Archive for Spain is Different

Potty Talk

Yes, this is relevant. All will be revealed.


So the urge strikes when you are far from home. What’s a girrrlll gonna do? 

Because yes, this is for women. Men have it a lot easier when needing a bathroom break.

Urban needs
Locals in Spain joke that there’s a bar/café every other block in most cities – until you desperately need a coffee, a beer or a potty break, then there are none. In smaller towns the rule of thumb is bar in the main square, bar on the highway, though yes, there are towns where that rule does not apply and even (gasp!) towns with no bars.

Cultural notes: in Spain we call them “bars”, which in English may sound alcoholic, but in Spain most places serve coffee, alcohol and some kind of food. There are several words for bathroom: aseo, servicio, baño and WC are the most frequent. In most places, the bathrooms are only for clients; if you really, really don’t want anything, you can offer 50 centimes or a euro and gesture at the bathroom or ask if you speak Spanish. This has become standard practice some places on the Camino / Road of St. James.

Pick your place: Gone are the bad old days of really deficient bathrooms. Gone (thankfully!) is Elefante toilet paper, brown paper bag on a roll, also gone is crepe-paper toilet paper (neither very efficient or user-friendly). Now most public places have clean or very clean bathrooms, though some might be missing hand soap and every now and then toilet paper. Tip on the TP: check on the wall before you go into your stall. Some public bathrooms now have a big dispenser outside the stalls, grab what you need before going into your stall. (this might sound silly, but does eliminate the task of looking into all the stalls until you find one with paper). And yes, it’s a good idea to always have Kleenex with you, just in case.

If you are often out and about in your city, it’s good to locate the best not-bar potties on your usual routes. This is especially important if you are often with kids or if you sometimes have sudden urges. Here are some of mine in Madrid:

Corte Inglés department store in Callao, second floor next to the elevators (other “Corte” stores are also good choices but I never remember where the WC is located in most stores, this one is easy to find). FNAC in Callao, top floor. Bus stations at Moncloa, Principe Pio and Plaza de Castilla; for the last in the underground station and also surface station between the leaning towers. (yes, these are usually all quite clean). Most Mercadona supermarkets. Retiro park, three WC that I know of (near Angel Caido, near the bandstand on north side of the park, near the southwest corner of the big lake). And last but definitely not least, the brown-box freestanding bathrooms, on the street various places around the city. They cost 10 centimes and yes, they really do seem to self-clean after each use, I’ve never found an icky one.

On the trail
Sooner or later it’s going to happen. You need a potty break when there are no potties to be had. This is not a major problem, though the first time might cause some anxiety. Just keep some things in mind:

Pick your place. (duh). Get far enough away from the trail to not be obvious, but not so far away that you have problems finding your way back, especially important if you are in thick vegetation or on a lightly travelled trail. This may sound silly, but people can and do get turned around after a pee-break. If you are with a group, it’s good to tell someone you are taking a break, perhaps with a code phrase like “looking for a green door”, borrowed from a long-ago hiking friend and now my own code for walking with groups (yes, that’s the reason for the photo at the top, now you know!).

Know the unfriendly plants and stay as far away as possible. Brambles and other thorny things are obvious, but you should also know more or less what poison ivy looks like, and in Spain, stinging nettles.

Leave no toilet paper. This is a no-brainer, but many people do not follow this simple rule. There several ways around this, of course: pack your paper out in a plastic bag, dump the contents at first trash can; don’t use at all, drip onto panty liner and clean yourself up at first opportunity; peecloth made of an old sheet or bandanna, kept in plastic bag and washed out as frequently as possible.

Be fast and / or discrete, especially important if you are on a well-travelled trail like the Camino (Road of St. James).  One fabulous way to be discrete is to wear a skirt for hiking, that way you will rarely if ever be caught showing the unshowable (more on that idea here ). Another way to be fast is a F.U.D. or female urination device. These thingies are also known as pee-funnels (yes really) and let women pee standing up, just unzipping your pants and using the funnel as per manufacturer suggestions and your own common sense. Women seem to have strong opinions about these devices, from “game-changer” to “useless”. That seems to depend partly on strength of quads (for squatting) and / or open-ness to strange new ideas (of course these work when in really icky bathrooms as well as on the trail).  If this device sounds like it might work for you, read reviews of the various F.U.D. brands out there as they really are different. Do some googling with F.U.D. or pee-funnel. Oh, and some suggestions for F.U.D use: practice in the shower first, learn about aim, and do not pee into the wind.

Alpargatas, Spain’s rope-soled shoes


While August may seem late to think about alpargatas, most of Spain still has a month of nice weather – and the lines at the traditional shops are a lot shorter.

A tickle in your nose says you’ve arrived – it’s the distinctive smell of thousands of rope-soled alpargatas (espadrilles) in one of Madrid’s traditional stores.

What could be simpler? The classic alpargata is just a coiled rope sole and a cotton canvas upper. Nothing more than that – but this simple shoe is Spain’s favorite summer footwear.

Some history: The true origin of the alpargata is unclear. Some souces say Rome, some say Egypt, some say the Middle East – in any case, the most likely origin is somewhere in the Mediterreanean area, a very long time ago. What does seem clear is that here in Iberia, this simple footwear was already known in 14th century Cataluña.

Checking the origin of the word alpargata also shows differing opinions. The Real Academia dictionary (Spain’s equivalent of Oxford) shows the Basque word abarca as origin for alpargata – rather odd as this shoe doesn’t do well in wet climates like northern Spain, but interesting for the name similarity to the Menorcan sandal called abarca or albarca. People who know Spanish will have noticed the “al” that often indicates Arabic word origin; one source suggests alpargatas were adopted by Arabic speakers during the Middle Ages, and the original Spanish word changed through that contact to alpargata. The same source noted that there are dialectal variations of apargata and even pargata, without the “al”.

Originally alpargatas were worn mainly by country people, valued as inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable and for good traction on uneven surfaces. Today most country people wear modern shoes, but now and then you can still see shepherds wearing alpargatas. The rural tradition of using alpargatas survives in regional dance groups – many use this footwear as a colorful and authentic part of their costumes.

Today alpargatas can be found on many different kinds of feet all over the world. The styles have evolved as well – though the ever-popular classic style is still a solid-color cotton upper and a coiled rope sole. That sole is now made of jute instead of hemp, though Maxi in Casa Crespo remembers alpargata manufacturs with plantations of hemp to make the rope for the soles. For traditional alpargatas, the rope sole is hand-sewn to the two parts of the cotton upper but industrial models are creeping in. Laces can be decorative or functional depending on the style – some traditional styles are open at the sides and the laces keep the alpargatas in place.

Classic alpargatas can go just about anywhere – from the beach to most low-key social occasions, but if something dressier is needed, newer “fashion” styles take over where the classics leave off. Casa Crespo and Hernanz coincide that the classics sell well most of the year, with a boom between May and September, and the fashion models sell mainly in spring and summer. Both stores get new models every spring (usually in April) – different heel heights, different laces, different materials like leather or silk, patterned cloth, decorated with sequins or embroidery – the variations are endless.

Once you’ve tried these shoes yourself you’ll probably become an alpargata fan as well – and at the amazingly low price for the flat classic model, you can get a whole rainbow of colors to match all your summer clothes.

Tips on alpargatas

If you go to a traditional store in alpargata season, try to go off-hours (weekday mornings usually best) and be patient. It may take a while to get what you want. Be flexible, the shopkeepers might have suggestions.

Try on both shoes, and if the first pair doesn’t fit, try another pair in the same size. Since they’re made by hand, there may be size difference between pairs.

If you’re between sizes, get one that’s a little snug as they stretch, some styles more than others – the shopkeepers can tell you how much stretch you can expect in the model you want.

First wearing: For cotton canvas styles, to help your alpargatas mold to your feet, lightly spray the cloth uppers with a plant spritzer after putting them on – especially if they’re a little snug. If you got a classic style with no initial difference between right and left, you can use a marking pen inside one shoe to indicate right or left – after a few wearings they’ll take the shape of your feet.

Try not to get the rope bottoms wet as they may swell and disintegrate. If you get caught in rain, stuff them with newspaper, turn them soles up to dry and hope for the best.

To clean the cloth uppers, hand wash using nail brush, keeping the rope bottoms as dry as possible (this is easier than it sounds). Stuff with newspaper and let dry.

Where to buy: Getting alpargatas is almost a ritual, best done at one of the traditional stores. Both of Madrid’s traditional stores talk about multi-generational families who come together to get their summer shoes, or about people who first came to the store with grampa or gramma – and say that the place has barely changed in all those years. These stores are also a great place to people-watch – and of course to have an authentic Madrid experience.

Antigua Casa Crespo, calle Divino Pastor 29, Metro Bilbao. Classic alpargata store, founded 1863, family business in the fourth generation. Very crowded in season. Open Saturdays only May – September.

Casa Hernanz, calle Toledo 18, Metro Sol y La Latina. Classic alpargata store, founded 1845, family business. Also sells rope, baskets and many kinds of string for macrame. Very crowded in season.

Lobo, calle Toledo 30, Metro Sol y La Latina. Not a specialist in alpargatas, though that kind of shoe is one of their biggest lines (this is my own favorite). Also has Menorcan abarcas, flamenco shoes and desert boots. Very crowded in season, get your number and wait your turn.

Looking for something fancy or cannot manage the traditional stores? Go Fashion at Castañer (Claudio Coello, 51), or check out two stores just east of the Plaza Mayor (one on calle Zaragoza, another on calle Sal/Postas).

Thanks to the friends who suggested the idea for this post. You know who you are. 

Fat One Christmas Lottery


The Fat One is coming. 

Every year, on the morning of December 22, Spain virtually stops.  Childish voices singing out numbers are everywhere: all radios and TV’s are tuned to the same station.  Everywhere people are listening, watching, waiting, sometimes with slips of paper on the table by them.  Waiting to know if their lives will change that day – or not.

It’s the Gordo, the “Fat One”, Spain’s annual Christmas lottery.  And winning the coveted first prize can indeed change lives – 400,000 euros (about $422,000) would be very appreciated in most Spanish households.

The Gordo, some history:  The Spanish lottery started in the late 18th century under Carlos III as a less painful way of collecting taxes – part of the money was for prizes and the rest went to the Spanish Treasury.  That first lottery was a pick-some-numbers lottery (similar to powerball lotteries and Spain’s current Primitiva).  In 1811 Spain was partially under Napoleon, and the Congress of the still-Spanish part of the country (based in southern city of Cádiz) created a new kind of lottery with printed tickets and an assigned number – again to collect tax money.  The first Christmas lottery was that system, held on December 18, 1812, with top prize for number 03604.

Those childish voices are the lottery singers from San Ildefonso primary school (located on Plaza de la Paja, one of the prettiest squares in Madrid). With 400 years of history San Ildefonso is one of the city’s oldest schools; until the late 1970’s it was for orphans and mostly boys, with the goal of giving disadvantaged kids a better start in life. (Nowadays some of the students have families and of course there are lots of girls.)  Students from this school have been singing out the lottery numbers since 1771, with girls participating since 1984. Children are chosen for their voices, and practice handling the lottery balls all year so the Gordo drawing goes smoothly.  In 2016, there are ten boys and ten girls between the ages of nine and thirteen, most of them repeating from 2015.

How the Gordo works: The Christmas lottery is basically the same system as the twice-weekly Lotería Nacional that happens all year, except with much bigger prizes and more numbers in play.  Since 2011, numbers range from 00000 to 99999 (Spanish lottery lore says that 00000 always goes to the King but that may be myth).  For the Gordo this year, every number has 165 series and every serie has a billete and every billete has ten décimos, so there are 1,650 décimos for every number 0000 – 99999. The serie number and the décimo number are both shown on the ticket as well as the number, so every single ticket sold is different. If you do the math, you can see that means 1,650,000,000 décimos on sale for the 2016 Gordo lottery.  Each décimo costs 20 euros, so that’s potentially 33,000,000,000 euros in play.

Who buys and where:    Everyone buys, or almost everyone. Most individual people get at least one décimo, some workplaces get entire billetes or even the entire number if the company is big, with employees participating or not – but most do in this situation, probably to avoid that potentially awful situation where everyone wins except the non-players.  Families often get a few décimos, and friends frequently exchange halves of décimos with the idea of getting parts of many numbers  in hopes that at least a few will win something.  It’s also traditional for neighborhood stores, markets or bar-cafés to have several décimos and sell small portions or give them away to favored customers.

Spanish lottery lore claims that specific places are “better” to buy than others. One place is a village in Catalonia called Sort (luck in Catalonian language) where indeed they got a big prize some years ago – busloads of people now go to that village every year to buy lottery. Doña Manolita lottery stand in Madrid is another example – lines are blocks long at Christmas, and street-side lottery sellers claim their tickets are from that same stand.  And another bit of lottery lore: lottery falls (or should fall) in disaster areas, so if there have been floods, fires or another catastrophe in the preceding year, people try to buy there thinking that the Universe will somehow even things out by throwing luck to a hard-hit area.

What number to buy?  There are several schools of thought for picking a number. One way is to go in with a close idea of what to buy, or at least choosing the last digit, even looking up where to buy an exact number on Internet.  Another way is to go to a favorite lottery stand and look at what numbers they have and choose a “pretty” number or at least avoid an “ugly” number, whatever that means to the specific buyer.  And the last way is to trust Lady Luck completely, letting lottery seller make the selection.   Lottery trivia: statistically, the Gordo has ended in five more often than any other digit, so that’s either an excellent or very bad choice, depending on the buyer’s point of view.

Mechanics of the drawing:  There’s a complicated, super-secure system for prior to the Gordo drawing, now done in the Teatro Real Opera House instead of the lottery building. On December 22, there are two big cage-like spheres with wooden balls, all laser cut with numbers, one sphere for the prize numbers and the other for the prizes.  The spheres are spun and balls fall down into trays under each sphere and are called out by the children lottery singers in a traditional tune and rhythm.  The drawing is entirely random, so the first prize could be the first or the last prize chosen.

Once the lottery drawing is over, the prize list is drawn up rapidly and with the lottery sellers by the afternoon of December 22, as well as in all the newspapers on December 23.  Prizes are listed in columns by the last number, and chronologically from the top in each column 0 to 9. Special prizes are listed at the very bottom of the column.

So what are the prizes?   The Gordo actually refers to first prize – 400,000 euros for a décimo (20,000 euros per euro played).  Second prize is 125,000 euros, third 50,000 euros, two fourth prizes of 20,000 euros and eight fifth prizes of 6,000 euros for a décimo.  After the big prizes there are the “almost” prizes (numbers before and after the main prizes) and the “same ending” prizes, where winners get prizes if their number shares one, two or three last digits with the big prizes.  And the pedrea, 1,794 random numbers that win 100 euros for a décimo.

All in all, that’s seventeen different kinds of prizes, with a total of 2,310 million euros in prize money, about 70% of the total projected intake for the special lottery (the remaining 30% goes to commission for the lottery sellers and directly to Spanish Treasury).  And yes, sometimes tickets go unsold so the intake is less, but sometimes those tickets have prizes that do not need to be paid.

The take-home is the full amount won up to 2,500 euros – after that the State keeps 20% of prize money. That’s relatively new – until 2012 lottery prizes were tax-free. Critics of that newish policy say that the 30% intake going directly to treasury is already plenty of tax withheld, but the decision to add additional tax was made in times of crisis with the government looking for any possible way of increasing revenue.

The last, smallest prize is the reintegro – the get-your-money back prize, where a décimo wins exactly the 20 euros it cost.  When that happens, almost everyone “reinvests” in the Niño lottery (January 6) – décimos cost exactly the same and while prizes are lower, there are more prizes so there is a better statistical chance of winning.

But if nothing “falls” in the Gordo or the Niño, there’s always next year….


Lottery trivia: The Gordo is the most famous lottery drawing in a country that dearly loves games of chance. All the lotteries below are state-run:

  • Loteria Nacional:  similar system as the Gordo and the Niño. Twice a week.

Prizes accumulate on the following if no winner happens at first drawing(s).

  • Loteria Primitiva: powerball type lottery, pick six numbers. Twice a week.
  • BonoLoto: powerball type lottery, pick six numbers. Six days a week.
  • Gordo de la Primitiva:  pick five numbers and one in a separate column. Once a week, guaranteed prize of five million euros.
  • Euromillon: pick five numbers and two in a separate column. Twice a week, guaranteed prize of fifteen million euros. As name suggests, this is played in most European countries.


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!

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.