It was Saturday March 16, 1940, when Spanish dictator Franciso Franco made a momentous announcement: at the stroke of 11pm, the clocks were to move forward by one hour. This decree, issued without consultation, marked the beginning of a controversial shift in Spain's history. The government promised to revert back to "normal" time at some point, yet this promise remains unfulfilled. Spain is still out of sync, 84 years on.

Geographically speaking, most of Spain falls just to the west of Greenwich, and should therefore be in London time (GMT, or Greenwhich Mean Time), just like neighbouring Portugal. However, Spain (aside from the Canary Islands) shares a timezone with Berlin, and that’s not a coincidence. Many speculate that this was a gesture of camaraderie with Hitler’s government, a clever tactic to align Spain with Germany ahead of Franco meeting the Führer.

1940 marked the second year of the Second World War and Hitler was busy travelling Europe and looking for countries to join the Axis. Guess who was on his radar? Of course, it was his Spanish counterpart, General Francisco Franco. El Generalísimo, as he was nicknamed in Spain, had clawed his way to power after the Spanish Civil War by defeating the Republican opposition and installing a dictatorship in early 1939. On October 23, 1940, Hitler requested a meeting with the general in Hendaye, a French town right on Spain’s doorstep. As expected, the Führer asked for collaboration, but Franco, knowing the state in which his country was left after the bloodiest chapter in its history, politely declined. Yet, despite everything, Spain stuck to Berlin time throughout the war and never turned the clock back.

This ‘out of whack’ time is the reason the Spanish famously do everything so late. Compared to other European countries, Spaniards have their meals at least one or two hours later. This is because of the discrepancy between solar time and official time, which, depending on the season, can reach up to three hours. If their solar time and official time were in sync, Spanish people would have their meals around the same time as the rest of Europe.

Spaniards eat dinner around 9-11pm

While we're on the topic of time in Spain, we might as well tell you about the now-extinct profession of el sereno. This enigmatic figure once held a prominent place in the historical landscapes of Spain and certain South American countries, offering a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.

Dating back to the 18th Century, these guardians of the night were entrusted with regulating street lighting and announcing the time and weather variations. They were also in possession of the spare house keys for the districts they guarded. The requirements for becoming a sereno included a minimum height of five feet (average male height then), age between 20 and 40 years, robustness, and a strong, clear voice.

The name 'sereno' comes precisely from calling out variations in the weather. On the hour and (and every half hour) they would announce: ‘Las dos y sereno’ if the weather was clear and calm or ‘Las tres y media y nublado’ if the weather was cloudy. It seems that ‘sereno’ was the weather report they gave the most often, and that’s how they became well known as 'serenos'.

They worked from 11pm to 5am and their uniform was as odd as their duties. It included: a cape, a lance, lantern, cartridge belt, cap, a belt with a club, a whistle, and a rattle to sound the alarm in case of fire.

One of the most curious services provided by el sereno was the "wake-up service." Back in the days when alarm clocks were considered a luxury and not everyone lived close to a church bell, many folks counted on the sereno to wake them up at the right time. With just a watch and a lot of persistence, the sereno would keep coming back, knocking on the windows with an iron spike, until even the deepest of sleepers were up and about. This was especially prominent amongst the fishermen who lodged by the docks and couldn’t hear bells ring.

The profession was active from 1715 until the 1970s, coinciding with Franco’s death and the end of his dictatorship. As Spain embraced modernization and technological advancements, el sereno gradually faded from the streets, replaced by police patrols and automated systems. Yet the legacy of los serenos lives on in the expressions and memories of a time when the night was watched over by a dedicated guardian.

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