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I Wonder Why...?

I will be writing about aspects of Spanish history and their traditions. I am a very curious person and have always needed to know "why" they do it, and "how" it came about. So over the years while living in Spain I have made a conscious effort to discover "el porque de las cosas" and I will be sharing them with you. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

The Solemn Changing of the Guard
03 December 2018


Behind the gates of the Plaza de la Armería at the Royal Palace everyone struggles to get the best spot. The stalls in the venue have been taken long before - you have to be on the ball and get there very early- and the steps leading to La Almudena Cathedral are packed out. The clock is about to chime and the horses can be heard trotting in the distance. It's a bright, sunny day and the rays shine off the soldiers' silver armour. The Changing of the Guard has begun.

A spectacle which is more commonly associated with Buckingham Palace also has its version in Spain. The Music Unit kicks off the Solemn Changing of the Guard, which is performed on the first Wednesday of each month (except July, August and September and those days on which an official act is being held or weather permitting). The strains of El Almirante, Doña Francisquita, España Cañí ring out. The fifes and drums accompany the marches, as the guards stand to attention, incoming and outgoing soldiers waiting with their weapons on their shoulders.

The lancers and cuirassiers parade with rifle companies, and soldiers -men and women- in charge of the artillery and the ammunition carriages for almost an hour. In total, 400 people and 100 horses stage the changing of the guard as it was performed in the times of King Alfonso XII and King Alfonso XIII, wearing the same uniforms.



A veritable show, which is complemented each Wednesday and Saturday of the year, at 11 am (except July, August and September: from 10 am to 12 noon) at Puerta del Príncipe. Every half an hour (infantry) and every hour (soldiers on horseback) until 2 pm, four members of the Royal Guard are relieved of their positions, dressed in their gala uniforms -red, white and blue-. Soldiers march to the beat of a fife (a very high-pitched piccolo used in military bands) and a drum, following official orders and commands.
A different way to enjoy Madrid and its traditions.


Solemn Changing of the Guard: On the first Wednesday of each month at 12 o’clock midday, (except July, August and September and those days on which an official act is being held or weather permitting). Approximate duration: 50 minutes. Free entry via the Puerta de Santiago gate which leads into the Plaza de la Armería from Calle Bailén. The event is usually rounded off by a concert on the Puerta del Príncipe esplanade (Calle Bailén) offered by Unidad de Música. 

Changing the Guard: Every Wednesday and Saturday of the year from 11 am to 2 pm (except July, August and September: from 10 am to 12 noon, and those days on which an official act is being held or weather permitting) at the Puerta del Príncipe (Calle Bailén).  

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How Spain revolutionised the Train
28 November 2018

Ever wondered why Spain has one of the best railroad systems in the world and always has had?

Well, it’s because they effectively invented “modern” rail travel and have been innovating for decades.

The “Tren Articulada Ligero Goicoechea Oriols” (TALGO) appeared in the 40’s and is considered the first “modern train” in history. It was a revolutionary train, in design and function that concentrated on aerodynamics, style and comfort with speed for the first time. The first time it was revealed it must have created a real stir, similar to a futuristic prototype car being revealed at a car show.



However, Talgo trains are best known for their unconventional articulated railway passenger car that uses a type similar to the Jacobs bogie that Talgo patented in 1941. The wheels are mounted in pairs but not joined by an axle and the bogies are shared between coaches rather than underneath individual coaches. This allows a railway car to take a turn at higher speed with less swaying. As the coaches are not mounted directly onto wheel bogies, the coaches are more easily insulated from track noise.  For many decades TALGO dominated the world market controlling event eh North American railroad market from the 60’s through to the 80’s, in fact many trains still running today are TALGO’s. Alejandro Goicoechea was the creator of this train that changed the face of rail travel globally. The Talgo I was built in 1942 in Spain. The coaches were built at the "Hijos de Juan Garay Fábrica" in Oñati and the locomotive was built at the workshops of the "Compañia de Norte" in Valladolid. It was built as a prototype, and it was used to set several railroad speed records.

Talgo II coaches and locomotives were first built in 1950 at the American Car and Foundry Company (ACF) works in the United States under the direction of Spanish engineers, and entered service on the Rock Island Line, servicing the Jet Rocket train, between Chicago and Peoria, Illinois. One was also trialled on the New York Central Railroad until 1958 but saw little success. Talgos were also built for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad for its "John Quincy Adams" train from (New York City to Boston, Massachusetts), and the Boston and Maine Railroad for its "Speed Merchant" train, running between (Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine). Soon afterwards, Talgo II trains began running in Spain, and were successfully operated until 1972.

TALGO continued to develop trains and is still one of the major contenders in the global market. Today they manufacture all types of trains including the Talgo 350, which entered service as the RENFE AVE marking the company's entry into the high-speed train manufacturing market. Tests with the prototype commenced in 1994 and Talgo 350 trains have been operating at a top commercial speed of 330 km/h since 22 December 2007.  It has recently launched a very high-speed train called the AVRIL (Alta Velocidad Rueda Independiente Ligero - Light Independent Wheel High Speed), which can travel at 380km/h.



Things have moved on a bit, haven't they?

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Thinking in a second language makes us more rational
15 November 2018

Ever heard this as a child? : “What language do you need me to use so you’ll pay attention?”

It turns out that there is some truth behind the question. A series of recent scientific studies suggests that we think and make decisions differently if we process the information in a language other than our mother tongue.

Even if we grasp the notion equally well in both languages, our final decision on the matter will tend to be better thought out, less emotional and more results-oriented.

A leading expert  on bilingualism at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Albert Costa, believes it is good for deliberative thinking; it makes you think twice about things.

Costa began his research with the tramway dilemma: would you push someone onto the tracks if that death were to save the lives of five other people? The moral conflict involved in sending someone to their death appears to vanish when the question is put to subjects in a language other than their mother tongue.

The proportion of people willing to sacrifice a person for the larger good shot up from 20% to nearly 50%, with the only difference being that they processed the question in a second language.

It appears that processing information in a foreign language makes us less prone to emotional thinking and more focused on efficient results. We become less moralistic and more utilitarian.

The research also finds that thinking in another language increases our tolerance for risk-taking on anything from planning a trip to embracing a new breakthrough in biotechnology.

As the Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman explains, our brain seems to have a System 1, which focuses on fast, instinctive and stereotypic thinking, and a System 2, which deals with issues requiring greater consideration.

In our native language, we may be more prone to using System 1, while the additional effort required for thinking in a foreign language might trigger System 2. This could explain the higher percentage of people who overcome loss aversion and moral dilemmas in a foreign language.

For instance, these insights might be useful during negotiations that require participants to put their personal feelings to one side and focus on the greater good.




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la 'Matanza'
25 July 2018

The ritual 'matanza' (pig slaughter) and the making of sausages and other meat products are portrayed in Roman sculpture: the Iberian Peninsula was renowned throughout the Empire for producing fine pigs and charcuterie.

Sausages were then known as botulus (from which botulism, the name of the illness caused by inadequately preserved foodstuffs was later taken), or its diminutive botellus. Blood sausages of the black-pudding type were known as botuli, and one of the Iberian Peninsula's most characteristic sausages, the botillo, typical of the El Bierzo region (León, Castilla de León), clearly derives its name from the same source. Non-blood sausages were known as farcimina and what they contained and how they were made and cooked is explained in recipes in Apicius famous cookery book. It describes how pig intestines were stuffed with chopped meat, fat, egg, spices, offal, and so on, and how they were smoked and cured; readers are also informed that they could be eaten boiled, roasted or cooked over the fire. From this we can infer that the manufacturing method has stayed the same for at least 2,500 years and that the ingredients, too, have changed very little, even now varying from region to region and one type of charcuterie to another.

In the Middle Ages, scarcity and unhygienic conditions meant that meat was rarely eaten fresh. Despite the fact that meat was beyond the reach of most of the population except to mark the occasional feast day, the meat they did eat would have been preserved in the traditional manner, namely salted or in the form of sausages. 

The most important difference between pre- and post-16th-century Spanish sausages is that many of the later ones contain a new ingredient destined to become a basic in much of Spain's cuisine: the type of paprika known as pimentón. This marvellous condiment enhanced the keeping properties of cheeses and charcuterie, added flavour and colour, and furthermore could be used to disguise certain signs that meat was going off. The tradition of adding pimentón (in its two most extreme types: sweet or hot) to many Spanish sausages is still very much alive today, and can be thanked for originating what is now perhaps Spain's most characteristic sausage - the chorizo - which was taken up all over the country, particularly in the 18th century. Today, only one region of Spain does not use pimentón in any of its traditional sausages, Catalonia's classics are seasoned with just salt and pepper.

This period, too, saw the invention in Andalusia of lamb meat sausages, which are still made today. These were thought up by Jewish converts to avoid being denounced for not eating sausages while remaining within the strictures of the faith to which they still secretly adhered.

Like all meat products, sausages remained a food that only the privileged few could enjoy. Banquets held by the successive courts of modern Spain made much of the nation's varieties of sausage, though inevitably they were outshone by hams and game. Charles IV (1748-1819) was a prolific eater of chorizos, a fact celebrated by the inclusion of the figure of his supplier in a famous tapestry by Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795).

Until the closing decades of the 19th century, nearly all pork-derived products were made from the meat of the native, Ibérico, breed of pig. Pork products began to become more generally accessible in the towns and cities after specialized municipal abattoirs were opened. In the first thirty or so years of the 20th century, certain pork products and sausages started to become available to the masses. Village matanzas continued to take place in Spain right up to the end of the 20th century, surviving alongside a meat industry that grew consistently from the 1950s on, after white pigs had been introduced and become widespread. 

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Wild Horses
05 July 2018

In early July, the young “aloitadores” of Sabucedo, Pontevedra, gather the wild horses, place them in a “curro”, shave them and brand them.

La Rapa das Bestas (The Shearing of the Beasts) is a popular festival which has been in existence since the 18th century. It consists of gathering the wild horses in the mountains, placing them in a “curro” (corral or enclosure), shaving them and branding them. All of this is held in Sabucedo (Pontevedra, Galicia) on the first Saturday, Sunday and Monday of July.

The “curro” in Sabucedo is the most famous of its kind, and its unique feature is that no ropes, sticks or other devices are used to tame the animals. The “aloitadores”, the ones charged with holding the beasts while they are being shaved, may only use their skill and body to perform the job.

Another specific feature of La Rapa das Bestas in Sabucedo is that the “bajada”, or the leading of the horses to the place in Sabucedo, is an integral part of the celebration itself, and hundreds of people from Galicia and beyond participate in it. In 2007, La Rapa das Bestas was declared a Festival of International Tourist Interest.
On Saturday morning (the first day), very early and before climbing the mountain, a stirring mass is held where they address prayers to Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of Sabucedo, to ensure that no accidents or other unfortunate events happen during the festival.


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Sorolla's Valencia
02 July 2018

Joaquín Sorolla is one of the great masters of 19th-century Spanish painting. He became internationally famous with his paintings of Mediterranean scenes, full of light and happiness. This route around his hometown, Valencia, covers the places connected to his life and works. From the neighbourhood where he grew up, to the places that inspired him, including the museums that display his art. 

The Sorolla Route is a cultural proposal that explores the history and works of the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla. The route covers about thirty spots around the city of Valencia which are connected to some extent to the artist. The urban route we present includes some of these important places. It can be covered on foot in a day, although you can also take the metro or tram to some of the places, for more convenience.



We start the route at the artist's birthplace, situated at 8, Calle de las Mantas street, which is marked by a commemorative plaque. Close by we'll find the Church of Santa Catalina, where he was baptised, and the Church of San Martín, where he married Clotilde García. Then we'll go to the Silk Exchange, as its steps are the setting in the artist's painting "The Cry of the Palleter" (1884). Then, we head towards the Fine Arts Club, to which the artist used to belong. It is currently situated in a Gothic palace on Calle Cadirers street.

The next stop is the Cathedral, a building that appears in some of Sorolla's earlier works. If we walk down Carrer de San Vicente Mártir street, we'll get to the Town Hall, which houses an art collection that includes some of Sorolla's paintings, such as "My Family" (1901). We continue on Calle de las Barcas street towards the section known as that of the Painter Sorolla: the Artisans' School of Valencia used to be situated here. The artist belonged to this school between 1876 and 1878. The centre is currently situated on Avenida del Reino de Valencia and conserves an oil painting by Sorolla and some of the drawings he made while he was a student.



The route continues by crossing the Turia River, over the Puente de la Exposición bridge, popularly known as "La Peineta" ("ornamental comb"). Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, it will take us to Calle Galicia street, where we'll find the Palacio de la Exposición palace, which held the Regional Valencian Exhibition in 1909, which showcased artworks by several artists, including Sorolla.



Then we walk down Paseo de la Alameda to get to the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts. Its collection includes around 50 of Sorolla's paintings. After that we cross the Turia River again towards El Carmen Centre. It is an old 13th-century convent which used to house the School of Fine Arts, where Sorolla studied between 1878 and 1887. Today it is an exhibition centre and holds the Joaquín Sorolla Research and Study Institute. The House-Museum of Benlliure is close by, dedicated to the Benlliure family of artists, intimately connected to the Valencian artist.



The route continues towards La Malvarrosa beach, which appears in many of Sorolla's paintings. On the coast we'll also be able to discover the house of another of his friends - the House-Museum of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. We'll also see two places whose activity was an inspiration to the artist for several of his works: the Hospital Valencia al mar (old San Juan de Dios shelter) and the Casa dels bous house. If we walk down the promenade we'll get to Valencia's monument to Sorolla, situated in Plaza de la Armada Española square.

The urban route ends at the General Cemetery of Valencia, at the family pantheon where the artist is buried. Nevertheless, we can enjoy more of his paintings in the Lladró Museum, six kilometres from the city, in Tavernes Blanques.

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One of the finest examples of Spanish Gothic art - Burgos Cathedral
27 June 2018


One of the finest examples of Spanish Gothic art. This cathedral is outstanding for the elegance and harmony of its architecture, and it is the only one in Spain which, for its cathedral building alone, has received the UNESCO World Heritage designation. Although it is predominantly Gothic, the cathedral also displays other artistic styles, given that it was built over a period lasting from 1221 to 1795. Its main façade is the Puerta del Perdón, with a starred rose-window and a gallery of statues of the Castile monarchs.



On either side are its 84-metre towers, crowned by magnificent 15th-century spires with open stonework traceries. Its most beautiful group of sculptures, however, is to be found on the Puerta del Sarmental façade, with the image of a Pantocrator surrounded by the apostles and evangelists. Inside, special mention should be made of the dome of the main nave, topped with a beautiful Mudéjar vault. Beneath it lies the remains of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as ‘El Cid Campeador’, and his wife, Doña Jimena.



Close by, you will find the beautiful Escalera Dorada golden staircase by Diego de Siloé, built in the 16th century and inspired in the Italian Renaissance. In the side-naves of the cathedral, there are 19 chapels, with the Condestable and Santa Tecla chapels standing out especially. There are also valuable works of art to be enjoyed: a unique collection that includes altarpieces, paintings, choir stalls, tombs and sculptures, amongst other objects.


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A Memorial to Polish cavalrymen
20 June 2018

This whitewashed Spanish church may be small, but its walls hold memorials to a mighty event in military history. Its plaques and stunning stained glass window pay tribute to the Polish calvarymen who charged their way into a victory over the Spanish forces during the Peninsular War.

In the early 18th century, Poland lost its independence and was divided and ruled by its not-so-friendly neighbors, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire. Most of the Polish Army was absorbed into the armies of the occupying countries. However, many Polish cavalrymen, known as uhlans, took off to France and fought in the Napoleonic Wars alongside the French army.



Alongside the French, the Polish cavalry took part in many of the most notable battles of the Napoleonic period. They were the first unit of Napoleon’s army to enter the Moscow Kremlin during the emperor’s invasion of Russia. However, perhaps their most notable success (and certainly the best known) is the Battle of Somosierra, which occurred during of the Peninsular War.



During his advance on Madrid, Napoleon was blocked on November 30, 1808, by 9,000 Spaniards in the valley of Somosierra in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Because of the tough nature of the terrain, the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked. Impatient to proceed toward Madrid, Napoleon ordered his Polish light cavalry escort to charge the Spaniards. Despite losing two thirds of their numbers, the Poles succeeded in forcing the defenders to abandon their position.


On the exterior the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, a small chapel which lies directly at the side of the old Madrid to Burgos road (now by-passed by a tunnel carrying the A1 Autovia), you can see a memorial to the event. The Polish government placed a brass plaque onto one of the church’s walls in 1993 to honor its valiant fighters. The event is also marked by a plaque inside the hermitage and by the gorgeous stained glass window, which depicts a Spanish artilleryman and Polish uhlan on either side of an image of the Madonna.


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The Castle of Manzanares el Real - Monumental Art
13 June 2018


The town of Manzanares el Real, 30 miles north of Madrid, is most famous for its castle, which is an imposing example of the Castilian military architecture of the 15th century and one of the last of its kind in Spain. In fact, after initially being user as a fortress, it became a residential Palace of one of the noblest families in Castilla since the Middle Ages: the Mendozas. However, Manzanares Castle is also closely tied in with Madrid's recent history, because the process leading to the autonomy of Comunidad de Madrid (1981) was started there, as was the project for the Statute of Autonomy, which would be approved in Congress and the Senate in 1983.



The construction of the castle began in the year 1475, at a time when Madrid was just a little town. The castle has a quadrangular plant with four towers on the corners. The whole building is surrounded by a permiter barbican, with a single entrance via a beautiful west-facing door, flanked by two strong turrets and defended by stone deer. All the walls of the barbican contain loopholes in the shape of the Jerusalem Cross in homage to the first duke's brother, Cardenal Mendoza, who was given the title of Cardinal of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem Basilica by the Catholic Monarchs in 1480.

The south facade boasts a portico, the outer face of which is made up of low arches with a flamboyant Gothic style pillar between each one. It contrasts sharply with the solid walls, and shows how lnigo Lopez changed the look of his residence with the help of the skilled architect Juan Guas. The latter also designed the magnificent portico, galleries around the central courtyard, with late Gothic and Mudejar influences particularly on the ceilings and the corridors containing the coat of arms of the Mendozas, Lunas and Enriquezs. The Castle’s stately appearance, contrasting with the harmonious blend of Moorish and Renaissance details and the elegance of the mock Arabic cornice on which the battlements are supported, is only interrupted on the south-facing facade by the splendid portico which gives it a special grace and uniqueness.

The Mendozas used this Palace-Castle as a stately home for less than a century. In 1565 when the 4th Duque del Infantado died, feuds between the inheritors resulted in its disuse and a slow process of deterioration until the architect, Vicente Lamperez Romera, took responsibility for the first restoration works in 1914. Declared a Historical ­Art Monument in 1931, the Duque del Infantado, lnigo Arteaga y Folquera, ceded it to Madrid County Council in 1965. At present, the Castle is run by “Direccion General de Turismo de la Consejeria de Economia y Empleo de la Comunidad de Madrid”.

The castle of Manzanares also appears in the movie "El Cid" (1961) featuring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. If you ever get a chance to pass by Manzanares El Real, I highly recommend visiting this wonderful property.


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Almost time to get out the Espadrilles
17 May 2018

You may own pair and shortly it will be time to get them out for the summer, you may even have them out already. I have a couple of pairs and swear by them. They are so simple yet so versatile in style. The espadrille has been around for centuries maybe even thousands of years. The Archaeological museum of Granada owns a pair of espadrilles that were found on human remains inside the “cueva de los murcielagos” (the bat-cave). It is estimated that these shoes are around 4000 years old. Clearly, they are a very primitive version of today’s 'alpargatas'.



This light sandal, as we know it today, made with jute rope or braided hemp and with linen fabric, originates from Spain, where, already, they were being worn around the XIII century by the King of Aragons’ infantry men. Its name is derived from “esparto” which is a kind of plant that was originally burned then braided to make the soles. The town of Cervera del Rio Alhama in La Rioja is considered the birthplace of Espadrille manufacturing.

It was during the XIII century that the production of these shoes truly spread. Since it is a handcrafted shoe, making the treads employs many workers. The alpargatero’s (or espadrille maker) only job was to make the rope soles, while the seamstresses sewed the fabric and the band. At the beginning of the XIX century, Mauléon (a French city located in the Atlantic Pyrenees) began selling them in vast quantities. The first people to wear them were the catalano-aragonese military soldiers then subsequently by the priests. Around 1880, most espadrilles were sold to mine workers, but they were also exported to South America. It was the time of the “hirondelles”, which were young girls from the aragonese valleys who came to work in the espadrille factories between the fall and winter seasons.


Around 1950, fashion evolved and this forced alpargata makers to reinvent the shoe with a more sophisticated design that was better suited to the times. This contributed, during the 1960s, to a special order of shoes for the Parisian festivities by the most celebrated designer of the time, Mr. Yves St-Laurent. He asked for an espadrille with a heel, which had never been done before. Suddenly, it was all the rage! Today, almost all the women who live in the southern regions have a pair of alpargatas with heels and ribbons that tie around the ankle.

Today, espadrilles are still extremely popular both in France and in Spain, especially in the summer. People seemed to like it because of the sole, which is 100% natural, molds itself to the shape of the foot, and allows the skin to breathe. The simplicity of this shoe makes it very versatile and therefore easy to match with all sorts of different styles. If the espadrille has already been around for 4000 years then it’s not about to go out of fashion now!!


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