The Spanish Melting Pot

When living in a place, I think it’s important to know something about it. I’ve been to countless museums, historical sites, and prehistorical archaeological sites in Spain. And while it’s been interesting, weaving it all together hasn’t always been easy. I needed a coach.

We aren’t taught much European history when we go through school in the US. Other than the fact that while so many of us have ancestors that hailed from Europe; in America, we wanted to do it our way. But connecting with the history of Spain became even more important to me after having my DNA done last year. I found out I have Iberian, Moroccan and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Yep, this fair skinned, freckle faced, blue-eyed girl has all that. Plus some German, Scandinavian, Eastern European and, yes, Celtic – Scottish, Welsh, Irish DNA (which is what I had always been told I was, almost exclusively).

So, now that I have skin in the Spanish game, I needed to understand Spanish history. To get the ball moving forward, I took a 20 hour lecture series on Spanish history from a professor of anthropology who specializes in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. And in doing so, it’s changed my view of every thing I thought I knew about my own history.

I won’t bore you with all that I learned. I’m well aware that most people would find sitting through 20 hours of anthropological lectures a real snore fest. So I’m just that strange, getting super jazzed before another hour listening to all this rich history that came alive for me in the retelling. And it opened my eyes to not just myself, but how connected we all really are. Whether we want to admit it or not.

Spain has always been a cross-roads of cultures, religions and ideas. It’s position at the mouth of the Mediterranean pretty much ensured that. But it’s also a place with varied terrain and climates, perfect for raising livestock and prolific farming. It’s mineral deposits, and even snow melt from the glaciers in the Pyrenees were shipped all over the Mediterranean and prized by the wealthy in the Middle East more than a thousand years ago. Spain is a literal tapestry of all the cultures who have come and gone over the last 3000 years.

In the US, we think of the Spanish people as dark haired and mocha skinned. But when you walk the streets of any city in Spain you see that’s a stereo-type easily disproved. People here look like those in the US, France or Germany or even Ireland. And speaking of Ireland – when I was in Galicia, the most NW region in Spain – I saw signs of the Celts everywhere. I was told there was a strong connection between Gallegos and those of the Emerald Isles. I had just assumed that Irish mariners had landed on the Galecian shores and settled that area. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Celts came from central Europe in what is now Northern France, Belgium and Germany over the Pyrenees. Their settlements reached far to the south before being pushed back by the Romans and eventually the Visigoths. But it was after that period that they got in boats and ventured to Ireland and Great Britian. So it was the Celts going from Galicia not the other way around. And they brought the bagpipes with them. Yes, the bagpipes, that are the national instrument of Galicia, Scotland and Ireland, didn’t originate from any of those places. It came from Africa where the goat herders used flutes and bags of air made of goat skins to make music. So it’s no wonder I have North African, Iberian and German DNA, if I have Irish DNA. Because the Celts brought it with them when they went from Spain to Ireland.

During this lecture series, covering 10,000 years of history, it started to become clear that you couldn’t tell the history of Spain and not tell the history of the rest of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East. The story even reaches all the way to India and the Americas. And all along the way, there were wars. The conquerors and the conquered. New inventions and technology. New religions and old ones lost to the sands of time. Borders were ever changing and it became hard to keep up with who was in charge of one region or another. Especially in El Anduluz (Spain south of Galica, Asturias, and the Basque Country).

And it got me thinking. Today, we see the rise of Nationalism going on all over Europe and in the US. I hear people from Britian say ‘Britian should be for the British’ and I watch some of the violence against immigrants in Eastern Europe on tv. In the US, the jailing of those crossing the Mexican border trying to escape violence in their own countries leaves me heart broken, as they are treated as sub-human. But if any of those advocating for these ‘nationalist ideals’ took the course I took, they would understand that there is no such thing as pure national identity. If they knew history, they’d know there never really has been. It’s a modern marketing construct with ever moving historical borders. And our DNA is proof.

Riding through Strasbourg, France last year – sure, its France today. But it’s flip flopped so many times that the people there speak their own unique language, a blend of both French and German. This is much like Spain with its regional languages and traditions, whose differences are generally celebrated nowadays rather than viewed with suspicion.

They say America was the ‘Great Experiment’, and there is very real fear that with what’s going on today politically, it’s been irreparably damaged so as never to recover. But after completing this Spanish history course, I think the Greatest Experiment is the European Union (EU). Bringing together so many cultures and sub-cultures. People who had a long history of fighting each other, and a string of wars stretching back millennia. With differing languages and values. But then they figured out they were stronger together. That they had more in common than their differences of the past. And they’re actually DNA cousins, after all. Is it perfect? No, but I pray it survives the current climate.

I think of it in these terms. Its like a person who has been ill. They’ve taken medicine for their illness for a long time and they feel better. So much so that they fool themselves into believing they’re not ill anymore and can stop taking their medication. So they do stop, and they fall ill again, much to their surprise.

This is how we are with history. We know terrible things happened. Wars, genocide, oppression and famine. But it’s been a couple of generations since so many of those things happened in Europe. And in the US, we haven’t fought a war on our own soil since the Civil War more than 150 years ago. It easy to believe things have always been how they are today – filled with relative prosperity and peace. But those things were hard won by people who are no longer here to tell us just how hard it really was. And our collective memory, and our attention span, is short. Like the patient, there is a cure for what ails us, and it’s peace and cooperation. Pretending the solution is the isolationism of the past will only bring disaster.

I was sad when the series of lectures was over. I’m a history geek to my very core. But listening to all that came before, it gave me hope for the future. Sometimes we have to take one step back before we can take a giant leap forward. You see it countless times throughout history. But I truly believe that in the end, we’ll realize that our futures, and those of our children, depend upon our ability to cooperate and to see each other as vital to that future and not an impediment to it. And I hope we do that before it’s too late.

Taking a Break

We’ve had a lot of family stuff going on lately and it’s consumed most of my energy. I’ll be heading back to the US soon to be in the mix. But before that, we headed out to take a little break. It may seem strange since we live on the Med, but stepping back is important during times of stress, and since life varies at different points on the Mediterranean (even in Spain) – thinking north and east – we decided some time away was in order.

Luckily, we didn’t need to go far, since everything in Europe is so close. Mostly, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. But this trip included some of my favorite things.

  • A Place I LOVE!
  • Ancient history
  • Lots of ruins
  • A favorite beach
  • Introducing Jeff to a place he’s never been

Tarragona is just south of Barcelona, right on the Med. It’s easily accessible by train so no stressful flight delays. This time, catching the train, we did the very Spanish thing and arrived right as boarding began. This means 20 minutes before it leaves (that’s when they assign the track). Highly unusual for us, since we’re always early to everything. (As though a train or plane will come sooner than expected). I was in a ‘I just don’t care, even if we miss the train we’ll catch the next one’ mode.

The other wonderful part of it is that where we stayed had ZERO wifi and the city has terrible cell service. I’m not sure why getting a signal was so touch and go, but it meant we were out of communication for days.

If you’re thinking of visiting – I would recommend visiting the Amphitheater first. There you can purchase an all-inclusive ticket for the main sites in the city. These include the Amphitheater, Forum, Murallas, Circus, Tower (Necropolis) and the Archaeological museum (although it’s under renovation and closed now – luckily I have been before). There are palaces within the walled city and other sites not requiring a ticket. I would highly suggest walking the entire perimeter of the walls around the old city.

The history of ‘Tarroco’ goes back thousands of years. It was a key city in the Roman Empire. Rich, well positioned, easily defensible. The city was a classic Roman city, and since then changed hands many times. Visigoths, Moors, French – it was so important it became a military target where empires invested in expensive sieges, and the very costly occupation of unwilling populations. As we know today in most of our current military conflicts around the world – it will not end well. Winning a war is one thing. Winning the peace is quite another.

No matter how many times I visit a place I always learn something new. Perhaps we filter information differently at different times. Changing our focus. But as an enthusiastic student of history, I’m always looking for new insights. This time when visiting the remains of the Roman circus, there were new plaques. They explained how the chariot races were were staged. How rich Romans paid for the races – gave away tickets for free – and their social standing was based on how many of the poor peasants showed up. Basically, just like today with social media and harvesting ‘Likes’. We are all still the same people we were more than 2,000 years ago. Our reptilian brains haven’t evolved that much. The Kardashians immediately came to mind. No matter how rich, they still need to be loved by the masses.

Another thing we learned about is that the social system in The Roman Empire was all about continually leveling the playing field. Rise too high – become too rich, too influential – and eventually, the state would seize all your possessions. They feared any consolidation of power through money and influence. But social breakdowns started keeping this from happening and the fall of Rome was inevitable as the peasantry rose up.

Jeff has usually, very reluctantly, embraced my historical forays, but as we walked through this history, he was struck by the parallels to what’s going on in the US today. Much like the Romans, we seem to be imploding; hoisting ourselves on our own petard. And walking through Tarragona, you are literally walking ON history. You can’t miss the buildings built precariously on the past. I’m not sure what their building codes have historically been, but some of these more modern structures appear to be perched – ripe for an earthquake to take them out. But so far, so good.

Anyway, it was a relaxing time away. Much needed. Who knows what the future holds. But whenever things get too crazy today, a little visit to the past is what my heart needs.

The Travel Bug

I was bitten by the travel bug even before I ever traveled on my first train ride. It started by receiving gifts from my Uncle living in Japan for my birthdays. And from my Grandmother who was a ballsy lady who traveled the world on her own in retirement. Neither seemed to be afraid of anything.

Then, when I studied German in high school I had a pen pal who sent me photos and described her life in the city where she lived. I wanted to go there so bad and vowed one day I would. It would have never occurred to me not to take my own children with me on adventures. I wanted them learn to love seeing other places, cultures and people as much as I did. I wanted them to have a passport filled with stamps and a heart filled with memories.

Fast forward, my niece Melody started expressing an interest in seeing the world. So when she traveled to Europe I knew we would meet up. And I just got home from spending a few days with her in Barcelona. We’re similar enough – of course she’s 18 and I’m an ancient 52 – but from the moment I collected her at Terminal 1 at BCN, we never stopped talking. It was like no time had gone by since I had last seen her. And did we have fun!

We walked Barcelona from one side to the other. Indian food, Moroccan food, wine, cheese, ice cream, we ate it all. She declared Spanish coffee and croissants the finest in all the world (Shhh, Emilie thinks so too but don’t tell the French).

We went to Sagrada Familia and saw Gaudi’s epic imagination still being realized over 90 years after his death.

We hiked up to the Teleferic de Monjuic (the funicular that takes you up above Barcelona to the Montjuic Castle).

We enjoyed street music and toured La Boqueria Mercat with the food stalls and colorful creations.

We went to Placa de Espana and admired the views from the Cascadia water falls.

We wandered the old part of the city and hit the Zoo. Yes, we did all this in about 48 hours. And through it all we talked and walked and talked some more. And barely slept. It was like a slumber party for 2.

And we shopped a little. She couldn’t take much more home after packing her suitcase with souvenirs and gifts for those back home. But we did pick up her graduation dress and shoes. And all the stuff she’ll need for Prom next week. Like Emilie, no one will be wearing the same thing at prom this year.

Then Melody expressed an interest in getting a tattoo. To mark her first trip the Europe, but also as an expression of her independence. She’s 18 now – for a whole 2 months. And she’ll be graduating high school in 2 more. She chose a parlour, based on the reviews online, and we went down there. She had already identified the art she wanted. A sprig of lavender – symbolizing peace. She said she remembered how much my Mom would plant it in the garden at her house, so she settled on that.

She was scared to do it but also excited. I was just there for moral support. It was her show. But it looks great and she’ll always remember she got her first tattoo with me on her first visit to Spain. That made me smile.

I dropped Melody off early this morning at the airport – she’s still en route and has definitely caught the family travel bug. My work is done! Then I hopped on a train to Valencia. Jeff met me near the station for lunch. So great to see him after a few weeks. It had taken him 37 hours to get home. His flight from Malaga to Valencia had been cancelled so they put him on a bus for 7 hours, and then promptly lost his luggage. He was smiling big when I saw him standing there, so no worse for wear.

We both had adventures and got to connect with family – Jeff was so happy to see his Mom and Ryan – the best kind of trip. But it’s nice to be home in Benimachlet where we belong. Travel is great, but Dorothy is right clicking her ruby slippers. There really is no place like home. And for me, that will always be where ever Jeff is.

Nou d’Octubre – The Day of Valencia

Every October 9th, since King James the I of Aragon sent the Moors packing south, Valencian’s have celebrated their freedom. OK, well as much freedom as people who still lived under a feudal system for 100’s of years following this conquest could. But the Spanish population, who were mostly Christians (Catholics) went from being the low men on the totem pole to those in power.

There is no debate here about the role of Charlemagne or Roland in freeing Spain from the Moors, like there is in Navarra. The Valencia’s are pretty sure it was this one guy and his lucky bat, who showed up right as his victory was clinched, that did the trick. You can see the Valencian bat festooned on manhole covers and futbol jersey’s. The Bat is the thing here.

Nearly 800 years later they’re still pretty happy about it. And like most celebrations we’ve encountered in Spain, if one day of partying is good, six days is just that much better. Nou d’Octubre is the biggest celebration of Valencian pride, and that is saying something since they have a month-long Fallas celebration in March, too.  But Fallas is an internationally renowned party celebrating the art of satirical street sculpture that attracts visitors (and pyromaniacs) from far and wide. This celebration is for the people of the region.

We had some friends in town this weekend – who brought more friends with them – so our group pf 10 dove in and we got a bit of the flavor of the festivities that actually started on Thursday the 4th. Like all fiestas, there will be people dressed in traditional dress. Women dressed like they were as Fallera, and men in both traditional peasant and in Moorish inspired costumes performing or just walking the streets.

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There was a Medieval Market on the Serranos bridge leading to the towers of the same name, selling traditional locally made foods, jewelry, soaps and oils and hand made candies. October 9th is also St. Denis’ Day in Spain. It’s the equivalent of St. Valentines Day. Here men give their lady loves a kerchief full of marzipan sweets to signify their affection. Knowing Jeff would forget his clear obligations to me on St. Denis’ Day, I bought myself a beautiful kimono in the old city. When I showed it to him I explained how I’d helped him dodge a bullet on this most important of holidays. He appeared unmoved at my generosity.

During these celebrations, old palaces that are mostly government buildings now, are opened to the public for just 2 days. Valencian’s like their bureaucracy so they need a lot of places to house them and the old palaces are the perfect spots. Large, open and with big rooms that once might have been used to house men-at-arms, but now hold large conference tables or councils. A gentleman working in one of them explained the hierarchy to us.

In Spain, there are 17 autonomous regions (like states in the US). Ours is the Valencia Communidad (Community) – a collection of essentially 3 counties (Valencia, Alicante and Castello) – who have their congress in one palace here in the old city. This is like a state legislature. Then there is the Valencia county (I’m not using the right words but that’s what it is) – that has it’s own council. Kind of like a county council back home. Then there is Valencia, the city (Ayuntamiento) – which has it’s own city council and mayor.

It’s a little confusing since the name ‘Valencia’ is a loaded one, but you get used to it. In terms of Palaces, each one of these government bodies is housed in palaces that are usually closed to the public, unless you have official business before that particular body. But one time per year, they open them up so that the average person can enjoy the architecture and the stunning art that is housed in them. Sculpture, centuries old paintings and architecture is on full display. It’s easy to see how the aristocracy showed off their wealth and power using their homes as canvasses.

There was music in the square and, of course, fireworks – both during the day and at night. I swear, if someone invaded this country the inhabitants would think any gun shots they heard were associated to a wedding, baptism or a fiesta they forgot about. You think I’m kidding but you almost don’t even hear them anymore when they go off.

My favorite place we visited, although it’s open nearly every day so it’s not part of this celebration, was the Church of St. Nicholas. I had seen it before but never ventured in. Yesterday, we were walking by it between Palace tours and decided to pop in. For 6 euros (kids are free), we got to see something that was truly amazing. It’s called ‘The Sistine Chapel of Valencia’. And ironically, the restorer of the Sistine Chapel restored it recently so it was visible in all it’s glory.  Pictures don’t do it justice and it’s worth the visit.

Parishioners, or anyone in Valencia who needs help with a problem, will leave their home on 3 consecutive Mondays, walking in silence to the church to pray to the effigy of St. Nicholas for assistance. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of charity. The legend has it that he used to anonymously give assistance to many in his community during his lifetime. The precursor to Santa Claus. Promoting the ‘charity is its own reward’ type of approach. This appeals to me on so  many levels and the church is clearly a masterwork in celebrating his life.

Finally, last evening we were just enjoying a quiet time at home when we heard a procession go by. We barely get up and go to the window anymore when we hear a marching band in the neighborhood but it went on for awhile. So random. And the fireworks went off shortly there after.

So we’re not actually to the real holiday yet and we’ve fully celebrated it. Now we’ll enjoy a few days of no grocery stores being open until we get a brief reprieve before Spain Day on Friday. It will be interesting to see what that is like here in Valencia. Will the inhabitants be fiesta’d out after a week of celebrating Nou d’Octubre? Something tells me there’s a fat chance of that! More music, fireworks and processions coming up!

 

More in Morella

We are home from Morella. Just pulled in after a long weekend of new sights, new sounds and ALOT of ground covered. Morella is north of Valencia by about 2 hours on a motorcycle. I’ve been interested in Spanish prehistoric cave painting for decades and I’ve never indulged in taking the time to seek them out. This past weekend that was to change. The area has sites all around it and they’re UNESCO World Heritage protected.

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We headed out to Morella and WOW! What a lovely hilltop fortress town in the mountains east of Peniscola. The road to get there was very winding – Jeff’s favorite kind on the bike. More bridges that only allow one car at a time. I was never so happy to follow a slow truck that choked black smoke all the way up the mountainside because it ensured Jeff went a reasonable speed. Cresting the last hill leading towards the town, the view is spectacular. When Emilie and I walked the Camino we saw so many hill towns with castle ruins that when I would point them out, she would just reply. ‘So what. It’s just another castle.’

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Well, even Emilie would have been impressed by this one. I like to put the things I’m seeing here into the historical context I already have. The Castillo de Morella was started in 950 AD. Yup, that’s more than a hundred years before my own ancestors hopped on a boat with William the Conqueror in France and sailed the channel to subdue the English forever.

We rode through the gates to find our hotel inside the fortress. Jeff’s absolute favorite thing is to ride his motorcycle on slippery marble cobbled streets, using a GPS whose maps don’t cover inside the fortress, and try to locate where we’re staying, not on an actual street but up some marble hand carved stairs. After much swearing and a lot of ‘You have to be FUCKING kidding me’s’, I was flashing back to Lleida and the Parador in May.

Here we were staying in an ex Palau de Ram that was built in 1462, 30 years before Columbus decided to head across the Atlantic and pretend to discover America. I needed to put Jeff out of his misery, so I hopped off the bike, put my phone away with the lying devil Google Maps, and got a spry little old lady with a cane to lead me up some steep marble steps to the front door. Even with the cane she was faster than me. Sometimes elderly analog is the only way to go.

The Hotel is lovely and the rooms have stunning views. The sunrise and the fog over the hills in the valley made getting up early these past couple of days a treat. And the quiet? Ah, the quiet. It was deafening. We are so used to city noise that we lay there in bed with the windows open and just listened to nothing.

Jeff is always amazed that I meet random people, get to chatting and then get invited to things. One of my friends here in Valencia calls me a ‘Puller’. I don’t really know exactly if that’s a good thing, but she’s right. I go places and I meet people and then I end up doing something I hadn’t planned on doing 10 minutes before. This trip was no different. After arriving and getting a lovely lunch in the outdoor restaurant at the hotel, I met a very nice English lady in the lobby while trying to get decent wifi reception. She was there with her husband who was doing a sort of cultural exchange choir concert that was sponsored by the village.

The choir is a Chorus Angelorum from Bath and Bournemouth in the UK.  And they were singing at the Convent of San Francisco, and she asked if I wanted to go. Well, of course I did. I went outside and told Jeff, who promptly bowed out, and then I met the woman and some others in the lobby and off we went up, up, and then up some more. All the way to the convent at the base of the castle to listen to three Spanish composers sung by a British choir. The entire town turned up for the concert. They were very good – not that I know choir music from a hole in the wall – and I sat front row next to the Mayor and his wife. Afterwards, speeches by the choir director and Senor Mayor.  Flowers distributed,  then lots of glad handing and back patting.

I was introduced to the Mayor who, in broken English, asked me if I had seen their most famous painting. I had not and he said ‘Come’. I followed him to a little chapel where the painting was lit. It wasn’t long before the room was filled with choir members and the Mayor asked me to translate what he was saying to the group. Oh no he didn’t! I wanted to tell him I don’t have enough Spanish for that, but I just said ‘Vale’ and whispered a little prayer to whomever might be on duty listening to pleas from fools that night. He spoke and a miracle happened. An ACTUAL miracle, because I understood what he was saying about the ‘Dance of Death’ and the whole nine yards. And I did as he asked and told the others in English what he said. I even got the word for ‘Prostitute’ right and I had never heard it before. I guess context is everything. No one else was aware of this amazing moment, but that place has something powerful to conjure up that bit of magic.

I got back to the room and told Jeff that I had met the Mayor and all about my little secret translation triumph. He seemed unmoved at the monumental moment that this was.

‘So you like the town?’ he said.

‘Well, yes. I mean, I’ve met the Mayor and his wife. And the girl who was one of the princess type people from that Sexenni thing (the festival every 6 years celebrating the Virgin – get your mind out of the gutter). I’ve been here 6 hours and I”m connected now.’

‘Good. Cause we’re looking at some properties around here. I’ve walked the entire town while you’ve been out with your new friends. There’s a lot for sale here.’

I wasn’t surprised. Of course he was already looking at real estate. But I was a little put off by his depiction of me being ‘Out with your new friends.’ I’d been at a convent, for God’s sake. Listening to choir music. So many Hallelujahs and Ave Marias. I wasn’t up the street dancing at the local disco bar. To be fair, it was closed.

So we set up some appointments and viewed one house that stood out. It was 9 bedrooms and 4600 sq. feet. The cousin of the owners showed it to us and they don’t know how old it is. ’15, 16, 1700’s. We don’t know’. I saw a strange chain hanging over a hook through a small door with a window in the kitchen.

“Is that a dumb waiter?’ I asked the cousin.

‘No.’ he said, like he was speaking to a small child. ‘It’s a bucket. That’s the well in the kitchen.’

Yes, it has an actual open mouthed well – like you see in old movies – in the kitchen. They have running water but a well? I guess it’s a good back up except I would hate to hear ‘Timmy’s fallen in the well!’ while living there and that seems like an actual possibility. I’d need to immediately purchase a border collie – ala Lassie – just to be safe.

Amazing. So much potential. It was full of the heads of African animals hunted by the family over the centuries. That kind of freaked me out. I asked the cousin how long the family had owned it. He just waved over his shoulder again and again, said ‘Whew’ shook his head, shrugging ‘Nobody knows. Long time.’ But we’re heading back to the US and I told our local agent (oh yes, we have one of those now – thanks Jeff), that we would visit again after we got back. We need mulling over time.

We started for home this afternoon. The ride back was going to be filled with thunderstorms and rain we could see from the ramparts of the castle. We were not equipped for this eventuality because when we left Valencia the temperature was on the first floor of Hell. So we traveled in our summer riding gear. But today, by the time we got from Morella to Sant Mateu the heavens opened up. When I saw the lightning and heard the thunder I tapped Jeff on the shoulder, pointed at the church and urgently shook my finger. We headed into the village to try to find a coffee place to wait it out.

No such luck. We were getting soaked and watching the sky light up. Finally, we came around a corner and I spotted a place filled with people. It had umbrellas and tables outside, so Jeff quickly parked and we hopped off and ran inside. The entire place turned to look at us and went silent. Like 30 people gathered around tables playing cards with characters I didn’t recognize, with a bar in the back. I know we looked like drown rats or deer caught in the headlights – take your pick. The barman broke the tension by waving to us and came around the bar directing us to sit so we could dry out. He got me a coffee and Jeff a Coke. It was then that Jeff realized we were not in a cafe, but in the meeting place for the Order of Montesa. There were flags on the walls festooning the space with the name, with crests and coats of arms. This was their clubhouse.

I didn’t know what it was so I looked it up. It’s a fraternal military order that dates back to the 1200’s. These guys are related to the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar were all famously slaughtered on Friday October 13th (hence the superstition), but these guys were part of an Aragon branch and were exempted as ‘Innocents’ during the trials that followed. Sant Mateu was part of the kingdom of Aragon before Spain was Spain. But they were still ‘suppressed’ after the purges of their brethren in 1312.

I don’t know much about it all, but I do know that we were so grateful that they took us in and provide us safe harbor in a lightning storm, until we could get back on the road. We’re home now. Safe and dry and getting ready to pack for our trip back to the US. But nothing like a little adventure before we fly away. Complete with castles, new friends and knights. What more could we ask for?

The Opera House

Before living here, Spain and artistic patronage weren’t something I connected. But this is due only to my own ignorance and inexperience, because I was completely wrong. And I’ve spent the better part of the last few month disavowing myself of my previous prejudices. Sure, I’d been to the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL. And I’d been to the Sagrada Familia and seen more of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. But it was all disconnected. Now I’m putting it together for myself, and it’s been an educational journey.

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Yesterday, I went with some friends to tour the Palau de les Arts Riena Sofia – or the Queen Sofia Opera House. This stunning piece of architecture, designed by Valencian Santiago Calatrava, sits in the City of Arts and Sciences and is the jewel in it’s crown. A fitting description because the building is meant to depict a classical Grecian helmet – ala Sparta. And it does just that.  And the City of Arts and Sciences is a marvel that puts Valencia right up there with some of the great architectural jewels in the Spanish crown.

The building is constructed of white concrete and it reflects the light of the Valencian sun. It sits in pools of blue water, that make it appear to be floating up on a beach after battle. the ‘feather’ that anchors the helmet to the ground is a cantilever that supports the weight of the entire structure with just one piece that attaches to the center of the roof of the building. To say it’s bold doesn’t do it justice. To say its a work of art is just stating the obvious.

Placido Domingo – the famous tenor – has a special relationship with the company and every year he comes and selects 10 students who apply from all over the world to study there for free. I loved hearing how they not only put on world class operas but also support the next generation of artists. Next to the Opera House is the Berklee School of Music (think Boston) – it’s their only campus outside of the US. Students come to study in Valencia for a year and soak up the culture. They use the smaller halls and auditoriums in the Opera House to put on nearly free concerts all throughout the year.

The building itself incorporates elements indicative of Valencia. Ceramics are everywhere. The building is tiled in locally made tiles and the door handles are classical images of male and female made by local ceramic houses.

The acoustics in the main hall are considered perfect and the large auditorium is second only to the Met in NYC for it’s size and the number of people it can accomodate for a performance. Its seats each have a screen that allows the patron to select the language they wish to use for translating the particular opera. Thereby accommodating anyone who decides that Carmen or La Taviata are a must see, but have no idea what the performers are saying.

The peace of the building, and the calm of the cafe experience on the deck by the pools afterwards were interrupted as I was trying to catch a taxi at the circle on Carrer de l’Alicaide Reig. One woman in a car, cut off a guy in the circle and he slammed on his brakes, and was promptly rear ended by the car behind him in a serious deal. I don’t think anyone was hurt because they all jumped out and started fighting with each other.  And the upside is that I learned some new swear words and that apparently it’s perfectly ok to bang on the windows of other people’s cars while traffic is whizzing by, just to get their attention. Luckily, a taxi pulled up and I hopped in to avoid the fray. Just another day in Paradise.

¡Hola Madrid!

We took the high speed to Madrid from Valencia for our final days with Emilie before she went back to school. It cuts the travel time in half but still allows for beautiful views of wine, olives and this time of year, sunflower fields by the mile. All along the route it seemed the flowers were facing us with their sunny greetings. And the train station in Central Madrid is a botanical marvel itself.

 

I’ve not spent time in Madrid, other than to fly in and out. We are coastal people and interior cities that don’t boast a large body of water have never held sway with me for vacation destinations. But I must say, I LOVE MADRID!  And now, so does Jeff. And we walked about 30 miles of the streets, parks and museums while we were there. It’s a city so rich with history and culture it nearly soaks into your skin through osmosis.

We stayed near the Prado on the edge of Sol. The neighborhood is old and the streets shady and narrow. Gran Via and Sol are where Earnest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, drank (ALOT!) and generally soaked up the Spanish way of life he loved so much. Cervantes lived around the corner from our hotel and wrote Don Quixote while living there. Walking the streets, there are quotes from famous residents memorialized in brass in the cobbles. Poets, novelists, musicians.

We spent an afternoon in the The Parque del Retiro. It’s and incredible place, built for strolling on a very hot Madrid summer afternoon. Shade abounds and every turn brings new discoveries. The lake (Estanque grande del Retiro) where boats can be rented reminds me of a family vacation to Versaille. Nothing like tooling around on the water on a summer day.

The park sports a now defunct zoo from Franco’s time. But the cages are still there. And peacocks by the dozens roam free with their babies. I had never seen a baby peacock before but, as Emilie found out, the mother’s are very protective.

Madrid has so many monuments recounting it’s rich history and it rivals Paris for military and artistic exploits, and it’s pride in celebrating them. But Madrid outpaces Paris in the ‘Let’s put monuments and statues on top of buildings’ category. Here, they win every time.

The streets nearby the Botanical Gardens are shut down on Sundays so everyone is out walking their dogs, strollers flying and exercising like it seems is the number one Spanish past time. Again, we need to start running if we’re going to keep up. Literally.

We spent some happy air conditioned hours in the Prado. I had never been and had always wanted to go. Caravaggio, Sorolla – Valencia’s native son, Velazquez, Poussin. They’re all there. Portraits of Charles V and his many wives and all the Bourbons and Infantiles of Portugal. And the statuary is impressive. I have, however, reinforced my feelings about Goya. On my darkest day I don’t think I have ever been as down as the images captured in his 14 painting dubbed ‘The Black Paintings’. My first exposure to him was at The Frick in NY and his work in the Prado did little to change my impression.

Our dinner on Saturday night was to DIE FOR! An Argentine meat place near our hotel called ‘La Cabana Argentina’. We’ve now had the best meal we’ve eaten since we moved to Spain five months ago. The meat was perfectly cooked and the sides were scrumptious. It smelled so good that just walking in we were salivating after a long hot day of seeing the city. The service was first rate and we left feeling like we’d gotten a great deal on dinner after spending more than we have on one meal since we left the US.

Finally, it was time to take Em to the airport. We had a couple of choices. A train for 2.50 from the main train station at Atocha. The Metro for 5 euros. Or a taxi for 30 euros. So we took the taxi. With everything else, I wasn’t up for the stress of trying to figure it all out for the first time, while making sure Emilie got to her flight on time. So Jeff and I took the train back after we checked her in and dropped her off at security. I shed more than a few tears. Emilie was her confident self taking it all in stride. Next time it will be a piece of cake navigating Madrid airport transport.

So now Emilie is safely ensconced back at school (I got her text in the middle of a sleepless night) and we’ve had a great final weekend and cultural excursion in Madrid as a family. And now we know it’s a city we want to see much more of. I guess, like Ernest Hemingway, we are falling in love with Spain more and more every time we turn a new corner.

Moors and Christians

Last evening, we traveled to Torrent on the Metro to experience all that a Moors and Christians celebration has to offer. The Moors occupied Spain for 800 years until, over many years and after many battles, they were defeated by Christian armies from across Europe. Charlemagne is a legend in the Basque country for contributing to keeping them out of France and pushing them back south. But down here, the armies of Aragon were apparently heavily involved in tipping the balance of power from the Moors to the Christians.

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There is a long history and a lot of blood shed involved. One can see the influence of the Moors today. There are Arabic words in the languages spoken in Spain – including Spanish. And there are many, many place names in Valencia that are Arabic rather than Spanish. But no really seems to care anymore. Except when they all get together and celebrate the history and the battle that looms large in their history.

In the Valencian crest, there is a bat that figures prominently in the identity of the city. The legend has it that James I spotted a bat at the exact moment his army defeated the local Moorish army when he retook the city. The bat is considered good luck here. I was in the subway the other day and a bat was trapped flying around. I ducked as it flew past. The guy next to me gave me a Galic shrug and just said ‘Valencia’. I knew what he meant.

Valencia city doesn’t have a Moors and Christians parade themselves, so when we heard about the one in Torrent we decided to go. Torrent is a very old town. It has a tower that was built by the Moors well before the founding of the city in the 13th century. It’s church is stunning. Iglesias de l’Assumpcio is very old but is the second church build on the site. The first one was smaller and built when the town started. It’s main alter and chapel alters are awe inspiring.

We left the church and made our way down to the parade area. We bought some spots on the procession route and before long we heard the bands. The Christians go first. Each group is a local club that spends all year meeting and working on their costumes for the following year. Kind of like they do for Fallas in Valencia City. You can see how involved and expensive these designs are. Every year they start over, and since like most things, the interpretation is in the eye of the artist, they are loosely based on those they’re supposed to represent. There are people in Spain who study this costume design and make a living designing and making the kits for Moors and Christian celebrations and processions.

The Christians took about 2 1/2 hours to get through their bit. A Lot of showman ship, complete with horses and horsemanship that was truly amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it and they got very close to us on the parade route. But it was the Moors and their costumes that were the superior. If I was a judge, I would have given several of them the awards for creativity and shear Chutzpah.

The procession lasted well past midnight and then the fireworks started.  We were lucky to make it back to Valencia on the last train. A very pregnant woman explained to me (in Spanish) what trains we would need to catch and transfer. So we muddled through and got back home in time to get ice cream from our local shop that was open in the wee hours. Of course, you can get ice cream in the middle of the night here on a hot summer night.

Here in Valencia yesterday, there was the Battle of the Flowers. We’ll do that next year. We need to leave something for year two – but something tells me that we’ll never run out of parades and fireworks in Spain.

Fiesta de la Ceramica

Last night, I decided I would take a break from Espanol and do something fun with friends from Ireland and Spain. They had told me about Manises before, and Jeff and I had gone there on a Sunday for one of our ‘Metro Roulette’ outings (more on those later). But like everything in Spain, never go to a new town on a Sunday to learn more about it. Nothing will be open and it will be a ghost town except for a few restaurants around Sunday lunch.

So I was at a loss as to why they thought this place so special. Last night, I found out why. In July every year, Manises hosts the Fiesta de la Ceramica. Manises is one of the most well known hand painted ceramic producers in Spain. Sure, Valencia is known world-wide for ceramics in general. We have many museums and schools that teach it. I’m looking to take classes myself. But Manises is the pinnacle of artistry when it comes to all those beautiful tiles around doorways and the bowls and dishes that make eating already scrumptious food, just that much better.

They’ve been making ceramics in Manises since the Middle Ages when the Moors were still ruling most of Spain. In the museum in the town, you can see representations from every period. But even if you choose to skip the museum and walk the town, you’ll see it in doorways, parks, benches, EVERYWHERE. And it’s gorgeous.

And on the Wednesday night during the festival, every year, they have a parade. Wait! Oh yeah, this is Spain. And not just any parade, but the Cavalcade de Ceramica. Now, a cavalcade might seem overstated but it’s not. Because this parade is unlike any other. Sure, they have the bands and the effigies. They have the dancers. But at this parade they have truck after truck handing out, dropping, tossing ceramics to those in the crowd. And it’s lovely stuff and it creates a feeding frenzy like feeding sharks at the Oceanographic. And it turns out I’m not immune to it myself.

So I met my friends at the train station. I had totally overestimated the amount of time it would take me to get there. Like most things in Valencia, they’re 20 minutes away. So I took some photos and waited. Finally, we made our way to the parade route and found a cafe where a grouchy owner allowed us to take over two tables on street. I had no idea what was going on but it became apparent this would be our base of operations. We ordered wine to lubricate our ceramic-getting muscles and then we heard the music and saw the flashing lights. It was starting.

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We watched from the sidelines and saw the usual suspects of any Spanish parade. And then the trucks came and it was all out WAR! People climbing over each other for the best stuff. Those handing out the ceramics were in complete charge of who got what. They were drunk with power – even the little kids – I’ve seen it before at elementary school field days and free t-shirts. But that stopped no one.

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I lost track of my friends, as you do when it’s every man for himself. Luckily, I had brought a backpack and I began stuff it with ceramics. Pretty, ugly, practical, completely impractical? None of that mattered. It was like a sample sale – You don’t EVER hesitate. You just take home what they have!

My back pack was full so I looked around like any good improvising MacGyver would, and I saw a box and some stuffing that someone in one of the trucks had thrown over. I grabbed that and began filling it with more items as they came to me. OK, perhaps ‘came to me’ is not really the accurate term. Perhaps it was more like ‘Ceramics I procured after crawling over other people and small children.’ I did say it was a feeding frenzy.

At one point, another woman and I grabbed the same three dishes at the same time. The person on the truck had all three in her hand and I’m taller than most Spanish people so I went for them. A hand from the back of beyond reached out and grasped them seconds after me. I was a little surprised but undaunted. I looked down at my competition with the incredibly long arms. ‘Who did this person think she was dealing with? I’ve fought the sample sale wars in NY. These three dishes are mine!’

But then I looked into her eyes. She was determined but clearly a novice at guarding her loot. But then a voice said to me ‘Do you want to go to heaven?’. So I gave her one of my three dishes. I’m not a monster. But sadly, I felt no shame for crawling over children while free ceramics were being pitched from a truck on the street – hence the ‘perhaps not going to heaven’ part.

Sweaty and with a diminished capacity to carry, stuff or otherwise convey even one more piece of ceramics (they were in the pockets of my overalls at this point), I made my way back to my friends. They were gathered and sorting their bounty on the tables. My friend, Donna was amazed at how much I had gotten.

‘This is not the first time you’ve done something like this, I think.’ She eyed me suspiciously.

‘What do you mean? I’ve never knocked people down on the streets for free ceramics before.’ I said innocently, while appearing distracted with a woven bowl.

‘Hmph.’ Her eyes narrowed.

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But she’s right. It wasn’t my first rodeo in the social science experiments of free stuff and  crowded spaces. I found some more boxes to organize it all, and we had some tapas and more wine. I think our grouchy restaurant owner was impressed with my ceramic hauling technique, because I turned around in my chair and he had brought his two sons over to me. They were carrying more ceramics and they held them out for me to take. He stood behind them, proudly telling me they were his boys. I took the baskets from them and kissed them both on the cheeks. They turned red and he looked proud – I wondered how the heck I would get them home, But, of course, I found a way.

I was a little tired as the adrenalin left my body so I made my way home carrying my boxes and loaded back pack on the Metro. Jeff and Emilie were waiting for me when I got home with my loot. Neither surprised that we now owned two full sets of egg cups, when neither of them eats soft boiled eggs. But no matter.

I’m already developing my plan for next year. I’ll be better prepared, from the container perspective. And I told both Jeff and Emilie that their attendance will be mandatory since Jeff is tall with very long arms, and Emilie possesses the perfect temperament and attitude as the guard for our loot. Too bad it’s 364 days until the next Cavalcade de Ceramica, when we can do it all again!

Corpus Christi

This weekend was the culmination of the fiesta of Corpus Christi. It represents the 60 days after Easter and is chock full of traditions that are ruckus and confusing. We have no idea what so much of it means or why they’re doing it at all. Luckily, some of it was described to us while it was happening. But some of it was just experienced. We have no clue what that part represents.

Around noon, we walked through the square near the church and discovered a large crowd. Some of the people were crowded around a woman dressed in a fancy white dress. She wore a mask, so her face was obscured, and her head was covered in a veil.  Sort of like a scary bride in Phantom of the Opera.

A bit out in front of the church was a group of children dancing in various costumes depicting both the moors and others. We watched their performance (apologies for my short arms so the video is as good as I could get) and then saw the crowd surge down the street and lots of shouting. Of course, I had to follow the noise and plunge in.

Looking up, there were people standing on balconies. Over the heads of the crowd, I could see men waving clubs and shouting at the people on the balconies. Then the people on the balconies began shooting water at the men with the clubs and dumping large buckets of water on them and the crowd. Shouting and cheers were going up as the water hit home. Madness.

Then the men with the clubs, dressed in sack cloth and with their heads covered in leaves and their faces and bodies painted, passed by me and I was conked on the head as I recorded their trek. Why was all this going on? Again, no real idea. But it was really funny and the people seemed to love getting wet.

Later that evening was the procession. They put up chairs lining the route and you can pay 3,50 euros to claim a front row seat. We chose this as the procession is a long one. The man sitting next too Jeff explained some of what we were seeing. Again, the woman in the bride costume showed up and was accompanies by 7 men with black veils. These are the 7 deadly sins that tempt.

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The procession included the Eucharist carriages we had seen last week pulled by costumed ponies, and ALOT of little girls in white dresses marching in commemoration of their first communion. I’m surmising that the woman in the veil with the 7 deadly sins have something to do with being a physical manifestation of what can happen if one’s heart doesn’t remain pure and temptation creeps in.

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We met some new friends at this parade. Some we’ll keep in touch with. I’m excited that we have been able to participate in so many fiestas so far and it makes us feel more part of the community. And many of these happen on the weekend that it makes it easier to participate and enjoy.

 

Out and About

We are still discovering our new home town. Turning right instead of left, like we usually do. Looking up to find that we’ve been walking under some gorgeous, carved stone work we had failed to see before. It happens every day. Sometimes, we do it deliberately. Other times it’s by accident. We’re just lost. But getting lost is fun too.

I use Google maps a lot. Not just to orient my path on a particular walk, but to determine were we are in relationship to other things we are familiar with. Like playing the video game, The legend of Zelda, the map starts to reveal itself and we are expanding our range. It’s invaluable in finding restaurants and about a thousand times better than Apple maps that recently put something I was looking for out into the middle of the harbor. My finely tuned intuition told me that might be incorrect.

Eating in any city, for me, can provide challenges. I have to be gluten-free, not by choice, in a country that is the number one bread producer anywhere. I can smell it and there is a bakery on every corner, causing me to salivate. It’s hard and it doesn’t seem fair – but there you go. Life’s not fair, so I just deal. But for GF types like me, Spain is a pretty good place. Every grocery store has ALOT of GF alternatives and they label everything for allergies/celiac so I feel safe eating here. But I still struggle.

The GF gods decided to reward me and throw me a bone. We decided to walk through the middle of an old monastery to cut through from one street to another. We had never gone this way before and I saw a gaggle of nuns, which attracted my attention. I generally like nuns and they always greet us with a nice ‘Buenos dias’ and it makes me feel connected to the community. I’m not Catholic so I have no nun-baggage from my school days, like other people I know.

So we walked through between the school they run and the main building, and what did I find on the other side? A totally GF bakery. Yes – you got that right – 1000% GF. The woman at the counter confirmed it. So I bought a bunch of stuff and I ate the first apple fritter I’ve had since 2006 right there on the street. I felt drunk as I bit into it. Like food porn.

But I’m not the only one who has found food related uniqueness here. We were walking by a news stand and Jeff stopped for a moment, looked closely at something and then walked on. I know what you’re thinking. It has to be some sort of salacious magazine. I mean, it is Europe and they don’t seem to have the same puritanical ideas about the human body that we do in the US. Just look at the art.

So I circled back and Jeff followed. Since I know him, I was pretty sure it had to do with motorcycles or a sports car of some kind.

‘What were you looking at?’ I asked, scanning the hundreds of choices.

He pointed to the magazine that had caught his attention. ‘Beef’ was all he said. I looked at the vast stack and sure enough, there is a ‘BEEF’ magazine. Not Beefcake, but actual BEEF. A magazine celebrating MEAT. But this is Spain, so enough said there. And Jeff loves beef. So I guess that’s his food porn.

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We continued on our way through the old city and came across some things called ‘Eucharist Carriages’. I included some pictures. They’re very old and get refurbished every few decades. Some of them are centuries old and are hand carved and made out of wood. They were just parked in a little spur off the road that skirts the river. A nice security guard was keeping an eye on them. She explained what they were in Spanish and I sort of understood her – which is a miracle and something to celebrate unto itself.

These are waiting for the fiesta for Corpus Cristi to begin, which is coming up in a little over a week marking 60 days after Easter. I’m not sure what the significance of that is, except there will be another Fiesta with fireworks, of course. The person with the corner on the gun powder market here must be a bazillionaire.

Anyway, enjoy. When the fiesta comes around we’ll take snaps of the procession, complete with the new costumes for the masked brides we saw in the windows of some of the local dress shops, and share them here. Time to break out more of those fancy dresses and march down the street again. Along with the folks with the giant head masks and a lot of incense. And the crowds will be epic.  Just another day in Spain.

 

 

Hello Barcelona

Just a quick trip up to Barcelona to pick up Emilie.  She’s out of school in the US and here for the summer. This morning she’s still out like a light, after delayed flights out of Lexington for weather, and then a couple hours of mechanical difficulties in Chicago. I was happy to see her come out of baggage claim at BCN, at last.

This meant that our early morning train tickets from Valencia to Barcelona-Sants were much earlier than they needed to be. But we took full advantage of the extra time to see some stuff close to the train station, and of course, the royal wedding.

I remember watching Lady Diana and Prince Charles getting married when I was in high school. In our neighborhood on the West Coast of the US, we all got up in the middle of the night and watched our first images of a real-life princess marrying her prince. It didn’t work out so well. But when they announced her son was getting married, I was excited because I would be in a more acceptable time zone – eating lunch.

Emilie’s flight landing was supposed to be right in the middle of it – so I thought I would miss it. But as fate would have it, all the delays out of the US meant we were able to sit at the top terrace of the museum steps above Plaza de Espanya (Catalonya has turned their bull ring in the plaza into a mall) and watch the pre-game. And Jeff found us a nice cozy cafe in which to have lunch, drink champagne (he got a nice sized beer) and celebrate the nuptials while watching the live stream.

Holy Moly – that preacher they chose shook things up. I’m not a religious person but sometimes, when I lived in San Francisco, I went to a church that helped the homeless in the Tenderloin district. The minister, Cecil Williams, was famous for his rousing sermons and pleas of ‘Can I get an Amen?’. Very different than my staid, stoic Lutheran upbringing. So this royal wedding minister’s sermon was way more Glide Memorial than Church of England. The looks on some faces in the peanut gallery were priceless. I almost let out a spontaneous ‘Hallelujah’ or two myself.

Most people care about the facinators and the dresses. I was looking at the guest’s feet. Their choice of footwear with their outfits was the most interesting part. And I understand they handed out slippers at the reception so even the most daring guests, with feet shod in artistic tools of torture, could continue to enjoy the festivities.

Even our waiter was interested in the action. He asked me if that was my friend’s wedding I was watching. I said ‘Yes. The British Royal Family and I are very, very close. But I had to pick up my daughter at the airport in Barcelona so, sadly, I missed being there in person. They totally understood.’

At first, he thought I was serious. Then Jeff asked him if he’s heard of the Royal Wedding. He hadn’t and left to get our drinks. Jeff shook his head.

‘Does this guy live in a hole?’ he asked.

Perhaps he was right. This guy might be the only person in the world who hadn’t heard about it, but I found this amusing since Jeff cares about a wedding, royal or otherwise, not at all. But he knew I was going to be disappointed to miss it before we learned that Em’s flight was delayed. The universe put the puzzle together.

The train trip from Valencia to Barcelona takes a little over 3 hours. It was super comfy and the views of the Mediterranean are renowned. We passed by Tarragona each way, where we were originally going to settle in Spain. I still love it and perhaps we’ll end up there – or own a weekend property. But I just love Valencia. The people and the town still hold me in their grip.

We’re back home this morning, enjoying perfect weather after our quick adventure to Barcelona. And we have more sites on our list for next time. Until then.

Tribunal de las Aguas

A while back, I learned of the Tribunal de las Aquas. AKA The Water Board. No, not that kind of ‘water board’. There is no torture, and liquid never makes an actual appearance. But it is all about the water rights of the Valencian Plateau and the ‘Waterlands’ herein.

To recap, this is the oldest judicial body in Europe, dating back to Roman times in one incarnation or another. It’s actually called out in the Spanish constitution, post Franco, expressly and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural body. And in Valencia, it’s a sacred, beloved institution.

They meet every Thursday, at the Apostles gate at the side of the Cathedral, and convene at noon – precisely. Seriously, when the bells of the Cathedral ring, these guys ceremoniously file over and have a seat in their little ring. Ready to hear the important water cases that will be brought before them. The men represent the water areas controlled by the 8 main canals that draw water off the Turia River. Both from the right and left bank, the arguments are all oral, immediate and transparent. The representative from the water area in question abstains to maintain total fairness. It’s rules and laws are understood by all. And the ‘wisdom’ demonstrated by the Tribunal is sacrosanct.

I had told Jeff about it before, but he had never seen it. And since we were already in Central Valencia (Colon) at 11:30 looking at 360 degree cameras at El Corte Ingles. And since we had time and nothing better to do, we decided to go by the central Catheral, to the Apostles gate, and watch the pomp and circumstance of the institution. And we hit the excitement jackpot because they had a case. It’s not every week or even every month that they get a case. So it was packed.

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We got there early and watched the court bailiff and ceremonial head, set out the chairs. Each chair has the water area’s name embossed in gold on the back of the chair. These are placed behind a metal gated fence to keep out the riff raff – us. Then precisely at noon, the bailiff will lead the members of the synods from the palace across the street dressed in robes and carrying his ‘water staff’.

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After they are all seated, he will call out each area twice. In the video, you will hear him use the word ‘Denuncia‘. This is not a legal concept we have in the US. When a person has a problem with another person, or company, or institution, they can officially denounce them. This generally requires them to go to the local police station and file an official denunciation. But to file a denunciation under false pretenses is a serious crime here.

We had a problem with a car rental company a few weeks ago. They never gave us a car and they still charged us the fee. I was so angry and a friend suggested I go to the local police station and ‘denounce’ them. I was clearly confused and he explained that if I did that, I would get a piece of paper with the official record of the denunciation. I could fax that to their head office and see if that would get me my money back.

This sounded scary to me and I asked if there were any limits on it. Can anyone denounce anyone? The answer is yes, anyone can denounce anyone. But again, filing a denouncement under false pretenses is a crime. He said that when we file to renew our visa, we will have to go to the police station and get an official record and it will list any denouncements against us. I understand landlords can make them against you and you can make them against a landlord if there is a problem. Its strange.

Anyway, for the Water Tribunal, the one party – the one feeling like they have been wronged, answers the call when the bailiff calls out and asks for any ‘Denuncia’ for the particular synod. And today, the call was answered. The crowd, like Romans in the Coliseum in Rome, were ecstatic.  A case!

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Jeff and I had become separated. This happens often because I’m usually trying to get to the front because I’m short, and I like to see the action. He’s so tall, he can stand further back, and people hate it when he’s up front blocking their view. We had gotten there early as they were setting up so I got right up front. I looked over and Jeff was a ways away, talking to a tiny little old lady who came up to his belly button, who only spoke Spanish and Valenciano. I gave him a questioning look so he messaged me in WhatsApp.

‘You know I’m always a hit with the old ladies.’ he wrote – reference to our honeymoon cruise of newlyweds and nearly deads. He had been a big hit with the nearly deads at the Bingo games.

‘Who’s your girlfriend?’ I asked him.

‘I don’t know, but she’s determined that I understand what is going on so we’re using Google translate and she’s fascinated by it. A lot of pulling on my arm to say things and so she can see the screen.’

I look over and I could see her face through a break in the crowd and Jeff explained I was his wife. She said something to him and smiled at me.

‘She says you’re ‘guapa’.’ he said.

‘What does that mean?’ It sounded like Italian booze or that I might be crazy.

‘I don’t know – you look it up. I’m busy trying to keep up with her.’ She was pulling on his arm again.

‘Well, enjoy.’ And I turned back to the action.

We watched the case unfold. The President of the Tribunal had to abstain from this case because the party bringing the grievance was from his side of the river.  The Vice President led the questioning and the verdict was handed down. One party was not happy. The old man who won was gleeful! No documents, completely oral arguments and verdicts. No court record. And the verdict is final – no appeals.

I got out of the crowd and saw the old lady had absconded with Jeff. She led us over to the Water Tribunal museum across the alley, where she kissed us both and told us we were good people – in Valenciano. Then she left. I laughed.

‘You know it surprised me not at all that you attracted the smallest old lady in this square.’

He smiled. ‘Oh I know. She lives in Valencia and I think she just comes down here to watch on Thursdays for something to do.’

‘I think if you offered to put her on your shoulders, she would have done it.’ I said, shaking my head.

‘Definitely.’

So now he’s experienced the Water Tribunal and made a new, ancient, friend – and of course, he got the best one of the year so far. We agreed we’ll go back again in November on a cold drippy day, when tourists are thin on the ground, to watch it like locals. But they do put on a good show.

Siesta is the Besta

In the spirit of recovery and a change of scenery, Jeff arranged an excursion to Alicante. It’s a medium sized city south of Valencia just two hours by the slow train. It’s a great way to travel. The towns in between are sleepy and the ride is smooth enough that if a nap is in order, then a nap one shall have.

We got to Alicante on the early train and were able to check into a hotel before lunch. They put us on the 24th floor overlooking the castle and the sea, so the views were spectacular. The harbor was at our feet and Santa Barbara Castle was right off the balcony.

We got some breakfast and then I promptly fell asleep until 5pm. I’m fully embracing the Spanish Siesta in my convalescence. Jeff went out for provisions for a make shift dinner and allowed me to rest for the rest of the evening. The views from the window were enough to keep me happy. The sky, the castle and the sea. Sublime.

Santa Barbara castle at night

The next morning we awoke to a spectacular sunrise coming over the horizon. On my Camino last year, I saw one nearly every morning as I would leave the Albergues when it was still dark. This is one of the first Spanish sunrises I’ve seen since then and it didn’t disappoint. We sat on the balcony and had some coffee and just stared at the sea.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I’m living here. It can be easy to focus on the things that are more difficult. But sitting there looking out at the sea, I thought how much I wanted to enjoy that one moment. Yesterday is gone – tomorrow is unknown. That moment was perfect and I’ll never forget how beautiful the light was.

Jeff wanted to take a look at the Volvo Ocean Race museum in the harbor. It’s the largest round the world ocean race under sail, and it starts in Alicante every 3 years and the head quarters is there too. We learned a lot about the history of the race in the UK and it’s eventual move to Spain. Very impressive and we’re already making plans to ensure we’re in one of the ports when they come in. Brutal conditions but what competitors! Inspiring.

We had decided to tour the castle before heading back to Valencia on the train. Looking up at it, I thought two things. ‘How the hell am I going to get up there?’ and ‘If I get up there, how the hell am I ever going to get down?’ Well, like most things here – it was well thought out and organized. Honestly, the Spanish do not want for serious structural or civil engineering and creative problem solving.

Always a Festival - Alicante

Seriously, though, there is an elevator bored in the mountain, upon which the castle sits. You buy your tickets at the bottom and walk through a very long tunnel. They’ll take you right up into the castle keep in a scary elevator, where you walk through another tunnel to see the spectacular views of the bluest sea.

Or – you can walk up the side of the mountain like a mountain goat. Or on a causeway that is reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. You’ll save 2,70 Euros but you’ll get a work out and sunstroke. Always an upside. The elevator will take you back down onto the main street when you’re done.

At the top, there is a cafe. We stopped to have lunch and enjoy the views. The contrast between the yellow stone walls and the deep blues of the Mediterranean Sea were well worth it. The palm trees blowing in the breeze. Lovely. And, of course, it wouldn’t have been complete without a lady in traditional garb posing for photos. We have no idea what this was about but her clothes were reminiscent of the Fallas dresses we saw back in March in Valencia.

There were languages from all over the world spoken at every turn. I had never heard of Santa Barbara Castle before, but apparently, it’s quite famous far and wide. Hand rails were thin on the ground, and at several points it was easy to see how rambunctious kids, or adults not paying attention, could go over the edge. There were signs prohibiting selfie sticks – and then people standing next to said signs with their selfie sticks, doing what? Oh yeah, taking photos right at the edge with them. Duh.

Jeff has dubbed this country as ‘Spain – a place where you just have to use your common sense or you’ll die.’ I think he likes the idea of natural selection taking those without it out of the gene pool. He’s kinder than he sounds, but we go to plenty of places full of tourists doing stupid things and he’s a little fed up. In the US they idiot proof nearly everything – and look where we are, so perhaps he has a point!

It was a beautiful day and the train back was great. The train stations here are very clean, compared to the US. And well organized. I’m so impressed. We sat on the other side of the train on the way home, so we got to see both sides. Jeff began to point out castle ruins on the hill tops above the town. I think he’s caught the bug. I’m so glad – because I’d like to become a castle aficionado while living in Europe. There are so many varying kinds, from so many different periods and styles. Some clearly built and rebuilt based on their stone wall strata – that I’m not sure we’ll ever get bored.

Anyway, it was a lovely quick trip. One filled with naps, views and history. Three of my favorite things.

In the Neighborhood

This morning, after a coffee, we decided to head out and run some errands. But first we stopped off and visited a local tower that used to be the gate tower for the old city of Valencia. If people wanted to enter the town, they had to pass through one of the 12 gates that were built into the walls surrounding the city, first. But this was the main entrance to the city as the road to Barcelona and the road to the surrounding mountains terminated at the gate.

Torres de Serranos

The tower is called Torres de Serranos and it dates back to 1392, when they started construction, and completed it in 1398. The rest of the city walls and towers were torn down in the 19th century but because Torres de Serranos, and a couple of others were used as prisons at the time, they were saved from the demolition.

The opening ceremony for Fallas is conducted on a platform in front of the tower every February. So it is kind of an iconic and beloved landmark now.  And with the 100’s of school children converging on it as we were finishing our 2 Euro self-guided tour, it is clear that it continues to have importance in the educational history of the area.

The views from the many levels are stunning. And I continued to be amazed at how these structures were built with no real technology – as we have today. No machinery. It’s clear why tradesmen were so highly prized back then. Stone masons and their knowledge passed from one generation to another. The precision for setting stone that last for more than 600 years is awe-inspiring.

The stairs throughout the tower have been largely left as they were. Hand rails are optional – even today. One thing we’ve noticed in some of our castle crawling is that the Spanish don’t have the same need to bubble wrap everything that Americans do. The stairs are treacherous – but, Oh well. The ratio of school children to adults is about 25 to 1. The attitude being ‘Don’t jump or you’ll die’. Basically, just have some common sense. We don’t take that tack back home. There would be wavers and a lot of modifications for ensuring safety would be virtually guaranteed.

Another thing we noticed about gathering clubs, whether its school children, groups of adults in the park or just friends, people here gather in circles a lot and hold hands before undertaking something. We don’t have any insight into why but it’s clearly a cultural thing. You don’t see this in the US. Especially with adults. We never hold hands with anyone we’re not dating, especially if they’re the same sex. Maybe it’s our puritanical grounding, but here they communicate by connecting everyone physically and encouraging people to look each other in the face, and talking. Imagine – looking at other people in your group. And they aren’t praying, so it’s not religious. I would be very interested to understand how this started and what this seemingly pervasive ritual is all about.

But it must work, because none of the children we saw, after their circle ritual in the square below, were out of control or jumping on the ramparts waiting to be scolded by an adult chaperone. Unheard of.

So far, we’re loving how we can step out our door into a bit of history while just walking to the Decathalon to return a couple of shirts. It seems strange but we’ve never incorporated a walk through a historical site into a quick shopping trip before. But considering where we live now, I think it’s inevitable going forward. And it’s exactly where we want to be.