Spain March 2006
06.10.2006 20 °C
Hola! I am back from two weeks in sunny Spain. My friend Brian and I had a fabulous time!! We started our trip in Madrid, city of my birth, which I had not been back to for 22 years. After making this calculation (could there really be a place I had not visited in over 2 decades?!) I was feeling very old. However, after meeting a friend of mine from the UK who now lives in Spain, and partying until 5am, I was feeling quite young again. But then again, one can do this when they can sleep til after noon and even take a siesta again at 3pm!
Madrid was even more beautiful than I remember it, with its grand boulevards, huge plaza squares dotted with tappas bars and of course the beloved choclaterias, where you think nothing of dunking some freshly fried chorizos into a cup of thick melted chocolate as a bit of a snack to hold you over until that late night dinner. We did the touristy thing and visited the famed Prado museum (for 5 Hours!) as well as the grand royal palace. But the highlights were simply strolling around the older areas near our hotel and the lively Latin area. My friend took us to a fantastic Flamenco bar where a man plays solo guitar and the clientele, mostly gypsies, sing along with their sad, flamenco songs. From the looks on their faces, I am sure their songs would translate much like our own country music songs, about loss. Loss of your dog, your lover, your truck… You get so caught up in the atmosphere, that before you know it its after five and the sun will shortly being rising. This could also have a bit to do with their liberal serving rules. They apply the rule of measuring the drinks, in my case vodka tonics, by ice cubes, being very careful not to pour the vodka past the second ice cube. This sounds like a careful strategy until you see the size of their ice cubes!! Each one is easily over an inch tall. A wonderful night out filled with great tapas, rioja, music and fun.
We then headed south to Cordoba, Seville and Granada, staying in the latter two for a few days each. In each we explored glorious mosques, winding streets, and palaces with beautiful gardens. By this time we were truly into the Spanish groove of spending the day about town, relaxing/siesta-ing in the early afternoon, then heading out for some tide you over tapas and rioja around six and finishing with dinner around ten and topping it off with some fab Spanish sherries. Given we were finding that most businesses pay absolutely not attention to their own posted hours, you need to learn to adapt the ‘oh well, I could do it later’ approach, and simply head off for a rioja for the time being. We had been there over a week and still not met anyone who was in a hurry.
After a few days relaxing in Andalusia, we headed back up North to the province of Catalan, to visit Valencia and Barcelona. From here on in, our relaxing was over as we were arriving in Valencia just in time to catch the last 2 days of their week long Fallas festival, one of the biggest festivals in Spain. I will do my best to capture the atmosphere of it, but it really is something you have to experience yourself to truly understand.
The Fallas are enormous models made out of paper mache, wood and wax, and represent a satirical and ironic vision of local, provincial, national and even international problems and current affairs. Each neighbourhood spends a year making their models and then they are burnt on the final night of 19 March in a festival of fire, fireworks and organized mayhem. They are more than mere bonfires or pyres because they show scenes referring to people, events or collective behaviour that their makers - the falleros - consider should be criticised or corrected. After exploring dozens of Fallas, you come to learn that the Spanish have a very funny, albeit a bit racy, sense of humour. Very tongue in cheek. Over 370 full-scale fallas and 368 children’s fallas are mounted throughout the city, and some of these reach extravagant heights, some over 25 meters! During the festivities, Valencian women wear their best traditional clothes and parade through the streets in colourful pageantry under their fallas standards to the sound of regional music. Their destination is to the Basilica where the patron saint of Valencia, Our Lady of the Forsaken, awaits. Here they lay their flowers. Thousands and thousands of them are placed over a wooden structure that serves as the framework upon which her image is formed. For days the entire Plaza is perfumed with the fragrance of endless bouquets of flowers At midday, each falla stages its own sound fireworks display, harmonizing the booming sounds of rockets with the smell of gunpowder.
At night there are spectacular fireworks displays that brighten up the night time sky. They take their fireworks very seriously in Valencia, with loudness and uniqueness being the main goals. The afternoon ones aim for the biggest boom. The crowds will boo the technicians if they aren’t loud enough, fast enough or bright enough, but carry him on their shoulders like a winning football star after a finale of a great show. The four competing firework making families enjoy start status in Valencia. They did not disappoint, and I thought the display we saw on our second to final night was superb. However, my friend, a local Valencian, did not agree and complained that they have been much faster in the past.
At twelve o’clock midnight on the 19th, preceded by a grand fireworks display, the large fallas are set to the torch during what is known as the Cremá. The entire city is filled with flaming fallas, bringing to a close this semi-pagan, semi-patriotic, semi-religious fiesta. We watching one burn that stood about 20 meters high, and was packed into a small square, surrounded by apartment buildings (apparently they hose them down with water first) on every side. I would struggle to ever put into words what it was like to stand so close to such a massive ball of fire with flames shooting from every angle and fireworks exploding overhead. Even as a tourist you feel part of the festivities. You can not come to Valencia during this time of year and stay on the sidelines. There is no time for sleep. It is fiesta time for five whole days. The parades never end, the fireworks are deafening and the musicians play concerts in the streets. Food and drink are everywhere, with typical pastry stands on every corner. The fallas are on every corner and in every square, the firecrackers continue from eight am till 4 am all across the city, as if the city itself is performing for you. After a night of restful, firework-free sleep, we headed off to Barcelona for our final night.
I love Barcelona for its grand streets, cheap shopping, laid back atmosphere, and its modernist architecture. Given Brian had never been before, we spent the day taking him around to some of Antoni Gaudi’s most amazing art nouveau designs, from his houses and apartment complex, to the amazing sagrada familia cathedral. We finished our holiday in fine form at one of the gothic quarter’s great wine bars and tapas restaurants. I feel I have done enough to last me 20 years, just in case it takes me that long to return again.