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.

Why Easter and Semana Santa are poles apart

Por: | 17 de marzo de 2016

Seville is a city that doesn´t do things by halves. For someone hailing from a country that´s constantly self-apologetic (that’s Britain, in case you’re wondering), the Andalusian capital´s overarching, certainty and self-belief is both intoxicating and bewildering at the same time.

Take Semana Santa, with its literal translation of holy week rather than Easter. So there-in lies the first major difference. In other countries, Easter unceremoniously squeezes itself onto the end of an ordinary, working week and passes as an excuse for some much needed DIY, eating too much chocolate and that’s about it. But in Seville, Semana Santa takes things to a whole gargantuan level.

The term Holy ‘Week’ is in fact underselling its immensity. Year after year the painstaking preparations begin immediately after the previous year’s Easter Sunday has only just finished.  Where Semana Santa is concerned, there’s no rest for the proverbial wicked; from the marching bands honing their haunting, medieval renditions, to the costaleros (the meaty guys who carry the religious statues on their sizeable shoulders) rehearsing their micro-moves so that the irreplaceable images of the virgin and Christ remain intact manoeuvring around the city’s tight medieval, corners. Only in August they might take some time off.

P1020488Then there’s the week itself. Over 7 days 55 hermandades or brotherhoods make the journey from their usual place of worship to the cathedral and back again. No mean feat when there are approximately 115 pasos (the floats carrying the often life-size images of the Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary), some accompanied by over 2000 Nazarenos (the pointy-hooded members of the brotherhoods that these days include women and children), so that seeing just one Hermandad file past can take over an hour. And that’s not even mentioning ‘la bulla’, the unfeasible large number of crowds shoehorning themselves into tight spaces to get the processional view they’ve been dreaming of all year.

You see Semana Santa is a serious business. Sure there’s beer to be drunk and ‘guapa’ to be shouted at the occasional passing of a statue of the virgin. But if you’re to get the full experience then it’s watertight, military planning that’s needed. It’s a bit like when you’re at a large music festival and several of your favourite bands are playing at the same time at different ends of the festival site. And to compound matters, a journey that would ordinarily take 10 minutes suddenly takes two hours. Steely determination, planning and patience are the name of the day.

P1020459But somehow it seems to work and tradition wins the day. Indeed, every echelon of Seville society makes an appearance; from rather tough looking, working class adolescents, proudly playing their instrument of choice in the Semana Santa band, to the Ralph Lauren clad, ´pijos´ eyeing up the pretty girls between passing statues of the virgin, to the elegantly dressed ‘señoras´ who death defyingly combine skyscraper heels and cobbles without taking a tumble once.

P1020567For me, as a self-proclaimed ‘crowd fleer’ I doubt whether I’ll ever have the nerves to immerse myself in Semana Santa, Seville stylie. In the meantime, I’ll just live vicariously through the experiences of people like Curro, aged 11, who can’t wait to go out as a Nazarene, like his father and grandfather did before him. And when recently I asked him if one day his children would also be Nazarenes, without a flicker of doubt in his eyes he asserted, ‘Claro que si’ (of course). And you know what, I think they probably will.


Curro somewhere on the left with his cousins




The silent towns of Catalonia

Por: | 17 de marzo de 2016

Conesa (Picture Alexandra Sans Massó)

Flying into London can be an overwhelming experience. If you take a particular trajectory, it can feel like the whole of southern England rushes towards you as a seething mass of human life, with no breaks for nature amid the grey hues of habitation.

England - and in particular the affluent Southern regions - are crowded. The UK as a whole has a population density of 255 people per square kilometre and this rises to 419 in England, making it second only to Malta as the most densely populated country in the EU.

Spain, by contrast, has a population density of 91 people per square kilometre, putting it at the spacious end of the spectrum. Not that you’d really notice it in Barcelona where I live: the city has an eye-popping 714.9 inhabitants per square kilometre according to the Institut d'Estadística de Catalunya, putting it right up there with London, Moscow and Athens. Not only that, but city living in Spain tends to mean being cooped up in flats, with just a balcony for comfort (or a terrace if you’re lucky), anathema to the garden-loving British.

Take a step outside Barcelona - or more of a car ride, really - and all this changes, as population density falls through the floor. Sometimes it can feel almost uncanny, as town upon town passes by your window with no sign of inhabitation beyond the odd stray dog and a flair of graffiti. Welcome to the silent towns of Catalonia.

I’ve got to know many of them over the years: there’s Foixà, a charming rural village in Baix Empordà with a fixed population that feels like it could fit into the town’s well-preserved castle, home to a bare-bones shop, a homely restaurant and a bar that defies the binary logic of open and shut.

There’s Querol, a beautiful hamlet nestled in the castle-strewn mountains of Alt Camp, almost unreachable by public transport, whose entire population comes together in the town’s titchy square to celebrate the festa major on August 15. And there’s Arsèguel, an eagle’s nest of a village in the the Pyrenees, whose citizens are dwarfed in number every summer by accordion lovers, as the town welcomes Europe’s largest gathering of acordionistes. Just this month I discovered Conesa in the Conca de Barberà, a town so small that a Google search turns up pages of references to a Barcelona sandwich bar before the true Conesa shows its face.

In a way there’s something rather depressing about these places. They’re not ghost towns in the truest sense of the word although they do feel haunted by the past. Meanwhile, in the present day they speak of the dwindling populations and ageing inhabitants found in so many Catalan conurbations, where the young people have had to move to find work, taking their children with them. There’s something particularly poignant about the orderly little playground that sits next to Querol’s town square, eagerly awaiting local children who simply don’t exist.

As recently as 1920, Conesa’s population numbered 511, for example. Now it has dwindled to less than 100, who rattle around what is a beautifully preserved town, (apparently) flush with cash from the neighbouring wind turbines and with nothing to spend it on. This depopulation turns an inevitable vicious circle, as dwindling populations force the closure of local services, which in turn makes family life difficult to sustain.

And yet despite all this, there’s something I love in the silent Catalan towns. It’s not just the space - the wonderful, liberating, wind in your hair space - that they offer. It’s the spirit: the way villages will celebrate their festa major with a joyous song and dance even if only 35 people are every going to show up; it’s the ambitious plans for high-speed internet connections that might - just might - make these villages into budding work spaces; it’s the man walking his goat who invites you to a calçotada; and it’s the Catalans who will drive 100 kilometres to vote in the town of their birth, years after they’ve left, just because it seems the right thing to do.

It’s the warmth of human life in other words and - perverse though it might seem - the silent towns of Catalonia resonate loudly with it. Long may they continue to do so.





Has Rajoy outfoxed the young lions?

Por: | 25 de febrero de 2016


‘I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other’ – Napoleon
The post-election negotiations to date have arguably exposed a lack of political nous and experience. The three junior leaders – Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), Pablo Iglesias of Podemos and Albert Rivera of Ciudadados – have behaved like lions, convinced they are the alpha male. The one old sage in the mix, Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy, has behaved like the fox, stalking his prey from the shadows, never putting himself in danger of reprisal or counter attack.
“Today we lack the support, but we are waiting for events to unfold.” Since this statement following his second meeting with King Felipe VI, events haven’t unfolded too badly for the PP. Yes, they are losing figures to corruption investigations, and they have watched most of the negotiations from the wings, but slowly and surely the conservative party has gained ground since declining the offer to form a government. By being behind the curtains Rajoy has not been tainted by the show on stage.
Since King Felipe VI invited election runner-up Sanchez to form a governing alliance, a mix of political naiveté, missteps and clichés has eroded much of the electorate’s goodwill towards the three parties in discussion. In the background the PP has moved to purge itself of corrupt members and unhelpful headlines. The result is that with the March 1st investiture session looming, Sánchez, Iglesias and Rivera are still battling to put together a viable governing deal and the PP is addressing one of the electorate’s principal concerns with the party. In order to keep the fox out of government, the young lions must seek sufficient consensus such that all can remain the leaders of their pride while sharing power.
Sánchez and Iglesias clashed on the election campaign and relations have not thawed. Iglesias has continually tried to seize the initiative by making offers to Sanchez that have been rebuked. One of the many big sticking points is the Catalan question. Podemos has the boldest position held by a national party. Some of the PSOE are sympathetic to the Podemos view while others cannot stomach the thought of holding a referendum. A critical mass would likely agree to a coalition if the Podemos position on Catalonia was dropped and the focus was switched to political reform and a center-left approach to the economy and social policy (which would probably lead to the Catalan question losing some of its potency). Alas Iglesias has so far not budged. The cliché of the left preferring to honour a principled position than to be in power is evident. Iglesias’s confrontational manner has also hindered progress and he needs to understand that in any coalition he will be a junior partner.
Rivera has placed himself at the center of discussions, but he has mishandled it. He kept on reiterating his pledge to not join a coalition and by overplaying his hand he has been increasingly drawn in to the only serious option: a coalition involving the PSOE. His boisterous approach, though, has left him no option but to make significant climb-downs in order to avoid forcing a rerun.
Observing the three lions bearing teeth and marking their ground, the fox Rajoy now has what remains of his pride briefing against the dangers to the economy and security of a left-wing alliance. In the public’s ears this will sound less cynical than a month or two ago and reflect what they see: the inability of the alpha males to agree in times of national urgency. In tandem the PP has begun the purge, issued notice that it will democratise its senior membership and use words like transparency and accountability
By taking the calculated risk of declining King Felipe VI’s invitation, stating he did not have the support to form a strong government following rejection by the PSOE and Ciudadanos, Rajoy has bought himself time. He has also given the other parties the spotlight and the chance to demonstrate their faults. He has watched predictable arguments and points of contention derail negotiations and damage all parties.
The only way to keep Rajoy and the PP out of power for four years is for Sánchez, Iglesias and Rivera to form a Coalition of the Losers or as I would prefer, The Second Transition Coalition. They must focus their fire on reforming politics and political institutions. A platform of increased accountability and transparency throughout politics and its apparatus can deliver what Spain needs. It will also demonstrate the left can work together and there is place for a liberal party. To do so the young lions must all lose some face.
On December 21st Rajoy was the other man, yesterday’s man, a symbol of the old politics that had been forever blunted with the 109 seats gained by Podemos and Ciudadanos. However, he is now ready to swoop in and, if Sánchez’s bid to become prime minister fails, make the PSOE and maybe Ciudadanos an offer they can't refuse, for refusal will lead to a rerun and Rajoy will make it clear that he was the only one who put the nation’s interests first. If any leader thinks negotiations have been uncomfortable so far, they will be worse with Rajoy, in lion mode, opposite.

Three songs have eclipsed perceptions of Spanish music in the non-Spanish speaking countries of Europe for far too long. These are Los de Rio’s 1995 dance-party hit Macarena, Ricky Martin’s Spanglish 1999 classic Livin la Vida Loca and Enrique Iglesia’s 2001 sob-provoking ballad Hero. I guarantee that if you ask a few people from, say, the UK, what Spanish songs they know (that is, songs actually from Spain) one or all of those aforementioned hits will be on the list.

So why is it that so many of us recognize Spanish music as those three songs that were released over a decade ago? Of course the Spanish music scene is far more than just vintage Latino pop. It just seems that Spanish musicians have had a bit of difficulty breaking outside of Latin and Spanish audiences.

Although perhaps not achieving massive superstar status like the aforementioned acts, Spanish artists are now gaining recognition internationally by means of exhaustive touring, high profile festival appearances and damn great music. So let’s retire our Macarena dance moves and get up to date on a few musicians who are earning Spain a solid musical reputation abroad.


El Guincho


From the Canary Islands, El Guincho is Pablo Díaz-Reixa, a musician whose tropical psych pop has put listeners around the globe in a state of contented bliss. He gained international recognition after the release of his second album, 2008’s Alegranza!. Alegranza! is a unique sound – complete with erratic rhythms, obscure sampling and hypnotic chanting - it’s a listening experience that idyllically saunters along, taking you somewhere far-away, eccentric and unreal. El Guincho has since released Pop Negro in 2010 and has toured Europe and North America.

Now, six years since Pop Negro, El Guincho will release his fourth album, HiperAsia, on March 11th. Inspired by the chaotic frenzy of Chinese bazaars in Madrid, the album takes a more electronic turn than his previous records. HiperAsia is already available to download digitally and the music video for the first single “Comix” was premiered at the end of January.

More: El Guincho (Official Facebook)


Álvaro Soler


In January 2016, Soler won the European Commission’s European Border Breaker Award – an initiative set up to award musicians who gain success outside of their homeland. His debut single El Mismo Sol is almost vexingly catchy; flamenco-claps are layered with melodic guitar riffs and tied together with Soler’s uplifting, party-themed lyrics. It first became a massive summer anthem in Italy last year – and thanks to an English re-recording of the song featuring Jennifer Lopez, the infectious Latin-pop hit is now set to get stuck in the heads of both US and UK listeners. 

It’s not so much a surprise that Soler is gaining success internationally – he’s quite the international guy. At a young age, he attended a German school in Japan, where he was influenced by the variety of music that his international classmates were listening to. He speaks fluent German and is now based in Berlin – although he is fiercely proud of his hometown Barcelona. “…of course my music is Latin pop - if you have to put in a box. Although lyrically I just took the personal experience of living in Japan, Berlin, Spain and from working together with creative minds in different places.”

In 2016, Soler is now faced with the difficult task of following up his super hit. “We are finishing some songs now and I feel confident I will keep on making music. The goal is not to have something bigger than the last song- that would be cool of course, but the goal is to have the same fun as the last record and just see what happens. I’m just happy to survive by making music, travelling and meeting new people.” 

La Pegatina



Ska-party band La Pegatina have had just as much success touring outside of Spain than in their home country. Last year, from February until December, they completed an extensive tour, visiting ten countries, including Macedonia, Belgium, France, England and the Netherlands. They have a large fanbase in the Netherlands, and eventually dedicated an entire tour to the country. “Holland is one of our favourite countries to play. People there are really open minded and open to new cultures. Plus, they love to party. In Spain, or France, audiences can be more critical. Here people just enjoy the music without thinking too much about it – no judgment” says accordionist Romain.

Last May they released their fifth album Revulsiu, “This CD has more social lyrics than our last albums… lyrics about our country, about our identity, corruption, politics” says singer Adrià. Although the band is based in Barcelona, they are hesitant to align themselves with the independence movement. “Our band has members from France, Spain, Catalonia” Adrià continues, “…we are mixing everything – so we don’t want to be leading any movement. We can say we need a social change in our country and a referendum is needed, but as a band we don’t all hold the same opinion.”

2016 promises even more shows for La Pegatina. At the beginning of February the band announced the formation of “La Gran Pegatina”, a touring ensemble that includes the addition of extra vocals, sax, violin, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar and a VJ. This version of the band will only exist for a five month European tour, “…it’s something very special for us and we will do something legendary” the band wrote on their website. 

Sara ∏


Dubbed as the new face of ‘neo-soul’, Catalan musician Sara Pi combines soulful singing with funk and RnB styles – then blends it with exquisite Brazilian rhythms. Her latest single, Summertime neatly sums up the essence of her music “summertime, thinking of you here…. The heat of your breeze as you pass me by…” – the elusive feeling of ‘saudade’ is flawlessly captured, making it an ideal soundtrack to a tranquil, sunny day. Her unique style was brought together through collaborating with Brazilian producer and guitarist Erico Moriera – and she now bases herself between Brazilian beach town Paraty and her hometown Barcelona. While the majority of her songs are in English, she has also recorded tracks in Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan.

Sara Pi released her debut album Wake Up on Sony Records in 2013, which was met with critical acclaim in her home country. Her follow up album, Break the Chains, was released in October 2015, and she has since been touring in Spain. This March she will showcase her music to an international audience at Austin’s SXSW - as one of the few Spanish acts to be featured at the high profile event.


Other ones to watch: BeGun, Delorean, Hinds, La M.O.D.A, John GRVY, The Parrots

Pep Guardiola: credit Maja Hitij AP
Pep Guardiola: credit Maja Hitij AP

Unless you’ve been trapped under a particularly tardy rock you will doubtlessly have heard that Pep Guardiola, Catalonia’s most loved son and Catalan of the year in 2009, is to take over the managerial reins at Manchester City next season. There will, I’m sure, be more than enough help from his ecstatic new employers to ease Pep’s path into his northern home. But as a Barcelona resident who once lived in Manchester I felt obliged to do my bit, helping Pep out with a few useful pointers as the Catalan’s Catalan trades the Teutonic swank of Munich for the rain-washed home of Joy Division.

1) The Rain

Manchester, as Txiki Begiristain may have pointed out as he tried to persuade Guardiola to take the Manchester City job, doesn’t actually get that much rain. In fact, if you look at the statistics, it only gets 810 mm of rainfall per year, just 5mm more than Munich.

But there are lies, damned lies and statistics and this is one of them. I’m not saying that this stat is wrong, per se, but the problem with Manchester is not so much the amount it rains, but the way.

That’s to say, Pep, you can bid goodbye to the dramatic tropical rain storms that hammer Catalonia, in favour of a constant, annoying drizzle. And when I say constant, I mean it: it rains roughly four days out of seven in Manchester and it feels like more. And if Pep’s a fan of barbecuing - something the endless personal profiles over the last few days have oddly failed to address - then he’s plain out of luck, as organising a barbecue in Manchester is akin to a game of rainy Russian Roulette.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Manchester and spent many happy years there. But it’s not called the Rainy City for nothing. Look at it this way: there’s a reason Manchester has produced so many world-beating bands when Barcelona hasn’t: in Barcelona you can go to the beach for about six months a year. In Manchester, tucking yourself up in a rehearsal studio laying down the doom-laden future of music helps keep you out of the rain.

2) The Football

Manchester, like Barcelona, is very much a football town, home to two of Europe’s preeminent teams, while watching football is an obsession for many Mancunians. But people in England watch football in a very different way to the Catalans: there’s no delicate tactical chat; no love for endless passing and - heaven forbid - no watching five a side B side leagues on a Wednesday evening. Instead, there’s lots of drinking, shouting and calling up radio talk shows in tears. It’s pretty good fun, in other words. But perhaps not quite what the endlessly urbane Guardiola will be expecting.

Oh, and a word of warning, Pep: if anyone asks you if you think England will win the World Cup, just say “yes”, OK? Do not, in any case, launch into a detailed tactical takedown of all England’s flaws. That’s not what we asked. And we don’t want to know.

3) The supporters

The home crowd is one of the best things about English football, typically cheering on their team enthusiastically even as they limp to a nil-nil home draw to Stoke. But the big difference between Manchester City and Barcelona games are the away supporters. At the Camp Nou you might get about 100 of them and you’ll need a telescope to make them out. At the Etihad, they will number in their thousands. And, much as they will probably quite like you deep down, Pep, for the 90 minutes of a match you are pretty much fair game for whatever insults they might throw at you. So just keep cool when, rather than applauding your fluid tactical selections, the away fans remind you ad nauseam that you’re going bald and you love Coldplay.

José Mourinho - sorry to mention him, but it’s true - was actually very good at this, managing to see the funny side when opposing fans accused him of buying his smart new coat from Matalan. Try to do the same, Pep, and we’ll all be a lot happier.

4) The Food

England’s food is much maligned - unfairly so, in most cases - and Manchester plays host not just to exemplary haute cuisine but also the delights of the Curry Mile, where you will find 70 different restaurants selling an incredible range of South Asian cuisine at very reasonable prices.

Pep, please, take a trip to the Curry Mile some time. You won’t regret it. Just don’t try ordering a glass of champagne to wash down your curry. It’s beer with curry, right? And in many cases you can even bring your own.

On the other hand, tapas in England is generally rubbish. It’s not so much that English restaurants can’t make it but the end product normally costs such exorbitant sums that it somehow ceases to be tapas-y.

Pep, I’m sure you can afford it. But all the fun is hoovered out of a plate of patatas bravas when the price is nudging 10 pounds. Oh, and Pep: no one in Manchester has even heard of a calçotata. Sorry. So stock up next time you’re in Valls.

5) The Nightlife

Manchester has stunning nightlife and if Pep develops a hitherto unlikely affection for Detroit techno he will be very well served there. But it’s probably safe to say that the city hasn’t quite got its head around the late-hours drinking culture in the same way that Barcelona has. In fact, late nights in Manchester city centre can resemble a bizarre cross between children’s birthday party and boxing match, as hordes of revellers, drunk to their very foundations, lurch around, making jokes, telling their best friends they love them and spoiling for a fight. It’s like the worst of Barcelona’s Ramblas, robbed of its seaside joviality and force-fed cheap vodka-based drinks. It can be a lot of fun, Pep. But whatever you do, don’t try to jump the taxi queue as you speed back to your Cheshire home after a night at the theatre.

6) The Sense of Humour

My girlfriend is Catalan. We’ve lived together for five years. And only now does she just about know when I’m making a joke. Maybe in the next five years she might even understand them.

The English sense of humour, then, is far, far removed from the Catalan. So just smile, Pep, and pretend you’ve at least recognised someone is telling a joke, even if your admirable footballing brain has fogged over at the alleged humour laid down in front of you. And don’t laugh at your own jokes, either. That’s very much not done.

Most of all though Pep, enjoy it. Manchester is a fantastic city and you will be adored by the City fans. Maybe you’ll succeed in turning around the club’s fortunes, forging a Northern English Barça that will thrill and devastate in equal measure. Maybe you won’t. But you’ll get to hear some fantastic music, eat the best curry of your life and maybe even crack the dry Mancunian sense of humour. So who cares if it rains?

Faith the three-legged pony in Barcelona.

The first pony in Spain to be fitted with an artificial leg has passed away, five years after her mutilated foreleg was amputated in a life-saving operation.

Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre co-founders Sue and Rod Weeding, who rescued the badly injured pony in 2010, said they made the heartbreaking decision to have Faith put down on the advice of specialist veterinarians.

Faith had lived happily for years at the Equihealth Veterinarios clinic in Barcelona, under the supervision of skilled Dutch vet Gasper Castelijins, who served Spain’s 2012 equestrian Olympic team.

But last October, Gasper reported that Faith’s good front leg – previously weakened by a severe case of laminitis suffered before her rescue – had began to fail.

“No expense was ever spared on Faith and she absolutely loved her prosthetic leg because it gave her freedom. The amputation was the right thing to do ­– it gave her a wonderful five years. She had companionship, mobility and lived pain-free in five-star accommodation,” Sue said.

“But it’s all about knowing when to let go. When it gets to the stage that a disabled animal is struggling and you can’t make it better, it’s time to let go. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly but obviously no one was prepared to see Faith suffer.”

Faith not long after her 2010 rescue
Faith the Pony, not long after her 2010 rescue.

Faith had been found in a dusty yard beside a Spanish farmhouse in 2010, her right foreleg deeply wounded after being entangled for days in a rope used to tie her to a tree.

She underwent months of intensive treatment at the Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre, near Rojales in the Alicante province, but her mutilated foreleg was unable to be saved.

Faith the Pony with Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre co-founder Sue Weeding and Cookie the pony (left).

In February, 2011, Faith underwent pioneering surgery at Equihealth Veterinarios in Barcelona, where two surgeons worked for five hours to sever her right foreleg 7.5cm below the knee.

Faith was then fitted with a prosthetic leg specially made in the United States by Dwayne Mara of the Bayou Orthotic and Prosthetic Centre in New Orleans – the same skilled prosthetist who made the artificial leg that in 2006 saved the life of a famous American pony named Molly, a casualty of Hurricane Katrina, who was later attacked by a dog and lost her leg.

“We believe that every animal that comes to us, because of the pain and suffering they’ve endured, deserves a second chance at life,” Sue said of the decision to fight for Faith’s life.

“We gave Faith a good five years, which she deserved. She had the best and she inspired so many people worldwide. Faith has changed all of us a little bit.”

After her life-saving operation, Faith the amputee Pony lived happily in Barcelona for five years.

Faith was put to sleep on October 29, 2015.

"Faith's death has been incredibly sad for us and we needed some time to privately come to terms with this loss before making the news public,” Sue said.

“Faith was such a special little pony who touched so many lives and of course we wanted to keep everyone who loved her updated on her case. We hope our supporters understand our decision to take a few weeks to privately grieve before publicly announcing Faith's death."

Now Faith’s artificial leg is set to help another amputee pony in France.

The prosthesis has been sent to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Lyon, where veterinarian Michael Schramme is fitting it for a 10-year-old Shetland pony named Iris.

French amputee pony, Iris, who will receive Faith's prosthesis.

“Iris had been diagnosed and treated for a chronic foot infection for several years by the time she came to see us in October of last year,” Michael said.

“Our investigations showed she had a malignant tumour in the foot and that the only chance of saving her would be to amputate the limb above the tumour.”

Iris’s leg was amputated on October 30 last year, but a second amputation had to be performed slightly higher up the limb on November 20 after the wound became infected.

“Iris returned home for Christmas on December 20. During this time, we constructed a bandage splint from two pieces of PVC drainage pipe that we attached together as a splint to replace the missing part of the limb,” Michael said.

He said the Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre’s kind decision to donate Faith’s professionally made prostheses “will most certainly help” Iris regain her mobility.

Said Sue: “We are so happy that Faith’s prosthetic legs are going to help another little pony and that she and Molly the Pony have inspired other surgeons to continue this work to help others out there.”

Faith the Pony at the Barcelona vet clinic where she lived for five years after pioneering amputation surgery.

An Idiot's Guide To The Spanish Elections

Por: | 22 de enero de 2016


One month ago on the 20th December, Spain held, arguably their most interesting elections since the post Franco elections in 1977. Then as now, four major parties hoped to have a say in an uncertain political landscape.For decades, Spain’s two major parties had been the only game in town. Those who leaned to the right of the political spectrum voted PP, and those who leaned to the left voted PSOE. Anything else was that most pernicious of crimes; the wasted vote.

This year it was different; there were two new games in town. Podemos, a party unashamedly on the left, led by the endlessly energetic Pablo Iglesias. A self-defined Marxist with a knack for populism, a soft spot for Game of Thrones and, perhaps most famously, a terrible ponytail.

And Ciudanos a party whose supporters tend to be conservatives that approve of the policies of the PP but have grown weary of the PP’s steady drip of corruption scandals. The leader Albert Rivera, occasionally resembles a politibot created for the express purpose of leading a political party. He is young, clean cut, good looking, boasts a head of extremely presidential hair and is, no doubt, an expert at kissing babies.

So what has changed? What has allowed these political parties to become, in political terms: “overnight successes”. Spain is not the only country experiencing political upheaval, all across Europe new parties are challenging the status quo and getting results. To understand the phenomenon, it is instructive to have a look at recent events Greece where Syriza, another upstart party, swept to power in January 2015. Coming within two seats of an absolute majority. Syriza were the purest manifestation of a Europe wide dissatisfaction with the gradual transfer of parliamentary power to the EU.

With parliaments ever more limited in their actions, differences between political parties have lessened and the idea that faceless bureaucrats are taking the real decisions has taken hold. Syriza swept to power on the back of a promise to kick the hated Troika out of Greece. The resulting omnishambles did Podemos no favours as the PP were able to make a lot of hay from the Spanish electorate’s fears of Spain becoming the new Greece.

However, it also shone a huge spotlight on the power that government have signed away. Syriza were ultimately helpless to carry out their election promises despite a huge mandate from the people. People unhappy with this situation across Europe are increasingly turning to parties on the left and right, that would have been seen as too extreme to be electable in the very recent past.

 This graph shows the evolution of voting patterns over the course of the last three elections:


The circles represent different regions in Spain, the larger the circle the larger the amount of voters in that region.The vertical axis shows the winners percentage of the vote. The change over the course of the three most recent elections is dramatic, the winner’s percentage of the vote has steadily fallen in the last two elections. This clearly reflects a growing plurality in the vote, which is only going to be good for new parties.

The horizontal axis shows the margin of victory as a percent of the second placed party’s share. Essentially how close the second placed party was to winning. The closer to zero the smaller the margin of victory. The large concentration on the left of the graph tells its own story.

Effectively, Spain’s political parties are winning their seats with ever smaller percentages of the vote and margins of victory. In short, Spanish politics is becoming increasingly volatile. It remains to be seen if the parties can come to an accord and avoid a second set of elections. The recent election of the PSOE’s Patxi López as the president of congress, shows that deals are being done in the corridors of power.

But if Spanish politics continues on its current trajectory the next general election, be it in one month or four years, looks to be the most interesting still. With the potential to definitively prove Rajoy wrong, with his dismissal of Podemos and Ciudanos as political flashes in the pan.

A View From The Campaign Trail: La Coruña

Por: | 16 de diciembre de 2015


La Coruña's City Hall | Christopher Finnigan

It’s raining when I arrive in La Coruña, but I can still make out the campaign posters draped over the bridge — huge, staring faces looking out onto a country in flux . Mariano Rajoy on one side, Pedro Sánchez on the other. Both are in pristine white shirts in front of an immaculate white background and both are most probably somewhere in Madrid preparing for their impending televised debate later this evening, the last before Sunday’s December 20th general election.

I’ve just completed a thirteen-hour train ride from Barcelona to the northwest of Spain. In a rattling carriage that plodded its way across the country’s northern corridor, you wouldn’t have known a national election was in its final stage. In the countryside of Navarra or even in the outskirts of Leon, there were no men in white, leaning to one side, trying to convince you to vote for them by crossing their arms and posing intensely. None of the passengers were talking about the news that Spain’s two-party system is about to be broken either. Instead the man who was next to me was asleep, using his large chin as a pillow.

I find my hotel, drop off my bag and go for a walk around a town that is engulfed in campaign posters for an election just one week away. Galicia has a population of 2.7 million and like many other regions suffers from high levels of unemployment. While the national level currently stands at around 21 percent, here it’s slightly lower at 17 percent. I pass the harbour, a main source of economic activity, whose boats are being gently knocked together by the Atlantic winds. I duck into a bar with a monster-sized octopus in a tank and sit by the window.  After ordering, I look out to find another poster on the lamppost outside with Rajoy’ face staring right back at me.

Local polls predict the Popular Party (PP) will win 11 seats here, down from fifteen in 2011. However this seaside city is no longer the bastion of political conservatism it appears, instead it is instep with the dramatic social and political changes that are currently in motion across Spain. In May of his year, Marea Atlantica, led by university professor Xulio Ferreiro took control of the city council winning ten seats and 31 percent of the vote. Next week they will stand in a coalition with Podemos, under the name En Marea. The Podemos-affiliated party are set win two of the eight seats up for grabs in La Coruna. Galicia has 23 seats in play, six of which this left-wing coalition is predicted to win.

I find supporters of this coalition a few hours later on the other side of the city. The hall is full and some of the candidates for En Marera are on the stage. Purple balloons of Podemos hang above the blue banners of En Marea and there are teenagers on the floor sitting cross-legged in the aisles and a few even to the side of the stage. The guests mix Gallego with Spanish throughout the night as they lament what they see as slow and uneven economic recovery and the trend towards insecure and temporary jobs.

After an hour a few leave early and I follow them to find out why.  Maybe they are Ciudadanos voters who have come to check out the competition. Jose, 62 laughs at me when I suggest the idea and then goes on to tell me why he’s excited about this election. “We are living with the hope that we had after Franco,” he says, “and we can take democratic power back in this election with the people here tonight.” His wife agrees. Margarita, another one leaving early is a 62-year-old nurse tells me how the optimism for change that En Marea is creating has caught on with many of her colleagues.

The event continues and the candidates talk about a wide variety of topics. All address the domestic violence in Spain. Depending on which statistics you cite, between 50 and 100 women have been murdered by men this year. A key sticking point between Podemos-affiliated groups like En Marea and Spain’s other relatively new party Ciudadanos on this issue is legal reform. Ciudadanos have committed to equalizing the sentence guidelines for cases of domestic abuse. Currently sentencing for non-physical abuse begins at six months for men and three months for women. Several express their discontent at this tonight, arguing a change in the law is not going to help lower the murder rate.

As the event ends I speak with some of the younger members of the audience and ask them why they are not drawn to this other relatively new party that is doing very well with young people. Joel, a 19-year-old student is suspicious of their “neo-liberal agenda.”  Isabella, 18, tells me something similar. She’s from a family of Izquierda Unida voters but is supporting this left-wing coalition over other new parties; “it’s a new party but with the same ideas as the PP.”

In a restaurant after the event, the final debate, the ‘cara a cara’ between Sánchez and Rajoy is on in the background. A key event in the election campaign, the first and only debate Rajoy is participating in. Like the campaign posters the theme of white, as in some way representative of transparency, is once again present.

However seeing this debate after witnessing the energy of tonight, makes it look more like a business meeting between two CEOs. There is none of the excitement and enthusiasm for change present in La Coruña and across the country as the campaign trail comes to an end and Spain prepares for its most important elections in almost four decades.  

Christopher Finnigan tweets at @chrisjfinnigan

Sevilla Helps Syria - It started with a Whatsapp

Por: | 10 de diciembre de 2015

Cartel definitivo

Living in a foreign country, it´s easy to go through life as a passenger. Dipping in and out, buzzing around like a nectar drinking, humming bird, before flitting off into the sunset when the going gets tough. After all, for most Brits living in Spain, it´s the lifestyle we´re after - a more relaxed pace of life, long lunch breaks, nothing too heavy.

But sometimes that lightness of being can turn into a remoteness, a separation from whatever real life seems to consist of in that moment.

As someone who came to Seville to escape the heaviness of London life, at first living apart in a fancy free, Guiri world enchanted me. I was free to do as I pleased, with no one to answer to. But five years down the line, it just wasn´t enough. I wanted to contribute in some way to the city that had welcomed me with open arms, I just wasn´t sure how.

In May I tentatively dipped my toe in the ‘ giving back’ waters, when following the earthquake in Nepal, I was involved in a small way in a fund raising event that raised 11,000 euros in one night. On a high from the feel good vibes and camaraderie, I sent a whatsapp message to our group suggesting a follow up, secondhand clothes market. To which the response was ´Great idea, so you´ll organise it right?´ Begrudgingly, I agreed.

Refugee event
Some of the volunteers in action

 Summer came and went and the attention of the news reading public inevitably moved on to the next human catastrophe, which this year happened to be the mass displacement of Syrians from their homes, with hardened hearts softening at the sight of a small child´s body washed up on the shores of Greece.

It seemed we had no alternative but to redirect our event towards the Syrian refugees and while we were at it, why stop at a clothes market? ´Let´s go for the maximum fund raising potential and organise a day-long event with live music, bar, food, kids activities, alternative therapies.. Oh and you´re ok coordinating that Mary, right?´

Gulp. The words ´claro que si´ might have slid out of my mouth, but inside every inch of my being was screaming ´Nooooo´.

Luckily, it’s not just been me putting what at times has felt like an Andaluz ‘Live Aid’ together. We’re an international groups of Spanish, British (including fellow Trans Iberian Blogger Fiona Watson), Americans, Syrians and Nepalese, all united by the desire to make some small difference to an impossible situation.

Refugee event 2

But here we are 2 months later and this Saturday 12th December is the big day. With the name ´Mi Corazón sin Fronteras´ (My heart without borders), our group of ordinary Joes have put together an event that promises to at least double the amount we raised for Nepal, with proceedings going to the UN agency for refugees, ACNUR.

Taking place in the Cortijo building in the Alamillo Park, it starts at 10am with most of the chilled activities like Yoga, Tai Chi, Shiatsu etc happening before the live music starts at 1pm with local acts such as Bosco the FAKE, Emmett, My Yellowstone, Contradanza, Rigo Ochoa, Yomuri, Maria La Serrana, Cule & Cheyennes and Londoner Esther Weekes with her Flamenco/jazz outfit, Lucky Eye, playing until 8pm.

Plus there’s loads of stuff for kids like face painting, arts and craft workshops, bouncy castle and puppet show and for the adults a bar (obviously) and a middle-eastern tea area.

Tickets cost 3 euros, with a drink included. Plus an entry in the lucky dip, with the possibility of winning one of over 1000 prizes such as an experience for two in the Arab Baths, a night in a boutique hotel, dinners in some of Seville’s finest restaurants, cooking courses, hampers of organic products, to name but a few.

If you’re in the vicinity, come. If you’re not, why not organize your own?

For further information check out Sevilla Ayuda A Siria Facebook event page or our Facebook community page

If you can’t make it but would like to make a donation to ACNUR: LA CAJA RURAL DEL SUR, ES82 3187 0812 8110 9511 7824







Photo by José Palazón

Behind three towering fences, over razor wire, beyond the 10 foot-deep trench and past the police watchtowers lies Europe. Some attempt to scale the fence, risking serious injury, a beating or even death. Others protest. Recently, desperate Syrians have started to come here and shout at the border guards who they say work with local gangs to extort migrants and limit access to the other side, and with it the opportunity to request asylum. This is not Greece, Macedonia or Hungary, but Spain - and here the experience of a decade of tough border control has made clear the harsh reality the rest of the continent could be heading for as Europe tries to close its borders.

Migrants have been coming to Melilla - a 4.7-square-mile Spanish enclave in North Africa - for years with the hope of making it to Europe. Over the last decade, Spain has poured millions into ramping up border security in Melilla, which, along with the similarly tiny Ceuta, are the only two land borders between the European Union and Africa. Despite the investment, however, illegal attempts to cross the border remain frequent, as do deaths and claims of human rights abuses at the hands of police.

With Slovenia and Austria the latest countries to announce plans to build fences, learning the lessons of the successes and many failures of the Ceuta and Melilla fences - the “symbols of Fortress Europe,” according to Amnesty International - has never been more important.

Syrians only began coming here fairly recently, and in relatively small numbers compared to those traveling along the Eastern Mediterranean route, but African migrants have been coming to the northern tip of the continent for years and show no sign of stopping despite crossing the border becoming increasingly difficult and, seemingly, more dangerous. A steady stream of young men and boys - meeting someone over 30 is rare - make the perilous pilgrimage from across sub-Saharan Africa to the tip of the continent where they try their luck being smuggled inside car engines, navigating the coast in flimsy dinghies or, if they cannot afford these options, braving the razor wire and jumping the fence.

According to the Amnesty International report published this week “Fear and Fences: Europe’s Approach to Keeping Refugees at Bay,” the best way to deal with the refugee crisis and improve border security is to create formal, regulated avenues for applying for asylum. The current model, they say, is unnecessarily endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands and fueling the people smuggling economy.

October recorded more attempts than any other month so far this year, according to the Spanish Red Cross. In Ceuta, Spanish forces rescued 165 persons in 14 instances of migrants braving the challenging currents of the Strait of Gibraltar with the hope of reaching Spanish territory undetected. Two died and another is missing. In February 2014, Spanish police fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs as dozens of men attempted to swim the short distance around the breakaway that demarks the start of Ceuta. At least 14 drowned in the shallow waters mere feet from the shore. In October, a judge closed the case, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of police wrongdoing to justify a trial.

In Tangier I met a Cameroonian man who had been in Morocco for several years trying to reach Spain. He had tried jumping the fence, swimming and going by boat, but never made it.

Despite having seen several friends die along the way, he told me he would keep trying.

“We don’t want to take these risks,” he said. “We go because there is nothing here.”

Responding to the growing numbers of Syrians arriving at its gates Spain opened immigration offices at border crossings to process requests for asylum in early 2015. The centers were to facilitate the process and provide a safe alternative to the often fatal alternative routes to Europe.

Those who make it into Melilla, often after long periods on the other side, are housed only a few hundred feet from the fence that kept them out at the refugee processing center, known by its Spanish acronym CETI. The short distance between the border and the refugee center is dominated by an immaculately maintained golf course, its verdant dark lawn stretching to the very frontier of Spanish territory before promptly giving up as it meets the fence. The stillness of the green is occasionally disrupted by the sounds of sirens signaling an attempt on the fence, or a passing army patrol on maneuvers.

Outside the center (journalists are not allowed in, I was told), I spoke to Asan, an 18-year-old Kurdish Syrian from Damascus. One of around 1,500 people staying in a facility built for less than 500, Asan (not his real name) tells me of the long journey he and a minority of Syrians have taken to this lesser known gate to Europe, a route that avoids dangerous sea crossings but often means paying considerable sums to people smugglers for safe passage.

“Getting to Europe is very expensive. Lots of people can’t afford to do it and end up trapped sleeping on the street [in Morocco],” he said. “I haven’t seen my family in two years. I’m here alone.”

As of November, he has been in Melilla for three months awaiting permission to travel to the mainland, but before he could get here, he had to pay 1400 euros to local mafias for access to the Spanish border and the opportunity to claim asylum.

José Palazón, spokesman and president of local migrant rights group Prodein, has been documenting abuse at the border for years. In September, Prodein released footage apparently showing how Syrians are charged large sums for access to the border. Palazón said the same system functions to limit the numbers able to request asylum each day according to an unofficial “quota.”

“Around 20 or 30 are allowed to the border each day. This is the limit established by Spain and enforced by the Moroccans,” he told me.  

There are no exceptions to the fees, no clemency for those fleeing war.

“Everyone pays,” he said. “There are many people stuck [on the Moroccan side of the border]. Many run out of money and can’t get through. There are families separated with half on this side and half there.”

In September, Spanish news reported the story of a 38-year-old Syrian man who after unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate access to the border, took a canister of petrol and threatened to set himself and his infant son ablaze. According to the article, he eventually backed down and was arrested by police.

Others have already noted Spain’s strategy on border control, though, seemingly, not the failures of the model.

When Hungary weathered criticism for its treatment of migrants earlier this year, its ambassador to Madrid said the construction of a 109-mile barbed wire fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia - a bitter irony in light of Hungary’s historic dismantling of its border with Austria in 1989 - was no different from the fences Spain had built more than a decade earlier in Ceuta and Melilla.

“The fact that no one apart from Hungary and Spain wants to defend Europe’s borders is quite depressing,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wrote in September. But Hungary and Spain are far from alone. Back in 2012, Greece built a fence along part of its border with Turkey to control migration. Bulgaria responded to the influx of migrants from Greece by constructing its own fence.  

Amnesty International argue these borders have done nothing to stem the flow of people into Europe - estimated by the United Nations to be 700,000 so far this year - it has only forced them to take ever greater risks.

“EU countries’ attempts to prevent irregular arrivals simply force refugees to more clandestine - and as a result mostly more dangerous - routes,” the report reads. “The comparably easier routes being closed off forces refugees to take more difficult and dangerous journeys to reach safety in Europe; either over wide, fast-flowing rivers, or longer sea journeys.”

Hungary’s fence diverted migrants, but appears to have done little to dissuade them from coming to Europe. In the last month, Austria and Slovenia have announced plans for their own fences. Ceuta and Melilla are just the latest of countless examples to show that fences alone will not stop desperate people from risking everything for the promise of a different life, however remote the chances of making it.

Europe’s leaders know this, and in some cases are effectively employing other countries as gatekeepers, most obviously Morocco and Turkey. There hired hands may temper migration through border checks and cooperation with Europe, but Ceuta and Melilla show us that these alone will not stop the problem. The work of journalists and NGOs suggests that transit countries are systematically using fear to supplement the fences and dissuade migrants from attempting the crossing.

Contracting this job out to countries with no free press and a scant regard for human rights makes the West complicit in the beatings, intimidation, extortion, corruption and killings that frequently follow.

Now is the time for Europe to ask itself whether it has the stomach to become a true fortress.

By Sam Edwards


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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