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The 10 types of people you always see in a Spanish bar

Spain is said to be a nation of bars, but you're likely to see the same sorts of people wherever you go. Here are the ten you're most likely to bump into.

The 10 types of people you always see in a Spanish bar
People stand at a bar in Madrid in March 2020. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP.

If you’ve lived in Spain or spent any significant amount of time here, you’ll know that Spain is a nation of bars.

To be specific, there’s 175,890 of them scattered across the country on every street corner and alleyway across the country from the northernmost tip of Asturias all the way down to ferry port at Algeciras.

According to figures from Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), that works out to a bar for every 270 inhabitants, and there are just 142,781 unlucky people – around 0.3 percent of the total national population – who live in a municipality without one.

And we’re not talking about a pub or some sleek cocktail bar here, we’re talking about the traditional, family-run bars you can find in every barrio (neighbourhood) across the country.

You know the type. The humble ‘local’ where you can get a beer, coffee or tapa at any time of day. A place where you always see familiar faces, whether it be the barman who remembers your order or the old regular glued to the fruit machine, these sorts of Spanish bars are less of a hospitality establishment and more a community living room.

Sadly, these sorts of traditional bars are closing at a pretty rapid rate nowadays, and many are being replaced by chain and franchise restaurants. By the time 2021 ended, Spanish bars were closing at an average of rate of 20.7 bars a day, and roughly 2,000 pull thier shutters down for the last time every year. 

READ ALSO: Are Spain’s traditional bars in danger?

For many foreigners in Spain, however, these sorts of humble, family-run places are one of the most endearing things about living in the country.

These bars are typically very simple comprising a few stools and tables, some semi-legible laminated menus, a small number of tapas offerings, a fruit machine, a cigarette machine, and a TV. As you probably know, the basic nature of these bars means that they are often essentially the same, and you are therefore quite likely to see the same sorts of people frequenting them.

Here are ten people you always seem to see in a Spanish bar, wherever you go, at whatever time of day.

The old boy with the carajillo

In the early morning, as fellow sleepy eyed locals tuck into their tostadas, Spanish bars always seem to have an older Señor sipping quietly on a carajillo (a coffee with some kind of liquor added to it, usually cognac, rum, whisky, or aniseed).

Often there are several older men sitting a few tables apart from another, each sipping a carajillo, though some prefer to have their coffee in one glass and booze in a shot glass, but you get the idea.

Think of this as Spain’s answer to Irish coffee, except that some men in Spain seemingly drink this every morning as opposed to only on special occasions. If they’re a real regular they will arrive in the early morning with a newspaper tucked under their arm and have their carajillo brought wordlessly over to them before they’ve even made it past the front page.

It’s not uncommon to see people ordering beer or wine early in these types of bars either. 

The seasoned barman 

That brings us to our next Spanish bar archetype: the grizzled (often slightly grumpy) barman who owns the place, or if he doesn’t, behaves like he does.

You know the type: pot-bellied, greying, tea towel over his shoulder, a three-day stubbled man who could be 40 years old but could be 60 – you never can quite tell. If not behind the bar they are invariably smoking outside or arguing with the delivery driver.

At times a little brusk with non-regulars and sometimes downright rude with tourists, but always chatty with locals and children, these are the sorts of barmen who know everyone in the barrio have seen it all and always, always remember your order (if you’re a regular).

It’s not uncommon to see people dinking beer or wine in the mornings in Spain. Photo: Les Argonautes / Unsplash

The older Señora with perfect hair and makeup

One customer the barman will always be sure to be polite and respectful towards is the older Señora dressed to the nines with her hair freshly dyed and blow-dried hair, and makeup done immaculately at 9am. She’s often found drinking a café con leche (coffee with milk), sometimes a glass of wine, depending on the time of day, and is so well presented that she looks as though she could be stopping in before heading to a wedding, but is really just wanting an excuse to dress up. 

You can often smell her perfume from across the bar, and she is usually waiting for the rest of her friends to arrive so they can pass away the morning gossiping about everyone in the barrio (and the bar).

READ ALSO: Protect the bar to save the village, new Spanish law proposes

The man who spends all day on the tragaperras 

Most Spanish bars have tragaperras, slot or fruit machines, and there always seems to be a man (usually an older man) obsessively feeding coins into it. He can spend hours standing there zombie-like as the world goes on around him, and the trusty barman keeps an eye on his caña (small beer) and refills it without interrupting his focus.

Whatever the time of day, he always seems to be playing.

The guy smoking with one foot inside and one foot outside

Smoking indoors is illegal in Spain and has been for a long time, but in some local bars, you wouldn’t know it because of the regular who always straddles the threshold, one foot inside, one foot out on the street, blowing his cigarette smoke in a haze across the bar.

Often this guy can be found watching the man on the tragaperras, offering pieces of advice between his drags of his cigarette.

The cleaners having an after-work beer in the morning

Often friendly with the older men drinking early morning carajillos, most Spanish bars will also have two or three florescent jacket-clad rubbish collectors or road sweepers celebrating the end of their shift with an after work caña (or two) as most people are dropping in for a tostada (toast) on their way to work.

Another peculiarity of Spanish bars is that these workers usually bring tin foil-wrapped bocadillos (filled baguettes) to eat with their beers, and the usually grumpy barman says nothing about it. Rest assured, if you were to try this, you’d certainly get an earful. 

The person in charge of cutting the jamón

One item that’s never lacking in a typical Spanish bar is a leg of jamón (cured ham) either hanging from the rafters or sitting behind the bar.

Sometimes the grizzled older barman takes the responsibility of doing the meticulous slicing, but as jamón is such a serious thing in Spain, often there’s another employee whose sole responsibility seems to be to cut the jamón and nothing else.

And how seriously they take it, slicing away as though they are performing open-heart surgery.

In Spain slicing ham is a work of art. Photo: Ben Kerckx / Pixabay

The kids having breakfast on their way home from a night out

Another regular fixture among the early morning crowd is the table of teenagers or uni students having breakfast in a drunken stupor on the terrace after a long night of partying. Some will go for coffee, admitting defeat that the night is over, and others will try and power through with another caña

They are all, invariably, smoking like chimneys, and the various other regulars will exchange knowing nods of the heads and quips about being young.

Someone throwing napkins on the floor

You’ll also inevitably see someone tossing their paper napkin (along with an olive stone or cheese rind) on the floor as they eat. This is another peculiarity of Spanish bar culture, and some more traditional Spaniards might even say a bar littered with crumpled napkins is the mark of a good place.

This is another tradition that seems to be dying out, and again, if you aren’t a regular perhaps don’t try this one.

The abuela who spoils her grandchildren

When Spanish abuelas (grandmothers) aren’t gossiping away in a group, they can often be found spoiling their grandchildren and ordering endless sugary drinks, donuts, pastries and ice cream for them.

If you hang around in the bar long enough, you’ll probably see the Mum or Dad arrive and scold their mother for spoiling the kids.

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How an ancient way of harvesting salt has been revived in Spain

In the salt marshes of Cádiz in southwestern Spain, Juan Carlos Sánchez de Lamadrid surveyed a grid of rectangular pools of milky water, part of a time-honoured tradition to harvest salt from the sea.

How an ancient way of harvesting salt has been revived in Spain

Civilisations as old as the Phoenicians who ruled the Mediterranean from around 1,200 BC have taken advantage of the constant and strong winds that blow from North Africa, facilitating the evaporation of seawater to produce salt in the region.

“This is the perfect place for salt marshes. It’s windy, there is lots of sunshine… you have everything you need,” said De Lamadrid, wearing a straw hat to protect himself from the blazing sun.

The 56-year-old, originally from Seville, was part of a small but dynamic group of artisans trying to keep the tradition of sea salt harvesting alive.

The sector flourished in this sunny region for centuries, with salt from Cádiz exported to the Americas, until the invention of refrigeration drastically reduced the need for salt to conserve foods.

Of the 160 sea salt producers that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, only four are still operating.

After a long career as a photographer and drawn by the beauty of the salt marsh landscapes, De Lamadrid set up shop in the region in 2020, becoming a sea salt harvester alongside his wife and two employees.

“We had to learn everything, we were starting from zero,” he explained, saying he learnt the techniques from one of the few veteran harvesters who are still active.

He also spent time in Portugal and France “to discover other techniques”.

Last year they produced 30 tonnes of virgin sea salt and three tonnes of fleur de sel — or “flower of salt” — large salt crystals used to garnish and season everything from fish, meat and vegetables to desserts and baked goods.

Macu Gomez puts salt to dry at the “Dama Blanca” salt flats in El Puerto de Santa María. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Harvest everything by hand’

To harvest the salt, sea water from the Atlantic is flushed into a network of reservoirs built in the salt marshes, then allowed to evaporate.

When the salt in the water reaches the right concentration, it forms white crystals which workers then rake into small white heaps.

“We harvest everything by hand in the traditional way,” said De Lamadrid.

When salt demand fell with the advent of refrigeration, Cádiz “didn’t know how to adapt” unlike places like Guerande in northwestern France which started selling fleur de sal and other products, said Juan Martín, head of Salarte which works to revive the sea salt industry.

Since it was founded in 2012, Salarte has refurbished 250 hectares of salt flats using private financing.

“Some salt marshes were in a really poor state,” said Martin, a marine biologist who believes places like the Bay of Cádiz are not valued enough for their ecological importance.

“It’s a shame because the marshes are real treasures” not only as a “source of economic activity” but also for their “extraordinary biodiversity,” he said, using binoculars to watch migrating birds feeding at a recently-restored salt flat.

A dish cooked by salt process at the Aponiente restaurant, in El Puerto de Santa María. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Nothing like industrial salt’

The revival of the salt industry is one of a string of initiatives over the past decade, from ecotourism to the cultivation of oysters, samphire and locally-produced cosmetics, to breathe new life into the salt marshes which are part of a 10,500-hectare natural park.

The marshes — home to sea beam, shrimp, and clams — are “an extraordinary pantry,” said chef Angel León whose restaurant Aponiente, which is located in a 19th-century tide mill and holds three Michelin stars, serves up dishes based on such ingredients — and uses the local sea salt.

“Salt is something we use every day but which we don’t fully appreciate,” said the 46-year-old.

Artisanal sea salt has a texture and taste which is “nothing like” industrial salt, he said.

“The problem is that we don’t pay it enough attention,” he mused, saying he hoped Cádiz sea salt will soon find its way into top restaurants around the world.