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One of the perks of living in Europe is the generous amount of vacation time - or was a perk. Nowadays, governments looking to cut costs, are cutting public holidays. Portugal recently cut four of its 14 annual days off, and Spain is playing with its calendar to shorten the long holiday weekends, time off that the prime minister says Spain can no longer afford.

From Madrid, Lauren Frayer reports on the loss of a much-loved tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND OF BULLFIGHTING ANTHEM)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The Paso Doble anthem blasts from the iron gates of Madrid's ornate bullring. It's a random Tuesday in May, and Madrilenos are off work yet again. It's a local holiday for the start of the spring bullfighting season.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CONVERSATIONS)

FRAYER: Sangria flows at bars in the bullring's shadow. People actually haven't worked since Friday. It's what Spaniards call a puente, or bridge weekend. When a holiday falls on a Tuesday, people skip work Monday - the bridge day - to make an extra-long weekend. Some offices close altogether. Even people hit hard by the recession here, like Clara de Jorge, 23 and unemployed, find a way to celebrate.

CLARA DE JORGE: I didn't have money to go away, but I still try to enjoy it. Just staying in the park, going to museums - everything is for free. So that's what I do, because I can't afford going on a trip.

FRAYER: But these long weekends are about to get shorter. Later this year, the government plans to move any holidays that fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, to Monday - similar to the way Americans celebrate Memorial or Labor Day. Four-day weekends will become three-day ones.

De Jorge says that's not enough time to visit her family in Valencia.

JORGE: What we do on the puentes is, we have a chance to get the car, get your family and go away for a few days. But if we have just like three days, we're not going to have that chance to go to the country, or go to the beach or whatever.

FRAYER: But the government says it's a necessary change to boost productivity and bring work schedules more in line with the rest of the world.

GAYLE ALLARD: I can remember working in the banking sector, and the problems we had being on the same schedule with other financial centers.

FRAYER: Former banker Gayle Allard is now an economist at Madrid's IE Business School.

ALLARD: People were working their traditional day with the long lunch. If they could kind of align working hours, drop the idea of the siesta, it actually might even be beneficial to Spaniards to work sort of a more compact day and week.

FRAYER: But aside from regular Spaniards who relish their time off, there's also opposition from the Catholic Church, which bristles at the idea that the Day of the Blessed Virgin's Immaculate Conception, for example, might be moved. Christmas and Easter would stay put, however.

Talks are underway to get the regions to agree as well. Different provinces here have their own holidays. Any given week, at least one Spanish city is on vacation.

And that's frustrating to outsiders, such as EU leaders in northern Europe - whom Spain is trying to court, says economist Fernando Fernandez.

FERNANDO FERNANDEZ: This is the kind of symbolic change which gives an indication of the degree of reform commitment of the government, in a way. And it's one of those things the markets love. They love to see that the government is determined to take unpopular decisions for the good of the nation.

FRAYER: It's also likely to save the government some money - and that couldn't come at a better time, says Javier Diaz-Gimenez, at IESE Business School.

JAVIER DIAZ-GIMENEZ: Every penny counts. Say it buys you half a billion euros worth of GDP. I mean, then you don't need to scrape it from education, or health care or other expenditures. So that's very nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CROWDS)

FRAYER: Back near the bullring, Clara de Jorge, says she's not convinced.

JORGE: We have these traditions, and we can't change that. People is very used to that. I don't think that works.

FRAYER: But de Jorge, like roughly half of 20-somethings here, is jobless. Shorter weekends come with wide-ranging labor reforms that the government is hoping might - just might - get her back to work.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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