It’s perfectly safe, I drank tap water exclusively for my first three weeks here in Zaragoza (I’m someone who drinks a lot of water on a daily basis, partly because I run several times a week), and I had absolutely no problems whatsoever. It’s fine.
However…it does taste weird. I don’t know how to describe it, but it definitely is noticeable (I’ve done a blind taste test: yes, I can easily distinguish Zaragoza tap water from bottled mineral water), it tastes different from tap water at home which tastes like nothing (like distilled water, very neutral), and it tastes different from the mineral water here which is why mineral water is so popular in Spain and Europe in general: because the tap water doesn’t taste as good, that’s why.
A clarification on what “mineral water” in Europe is…
It doesn’t usually refer to Perrier, it is not carbonated…usually. This is what Americans normally think of when you say “mineral water”. Yes, mineral waters can be carbonated here, yes Perrier is one of them, yes they are sold here…however, that’s not what people mean when they say “mineral water”, or “agua mineral”, that’s not what you’ll get if you ever ask for an “agua mineral” at a bar or restaurant here. What you’ll get will be what we would call “bottled water”, that is plain, flat (non-carbonated), bottled water that came from a spring. Fiji and Evian are examples of what I’m talking about that you may be familiar with.
If you want carbonated mineral water – like Perrier – what you’ll need to specify is “agua mineral con gas” (literally “mineral water with gas”).
So do Spaniards drink the tap water?
Yes, but not if they can help it, it seems. That is, drinking solely mineral water can get expensive, depending on how much of it you’re drinking (or your guests, like at a dinner or party, are drinking), and what your budget is, but it’s not that expensive. Like almost everything else in Spain, especially food and drink, it’s really quite cheap.
For example, a 6-pack of 1.5 liter bottles (so 8 liters in total) of my preferred brand (described below) at the local grocery store (Eroski) costs €4.14 ($4.56US or £2.95GBP at this writing).
Ok, so what’s good? What should I buy if I go there?
Solan de Cabras. There are others I’ve tried, they’re fine, it’s not like this really matters that much…but that’s my preferred brand. I’ve tried others, I didn’t like them as much. This one tastes like water should: nothing. It tastes like water and nothing else.
I’ve noticed that almost always when there’s some sort of high-level political meeting on the news and there’s water on the table, it’s this particular brand (there are a lot of Spanish mineral waters and no, this one isn’t state-owned or anything).
I know that’s maybe not the strongest endorsement but I figure they can afford anything they want for those events so whatever they pick is going to be pretty good at a minimum.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Later I’ll probably come back and edit this a bit after I ask some friends about this topic.
This deserves its own post, I’ve decided (apparently). However, it is not a complicated subject, nor should it be purported as such. This doesn’t need a master’s thesis so it’s not going to get one.
As mentioned previously, the Spanish typically don’t own coffee makers (if they have coffee at home a lot of the time it’s instant coffee); if they want coffee they go to the bar and order some type of espresso-based beverage.
Edit [10/29/2015]: A local friend of mine, Pablo, had a look over this article and corrected me on something, the Spanish do frequently have a coffee-maker of sorts that they’ll use in the mornings (anytime after that though and they’ll go to the bar) but it’s not the sort of automatic drip that we’re used to, it’s what’s called a “cafetera” (not even sure if there’s an English term, if there is I haven’t heard it – please comment if you have) that you have to heat up on the stove and makes what they call “cafe largo” (literally “long coffee”) and looks like this:
That said, just what types of coffee are they drinking in the bar and how do you order it?
There are really only a few drinks we need concern ourselves with here, though I will do a bit of preemptive ass-covering by saying that I’m aware that there are certain regions that have their own variations. Typically the only things involved in Spanish coffee are espresso and milk (sugar is almost always offered on the side in the form of a packet included with your drink).
Occasionally liquor makes an appearance, especially if you’re a bit older and have nothing important to do (retired people love getting drunk in the morning, and having tried it myself I must admit it’s a hoot).
This is just a shot of espresso. That’s it.
Oh, and the word you may find in the dictionary for “shot” (of a drink) is “chupito“, however that’s wrong in this case. That’s only used to refer to alcohol – I know, I’ve been corrected multiple times by the natives when using it to try to say “a shot of espresso”.
The way you refer to a shot of espresso here is simply with the word “espresso”, as in “un espresso”. “Un espresso” = “a shot of espresso”.
The only way in which this drink may catch your attention if served to you in Spain is that it’s normally contained in a small, glass, shot-type glass instead of the usual ceramic espresso cup we’re used to:
Cafe con Leche
This is a shot of espresso along with an equal quantity of milk, that is: equal parts espresso and milk. The milk is usually (but not always) heated via steaming.
This is more typically taken at breakfast with a pastry (“un bollo”). I usually have two along with a pastry almost every morning at Cafe Colonial for my breakfast. I’m so consistent with this little ritual that the bartender (always one of two girls, Suzana or Lidia) will started making my first one as soon as they see me walk in the door.
This is a shot of espresso with a small amount of heated (steamed) milk added, like maybe a 4:1 ratio of espresso to milk. It’s usually taken after meals (lunch/dinner) as it’s quite a bit stronger than a cafe con leche. I usually have one after lunch every day around 4 PM, and that’s the end of my caffeine consumption as anything after about 6 PM will mess with my sleep (I go to sleep between 1 and 2 AM, I try to put at least 8 hours between my last consumption of caffeine and bed time). Around 7 or 8 PM is when I’ll start in on the booze, usually a gin and tonic at the moment as Spain has reintroduced those to me after over a decade of not having one, but that’s another story. I feel naked in the meantime without some sort of drug to depend on.
This is a strange concoction I very rarely actually see anyone order. I tried it once by accident (confused with a cortado). You better really like the taste of coffee is all I have to say.
It’s a shot of espresso…intentionally made improperly…such that it’s stronger than it should be – yes, stronger even still than a shot of espresso already is. What they do is use the normal amount of coffee grinds in the machine but less water than you normally would such that you get a particularly strong shot.
From what I can gather this is an “old person’s drink”. It’s simply a shot of espresso with a bit of booze in it, traditionally Spanish brandy. Here’s mine from the other day (it looks just like a plain shot of espresso, but believe me, Lidia was generous with the brandy, there’s a decent bit of booze in that):
This is a shot of espresso and some hot water to dilute it. This is how they make something that’s as close as they can get to “American coffee” with the equipment they have here in Europe (espresso machines are common in bars and restaurants, equipment to drip coffee is not), hence the name.
Not my thing, it’s just diluted espresso. If you really have a thing for black coffee, though, but straight espresso (cafe solo) is just too much, then I can understand how this would appeal to you.
Why? It’s coffee-flavored milk. What they do is heat some milk (via steaming with the espresso machine), then pour just a dabble of espresso in it to give it some coffee flavor (it doesn’t even receive a whole shot).
I don’t get this. Ok, I do, but I think it’s dumb.
Cafe con Hielo
“Hielo” is Spanish for ice. You get what it says on the label: coffee with some ice.
This is for people who like iced coffee (I hate anything coffee or coffee-flavored that’s cold, e.g. coffee-flavored ice cream), you get a shot of espresso (cafe solo) and a glass of ice. You’re to pour the espresso shot over the ice and drink it immediately (otherwise the ice melts and dilutes it, plus the espresso goes stale very quickly).
I don’t think this is dumb, it’s just not my thing, to be clear. If it is your thing, go for it, it’ll probably be really good.
Conclusion and additional resources
Here’s a Spanish coffee flowchart made a couple years ago by a Spanish blogger to help you out:
Also, here’s a much better (and prettier!) article on Spanish coffee than this one, you probably would’ve been better off just reading it to begin with instead of bothering with this one – sorry, but I just felt I had to address coffee in Spain…and hey, maybe this article was just perfect for you, maybe you care just enough about coffee in Spain to bother with this article but not enough to justify reading that longer one! I’m an optimist.
There is one place. There is one place where you will go if you want coffee, a drink, or food: “el bar”.
Here’s a typical one, this is Cafe Colonial, one of my personal favorites for a variety of reasons (good coffee, decent pastries, nice staff, good seating, good WiFi):
When I said there are none of the above in the title, that wasn’t entirely accurate, to be fair. What I meant is that there are hardly any as we know them (there are a few proper restaurants, actually, but nowhere near as many as we have per capita because far more people just go to one of the “bars” to eat which far outnumber them). I’ve yet to see an actual cafe.
On coffee and cafes in Spain…
When I say “cafe” there, I mean cafe in the anglo sense of the word, that is a Starbucks, for example, or similar such operation the main offering of which is coffee in various forms typically accompanied by pastries.
The closest you’ll get in Spain is a pastry shop that just happens to have an espresso machine resulting in a very limited selection of espresso-based drinks to choose from: cafe solo, cafe cortado, cafe corto, cafe con leche, and cafe americano. That’s typically about it. I’ve yet to see anywhere offering cafe mochas (a few have some sort of chocolate-based espresso drink but it’s nowhere near a proper mocha, usually just one of the above espresso drinks with some Nestle hot chocolate mix tossed in), caramel macchiatos, gingerbread lattes (or lattes of any sort for that matter), or anything involving whipped cream which almost nowhere is capable of creating outside of higher-end restaurants that use them on their desserts.
I’m not joking: there really are no cafes here. As an American I thought, “that can’t be possible, there must be some misunderstanding” (when being told this by a couple different Spaniards I’d been talking to over Skype before coming here), but there really aren’t, not that I’ve seen. There might be a few in Madrid or Barcelona but if there are I can almost guarantee you there aren’t very many because they’re just simply not popular here, Spaniards go to the bar to get their coffee.
I’ve never once seen normal brewed coffee, whether from an automatic drip machine like what most Americans have in their homes or from something like a French press. Most of the grocery and convenience stores here don’t even carry ground coffee – like Folgers or something – that you would use in such machines.
I finally saw some at Corte Inglés, a high-end department store here that also has a supermarket covering 2-3 floors, but even then it was a very limited selection that appeared to be entirely comprised of cheaper, pre-ground-and-freeze-dried type of coffees.
It’s not popular here at all. God help you if you have a French press and want the good stuff for it (why else would you bother with a French press?) like Kona or Jamaica Blue Mountain – I can only imagine you’d have to order it online and likely from somewhere outside the country at that.
Oh, and Spaniards frequently interchange the words “bar” and “cafe”, they’re the same thing to them. From my American perspective I would lean more towards the term “bar” (and amongst Spaniards it’s by far the most popular term for referring to these establishments) since they really appear more to be bars that happen to have an espresso machine than cafes that happen to have some booze laying around.
Everybody goes to the bar at all hours for all meals
People will start coming in when they open between 7 and 9 AM for their morning coffee and pastry. They frequently bring their kids (babies in strollers, toddlers who run about, the whole lot) and this isn’t the least bit abnormal or looked down upon as it would be at bars in many other countries (remember, what Spain calls a “bar” isn’t exactly what that term means in English, it’s also a cafe and restaurant), or even illegal as it would be in the U.S. where many establishments known as “bars” aren’t allowed to admit anyone under 21 years of age.
Between 11 and 3 is lunch time, people will wander in and out, getting beer and wine along with some pinchos, or perhaps even ordering something off the menu (I’ve yet to see anyone really drunk while doing this, they’re very good about their moderation of alcohol consumption).
It then really dies down (about the only completely dead time between open and close) from 3 PM until about 8 PM. Many bars will actually close during this time as it’s not worth the expense to stay open.
Around 8 PM things start to kick back up again as people go out for their dinner, usually consisting of a couple drinks and some pinchos, or perhaps a dish ordered from the menu. But this isn’t the full-blown 3-course meal of lunch time, it’s usually something smaller amounting to one course (that is: a single entree-amount of food, whether in the form of one dish from the menu or several pinchos) plus a few drinks, that’s it.
Eating at the bar
Most Spaniards, when they go out to eat most of the time, will go to a bar. Typically, the bar will offer two different ways of obtaining food: pinchos or ordering from the menu.
Pinchos are small, appetizer-sized portions of various types of food (usually traditional Spanish ones) that cost around 1-3 euros each, though 3 euros would definitely be on the high end for a pincho, they’re usually in the 1.50-2 euro range.
Between three and four pinchos plus a couple drinks would typically amount to a satisfying meal for most people – this will usually come in well under 10 euros for you. Eating in Spain is cheap (so is drinking, by the way). In fact, most things are shockingly cheap in Spain with the only exception I’ve found so far being ear plugs (5 euros for 3 pairs of the suckers!), but I’ll address that some other time (the plugs themselves are German which I suspect explains it).
Let’s look have a look at my favorite local bar for pinchos (Méli Mélo) and examine it more closely…
If you ever come to Zaragoza I can’t recommend highly enough that you try Méli Mélo, the food is not only good but also original – it’s not the typical ham croquettes and crab-with-mayo-on-bread you see everywhere else and of which you’ll soon tire. First of all you have the pinchos displayed on top of the bar under glass as they usually are…
Here’s the menu describing many of the various pinchos you see above (Méli Mélo is definitely towards the higher end of tapas/pinchos bars as you can see by the prices, but worth it in my opinion):
Then you have the booze, in this case (refer to first pic if you wish) consisting of a fairly limited selection of 2-3 beers (my only real criticism of Méli Mélo, though one that can be leveled at almost every other bar here, to be fair), a decent selection of wine (though, as is almost always the case, all are Spanish), and an also very limited selection of hard liquor (very few people are ordering mixed drinks in a place like this, 95% are ordering beer or wine). Additionally, if you search hard, you can find the espresso machine just to the left of the cash register (look for the computer screen).
As with most bars, there’s the bar itself which has stools where you can sit, drink, and eat if you like, and there’s also a seated section which typically requires you to order from the menu (this is Méli Mélo’s, it’s particularly nice):
Ordering from the menu means that you have access to dishes that are not displayed out front as pinchos (though you can order those as well) and which will be made to order, fresh of course, for you just like in a restaurant.
You can see where the dining section, as I’ll call it, or just “las mesas” (literally “the tables”) as the Spanish would call it, is located in Méli Mélo better here in this photograph (it’s at the back away from the entrance as is the norm):
I finally got around to sitting down and trying Méli Mélo’s menu items out for a full and proper typical 3-course Spanish lunch.
It was fantastic. I mean, it was very, very good food, full stop, without even taking into account price yet. You could, in the United States, charge $30-40US for what I got here and get away with it, easily, not to mention what such a meal would go for in the U.K. (probably £20-50 I’d imagine, more towards 50 in London). It was also fantastic for the price: €13.95. That covers the wine (yes, they refill your glass for free, I had white wine, two glasses of it), bread, first course, second course, and then dessert. Coffee is not usually included, though I have seen it done rarely.
Here’s the second dish (I wish I had taken a photo of the first, it was a lovely seafood pasta including crab and shrimp):
…and the dessert (really impressed with how well the flavors complimented each other, taking a bite of that orange fruit you see off to the side right after a bite of the cake and ice cream enhanced the flavor, you can tell it was all carefully designed and tasted beforehand):
Méli Mélo is an above average example of a typical Spanish bar, to be honest with you, but it’s not too far off of what you’ll find if you come here: a few decent (usually local) beers, really good local (Spanish) wine, a good selection of typical Spanish pinchos, and all for very, very reasonable prices. You can easily eat out for every meal and still come in under 30 euros (~$33US at the time of this writing) per day, and that’s including booze).
The Spanish go to the bar for almost everything: morning coffee and pastries, lunch, merienda (snack between lunch and dinner), dinner, and then drinks late in the evening. They go to the same place for all of those, and it’s fine.
I’ve seen a wedding reception in a bar here just because it was their favorite local bar that they usually went to. The bar is genuinely a fundamental part of Spanish society.
Edit [October 29th, 2015]: My friend, Pablo (native Spaniard), had a look over this article during a language exchange I had with him this morning and I’d like to make a correction based on his input: there are bars as we know them in Spain – alcohol only, no food, usually don’t open until about 8 PM, close very late with a bunch of drunk people stumbling out – but they’re usually clustered together in a small area of the city center and are nowhere near as common or popular as the more typical Spanish “bar” described above.
No, not in my experience so far, from what I’ve seen Spaniards are very hardworking. What I mean by that is not only do they work long hours but they also really try to do their job well and give the best service they can to the customer. I’ve yet to experience anything remotely resembling poor customer service or a rude employee.
I have, however, heard from several Spanish people I’ve talked to that they think the Spanish in general are lazy and that has a lot to do with the terrible unemployment rate (over 20% overall and about 50% for young people) and generally poor state of their economy.
People from any one country, in my experience, tend to be their own harshest critics. Despite the stereotypes, Americans genuinely are some of the harshest critics of America, Americans, and our government. The same definitely appears to be true in Spain. I don’t think they’re lazy, they think they’re lazy.
During my Oktoberfest excursion with my friend, Ana, I got to meet a couple of her friends who were Spanish but had been living and working abroad in Sweden for a few years now. They were both of the opinion, when I asked about the unemployment rate and welfare state in Spain, that anyone who wanted a job could easily find one within 2 months let alone the 6 months during which you receive 70% of your previous salary from the government. The problem, in their opinion, was that people either weren’t willing to work certain jobs that they saw as “below them” or they weren’t willing to move outside of their own little pueblo (small city/village) to another city/region in order to obtain work, and so would instead just live off the government dole because they didn’t feel like exerting the necessary effort and making the necessary sacrifices in order to find work. In other words, it was mainly because they were just damned lazy. This was their opinion.
Skeleton crews EVERYWHERE
The bar that I go to every morning for my usual ritual of two coffees and a pastry, Cafe Colonial, typically has two (sometimes only one) bartender working there each morning, and let me tell you: they friggin’ work. They very rarely have a free second and are almost always behind on orders and scrambling to catch up, at least until the morning rush (“hora punta”, closest translation is probably “rush hour”) is up.
Today I went in and one of the poor girls (there are two, Suzana and Lidia, on the ‘morning’ shift which really lasts until 3 PM or so), Lidia, had a massive stack of dirty cups, saucers, and plates taking up a decent-sized chunk of the bar that she was trying to get clean – I thought the dishwasher had broken. I asked her if this was the case and she said “Oh no, it’s from the morning rush, I just haven’t had time to catch up. I’m the only one working.” (it was actually in Spanish, but that’s the gist of it). She was the only one working.
Let me tell you something, this is is not a place that should only be staffed by one person. In the U.S. you’d probably have 2-3 bartenders plus maybe a busboy (dishwasher) and a manager. This one girl was doing it all.
This is also the norm in Spain.
What I mean is that most businesses here, from what I’ve seen almost everywhere I’ve been, operate on what would be known in the U.S. as a “skeleton crew”, that is the absolute minimum number of people necessary to just be able to keep the place running, and then only if they move like their ass is on fire and work their fingers to the bone.
Here’s a video from one of their busier times (around 12:30 PM, lunch time here starts at around 1:00 PM and goes until 3:00 PM, so this is just the start):
Mind you, that’s one bartender, one employee in the entire joint (no managers, no busboys, no nada), for everyone you see there, and it’s only going to get busier over the next couple hours.
My theory as to why this is the case is the basic state of their economy. Business is poor, people aren’t spending a lot of money. Also, lots of people are out of work so it’s an employer’s market, meaning that there are way more people applying for jobs than there are positions, so employers can choose very carefully and then place really high demands on their workers without fear of them quitting because those workers know how tough it is to get a job and that there are a million and one other people waiting to happily take their place. This leads to employers only employing the absolute minimum number of people they need to and then working them like dogs because:
A) They can’t really afford to employ many more people, if any, because business is bad, competition is steep, and therefore margins are already tight enough as it is, and…
B) They know those employees will work their asses off and take it, they won’t quit, because of the state of the job market.
This isn’t really any one person or group’s fault. No, I’m not inclined to blame employers, it’s not like most of them are getting rich doing this, they’re just going what they have to in order to survive. It’s not the employees’ fault, it’s not (entirely, at least) the government’s fault. It’s a little bit of everyone’s fault, frankly, in my opinion…and I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there is even a good one.
This is no longer a religious festival, for the most part (partly, yes, but it’s a minority part), it’s simply this city’s annual shindig, their yearly party. It’s an excuse to take some time off, relax, drink, dance, hold concerts and fairs, and generally “estar de fiestas” (basically, “to party”).
Oh, and it’s a huge grab for tourist dollars (or euros, as it were, since most of the tourists are still Europeans, mostly Spanish actually, though not from Zaragoza, which I’ll get to later). The Spanish economy is heavily dependent on tourism, it’s the number one industry in Spain, and I have no idea how important El Pilar is for Zaragoza as far as income for local businesses and the city government, but my guess is: very.
That said I want it to be clear that none of the above is a criticism (I don’t blame them at all), it’s merely an observation.