The Spanish sobremesa - how they do a long lunch in Spain

The sobremesa – which literally translates as "over the table" – is the Spanish habit of lingering long after the midday meal is over, surrounded by a detritus of coffee cups and bread crusts. The diners might have a coffee, a liqueur or a puff on a cigar, but otherwise it's all about conversation, at least if out and about. At home, the sobremesa is television primetime for the news.

The Spanish traditionally had their main meal in the middle of the day, so you can see how they got into a sobremesa slump, especially on hot summer afternoons. These days the sobremesa, like the siesta, is being eroded by the dictates of modern life and is mostly enjoyed at the weekend or during holidays.

The sobremesa is about the easy conversation and laughter that more easily follows after good food and wine. It's about catching up on family gossip or what's happening with friends. As a tourist, you'll be an outsider, but you can clandestinely soak up the sobremesa atmosphere in a tavern or on a restaurant terrace.

Scout for a good sobremesa spot by observing where family groups slump over tabletops, or where retirees are still bickering about politics at 3pm. Never mind the waiters; only in tourist traps will they attempt to move you on. Avoid famous squares for that reason. A local plaza is the ideal place to linger, as the sun shifts across handsome architecture, fountains splash and kids run about.

If you do get the chance to join a get-together of Spaniards, expect the conversation to have the volume of a flock of excitable galahs. Don't hesitate to interrupt, talk over others or let the conversation veer into rowdiness. Spaniards love a friendly argument, whether it's about Catalonian independence or how to make the best gazpacho. If a Spaniard isn't talking, check for vital signs.

As a tourist, it's hard to let go of the feeling you ought to be doing or seeing something. Yet sitting in a plaza is as much a travel opportunity as visiting a museum, and tells you more about local culture. Why not while away the afternoon as you gossip, people-watch, soak up the sun and clink ice cubes in a slow drink? A wonderful lassitude can overcome you, akin to enchantment.

What is there to be busy about when you have a sobremesa to while away your time in Spain?