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:


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It’s Barcelona Parklife - and you’re all invited

Por: | 25 de julio de 2014

If you wanted to know what life was like in 90s Britain you could do a lot worse than listen to Blur’s Parklife, an album that represented the peak of the band’s Kinks-ian observational songwriting and helped to kick off Britpop as a whole.

The album has its weaknesses - much has been made of its musical conservatism and obvious debt to the past - but it struck a chord with the British public, staying in the charts for 90 weeks thanks to a narrative songwriting approach that journalist John Harris compared to “a bittersweet take on the UK's human patchwork” in his 2004 book Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the album’s title track, an ode to people watching in London’s Hyde Park that erupts in the all-telling chorus: “All the people / So many people / And they all go hand in hand / hand in hand through their Parklife.”

Not for nothing is an ode to a park the centre of this album: the British love going to parks and London is dotted with some of the most beautiful green spaces to be found in any of Europe’s capitals. British people eat, drink and procreate in the parks and - maybe even more than the local pub - they represent the essence of British urban life.

I was wandering around Barcelona listening to Parklife this week, when I realised that the same can be said for the Catalan capital. Barcelona may have a beach and boundless squares, teeming with human interaction. But there is only one place to get to the heart of Barcelona life: Parc de la Ciutadella, 70 acres of green space, fountains, playgrounds and zoo to be found on the edge of the city centre.

Ciutadella is not just the city’s most popular park, full of life from dawn to dusk and even beyond. It also tells a story of the city - as all the best parks do - marking Barcelona’s evolution through the weeks, months and years.

In itself, the history of Ciutadella is fascinating: in 1714, after the War of the Spanish Succession, Barcelona fell to Philip V of Spain, who flattened a large percentage of the city and built the citadel of Barcelona right where thousands of families had lived. The hated citadel looked out over Barcelona for more than a hundred years until it was turned over to the city in 1869, with the majority of the site being turned into the Parc de la Ciutadella.

That alone would make the park a fascinating place. But Ciutadella is anything but a historical relic. You can feel the modern city move in the park’s bones, as the morning joggers and dog walkers give way to lunchtime picnics, afternoon sunbathers and evening revellers; and Monday’s lunching workers slide into Sunday’s sweaty hedonists, wringing the last drops of sunshine out of a long weekend.

You can watch the seasons pass there, too. In winter Ciutadella is functional, a cold, windswept space to take the dog for some relief; in spring it blooms, playing host to live music and culture; but the park finds its apotheosis in summer, as thousands of locals and tourists seek escape from the relentless heat under scraggy trees and on welcoming benches.

But the passing of time is nothing without people and Ciutadella tells a social history too, its users offering flesh-and-blood proof of how Barcelona has changed over the years, becoming a truly global city where people from all over the world come to live, work, holiday and make new lives.

This story is inescapable. A visit to the park one Sunday in July reveals Argentinian football supporters rubbing shoulders with French tourists;  dancing Indian women sharing space with Catalan jugglers; a multiracial group playing an endlessly circling drum coda on the bench; and - everywhere, like some vast, unexplained rash - people practising their circus skills.

It is a social phenomenon. Many places are. But the park is a great democratiser too: unlike, say, the Camp Nou, that other great symbol of Barcelona’s changing life, you can’t buy a better space at the park and if you want to go there you have to share it with everyone, from Swedish tourists on gleaming new €1,000 bikes to the unfortunate people who sleep under the trees, emerging bleary eyed in the morning form makeshift camps to brush their teeth and wash in the park’s water pumps.

All Barcelona is here, in other words, and - if the people may not quite be going hand in hand, Blur style - they’re generally rubbing along well in their Catalan park life. 

And such is a story of modern Barcelona.

“We will not be silenced” Greenpeace stands up for Ibiza

Por: | 24 de julio de 2014

Greenpeace denounces Scottish oil firm Cairn Energy's plans to drill for oil off the island of Ibiza. PHOTO CREDIT  Pedro Armestre  Greenpeace (2)

Ibiza is best known for all-night clubbing with an A-list celebrity crowd and partying, but it  is also home to two national parks, environmentalists living off the grid on solar power, and is considered of such ecological and cultural importance that the UN designated the Balearic island and its surrounding waters a world heritage site. Despite this the Scottish oil company Cairn Energy has been granted a license by Spanish central government to explore for oil off of the coast of the white isle at the nature reserve Es Vedrà.

When the news broke there was public outrage and local people and even local politicians were in agreement that this should not happen. In February 2014, more than 10,000 people marched through Ibiza Town, and around 60,000 signed a petition against oil exploration in the region. Twenty people posed naked covered in mock oil for a piece of performance art. Then the battle went online: Ibiza loving celebs protested and the response was so incredible that everyone thought that the threat had been thwarted. Sadly, no as was highlighted recently when Greenpeace’s flagship The Rainbow Warrior arrived in Ibiza and then came on to Mallorca to spread the word about the impending threat to the Balearics.

Cairn Energy whose plans to look for oil in the Arctic have made it the target of green campaigners in the past, says that although it holds licences to explore for oil in the Gulf of Valencia, to the north-west of Ibiza, any seismic testing or the drilling of test wells is pending. The company is awaiting a decision on its environmental impact assessment by Spanish authorities due in late summer, which will determine whether it can continue. The government says Spain imports more than 99% of its oil and gas, at great expense, and that it must ensure energy security.

I took the chance to interview Joel Stewart, the Captain of The Rainbow Warrior. 


  Captain Joel Stewart (2)

VM: How long have you been with Greenpeace? How did you become part of the organisation? Captain Stewart: I was born in Oregon in the U.S.A. I am a professional commercial captain and I had been volunteering for Greenpeace and participating in manifestations. In 1989 I heard about the job vacancy for Captain on the new Rainbow Warrior and applied for it. It’s very important that we follow all of the regulations as Greenpeace is frequently targeted by organisations and we have to have everything in order. It’s very important to have sympathy for the goals that Greenpeace is working towards: you need to be an activist at heart and have a sincere wish to make changes and motivate people. 

What is the most important thing you have done during your time with Greenpeace? The campaign right now is definitely the most important one I have been involved with. My biggest goal is to end the age of fossil fuels and save the biodiversity of our oceans. We must stop this runaway train which is out of control. If we continue like this we’re going to be extinct. We are losing the Arctic ice: we will face environmental disaster, the sea levels will rise, there will be hurricanes, and typhoons: that will be our future. Can you imagine parts of the world being uninhabitable? We could have more than 50 million refugees.

The urgent challenge is how we are going to get off of fossil fuels. We have to do it, and we have to do it now if we are to avert disaster, if we don’t we are leaving our next generation to suffer. We have to stop. If we don’t stop then we have lost the battle of climate change.  We have to draw the line here. As the Arctic ice cap melts you will be faced with an extreme mega drought in the Balearics, are you ready for that?

What do you think is the most important thing we as individuals can do for the environment? We can do a lot through our own personal choices and actions. We can minimise the use of fossil fuels in our day to day lives, we can ride a bicycle rather than drive a car, but the main thing we must all do is lobby the politicians. We must vote out the politicians who are supporting oil exploration and vote in politicians who support clean energy.

  A banner on the inflatable reads “Prospeccions No, Renovables Sí (Exploration No, Renewables Yes).  PHOTO CREDIT Pedro Armestre  Greenpeace (3)

Does it make any sense to you that the big oil company Cairn has been given the rights by the Spanish government to even propose this exploration?  You shouldn’t let these people into the Balearics. We don’t want the government to support the reckless actions of Cairn. The main economic employment in the Balearics is tourism. Cairn claims that with the exploration there would be economic benefits, but there would be none for the inhabitants of the islands, all the money would be kept by Cairn and any employment would be given to cheap immigrant labour rather than locals. Far from representing a domestic, independent energy source, the fuel could be exported and sold to the highest bidder. The profits would belong to Cairn, not Spain. In fact the oil drilling would destroy many beaches and the livelihoods for the fishing community in the Balearics.

What is involved in oil exploration? What happens? Central government have given the license to explore despite the desires of the local government. The first stage of this is the seismic (acoustic) tests which are due to start in November. Marine acoustic tests devastate marine life, interfering with the ability to orientate, breed and navigate. Eggs and larva are destroyed and internal bleeding, injuries and eventually death, are the result. The area where the drilling is proposed to happen is home to oceanic Posidonia, a giant sea grass only found in Europe. The Posidonia, a flowering plant commonly known as Neptune grass, creates a five-mile underwater meadow to the south of Ibiza. It provides an important place for fish to breed, and serves an ecological function by cleaning the water. The proposed drilling site is also in the middle of a cetacean (dolphins) migration corridor.

How big would the threat be of an oil spillage? How likely? If they start drilling in a deep water environment as they proposing to do, there is no way they would be able to contain a leak. Cairn is looking at exploring for oil at depths of 1,000-1,500 metres, which would mean its platform had the same characteristics of Deepwater [Horizon, the source of the 2010 BP oil spill]. If there was a spill, it would be the 'Balearic problem' because of the currents. Even in the Gulf of Mexico they couldn’t clean it up. If there were an oil spillage it would affect all the coasts of the Mediterranean: France, Italy, Spain. The entire sea would be inevitably fouled. And to add insult to injury what happens when these sorts of leaks occur? Who do you think pays for them? It isn’t the oil company who pays for the clean-up; it is paid for with public taxes. They are not held liable for even a fraction of the cost.

  Activists from the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior protest at Es Vedrà Islets Nature Reserve near Ibiza, Spain. PHOTO CREDIT  Pedro Armestre  Greenpeace

The Greenpeace info says that the activists erected an "oil containment barrier" at Es Vedra. What is an oil containment barrier? Why did you do that? We did a demonstration with an oil containment barrier. They are a bit of a joke really as they don’t actually work in open water. They are supposed to float on the surface and make it more difficult for the oil to move around. But the reality is that it would not be able to contain a spillage as it is not effective in high seas or rough weather. We want to make sure that you understand that if you as a country allow this drilling to happen that you are going to wipe out your biodiversity in the Balearics. You will wipe out many species of sea life.

Do you think the campaign has had any effect or impact? People have been visiting the ship at every port of call, and we have been very pleased with the response.  We have been partnering with Mar Blava Alliance and we are very happy to support them in what they are doing to protest and oppose this drilling. I can tell you the people I am speaking to everywhere we go are very concerned about what is happening.

In our study, Energia 3.0, we show that by 2050, a future scenario of a global energy model without fossil fuels, using 100% renewable sources of energy is both technically possible and economically feasible. Greenpeace see the world as being on the cusp of an energy revolution, compelled by the pressures of climate change. Even the extremely moderate United Nations say that burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of global climate change. This, they insist, has to stop. For the future of everyone.

What would be suitable replacement energy sources for the Balearics? We have a lot of options for renewable energies, many of which are completely feasible. The only thing we have to do is get the political will to change and to insist on change.

Has Greenpeace changed anything about their campaigning approach since the problems the Arctic Sunrise encountered in Russia? We are not going to allow ourselves to be silenced; we will not let anyone silence us. We are increasing our campaign for the Global Arctic Sanctuary.  Five million people have signed to support us. We will not allow any government, country or company to illegally imprison our crew or our ship. We will take action when and where we deem necessary to continue to push for the end of the use of fossil fuels.

What can we do as individuals to prevent the oil exploration happening in the Balearics? 

Visit  and sign the petition, follow them and Greenpeace on Facebook, Twitter, whatever you use.  

Sign the Greenpeace petition against oil exploration in the Mediterranean: put your Passport number where it says DNI if you don’t have that number, and leave the phone number blank.


Share this article on the social networks. Let people know what is happening.

Use the hashtag #ProspeccionesNO

Join the campaign against drilling for oil in the Arctic Sea - whatever follows there will irrevocably determine the future of the planet.  

Simple lifestyle changes you can make: 

  1. Recycle, treat your local environment with respect. 
  2. Don’t leave litter.
  3. Support businesses which are actively making an effort to do the same.
  4. Don’t use the plastic bags from the supermarket.
  5. Take a reusable one or use boxes if you have a car.
  6. Cut your plastic consumption by buying 5 litre bottles and refill your small bottle each day.
  7. Cut down on use of your private vehicle. Use public transport, walk, or cycle.

At the time of writing the Spanish government has granted Cairn Energy an exploration permit and is currently waiting for an Environmental Impact Assessment to start seismic testing.

 Captain Joel Stewart was speaking to Vicki McLeod (@mcleod_vicki)

To read more articles about people in Majorca please visit 

Background sources: The Guardian, Greenpeace, Ibiza Spotlight



Behind the mask, the Andratx Dimonis

Por: | 17 de julio de 2014

Port Andratx Carrefoc 2013-9204

From the very first time I saw a Dimoni at a Mallorcan fiesta I was terrified of them: unpredictable, crazed creatures dressed as devils running down the streets at night wielding fireworks, flaming torches, (occasionally) chain saws, and making incredibly loud explosive bangs. What’s not to be afraid of really? My husband, Oliver, on the other hand saw the photo opportunities that these amazing displays of lunacy brought and so last year at the Port Andratx fiestas in July he took some photographs and put them onto our Phoenix Media Mallorca blog and Facebook. What happened next was not what we expected: the Dimonis  got in touch with us and it turned out that they weren’t the insane “Health and Safety” nightmare that I had always thought they were. In fact take away their frightening devil masks and all of them have sensible adult jobs, many of them are parents or even grandparents, are completely responsible and very, very friendly.

Port Andratx Corre Foc 2013
Our friendship started with the Dimonis  just commenting and reposting my husband’s photos on Facebook, then when we exhibited the images at the Night of Art in s’Arracó we actually met some of them and were invited to participate in a Nit de Foc (Night of Fire). “Well, I guess it would be interesting to see how it all works from the other side of the street”, was my answer, whilst internally fretting about the likelihood of spontaneously combusting from my fear of the bangs, proximity to things that are burning and the sheer naughtiness of the Dimonis . That is what they to represent to me: cheekiness, lewdness, mischief; they are hell raisers, and here for some fun.

Port Andratx Carrefoc 2013-9437
The practice of the Correfoc and Demons has been in existence for a long time in Catalan culture but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that it made it over to Mallorca. Now there are 40 groups in the Federation of Dimonis, but my area, Andratx had not had one until three years ago when the Dragomonis were formed by a nucleus of a handful of people. I met with Jaume the President, Biel, Marga, Asier, Ramon and Marina to find out more.  If you ask them why they decided to start a local group the simple answer you will receive is that they wanted to have the chance to participate in a local cultural speciality. “We knew that people wanted to do it, so we decided to form a group”.  The group is mainly comprised of Mallorcan people but anyone can join. Dig a little deeper and you find that there’s a lot of work to running a Dimoni group, and a lot of paperwork. The fireworks that they so liberally use on the nights of fire are strictly regulated and it is becoming a true labour of love for them to source and acquire the types of explosives that they can use.  “We have to argue that we need them for cultural reasons otherwise we cannot get them to the island” said Ramon. Although from the outside it seems to us safety conscious Brits that the Dimonis are haring around the streets with bombs there is in fact a strict safety protocol that they follow and every member of the Dragomonis is trained in how to handle the materials.

Andratx dimonis backstage-4232
So we took up their invitation and last August Oliver and I went backstage with the Dimonis at another fiesta. It was the middle of the summer and extremely hot even late in the evening. When we arrived most of the prep had been done for the performance as it takes many hours prior to each event: the horns are loaded with fireworks and everything is checked and double checked beforehand. Nothing is done randomly, although it will seem that way: the whole event is planned meticulously. “Everything is under control, we have to think about a lot of things, we are watching people in the crowd all of the time” said Marga. As they prepared backstage we could feel the concentration deepening, and the group solidifying. There was a camaraderie amongst them which was appealing, and I started to feel that I wanted to be part of it. Even though I was terrified of the unpredictable bangs and the closeness of the sparks I began to understand the attraction of putting on a mask and participating. You could see the Correfoc as a live performance art form, and elements of the pagan Dimonis have emerged in street theatre and protest theatre performances. 

Not so scary when it's in a bag...
What’s it like to be a Dimoni I asked Asier just before they began. “When you put on your mask and see the people through those eyes it is fantastic. Although the noise of the explosions and the whistling of the fireworks are very loud you don’t really hear it, you absorb that sound; it is as if you are under water”.  I stand to the side of the area where they perform and watch. The band drums a relentless beat throughout. As Asier had said, the high pitched whistling sound of the fireworks begins to fade away as I watch the team of demons. Oliver, not afraid, is in the middle of the action shooting images. Marga and Asier dressed in their costumes and masks try to encourage me to run with them and dance under the fireworks and sparks: I don’t, it’s still too scary for me, but I do start to see the method in amongst the madness and notice the systems that they have to keep everyone safe. The fireworks are only lit in one place and then once they have stopped sparking they are disposed of in a specific area, and behind them at a discreet distance are the Bombers, the firemen.  The smell of spent fireworks hangs heavily in the air, a delicious scent of gunpowder: I suppose you either love it or hate it. I begin to realise this is also a chance for personal expression for the individual Dimonis. Who doesn’t want to go crazy and stir up some passions and emotions now and again? Later I ask Ramon what he thinks about the current condition of Spain “The future is not clear, we are fighting for our culture.” By dancing with fire and running their group with such passion they are doing exactly the right thing. It’s not just about being naughty it’s about enriching the local community and bringing the local people together. 

Port Andratx Carrefoc 2013-9415
I don’t see the Dimonis  again for many months. Over the winter they perform again in Andratx. I am so excited to see them, and this time I do dance with them, leaping around the plaza like a crazy person, knowing that in their hands I am safe and it’s okay to just let go. Finally I understand the meaning of the words they have written on their blog in Catalan. “We cannot leave the evidence behind us, of adrenaline, images recorded in our retinas, of how we feel our bodies dance inside the rhythm of the drums. Connecting with the people through a force. We can only look at the photos and remember. We continue to leave traces of what they call history, because we like it, because we need it, and because the people do too”.

Look out for fire celebrations throughout the summer, many of the local fiestas in Mallorca will have a “Corre Foc” programmed.

The Andratx Dragonmonis perform at the Andratx fiestas in July, August, January and June. Do not miss them. They’re the best dancers.  You can find them on Facebook at Dimonis  Andratx or on their blog at www.Dimonis  Some of the images from the fiestas will be exhibited in the August at the Night of Art in s’Arraco.

Text Vicki McLeod (

Photos Oliver Neilson (


What's with the Spanish mullet?

Por: | 14 de julio de 2014

  Spanish mullet

It's a question many foreigners new to Spain find themselves pondering: what's with the ubiquitous mullet?

For much of the world, this "business at the front, party at the back" hairdo has become a fondly remembered if often ridiculed relic of the 1980s.

But here in Spain, the mullet lives on in full, unapologetic glory. From spotty teenagers to middle-aged men, the mullet’s signature close-cropped front and sides and long back walks the streets of cities right across the country.

Turns out, it’s more than a hairstyle. It’s a way of life.

Like elsewhere around the planet, the ‘do was inspired by the heady 70s and 80s punk rock era that swept the US and UK. The fast, hard-edged music and political, antiestablishment lyrics found strong support in northern Spain, particularly among the politically engaged populace of the Basque Country, which had visibly and at times violently opposed the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

As Spain transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s, the Basque separatists continued their aggressive push for independence, birthing the Kale Borroka or Urban Fight, a group of 16-25 year olds intent on taking back their country via urban guerrilla actions.

Many of these antiestablishment young nationalists proudly sported mullets. To some here, the hairdo is even known as the “Kale Borroka style”.

But why, more than 30 years on, is this odd cut still so popular and widespread across Spain? I turned to my 51-year-old flatmate for answers. His now-greying locks have been clipped into a mullet for the past 25 years, save for an “unhappy” five-year hiatus during which his employer forced him to lop off the party at the back.

“This is an expression of freedom,” he told me. “It means that you are your own boss, you’re not under the control of anyone. That’s the reason I dress in this way and wear my hair like this. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is me, this is who I am and I’m not going to be a sheep.’”

Spanish mullet
My flatmate's fabulous Spanish mullet / Photo: Koren Helbig

The style is often accompanied by a kind of uniform: plain jeans and dark-coloured t-shirts, maybe the odd tattoo or two. Some employers, my flatmate admitted, are reluctant to hire people who dress like this, knowing it can reflect a left-leaning counterculture intent on rebelling against the mainstream.

“Everybody was thinking the same under Franco, everybody was doing what the government wanted,” he said. “There was an order here but that order was black and white, it had no colour. Then democracy came but the mentality of the people was the same. This style became a way of saying: ‘I don’t agree with you.’”

Others, perhaps unkindly, insist these days the style is embraced by folk of the vulgar, aggressive or thug kind, known in Spain as “macarras” or “canis”.

There’s possibly a flamenco link, too, considering famed Spanish flamenco singer José Monge Cruz, better known by his stage name Camarón de la Isla, rocked a fabulously full-bodied mullet of curls until his death in 1992.

The mullet’s apparently popularity has even sparked sub-styles: always clipped close at the front, the longer locks behind can fly loose in the wind or be dreadlocked or plaited into little rats-tails for a more nonconformist, hippy look. I’ve even spotted the occasional gloriously over-bleached blonde mullet making its way through a crowd.

But not everyone is impressed by the style. Spanish online newspaper Público dryly noted in February that the cut “severs all traces of femininity” on women. The article quoted Basque hairdresser Ángel Círez as saying: “It’s a downright unflattering style, which suits almost no one, especially girls with very round features.”

Personally, I take an unhealthy delight in regular mullet sightings. Though I’m in no rush to crop my own locks and join the rebellion, I say viva el mullet and its fabulously entertaining indifference to style.


Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist, writer and blogger currently based in Alicante. She writes about Spanish life and culture for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. She hangs out on Google+ and on Twitter at @KorenHelbig.

Winds of change over animal welfare at El Rocío

Por: | 09 de julio de 2014

Exactly a month ago, if you had glanced at the chaotic mêlée of Andalusian life crammed into El Rocio’s sandy streets, it would have been easy to think it was business as usual at one of southern Spain’s most irrevocably traditional of religious festivals. And indeed it was, as the village with a population of 1,635, performed its unfathomable annual swelling act to accommodate around one million visitors over the weekend of religious devotion and fervour.

Donkey sanctuary el rocio general shot
photos by The Donkey Sanctuary

Leading up to this year’s event there had been a low hum of concern over issues such as the pilgrimage’s environmental impact on the nearby Doñana National Park and, more vociferously, from animal welfare charities highlighting the impending catalogue of equine deaths and mistreatment during the period. But from an outside perspective, the concern seemed to come from a position of resignation, whereby it was almost a matter of taking bets on how many animals would die this year.

In fact 11 animals did perish in 2014 – six less than last year. While marking a faltering step in the right direction, it certainly hasn’t appeased the outrage from many, commenting on the fatalities across different social media.

But perhaps the most important change has been brought about by an Anglo-Spanish collaboration between Málaga-based charity El Refugio Burrito and its British equivalent The Donkey Sanctuary, which alongside UK animal welfare consultant Animal Kind, were there on a fact-finding mission to compile an independent report on animal welfare issues at El Rocio and provide hands-on veterinary assistance to any animals found in distress.

Donkey sanctuary vets attending pony
volunteer vet attends rented pony pulling cart

According to El Refugio del Burrito: “What our welfare team found there … was a scene fit for Dante’s Inferno. Hundreds of equines were being forced to work day and night, with little rest, food or water. Some of the animals were starving, extremely thin and exhausted. Our team has found some cases in which privately owned animals were in bad condition, but it was mostly animals for rent that got it worse. They were rented out illegally, sometimes even to minors, and then terribly abused by those renting them … Our team treated dozens of equines in urgent need of vet treatments in situ. Mainly the open wounds were caused by poor, inadequate, rusty bridles and harnesses. Many exhausted animals were also seen to.”

Donkey sanctuary bloody nose
a widely seen injury caused by the traditional serrated edged noseband

Suzi Cretney from the UK Donkey Sanctuary is quick to point out that not all the animals at El Rocio are abused, and there is some incredible horsemanship on display, but agrees that it is the rented animals that appear to suffer the most.

Such was the poor state of some illegally rented animals that were “old, tired, undernourished and full of open wounds” that the charity volunteers, with the cooperation of the authorities, facilitated the confiscation of three horses and a pony. The animals have since been moved to El Refugio del Burrito’s headquarters where they have been receiving veterinary treatment with a view to being re-homed in the future. The animals’ owner is being prosecuted by the Civil Guard.

Donkey sanctuary skinny horse
one of the undernourished and neglected animals found by the volunteer team

This collaboration with the Civil Guard marks perhaps the most important change from this year’s proceedings at El Rocio. In the past a much-levelled criticism has been the authorities’ reported ambivalence towards animal abuse during the festival. But over the course of the few days that the triumvirate of charities was present, there was a distinct thawing of hostilities, culminating in the unprecedented move to facilitate the seizure of the four animals. Rafael Benjumea from El Refugio del Burrito says: “The collaboration of the authorities with us has been exemplary; they saw to every request and helped promptly and efficiently. We believe things can improve greatly at this festival, and our charity will strive towards making a big impact next year, hopefully with the help of many volunteers, the authorities, and other animal welfare organisations that may want to help.”

So with winds of change reaching the powers that be, it just remains for such a change in the mindset of some of the less-caring individuals with animals in their charge. But even here Suzi Cretney felt a shift in the time that they were manning the dusty El Rocio streets. “As soon as owners saw that we were there to help their animals in a practical way, they got on board pretty quickly. We could give them simple ideas like putting gauze on the serrated nosebands so that open wounds could be protected.” They were even approached by a group of children who had rented a mule and were so disgusted by the state of the animal that they felt compelled to get help from the team.

Donkey sanctuary vet noseband
volunteer vet advising Rociero on protecting his mule´s nose injury caused by serrated noseband

Despite the sometimes upsetting scenes of animal neglect and cruelty at the festival, Crezney remains upbeat and positive. “This year was really an investigation mission and it was important to carry it out in a measured way. We’ve come away with a tremendous feeling of optimism and look forward to coming back next year to improve the welfare of more animals.”

If you want to make a donation towards the upkeep of the rescued animals or to find out about next year’s campaign at El Rocio, contact

Airbnb in Barcelona

Por: | 07 de julio de 2014

Today Airbnb was fined €30,000 by Catalonia’s local government the Generalitat “for illegally commercializing short-stay apartment rentals that are not listed on the Catalan Tourism Register.”  They have been asked to remove listings that have no license and may even “initiate proceedings to prevent online access to the site from the entire Catalan territory.”  While the story has grabbed the headlines, the fight has been ongoing quite some time.


Tourists on the streets of Barcelona. / CARLES RIBAS

The conflict between the Generalitiat and Airbnb can mostly notable be seen in the cases they have opened against hosts who were caught to be illegally letting, with fines of up to €90,000 being available to local law courts.

A key group in this dispute is Anfitriones en Accion (Hosts in Action), a recently formed campaign group who are attempting to raise awareness of the benefits of Airbnb for Barcelona and pressure the local government to amend the current law.   Last Thursday, Anfitriones en Accion gathered some 600 people in Plaça de Sant Jaume to deliver 3,000 postcards to the city’s mayor Xavier Trias, all of which were signed by local businesses supporting Airbnb.   

Airbnb who has seen positive legislation passed in other cities, such as Amsterdam, Hamburg and Paris has had more troublesome receptions in various American cities, most notably New York.  Attempting to get on the front foot and perhaps pre-empt today’s fine, Airbnb conducted and published research on Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain a whole in February of this year.

This research makes more interesting reading.  According to the study 75% of all Airbnb hosts in Barcelona use the money they earn to help pay their bills and stay in their homes. 75% also had incomes at or below the national Spanish average.   The study estimates there are currently around 4,000 hosts that have welcomed approximately 170,000 guests to Catalonia’s capital.  Barcelona is currently Airbnb’s fourth most popular destination with guests.  The city is experiencing a boom from tourism: 8 million tourists are estimated to visit the city this year (something reported on in this blog previously), a statistic that goes hand-in-hand with the rise in Airbnb’s popularity.  Tourists that visit using Airbnb also tend to stay in the less visited areas of the city; a fact Airbnb has suggested is dispersing tourists Euros around the city in a more equitable manner.  Airbnb also estimate there has been a total of €175 million Euros of activity in the Catalan capital, a fact that might be caused by Airbnb guests staying 2.4 times longer and spending 2.3 times more money compared to typical tourists. 

While today’s focus has been on Barcelona, Airbnb does have a significant national presence too. Again, according to the website, 1 million guests have visited the Spain using the site.  28% of these hosts nationwide are said to be entrepreneurs running a small business.  74% of these entrepreneurs have apparently used their Airbnb income to help finance their business with nearly 20% calling the income “vital”.

The Generalitat’s opposition to Airbnb is reminiscent of New York’s intolerance of the site.  Airbnb eventually compromised with authorities there and handed over data on all their hosts, however anonymising it: the New York authorities were deprived the opportunity to individually prosecute, as Airbnb withheld key personal data. 

Another city, another battle for Airbnb.  Today’s ruling only highlights the growing conflict between Barcelona and Airbnb, and with the inclusion of a campaign group of concerned hosts, it doesn’t look like its anywhere closer to ending.


El País

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