Patio Interiores – The Neighbours Inside Out

Patio Interior

The above photo is of our patio interior, a glorified light-shaft present in the middle of just about every flat block in Spain, where light and air enter the back end of the neighbours’ apartments, and all sorts of interesting things float out again: sounds, smells, arguments…

We’ve heard wild creaking bedsprings at midnight, seen marijuana plants where now you see the geraniums, get woken by the breakfast sounds of the kids on the third floor at 7 am, and have to shut all the windows against the strong smell of cocido that rises for a five hour stretch every thursday morning.

We hear the screech of clothes lines as the chords are dragged across the gaping space over the horizontal pulley system, and the clatter of fumbled clothes pegs as they tumble from washing baskets to the ground floor.

It’s all part of the aural-aromatic landscape of life in Spain, and far from being annoying (except perhaps for the smell of a 5 hour cocido and the 7 am alarm call), it’s comforting, especially today, when all I can hear through my window over the patio interior is the clatter of refreshing May rain.

50 Replies to “Patio Interiores – The Neighbours Inside Out”

  1. Ben, I am glad you enjoy your interior patio and the much needed rain also!

    I used to find interior patios very picturesque too, and rather nice.
    Mine was larger, because I was in a new building, so it was a different concept, but it was quite nice too, with a rose garden and kids playing.

    However today, I would not exchange my peaceful neighbours, large bay windows, views to the green landscape with tall trees and birds singing (and sun today) with any patio in the world.
    Been there, done that. I was happy then, but I am even happier now.

    I guess the main thing is to be “a gusto” where one lives, isn’t it? 😉

  2. Hi!

    Just started listening to your podcast today, really enjoyed the images of Spain on my commute to work. Cheers,


  3. Ah yes, the hours-long blast of cocido. Methinks you’ve got an atico too. It is, I’m sure you’ll agree, the very best apartment in a Spanish building, not only for the slightly larger terazza but also for having access to the widest variety of sounds, smells and other smells.

    I reckon that my wife and I are probably the noisiest people in the building (what with our 8am bickering about the dishwasher and our 2am impromptu iPod parties) but the neighbours get their revenge on Saturday morning when they play 1970s Spanish easy listening at top blast. I have tried to respond with Royal Trux but they always win.

    We also have a lift in our patio interior, which makes for entertaining viewing if you’re up for betting on which floor it will stop at. Though to be honest, since we got a TV, that particular activity hasn’t really retained much interest.

    Finally, there is a bar at the bottom of our building (as there is in approx. 75 percent of all built structures in this country). My greatest dream in life is to buy some high-strength fishing line and fish for the crates of beer stacked, tantalisingly just 5 floors below. Does anyone have any tips for success in this exciting sport?

  4. I loved the interior patio of my building. I can’t explain why really. I think it has to do with sharing a space with others and just knowing that people are so close around me. Although, I used to have to go downstairs and retreive clothing that I would accidentally drop onto my downstairs neighbor’s clothesline. Thank goodness I never dropped any underpants.

    It’s almost impossible to explain an interior patio to an American friend; they have no idea what I’m talking about, especially in Texas, where I live now.

  5. @Sara – I’ve lost a few socks down there! Now the nice woman on the ground floor brings them up for us. Though once a small awning we have on that mini balcony there tipped oily water onto her grandsons freshly washed white football kit… then she did NOT come up to see me with a smile on her face….

    @Tom – yup, we have a terraza out front, wonderful… if I related all the things I saw from there….

  6. The patio of all the many, many buildings I have lived in have never been anything more than depressing: aesthetically unpleasant, noisy and a reminder that indeed, I am NOT alone.

  7. Wow, that’s a very light and airy patio interior you’ve got there, I’m quite jealous! Mine is like something you’d see the Count of Monte Cristo climbing out of! It’s a real dungeon down there, and being only two floors up, I have far too close a view of some of the fallen underwear! Not pretty! Eeeek.

  8. I’ve always liked the interior patios. What a great way to get light and air into the apartment. For me the noise is just a nice reminder that I’m in Spain.
    But why would’nt you want to smell the Cocido?

  9. @Tom C (I hope I’m not talking to myself): Two reasons for not wanting to smell the cocido: (1) No one’s cocido is ever as good as one’s mother’s/suegra’s. (2) Even if it does smell good, you don’t get to eat it!

  10. Yes there are definitely advantages in living in an apartment block – shops very near, your bins are emptied daily (contrast with the UK where some weekly collections are now becoming every two weeks). However you are expected to be more careful with your noise emissions – remember that many living there will have early starts for work and won’t appreciate rock or rap parties until 4am. And, although I’m a fan of apartment living myself (perhaps because I’m too lazy to dig the garden) it’s not what many would want to raise kids in.

  11. The first place I stayed in Valencia had an interior like yours but my new place doesn’t and I feel cheated. I do have plenty of stuff going on out the front windows, however, and not being a peeping tom is almost a full-time occupation. The big windows in my living room look directly over the Ruzafa market and staring down on the comings and goings is better than any program on TV.

    I am a city dweller at heart and I wouldn’t trade apartment life—and all that goes with it—for anything.

  12. As an aside, we live in a small one-bed flat/apartment in Madrid, and my girlfriend is always amused to hear an outspoken relative continually and purposefully refer to it as an “apartamento” rather than a “piso”. My girlfiend explained that in Spain the word “apartamento” implies somewhere small, while a “piso” implies somewhere larger, and that the relative was trying to emphasise how small our flat/apartment is, compared to theirs.

  13. @ Bill: I had heard that the word “apartamento” could refer to both a studio flat and a one-bedroom flat.

    I think, but I am not sure, that it also involves a kitchen that is open to the living-room.

    But maybe a native speaker could help us on this.

  14. I really loved this post. Simple and descriptive. You completely brought me back – even though we never lived in Spain we did spend time in one of these apartments while we were there. I wish NYC was built more like that. When you see the care people even have about their window boxes on the interior, you know people care!

    mmmmmm… cocido.

  15. @Tom C – I love cocido, but the smell of boiling chick peas for hours on end gets a bit overwhelming!

  16. @marc, and what’s wrong with a little romance every now and again?! Such negative vibes you transmit!

  17. Sorry to stray off topic, but the mention of Spain and romance made me want to throw in a word for a truly delightful book, “A Romantic in Spain,” by Theophile Gautier. He paints a vivid picture of 19th century Spain, along with thoughts on the nature of travel in general, and in a style that’s surprising accessible to a modern reader. I loved it.

  18. when I first camr to Holland we (4 guys) had a room in a squatter’s house. It was a former hospital complex and our room was on the first floor, back side of the street-side building…. our only window looked out on “the shaft”.

    Well, we paid no rent, so that was OK. But our neighbors around the shaft apparently came from other countries and cultures. They seemed to think that the shaft was meant to be a refuse dump, so every day they all threw trash of every horrible description down that pit. And we were right at the bottom of it all.

    I always thought that the purpose of this part of a building was ventilation; it looks like the Spanish understand this too. Apparently there are many others in the world who do not get the concept.

  19. Hey Ben, congratulations for your fantastic blog!
    Keep up the good work, you have an amazing way to transmit the real essence of my country! And all those comments about your romantic-so perfect idea of Spain well, when I was living in UK (i spent one year working up there, in the north of england) everybody asked me when i said i was a spaniard WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!!
    Like If i was totally mad or a potentially running from the law killer. hehe

    I think the problem is not that Spain is that ‘so perfect’ maybe the brits doesn’t realised that they have good things too there and tends to blame the weather (which is not that bad if we compared it to northern spain is even rainier here!!), the prices, the food, stop complaning and let’s celebrate come on! lol

    @hellothere and bill- Apartamento = Apartment: For a spaniard is a studio/one bedroom flat with open kitchen. Flat=Piso is a 2 bedroom or more.
    Also for the spaniards a second home in the coast is always “El Apartamento” despite maybe is three bedrooms or a duplex, is always “el apartamento en la costa”. Don’t know why is that way but we use this different word.

    Have a nice weekend everyone!

  20. BEN
    They are PATIOS. No one in Spain likes patios!!!!! How silly. Not negative, simply not dreamy-eyed. Only a foreigner could see the beauty in the miserable patio. (I am still laughing.)

  21. I used to study abroad in Spain and with my first horrible host mother I had a patio interior like that. She dropped my socks onto the roofs of other people’s houses which was very strange because we used a dryer. I think she was mad at me about something. She also used to smoke out the window because host families were supposed to be non-smoking, but the smoke would leak through my room anyway. And then I would have to sit and stew in a smoky room because I couldn’t open the window. Of course, after a while I got used to the smoke because in Spain –

    Then I moved to a family in the campo and I had the most beautiful view . . . I miss it still.

  22. @Mistress, thanks for your message and have a nice weekend too!

    @Sherry, your first host mother sounds like a total psycho!

  23. Great post!

    The flat where I grew up in Spain had such a patio.

    The cocido smell would indeed drift up. On nights when there was a big football match you could more or less follow the match from the kitchen by listening to the neighbours (goal celebrations, near misses, etc…).

    It’s true that it would be a bit noisy, but Spanish neighbours in general are pretty tolerant of noise.

    (which also means they expect you to put up with their noise)

    All in all, quite a nice environment to grow up in!


  24. The mention of rain in the patio reminds me of my first job in Spain – in Torre Madrid (that tall white building next to Plaza España). The office was interior and looked in on the patio, on the same level as the patio floor. However the building was so tall that the rain never reached the bottom! The drops would always hit the walls first. We’d spend days at work thinking the weather was dry, totally unaware that it was raining outside.

  25. Excuse me, I did not realise you were THE BEN CURTIS. How awfully professional you are. We must all agree with you lest we suffer the succinctly insulting (and asinine) “whatever”. I shall rephrase to please another Lavapies fascist (would be you):
    I will not log on again. Miserably unprofessional.

  26. @Marc, I’m sorry to have upset you so, it just seemed that you were being somewhat aggressive in your commentary. It surprised me that you were so shocked that I wrote about how wonderful patios were, as in fact I did nothing of the sort. I described ours, noted that they were part of the landscape of Spanish life, and that in a way they provided a comforting neighbourly presence.

    I thought about deleting your last two comments as they are downright rude, but you should of course be allowed the right to a reply to my frustrated ‘whatever’. Of course you have threatened never to log on again so I presume you won’t read this. Saludos.

  27. @ Jon

    I have seen similar shafts from the windows of cheap Cairo hotels… everyone used them as a garbage dump, and the rats were having a field day.

    @ Ben

    These patios remind me a bit of apartment blocks (Wohnkasernen) in Germany. Even the persianas are the same. BTW, I like the triangular balconies on the right!

  28. I think he just wanted to lord us with his knowledge of the word “billet doux”.

  29. This post reminds me of an interesting story that I have about the interior patio of the apartment that I was living in during my last six months in Spain. I was living with an elderly woman at the time and this woman owned a cat. It was a large Persian, a very pretty animal.

    Anyway, both the woman and the cat had their respective bad habits: the woman liked to leave windows open and the cat liked to look at birds from the window ledges. Well, sooner or later the inevitable happened: the cat was “bird watching” from an open window and fell out into the patio below. I still remember the screeching sound it made on the way down. At the time, our apartment was on the third floor (which is really four floors up because the floors start at zero)… in any event, it was a long fall for the cat.

    Luckily, both the cat and the woman who I was living with survived the incident. In fact, after a small check-up from the vet and a day or two of rest, the cat was back to normal.

    I’ll always remember the startled reaction of the woman who I was living with when she realized what had happened: “Ay dí­os, se cayó, Chris, ¿me ayudas? Vamos…. Tenemos que bajar a verlo….”

  30. These ‘patios interiores’ are so much Spanish cheap massive construction built in the 50’s-60’s-70’s they have become a part of our sentimental landscape. It reminds me of my now gone granparents’ house in the center of old Valladolid. We used to go there each Christmas from northern Spain when I was a kid. The interior patio was just like that only made by red bricks. The smell of ‘Lechazo’, ‘Cordero’ and all of the music by the ‘San Ildefonso’ boys singing away lottery numbers (the big ‘El Gordo’) in the radios made the most perfect Christmas I can remember. I wish, for a moment, it was the 80’s again, for childhood is the sweet home of every man/woman.

  31. Marc:

    Aren’t you just a little ray of sunshine in this depressing blog about a man trapped, against his will, in this horrible country of Spain! I can hardly believe we are to be denied your optimism which makes Pollyanna seem like a suicidal manic-depressive in comparison.

    I think you either need to double-up on your meds or start a rival blog called Dreary Notes From Dismal Spain.

    I thought this was a great post highlighting a mundane yet revealing aspect of Spanish life (along with a cool picture I swiped).

  32. Chris:

    Your story reminds me of an old Paula Poundstone joke. Someone tells her about how cats always land on their feet. She replies, "Maybe you aren’t throwing them the right way?”

    I apologize in advance and let it be known that no cats were harmed in the making of this tasteless comment.

  33. Which reminds me of the supposed source of perpetual motion driven by a slice of buttered toast strapped to a cats back. Cats fall on their feet; toast always lands buttered side down. Set the above aparatus in motion and it should never stop.

  34. Just tried it – but only achieved perpetual motion until the cat and toast hit the patio floor. I think they landed on their sides, but difficult to tell from what remains.

  35. “How silly. Not negative, simply not dreamy-eyed. Only a foreigner could see the beauty in the miserable patio. (I am still laughing.)”

    And i thought I was the only one that failed to see the “charm” in those horrible blocks of flats. I have never tried living in one, but as one that loves peace and quiet, I know I would hate it! 😉 We were woken yesterday by a donkey clomping up the steep steps beside our rented accommodation, as it’s the only way of getting stuff to the top of the village, but apart from that and a few birds, it was very peaceful. We also spent a few days in a rural hotel outside Ronda, and the sound of the nightingales calling as you went to sleep was lovely, so long as you went to sleep, otherwise they call all night long and after 5 or six hours, it gets a bit monotonous! 😉

  36. @Frank – I think the charm is in the fact that in many ways the patio is in a way a horrible place. It exists in older (and often prettier) blocks of flats out of necessity: to provide natural light to the interior rooms. It exposes to our neighbours parts of our private lives that we might not want them to see, and vice versa, whether we like it or not. Perhaps intrigue is a better word to describe it than “charm”.

    Don’t forget Hitchcock based the classic “Rear Window” almost entirely on this type of scenario.

  37. I love the Spanish word “Tragaluz” – sort of means light swallower. Those tiny patios were often ways of getting light into homes that were otheriwse dark, as windows would be small or shuttered to keep the property cool. Light wells or tragaluzes were the solution to let hot air out and light in. Andalucia’s arab heritage means that these are a popular architectural feature in many homes here.

  38. As a madrileña living in the US. You just made me terribly homesick with your post today!

  39. In some flats the only light available is from the inside patio. We stayed for a week in Sevilla in what would have been wonderful accommodation but for the lack of daylight as we were on the first floor. (the ground floor had street access).

  40. @Marc – please come back! You sound like such a nice chap!

    Ben – do you also have to lean precariously out of the window holding a mirror to read the gas meter? We do. It’s great having mains gas instead of using the trucked-butano but I can’t believe that putting our meter on the wall below the patio window is really the most practical way of implementing it. If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, I’ll send you a picture.

  41. @marc
    “…naff billet doux.”
    With your knowledge of the French language you should know of Proust’s extensive musing on a public lavatory on the Champs-í‰lysées. Proustian involuntary memory makes no hierarchy of experiences; the interior patio is a rich sensory experience. The famous British artist Rachel Whiteread would probably see this negative space as a fundamental parallel to her work.

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