Spanish New Year

One of the more intriguing contrasts between Australia and Spain is how the New Year is celebrated. Last year, I was in Portugal, so I wasn’t able to experience a genuine Spanish New Year. But this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the evening with a friend and his family at their home in Madrid…


At the beginning of the evening, things tend to be pretty normal. You sit around with the other guests, enjoying dinner and a few drinks, in the lead up to the big event.

Ho hum.

But at 11:45p.m., the preparations start in earnest. See, in Spain (unlike any other place on earth!), when the clock strikes midnight, there is a particular ceremony to be followed, namely The Ritual of the Grapes. The Ritual goes as follows:- as the clock rings each of its twelve times, the assembled multitude are required to eat a grape. So, by the end of the twelve chimes, you should have eaten twelve grapes. Each grape equates to a month of good luck, so eat them all, and you’ll have a lucky year.


Now, let me assure you, having twelve grapes in your mouth is not as easy as it may look, especially when the official clock is chiming away every couple of seconds. For this reason, some people elect to “make things easier” (i.e. cheat) by peeling the grapes and removing the seeds, so that they “go down smoothly.” Or, if you’re REALLY lazy, you can buy a little packet of grapes, seeds and skin removed, and all ready to go when the time comes.


This is how you can buy your grapes in the supermarket.

Seriously, this thing is a SCIENCE.

For my first year with the grapes, I was determined to have the genuine experience, seeds, skin, and all. As the clock approached midnight, I arranged my grapes, and prepared for the countdown (hosted on TV by a man who appeared to have taken style tips from Count Dracula- seriously, who on earth wears a CAPE nowadays?- and his glamorous assistant).


At the first chime of the clock…nothing happened. See, for some bizarre reason, the official New Year grape clock in the Puerta del Sol chimes four times as a kind of warm up lap, before starting the official countdown. This is a trap for the unwary! Hold back, and don’t start eating the grapes before the TV tells you to!


The official clock in the Puerta del Sol.

When it’s the REAL countdown, twelve grapes appear on the TV screen, and, with each chime of the clock, you eat one of your previously prepared fruits. The problem, I discovered, is that you don’t really have time to chew, so instead of eating the grapes, it’s more a case of storing them in your cheeks until you have time to chew them and digest them properly.


The whole thing is treated with the seriousness of a military campaign, and it was positively surreal to watch my friend’s dad, his sister, and his brother lined up on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV, and arms moving in unison to deposit the grapes in their respective receptacles on each strike of the clock.

Miraculously, I managed to insert all the grapes into my mouth without gagging/vomiting/choking/otherwise requiring medical intervention, which means that I ought to have avoided a year of bad luck. But whether this will extend to managing to avoid having to eat the grapes next New Year, I’m not too sure…


Grapes 10-12- “You stop wishing, and concentrate on not choking.” If only this was a joke.

Cultural Wednesdays- Week 4

Today being Thursday, it must be time for the Cultural Wednesdays post…

[Aside-I hope people like the Cultural Wednesdays posts- my mum (Hi Mum!) says that they’re not as interesting as the ones where I talk about things going pear-shaped. That might be true, but I think it’s important to write about some of the things I’ve seen in case anyone wants to come to Madrid to visit me (hint, hint!). And, well, sometimes things aren’t a TOTAL disaster, so I think I should mix it up a bit 😉 ]

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, I went to the museum and house of Lope de Vega. This museum was recommended by my colleague, Charro, who helps me with my Spanish, so I thought I should make an effort to go. I tried to visit 2 weeks ago, but the guard told me that because the house is so old, they only permit 10 people to visit at once, and that you have to be on a guided tour.


So, I booked my tour. I didn’t realise that you could book one in English, and so I found myself, unwittingly, on the Spanish tour. Oh. Dear.

Imagine the scene- me and 9 fluent Spanish speakers, wandering around, as the guide pointed out the artifacts. I nodded and laughed at what I hoped were the appropriate places, and tried to snigger knowingly when one of the other visitors passed some personal asides to me.


For those, like me, who aren’t familiar with Lope de Vega’s work, he was a Spanish playwright, poet, and author from the same time as Cervantes (16th Century). He was famous for the amount of his output (he was likened to a writing machine), and for his rather scandalous love affairs (he had 16 children…and he was a priest for a while). He wrote over a thousand works in his lifetime, following the adage of “quantity, not quality”, and seemed to live according to his own wishes, rather than society’s norms.

The house was really interesting, with a beautiful garden, and rather perilous steps (they were the original ones). We saw Lope de Vega’s writing room, the chapel where he spent his days when he became a priest, and his bedroom.

We also learnt a lot about his personality. He seemed to be a rather nasty and vindictive character and after one of his many love affairs went wrong, he ended up in trouble with the law after writing a scandalous piece of work about his ex and her family! Although given the quote “There is no greater glory than love, nor any greater punishment than jealousy”, perhaps this is not a surprise…


Overall, I really liked the tour. Even though I knew nothing about Lope de Vega, it was wonderful to learn about his quirks, and to see what life was like in his time. I would definitely recommend visiting the house to everyone, although it’s important to book a bit in advance, and to speak some Spanish (you can specifically ask for an English speaking tour, but they put me in the Spanish one, on the basis of my email- I think this is a win!).


Cultural Wednesdays- Week 3

Today’s Cultural Wednesday was a bit different, as it was a public holiday in Madrid, so I had a whole day off school. Hooray!

But Wednesday being Wednesday, and culture being culture, I was resolved to do something which would expand the mind. On this occasion, I decided to go to the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (or the National Museum of Natural Sciences). Here’s their website. 


I’d never heard of the MNCN until I started my museum hunting mission, but given that it’s reasonably close to my house, and that no one really talks about it much, I figured I’d give it a go.

The museum is located in a beautiful old building, with a park out the front, and you get a great view over the gardens from the main entrance.


I wasn’t too sure what the “natural sciences” involved, as the term seems to be a bit vague, but most of the exhibits seemed to focus on different animal and plant species, and the structure of the earth.

There was a special exhibition on about biodiversity, which was really interesting, although I’ve got to admit, most of the displays in the museum seemed to feature taxidermied (is that a word?) animals, which were a bit (how do I say it?) confronting. I appreciate that the preserved remains may help people to appreciate how evolution works, but I’ve always found it a bit, well, unsavoury, to see the bodies of unfortunate animals displayed in such a way.

Particularly if the taxidermist is not exactly an expert (although mercifully, that wasn´t the case here…).

This being said, I was impressed that they had a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) on display, and there was a large section dedicated to Australian animals. But if you’re not into preserved specimens (even though said specimens have been there since 1940), this museum probably isn’t the best choice for you…

Nonetheless, the dinosaur skeletons and the information about minerals was fantastic. They had some wonderful fake dinosaur bones…


And some really interesting trilobites…


The last section of the museum was dedicated to rocks and minerals, and had some really brilliant tables with different inlays. I liked these a lot, and they were considerably less gruesome than the taxidermied corpses.


So, overall, I would give the MNCN 3 stars out of 5. It’s interesting, and you can learn a lot there. However, unless you are interested in animal corpses, it is unlikely to be particularly pleasant for you, unless you concentrate on the excellent fossil section.