Archive for Spain – Page 2

Loads of bulls……


Loads of bulls. Loads and loads of very large bulls.BullNew

What’s with Spain’s huge roadside bulls? Surely it has something to do with bullfighting?

Well, no. The bull silhouettes started as roadside advertising for brandy. Originally they showed the word Veterano, one of several kinds of brandy made by a Spanish company named Osborne.

First created in 1956, the bulls were working billboards until 1988, when a European Union law prohibited advertising for alcoholic beverages near roads. Technically that should have been the end of the bulls, but there was such a huge public outcry against taking down the bull-billboards that the court (eventually) pardoned the bulls, declaring them to have “surpassed their original advertising function” and to be part of the landscape, both cultural and physical. The word “Veterano” was painted over and the bulls remained, observing the Spanish landscape from hills along the highways.

Now the bulls are almost an unofficial, tongue–in-cheek logo for Spain, at least for the bulls-and-flamenco version of Spain, which of course is not the only version of Spanish-ness. Watchbands, mugs, tee-shirts, ties, bookmarks, stickers, keychains, lighters, shelf-size replicas and lots more can be found at tourist shops and official Toro de Osborne shops. Oh, and I’ve heard tell of bull tattoos, on public and not-so-public parts of the anatomy.

The bull almost-logo has had some backlash, equally tongue-in-cheek. Regions with strong not bulls-and-flamenco identity have created their own animal silhouettes, most notably Catalonia, where a donkey silhouette mimics the bull quite closely. (I’ve also seen sheep and goats, not as well done and not as frequent as the donkey spinoff, but maybe that’s only a question of time). So far, the donkeys are only for bumper stickers and small items – no donkey billboards, though some good Photoshop photos show large donkeys standing on roadside hills.

Travelling around Spain it seems the bulls are everywhere, but that’s not quite true. There are loads of bulls in Andalucia (23), Castilla-Leon (north-central plains, 14) and Castilla-La Mancha (south central plains, 13). Interestingly, these are the stereotypically “Spanish” landscapes of wide rolling plains, where the bulls look best. Aragón and Extremadura, both bordering previous regions and with at least some of the same kind of landscape have 6 and 5 bulls respectively.

Following that theory, it’s puzzling to see 11 in the Valencia region (eastern seaboard, almost no rolling plains), especially when Murcia, neighbor region to the south has none – so perhaps the number of bulls in a region has something to do with fondness for brandy, absence of that fondness, or just speedier action taking down the billboards in 1994. And knowing about sharing or not sharing the bulls-and-flamenco identity, it’s not surprising that there are no bulls in Catalonia, only one in the Balearic islands (sharing many of Catalonia’s identity issues) and also only one in the Basque region.

So as you travel around Spain, do some bull-spotting. Can you find all ninety-one?
Bull trivia: These critters are big – 14 meters / 46 feet tall and 4000 kilos / 8818 pounds. They’re anchored with a lot of cement, and a full metal support structure on the back side, also painted black so almost invisible from most angles. The bulls are ummm anatomically correct, as you can tell at a quick glance.

Learn more:



Madrid, morning of Ash Wednesday. Getting in the mood to bury the sardine


Carnival brings to mind elaborate Venetian masks, harlequin costumes, be-plumed and lightly-clad ladies, sambas, parades and roving kazoo bands. What’s really behind this colorful festival?

A bit of background: Carnival is usually described as a last wild fling before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting, prayer and introspection before Easter Sunday. Carnival celebrations started in Europe during the Middle Ages (13-14th c) and spread from there. In this definition, the word Carnival may come from late Latin or Italian words meaning removal of meat or farewell to meat or flesh (carne levare, or carne vale), a logical interpretation as fleshly pursuits were frowned upon and meat forbidden for Catholics during Lent.

But many scholars say that Carnival’s true origin is in the pagan festivals still celebrated in the early years of Christianity, later incorporated into the Christian calendar with new meanings. The most frequent theories suggest connections to the Roman Saturnalia festival, to late winter festivals celebrated in a number of cultures, or to Celtic and Germanic winter feasts. Saturnalia was celebrated in December, so the date is wrong for today’s Lent-related Carnival but the spirit is right: revelry, parades and society turned upside down. The late winter festivals celebrated the almost-end of winter – sometimes considered the start of the year – and the imminent start of sailing season. Under the pagan definition, the word Carnival may come from the words carrus navalis (naval car or ship) taking the pagan deity to the festival – like the Roman Isis festival where an image of the goddess was carried to the sea on a decorated wooden boat to bless the new season. Followed by masked revellers, this sounds a lot like the floats in modern-day Carnival parades.

Whatever the origin, Carnival is a huge party, a kind of ritualized chaos accepted for a few days every year. Masks and costumes are an important part of the celebrations – sometimes with ancient symbolism about the agricultural cycle or scaring off spooky, otherworldly spirits. Carnival celebrations can be mysterious and sensual or colourful and raucous; yet others include a “battle” between characters symbolizing the frenzy of Carnival and the austerity of Lent. Some Carnivals show oral history or political commentary in the costumes worn or in the rhyming stanzas composed to record events of the previous year.

The end of Carnival can be a feast where everything that cannot be eaten in the next 40 days is eaten in large quantities – that’s probably the origin of the name Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent, or the pancake suppers traditional in some Anglican or Episcopalian churches. Another frequent final ritual is some sort of death and funeral – perhaps burning a puppet or scarecrow symbolizing Carnival, or a ceremony like the Burial of the Sardine.

Frenzy, sensuality, political commentary, masks hiding faces….. Carnival’s excesses have not always been accepted by authorities. In the 16th century, Spain’s Carlos I and Felipe II both restricted some aspects of Carnival, though fun-loving Felipe IV later brought back the party. Even in the twentieth century both Italy and Spain officially outlawed Carnival for around 40 years – in both countries the celebration was legalized again in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s. Today, while recognized almost everywhere as a good way of letting off steam and attracting tourism, there’s sometimes an edgy undercurrent not present in other festivities.

Big fun for most of us, but perhaps not for the easily offended, the strictly moral, thin-skinned politicians or for the people in charge of keeping the festivities under control. So get out and enjoy – in costume or at least with mask, painted face or silly hat. You’ll have a lot more fun if you’re a participant instead of an observer.

Finding your Carnival:

When: Some Carnivals are in the late fall, others around January 6 (King’s Day or Epiphany), but the usual dates are 5-7 days before the beginning of Lent; that usually means February except when Easter is very late. Many places start Carnival on Thursday or Friday, with major celebrations on Saturday and the Burial of the Sardine or another closing ceremony on Tuesday or Wednesday. Dates vary from year to year and place to place, so it’s wise to check with a local city hall or tourism office to be sure of exact program. Tip: if you look on Internet, be sure you’re looking at dates for the correct year!

Where: Carnival is celebrated in some way in most Christian countries around the world. Areas with strong ties to Catholicism usually have stronger traditions, but Carnival is also celebrated in many Protestant countries and even in India, sometimes fusing with decidedly non-Christian local traditions.

In Spain the best-known Carnival celebrations are on the Canary Islands and Cadiz, but Madrid has a wild one, too. Here’s a selection of ideas to follow Spain’s Carnival trail:

Cadiz: One of Spain’s best-known Carnivals, street bands and choirs. Has a tradition of political commentary. More info

Canary Islands: Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Both have a longer-than-usual Carnival. Santa Cruz: A classic, has child and golden-age Carnival queens. More information: . Las Palmas: Drag queen and lots of street bands and choirs. More information (at least partly in English):

Galicia: Carnival is also called Antroido or Entroido in this region. The southern part of Ourense province has several interesting Carnival celebrations in smaller towns: Verin, Xinzo de Limia, Viana do Bolo and Laza are all in more or less the same area. The Carnival costumes in all these towns are very elaborate, often including enormous masks, sheepskins and huge cowbells – and Laza’s Carnival is one of the oldest in Spain, if not in the world. Some of these villages have early Carnivals, others on traditional dates. More info:

Guadalajara: This province is just northeast of Madrid province, with many miniscule villages, some half deserted, and a lot of lovely countryside. Several villages have interesting Carnivals: one of the best is in Almiruete (near Tamajon), with colorful costumes and masks (best day is usually Saturday). The botarga is one of the traditional Carnival characters here. Learn more at Guadalajara’s tourism page   (alas, might not work except near Carnival time)  or other page, scroll down a little to find links about different areas of Guadalajara and cultural traditions in each area. This is a great resource for weekend getaways, once you are ready to get off the beaten path. Go to

Madrid: The official pregon (opening ceremony) is usually a humorous speech by an actor, singer or musician, possibly followed by an outdoor dance or concert. The big parade is Saturday night (usual route: Retiro – Cibeles), with an appearance by Mr. Carnival and Ms. Lent (Don Carnal and Dona Cuaresma), lots of floats and music groups and groups of people in costumes – sometimes scantily dressed or with Carnival-esque themes right on the edge of naughtiness. The Circulo de Bellas Artes (calle Alcala 42) organizes an elaborate costume ball on Saturday night, and there will probably be some activities for kids over the weekend. Madrid’s Carnival ends with the Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday (technically the first day of Lent), when the Brotherhood of the Burial of the Sardine holds a mock burial in the evening, complete with a small coffin and mourners in black, sobbing tragically on their way to bury the dearly departed… sardine. This fun event starts near San Antonio de la Florida chapel on Paseo de la Florida (next to Casa Mingo chicken restaurant), with a burial procession to the edge of the Casa de Campo. If you’re in the city in the morning, you might find the Brotherhood wandering around the La Latina neighborhood, getting in the spirit of things for the evening event. Where and when: various venues around the city on classic pre-Lent Carnival dates.   Website:    check to be sure it’s showing the right year, they update quite late!




Salamanca is far from unknown as a destination for travelers in Spain – but like Toledo, lack of time or knowledge can mean that most people hit only the high points and miss some very interesting sights. Yes, this city can be “done” in a day from Madrid if you hurry, but with a little more time you can see a lot more, and you can make your return visits with Aunt Gertie, cousin Joe, or college roomate Amy more interesting for you – and for them – if you have some tricks up your sleeve.

So this article is a quick guide to some of the lesser-known sights – and less about the major sights because they’re so easy to discover.

Must-see number one: Of course you should see the Cathedrals – note the plural as Salamanca has two Cathedrals side by side, a fantastic lesson in architecture that spans six centuries. Don’t miss the old Cathedral (to the right of the new), including the cloister where the University held exams before their buildings were completed. Jazz up this classic visit: Outside the new Cathedral you must look for the astronaut and the devil with something surprising in his hand – they’re around the north door and even for kids are much easier to find than the famous frog on the University façade. Incongruous on this 16-18th c building, they were added during a restoration in the 1990’s as a sort of signature and statement that work had been done in modern times.

Another unusual view of the Cathedrals is from the square behind the old Cathedral (photo to left). There you can see the fairy-tale turrets around the scaled dome of the old Cathedral, the rooster weathervane – and appreciate the difference in size between the two buildings and how they literally share a wall.

Cathedral add-on, in my opinion a must-see:  The roof / towers.  Entrance is on south side of the old Cathedral (opposite side from the new), takes you up and up the very top of the belltower. On the way you see the old bell-ringers quarters, birds-eye view inside both Cathedrals from the foot, entire length of the naves, and a wander on parts of the rooftop walkways.  Information panels in all the right stopping places (and more!).  Yes, lots of stairs and some a little uneven or narrow, but worth it unless physical issues would make it impossible or torturous.  Not for anyone with fear of heights (obviously).  Idea:  try to be at top of the belltower on the hour for a big-ring (10-12?), or not, it could be really loud!

Continue your wanders down to the river to see the Roman bridge spanning the Tormes river. The fifteen arches closest to the city are 1st century Roman and the rest rebuilt in the 16th century. In Roman times Salamanca was a stop on the “Silver Way” from the Roman gold mines in the north all the way south to Sevilla, now this route is one of the alternative Roads of St. James – you can spot bronze shells in the city pavement if you look a bit. Walk across the bridge and look back for an interesting view of the city, including part of the old city walls (wall sleuths: it’s easy to imagine the line of the city walls looking at a map. Hint: Puerta Zamora was the north gate).

Also from the river, a bit to the east of the bridge, you can see the back view of the Casa Lis. This Art Nouveau-Art Deco museum is a real surprise in 15-16th century Salamanca and is a must-see for anyone interested in early 20th century art, both for the building itself and for the excellent collection of dolls, toys, bronze and ivory statues and glassware. Fabulous gift shop. The entrance to this museum is near the back side of the old cathedral.  Doesn’t sound like your thing? Think again! Get a preview here

The other must-do is University (one of the oldest in Europe) including the the façade, where tradition dictates that you find the lucky frog – a tough job on the ornately carved Plateresque (silversmith) style section over the door, but there is almost always someone there who can help.

Head back towards Salamanca’s famous Plaza Mayor on Rua Mayor with a quick stop at the Casa de las Conchas – the shell-studded outside is great but if open, you should also go inside to see the patio – note the “mixtilinear” arch typical of Salamanca’s palaces. If you want a less transited route back to the main square, continue north on Compañia street then take Meléndez to the right – this route has fewer tourists than Rua Mayor and a number of small restaurants and stores.

Salamanca’s 18th century Plaza Mayor (main square) was used as a bullring for around 100 years. Like Madrid’s main square, Salamanca’s square is a symentrical and completely enclosed. There are lots of outdoor cafés but beware! they’re much more expensive than cafés just a few blocks away.

Market: If you like food (who not?) or just want a glimpse of local life, check out the main market, right next to the Plaza Mayor on the east side. Be sure to walk around the outside of the market as well as going inside. Get more info (schedule, etc) at

If you still have time you might want to try to see San Marcos church at the north end of calle Zamora, 10-15 minutes walk from the Plaza Mayor on a pedestrian shopping street. This 12th century Romanesque church is a personal favorite: completely round, probably as a defense strategy as it was just inside the city walls. If you’re lucky enough to find it open (usually only for Mass), note how three naves are created in this small and ususually shaped space.

Tourist information for Salamanca: Look for the link about visiting times (horarios de monumentos) , especially for the more unusual sights (at present it’s towards bottom of home page under Oficina de Turismo on-line, but they redesign web every now and then). Once in the city, you can get a good basic map and ask questions at the tourism offices in the Plaza Mayor.

Getting to Salamanca: There’s very good public transportation to Salamanca – both train and bus. Take care when purchasing as there are fast and slow options for both train and bus, evident on schedules. Relevant websites: for train and for bus.

Caganer /Mr. P

Spain’s traditional Christmas decoration is not a Christmas tree but a Nativity scene (that’s Belen or Bethlehem in Spanish) . Some Nativities are small with just the basic figures, but many are large and elaborate, including a stream made of crinkly blue plastic, a windmill, blacksmith or chestnut seller: for me, together those seem to represent water, wind and fire. In addition to the obligatory Holy Family, shepherds and Three Wise Men, many large Nativities have entire village scenes, with a wide variety of everyday people going about their everyday lives.

In Catalonia (northeast Spain, around Barcelona) they have another character, going about his everyday life. This character is so traditional that after admiring the Nativity and complimenting the owner, the next step is to spot this little person.

Warning: If you are easily offended, stop right here. Really!





Still here? So what is this character and might it be offensive?

It’s the caganer, dubbed Mr. Poopy by my brother (from now on we’ll call him Mr. P to trick the profanity filters; one p-word might slip through but more might not). The traditional Mr. P is a little figure of a Catalonian farmer with his pants down around his ankles, crouched over and with a little brown pile in just the right place.

This might sound shocking, but there’s actually a good reason. As a farmer, Mr. P understands the importance of fertilizing his fields, and that’s what he’s doing, fertilizing his fields so the next harvest will be a good one. Mr. P brings good luck, so he’s present in all Catalonian Nativity scenes.

Let’s think for a minute about fertilizing the fields. Mr. P is a lighthearted reminder that we all need to fertilize our fields, if not in this literal fashion, in another way. Fertile fields grow new ideas, new friends, and fabulous adventures, a good harvest for the body and the soul. We all need to find ways to fertilize our fields, whether that means unplugging the computer, visiting a museum, coloring a mandala, or walking in the woods.

In that spirit, my own Mr. P stays out all year round. I did move him from my cluttered work space to another shelf, where he watches my back – and maybe over my shoulder as I write. Yes, I also walk in the woods, color mandalas and hope that in the new year I can sew and knit again, yet another way to fertilize the fields.

Happy New Year! May your fields be always fertile. Remember to do your part.




Want to see more caganers? Even if you made it this far without being too offended, think three times before clicking on the link. Seeing important people from politics, sports, the arts and other occupations in Mr. P’s position is a little disconcerting. But if you’re ready, click away (just don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Usually some stalls at Madrid’s Plaza Mayor Christmas Market have figures like the one on the left – I’ve also seen them in a shop on the west side of the square, more or less behind the horse’s tail.

Best Breads



What food is a part of almost every Spanish meal? The answer is……. bread. Although some people may consider bread just what goes under the cheese or ham, for many others bread is almost worthy of its own food group, or at very least an important part of the “vital miscellanea” food group that includes garlic, chocolate, cheese and wine.

Deciding what bread to buy has gotten more and more complicated in recent years. No longer just classic white in three classic sizes (barra, pistola y barrita), bread now comes in an astonishing array of sizes, shapes and colors. Not a serious bread-aholic myself (only at breakfast or under cheese), to learn more I visited a selection of neighborhood bakeries in the center city, asking questions to find out about the bread scene in today’s Madrid.

What makes good bread? All bakers agree on the basics: natural ingredients, no shortcuts, and daily baking. For these professionals, the frozen, pop-in-the-oven bread sold at gas stations and convenience stores is not really worthy of the name bread. “It’s all right while still hot, but inedible just hours later” sniffs one baker.

For great bread we enter the realm of opinion and trade secrets. Bread is just water, flour, yeast and maybe additional ingredients (malt, milk, seeds) for certain kinds of bread. The art is in the mixture, in the process of kneading, rising and baking; most good bakeries have their own recipes and techniques that makes their bread distinctively theirs. One employee told me that they re-trained even experienced bakers in their own way of mixing and baking, delicate processes that can vary depending even on the weather. Another baker says that the baker’s instinct on rising or baking time is just as important as the written recipe.

The baking business is not easy. Another truth mentioned in several places. Baking is physically demanding: lifting heavy bags of flour, heavy trays of bread, dealing with heat and hustle to get the bread out to the hungry, hurried public. To the physical difficulty add long, long hours: baking starts well before dawn to get the bread out the door for breakfast, then come long opening hours for the public. A tough schedule for any business, but especially for traditional family-run neighborhood bakeries with few outside employees. Many neighborhood bakeries have closed in recent years: to survive, a bakery needs to have a great location, good service, special products (pastries, empanadas, cookies) and great bread to bring customers through the door.

Is there really any difference between differents breads and different bakeries? Judging from the long line outside some bakeries, or people’s willingness to wait for the next batch of “their” bread, some bread really must be better than other bread. Just imagine: a neighborhood bakery  in the Moncloa area makes 600 standard barras every day during the week and more than double that number on weekends – that’s just one kind of bread and doesn’t include their delivery routes.

What’s the BEST bread? You decide!  White or dark?  Chewy or fluffy? Factor in the situation: what works for breakfast, for sandwiches, for stew or for grilled fish may not be the same. Factor in the all-important location: you don’t want to cross the city every other day to get something as basic as bread. Factor things in, but be bread-venturous. Try new kinds from new places, you never know when you’ll find something so amazing it belies the Spanish saying “Bread with bread, food for idiots”.

Bread vocabulary (and explanations)

Bread varies s lot in the grain of the miga (crumb, inside) and the hardness of the corteza (crust). The most classic shapes are barra (classic long, wide-ish loaf), baguet (long but narrower), barrita (individual serving), molde (rectangular loaf like packaged bread), hogaza (circular loaf), rosca (big doughnut shape), and a variety of names that vary between regions or even between bakeries.

Bread also varies in the kind of flour and rising process, creating very different kinds of bread from similar raw ingredients. A few kinds of classic bread are shown below, but as you travel around Spain you should watch for and try regional breads: Castilla-Leon is famous for good bread, Cataluña for rustic payés, and Galicia for cornbread.

Candeal : White, fine-grain bread made with a special flour, golden crust. Comes in a variety of shapes, in Castilla-Leon sometimes a flat, round loaf with designs on top. Not available in all bakeries. Keeps better than most white breads.

Chapata: Similar to Italian ciabatta. Usually made from white flour with a little rye. Loaf is crusty, oblong and flat, inside usually spongey open texture. This bread is more complicated to make than standard white, has a different rising process. Good toasted with oil and for sopping up sauces.

Integral: Whole-wheat. Most frequent shapes are barra, molde and hogaza. Varies a lot between bakeries in crust, texture and moistness, you may need to shop around to find one you like; available in health food stores as well as bakeries. Keeps well.

Centeno: Rye. Comes in a variety of shapes, varies in color from light to quite dark, some breads are mixture wheat and rye. Some dark ryes are made with malt (first cousin to malt in beer or malted milk). Can be moist or dry, usually quite dense. Keeps well.

Multicereal: Mixed grain, sometimes with seeds on the crust or inside (poppy, sunflower, linseed). Might also be called cinco cereales (o siete cereales, etc) Not all bakeries have this hearty bread, but if you see it it’s definitely worth a try.

Special breads: Good bakeries or bread boutiques have bread with nuts, raisins, olive bits or other treats. Around Easter you can usually find a fine white bread made with milk, used to make torrijas (bread soaked in milk or wine, fried and sprinkled with sugar).

Good bakeries in Madrid, just a selection

Mas que Pan: Plaza Puerta de Moros 3 (Metro La Latina). Independent and in my neighborhood, has a coffee shop. This will probably become my place, for now I’ve only had their carrot cake and empanadillas (closed covered mini-pizza), both excellent.

Pasteleria del Duque:  Plaza Duque de Alba (Metro La Latina). Also independent and in my neighborhood, has a tiny coffee shop. This place has more cakes than breads but their cakes are SO good that I’m including here assuming the bread is just as good.

Puntal: Santa Engracia 56 (metro Iglesia). Independent bakery in Chamberi neighborhood, has coffee shop. Newish so I have not tried personally, but it looks like they have a nice  selection

Mercado de Barcelo (calle Barcelo 6):  Panaderia Israel, lower level, stand 126 (across from the olives).  Good multigrain and rye breads. So far I have resisted their chocolate bread. Not terribly friendly, or maybe just having a bad day.

Mercado de Maravillas (calle Bravo Murillo 122): Horno Atanor (stand 223, a little to the left of main entrance, near the front). Unusual breads, over 30 kinds on weekends, including teff, rye, mixed-grain, cheesey or pesto rolls. They also used to have really unusual cookies and while those have disappeared, the classic cookies are highly recommended (double chocolate, yum!)  Other place associated to this one, same selection of breads plus beans and grains by weight and some dried fruits and nuts: A Granel, calle Comercio 13 in northern suburb Tres Cantos.

La Panaderia de Chueca: San Gregorio 1 (Metro Chueca). Small independent bakery with a wide selection of breads, including breads for people with special food needs. Also has pastries, a few other products and a small coffee shop. Website is quite informative.

Celicioso:    Hortaleza 3  (Metro Gran Via)    Gluten free bakery with bread, cakes and brownies.  Also has a small cafe for enjoying your treats right there.

Bakery chains. A newish trend – most of these have coffeeshop attached to bakery, and lots of pastries as well as bread.  As sometimes happens in chains, some places are better than others; even if product is the same people are not.

Granier.  Excellent German style rye, multi-grain bread, olive focaccio, cheesy bread, onion bread etc.   This chain has expanded dramatically since first arriving in Madrid, so you may have one near your home. Website

Panaria  Santa Engracia 45 and other locations. The website is not very informative, but the barkies I’ve see all look good.

Panishop. Lots of locations. Their multigrain “celta” is good, and they have other specialities I have not tried yet. Good muffins

Madrid, March 2004


As a long-time expat, I frequently get questions from newer arrivals about things that have happened in Spain during my time here.

Eventually I will post a summarized, personal history, perhaps including what led me to try a breakfast sol y sombra (usually only for crusty old men or tough working guys) or a bit about my bohemian attic apartment.

But for now, I’d like to share something about the 2004 train bombs in Madrid. This piece was written immediately after the attacks to explain the situation to concerned family and friends, especially for people reading articles in the international press, many with an inaccurate “spin”.    I  have not changed anything in this piece (except correcting a few typos), though it was tempting. But I wanted to leave it as a historical reflection on a major event in recent Spanish history.

As always, when learning about tough or unfamiliar issues, it is a good idea to read from a variety of sources and know who is writing and where they’re coming from. Please read other sources to balance what follows, which tries to be fairly unbiased person-in-the-street account — but doesn’t always succeed.

Where the “press” is cited, it is usually the major daily newspaper EL PAIS or sometimes the Yahoo news services, which select articles from most of the world news services.

Summary of situation: Train bombs went off in Madrid on March 11, just three days before the national elections of March 14, 2004. 
Thursday, March 11, 2004: At about 7.40 – 7.45 AM bombs went off on four different commuter trains: one in Atocha station, one just outside Atocha station, one in Santa Eugenia station and another in the commuter stop El Pozo del Tio Raimundo. Several trains had more than one bomb. All the trains were on the Guadalajara – Alcalá de Henares – Madrid Atocha train line, very heavily traveled at that time of day with workers coming into the city from outlying areas.

Atocha station, where two of the attacks occured, is the main commuter station in Madrid’s heavily used commuter train system, with ten platforms running trains about every 3 minutes, connections to the subway and nearby connections to city bus lines.

That first day, the deaths were counted at more than 180; later the toll would rise to 201 and finally return to 191 once all the DNA testing was complete. There were more than 1800 injured.

As usual, the first assumption was that the attacks had been commited by ETA, the Basque terrorist group. But from the very beginning there were indications that ETA was not responsible: the attack was not their “style” (too indiscriminate, no advance warning, wrong kind of victims), and the controlled explosion of a bomb that did not go off seemed to indicate a type of explosive that ETA does not use. Furthermore, the head of the illegalized political party associated with ETA condemned the attacks, something they had never, ever done after an ETA attack. He went so far as to state categorically that it was not ETA and suggest the possiblity of an Islamist fundamentalist attack. To people outside Spain, this may not sound important. To people in Spain who know ETA’s usual style, this is a very important point.

On the morning of that first day a white minivan was found near the train station in Alcalá de Henares, containing some clothes, detonator caps, remains of an explosive and a Koran tape in Arabic; a witness had seen three people in the van early in the morning and later remembered them because they were wearing face masks that seemed too warm for the weather. One of the people headed for the train station carrying a backpack or large sports bag of some sort.

Thursday evening, an unexploded bomb was discovered in a sports bag in a police station. The bag was collected at one of the bomb sites as belonging to a victim and was discovered when a cell phone began to ring. The alarm clock function of cell phones was the detonating mechanism for the other bombs; for some reason bomb didn’t go off in the morning nor in the evening. The type of explosive and the way the bomb was put together became important clues for the police investigations.

More and more things seemed to point away from ETA. In a memo to the Basque press the organization denied any participation in the attacks. However, about 5.30 PM the Spanish Department of State sent a circular to Spanish ambassadors world-wide stating that ETA was the prime suspect. The government (Partido Popular or “PP”, center right) continued to maintain that ETA was suspect number one, though other clues were also being investigated, for several more days.

Almost immediately after the morning attacks, all of the final political campaign acts for Sunday’s elections were canceled. Politicians across the spectrum started calling for all voters to participate in the elections, some adding qualifying statements like: vote, but don’t let the attacks change your vote; vote, for yourself and for those who no longer can.

Some comments suggested that it would have been wise to postpone the elections until people had calmed down and the perpetrators were clear. But according to experts quoted in the Spanish press, the Constitution has no mechanism for postponing a general election in this kind of situation, without declaring a state of emergency. An even more convincing argument was that postponing the election would give the wrong message to the terrorists and to the world.

Friday, March 12: Memorials began springing up at bomb sites. Mass demonstrations against terrorism drew more than 11 million people in all the provincial capital cities; that about 25% of Spain’s population of about 41 million people.

The PP government continued to insist that ETA was suspect number one, though they admitted other possibilities were also being investigated.

Saturday, March 13, “Thinking day”: On the day before elections in Spain, no political acts are allowed. This is the day people should digest all the information they have received during the campaign, and if they haven’t already decided their vote, make their choice.

In addition to evaluating Spain’s progress in the previous four years and all the campaign promises, people now wanted to know as much as possible about the attacks to factor in that information and cast their vote for the government that would lead Spain for the next four years. Basically, if ETA committed the attacks, people might lean more towards the PP, as that party had achieved some important victories in the fight against Spain’s own terrorist group. But if the attacks were committed by an Islamist terrorist group, people might tend not to vote for PP, believing that PP support of the Iraq war had brought Islamist terrorism to Spain.

That said, it should also be emphasized that Spanish participation in the Iraq war was not the only issue in the campaign, nor even the most important issue. The attacks brought the war back to center stage, and reminded voters that the PP government had supported the war against massive public opinion, never really giving a solid explanation of the reasons for that decision.

The attacks were awful but probably did not determine most people’s votes. However, the attacks did bring certain issues to the attention of the voters. One issue was the Iraq war. Another issue is the people’s right to receive timely and correct information from their government.

In the aftermath of the attacks, a lot of people saw a dynamic that the ruling party “Partido Popular” had used in the past: controlling or manipulating information that the Spanish people felt they had a right to know. As well as the Iraq war, timely access to information was an issue during important crisis like the Prestige oil spill in northwest Spain and the plane crash that took the lives of 60 Spanish military returning from a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Some people might say that controlling information was an ongoing policy of the PP government, not just in times of crisis but on a daily basis.

Even given the need to maintain some discretion in the first stages of an investigation, people wondered if PP might not be acting in their own best interest by insisting on the ETA theory and not informing the people of the progress of the investigation of the Islamist clues. All this came to a head on the day before an election, an election that would decide what party would govern Spain for the next four years.

Even without the attacks, 2004 – 2008 was going to be difficult: social and environmental issues in Spain, a new phase for the EU, a tough global situation. Add the need for healing after a major terrorist attack and the importance of the elections becomes even greater. And the importance for voters to feel they were making the best possible choice even more apparent.

On Saturday at about 4.00PM, five men were arrested, three from Morocco and two from India. These arrests were made possible by following the clues given by the unexploded bomb discovered on Thursday. Early in the evening, a caller notified the local television station that a video tape would be found in a trash can near the mosque and the city funeral home; that video claimed responsibility for a group affiliated to Al Qaida. Though it would take some time to check the authenticity of the video, the case for an Islamist fundamentalist attack was beginning to look very strong.

Most people feel that the PP government took an unusually long time to announce these new leads. Under pressure, they finally made an official announcement around 8.00 PM, long after the press and the major opposition party (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, center-left) knew about the information. Some cynics say that the PP would have liked to keep that information quiet until after the elections.

It had also turned out that the explosive used was not the kind that ETA always uses, something so typical of that terrorist group that it is considered part of their “style”. According to EL PAIS newspaper, the information about the kind of explosive used was apparently misrepresented to the German intelligence service and police force, who later expressed their indignation at what appeared to be a lack of cooperation between European police forces.

In the meantime, the citizens of Madrid had heard about this new information and congregated in front of the PP headquarters on Genova street. Chanting “manipulation of information” and “we want to know the truth before we have to vote”, this group grew all afternoon and later reappeared at 12 midnight in the centrally located Puerta del Sol, from where they returned to the PP headquarters to continue calling for the truth.

This was apparently a true spontaneous demonstration, organized by internet and cell phone messages and not a “political concentration” called by the PSOE as the PP claimed. That may not sound very important, but for a political party to call a demonstration on “thinking day” was very serious indeed; thus it is an important distinction. PP accused the PSOE of organizing the demonstration, which PSOE vehemently denied.

As another part of this protest was a round of pan-beating, a noisy, low tech but very satisfying way to express an opinion, if participating in a street demonstration is not a viable option. Originally called in Barcelona, the pan-beating spread like wildfire across the country and in some places went on for a long time. In some neighborhoods, not a sound was heard. My street was cacophony, as was the multi-cultural Lavapies area where some of the day’s arrests had been made.

Sunday, March 14, election day: The front page of most of the newspapers had huge headlines about Saturday’s arrests and the video tape. In EL PAIS newspaper, some foreign journalists working in Spain reported having received telephone calls from the government informing them that the attacks were work of ETA, citing reasons that were incorrect. Some newspapers also carried yet another denial by ETA of their participation in the attacks.

The PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, center-left, opposition party until the elections) won the elections by popular vote and has the largest block in Congress but not the absolute majority. The PP (Partido Popular, center-right, ruling party until the elections) is the second party, with a strong minority. Compared to the 2000 election, it is interesting to note that the 2004 results show the PP only lost about 693,000 votes, while the PSOE gained about 2,989,000 votes.

Some of the PSOE gain might have been former PP voters, but most was probably from people who did not vote in 2000, which had one of the lowest voter turnouts since 1977, Spain’s first election after Franco’s death. Some of those people had probably already decided to vote before the attacks, unhappy with the way the PP was handling important issues. Other people may have decided to vote immediately after the attacks, as a way of supporting the democratic process and protesting against terrorism. Still others may have decided to vote based on the way PP handled the aftermath of the attacks. It is doubtful that many (if any) made that important decision based on fear.

In the period right after the elections, some international press and some groups in Spain claimed that the attacks changed the results of the elections and insinuated that the election result was somehow invalid or that the Spanish people voted out of fear instead of with their heads.

That analysis is not fair to Spanish voters, who are quite capable of making their choices based on mature analysis of multitude of factors and not just based on one isolated event, as tragic as it may be. The voters acted not out of fear of terrorism but in legitimate exercise of their democratic rights, voting out a government that no longer represented the majority opinion.

Information published several days after the elections seem to support this analysis. The very last polls (taken too close to the elections for the results to be published) showed very little lead for the PP. In a poll taken after the elections, voters were asked specifically whether the attacks changed their vote. Ninety percent claimed they had already decided before the attacks occurred.

The polls published before the attacks indicated that the center-right Partido Popular (PP) would probably win the popular vote and have the most seats in Congress, but would lose their absolute majority of 2000-2004. The polls suggested that the second major party, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), would continue to have a strong minority block. The other minor parties, including regional parties and a leftist coalition, would continue more or less as usual, with a minority of seats but as important allies for passing legislation if no party has the absolute majority.

But most of the polls stated that the undecideds, the new voters and especially the people who don’t always vote would be crucial in the outcome of the 2004 elections. That appears to be what happened. Based on information from the Monday edition of EL PAIS, voter participation was 77.22%, up from 68.71% participation in the 2000 elections.

Another factor that may have given the PSOE some votes, without taking any away from the PP, is what Spaniards call the “useful vote”. People who do not really share the ideology of the major parties (PP or PSOE) face a tough choice: vote for a minor party that does express their ideology but has little or no chance of making a difference in Congress, or vote the major party that is the closest to their ideology just to make sure that party has more seats than the other major party. In the 2004 elections, the leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) lost four seats. That coalition is PSOE’s natural ally on many issues and some IU voters may have chosen to vote the “useful vote” this year: PSOE.

The final makeup of the 2004 – 2008 Congess is 164 seats for PSOE, 148 for PP and the remaining 38 seats spread among ten smaller parties (in 2000 – 2004 it was 183 PP, 125 PSOE and 42 for minor parties). Generally speaking, in Spain the members of Congress are expected to vote their party line and not their individual opinions; thus the importance of the makeup of the legislature.

The PSOE leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (often called just Zapatero in the press) has said that he will not form a permanent coalition with any party to reach an absolute majority, a tactic the PP used in the 1996 – 2000 legislature when they did not have the absolute majority. Instead, Zapatero has said he will try to govern by consensus, looking for support among the minor parties when it is needed, depending on the issues being discussed. That may be a little clumsy for passing difficult legislation, but could also be considered a more pluralistic system that guarantees more points of view will be heard.

Soon after the elections, voices were raised supporting the PSOE and their plans for Spain. But the PSOE has also been reminded, by the people who voted them in, that they can also be voted out if they do not fulfill their promises. Crowds of young people chanted: “don’t fail us, don’t fail us”.

Quite conscious that democracy works just like that, the PSOE has promised to do the best they possibly can. The issues are tough. The people will be watching. PSOE has four years to prove they can do the job.

Where does Spain go from here?
A personal reflection from shortly after the attacks: In the time after the attacks, I was very proud of Spain’s solidarity. The volunteer effort was amazing: huge lines of people waiting to donate blood. Neighbors to the bomb sites taking down blankets, water and food, for the victims and the rescue squads. People taking the injured to hospitals in their cars. Taxi drivers offering free service to the families of the dead and injured. A hotel owner offering his establishment for families of dead and injured. Doctors and rescue personnel of all sorts reporting for work while off-duty, or staying on after the end of their 24-hour service. Not to mention the massive peaceful demonstrations, memorial sites and banners expressing people’s feelings.

Especially wonderful to see (for an expat who occasionally gripes about Spain’s lack of organization) was the excellent emergency relief plan. It was in place and worked like clockwork, coordinating all sorts of details including getting information to families as to in what hospital the injured were located. Websites and reinforced emergency phone numbers were fully functional within hours of the attacks.
As tragic as this event was, it is final proof that Spain has come of age as a modern, democratic country.

Afterword: please remember that this was written ten years ago. Many, many things have happened in Spain since then. But I wanted to leave this as a historic document to try to give the immediacy of that tragic event.

Counting Sheep (and Cows and Goats)

Sheep in Navarra just before starting  five-day migration to winter pastures

Sheep in Navarra just before starting five-day migration to winter pastures

Sheep have the legal right-of-way on two of Madrid’s busiest streets. What? Sheep on the streets of a major European city?

Madrid streets Alcalá (east-west) and the Castellana (north-south) are part of Spain’s nation-wide system of livestock routes, used for centuries to take animals between summer and winter pastures until it became easier to move them by truck or stay year-round in containment lots.

The traditional calendar called for two migrations every year: down from the high summer pastures in the early fall before the first snows, back up to those pastures in the late spring. Some of the original migrations took weeks and crossed half the country, between summer pastures in the mountains well north of Madrid to winter pastures in southern or western Spain.

Today most of the longest migrations are no longer necessary, but even now some four – six day migrations take place. Walking these traditional routes with the flocks is sometimes the best way to reach isolated grazing areas.

A bit of history: Created in the middle ages for the powerful sheep-owners organization (the “Mesta”), these routes are a highway system for migratory livestock, an incredible network of primary, seconday, terciary routes and rest areas.

Depending on category and location, route width varies from 82 to 20 yards, reach a total length of about 125,530 kilometers (78,000 miles) in Spain and cover about 1% of Spain’s total area. This sounds unbelievable, but the routes are the animals’ road and dining room, so they need to be wide enough to sustain large herds during long migrations.

The full network of livestock routes is public land with public right-of-way, but as the routes fell into disuse in the middle of the twentieth century, local governments and private individuals began using the land for farms, private homes, highways, streets, golf courses, soccer fields and other uses, often cutting off the legal right-of-way for animals and people.

Protests by ecologists and the remaining migrating herders forced some protective legislation in the eighties and nineties. There are still infractions against the routes, but now there is a legal structure in place to protect this part of Spain’s rural heritage, varying in effectiveness depending on the region.

And now? With the growing popularity of active tourism in rural areas, walkers, bikers and horseback riders are finding new uses for these old routes. Even without four-footed companions, these routes are a great way to see rural Spain.

European Union mandates to protect traditional lifestyles also help. Originally with EU funding, Spain funded partial recovery of a few migrations, using different routes and stopping in towns and cities along the way to educate the young (and remind the old) about a way of life from Spain’s not-too-distant past.

Spain. Madrid. Calle Mayor

Madrid’s calle Mayor with people in traditional dress waiting for the sheep

In Madrid, this is a sight to behold. As part of the traditional ceremony, the head shepherd, in full regalia, pays the traditional tax to the mayor of Madrid. And for a Sunday morning each year, Madrid’s streets belong to the sheep and to their keepers.

The streets are crowded with people, the sheep endure excited children and way too much asphalt, snatching mouthfuls of street-side greenery whenever they can. Elderly men comment on the flock, still knowledgeable of rural ways after forty or fifty years in Madrid. The herds are accompanied by shepherds, musicians, and groups of people from the herds’ home territory, all dressed in traditional costumes for this “sheep fiesta” in Spain’s capital. In the last few years, cell phones and digital cameras have added an amusing touch to this event: imagine a woman in a long skirt and wooden clogs on a rope-haltered donkey talking on a cell phone! A quirky mixture of old and new, modern and traditional, like all of Spain

So during your next trip around Spain, if you see a herd of sheep, cows or goats on the streets of Madrid or rural highways, slow down, stand aside and enjoy the sight. You’re seeing part of a centuries-old tradition.


Take the Train

Old train engine at Madrid's train museum

Old train engine at Madrid’s train museum

Trains have improved immensely over the last twenty odd years. Gone are the ten-hour overnight expreso trains with people selling sandwiches through the windows. Gone are the scratchy-plush seats, the long unexplained delays in nameless towns, unintelligible but important announcements on the PA system. Now most Spanish trains are punctual, clean, comfortable, well-appointed, sensibly scheduled and on-schedule.

Trains are more comfortable for long trips than buses or cars, are not subject to highway traffic returning to the city, don’t make people motion-sick and if you’ve got kids, might make a long trip easier because you can move around instead of just sitting. There are some drawbacks: they’re not always faster or less expensive than other kinds of transportation, they’re subject to schedules that may not be exactly your own, and they don’t go absolutely everywhere. But they’re a good option for people want to explore Spain, especially for a getaway weekend to a city or the beach, when you don’t need your car at destination.

For some Spanish train history and a bit of trivia, see the end of this post.

Getting information on the Renfe website, a quick guide: This is a quick instead of detailed guide because Renfe train company reorganizes frequently to highlight offers, so what is top right today may be bottom center next week. The website is huge and quite informative; it’s also partly in Spanish, so get out your dictionary or sit down with a Spanish speaker. (Language link at top right, but not all pages are translated)

What is what, what is where:  Renfe divides their service into three types by distance: Larga Distancia, Media Distancia and Cercanias (Long, middle and short distance). The Cercanias are mostly commuter trains are based on twelve different urban nuclei like Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Malaga. The Media Distancia trains now correspond to the Autonomous Communities and generally speaking are within a single Community or at most, entering a neighboring one. Larga Distancia trains usually cross several regions.

The next division is the kind of trains. The fastest are Alta Velocidad (AVE, the high-speed bullet trains) and the Avant: AVE is usually long distance and Avant short or middle distance, but some destinations have both types with different schedules and different prices. Other fairly fast trains are the Talgo, Alvia and Alaris, followed by the shorter-run Regional Express. The overnight Tren-Hotel is quite nice, far better than the almost extinct overnight Estrella. The classic Regional trains are less expensive and much slower, but sometimes are the only option for isolated areas. FEVE trains are only in the north, an older narrow-gauge system now operated by Renfe.

Schedules: For Cercanias commuter trains look for backwards C in a red circle and select your urban nucleus. You will probably need to tell the system the exact origin and destination stations (Madrid city has several) to get what you want. For middle and long distance trains look for Horarios y Precios (Timetables and Prices). That link takes you to the core of the website, where you get your schedules, special deals, and learn about how to travel with your bike, pets, kids or golf clubs.

Finding the deals: Go to the center of home page under Promociones y Ofertas (Prices and Discounts). Take your time here – it’s one of the sections that has not been fully translated and there are some great deals: round trip, frequent travelers, elders or kids. . . one of the best deals is the “Tarifa 4 Mesa” , where you get a 60% discount buying four seats on the AVE or other long-distance trains that have four facing seats at the end of the car (two facing backwards), often with a small table in between. You have to buy all four, but with that discount even if you use only three seats it’s still a great deal, and you’ll have a little more space. There’s something similar (though not such a big discount), for taking the entire compartment on overnight trains.

Payment, what’s new: In the past paying with plastic on this site has been difficult until credit card is “activated” by Renfe, but I think they now accept PayPal.  That said, a Renfe person told me confidentially that sometimes the best deals don’t appear for electronic purchase – she had just given me a 50% discount on two different trips. So sometimes it’s worth getting the information on the website and going in person to get the tickets, especially if you’re doing something special.

See the trains: Want to know more about the trains, including photos inside and out, or maybe discover where your seat is located? Look for Nuestros Trenes (Our Trains). You’ll need to know the train model, usually linked to the itinerary. Click on model name and follow the prompts.

Trenes touristicos (Tourist trains): This is one of the sections that moves around a lot, if it is not visible on home page look again once on the page for medium and long distance schedules. The special trains can be days trips to cultural sights with themed entertainment on the train (Medieval train to Siguenza, Cervantes train), wine themed in Extremadura or Galicia or even a multi-day “cruise” through fabulous scenery on a period train like the Al-Andalus, Transcantábrico or the Robla. These trains usually do not run year-round but they’re a fun option. (Madrid’s Strawberry Train is not operated by Renfe).

All in all, maybe for your next trip you should take the train!

Website: Renfe: For all the schedules and information explained above

The train in Spain, some history: Plans for Spanish trains were discussed as early as 1830, but the first train was in 1848 – a 28 kilometer line from Barcelona to Mataro. The second line was 49 kilometers between Madrid and Aranjuez (1851), probably thanks to Queen Isabel II’s fondness for the Aranjuez Palace.

Spain’s early years of train service were euphoric but chaotic. No overall plan was created for a rail network, and a multitude of private companies built rail systems to serve specific areas, often with little or no connection with other areas or with other companies. That was the situation until around 1926, when the dictator Primo de Rivera tried to create a logical rail network, connecting existing rail lines and making plans for the future. It was an ambitious, necessary project, but the Civil War (1936-1939) brought reorganization to a grinding halt.

The war destroyed rails, bridges, stations and the trains themselves. Most of the private train companies were bankrupt and unable to make the necessary repairs, so in 1941 the Spanish state nationalized all train lines to create RENFE, Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles (Spanish National Network of Train Lines). As a state-run monopoly, Renfe managed all aspects of Spanish rail service until December 31, 2004.
On that date, following EU mandates on free commerce, Renfe ended its 63-year lifespan. On January 1, 2005, two new companies came existance: Adif for infrastructure and Renfe-Operadora for service (ticketing and all services to clients, freight). For now Renfe-Operadora has the inside track (pardon the pun) on managing the services, with regional companies in Cataluña, the Basque country and a few other places. Theoretically in the future this could change, though the logistical hurdles would be huge.

Fun train trivia:
Track gauge (width): Iberian train tracks have a different width from the rest of Europe: the traditional rail width in Spain and Portugal is 1,668mm (aprox 66 in.), and most of Europe is 1,435mm (aprox 57 in.). Spanish lore says that the Iberian rail width was purposely made different from international rail width so the French couldn’t invade by train – the Napoleonic occupation still a recent memory in the mid 1800’s. A more plausible technical explanation for the wider track width is that Spanish geography was more challenging in distances and hills, so a wider track width would permit more powerful train engines. In any case, now all new rail construction like the bullet train is done to international rail gauge, and a recent proposal suggests changing all of Spain’s rail system to international width. In the north the company FEVE runs a narrow – gauge (via estrecha) network with a 1000mm (about 39 in.) track width.

Distances: Spain has over 12,000 kilometers (7,460 miles) of classic track in service, and more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of high speed “bullet” tracks. In addition to converting the classic track to international width, Spain hopes to become a world leader for high-speed train service – they’re already in the top three, ahead of other Euro-Land countries like Germany and France.

AVE train speed: maximum speed is 310 kilometers / hour (193 miles) maximum speed, though they usually travel at closer to 200 kilometers (124 miles).

Red cap, red baton and whistle: Spain’s trains are entirely computerized and most road-track crossroads have been eliminated. But there’s one remaining bit of human control in many stations, including some near though not in Madrid city: the stationmaster confirms train departure manually, by dashing (or sauntering) out of the station, red cap and baton in hand. He or she goes to the platform where train is scheduled to depart, does a visual check , dons the red cap, raises the red baton and blows the whistle. This is fun to watch for – and an inside source (his wife is stationmaster) says that indeed, without the red hat the train engineers do not pay attention.


Starting in the middle of the story, a bit of history: After the Muslim invasion of 711, medieval Iberia was divided into Christian and Islamic territories. At first, the Christians only had a bit of northwest Iberia, but soon started the Reconquista (Reconquest) to win back the peninsula from the Muslims. That took almost 700 years, until Granada was taken in 1492.

At first glance, the Reconquista looks like a religious conflict, but in fact it was more about power and economics than religion. We might also ask ourselves about reconquering territory after so many years; perhaps the Muslims were as Iberian or almost as Iberian as the Christians after all that time? Today some historians call the Reconquista an extended civil war between different cultural groups.

That sounds pretty violent, but for many years medieval Iberia (not yet Spain) was a truly multicultural society, with religious freedom for everyone, and a lot of mutual respect. Spanish has a fabulous word for that: convivencia , which I like to call “with-living” (con=with, vivir= to live): that’s a lot better than just tolerance, where my way is the right way, but I let you do your thing because I’m a good person.

Convivencia meant that the three major monotheistic religious (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) got along pretty well, each with their customs, but all respecting the other groups. There were some rules, of course: Christians in Islamic Iberia had religious freedom, but might not be able to build new places of worship, might not have access to the best jobs, might pay higher taxes and of course, should not blaspheme against Islam. Similar policies would have been in place in Christian Iberia; Jewish people lived in both territories, also with some limitations.

Convivencia worked pretty well for quite a long time – but it eventually did fall apart. Still, it’s fascinating to think about that getting-along and wonder if there is any way to make it happen again. (want to know more about convivencia? There are two good medieval history books on reading list, see Books link in navigation bar).

The M-Words: Within that multicultural society, different cultural groups had different names, the most frequently used names all starting with the letter “M”. I’m not enough of a linguist to know if there is a hidden reason for that, but nothing obvious jumped out at me when looking up the etymology of these words in the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary.    Here’s a summary of the different cultural groups in medieval Iberia.

Mudéjar, from Arabic word mudaÿÿan (or mudaggan), meaning domesicated or under domination. This word is for Muslims living in Christian areas as the reconquista moved south. Mostly humble social classes – farmers, builders, textile workers – probably because the skilled and wealthy moved to Muslim areas after their towns / cities were taken over by Christians. Mudéjar is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style arches and decoration in civil architectural and even Christian churches.

Moriscos, from Spanish word moros (Moorish), meaning someone who converted from Islam to Christianity. This word covers voluntary conversions but also and more importantly forced conversions after the Catholic Monarchs’ conversion edict in 1502. In Aragon and Valencia regions this group was quite numerous, and also called saracenos.

Mozárabe, from Arabic Word musta´rab, meaning influenced by Arabic language / culture. This word is for Christians living in Islamic áreas; Christians living in Christian Iberia tended to regard Mozárabe Christians as too Arabized to be true Christians. The Mozárabe Christians used the older Christian religious rites even after the rest of Spain changed to the Roman rites in the 11th century – those earlier rites are still practiced today in a few places, among them the Mozárabe chapel in Toledo’s Cathedra. Mozárabe is also an architectural style, using Islamic-style architecture for churches, though most of the churches in this style are in northern Spain, built by Christians who had had lived under Islam but left those areas Christian kingdoms.

Marrano, from old Spanish and also Arabic muharram, meaning declared anathema, forbidden. This word is for Jews converted to Christianity, mostly under the Catholic Monarchs’ convert or leave edict of 1492. Another word for the same cultural group: conversos (converted). The word marrano also means pig in Spanish, an unfortunate linguistic coincidence (if not intended nastiness) for a group that might have continued to shun pork, in spite of their conversion to Christianity.

Muladí, from old Spanish and also Arabic muwalladín, meaning born of a non-Arabic mother. This word is for Christians who converted to Islam. Most of these conversions were voluntary, as the Muslim rulers respected the right to religious freedom even to the end of their power in medieval Iberia. Christians may have converted to enjoy better social situation, more access to administrative jobs, better tax situation, etc. This word was also used for children of mixed-religion couples – even today the similar word muwalladin is used for these children.

Source for lots (but not all) this post: Spanish Royal Academy dictionary If you like language this is a great website!

National Bird Returns

Flock of Cranes

Flock of Cranes

What is Spain’s national bird?    The crane.

That clever bit of wordplay is not my own, but from a participant in a college alumni trip (it sounds like Duane but for some reason I think it was someone else).   The alumni trip was some years ago, in the middle of the construction boom. When that boom went bust, the cranes disappeared, much to the dismay of many.

But now….. the cranes are returning. The flock shown above is in north Madrid, an area laid out for housing at least eight years ago, but only now being built.

Whether or not this is really and truly a sign of economic recovery is still a very large question mark in the minds of many.   But for now at least we can view flocks and flocks of the national bird.

Oh joy.