A favourite sport and pastime in Spain

Not surprisingly, swimming ( natación) is a favourite sport and pastime in Spain, with its glorious weather, 2,000km (1,240mi) of beaches ( playas), and a profusion of swimming pools ( piscinas).

The beach season in Spain lasts from around Easter to October, although many people sunbathe on beaches all year round in the south of Spain, and the Canaries offer year round beach weather. Most people find the Mediterranean too cold for swimming outside June to September and the Atlantic is generally warm enough only in July and August (in northern and southern Spain).

Spanish beaches, almost all of which are public, vary considerably in size, surface and amenities. Surfaces include white, grey, black (in the Canaries) and even red (fine and coarse) sand, shingles, pebbles and stones. Beaches are generally kept clean all year round, particularly in popular resorts, although in some areas they’re covered in rubbish and large stones and look more like waste areas than public beaches.

It’s difficult to find a totally unspoilt beach, as pollution and high-rise buildings blight most Spanish beaches, although there are a few in remote areas of the mainland and the islands. The best beaches are to be found on the Atlantic coast, on the smaller islands in the Balearics (e.g. Formentera and Menorca) and in the Canaries (e.g. Fuerteventura), where it’s even possible to find a deserted beach outside the main tourist season.

Most beaches are extremely crowded in summer and during school holidays, when bodies are packed in like sardines. Beaches away from the main resorts are less crowded and if you have a boat you can visit small coves that are inaccessible from the land. Most beaches have municipal guards, first-aid stations, toilets, showers, bars and restaurants, and some have special paths for those in wheelchairs. Deck chairs, beach-beds and umbrellas can be rented on most beaches, and a wide range of facilities are usually available in summer, including volleyball, pedalos and boats for rent, plus most watersports. Dogs and camping are forbidden on most beaches.

Water quality

Many resorts have made a huge effort to clean up their beaches in recent years and the number of resorts awarded the coveted EU ‘blue flag’ ( bandera azul) has risen in all areas. 480 blue flags were awarded to Spanish beaches in 2006 (Catalonia and the Comunidad Valenciana have the most), which is around a fifth of the total for the whole of Europe. A list of blue flag beaches and marinas can be found on http://www.blueflag.org . However, some beaches are still dangerously polluted by untreated sewage and industrial waste, and bathing in some areas (particularly close to industrial towns and cities) isn’t advisable. The pollution count (which cannot always be believed) must be displayed at the local town hall: blue = good quality water, green = average, yellow = likely to be temporarily polluted, and red = badly polluted.

Topless and nude bathing is widespread and there are a number of official nudist beaches ( playas naturale/playas de nudistas) in Spain such as the Costa Natura village situated near Estepona (Malaga) on the Costa del Sol and Almanat near Almayate (Vélez-Malaga), while on the Balearic island of Formentera it’s almost standard practice. Topless bathing is permitted on all Spanish beaches, some of which have a section for nude sunbathing. Note, however, that it’s possible to get arrested for nude sunbathing on some beaches. Topless bathing is less acceptable at swimming pools, although there are naturist pools in some cities and resorts.

Swimming can be dangerous at times, particularly on the Atlantic coast where some beaches have lethal currents, but even the Mediterranean can be dangerous and several swimmers drown every year. Swimmers should observe all beach warning signs and flags. During the summer months most beaches are supervised by lifeguards who operate a flag system to indicate when swimming is safe; a green flag means that it’s safe (calm sea), yellow indicates possible hazardous conditions (take care) and red (danger) means bathing is prohibited.

The Red Cross ( Cruz Roja/Puesto de Socorro) operate first-aid posts on most beaches during the summer season. There are stinging jellyfish in parts of the Mediterranean and they swim near the beaches – 2005 was a particularly prolific year when warm currents swept thousands near Andalusian beaches. A comprehensive description and a rating out of 100 of all Spanish mainland and island beaches can be found on http://www.playas.es/.

Indoor swimming

Most Spanish towns have a municipal swimming pool ( piscina municipal), including heated indoor pools ( piscina cubierta) and outdoor pools ( piscinas al aire libre). The entrance fee to a pool varies considerably depending on whether it’s an outdoor or indoor pool and its facilities and location. Many pools offer reduced-price, multiple-ticket options. Opening hours may vary day-to-day and most municipal pools don’t open during the evenings.

Heated indoor pools are open all year round and most outdoor pools are open only during the summer, e.g. from June to September. Public pools in cities are usually overcrowded, particularly at weekends and during school holidays, while pools in hotels and private clubs are less crowded, although more expensive. For further information contact the Spanish Swimming Federation (Federación Española de Natación), C/Juan Esplandiú, 1, 28007 Madrid (915-572 006, http://www.rfen.es ).

There are strict safety regulations at all public and community swimming pools. Regulations usually depend on the depth of a pool, its size (surface area in square metres) and the number of properties it serves, and are established and enforced by local municipalities. They usually include such matters as water quality and treatment, and the provision of showers, non-slip pathways, life belts, first-aid kits and lifeguards. It’s usually compulsory to wear a swimming hat in a public or community pool.

Usually a lifeguard must be on duty whenever a public or community pool is open (very large pools may require two lifeguards). Note, however, that many hotels and communities have pools without lifeguards. It’s important to ensure that young children don’t have access to swimming pools, and private pools should be fenced to prevent accidents (also take extra care around rivers and lakes).

Most swimming pools and clubs provide swimming lessons and run life-saving courses. Spain also has many water parks ( parque acuático) and watersports centres where facilities include indoor and outdoor pools, water slides, flumes, wave machines, river rapids, whirlpools and waterfalls, sun-beds, saunas, solariums, Jacuzzis, hot baths and a children’s area. Most water parks are open only during the summer season, e.g. from June to September.

It’s important to protect yourself against the sun to prevent sunburn and heat-stroke, which includes using a high protection sun cream, a sun block on sensitive areas (e.g. lips, moles and nipples), and drink plenty of water. On some beaches a body spray service is provided where you can be sprayed head to toe with sun tan lotion. Even if you think you’re used to Spain’s fierce sun, you should limit your exposure and avoid it altogether during the hottest part of the day in summer (noon till 5pm), wear protective clothing (including a hat) and use a sun block.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
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