April 2nd, 2012
I had my doubts that the chain smoking Spanish would be prepared to stand outside bars and cafes when the smoking ban was implemented two years ago. But i was wrong. In Spain, as in so many countries today, you can see customers stood outside in all weathers keeping up to their cigarette smoking habit.
And, as a result, cafe culture on the streets has taken off. There are now more and more outside seating areas. The irony, of course, is that those who used to sit outside to avoid the smoke may now opt to go inside in order to… avoid the smoke!
But is there a better way to soak up Spanish life than sitting outside a cafe or bar and watching the world go by?
Only the other night i saw this in action. I was in the city of Granada and despite it being a chilly evening, people were sat outside enjoying a drink, some tapas and a smoke. A couple of years ago, by far the majority of these people would have been inside and would have only ventured out at the height of summer. Not least because many an establishment will charge you a little bit more for your drinks if you sit at one of the street tables they provide.
On my travels across Spain i have favoured the inside of bars in winter, especially those that have a roaring fire on the go. And inside again at the height of summer when air con can be a great relief from the heat outside. Then, in Spring and Autumn, i favour sitting outside.
And in winter the serving has to be of one of the best things to come out of Spain. Churros con Chocolate. Sublime.
When i stopped to think about it, I was amazed to recall just how many bars and cafes I have sat outside. All over the country.
Stand by. Here comes one almighty name drop.
The last time i sat outside a bar in Madrid i was in the company of Kylie Minoque and members of the Australian rock band INXS. That was many years ago. But a fun evening was had by all once we found a bar with a good atmosphere.
Today we would be spoiled for choice. In 2009 the city hall in Madrid recorded almost 2000 outside terrace areas for people to drink or dine. Last year that figure had more than doubled.
Whether it is just to have a fag or not, cafe street culture is growing apace in Spain. Cafe owners have to pay for a licence and the increase in applications last year brought in six million euros.
The city hall benefitted from that and whoever is selling outdoor patio heaters to Spain must have made lots and lots of money these past two years. The devices have sprung up everywhere. So much so that, in Madrid, they call them mushrooms.
I am not going to recall the names of those charming cafes I have sat outside, but i shall try an point you in the right direction.
One that i shall always remember was in the hottest of hotspots. Ecija is in the province of Seville and is known throughout the country as the ‘frying pan of Spain.’ Thankfully i was not there in Summer. I ventured to a table outside a cafe near the big and very different in appearance central plaza, and caught the eye of the waiter. I ordered drinks, the details of which he duly took down on his pad.
The he said the magic words: “I will serve you sir, but only when you remove that Barcelona football team hat from your head.”
“Ah”, said I, “you must be a Seville fan.”
“No” came the sad but predictable reply… “this is a Real Madrid bar, so please take that hat off and then i will bring you your drinks.”
I did begin a debate about why someone living so close to Seville wants to support Madrid, but was held back from developing this argument by those with me.
I did as I was told and sat back to enjoy the views of Ecija and watch the storks nesting high on the building above the bar. Praying that one of them deposited something on the head of the waiter.
I left a him a tip in the shape of a few paper napkins with the words “Visca Barça” on them.
I will not be going back to that bar, but i shall go back to Ecija. I found it a charming place, full of some very distinctive and gothic buildings. Don’t go there is summer, unless you can take temperatures that exceed 50 celsius on some days.
Ah yes. Beautiful Begur on the Costa Brava. What a wonderful town this is. Chic. Sophisticated. Cafe’s in abundance and a very laid back feel to the place. This is no poor man’s town. There is money in Begur.
I have long been a people watcher and the differences I have noticed just from studying customers at cafes across Spain, well, I could write a book about! There was not a cheap tracksuit to be seen among the winers and diners in Begur. At the bars around my way if a man hung a jumper over his shoulders in that very French way, they would laugh at you.
But in this very smart part of Costa Brava the men, as well as the women, clearly shopped at the more fashionable boutiques that you can find in this charming part of Spain.
There are nice cafes in towns such as this and cafes with great views of sandy beaches and the sea at locations along the Costa Brava. At locations that are ideal for a holiday. Places such as Roses and Sa Riera – excellent locations at which to rent your holiday home.
Or at tantalising Tamariu which reminds many people of the Costa Brava of the 1960′s or 1970′s when the artistic types went on holiday to places such as Cadaques – then home of the one and only Salvador Dali.
Go further north and you will arrive in the wealthiest city in Spain, Girona. I’d love to live there. It oozes class. The people here actually look down their noses at their neighbours in what they call “brash Barcelona.”
There is cafe culture in abundance in Girona and there are great views to look out on.
Facing the river Onyar there are some stand out coloured houses that were built in the nineteenth century in order to replace parts of the original city wall that was destroyed during a siege by French troops in 1809.
The remaining ramparts, first raised by the Romans, are one part of the organised archaeological walks that take in some of the fascinating sights in Girona. A place that Napoleon tried to capture on at least three occasions.
If a cup of coffee or a glass of wine is not enough for you, then eat outside in the warmer months. The food on offer in Girona is top notch. You are very unlikely to be on the receiving end of a bad meal here. And the tapas served up in Catalonian bars is both filling and fancy.
Finally, back down in southern Spain along the Costa Tropical, why not have a drink at a bar on the beach? Not on the road opposite but within touching distance of the ocean.
Sumo bar is a favourite of mine at Motril, a small city that is just thirty minutes south of where i began this tour of cafe culture, the great city of Granada. You can have a coffee or something stronger at Zumo, and you don’t have to wrestle your way to the bar.
Sit down on the comfortable seats and you will be served at your table and the bar opens at hours when many other cafes and bars are closed. From around 3pm until 6am the next day in the summer months.
Here you can watch the ocean liners dock in the port and the arrival of the relatively new ferry service that runs between the city of Motril and Melilla.
The city itself is buzzing. Full of good shops and restaurants and the people are less in love with themselves than their neighbouring Granadinos. In cafes here you will see many a game of dominoes taking place. I remember my dad playing this game but I do not recall it being so noisy as it is in the cafes and bars of Spain. In one bar in Motril the dominoes were deafening and resulted in me having to shout at my companion, rather than have a normal conversation.
But it is all part of the atmosphere. If you want peace and quiet on tap then maybe you should head back to the Playa Granada beach. A bus links the city to the beach.
Kick back, take your time. Soak up the sun. In my experience you are never rushed at a Spanish cafe or bar. You could take all day over one drink if you wanted. Many a local does just that.
And you wouldn’t want to stand out from the crowd, would you?