October 2002 Portugal and Spain -- Siesta Land
We've always wondered at tourists who, when visiting other countries, see a strange practice and deride it as inferior to what they're used to. (We remember with amusement the students who returned from January Term trips to Greece complaining that people there spoke a foreign language!) Why travel if that's your attitude? We try always to open our minds and avoid such prejudgments.

But in Spain and Portugal, we have run into serious culture shock. Our problem: the siesta. It occurs sometime in the middle of the day, starting anywhere from noon until 2:30 pm., and lasting at least 2, maybe 3 hours. Businesses (and schools) are closed during this period, and the Spanish and Portuguese enjoy long, leisurely lunches -- their main meal of the day. On the face of it, pretty civilized. The problem is that there is no consistency in WHEN the siesta is -- even in one town. Which means that for a big chunk in the middle of the day, it's really hard to get anything done. Not so bad if what you wanted to do was to have lunch, but suppose you wanted to get information from the Tourist Bureau? In Coruña, they were open from 10-12, then 2:30-5. In Bayona, from 9-1, then 3-6. So when we arrived in Puerto de Santa Maria, near Cadiz, around noon, we figured the Tourist Bureau would be closed before we could hike into the town center and so waited until 2, only to find that this office's hours were from 10-2:30 then 4:30-6:30! And the tourist attractions themselves are closed for siesta, too, again randomly, so that you can't plan an itinerary because most of the brochures don't list the hours, and many businesses don't either.

The real monkey-wrenches in the works, of course, are the companies (mainly banks) who don't have siestas, but are open straight through from about 9 to about 5 (or, in the case of the Post Office, between 8:30 AM and 2 PM). Basically what this all means is that you try to get all your business done between about 9 AM and noon. After that, it's a crap shoot. When you're on foot, it's really frustrating when you throw craps.

We thought this random timing of siestas might not be a problem for the locals, but maybe even that isn't true -- we remember Lisa's frustration with this cultural feature when she was in the same city in Spain for a college term and had plenty of time to learn the drill. But for tourism, you'd think it's the pits. The big coaches roll into town around 10:00 or so, and the tourists get to look around and shop for a couple of hours, then nothing is open until late afternoon! Yet tourism is huge in Spain -- there are many more tourists per year than there are residents. (Aside: Spain claims to be the world's second biggest tourist destination. Anyone know what the first would be?) We guess the tourists like to eat and drink, as that's pretty much all one can do on the 'tour bus' schedule.

It's said of Primo Rivera, the early 20th-Century Spanish dictator, that he 'made the trains run on time.' Why didn't he synchronize siestas? He probably didn't have to walk a couple of miles to the ferreteria, only to find it closed until 4.

We have found one activity for the siesta period, other than eating and drinking, that's a lot of fun: we wander around the old part of town, ducking into the open passageways and delighting in the gorgeous courtyards and architectural features within. As seen from the street, old Spanish buildings are rather plain, with shuttered and glassed-in balconies, sometimes with wrought-iron railings but often not, and an arched entryway with a heavy studded wooden door which is commonly open to the street during the day. Peering through the archway, we see a beautiful, cool-looking light from the courtyard, usually showing off blue and white tiles on the opposite wall, with large potted plants everywhere. Venturing in through the tunnel-like entry, we look up to see fine ironwork, plants, trees, and flowers everywhere, and interesting architectural details, varying from baroque to half-Moorish to minimalist, but always beautifully proportioned. Some courtyards are glassed over at the top, and presumably air-conditioned during the summer; but most are open to the sky. For some reason, the courtyards seem to be 10 or 20 degrees cooler on a hot afternoon than the street outside, and of course they're much more quiet.

So the siesta has turned us on to the architecture; maybe it's not so bad after all!