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Quintessential Spain

If you want to get a sense of Spanish culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of Spanish life. These are a few things you can take part in with relative ease.

La Siesta

The unabashed Spanish pursuit of pleasure and the unswerving devotion to establishing a healthy balance between work and play is nowhere more apparent than in the midday shutdown. In the two-salary, 21st-century Spanish family, few people still observe the custom of going home for lunch, and fewer still take the classic midday snooze—described by novelist Camilo José Cela as "de padrenuestro y pijama" (with a prayer and pajamas). The fact remains, however, that most stores and businesses close from about 2 pm to 5 pm.

El Fútbol and the Tortilla de Patata

The Spanish National Fútbol (soccer) League and the tortilla de patata (potato omelet) have been described as the only widely shared phenomena that bind the nation together. Often referred to as tortilla española to distinguish it from the French omelet (a thin envelope of egg, often filled with cheese) or the flat, all-dough Mexican tortilla filled with meat, the Spanish potato omelet is a thick, cake-shape mold of potatoes (and sometimes onions) bound with egg and ideal for breakfast, snacks, or full meals. In the right chef's hands, the tortilla can be elevated to a gourmet delicacy, but even in a hole-in-the-wall tapas bar, you can't go too far wrong.

In the case of the soccer league, the tie that binds often resembles tribal warfare, as bitter rivalries centuries old are played out on the field. Some of these, such as the Real Sociedad (San Sebastián)–Athletic Bilbao feud, are fraternal in nature, brother Basques battling for boasting rights, but others, such as the Madrid–Barcelona face-offs, are as basic to Spanish history as Moros y Cristianos (a reenactment of the battle between the Moors and the Christians). The beauty of the game is best appreciated in the stadiums, but local sports bars, many of them official fan clubs of local teams, are where you see fútbol passions at their wildest.

El Paseo

One of the most delightful Spanish customs is el paseo (the stroll), which traditionally takes place during the early evening and is common throughout the country but particularly in pueblos and towns. Given the modern hamster-wheel pace of life, there is something appealingly old-fashioned about families and friends walking around at a leisurely pace with no real destination or purpose. Dress is usually formal or fashionable: elderly señoras with their boxy tweed suits, men with jackets slung, cape-like, round the shoulders, teenagers in their latest Zara gear, and younger children in their Sunday best. El paseo provides everyone with an opportunity to participate in a lively slice of street theater.

Sunday Lunch

The Spanish love to eat out, especially on Sunday, the traditional day when families make an excursion of a long leisurely lunch—often, depending on the time of year, at an informal seaside restaurant (chiringuito) or a rural venta (meal for sale). The latter came into being in bygone days when much of the seasonal work, particularly in southern Spain, was done by itinerant labor. Cheap, hearty meals were much in demand, and some enterprising country housewife saw the opportunity to provide ventas; the idea soon spread. Ventas are still a wonderfully good value today, not just for the food but also for the atmosphere: long, scrubbed wooden tables; large, noisy Spanish families; and a convivial informality. Sunday can be slow. So relax, and remember that all good things are worth waiting for.

Updated: 03-2014

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