Sunday, March 22, 2009

Las Fallas, Day 2 - Burn, baby, burn!

After a few precious hours of sleep, we hit the streets, looking at the many floats across town and searching for breakfast (which was pretty much over now that it was noon!). I managed to find a vendor selling "bunoles de calabaza", a very traditional pumpkin fritter covered with sugar, which helped me temper my stomach from the night before. We then made our way back to the Ayunamiento to see the mascleta again - but this time up close. We got there early and positioned ourselves about a block away from the plaza so as not to go completely deaf from the explosions. This time the mascleta delivered and we could feel the shock waves from the powerful explosions and we all roared in approval. Satisfied, we went out in search for lunch and took a nice leisurely 3 hours. We then all went down to the Plaza de la Virgen to see the flower offerings, which were brought by representatives from each neighborhood to adorn a giant wooden statue of the virgen mary with child looking down somewhat sadly onto the plaza. We stopped to look at a few more floats before heading back to the hotel for a final "descanso" (rest) before the big finale - la crema, or the burning of the floats - signifying the end of Las Fallas for another year. At about 11 pm, we headed back to Juanjo's falla, where there was already a huge crowd lined up. The main intersection was completely blocked off by a metal fence on all four sides of the street, so the crowds could not get in to close. But before we knew it, Juanjo was waving us in and we found ourselves right in the middle of the intersection with front row views of the falla, which was now heavily laden with explosive fireworks. We were all looking at each other in shock - how did we get so lucky? Only the workers and their families were supposed to be on this side of the fence, but somehow, there we were. Suzanne asked Juanjo if he was sad to think that his piece of art would be burned and his answer was perfect; "when you cook a beautiful meal, are you sad to see people eat it? The burning is simply the final step in the process..." The floats started burning across the city at midnight but the larger ones were saved for last. Nothing happened for about an hour until suddenly there was a roar from the crowd behind the fence and a fire truck slowly backed up to take position next to the float. The crew of firemen, or bomberos, laid out their hoses and spread out along the intersection. Amazingly, we were still standing only 10 meters from the float and nobody seemed to pay much attention to us. But we heeded the advice of others and started to move back, as apparently these suckers can get pretty hot. Then the fallera (young girl representing this float for the neighborhood) stepped up and was given a ceremonial lighter to light the first firework. There were a short series of bursts as fireworks shot into the air in increasing numbers. Soon the very top of the float caught fire and within seconds, the whole thing lit up. The bomberos started hosing down the trees and buildings along the intersection as the heat began to get intense. We kept walking backward away from what was now a huge tower of fire. Finally, the structure burned through and collapsed and people started inching closer again to see the last remains of the float burn to the ground. It was amazing to think that a year's worth of work was gone in a matter of minutes - by choice! Fortunately, a small section of Juanjo's creation was selected to be displayed at the Fallas museum (the pope piece), so all was not lost forever. It was truly an amazing spectacle. As the crowds dispersed, we could see the cleanup crews already working away - within a few hours, all traces of 700 burnt floats would be completely removed and the town would be back to normal, as if nothing had transpired over the past nights and weeks. We laughed to think about what it would take to pull something of this scale off in the United States. Perhaps Burning Man comes close - but try doing it with 700 floats in a major metropolitan city! Event planners could certainly learn a thing or two from the Spanish! Scott and I joked that the whole process represented a sort of "organized chaos". It was crazy and insane, but somehow everything ran smoothly, people remained nonchalant and civilized and it never felt out of control or dangerous. Well, except for those "borrachos"...."viva Espana"! We will forever be grateful to Vincent and his wife Nancy, and Scott and Dee, and all the new friends we met over this whirlwind 40 hours who helped make this an experience we will never forget.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Las Fallas, Day 1 - The Fallas and Night of Fire

From there we headed out into the streets and marveled at the amazing light displays down every street and at the fallas (or floats), which were strategically positioned at major intersections across the city. "Hey, whatever happened to la crisis?!?!" We were told that there were over 700 in all across Valencia, some very small and some over 5 stories high. Vincent casually mentioned that he had a cousin who had worked on some of the fallas and took us to see him. We were astonished to walk down one of the prettiest lit-up streets, Sueca, to find a spectacular falla and Vincent's cousin grinning proudly underneath. Vincent's cousin was Juanjo Garcia, one of the Falla Mayores - the master artist/builder of the fallas. Turns out his FULL TIME JOB was to design and supervise the construction of these incredible pieces of art. He gave us a detailed tour of this particular falla (he designed 9 across the city) and told us how it was constructed. Each falla is designed in a satirical, cartoonish manner and often mock or highlight various ills of our society. As Juanjo described, tomorrow night's burning of these Fallas represents an act of cleansing or purifying these ills. It was fascinating to learn about these amazing creations and see them "up close and personal". Then we were off to a local Spanish restaurant to meet Vincent's other cousins, who actually turned out to be very close childhood friends. Having dinner reservations in advance was critical, as Valencia tripled in size to over 3 million people. We met Paco, Rafa, David and their families for a boisterous, fun and filling traditional spanish meal. All the better, because we were struggling to stay up until 2 am for the Nit de Foc (night of fire) fireworks show, and this dinner certainly woke us up. We also got a great chance to speak Spanish with the locals and even Suzanne was talking like she knew what she was saying! Before we knew it, it was already 1 am and we had to quickly scramble to get over to the fireworks show in time. The Nit de Foc was truly a spectacle. Kind of makes our 4th of July shows look like watered-down kids sparklers. The only way I can describe it was the biggest finale times 5 that seemed to run for half an hour nonstop. The explosions were bigger and the colors were brighter and it was visually stunning to watch. I think we are now forever doomed as any firework shows in the future will pale by comparison and our kids will ultimately tire of us saying: "you think this is cool, let me tell you about the firework show we saw in Valencia way back in '09..." But then things got really interesting. As soon as the fireworks ended, people ran out into the street from down in the river bed/park. We stood there and watched, somewhat confused until we realized that the park was filled with teenagers armed with "borrachos" a special explosive that lets of flares of sparks and flies like an angry bee in a completely random pattern before exploding with a huge bang. If one of these is behind you while you are running, people say it will follow your backdraft and you will be the unlucky recipient of one of these explosions. Scott and I were like little kids, venturing out towards the river bank as the polvos were being launched all around us. We couldn't believe that this was legal and wasn't being broken up by the police. It was a crazy battleground out there and when one of the polvos got a little too close for comfort, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel.

Las Fallas, Day 1 - Mascleta and Bull Fighting

Scott, Dee, Suzanne and I rolled into the Valencia train station and headed straight to the Ayunamiento for the Mascleta (firecracker spectacle). The crowds were already piled high in the streets and we didn't make it very far before having to stop and see it from afar. However, the weather was warm, the skies were clear and we were in high spirits. When the Mascleta went off, there was a huge roar from the crowd, but overall our first experience was somewhat underwhelming because we were too far away to feel and hear the full effect of over 60 kg of explosives. So after checking into our hotel and grabbing a quick bite to eat, we walked back through the town towards our first event, a real bullfight at the Plaza de Torros. Now first a bit of commentary on bullfighting. While there are certainly many passionate arguments for and against this spectacle, Suzanne and I don't really have a strong opinion either way, and we treated this simply as an opportunity to experience a distinctively Spanish tradition. So we went in with an open mind and perhaps a slightly morbid curiosity. We met Vincent, Nancy and Chally there and Vincent gave us a great overview of how it was all to play out, from the initial viewing of the bull in action, the picadors, the bandilleros to the final act alone with the matador. There were three matadors that day - Julio Aparicio, Alejando Talavante, and Daniel Luque, all of whom would be fighting two bulls. I was surprised at how small the bullring was, but the simple understated decor of the bullring was offset by the spectacularly colorful and glistening uniforms of the matadors and their support team. For me, I experienced a very wide range of emotions while watching this - at some times very disturbed and queasy at the cruelty and perversion, yet at other times awestruck at the beauty, pageantry and grace of the matadors in a cautious dance with these incredibly powerful bulls. It certainly helped to have Vincent there to comment on the subtleties of each matadors' performance and strengths/weaknesses of each bull so we could appreciate the event more fully. I won't say I have now become a fan of bullfighting, but this was definitely an experience that I will never forget.

Inside Las Fallas - INSANE!!!!

Unexpected. Unreal. Unbelievable. That's our experience of Las Fallas summed up in 3 words. 40 hours of amazing non-stop visual and audio overload. A day later, Suzanne and I are still shaking our heads in amazement, wondering if it all really happened. They claim that Las Fallas is the biggest festival in Spain and we would wholeheartedly agree. Given my unfortunate labeling as the "festival chaser" of Javea, it was incredibly satisfying to experience the mother of all festivals - Las Fallas incorporated everything that is good about the festivals we have seen before and then ramped everything up 10-fold - floats, religious processions, floral offerings, bullfights, neighborhood block parties (on EVERY block), streetlights, fireworks, explosions, bonfires - you name it! And everything was done on a scale we have never seen before and will probably never see again. Even the Spanish call Las Fallas a "festival on steroids". For any of you who feel the need to have a bucket list, I would most definitely put this down as something to experience at least once in your lifetime. I'm putting it down ...twice. It all started fairly inconspicuously. I had booked a hotel room for a few nights so we could have a place to crash, but we really didn't plan much more beyond that. We had read several not-so-flattering stories about huge crowds, traffic jams, and injuries from firecracker explosions, so we were a bit hesitant to go at first. Fortunately, our good friends Scott and Dee Andrews were able to find a baby sitter and decided to come along with us. Their friends Vincent, Nancy and Chally from Boulder were coming out that week and we all decided to meet up in Valencia. We came to learn that Vincent had grown up in Valencia and was quite dialed-in to the scene there. What we didn't realize was that he turned out to be the best festival host ever, with a full two day itinerary fully mapped out, allowing us to experience Las Fallas as if we were local insiders. It was an amazing and completely unexpected experience that we'll likely never be able to duplicate.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Taste of Andalucia - Jaen

Our last stop on our tour of Andalusia took us to Jaen, a city noted for its vast olive groves and Moorish and Renaissance influence. Sitting at the base of the Sierra de Jabalcuz, Jaen is dominated by an impressive fortress, the Castillo de Santa Catalina and has a stunning Catedral. The catedral was built by Andres de Vandelvira, one of the key architects of Spanish Baroque style and dominates the old town. Inside the catedral there is a capilia which reportedly claims to house one of the veils used by Saint Veronica to wipe Christ's face when he died. During our visit, we local workers were dismantling some of the altars in preparation for Semana Santa (Easter Holy week), where the many figures from the catedral would be solemnly paraded through the town on large platforms (carried by groups of 40-50 men each) during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The amount of work leading up to Semana Santa was quite impressive. Then it was up to the Castillo de Santa Catalina, where part of the castle had been converted to a Parador, a state-run chain of hotels in historic and unusual venues. The parador towered over the city of Jaen and offered fantastic views of the catedral and town below as well as the blue-tinged mountains, with endless rows of olive groves, marking this area as the top producers of olive oil in Spain. Inside, the parador retained the feel of living in a medieval castle, but with all the comforts of the modern world. Unfortunately, I had come down with some sort of gastric illness, but at least my folks had the opportunity to enjoy a fabulous multi-course dinner at the Parador. The next morning, we wrapped things up and made our way back to Javea. Reflecting on this trip, it was definitely a full itinerary, but not overwhelming. It was also great to be able to share this experience with my parents, so that they could see another facet of Spain, particularly that of the Moorish influence. But now it was time to head home, as Suzanne and I had only a day left before we were off to las Fallas in Valencia...

A Taste of Andalucia - Cordoba

Then we were off to Cordoba and we had the usual nightmares finding our way into the town (it is quite clear there is a cost of staying right in the heart of a pedestrianized district!). Fortunately, Nieves, our caretaker guided us to the parking area and helped us settle in. The apartment was bright and modern and ideally situated just blocks from the Mesquita mosque and archeological museum, both of which were fabulous. The archeological museum was built in a palace housing many ruins and artifacts which chronicled the periods of various ruling occupations - from the Romans, to the Visigoths to the Moors. Cordoba, in particular also had a very strong concentration of Sephardic Jews, and their influence on the city remains to this day. In the Juderia (old Jewish quarter), we toured a traditional Jewish home and attended a fabulous music workshop of traditional Jewish/Andalucian guitar music. All across Cordoba and Granada we enjoyed the strums of spanish guitars echoing from small plazas and it gave me the urge to take up the ol' six string again. If I can only figure out how to ship everything when we leave... By far the greatest highlight of Cordoba is the Mesquita - originally a Visigoth church which was razed by the Moors to build a spectacular mosque which is defined by a seemingly endless "forest" of delicate arches of red and white stone, superimposed on two levels. Sadly, after the Christian reconquest of Spain, the architect Hernan Ruiz set out to build an imposing cathedral right in the center of the Mesquita and its cold baroque/renaissance style could not provide a harsher contrast to the delicate, open and contemplative nature of the mosque itself. The shocking juxtaposition of these two extreme styles presents a fascinating and memorable reminder of the vast cultural contrasts between these ruling parties which had such an influence on Spanish history. As we toured the city, with its beautiful courtyards, fascinating history and architecture, gurgling fountains, lush hanging potted plants and pedestrian streets, I felt very welcome and could us living here should we decide to stay another year. In many respects, Cordoba has come the closest of any Spanish city to my original "vision" for living in Spain. Who knows? Perhaps we will come back again soon!

A Taste of Andalucia - Granada

My mom and dad arrived to Javea in early March to see the family and explore Spain a bit. In spite of all their travels, they really hadn't spent much time in Espana. They arrived after 4 fabulous days in Barcelona and my dad's sore ankle seemed to be holding up surprisingly well in spite of all the walking they did. After a few days relaxing with the grandkids, I took them on a trip to Andalucia in Southern Spain - the land where the moors predominantly ruled for over 700 years, leaving a marvelous legacy. I played a role as travel coordinator/spanish interpreter and booked out a week's itinerary, trying to balance my mom's wish to see as many cities / sites as possible, with my dad's preference for a more relaxing pace. We settled first on Granada and I reserved an apartment in the old historic Albacyin district - a winding, twisting maze of whitewashed homes perched straight across the Alhambra. I had come prepared with a plethora of google maps and directions and we made our way into the Albacyin with very little trouble. But once there, the roads narrowed and driving became quite stressful. The last 50 meters turned out to be more nerve-wracking than the first 400,000, as our instructions were a bit misleading and our car could barely make the 90 degree turns without scraping the sides of buildings. As we passed the street where the parking garage was supposed to be, there was seemingly no possible way we could get through, and we were stuck with cars waiting behind us. Yikes. Finally, after several futile attempts, we gave up and I called the owners, who thankfully led us out of this trap and got us safely to the garage. Well, not quite, as they forgot to mention that the gates tend to close quickly and my mom screamed as the rear gate started closing down on us. I shot the car through and got out to try to walk off the adrenaline that was coursing through my body. I now have huge admiration for the bus and cargo delivery drivers of the Albacyin who do this stuff every day - they must have nerves of steel. Our apartment was a little dated and darker than I would have preferred, but it had a decent patio and at least we could settle in and relax. It sat off a nice little plaza and had a bus stop right outside the door, so we could easily get to all the sights. The next day we headed off to the Alhambra - one of the finest and best preserved examples of Moorish architecture in all of Europe. The Alhambra was the last stand of the Moorish empire, which was ultimately overcome by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. But not without leaving an amazing legacy. The Alhambra is a spectacular system of fortresses, peaceful gardens and exquisite architecture all on one amazing location with stunning vistas of the city below and the snow-capped sierras towering behind. We spent the entire day exploring and we were blessed with beautiful weather and very few crowds. At times, it felt we had the place to ourselves and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of traditional Andalusian food (marinated partridge, gazpacho and habas with jamon). By the time we made it through the gardens of the Generalife (Caliph's vacation palace), the sun was setting and we returned to the apartment, exhausted, but happy. The rest of our visit was spent exploring the Albacyin and touring the cathedral area in town. Of particular interest was the Capille Real (the royal chapel), where the stunningly stark metal tombs of King Ferdinand and Isabella lie - a stark contrast to the lavish and ornate decor of the chapel itself. I also had the chance to explore the gypsie caves of the Sacramonte, which was a little strange as it wasn't clear whether I was trespassing by walking right on top of these dwellings which were carved into the hills. I figured this was the equivalent of trailer parks in the US, albeit a bit more dark and damp! Overall, my impression of Granada is mixed - while the Alhambra is definitely one of my favorite places in all of Spain, I found the rest of the city to be a bit dilapidated and bohemian for my tastes. And while the Albacyin is certainly fascinating, I imagine it would be exhausting to navigate on a daily basis.