In Praise of the Spanish Siesta

A big meal and a long nap is still a way of life in Madrid


| January-February 1999



Birds do it. Cats do it. And Spaniards most especially do it—every day, in broad daylight.

They nap. Proudly, without a hint of embarrassment. Grown adults—executives, teachers, civil servants—wink off in the middle of the workday like kindergartners at mat time. From 1 or 2 o'clock to 4:30 or so every afternoon, Spain stops the world for a stroll home, a leisurely meal, a few z's. Common Market technocrats have informed the Spanish that this is not the way things will get done in the oft-threatened unified Europe. The Spanish reply with a flourish of rioja and snooze alarms. ¡Viva siesta! 

At a time when productivity is the world's largest religion, the siesta tradition lives on. In Spain, work operates under the command of life, instead of the other way around. No task is so critical that it can't wait a couple of hours while you attend to more important matters like eating, relaxing, or catching up on sleep from a night on the town. When the midday break hits, offices empty and streets clear as if by the hand of Rod Serling. Befuddled foreigners left behind quickly learn that they have entered a new circadian order.

"At first, I kept looking for things to do in the afternoon, and I just couldn't believe that nothing was open," recalls Pier Roberts, an Oakland writer who lived in Spain for several years. "I walked the streets of Madrid looking for somewhere to go. It was a thousand degrees outside, you could see the heat waves, and it was like a ghost town."

The vanishing act confounds and exasperates agenda-minded outsiders and has long made the Spanish the butt of lazy-sod jokes. Yet travelers who get off the mad-dogs-and-Englishmen circuit and take time to indulge the siesta lifestyle may find that it's the Spaniards who have the last laugh—well into the wee hours.

Taking a long break in the middle of the day is not only healthier than the conventional lunch; it's apparently more natural. Sleep researchers have found that the Spanish biorhythm may be tuned more closely to our biological clocks. Studies suggest that humans are "biphasic" creatures, requiring days broken up by two periods of sleep instead of one up-till-you-drop "monophasic" shift. The drowsiness you feel after lunch comes not from the food but from the time of day. "All animals, including humans, have a biological rhythm," explains Claudio Stampi, director of the Chrono Biology Research Institute in Newton, Massachusetts. "One is a 24-hour rhythm—we get tired by the end of the day and go to sleep—and there is a secondary peak of sleepiness and a decrease in alertness in the early afternoon. Some people have difficulty remaining awake, doing any sort of task between one and four in the afternoon. For others it's less difficult, but it's there. So there is a biological reason for siestas.”