The Sounds of Fallas 2019

I’ve shared a bunch of photos of different things during Fallas this year. Mostly, other than the bands for the processions, it’s been more of a visual feast. But Holy Batman! It’s loud around here and you can’t really appreciate it until you’re there in person. But I’m going to try to help you get a taste.

Today, I did two things I swore I wouldn’t do. The first was to head down to the Ajuntamento and experience the final and largest Mascleta of Fallas. But my Irish friend, Donna, invited me out with friends she has in town. So I went. WOW! It was a visceral experience. Its not just an assault to your ears, but your entire body. The booms go through you and rattle your belly. You feel it through your feet. I can’t really describe it adequately so I recorded it and sent it to Jeff in Germany. He loved it! NOT. I wanted to wear earplugs I brought but those around me told me not to and to keep my mouth open or I would pop my ear drums. It’s just that bad. If you listen to the audio file it’s like a symphony. There is true art to this pyrotechnic orchestra. You’ll also see the Town Fallas – which this year was celebrating women and street art – my fav. Her construction costs about a million US dollars.

But then we were walking out of the square and came upon another BONUS!! mascleta that was being fired off by a local Fallas organization and presided over by their Fallera, who would light it. I took some photos so you could see how the fireworks are made (in a local work shop) and how they hang them off the ground. Each one is strung together expertly and they fire in a sequence. And it’s the loudest thing I have ever heard. The bonus mascleta was worse than the one in the town hall square because we were so close. I only recorded a little of it. It went on for 5 full minutes.

We did a few other things like lunch and a tour of my favorite church. Then drinks, and I started for home. Only I realized it was now 9pm and it was time for La Crema – The burning of all the Fallas. The infantil near me was being prepared to light up so I stopped to watch before the smoke got so black I abandoned my spot. It was still a fun gathering of the community – even though I disagree with the environmental impact of it all. And I learned the song of Alboraya that they sang while it burned.

Infantil La Crema

Now I am home. It’s a war zone out there tonight. I am adding one last video so you can hear what is going on outside my home. There will be no sleep tonight – I am very sure. But I don’t care. I ‘did Fallas’ today – like a local. Tomorrow we sleep!

Last Days of Fallas

What I said in my last post about noise? Well, I take it all back. Last night was epic on the noise front. Our local Fallas Associations were in full steam until late. I took the elevator down with several Falleras from our building. Some older ladies who had the sash from long ago with full regalia. And the Mantillas – both black and white. They processed endlessly around and around the block with a hundred other people from just around our building. Oopah! Oopah! Bam! Bam!

I walked into town for dinner Saturday night. Every Fallas organization was marching to converge on Colon (the epicenter of Valencia). Complete with their own individual marching bands. Our eldest son, Ryan, called me on the walk in. I kept saying, ‘Just wait until I turn the corner so I can hear you.’ But every turn brought me face to face with yet another group and their band. It was crazy. I had forgotten about this happening last year.

Another Group heading for Colon

Then Sunday was the HUGE procession for Our Lady of the Forsaken. I took some pictures of her before she was covered by all the flowers the Falleras would bring to her from all over the city. But there was no way I was heading into the square by the church this year. Been there, done that last year.

But luckily I got all my photos of the Fallas Infantils last weeks so I’ll include those here. Some of them are pretty cool.

But what happened last night was the best part of Fallas for me this year. We have a neighbor – I think she was one of the people who called our landlord on me for the Infamous Christmas Cookie Situation of 2018. They see me and barely acknowledge me, usually. I see their son come home for lunch several times a week and he smiles and gives me an ‘Hola’, quietly whispered. He’s grown about a foot in the past year.

Jeff left me with some seriously large fireworks. On the order of those he bought for our wedding reception finale, over the lake where we got married on. So they aren’t just small firecrackers. I don’t like setting these things off alone. It’s like swimming in the ocean – do it in pairs. So yesterday, after getting up my nerve, I gathered my fireworks together and knocked on the neighbor’s door. I don’t think they wanted to answer.

A lot of rustling later – whispers – and then the door opened. The Mom and her two boys stood there. They knew who I was but were clearly uncomfortable. In broken Spanish I explained that Jeff was in London and I’d like to light these fireworks but didn’t want to do it alone. Could she and her boys help me? The boys eyes lit up! Then I offered that if they would light them, and let me watch, they could have them. Well, that changed everything.

So at 8 o’clock last night they knocked on my door (prearranged) and we went out on the street. They had some loud firecrackers, but then they got to the ones I had given them. The first batch was lit and a crowd gathered. Another boy stopped and talked to the kid next door. Our kid (yes, I’m aware that sounds strange) seemed very surprised to talk to this kid. The Mom explained – Surprise! – en Ingles.

Apparently, the boy who stopped is ‘Cool’. Our neighbor boy is not. But this cool kid was very impressed with the fireworks they were shooting off and told our neighbor boy that he thought it was really cool he had such amazing fireworks, and he stayed for the show. We watched her very shy son smile from ear to ear. More lighting of things and blowing up stuff. Afterwards I said my good-nights and they all were very grateful. But it was me who was grateful and I told them so. I found a way to crack the ice that had been frozen for the last year.

So the things I’m learning how to do now are more subtle. The fine motor skills of learning how to fit in. I wasn’t looking forward to Fallas this year – and I’ve not made any secret of it. But it turns out to be a crucial part of my Valencian education. Kind of makes me look forward to next year.

Falles 2019 and the Environment: Shades of Things to Come

No matter how much you love Fallas, and people do or don’t to varying degrees, you can’t help but look at these amazing sculptures carved from hardened liquid Styrofoam, and not understand that burning over 700 of these in one night is an environmental disaster. The chemicals and CO2 released as they melt (The Crema), and the black smoke that will sit in the air for days (unless it rains the day after like last year) means breathing for those with a compromised respiratory system will be a hazard. And not much fun for the rest of us.

I’ll be posting more photos of those in Benimachlet and the surrounding neighborhoods further down in this post, but as we walked around this year we talked a lot about how, while some of them are amazing masterpieces, it’s a terrible waste and a nasty pollutant. Centuries ago, the Falla was a pile of old castoffs from the furniture or arts workshops in the city, that had been produced indoors over the long winter. Someone put some clothes on a few of them to make them resemble people and it started marching towards what it is today. A full blown design major at the local Uni, and an industry unto itself.

But there is hope. I’m not a fan of burning anything – thinking back to our Irish Christmas when burning peat and coal to stay warm made my stomach turn (Ireland is changing that rapidly btw). But burning polystyrene for no real benefit is just wrong. And it seems there are those of like mind this year. Some of the neighborhood Fallas associations have abandoned these unfriendly materials all together and have fashioned their Fallas out of unpainted wood. It’s a small group and they’re pretty cool. So I’m featuring them first, before all the other ones we saw in the last two days.

A full pipe organ built from wood you could get at the local BricoMart. Pretty amazing. And one celebrating the Valencia Fubol Club with their badge and the bat. Yesterday we saw another that would be a dragon when it was done, complete with scales – made of wood. I didn’t photograph it because it wasn’t ready but it’s nice to see that there are those getting creative with non-toxic materials. Sure, they’re still going to burn them – so that’s not so great – but they won’t be doing it with chemicals. Just the thin wooden dowels or cut plywood to create the skin of their creations. Everything is baby steps.

I wonder if next year we’ll see even more of these new fangled, eco Falla. Jeff wondered if maybe they have a new ‘eco friendly’ award category. I sure hope so, as I’ll be spending the night of the 19th as they burn, indoors with the air filter blowing. But still, this year there are some incredible Fallas. And I’m posting them for you to see – even though they’re not all completed yet. I was happy to see that most of the Infantils are up. So I focused a lot on those from multiple angles. More on that tomorrow. Enjoy!

You can clearly see there are three categories that each Falla falls into.

  • The local ones – like in Benimachlet. These have no corporate sponsorships or even local businesses sponsoring them. They’re my favorites because they are made with bake sale money, paella dinners and sweat.
    • The locally sponsored ones – where the neighborhood real estate agent, Abogado, or pub, pitches in some cash for a banner on the Fallas tent housing those working on the erection of the effigy. They’ll be a bit more detailed and larger because of the injection of cash. Their designer will be a pro but nothing like the next bunch.
    • The Corporate Sponsored ones – this is where folks like Coca Cola, Netflix, Mahou and a host of other deep pockets cough it up for something that will actually take your breath away. One we saw had a detailed mini version in plaster so you could see what it was going to be when it was completely assembled. Last years was equally amazing.
  • One other thing we noticed this year is the noise. Its warm at night and we like to sleep with the window open. Last year we couldn’t do that and sleep – at all. Sure, we were up at 4:30 this am due to some errant – illegal – fireworks at the crack of dawn. But we noticed that there are exponentially less booming fireworks this year. And the Mascletas aren’t as big as they were last year. I’m not sure why. We barely hear them in Benimachlet and last year they shook the windows.

    Perhaps it’s a combination of a couple of things. We are used to the noise here. The random procession with the full marching band hardly phases us now. Waking up to fireworks on any given Sunday tells us that it’s either a wedding, christening or a holiday we forgot. Or maybe it’s because we’re becoming true Valencian’s. We know our local Fallas group, who our Falleras are, and the number of days until the next major festival. Yep – that’s what it must be. And I’ll take it.

    Next post will be just The Infantils. This year the theme of those seems to be Love and Acceptance. After what happened in Christchurch this week I think we can use more of that.

    It Goes BOOM!

    Last year when we arrived in Valencia, we felt like we were inundated by sound. BOOMS! and POPS!. People throwing fireworks under the feet of strangers seemed to be common. And when sitting at a cafe you’d be jumping as someone lit a firecracker under your chair and ran.

    We noticed that very small children, maybe 3, also had fireworks and were throwing them. Sure, at that age they were just poppers that burst various colors that made pretty flowers on the sidewalk. But by 5 or 6, kids were carrying around lit ropes with which they could light full blown fire crackers in a crowded square. This usually ‘supervised’ by a man in the family. Of course, there were more responsible Dads or Abuelos in empty tennis courts or parks, but that was rare. Usually they were on the crowded sidewalk.

    Each kid had a wooden box hanging from around their neck that contained the fireworks. I mean really, who wouldn’t put gun powder in a wooden box and light a rope for their kids to walk around with? What could go wrong?

    But I’ll admit, I had box envy. Being self aware, I know I possess the maturity of a 5 year old at times. Only I prefer to categorize it more as a child-like innocence. Never losing my sense of wonder at the world. Ok, I like to blow stuff up every once in a while and I liked those boxes. But last year, by the time we got settled and had a spoon to eat from and a place to sit in our apartment, Fallas was over and wooden fireworks boxes were gone.

    Fast forward to this year and the mayhem has begun to ensue. The pyrotechnic stores are open again and El Chinos are resplendent with fireworks boxes with the red cord to hand it around your neck like a cigarette girl in old movies. And of course, I had to have one. Jeff took me shopping while I perused the selection. It’s taken me less time to pick out a wedding dress than my fireworks box. But now that I had one it was time to fill it.

    We headed to our local shop that has sprung up over night in Benimachlet, selling all things fireworks. They’re pretty much unregulated here so you can get things that I’m very sure could take off a hand or burn our apartment down, but nonetheless we purchased them. Bringing them home, it’s clear they won’t fit into my box. Which I think makes Jeff happy since it’s only little kids who carry these boxes. The adults have outgrown the need for one. If I go out on the street with mine he’ll walk very far behind me.

    Before he heads out on his multi-city journeys, we’ll light these off and enjoy the show. I mean, if you can’t beat’em, join’em. Time to get our Fallas on!

    Effigies and Processions

    The last days of Fallas are upon us. It started slow with neighborhood processions – my favorite – that are more homegrown and organic, and don’t possess all the flash of the grand processions with the 100’s of Falleras and Falleros marching to the town hall on floats. Or the one to Our Lady of the Forsaken at the Cathedral square to create her flower cape and dress.

    Below are some of the processions that we encountered by happenstance here in Benimachlet. One over morning coffee. Another an evening children’s procession. And then an irreverent adult procession presided over by our local Fallera. Why? Who knows?

    Starting on March 11th and running through the 15h, Falla are being erected all over the city by the local groups that raise money for construction, and build them in workshops in every barrio in the city. Designers are hired who have studied this at University. They are the real stars of Fallas, along with their pyrotechnic cousins with degrees in building and blowing up things during the daily mascletas at Placa de Ajunament. Since Jeff is leaving for London to hang with a friend – then on to Germany for a few days – and finally to the US for a couple of weeks, we decided we needed to go out and see what they’ve put together before he flies the coop and leaves me to fend for myself these last few days of Fallas.

    I’ve included some of what we’ve seen under construction so far in the following pictures. We’ve yet to tease out the theme for this year but I’m sure as more and more go up it will become obvious. My vote is Women’s Empowerment but some have been confusing so I’m not sure. Many of the larger ones are further along than those of less wealthy areas. Some of them have corporate sponsors and you can tell they were able to hire better designers. But we’re enjoying watching them all go up no matter how intricate.

    Each day this week, I’ll head to a different neighborhood and take more photos. I took them from multiple angles as they’re 3 dimensional and have interesting characters on multiple sides. I especially like the Infantils – those small ones that are done for the children. They’re usually very intricate and have a lot more detail than the larger effigies. They seem to go up last, for whatever reason. So stay tuned for those. But until then, enjoy what we’ve seen so far and I promise more to come each day before the judging this weekend.

    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!

     

    Mystery Meat & Other Adventures

    To say it’s been hot in Valencia this summer doesn’t do it justice. So hot that I have no tan. Because it’s too hot to go outside. Sweat dripping and hair plastered to my head holds no appeal on a beach or even sitting in the park. So I have opted for indoor pursuits and waited, and waited, and well, waited some more.

    Today, I was rewarded. The Gods of Hades took a day off from handing out skin cancer and wrinkles to those of us with northern European ancestry. We awoke to glorious overcast skies that look to threaten rain – but none was in the forecast. We were going a little stir crazy – like a winter in Seattle or a summer in Scottsdale – so we decided to take advantage of this brief reprieve and go for a ride on the motorcycle up into the mountains west of the city.

    Jeff mapped out a route and we headed out. A few missteps along the way – his ‘mapping out’ had been more theoretical than actual, so a quick review on our GPS and we re-pointed ourselves in the exact opposite direction and were off! We headed up to an area called ‘Parque Natural Chera -Sot de Chera’. It’s a natural park in the mountains that is protected but dotted with some small mountain villages that date back centuries. There is evidence that Sot de Chera goes back much further to Roman times.

    The castle tower in the center dominates the village of 400 residents – like so many towns in Spain. But here the setting is more dramatic. The mountains rise up above the town on all sides and are are part of what makes it so picturesque, while keeping it from expanding beyond its current borders. We arrived in the middle of the Fiesta San Roque. We have no idea who he was but he has a dog in his effigy – and we like dogs – so we were all in.

    The whole town was out for the various festivities which included decorating every lamp post, tree or railing with crochet bric-a-brac and what not. We walked up the hill towards the square after parking on the other side of the river Sot. The entire town was packed into the square bidding on home made cakes and baked goods with a fair amount of competitive gusto. The winners receiving boos and cheers, paying for their winning bids of 3 euros 80, and then triumphantly making off down the street with their Pyrex pan full of something that looked yummy. We watched from a bar across the street as those who won avoided those who wanted a sample on their way home.

    The town is lovely and the people are friendly. After walking through all of it in less than 20 minutes, we decided lunch was in order so we headed for the cafe by the river. No one in the town speaks English and my Spanish wasn’t at the optimum level today so it didn’t help that everyone who worked in the cafe was boozing behind the bar. But they all seemed jolly and I was able to order for us.

    I know that ‘Hamburgaresa’ is a hamburger. That’s it. That’s what it is no matter where you go. Except in Valencia we have encountered some issues with that recently. Emilie’s last week here involved us trying to order hamburgers at a place called ‘Bim Bim – An American Cafe’. It’s not far from our Metro stop and Emilie spotted it and we decided to go in. We tried to order the ‘Angus Burger’ but were told they were out of ‘Angus.’ That day they only had Zebra, Ostrich or ‘Crokodillo’ (yes, crocodile meat). ‘I’m not eating animals in a zoo.’ She said loudly. I thanked them politely and we left.

    So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our ‘Hamburgers’ arrived and they looked nothing like a hamburger. Jeff lifted the bun and asked me what I thought it might be. I said perhaps SPAM, but after one bite I was very sure it wasn’t. He had put the top back on and just started eating it. I gulped a bit and cut into mine with a healthy dose of ketchup and mustard and my eyes closed. You see, I believe I have encountered it before when my ex-Mother-in-law made some sort of tongue. I ate it then, and today, I ate it again. But I said nothing to Jeff.

    A rare photo of Jeff & his motorcycle

    Soon it was time to go and we had decided we would head towards Requena, via the town of Chera. We could see it on the map and while the mountain road looked a bit winding, the views would be spectacular. What we weren’t aware of is that the road to Chera is a one lane paved road that clings to the side of a cliff held on only by grandmother’s wishes and Angel’s tears. I have never been more terrified in my life.

    I had planned on taking video of at least part of the ride out of town and along the mountain, but it was all I could do to keep my eyes open while twisting around blind corners, staring down cliffs, and trying to keep the ‘hamburger’ tongue from coming up. Jeff seemed to believe he was in some sort of race that I’m very sure is hosted by Ferrari or Lamborghini – do they make motorcycles? – and took it as fast as he could. I was squeezing him so tight that if I had spikes on the inside of my knees he would have bled out before we began our descent into Chera.

    I truly was concerned I might lose my lunch but then I thought I’ll just pull up the face portion of my helmet on one of the hairpin turns and take care of it, if need be. It was clear Jeff wasn’t slowing down for anything.

    Later, we rolled into a very small village on another one lane trek (Jeff had mistakenly set his GPS to ‘avoid highways’ Ugh!) and I got some water. Was I a little pissed off at his riding on the cliff and the mountain road we were currently on? Yeah, I was. But I decided to take a different tack.

    ‘So, you seem to enjoy the ride to Chera.’ I said casually, sipping my water and swallowing a lot.

    ‘Yeah.’ he chuckled. ‘You seemed a little scared. You were gripping me like you were going to fall off at any one of the 100 corners. Why so nervous?’

    Deep breath. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I think it might have been the hamburgeresa that was sitting my throat. I was wanting to make sure it stayed there.’

    He laughed. ‘Yeah, it was a little strange.’

    I smiled. ‘Well, since it was beef tongue and not hamburger, that would probably account for the unusual taste, texture and smell.’ I said, taking another swig of water, watching him. ‘The vein down the middle gave it away.’

    Jeff, the least culinary adventurer on the planet, almost spit up his Coca-Cola. And the arrow hit the mark. I smiled. Two can play at that game and we both know each other’s buttons. I knew I could apply more pressure, but since he was my ride home, I decided not to press the advantage. I figured this newfound knowledge might just slow him down on the curves.

    We made it back to Valencia and Jeff navigated us home like a pro, through city streets and construction. Past busses and closed express tunnels. Something he would have struggled to do a few months ago. Neither of us are very hungry tonight, but it’s no wonder. We had our fill of twisty roads and mystery meats.

    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.

    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.

    The BioParc

    As we count down Emilie’s last couple of weeks here in Spain for the summer, we have been playing tourists. Not so many museums and more of the organized amusements that someone under the age of 18 might enjoy. Last week was the Oceanographic. Today was the BioParc. Last weekend we had gotten a coupon as a ‘two for one’ when we checked out at the local Carrefour. So it seemed like someone was telling us we needed to include the experience in our end of summer agenda.

    I’ve never loved zoos. Even as a small child I didn’t like that animals were in cages instead of where they belonged in the wild. I remember my Mom telling me zoos were good because otherwise people where we lived wouldn’t care about animals in Africa or the Arctic. There is a certain logic there. But it still made me sad to watch animals pacing around in small cement cages in the Portland or San Diego zoo in the 1970’s.

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    But the BioParc in Valencia is something all together different. Yes, the animals are locked up. But the design of the enclosures is masterful. They’re large and none of the animals are walking on cement. It’s designed to mimic their natural spaces from the surfaces to the plant life and each area is replete with animals that naturally live together.

    The focus of the park is Africa – such a close neighbor that our discussions immediately turned to planning a trip south as we wandered about. There would be no animals that shouldn’t live at the latitude we are at, or in the climate. When you enter, you cross a bridge that isolates the exhibits. It’s surrounded by water so it requires less fencing and hard barriers. Then you head down into the park and the first exhibit blows your mind. Walking through two separate doors to keep the animals in, you find yourself walking with lemurs.  They are everywhere, in the trees, at your feet, playing on the grass. They come up to you and you have to try very hard to maintain a safe distance.

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    Moving through the exhibits is so seamless, you hardly know where one ends and another begins. The flowing water from the cheetah exhibit filled with crocodiles is the pools where the hippos soak in the hot sun amongst brightly colored fish that swim from gaves into the water around them.

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    The gorillas were amazing. But it still makes me sad to see these incredible animals locked up. Looking into their faces that looks so much like us, it’s hard not to assign your own emotions to them as they look through the glass into your face.

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    Meerkats play and sleep in the enormous elephant enclosure with multiple levels and areas for them to explore. Running water is everywhere and they drink and play in a much more natural environment that other Elephant exhibits I’ve seen.

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    The lone lion pride with his only male lion were mostly asleep until he got up and stirred up the pride. He looked like he’d recently been in a bit of a scuffle and was a little worse for wear.

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    The design of the Rino enclosure was masterful. The Viewing platform had a small fence that gave you the impression that these gigantic animals could come and gore you at any moment, if not for the deep water barrier directly at your feet. That and the baby Zebra was a highlight of the day.

    We didn’t stop smiling the entire day. And on the way home we walked through the adjacent park where you can rent swan boats on a day that isn’t 36 degrees. Maybe in the fall.

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    I don’t think we’ll go back again any time soon, unless someone with small kids pays us a visit. But I’m glad we spent the day there as a family today.

    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!

    Fiesta de la Sweat!

    It’s been hot here. Really HOT! So hot that even going to the beach is a fools errand. You hardly see people out on the street. Spaniards aren’t stupid. Screw the siesta. The entire month of July and August deserve siesta. Just laying down and going into some sort of suspended animation – like a bear hibernating – except instead of a cave in winter its on the surface of del Sol.

    Now I know heat. We spent two years in Arizona in the Valley of Death. Not Death Valley – a proper name – the Valley where Phoenix and Scottsdale sit where you’ll actually die if you go out at mid-day for more than about 10 minutes without shade. We used to do our daily walks in the summer there at midnight or before the sun rose in the morning. That was fraughts with animals that would like to kill you and eat you, on top of the heat cooking you from the pavement beneath you.

    Here it’s just as bad right now – perhaps worse with the humidity. Yesterday I decided to take the Valensibi bike to my Spanish lesson. It’s on the North side of the city near the IMED (Four Seasons of Hospitals) so I have walked up that way many times. I know how far it is. But I was running a little late and thought I would use my GPS to pinpoint it and then ride so I wouldn’t get there after the other students. I’m having an intense group class with other Expats I know – just this week – so I didn’t want to be the last to arrive and recite my homework. That was a grave mistake.

    I swear the route doubled itself since the last time I went out there. I rode and rode and rode some more. It was awful. I found the back side of the building and then went in search of where I could drop my bike off at a Valenbisi bike station. The closest one was like a mile away. OK – I rode over there and had to stop 2 times on the way to hydrate while cooking in the sun at lights.

    Then I had to make my way back to the school and what did I see? Oh yes, the tram that runs blocks from my house in Benimaclet runs right in front of the school. WHAT!?! Other students were getting off looking refreshed from their air conditioned ride, hopping into the school to greet the receptionist. I was like a melting popsicle who just flowed through the door and left a wet spot on the chair. They all looked at me like I was crazy – they actually told me I was crazy – for riding a bike in this weather.

    I was telling a friend last night about it after coming home from the Mercadona having had to purchase a cooler from the El Chino next door to it before attempting to purchase ice cream. They don’t have A/C in their apartment and they’re dying. I told her I believe we are missing a festival here.

    ‘Fiesta de la Sweat’! Come on, it will be fun! I riffed some ideas last night but I’ve had time to mull it over and I think I’ve got the details worked out.

    • The Patron Saint of Fiesta de la Sweat would be San Sudor – He would be carried around in effigy having been carved from an iceberg brought in from our sister city in Northern Greenland. We don’t have a sister city in Northern Greenland, you say? Well we need to get one with all sense of urgency! It’s a festival, damn you!
    • Much like during Fallas when small innocent looking children would throw lit firecrackers under our feet as we walked down the street – under the complete supervision of their adult parents, I might add – in Fiesta de la Sweat, we would all throw water balloons and crushed ice on unsuspecting passersby off our balconies. Come on, it will be fun. And anyway, what are those people doing out on such a bloody hot day anyway. They deserve it. I mean, they deserve the refreshment. He He. And they’ll be dry by the next block anyway.
    • Chocolate would be banned during festival time. Children on the tram wouldn’t have melted chocolate covered hands and faces ready to wipe on you as they passed by to the only open seat when there are 20 elderly people standing with walkers and canes.
    • The official Fiesta de la Sweat drink would be Gin + Tonic, because as every sweaty Brit on holiday will tell you, it’s a restorative and it just works in every weather.
    • There would be no fireworks because no one wants to go outside to light them – Thank GOD and San Sudor for make that happen!
    • There would be the ‘Running of the Cubes’ where people would race each other in the street with large ice blocks over their heads while it melted down on them. They would sign up gladly as the winner is the one who can keep it aloft until it melts completely. Entrants would pay a fee of 100 euros just so they would have access to the ice. Nevermind having to run around with it down the street in the sun.
    • And finally, there is no Fiesta de la Sweat worth it salt (ha!) without a parade. This parade would only include people who I have actually seen, who don’t appear to sweat at all. Honestly, it’s like they don’t have sweat glands or something. Their faces aren’t red like mine, they aren’t fanning themselves, no sweaty bandana pulled out to dab their brow – NOTHING. In human, really. For the Fiesta de la Sweat parade, these people will march in colorful bathing costumes of their own creation (there will be judging). We will clap and wave at them from under our sweaty umbrellas or from our balconies. Then we’ll throw buckets of water on them or hook a hose up to the kitchen sink and spray them with water. They’ll love it!

    Of course, I’m in the early stages of planning for next year’s Fiesta de la Sweat – I’ll keep you posted on the exact dates. Oh wait! Or you could just watch the temperature gauge. When it hits 35 – that’s opening ceremonies day. Mark you calendars in advance.

     

    In the Swim

    Sometimes I still feel like we’re tourists. Yes, we’ve lived here for a while now but we’ve only scratched the surface of what Valencien – or Spain in general – has to offer. There are some top sites for tourists when they visit. All the fruits of the City of Arts and Sciences.  The Natural History museum, The Hemispheric or the Opera house. There is also the BioParc in the North of the city and the Oceanographic – Marine park – that’s a huge draw at this time of year.

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    On the weekend, we walked the river and ended up at the Oceanografic. It’s the largest aquarium in Europe and because we’re residents it’s cheaper for us to enter. My expectation were not that high. I’ve taken my kids all over the place and often, when we’ve been traveling to one city or another, on one continent or another, we’ve visited things that would interest the kids. Things that weren’t museums or historical sites.

    Once in Edinburgh, we went to the local children’s museum across from Holyrood house. I think Nick and Em were a bit freaked out by the bloody tales of Scottish Royalty, complete with i;licit lovers and stabbings. In retrospect, perhaps a bit much for children under 10, so they needed a break to just be kids. That was a pretty cool place but I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy it as much as I did.

    The Seattle Aquarium always seemed to be under construction and Sea World in San Diego was a very tired place the last time I was there. Thus, aquariums weren’t high on my list of places to visit.

    Here, the Oceanographic is a top notch marine life facility. They do conservation, research and education and the aquariums are air conditioned spaces underground – the perfect location for 38 degree day.  Our first collective impression was ‘WOW!’.

    Every exhibit was better than the last.  The shark tank experience was impressive with the rays and the variety of sea life. The jellyfish exhibits from around the world – including what we think of as the Pacific Northwest (home) but they call the “Northeast Pacific’. That seemed strange but they’re right, of course. There was an arctic installation and one or each of the Seven Seas. And then we went to the dolphin show.

    We’ve been to many many dolphin shows in the US, Canada and Mexico. They’re fun and you expect to get wet. The first part of the entertainment was all about conservation and about climate change. I like that they tied it all together. Of course, the dolphins belong in their natural environment and not in a tank. But something we noticed in many of the exhibits was that many of the animal – of course not all – seems to be rehabbed. There were dolphins whose tails were clearly mangled by something. Sea lions who were missing a fin.

    And kids can get up close to the animals via various experiences and learn about where they live and what we can do to help them. Emilie loved it! And so did we. We’re becoming members because this won’t be the last time we go there – it’s made it to the ‘What to do when people visit’ list.

    Emilie heads back to school in less than a month. Until then, each weekend we’ve decided to be tourists in our own town. We’re on Stay-cation this summer. So why not! Next outing – The BioParc.