High School Grads Flock to Spain in Droves

Tens of thousands of German high school students travel each year to Spain, Italy, Bulgaria or Hungary to celebrate graduation in scenes that look a lot like America's spring break. A whole new industry has developed -- one that encourages them to binge drink and lose control.

The night sky over Lloret de Mar is flooded with the reflection of red and blue neon signs, but in the morning when the lights at Magic Park, Hollywood and the other bars and clubs go out, the town turns as gray as concrete. As the street cleaners emerge to clear the pavement of last night's excesses with road sweepers and humongous hoses, the graduates plunk down onto their hotel beds. Olli, the holiday host, won't be revving up his program again until 2 p.m., when there will be a get-together at Dr. Döner, where the buckets will be waiting for the sangria party. Anyone getting out of bed before that can always have a beer or Vodka lemon at the hotel bar. There are virtually no holds barred in Lloret -- and that's why they've come here.

These past few weeks, the students heard their teachers and principals say what all do when they send their students off into life with somewhat too much élan: You are the elite, you will be the cream of your country. But the graduating class contingent taking off for Lloret de Mar on Spain's Mediterranean coast put all that elite business on ice for the time being, and before leaving they make sure to book the booze at the hotel in advance, which is cheaper than paying each drink as they go.

Some 35,000 high school graduates from all over Germany board the buses bound for the Costa Brava right after their final exams: the nation's future engineers, dentists, federal police. In some cases, entire classes travel, in others they are groups as small as five people. But the goal of the trip is certain: most just want to drink some of their thoughts away, says holiday host Oliver Schwartz, 33, who goes by the nickname "Olli" in his duties as partymeister.

Life is simple in Llorat. There's sun, a beach, discos and alcohol. Otherwise, there's not much else going on here. Lloret is a supermarket for high school grads, and for five or six weeks each summer, the city's sole raison d'être is to temporarily eclipse the complexity from the new life they will have to face after leaving school. And the first steps to freedom lead straight to the sangria buckets.

Olli shares responsibility for complexity reduction in Lloret. He is the head of two dozen local holiday reps for his employer Abi4Life (Abi being short for Abitur, the school-leaving exams given at gymnasiums, Germany's college preparatory high schools), a firm that organizes tours for kids who have just passed their exams and graduated. By the end of the summer season, as many as 8,000 high school graduates from Germany will have visited Lloret.

Getting the Party Started

Olli, who sports a goatee, is the kind of guy who is never down at the mouth -- he gets along with everyone and he's the life of the party. When on Saturdays and Tuesdays the coaches jolt into the city loaded with thousands of students from Berlin, Cologne and Leipzig and other German cities, he climbs into each coach to welcome them and holler out his notion of a happy holiday: "We don't party here, we escalate!" The graduates then throw their arms into the air, hollering gleefully. Escalation is Olli's favorite word, and he likes to use it in the buses, during the afternoon at the sangria party and evenings during the tequila rampage at the Aztek disco.

Here, escalation means getting out of control. It's the word of the summer, too, the holiday aim for graduates staying at all-inclusive, three- and four-star hotels. And its an open question when the "escalation" should end or whether these young people are even capable of pulling themselves back together.

The city has been popular with tourists looking for an inexpensive vacation since the 1950s. Package tour operaters, however, didn't discover it until the end of the 1990s, when they were looking to develop a new party package tour market for young adults on a tight budget. It's a market that has been growing ever since. Graduates willing to share a room with others and the cheapest available hotel, can come here for a week, bus fare included, for €159 ($225).

The student-laden coaches are bound not only for Spain, but also for party enclaves in Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria. They tend to function just like Lloret de Mar, where even inebriated 18-year-olds can't cause much of a mess or damage, because most of the town is made of concrete or is either washable or so cheap it can be replaced at little expense.

The tour operators offering these packages are playing with the graduates' desire for excess, loss of control and the wish for a bit of freedom between graduation and the start of the rest of their lives. They've put up posters like "Once in a Lifetime" in the discos around town -- and that's the feeling they are trying to create, too: the best possible one-time post graduation party these visitors can imagine and one they will never forget.

"Drink, You Pigs!"

According to holiday host Olli, the days start to blur here after a while. It's just after 2 p.m. and Olli delivers a bucket of sangria to a group of graduates at Dr. Döner, calling out, "Drink, you pigs!" The plastic buckets, which look like normal household trash bins picked up from IKEA, are filled with sangra, orance slices and ice.

The typical afternoon looks like this: After about 10 minutes the students start putting together straws until they are meters long. After 20 minutes, the graduates start singing, which eventually turns into raucous bawling. After a half-hour, they're already dancing on the tables and chairs. "With a little luck," Olli says, "someone will take their pants off." His predictions all come true -- except for the pants. One 18-year-old nudges the guy sitting next to him and says, "Maybe we should have eaten something beforehand."

With its 38,000 inhabitants, 199 restaurants, 93 hotels and 42 nightclubs, Lloret is earning good money from its visitors, but for some time now local politicians have begun to worry about the town's image, which is being ruined by the alcohol-imbibing hordes from Germany, France, Russia, England, The Netherlands and Italy. Lloret residents are getting fed up with the partying.

In the evenings, truncheon-wielding policemen stand around in the Avinguda Just Marlés, the neon-hued club mile, but the cops can't stop the excess -- or even prevent disaster from striking, despite an increasing number of local ordinances aimed at curbing the partying. In late May, a 20-year-old student from Osnabrück left a disco in the dark and apparently fell from the embankment. A passerby found his body a week later.

"If you look at what the tour operators promise, you think it's nothing but sex and alcohol here," says Lloret's police chief. "The young people think they can do whatever they please."

The city's tourism official tries in vain to direct the visitors' attention to Lloret's legitimate attractions, like the Santa Clotilde gardens, the art nouveau cemetary, the popular Nordic walking trend or even the recently opened maritime museum. "Ich don't know a single person who goes to the museum," says Olli. He says three graduates were recently caught pulling a fish out of a hotel aquarium and trying to put it into a sink filled with vodka, but beyond that they showed little interest in oceanography.

In the late afternoon, the whole graduating class of Mittweida High is lying on the sand around a couple of crushed beer cans by the volleyball net. Three-hundred-meters further down the beach, graduates of Syke High are sleeping off last night's revelry next to the trash cans.

The "Tequila Rampage"

In the evening they shovel noodles or croquettes from shiny steel tubs onto their plates at the hotels. The nightlife begins on the hotel balconies, small stages on which four or five kids congregate and swig a toast to the other clusters on the stages opposite with beer cans and boxed wine. At half past nine, the group leaders assemble the students in their hotels and then head over to the Aztek for the "tequila rampage," as Olli calls it, which involves the holiday reps' pouring liquor from above into the students' mouths.

There's a fat little man standing in the street in front of the Aztek fiddling with a couple of €50 bills in his hand. Graham, 53, is the manager of the Aztek, the Londoner, plus one other bar and a hamburger joint. Originally from Britain, he came to Lloret in the 1970s and was among the entrepreneurs who transformed the little Mediterranean town into a party enclave for teenagers. Graham complains that the municipal authorities give the disco owners a hard time. "In the old days you could do whatever you wanted here, now it's harder though." Still, he also says Lloret will keep on partying -- no matter what the police chief and mayor say, no matter how many more ordinances are imposed.

He will not forego the money the teens bring with them, especially since they come before the peak season. Residents of Lloret want peace and quiet, but they also want money -- and excess might trump calm in the end.

The night's now at its high point and the young travelers have arrived at the main destination of the evening. One graduate stumbles out of the Tropics club and pukes on the sidewalk. People standing around him clap. He's already reached his goal, but the others will continue to escalate.