BARCELONA, Spain — In the land of the siesta, citizens have collectively decided to put the business of life and work on hold from about 2 o’clock until 4 o’clock, when everyone tucks into a leisurely lunch followed by an afternoon catnap.
At least that’s how it works in many foreigners’ imaginations. In fact, the siesta has become largely myth.
Although hard figures are difficult to come by, a survey by a Spanish mattress company found that fewer than 10 percent of Spaniards actually take daily siestas, reflecting a years-long cultural shift away from a schedule that permits extended breaks in the middle of the day.
The government officially did away with long lunches in 2006, and private companies and tourist-focused shops have followed suit, leaving many Spanish workers, especially those in larger cities, keeping more or less the same hours as those in northern Europe and the United States.
But even though the siesta-style workday has become little more than a memory for many Spaniards, not all of its traditions have disappeared. That’s especially true of one of its sweetest if usually unspoken perks.
Although Mariano Zamorano, who owns an artisanal sword forge, still often shuts his Toledo shop for a few hours in the afternoons, he’s never been much for napping.
“I prefer another form of relaxation,” he says with a wink. “A nice siesta with a woman after lunch is a pleasure.”
For 74-year-old Lydia Artigas, sex in the afternoon is work. Better known as Señora Rius, the Barcelona madam has logged 50 years in the business of what she calls “making men.”
“I've never wanted to work at night, even when I was young,” she says sitting in a zebra-print-upholstered armchair in her apartment in Barcelona’s tony L'Eixample district, petting her shih-tzu, Ninet. “At night, a man’s tired, he’s lived a little, he’s had a couple of drinks, but in the afternoon you’re more vital.”
Despite an overall drop in business since the start of Spain’s economic crisis in 2008, Rius still sees a spike in visitors during the hours after lunch. Like many Catalans, Rius isn’t in the habit of napping during the day, but she appreciates the brief pause afforded by the extended lunch breaks once common in Spain.
“It’s a space that seems your own,” she says. “You can forget about work. You can leave the office, go for a walk in the park… or come to Señora Rius.”
Climate is a factor. The siesta has traditionally been associated with the south, where slowing down during the hottest hours of the day can be a necessity.
“The siesta hours are always dangerous for couples,” says Ruben Garcia, 37, of Seville. “In the summer, it’s too hot to be out in the streets, so it’s the perfect time.”
The temptation hasn’t been lost on Spanish hotels.
The Hotel Association of Seville has devised a “siesta” promotion that offers access to rooms for four-hour stretches in the afternoon at discounted rates. It’s no seedy, fly-by-night operation, but an arrangement for three- and four-star properties.
Association spokesman Santiago Padilla admits it’s been more effective as PR than an actual sales tool, but at Seville’s modern JM Jardin de la Reina hotel, director Rafael Rivero says the promotion has been a hit.
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Although the promotion website innocently touts the health benefits of an afternoon nap, it’s a safe bet those checking in may be looking for more than just a few extra REM cycles.
“I’d say 80 percent of the clients are couples,” Rivero says.
Still, they're a shrinking minority.
“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t," says Anna, 26, a consultant for a multinational corporation in Barcelona who's typical of those who no longer have the luxury of time off during the day for liaisons or even a nap. "Everyone’s pretty busy during the afternoon."
But as shifting working hours continue to chip away at what’s left of the siesta culture, Señora Rius knows sex in Spain isn’t going anywhere.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s morning, noon or afternoon,” she says. “The first opportunity men have for sex, they take it.”