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New York has the glass ball, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rio de Janeiro has fireworks on the beach and Tokyo has Shibuya crossing. In Madrid, we have the Puerta del Sol—Spain's kilometer zero where all highways radiate from reaching all of the areas of the country. Located in what is Madrid's Times Square, is a stately baroque Post building with a landmark clock tower called the Reloj de la Gobernación or the Clock of the Government in English. When twelve o'clock strikes in Madrid, all of the country tunes in to the Puerta del Sol and listen to the distinctive chimes of the clock striking twelve which is called the Campanadas de fin de año or the last bell tolls of the year. Curiously, the chimes of the stately clock are not the main attraction. Instead the tolling of the bell marks the rhythm for what really matters—eating 12 grapes to welcome in the New Year.
But how did this tradition of eating 12 grapes come into being? It isn't known for sure, but many believe that the tradition dates back to the early 1880s when upper class Madrileños began to imitate the French aristocratic tradition of dining with grapes and champagne on New Year's Eve. To mock this practice, the people of Madrid gathered at the Puerta del Sol, as usual, to celebrate the New Year in the company of other but with a twist. They would now eat grapes as a derisive gesture towards their upper crust neighbors while they celebrated the end of one year and the entrance to another.
In 1909, the tradition would now become more established and the grapes that are used today were then introduced into the ceremony that we now recognize today. This is because growers in the Vianlopó Valley in the region of Alicante had a bumper crop of grapes that they needed to unload any way possible. Thankfully, the timing of the harvest was such that they would be able to sell their grapes to people in Madrid in need of this fruit in time for New Year's. An added benefit this grape afforded people, in addition to its availability, was its thin skin which made this grape easier to eat within the 12 bell strikes at midnight. For those people that are able to eat the 12 grapes before the last bell sounds, they will enjoy a new year full of success and good luck.
Today the grapes are grown specifically for this purpose and they are grown in a very peculiar way. Today these coveted grapes have the protected Denominación de Orígen which strictly regulates how these grapes are grown and handled. One of the biggest peculiarities of this grape is that it is grown wrapped in Paper bags on the vine. For over 100 years, the best grape clusters are chosen on the vines and wrapped in paper bag that has an opening in the bottom. This was due to a plague of cochylis moths that devasted the grape crop at the turn of the last century. With their crops ruined, a farmer named Manuel Bonmatí Abad decided to try out the paper bag. As it turns out, his invention worked and not only had the bags protected the grapes from the bugs, but they also protected the grapes from inclement weather, birds and (over) exposure to pesticides.
Today, the grapes are still grown in this time consuming and costly growing process but the result is a unique and tasty culinary treat. Curiously, one inconvenience that these grapes have for people searching for good luck on New Year's Eve is that these grapes have three to four seeds which can complicate the task of trying to eat 12 in a about 15 seconds. The thin skin is helpful but the seeds make the endeavor of eating these grapes in time a difficult task. For this reason there are some shortcuts that people take prior to chime of the bells. The most common trick is for people to peel and remove the seeds from the grapes. A laborious task but effective in helping people get as lucky as possible for the coming year. Another way of cheating the bells is to buy tins with exactly 12 peeled and seed free grapes; this more expensive option is also the most convenient—no cleaning, peeling or removing seeds.
However or wherever you plan on celebrating your New Year's, be sure to have 12 grapes handy and, tune your computer, tablet or smartphone to rtve.es and watch the campanadas live from the Puerto del Sol.