Ximo Fraile and Sergio Linares.

Is Barcelona suffering from an overdose of tourism?

Por: | 12 de mayo de 2014

According to a new documentary, Catalonia’s capital has become “a theme park”.  So many tourists are visiting the city that life for local residents has deteriorated to an intolerable level and the city is at risk of losing its unique centre as it sells itself to holiday makers.

Bye Bye Barcelona for just under an hour argues that the problem isn’t individual, red-bellied tourists loudly drinking their way around the town (although the inclusion of a photojournalism essay may suggest otherwise).  Instead it’s the rapid speed the industry has expanded across this relatively small city - an unmanaged consequence of a triumphant Olympic rebranding in 1992.  In 1990 a mere 1.7 million tourists visited the city.  In 2013 more than 8 million are expected to dock into Port Vell or disembark from a low-price RyanAir plane.  Barcelona is now the fourth most popular European city for tourists, after London, Paris and Rome.

8953171 Carles Ribas; Tourists in Park Güell on the first day visitors needed to pay an entrance fee. Barcelona.

This meteoric rise in the number of tourists has delivered reassuringly high economic figures in the midst of an economic crisis where the local level of unemployment is around 20%.   The industry now accounts for 12% of the region’s GDP, creating, the film asserts, 100,000 jobs - that’s between 18 and 22 millions Euros profit a day.

However the social consequences of this stampede appear to be too great for some local residents.  The filmmakers interview Catalan historians, experts in the industry and representatives from local housing associations, and their worries are clear: life off-and-around Las Ramblas and Ciutat Vella have degenerated in just two decades.  The price of living has increased with an influx of customers ready to liberaly spend their Euros and the streets are overcrowded (8 in 10 on La Rambla are tourists).  Testimonials of how local neighbourhoods have transformed into a “theme park” are plenty.  As Bye, Bye Barcelona argues several times over: the theme park effect of the city has turned the creative centre that once housed a young Picasso, Miró and Tàpies into a museum; it’s now more decoration than innovation.

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Consuelo Bautista; Tourists admiring the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia. Barcelona.

The importance of preserving the city’s heritage and culture, an ever-present point for the region, receives great attention in the film and the need to have a debate on the city’s capacity for tourism seems urgent.  The social consequences are not just the decaying of community life off-and-around Las Ramblas, but the hollowing out of the city’s historical core that contributes to so much of its dynamism and vitality, which the industry is exploiting in the first place.   

A rapid increase in tourism, while providing money to preserve buildings and museums has created an urban landscape of Irish Bars and American fast-food restaurants. The imbalance between a relatively small population and high number of tourists is not the only problem.  The proximity of tourist sites concretes the influx and exacerbates the problem. Unlike other big European cities, tourist attractions can be reached on foot, increasing the density of visitors.

The film touches on recent protests against the privatisation of the public space Park Güell.  The decision to charge an entrance fee is another example of the transformation of the city and the delicate balance between welcoming tourists and managing the negative social consequences of a stampede of them needs to be addressed on a political level.

The economic consequences are unquestionably positive; the social ones however are fiercely disputed. The concern of local residents is real, and it has been comprehensively shown in this film with a long list of pressing statistics.  Nearly 140,000 have viewed the video so far and with the argument to use tourism to fight the economic crisis looming large on the political agenda, its importance will only rise. 

The debate about Barcelona unrestrictedly selling itself to tourists seems to have begun.

All statistics are sourced from the following hyperlink Catalan News Agency or the film itself.

Spain youth unemployment

Many young Spaniards are heading to Germany in search of better job opportunities. Eberhard Thonfeld.

Youth unemployment in Spain is currently at 57.7 percent, the second highest in Europe after Greece, forcing thousands of young people to try their luck abroad, leaving their families and friends in the hope of securing a decent job in a more economically stable country. 

For those young Spaniards still at university, their thoughts rest more and more on the future: what are their prospects, should they go abroad and if so, where?

Diego Sierra is typical of this young breed of Spaniard - a well-qualified English speaker who has experience of living abroad as part of an Erasmus year at Sheffield University in the UK, he is currently studying Telecommunications Engineering in Oviedo, having previously studied Industrial Technical Engineering. He knows what he will have to do post-university:

“Nowadays every well-qualified person is looking for a job outside of Spain as there is nothing promising here”. 

Everyone here knows someone who has a university degree, or even a postgraduate degree, yet has been forced to take unskilled service jobs after they graduate, for lack of anything better:

“If you are one of the best you can get a mediocre job here or a great career opportunity in another country”, Sierra says. 

The rise of the ‘mileurista’ - an employee with a €1,000 salary - has been well documented in the Spanish media ever since 27-year old Carolina Alguacil wrote a letter to El País in 2005 called ‘I am a mileurista’. She described the term, “...After several years you finally get a full time contract, but you won’t be earning more than 1,000 euros a month. But you’d better not complain. You won’t be saving any money; you can’t afford a car; and forget about children. You live from day to day”. 

The tragedy of the economic crisis in Spain is that the picture Alguacil painted back in 2005 has, if anything, only worsened in the subsequent nine years, which have seen Spain plunged into the depths of recession and rising numbers of Spaniards moving abroad. Where once young Spaniards would be earning a pittance, at least this was usually in their chosen field - these days they are lucky if they manage to get a job at the local supermarket. 

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy currently has an approval rating of just 18% according to Consulta Mitofsky, a Mexican consulting firm that released a roundup of world leaders’ approval ratings last month. Compare Rajoy’s 18% approval rating with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 70% and you start to realise just how unpopular the Spanish PM is at home. 

Rajoy employment figuresSpanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, presenting recent unemployment figures. Ricardo Gutiérrez. 

Diego Sierra thinks Spain’s government is missing out on using Spain’s young graduates to the best of their potential:

“I think the main problem is that they are trying to adapt the population to the job market and not the other way around. Spain has thousands of highly qualified young people but the government prefers to say ‘they are over-qualified’ than try to adapt and invest more in those areas where Spain could make huge profits and make the most of its young graduates”. 

Spain seems to be taking somewhat of a laissez-faire attitude to the many hundreds of young graduates it is losing to foreign countries each year, but perhaps the country should be making more of an effort to retain young graduates in order to prevent the inevitable brain drain looming on the horizon. 

Germany is one of the top destinations for young Spanish graduates. Alex Sorarrain Mendieta, from San Sebastian, has been working just outside Frankfurt as a mechanical engineer since late 2012. 

“Many young Spanish people are forced to go abroad to start their career” he says. “It is clear that the political management of the country caused this: corruption and more corruption”. 

With many young Spaniards blaming the Spanish government for getting them into this situation in the first place, you have to wonder how inclined they will be to return home once they have settled in a new country, often with much better career prospects. As Mendieta says,

“ is bad for the future of Spain because it is not assured that these people (young Spaniards) will come back, after Spain has invested a lot of money in them”. 

So rather than seeing a return on its investment in young people, Spain is instead witnessing its best and brightest leave for often much better career prospects abroad. 

Even immigrant populations who once saw Spain as the promised land are upping sticks and heading back to their home countries; 2013 saw the number of Spaniards living abroad rise by 6.6 % to over 2 million. Many of these are naturalised Spanish citizens moving back to their home countries, often in Latin America. 

Recent figures show a rise in both alcohol consumption and suicide among young Spaniards, a sign perhaps of the increasing frustration and helplessness sweeping through a whole generation. You have to remember that, while well-qualified and multi-lingual Spaniards can move abroad relatively easily, those who are less qualified and, commonly, do not speak a foreign language, find it much harder to leave Spain. 

With a rock-bottom approval rating and a brain drain crisis threatening to grip the country, Mariano Rajoy should not forget Spain’s young people - for it is this generation that will rebuild the country in the years to come. Spain cannot afford to keep losing them to the brighter futures they seek abroad - who knows if they will come back. 

A Burning Love - The Fallas Festival

Por: | 06 de mayo de 2014

Falla Colonia web

During, March 2013, I gathered on the streets of Aldaia with the Valencian people to celebrate the fiesta of Las Fallas. The celebration is held in commemoration of Saint Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. The festival culminated in the burning of sizeable, comical and ornate effigies. These effigies symbolise undesirable elements of society, which the community wish to dispense with unconditionally. On the final night of the festival called "La Cremá", I witnessed the effigies being burned in a cleansing ceremony that aimed to purify the community of evil.

The mainstream media often air news from the grand finale of Las Fallas in the autonomous region of Valencia. However, there is a more pertinent question to ask than just reporting on the striking spectacle and end-game of the fiesta:

What is it like to experience the festival as a fully fledged member of a Fallas committee?

Falla Colonia web 38

The many Fallas committees in Valencia fund, plan, create and promote the festival throughout the year. A Fallero (Fallas committee member) called Chiki once said, "Las Fallas is not just about seeing the spectacle of ballistic fireworks and the towering inferno of burning effigies, more importantly it's about participation in the festival."

In one act of participation, I watched the Falleros work tirelessly, non-stop, throughout the night to mount and elevate the effigies. The festival work resembled a bizarre barn raising party as they carried and then erected the giant effigy at the festival spot. Of course, the Fallas flipside to a barn, was eventually burned asunder after only nine days standing proud in situ.

At, Las Fallas, I could almost grasp the echo of a lost pagan burning ritual as publicised by Yoko Ono. However, instead of Ms. Ono scribbling her fears on notepaper and burning it to eliminate suffering, the Falleros set alight effigies to free themselves from the bondage of discontent. Ultimately, this freedom allows the community to progress and better itself.

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You might protest, to destroy these effigies is a form of wanton vandalism, which fruitlessly squanders away money. However, they destroy to create at the festival like the perpetual cyclic nature of life, because these effigies have a symbolic life, karma, death and rebirth; when next year's effigy is born. Las Fallas turns destruction into creation over and over again. Year in and year out. As, Pablo Picasso once said, "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

By Paul Louis Archer: Paul Louis Archer Photography

The audio slideshow is best viewed in Full Screen Mode:


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