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 bull is killed at this year's Toro de la Vega tournament. Capture via PACMA

This month I took the intercity train from Barcelona to the rural town of Tordesillas to report on the residents’ annual tradition — stabbing a bull to death with 8-foot-long steel-tipped spears.

I tried hard not to pass judgement on the Toro de la Vega tournament straight away. Coming from the Cotswolds — home to the World Shin-kicking Championships — I understand how a centuries-old tradition that seems entirely bizarre to an outsider can bring a community together.

It’s hard to make further comparisons of course — one is an endearing sport in which farmers kick seven shades out of one another’s shins, the other involves the mutilation of a creature that feels pain.

On this point, I’ve heard supporters of bullfighting — or “aficionados” — make the case that these bulls live better lives than animals subjected to the horrors of industrial farms. That they spend years frolicking happily through sunny Spanish paddocks, before enduring a comparatively brief period of confusion and agony. The difference, I would posit, is that a dairy cow doesn’t draw spectators who will on her ill-treatment.

Silvia Barquero, president of Spain’s animal welfare party PACMA, puts it more strongly: “It’s evil to think just because someone lives a happy life that they should die like that.”

That morning, I stood on the south bank of the River Duero and watched several men stretch and sprint down the bridge, preparing for the running of the bull. Thousands had now gathered to witness the spectacle, as well as hundreds of screaming protesters. For the last decade, animal rights activists have come to Tordesillas to condemn Toro de la Vega. This year heavy security including police helicopters were in force, charged with preventing a repeat of the violence in 2014 that saw several protesters and journalists hospitalized.

A local pensioner, Alejandro, told me he was bewildered when the activists first started turning up.

“We have been doing this for centuries,” he told me. “And now they want to stop this. They kill bulls in the arena, so why can’t we have our fun?” 

Photo by Sam Edwards
Photo by Sam Edwards

Horsemen armed with spears filed across the bridge and passed the protesters, now in a frenzy, yelling “murderer” and “national disgrace.” Taunting locals brandished Spanish flags and told them to go home — one man simulated the sounds of a dying bull and two more wandered through the crowd dressed in novelty cow costumes.

The sound of a fire cracker signalled the bull’s release. Its name Rompesuelas or “Sole-breaker” made reference to the pounding footwear took as residents chased it through the streets, some daring to run just yards in front of its horns. Rompesuelas thundered across the bridge and into the “Field of Honor,” where armed men on foot and horseback thrust spear into its flanks.

Protesters clamored around one activist who had bolted himself by the neck to a sign post with a U-lock, just yards from where the bull had cut its path. A horseman returned from the field and aggressively cleared a path through the crowd as firemen freed the protester with bolt cutters.

Despite a lack of support from the majority of the nation’s public, annual campaigning by animal rights activists — and derision from within the wider bullfighting community — the 500-year-old Toro de la Vega tournament refuses to die. Perhaps banning Toro de la Vega on animal welfare grounds would set a dangerous precedent in a country where bullfighting is inextricably linked to national cultural identity.

As with the proportion of Americans who believe there should be stricter gun laws in the United States, the number of Spaniards who do not support bullfighting hold the majority. When it comes to legislating against tauromachia, Spanish politicians find themselves treading on similarly sacred ground.

"It’s unthinkable,” Carlos Nuñez, President of Spain’s bull breeding union, said of a ban on bullfighting. “The symbol of Spain both at home and abroad is the bull and without bullfights, it would not exist."

Bullfighting has endured condemnation from powerful sources. By pain of excommunication, Pope Pius V prohibited the practice with a 1567 papal bull entitled “Super prohibitione agitationis Taurorum & Ferarum (An injunction forbidding bullfights and similar sports with wild animals).”

Known for the burning of heretics and the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I, Pope Pius V was not an early animal rights advocate — the bull was created for the “welfare of the Lord’s flock.”

According to Raffael Nicolas Fasel, a PhD in Law candidate at the University of Cambridge who studied the document while attending Yale Law School, the papal bull may still be valid, as sources indicate that later popes removed the excommunication sanction.

“Regardless of whether or not the bull is still legally valid today, I think that invoking the bull can be quite powerful — at least morally and rhetorically,” he told me. “It shows that already in the Middle Ages, bullfighting and similar events with wild animals were considered to be brutal and ignoble.”

Following the withdrawal of public funds for events involving bulls in some municipalities in Spain earlier this year, some international media questioned if the slow death of bullfighting had begun. However, both history and the continued existence of Toro de la Vega show us how resilient this national tradition is. In the face of an overwhelming lack of support from most Spaniards — and disdain from activists and “aficionados” alike — a doomed bull is likely to run the gauntlet in Tordesillas next September.

Spain needs to listen to Catalonia if it is to avoid political crisis

Por: | 29 de septiembre de 2015

Together for Yes leaders celebrate winning a majority of seats in September regional elections billed as a de-facto referendum on independence / DAVID RAMOS (GETTY)

Only 48 hours before Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, and facing the strong possibility of a victory for separatists that would have ended more than 300 years of political union, the leaders of the United Kingdom’s three main political parties pledged to devolve extensive powers to Scotland if it stayed. On Sept. 18, the Scottish people narrowly voted against independence, and the United Kingdom remained intact.

In Spain, Catalonia’s growing push for greater autonomy has often resembled a person shouting into a void. Through a combination of ingrained unionist political thinking, cynical calculation ahead of general elections in December and political pigheadedness, the Spanish government has doggedly refused to offer any real alternative, instead trusting that a barrage of threats would help swing the vote their way. They were wrong.

Catalans turned out in record numbers in Sunday elections that will usher an openly secessionist government into power in the region with 16 percent of the population and the highest gross domestic product in Spain — accounting for almost a fifth of national GDP.

As a result of their miscalculation and failure to engage the problem over five years, Spain now faces a serious political crisis that could threaten its tentative economic recovery.

On Sunday evening, pro-independence parties heralded their absolute majority in seats — but not votes — as a mandate for proceeding with their 18-month roadmap toward a break with Spain.

“We have done this in the context of a hostile, negative campaign racked with lies. But despite all of this people have voted without fear because this was a historic opportunity,” said Raül Romeva, leader of the Together for Yes pro-independence bloc, in front of a euphoric crowd as the results trickled in on Sunday night. “No we will all build this country together. The dam has broken and there is no alternative.”

There are important differences between the UK and Spain: Catalonia’s vote is a regional election that became a quasi-referendum after pro-independence parties put aside differences to focus on the question of secession. Any break up of Spain is also considered illegal under the country’s 1978 constitution. But there is little getting away from the fact that Spain has not only sat back and watched as more than half of the Catalan electorate turned against it, it has, from the outset, actively exacerbated tensions.

Perhaps the best example of the Spanish government’s remorselessly negative, bullish stance was the final few days of the campaign leading up to this historic vote. With polls almost unanimous in predicting a victory for separatists, unionists forwent any last minute olive branch as in the U.K., preferring instead to unleash a volley of warnings for the Catalan people.

Spain’s central bank governor and ECB board member Luis Linde suggested that an independent Catalonia would be left outside of the eurozone and that it might even suffer a Greece-style run on banks as a result — only to clarify that a banking crisis was “highly improbable” two days later.

Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy, speaking in a radio interview on Onda Cero, warned Catalans that they would lose their Spanish and European citizenship if the region were to become independent — he was promptly corrected by the presenter citing an article of the Spanish constitution ensuring no Spaniard could be deprived of their citizenship should they wish to maintain it. Earlier in the campaign, he referred indirectly to the independence movement as a “virus.”

There are reasons for the national parties’ intransigence. Catalan independence is unpopular in Spain — 73 percent said it would be bad for the country in a July poll — and general elections are due by the end of the year. National unity has long obsessed Spain’s political elite, and any capitulation to the Catalan cause risks opening the door to other independence movements.

On the day of the Catalan elections, president of the Basque regional parliament Iñigo Urkullu said Spain should follow the United Kingdom’s example of allowing an mutually agreed and legal consultation on sovereignty. “Spain has a problem in Catalonia,” he told supporters in Vitoria. “And it has a problem in the Basque Country.”

Despite the resounding separatist parliamentary victory, the new Catalan government has many hurdles to jump before it’s aspirations for secession cease to be a mere hypothetical. Its efforts to establish state apparatus and hold an official referendum will certainly be deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court, and unionists will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the separatists’ mandate.

Madrid must act prudently if it is to avoid escalating tensions with Catalonia. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government is currently rushing through legislation that will give the constitutional court the power to sanction elected officials with fines of up to 33,000 US dollars and suspension. For the time being, the government has ruled out an option floated over the summer of using the constitution to wrest control from the Catalan parliament.

But the government’s unwillingness to talk will only send the message that any change to the status quo is impossible while Catalonia remains within Spain and further polarize the debate.

The Together for Yes pro-independence bloc won 62 seats, six short of an absolute majority in parliament. This means the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party will be able to play kingmaker. The first casualty of which may be acting president of the Catalan regional parliament and international face of the Catalan movement, Artur Mas. The CUP have suggested they will oppose Mas’ investiture as premier on the grounds of their opposition to his center-right party’s pro-austerity politics.

According to Nick Greenwood, political analyst at Madrid-based Financial consultancy AFI, even if Mas is able to remain president he would likely be a “prisoner to the hard left” and be restricted in his ability to negotiate a compromise with the government. A hypothetical forced exit is a huge risk for all involved — indeed, Mas went so far as to say it would amount to a “joint suicide” in the runup to elections. If, in this scenario, a hostile Spanish government made good on its threats, Catalonia would be left isolated internationally and stymied economically, while an acrimonious breakup could see the region forego its share of the national debt — estimated at one third of the total — and leave Spain struggling to pay its creditors.

There is next to no chance of meaningful dialogue before the elections. Despite what Rajoy seems to believe, reconciliation will not and never can begin with bringing charges against those responsible for holding last year’s ultimately symbolic referendum.

As the dust settles on these historic elections, unionist parties have been unanimous in calling the pro-independence faction’s attempt at an unofficial referendum on independence a failure for falling just shy of 50 percent of the vote. But this is selective reading of results and follows in the footsteps of years of ignoring the problem in Catalonia and hoping it will go away, when the opposite is happening.

The most revealing statistic of these watershed elections is not that the “Yes” vote failed to win 50 percent, it’s that 60 percent of the electorate wants a referendum, at the very least — and it’s time for the Spanish government to pay attention.

As the Together for Yes candidates left the stage on Sunday, euphoric independence supporters waved flags, danced, sang and celebrated what they considered a historic step towards leaving Spain. There is still a long way to go, but separatists have the initiative for the moment and, if the campaign’s choice of walk-off music is anything to go by — Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — Madrid will be forced to listen soon.

Bike-celona and the cycle tour jam

Por: | 10 de septiembre de 2015


As I write this it is approaching 12pm and I can see an annoyingly bright light out of the corner of my eye. 

It comes not from divine inspiration - more’s the pity - but from the street outside, where a cycle hire shop has recently opened, peddling fixed gear bikes and longboards to Barcelona’s more fashion conscious tourists.

There’s nothing so remarkable about that, you might think. And yet this shop, its sign ever aflame like an understated oil rig, is one of four cycle hire shops within a 200m radius of our house to have opened in the last three months.

Such radical inflation in cycle hire is unlikely to last in the long term, however much the four shops may work their respective niches. But as anyone who has been forced to run fleeing from a line of wobbly, weaving tourist bikes down one of Barcelona’s tiny side streets will tell you, the last few years have seen these bike tours bounce from minority concern to holiday staple.

It looks like fun, tootling on a bike around the gentle streets of the Catalan capital. But, as their numbers visibly grow, tourists on bikes have become one of the chief points of complaints among Barcelona residents, who are generally piqued by the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting the city. 

Much of this has to do with the cyclists’ visibility. It’s pretty hard to miss a line of 20 gigantic Americans thundering down the street on oversized orange bikes. That makes them an obvious point for local ire. More generally, a lot of people - for whatever frustrated reasons - simple don’t like cyclists.

Then there are a number of specific complaints I’ve heard angled at cycle tourists: it’s not safe; they ride on the streets; they take up too much space etc etc etc.

In many ways, the complainers have a point: I’ve lived in Barcelona for four years and still feel pretty anxious cycling round the streets, even with abundance of cycle lanes and personal practice. For someone with no experience, the combination of angry Catalan motorists, frantic motorbike riders and - for British and Australian - riding on the “wrong” side of the road could be perilous indeed.

As for the streets, this seems to be something of an area of confusion. As far as I know, cyclists are allowed to ride on the Barcelona pavement, as long as it is five metres or wider (something that rather surprised me, as a cycling Brit). 

But, frankly, who measures the width of the pavement? More importantly, within Ciutat Vella, Barcelona’s old city centre, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly what is pavement and what is road, the two fading into each other like chewing gum melting in the summer sun. When you add into the mix some pretty narrow streets, this creates confusion and often ill feeling, as pedestrians and cyclists face off over who has priority.

Despite all this, Barcelona remains a very pleasant city to cycle in and you can see the logic behind the sudden expansion in cycle tours. Not only is Barcelona flat - the dual hills of Tibidabo and Montjuic can wait for another day -  it is relatively small and sunny. (There’s a reason cycle tours aren’t very popular in London). Then there’s the 200-odd kilometres of bike lanes, which prove very useful indeed, if a little prone to cutting suddenly off in a petulant dead end.

So why do I think that Barcelona cycle tours may be heading for a crash? There’s the simple economics, for a start: no city can sustain such an extreme oversupply of cycle shops as is evident in my neighbourhood. A lot of these bike shops are set to crash and burn, with the cost of hiring a bike for the day, or going out on a two-wheel guided tour, likely to fall in the meanwhile, harming even the more established operators.

I can’t help feeling, too, that the more cyclists head out on Barcelona cycle tours, the more these tours risk becoming hopelessly unfashionable. Some of the appeal, surely, of a cycle tour - as opposed to being whipped around by bus - lies in tackling the city like a local. And if tourists on bikes only see other tourists on bikes then the sheen of local knowledge evaporates.

More seriously, there is the backlash from locals to contend with. As the recent documentary Bye Bye Barcelona so eloquently demonstrated, Barcelona residents are getting pretty sick of the booming tourist trade, which has seen the number of visitors to the city more than quadruple, from 1.7m in 1990 to 7.5m in 2013. Cycle tours are a very visible symptom of this and it would be little surprise to see some local action taken against the two-wheeled hordes.

This could fall to new Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, who has set out her intention to do something about mass tourism in the city. Admittedly, it is hard to see how she could legislate against bike tours without targeting cyclists in general. But legislation of this kind could prove a cheap political win.

In a way it would be a shame: I’ve grown quite fond of the grinning cyclists that hover around my local streets. But if it stops that bloody light from shining all night long, then it might not be too bad.


Refugees board a train in Budapest / LASZLO BALOGH

Residents in Barcelona are offering to house asylum seekers as part of a new initiative spearheaded by social activist turned mayor, Ada Colau. Authorities hope to facilitate volunteers who wish to open up their house in a scheme similar to the Berlin-based Refugees Welcome scheme being dubbed the “Airbnb for refugees.”

The proposal follows international increasing outrage at the deaths and mistreatment of migrants attempting to start a new life in Europe. Last week, Colau criticized the government’s “pathetic” response to the European migrant crisis. The post went viral and received more than 68,000 shares on Facebook.  

On Monday, Colau announced the plan following a meeting with local migrant charities and, in a post on Facebook the same day, said that “large numbers” of families had already offered to house refugees or provide other forms of support. New left-wing mayors in Madrid, Valencia and several other cities have also pledged their support.

“I want to thank all those who have got in touch with us because their solidarity is an honor and a credit to our city,” Colau wrote on Monday. “We call on [Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy’s government to change its policies and use the funds it receives from [the European Union] to this end. We must stop haggling over what pathetic number of refugees we can take in and take action to raise that number.”

Eliane Van Branteghem, 35, from Vigo, Galicia, is among the citizens on social media offering to take in refugees. She said the idea to offer a room in the house she shares with her mother came in response to the sadness they felt watching news of regular migrant tragedies.

“We have spent the last few days watching the devastating footage of mothers, children and desperate people searching for a better future and many of them either perishing along the way or being rejected on arrival,” she said.

“Seeing what Ada Colau proposed we asked ourselves how we could do our bit. We live in a house with several rooms and we we thought we could be that light of hope they are searching for,” she continued. “[We could] be a springboard to help them to integrate into a new country, a new world. We are all equal and our rights are the same, why shouldn’t we share what we have just because we happen to be ‘the lucky ones’”?

For María Lluisa Varela Fuertes, 59, from Spain’s northern León region, it was her experience growing up in Venezuela as one of many Spanish immigrant families that inspired her to want to help others.

“I’ve also lived through difficult periods in my life and I am grateful that others were there to help me,” she said, adding that the Madrid government’s tough stance on immigration echoed its painful anti-austerity policies. “The government doesn’t just turn its back to the hardships of the Spanish people but also to the plight [of migrants].”

Barcelona City Council also announced plans to double the budget for the agency responsible for migrants and refugees. The city has received around 700 applications for asylum this year, with a further 300 expected by the end of 2015. However, responsibility for accepting asylum seekers and negotiating Spain’s share of European Union migrants lies with Madrid.

Rajoy’s governing conservative Popular Party (PP) branded Colau’s initiative “irresponsible” and called on her to clarify how many refugees the city proposed to take in. The PP has taken a hard line on illegal immigration and last month warned four regional governments that they faced strong measures for violating a 2012 decree by giving undocumented migrants access to the public healthcare system within their jurisdictions.

Following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, Rajoy announced that Spain would accept 2,739 asylum seekers — less than half what the European Commission suggested. Spain refused to participate in a Europe-wide quota system when it was announced earlier this year, but Rajoy recently promised to play a “very constructive” role in EU migrant talks set for Sept. 14.

For Colau, though, Spain needs to do more to support the international effort.

“Turkey, Greece and Lebanon are taking in millions of refugees. Spain, despite having far greater resources, will receive barely 2,000,” Colau wrote. “These are not ‘quotas,’ they are human lives.”

Barcelona Deputy Mayor Gerardo Pisarello said Spain received considerable funding from the European Union to deal with migration but spent most of it on border security.

In recent years, Spain has constructed giant perimeter fences around the tiny North African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta to prevent migrants entering the country illegally. On Monday one Guinea man’s attempts to elude immigration controls made headlines after he was found hidden behind a car engine.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has detected 350,000 migrants entering Europe since January, though the real figure could be considerably higher. Of these, approximately 230,000 arrived via Greece, nearly 115,000 through Italy and around 2,000 via Spain. European leaders will meet on Sept. 14 in Brussels to discuss the EU’s response to the crisis.

Germany has accepted more refugees than any other European country and expects to accept around 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of 2015.

Last week United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called on Europe to meet its obligations to the “unprecedented” refugee crisis.

He said almost 300,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year — around 2,500 died during the crossing. Guterres called on Europe as a whole to meet this demand and not to leave responsibility to a handful of countries.

“It is clear that Europe has the capacities and the size needed to meet the challenges, assuming that it shows unity and jointly assume this responsibility,” Guterres said during a press conference in Geneva.

Frustration with the EU’s sluggish response to the crisis has sparked numerous protests and citizen initiatives across Europe. The Berlin-based Refugees Welcome campaign matches people willing to share their homes with refugees. Organizers say the scheme has met with huge success and plans are underway to begin to introduce the idea in other countries.

Volunteers pledged to help in Barcelona, and later in half a dozen other municipalities, after an earlier call to action by Colau went viral last week with more than 68,000 shares.

“Europe, Europeans: Let’s open our eyes. There will never be enough walls or enough fences to stop this,” Colau wrote on Facebook. “If we don’t tackle this human drama through our capacity for compassion that makes us human, we will end up being dehumanized by it. And there will be more deaths. Many more deaths.”

She also made reference to the many Spaniards forced to flee the country during and after the Spanish Civil War.

“It could be our children, our sisters or our mothers. It could be us; many of our grandparents were once exiled.”

By Sam Edwards


El País

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