Wednesday, 26 December 2007

The Best Christmas Present!!!

Mummy and I opening our Christmas presents

This year on Christmas day I got a telescope, Chessman pro. (Computer chess), magic wand, leather diary and lots more. After we opened our presents we went to LA PEPICA with Gran, Diana, Laurence and Lena, where we ate at least 10 courses (I drank a bit of Champagne and Wine.)

Mummy at La Pepica

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Feliz Navidad from Valencia

Well, we've had a great Christmas with the family so far. We thought we ought to follow some Spanish traditions and some British ones. Probably the net effect will be that the children will end up with far more presents than they need and the parents will consume far more food or alcohol than they require...

Diana, Thayer, Laurence and Lena arrived at VLC airport on Thursday morning whilst Chris and Jo were enjoying their last couple of days at school. The usual mid-morning traffic through the outskirts of Valencia delayed our convoy trip back to the apartment, having already spent the best part of an hour trying to rent a car for Diana at the airport. Lesson for the holiday: book cars in advance or expect inflated prices, or worse still, no available cars!

We spent a leisurely morning at Cabanyal Market down by the beach on Friday and managed to locate a suitable turkey (dead!), fruit and veg for the Christmas festivities. Having selected the most suitably-sized turkey, the butcher was all for slicing the bird up like a bacon joint as she raised her hand with an enormous meat cleaver, readied for action. Surprisingly, roasting whole chickens or turkeys in Spain is still seen as something quaintly English, or more likely, viewed with complete disbelief. For the evening, a trip into town to see Circo Wonderland - one of the few remaining animal circuses still touring in Europe. We saw this show a few years ago further up the coast, north of Barcelona, and whilst there isn't the glitz of a Cirque du Soleil show (we saw the latest Cirque du Soleil show - Delerium - at Feria Valencia the week before - wow!), it is nevertheless an exceptional show where the animals all appear to be extremely well-treated, well-fed and happy in their roles. This may be a controversial view, but the animals are, in the main, rare species, and one wonders how some of them will ever survive if not kept in zoos, employed in circuses and exploited in no ways more sinister than trying to demonstrate to young children the value of these beautiful creatures to the wild, and their likely fate if we do not do more to protect them in their natural habitats. Sadly, constant rain after the show somewhat dampened our walk through the various plazas of the old city as we tried to count the numerous Christmas streetlighting decorations up and down every side street. Such reminders of the UK (not!). Unlike the UK, most European cities - not least Spanish cities - manage to celebrate Christmas each year with the most fantastic lighting displays up and down every street and plaza - and wherever there is room, flowerbeds are full to bursting with poinsettias and other seasonal plants. We don't see the newspaper headlines following yet another local authority or chamber of commerce complaining that it can 'no longer afford to make a contribution to the lights this year', because in Spain, it is obviously something which is regarded as the right thing to do. No self-respecting community, it seems, would permit the apathy and disregard shown for seasonal public displays, by some British towns and cities, to permeate here...

The open-air market at Requena
Handbags stands of the Requena market... how can one escape without purchase?
And then to Saturday, for the return match to show off Requena to the rest of the family. With the weather in the region not quite as bad as the UK at Christmas, it was nevertheless cold and rainy. With Requena up in the hills, preparing for a few degrees south of the weather in Valencia is definitely a good idea. Having arrived, the rain stopped and the temperature settled down to a damp 10°C or so whilst we tramped out to the Saturday morning market doing Santa's work, picking up the bargains of the day, before settling down to another first class menu del día lunch at Mesón del Vino - the town's fantastic Michelin-listed restaurant.

Museu de Les Ciències Príncep Felip

A trip to the Science Museum (Museu de Les Ciències Príncep Felip) at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia was voted the favoured activity for the children and mums on Sunday, whilst the remaining adults did some of the last-minute gift and food shopping. And yesterday, Christmas Eve was spent out and about at the famous concrete Gulliver childrens' park, and amazingly, despite the obvious lack of appearance (ever!) of any Health and Safety automatons, no child was seriously injured. Final, final last minute presents were obtained from El Corté Inglés and Carrefour, followed by a quick bike trip to show off Plaza de la Virgen to Diana. The evening was spent cooking and eating the first of our Christmas meals (this is where we follow Spanish and English traditions with Christmas celebrated on 24 and 25 December, plus the most important date of the Spanish Christmas calendar - Threes Kings Day on 6 January).

IMG_8822 IMG_8824 IMG_8815 IMG_8823
Celeb photos at La Pepica, taken by star paparazzi photographer, Chris Whitehead
[L-R] i) Laurence and Liz; ii) Diana and Lena; iii) Jo and Sandi; iv) Margaret

Today is Christmas Day and it has been a little hectic! There were tears late last night when some children found themselves unable to await Santa's call by sleeping through the night. This caused a near meltdown in Santa's schedule, but the evening was saved, because it appeared that Santa did visit after all, but was unable to deliver presents to the children's beds on account of them still being awake. They had to make do with Santa's delivery to the balcony outside on the ninth floor, but he didn't seem to deliver any less presents! Today, more presents continued to flow throughout the morning before we departed for a sumptuous multi-course meal at the ever-wonderful La Pepica restaurant with new friends Sandi and Margaret. La Pepica never fails to impress - a restaurant down on La Malvarossa beach which was the regular haunt of Ernest Hemingway amongst hordes of other others celebrities from across the globe, in days gone by. I think it is high time that the management awarded us some kind of 'frequent flyer' loyalty points as it is becoming a bit of a regular haunt of ours now - and we are very definitely not of the 'celeb' variety. A four-hour marathon meal with plenty of festive cheer and we were ready for a dusk walk along the beach before retiring back to the apartment to catch up with the day's Christmas TV. There are still plenty more days of Christmas remaining and with a week-long trip back to the UK and the 'Three Kings Parade' in Valencia to look forward to on our return, I'd better sign off for the moment and get some sleep... or another glass of wine!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

A night at the opera... (nearly!)

Audiences arriving for Carmen at El Palau de les Arts

[This blog was written but held over from 7 November 2007]

It's been a while since my last post and indeed I hardly have time tonight but will try to get a few words and photos out before sleep gets the better of me.

In the past couple of weeks, we have had a total of 12 guests staying with us - one after the other - ranging in age from 2 to... well, OK, I promised not so say, but certainly bus pass +!

As if visitors were not enough to keep us busy, we've been watching the development of our two new business websites back in the UK and another issue of the magazine appears to have put itself out to the readers (only joking team!). We've been helping with the English translation of a Spanish academic paper about women entrepreneurs, written by a friend here in Valencia. And then we've queued for some opera tickets. Oh yes, that was it. The time-consuming part of the past fortnight or so has been what to most people, should have been the relatively simple exercise of booking 4 tickets for the opera - Carmen at the Palau de les Arts in the City of Arts and Sciences - for this Friday evening...

It's really quite a long story, and it starts off 50 years ago almost to the day when the City of Valencia woke up to one of the worst floods in its history. The River Turia, which, for most months of the year remained a dry riverbed with all but a trickle of water to be seen, burst its banks following torrential rainstorms. Over 100 people were drowned as a result and the City finally took a decision which had been kicked back and forth for most of the previous century - that is to divert the river to run south of the city. Indeed not only was the river subsequently diverted, but for good measure, the new river wall on the side of the City was built at a higher level than that on the outside, meaning that if ever such another flood were to manifest itself again in the future, sadly the folks living beyond the southern perimeter of the newly diverted river would bear the brunt. Anyway, I digress...

Thus having dug a whole new riverbed, the good citizens of Valencia were offered the opportunity to replace the now completely empty riverbed with a late twentieth century six lane motorway, taking traffic all the way into and back out of the historic city centre. Can you imagine such an opportunity? Can you then possibly understand how such citizens then simply rejected out of hand this generous offer, instead deciding to convert the old riverbed into an area of peace and tranquility through the development of 9km of sports, leisure, parks and open spaces? How could they?!

Roll forward to the 1990s and the grand plan for the area just to the north of the beach and the port areas, which was handed over to, amongst others, Valencia's own son, the world-class architect phenomenon, Santiago Calatrava (see earlier posts) for the creation of a new science museum, planetarium and IMAX cinema and opera house (plus a couple of bridges, stunning gardens, car parks and other incidentals). The past decade has seen the creation of these masterpieces which have of late, put Valencia squarely on the 'cities to see' list for millions of weekend tourists from across Europe and beyond.

The opera house - perhaps his pièce de résistance, is still an unfinished project, though has completed its first full opera season earlier this year despite a number of modifications and other ongoing construction works which continue to this day (cranes and engineers seem to come and go as frequently as visitors to the box office). As you can witness from our many photographs, the opera house building itself is of world class standard and seen close-to is quite an amazing sight - a feat of human imagination and construction skills. With such a stunning building filling much of the view from our apartment terrace, we could hardly fail to attend at least one performance of an opera, and what better than to pick out that Spanish (well, French, actually) classic, Carmen. Thus, we watched for announcements on the opera house's website and scoured the local press to find out when the single tickets would go on sale (with opera seasons featuring numerous productions over a number of months, it is customary for subscribers - regular bookers who purchase a season ticket to many or all of the productions - to buy their tickets first, before the organisation allows mere mortals such as ourselves to pick over the scraps of any remaining tickets!). Eventually, through our own investigative efforts and those of our friends and acquaintances, we discovered that the box office would open for single ticket sales at 9am on Monday 23 October (in the UK, a management process known as 'marketing' is employed when an organisation wishes to communicate with its potential customers - here it seems, in both arts and other related leisure activities, the process has yet to fully take off - one of only a very few gripes we've had so far in relation to our overall experiences of living here, and something which seems to fail to happen with alarming regularity. Often the lack of advanced information about events leads us to wonder how organisers ever achieve an audience or participants at all - such a pity in most cases, when the events themselves are of such high quality). Anyway, another digression...

So there we were a few weekends ago during the opening few days of a very moving exhibition at MUVIM, Valencia's museum of the enlightenment, in which the events surrounding the flood of fifty years ago were on display in La riada que cambió. Less than a week later, the skies clouded over, torrential rains ensued, and a repeat, albeit on a far smaller scale, of the Turia flood was back on the cards. Cue much gnashing of teeth amongst the city fathers as the entire Calatrava river development took a deluge of floodwater. L'hemisferic lost several days of trading and much equipment, the science museum took an early bath, but the opera house fared worst of all with major floods in the lower areas and the loss of the auditorium's hydraulic lifts, the entire box office computer system, costumes, sets and more besides. With the new opera season about to kick-off, complete and utter chaos ensued for several days whilst Calatrava's team tried to figure out what to do; customers with tickets for the forthcoming season wondered what would become of their season, and, those without tickets (us!) made desperate attempts to figure out whether any performances would be going ahead this year - or even next - and even, whether or not we would be able to obtain tickets!

Several days after the rains, and with no news forthcoming from the opera house, Liz made her way across the riverbed bright and early at 7.30am on 23 October, to be amongst the first in what we anticipated to be a lengthy queue for Carmen tickets. People began joining the queue throughout the first hour - arriving by taxi, on foot, by car. Many had taken the morning off work in order to ensure they achieved their ambition of seeing the show. At around 8.45am, the front doors of the opera house opened and a man in a suit walked outside with a sandwich board which he carefully plonked in front of the now lengthening queue and walked back inside, locking the door behind him. The sign announced that the box office would be closed until further notice 'due to the rain', and that was it! No apology, no proper explanations, no preparation for any future announcements. Those gathered - many of whom had travelled from across the regions - and at great expense - were furious but quietly went off their separate ways.

Some days later, when a clearer picture of the flood damage had become emerged, it was announced that one entire production had been cancelled and that performances for other productions had been rescheduled. On the grapevine, we heard that, despite announcements to the contrary, costumes for at least one production - and some of the sets - had been damaged (we saw costumes outside the opera house, drying in the sun). We also heard that orchestra rehearsals were taking place in stinking flood damaged rooms and that some musicians were doubtful as to whether any production could go ahead. Finally, it was announced that the Carmen production would go ahead and that single ticket buyers (us!) could go along and queue for a repeat performance on Monday 29 October at 9am sharp. This time, the announcement, which was publicised across the region, stated that the first 300 people in the queue would receive a numbered voucher, and this would give them an opportunity to buy up to 4 seats for one performance of Carmen on one of three specified box office days. Oh, and the other item of 'news' was that during the rains, the entire box office computer system had been 'lost' and that a new system would be installed within a further month... and that all single tickets for the immediate production of Carmen would be 'manually produced' (that is, hand-written onto the auditorium plan and the tickets hand-written in exchange for cash only payments!).

Queuing for Carmen tickets

Expecting something of an adventure, Liz duly arrived for the queue at around 7.30am, to find there were already the best part of a couple of hundred people already in the queue, with more arriving by the minute. The newly-arrived were all being carefully placed throughout the queue by a casually-dressed but official-looking man with a clipboard. The people arriving all appeared to have been 'pre-booked' into what we had otherwise thought was a 'first-come, first-served' queue. When I joined Liz half an hour later, the queue was growing by the minute and the man with a clipboard had apparently organised everyone into their pre-agreed places. I decided that, even with our limited abilities with the Spanish language, I had to learn how a supposedly free and fair queuing system appeared to have been pre-arranged and what the opera house thought it was doing running such a shoddy operation. It might have been better if Mr Clipboard had been unable to speak or understand English, because he quite clearly explained to us that he was 'just a member of the public' who thought it would be better to do his public duty by 'organising the queue' so that people didn't have to arrive too early and that when they'd called him on his mobile or arrived in person, they'd simply given them his name and he'd numbered them and placed them in the queue. We were furious and explained that, in Liz's case, she'd already been waiting more than an hour and that probably more than 100 people had arrived after her and been 'placed' in the queue. We were joined by a lovely German lady who had driven up from Denia (an hour's car journey away), who also failed to understand the helpful organisation of the queue, having waited for most of the past hour herself. With a bit of supportive jostling from others in the queue, we were 'allocated' number 307 (out of the limited 300 places!), and the German lady stayed with us despite not having been allocated a number. Finally at around 9.30am, the queue started moving and this continued for 45 minutes. We continued to see new people arrive and join the queue ahead of us (others had obviously been phoning friends on mobiles and others had been 'holding' places open for colleagues. We saw some people complain to the opera house security staff that they had 'official' numbers in the queue, but the security staff, rightly, ignored these pleas as the 'organised' queue had not been officially sanctioned. Finally at around 10.15am we got to the front of the queue to collect our official 'turno' ticket - number 286 (quite what happened to the missing 21 people we still don't know!) and our German friend got number 287. Since the box office was only able to deal with 100 numbered 'turno' vouchers per day and our number was in the final 100, we were told to come back at 10am in a couple of days - to repeat the entire queuing process for a third time - only this time, for actual tickets!

To make a long story only very slightly shorter, the process was duly repeated on Wednesday, two days later, and we waited for a further 2½ hours before being relieved of the best part of €350 - in cash - for four (hand-written) tickets to Carmen some 9 days later.

Having expended so much blood, sweat and (nearly) tears for our tickets, there was plenty of excitement and anticipation (talk of the need for new clothes, shoes etc) prior to the performance in the intervening week. When the big day finally arrived, we turned up at the opera house appropriately attired for what was a sell-out occasion - only to discover that Mr Clipboard had managed to secure his own tickets for Carmen - for the same night - and had carefully plonked himself one row ahead and five seats to the left of mine. I have never (since childhood) so desperately wanted to sit right behind someone so much just so I could simply flick his ear throughout the evening! The performance itself though, was great.

Sometime in a future post, I may ramble on a little about the inside of the great opera house which is strange, to say the least, though what it lacks in some of its design features it more than makes up in its (unintentionally humoured) use of graphic icons to explain the do's and don'ts of acceptable behaviour within the auditorium. Our favourite was the sign which appears to direct people the 'his 'n' hers' shared bathrooms which appear to insist on a communal squat - or maybe we misunderstood?

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Home shopping in Lliria, lunch in Segorbe

The sights at Segorbe

Being Saturday and being sunshine and rich blue skies means time for a little exploring. Today we started with a shopping trip to Lliria, some 20km north of Valencia on the motorway towards Ademuz. We came across Lliria and indeed its British supermarket, Spainsbury's (yes that's right, Spainsbury's - I cannot believe the lawyers have let that one get away) through the British friend of a Spanish friend who assured us that this was the supermarket to get all those 'hard-to-find' products from good old Blighty. He turned out to be as good as his word, for Spainsbury's did indeed stock all those essentials from Marmite and PG Tips to Christmas puddings and custard powder (as well as those other traditional British ingredients including Chicken Korma and Tikka cook-in sauces!). It turns out that Spainsbury's does home deliveries just like like its UK nearly-namesake - we might be clicking some more online orders soon!

View of Segorbe looking across from its castle

Then, aiming for the town of Segorbe, we drove cross country on one of the most stunning mountain drives so far (there have been several and they've all been stunning). This trip included some of the windiest roads we've driven for a while and from the village of Gatova onwards, the roads were narrow and look like they've hardly been resurfaced for many a year. The scenery was breathtaking - similar in parts to the red rock canyons of Sedona in Arizona. Along the first part of the drive, the roads had very definitely received a recent investment - considerable sums. However, the most interesting aspect of this was, to us, the fact that a cycle path, several kilometeres in length, had been buit alongside the road - some 20 metres or so away - painted green and with white markings along its entire length. Apparently the cycle path serves no useful purpose, since for all the time we drove alongside it, I saw only one cyclist making use of it - and around 100 other cyclists competing with the cars on the main carriageway.

Chris and Jo believe that they are the first British children ever to drink from all 50 'Fuente de los 50 Caños'. Is this a legitimate Guinness Record?

Arriving at Segorbe in the late morning, we were treated to pleasant late autumn weather (similar to recent visits to Requena) which though brightly sunlit, was mitigated by the coolness associated with being at a higher altitude than Valencia (though still probably somewhat lower down than Requena). A brisk walk up the hill to the incredibly helpful Oficina de Turismo to get our bearings (plus town map and colour booklet guide of places to see) and we were off to discover what was left of the town's castle. The views from the top are stunning throughout the 360° sweep. We stopped at the small Bar Valencia in the town centre for an excellent menú del día and then off back down the hill to discover the Fuente de los cincuenta caños - 50 taps out of which permanently gush the town's natural mineral water. The fifty taps represent each one of the fifty provinces of Spain. We saw several people filling their plastic bottles and water carriers while we were there - before Chris and Jo got the bright idea of sampling the produce of every one of the fifty taps - before getting back into the car, soaking wet, for the 50km toilet-less trip back to Valencia! A very pleasant day out, and having missed the town's current 'foodie' celebration - I Muestra Gastronomica de la Seta y el Cordero which is coming to an end, and arriving at the wrong time of year for its most famous annual shindig, Entrada de toros y caballos (entry of the bulls and horses), I can feel one or two return trips in the offing.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Batman (and woman!)

Any experts on bat removal out there? How does one deal with a bat in the bedroom at 7am on a Sunday morning... on the ninth floor?

Well, this is a problem in which, as of this morning, we are now experienced! Liz awoke to the sound of frantic flapping and a black blob squeezing it's way through the gap in our bedroom window. The blob, once successful in its attempt to enter the bedroom, promptly fell to the floor and scurried under the bed to continue flapping... at which point, Liz's own flapping awoke me too! "I don't want to worry you, but there's a bird in the room!", she said. Not quite fully conscious at this point, I soon was as I saw the blob scurry across the bedroom floor. "It's a bat!", she said. "Er... throw a towel over it to stop it moving!", I said. At this point, a video camera would have been useful to capture the comic element of the situation. Having thrust the towel across the bat, we decided it must have been seriously injured during its arrival in the bedroom as it was no longer moving. We then scratched our heads trying to work out how to get the bat back outside without having to touch it (secretly, I was wondering how I was going to convince Liz to do the deed!). "Get a cardboard box and a piece of flat card!", I said, vaguely remembering seeing this trick done on TV, though probably not by Paul Daniels!

The method: Now, don't try this at home children (unless you need to rid your bedorom of a panicked bat!). With cardboard box suitably trimmed and a sheet of flat card at the ready, carefully slide the card under the towel whilst gently dropping the cardboard box on top of the whole pile. Don't panic and scream when you hear flapping and scratching coming from under the box and especially when you see bits of wing and leg protruding from the edges of the temporary cardboard cage, because you really are bigger than the bat and believe it or not, the bat is more panicked than you will ever be! Ending up with a bat in a box, you will the realise that, being situated on the ninth floor of an apartment block is not the easiest (or safest or most honourable) way to release a potentially damaged bat back into the wild. Being 7am (well probably 7.10am by the time you having finished panicking and scabbling around with towels and bits of cardboard!), and not yet having dressed for the day, is not the ideal situation to find oneself with a bat-in-a-box! Thus the method at this point is for one's wife and children to get dresed rapidly and after gingerly assigning responsibility for the cardboard cage over to the rest of the team, to retire gracefully to the shower.

The rest of the bat rescue team then took the package downstairs in the lift with the strains of Born Free ringing in my mind, whilst listening to Liz's fading instructions as the lift descended, "Be careful not to nudge the box or all three of us will be trapped in this lift with a panicked bat flying around us!"

Having reached ground level, the box was carefully placed on a flower bed at the front of the apartment block and swiftly opened, at which point the bat fell out, dusted itself off and flew away, hopefully never again to be seen in our bedroom!

Apologies for those of you who were looking forward to the photographs or video - this is one of those emergency situations where, in the heat of the moment and whilst running for cover, we were unable to locate cameras for this breaking news story. However, the children have drawn their own pictures and will be recounting the entire episode to Blue Peter in the hopes of winning their Gold Blue Peter Badges for saving an endangered animal.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Duxford eat your heart out...

Eurofighter Typhoon

A very pleasant if noisy day on the beach on Sunday with what I believe is now the annual Air Show at Malvarrosa Beach - well it's the fourth one so far. I'm sure I'm going to have something to say about arts and tourism marketing in a future post - and it may not be 100% positive - but to set the scene for that future post, we only knew about the event through one friend and through a thirty-minute concerted information-drilling exercise on the otherwise excellent Communitat Valenciana website. That all aside, the air show was excellent and featured a range of military and exhibition aircraft undertaking a number of daring and complex acrobatic manoeuvres throughout the day. For me the highlight was the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft which was not only by far the noisiest beast of the day, but was a spectacular sight. Other highlights included skywriting vapour trails, synchronised helicopter manoeuvres, seaplanes, parachute displays (interesting that by far the biggest round of applause was when one parachutist unleashed a huge Valenciana flag - the applause for the Spanish flag when unveiled in a similar manner, seemed, to me, a little more muted).

Patrulla Aguila flying in formation

The final highlight was the equivalent of the Red Arrows - Patrulla Aguila (Patrol Eagle) with their aerobatic exhibition, courtesy of Ejercito del Aire (the Spanish Air Force).

Saturday, 20 October 2007


Saturday market at Requena

Thirty minutes drive inland from Valencia is wine country and until you exit the E3 motorway you would never have a clue about the surprise that awaits nearly 700m above sea level. We discovered the town of Requena in various guide books - whether it was the thought of the locally-produced, full-blooded red wine, the picturesque streets or the caves below the town which attracted us is anyone's guess. The promise of great weather also helped in our decision, and having set out by car reasonably early this morning (OK, it was nearly 10.30am, but we are adapting to Spanish time!), we headed in the direction of Madrid. Once having left Valencia and entered the countryside, the beautiful blue skies rapidly turned to very low cloud and plummeting temperatures (dropping from nearly 20° to around 13° in 10 minutes) and we finally turned off the motorway towards Requena some thirty or forty minutes later. From the outskirts of the town, Requena really is a well-kept secret (aside from frequent mentions in the tourist books), but having managed to find a parking slot in a side street, we were within 50 yards of the town centre and the Saturday morning spectacle of an extended open air market right the way down the town's main tree-lined avenue.

Restaurants on the Requena town square

Walking up the hill into the historic part of the town, the weather took a turn for the better. At first a hint of blue sky through the fast moving clouds, but within minutes, and as fast as the clouds had moved in earlier, the entire sky had cleared, leaving pure strong sunlight and deep blue autumn skies for the remainder of the day, though the altitude of the town at 700m kept the temperatures a few degrees below those back at the beach. From the top of the hill, the town square is not advertised, but wandering through the narrow cobbled streets with typical Spanish whitewashed buildings, it appears that all routes lead, ultimately, to the centre.

Touring the caves

After a brief wait, we took the 40-minute tour of the network of caves that run below the town, used since the 8th Century, for a range of purposes including food and wine storage, burial pits and, in times of strife, to hide people.

Artefacts from the Requena Caves

The size of the earthenware pots is impressive, standing at around 7 feet tall and almost up to the roof of the cave. Quite how people managed to either fill or extract produce from those enormous works of porcelain art is anyone's guess. However, for me the most interesting facts concerned the use of the caves as communal burial pits. The crypt was only discovered 25 years ago, and over 40 lorry-loads of bones were removed for re-burial. That must have been some exercise. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the caves were used mainly for wine storage - a much more pleasant prospect.

Having followed our guide book to the letter, after a stroll through the open-air market (with relatively few Euros spent on jewellery throughout the process!), we ambled into Meson del Vino, a Michelin-recommended inn, for a wonderful salad and seafood paella, washed down with the restaurant's own locally-produced red house wine. All in all, a great day trip, and one I'd be quite happy to repeat with any friends who care to visit us over the next few months...

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Castles (and smoke!) in the air

Xativa Castle

Recovering from the mid-life crisis of my birthday the previous day, might best be described as 'out of the frying pan and into the fire'! Sunday last, we decided to pay a visit to 'Titanic - the Exhibition' - a more-or-less year-long audio-described tour of photographs and 'memorabilia' from one of the world's most notable human catastrophes of the last century. Situated underneath l'Umbracle - yet another Santiago Calatrava architectural masterpiece in the City of Arts and Sciences - the Titanic tour was a triumph of presentation and fascinating for people of all ages, as the whole event was seen through the stories of those who survived and perished on that ship. A great way to spend a couple of hours. In the evening, we returned to the nearby Hemisferic, Calatrava's IMAX cinema-cum-planetarium to see the documentary film about the rediscovery of the Titanic wreck and the first few submarine trips down to the bottom of the ocean to recover some of the many artefacts. All in all, a thoroughly worthwhile event and the exhibition remains in Valencia until March 2008, so any of our guests visiting us before Spring next year will be offered this treat!

It's been an interesting week for several reasons. Firstly, unlike the UK, Spain seems to plonk its Festivals (Bank Holidays) wherever they fall in the calendar and in this case, we celebrated Valencia Day (Día de la Comunidad Valenciana) on Tuesday and Spain Day (Día de la Hispanidad) on Friday, so with two non-contiguous holidays, the children have had a disjointed school week. On top of this, it is 50 years this week since the great River Turia Flood (13 and 14 October 1957), and as if to mark the event (we did, but more of that later), Thursday night saw the heavens open and torrential rain, thunder and lightning storms over many hours on Thursday night to Friday morning, with the resultant flash floods and on-going blustery weather. I should hasten to add that, having watched archive footage of the '57 flood, the squalls of this week bore no comparison.

Chris, Sandra, Jo and Susana at Xativa Castle

So, Valencia Day: With our friends Manoli, Angel, Susana and Sandra, we made our way inland to the city of Xativa, around 40 kilometres from Valencia, to walk around the castle which provides both a beautiful vista of the city below, and is itself, a stunning, restored and well-maintained gem reflecting Xativa's past importance as a major city from the Valenciana region.

Now, we drove to the castle after deciding that the festivities of the day would not be overly grand in the city of Valencia itself. We heard later that, well, "they sort of blew up the city centre at lunchtime!" which seems to be code for the local practice of igniting fireworks whatever the time of day or night. Mascletàs (as the daytime fireworks are known) are let off around 1pm or 2pm at various times of year, notably Fallas in March as well as Valencia Day, and, it seems, almost any other day when there are a few spares kicking around. They are loud - deafeningly loud - and we didn't miss out by being 40 kilometres away in Xativa - they've heard of them there too!

Marching bands celebrating Día de la Comunidad Valenciana

However, if disappointed not to have been "blown up" in Valencia at lunchtime, we ambled our way down to the Turia riverbed by the Palau de la Musica at dusk for the finale celebrations of the day, to see local dancing, marches and music. We did wonder why we appeared to be going in the opposite direction to the children and young families who appeared to be leaving the festivities. "It's over", said Liz. "Let's just go there for the walk then", said I.

We saw the knights on horseback

A colourful and eventful evening was obviously on the cards, and pretty soon we discovered why the young children and families had beaten a path home not twenty minutes before we arrived...

Human sparklers like you've never seen before

Quite who had been employed to walk around as human incendiary devices, I am not sure but it made the most spectacular sight, though the acrid smoke was more than many could take after a couple of minutes and I found myself diving for fresh air after every few camera shots. I kept thinking, "I wonder what the Health and Safety Reps back in the UK would make of all this. Has anyone done a risk assessment?!"


Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Birthday treat: mid-life crisis or mis-spent youth? You decide!

Brian, Chris and Jo celebrating someone's forty-something birthday on roller blades!

OK, birthdays only come around once a year and although not a particularly special milestone this year, there is something nagging at me about still being able to do most things a nine or seven year-old can do. Thus it was that this year, after promising myself for several years, I finally got myself a pair of roller-blades for my birthday. Laugh, you may well do, but I did manage to stay vertical the entire day whilst 'blading' around the Palau de la Musica in the Turia riverbed and later in the day at the America's Cup Port which has an amazing expanse of tarmac and no one on it for the majority of the time. Chris and Jo have also become quite proficient at skating now, having spent a similar amount of time on their new respectively blue and pink rollerblades - all courtesy the dear-old Decathlon sports hypermarket on the outskirts of Valencia.

The rest of my birthday was equally rewarding. In the evening, our friend Lisa kindly babysat the kids whilst we disappeared off for a meal followed by a trip to Babel, Valencia's answer to the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, to see Christopher Zalla's new Sundance Festival-winning film, Padre Nuestro. As somewhat long-in-the-tooth marketers, the marketing of events never ceases to underwhelm us, and this was no different. We spent most of the previous week trying to search out a film of sufficient quality, preferably with some subtitles so we could improve our Spanish, secure in the knowledge we could at least understand the plot. Padre Nuestro was firstly advertised - deeply within one website - with only a starting date and no times. A cycle ride to the cinema two days in advance resulted in no further information as the place was shut up and no publicity material was posted in or outside the venue. On the evening of the performance, the times were suddenly posted, plus the fact that the film was in 'Inglés / Español'. Having committed to the event, we duly sat down to discover about 10 lines spoken in English (and subtitled into Spanish) and the rest of the film spoken in Spanish with no subtitles in any language! What we really need her is a local Trading Standards inspector! Still, we enjoyed the movie and managed to figure out the majority of the plot. I'm still not sure how good the film was though, because without more identifiable language, it's hard to tell!

With the movie beginning at 11.00pm - considered only early to mid-evening here, we departed for home around 1.15am, with several more movies due to start well into the early hours of Sunday morning, and the temperature around us - in early October - in the mid-twenties. Now that's what I call ideal weather for a great autumn birthday!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Lessons for the UK: No 2 - the bike

XI Día de la Bicicleta - Valencia
Brian, Chris and Jo at XI Día de la Bicicleta - Valencia

In many ways Cambridge and Valencia are similar. Well, they're both flat!. OK, that's the end of the similarities. Or its it? Valencia seems to fancy itself as a competitor to Cambridge if only in it's apparent new-found love of 'la bicicleta'. The newer parts around the City of Arts & Sciences, the America's Cup Port, the beach and some areas within the old city itself have been transformed by the creation of cycle paths. The Turia riverbed which runs from the port all the way up to the north of the city contains an intertwined string of cycle paths with exit and entry ramps and most of the bridges along its entire length.

XI Día de la Bicicleta - Valencia
Some of the thousands of families taking part in the XI Día de la Bicicleta

More than that, Valencia seems to be catching the cycling bug in a bigger - and, some would say - more creative way than the UK. Just off the Turia riverbed about half way along its length are the beautiful gardens of Jarines del Real (the Royal Gardens - also known as Los Viveros) which surround the Museo de Ciencias Naturales. One particular area of the gardens is memorable for all children under the age of twelve or so - it has been constructed as a mini-road layout for bikes, complete with traffic signs, roundabouts, motorway flyovers and childrens play areas dotted around throughout the entire road system. Our kids absolutely love the park - as much for the cycling and learning basic road sense - as for the swings, slides and tunnels. What an original and creative way to encourage kids to enjoy the open air, practice their cycling in a safe environment, learn road sense and play on the various park apparatus - whilst mum and dad catch up on the latest issue of the international Guardian! Having seen the recent campaign to keep open the local Milton Country Park just outside Cambridge - a perfect place for outdoor family activities which are sympathetic to the environment, I think this is one trick that has been missed to date!

The mini-road layout is not a total oasis in Valencia. Last weekend we heard about an annual Día de la Bicicleta (Day of the Bicycle) event, due to take place on Sunday. We heard about it with twelve hour's notice late on Saturday night, and despite digging around on the Internet and paying an unsuccessful late night visit to the Day's sponsor, El Corté Inglés to register (registrations having closed the previous Thursday!), we turned up at 9am on Sunday morning to find somewhere around 5,000 families and their bikes queueing up, ready to set off on a 12km ride through all parts of the city - old and new - down to the America's Cup Port and la Malvarrosa beach and back. Again, what a fantastic event and what a great way to involve such large numbers of families in a truly community-oriented event on a Sunday morning. With all the messages about leaving cars behind, finding alternative means of transport for work and recreation, reducing the carbon footprint, staying healthy and reducing obesity - why has this idea not taken off in the cycling visits of the UK? Día de la Bicicleta is now in its 11th year. It is sponsored by the El Corté Inglés, the leading department store of Spain - again what a great brand link. Within Valencia, the event is organised by Bici Club Valencia and supported by the city and the tourist board. Surely an event such as this could easily be rolled out once a year in towns and cities where cycling is already a major mode of transport and this could be held up as an exemplar to those who should be following suit?

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Lessons for the UK: No 1 - looking after the environment

Emptying the bins at midnight
The midnight run

It never ceases to amaze us. Everywhere we seem to be, day or night, sunshine or cloud (a rare occurence!), we are confronted by the sight of dustcarts emptying bins, roadsweeping vans washing and scrubbing pavements, mowing public lawns, trimming trees, emptying drains and other public works designed to maintain the appearance of the city. It's not simply the city of Valencia - we noticed it last year when visiting smaller towns and villages. It has become something of a joke between us. Every road and every pavement outside our apartment (and there are a lot, believe me) is swept at least once every 24 hours - without any exaggeration. The usual utterance from one or other when the sound of whirring brushes starts is: "Well, they haven't swept since breakfast time!"

Street cleaning by hand

I have finally decided that it deserves a mention on the blog. OK, so the noise of srubbing brushes is a minor irritant when it starts to compete with the delightful sounds of the nightly (occasionally daily) firework display, but what has really forced comment this morning is the sight of a city employee scrubbing the inside and outside of our bus shelter downstairs. Now precisely how often does one see a sight like that in the UK?

Street cleaning by machine

The whole of the City of Arts and Sciences (and the city centre of Valencia itself) remains permanently spotless (apart from the piles of dog s**t randomly and occasionally subtly distributed along pavements - something of a paradox when one considers the mown, trimmed, bleached, scraped and scrubbed landscape that surrounds it) and it seems that people have a basic pride in how things look. Gardening in the Jardin de la Turia is an on-going daily activity on an industrial scale.

Within any kilometre stretch of the Turia riverbed on any weekday, you'll see upwards of 30 park staff cleaning, mowing, trimming, strimming or tidying the beautiful surrounds

It's not a complete paradise though. Aside from the regularly-cleared excrement, spray-painting artists provide more than their fair share of 'contemporary art' throughout the city and surrounding area, which is something of a pity when set against the "it's-so-clean-you-can-eat-off-the-floor pavements".

'Contemporary Art' outside our apartment
And the same to you, too!.

It's even more of a pity when some of the abuse has been carefully crafted in English - now is that a Spanish student trying to perfect their mastery of international linguistics, or is this the result of one of those cheap Luton-Valencia lager-fuelled stag weekend trips?

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Sagunto? Sagunt? Saguntum? My Arse...

The controversially refurbished Roman amphitheatre at Sagunto

A beautiful town that boasts a range of names over the years - from the 'Roman 'Saguntum', the Valenciano 'Sagunt' and the Castilian 'Sagunto', this settlement, famous for it's sprawling castle, was once known only as Arse! Try telling the to seven and nine year-olds with a straight face! Only yesterday, we were visiting the 'Colon' district of Valencia (more later), so we're unsure as to which parts of the anatomy are next, and whether they will follow the slang or medical terminology!

Brian, Chris and Jo - spot the ruin!

So, Sagunto (since we are attempting to learn Castillian Spanish at the moment), or more precisely the castle ruins, was the destination of today's visit. Inspired by research for Chris's Roman project at his new school, we drove 25km up the motorway from Valencia to pick our way through the town and into the hills where the ruins remain to this day, covering a stretch of around a kilometre, and seven sections representing different periods in the castle's history. We were even tackled by local gypsies on our descent, who explained that this castle was where the battles with the real El Cid had taken place, not the castle of Peñiscola, used as the backdrop for Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren's 1961 film of the same name, some 100km or so to the north (and which we had visited last year).

Liz and Jo amongst the ruins

Around half way up the hill stands the recently refurbished Roman amphitheatre, which remains a controversial building since the original ruins are more than dominated by the twenty-first century brick and concrete that now encase the original, turning it once again into a working open-air theatre. As with most people, we were in two minds as to whether the building should have been upgraded, but contented ourselves with the fact that there are plenty of other examples of Roman amphitheatre ruins around Europe, so turning one into a functioning building again is, perhaps, acceptable.

Definitely a worthwhile visit - and the views from the top, looking north towards Castellon and south back towards Valencia, are truly stunning.

The rest of the week

IVAM - the contemporary art museum

With Chris and Jo at school all week, we've been out exploring when not engrossed in work. We managed various trips to pick up necessary items of shopping - schoolbooks for Chris and Jo and other household items for the apartment. On occasion we have managed slightly more cultural trips including a visit to IVAM, the contemporary art museum (aka Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno). We felt the building somewhat over-compensated for the art, but it looks like we managed to visit in between exhibitions as a couple of the galleries were roped off. However, a future visit might be needed!

Museo de Bellas Artes

We also managed a cycle along the Turia riverbed one evening after school to the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) which houses a spectacular range of artefacts and paintings. With only an hour or so of daylight (and a dodgy rear puncture on Jo's bike - now repaired!), we felt a little rushed and will return again soon. In this case not only were the objects and paintings fascinating, the building itself has undergone a stunning renovation - worth a tour in itself.

Mercado de Colon

Yesterday we managed to discover another little gem quite close to the apartment. the Colon Market is another stunningly revamped building (style and money seem to be in great abundance wherever we look) which houses an impressive-looking food court at ground level, with the ever-present El Corté Inglés filling up much of the below-ground level. And what's more, Colon Market is right in the centre of the shoe-selling district. Why do I get the feeling we'll be paying frequent visits back to the area in future?!

A trip up the coast to Port Saplaya

To round the evening off, we met up with friends, Manoli, Angel, Susana and Sandra for a short drive up the coast to Port Saplaya. Yet another hidey-hole of creative genius, Port Saplaya is a residential district out on the coast, with a range of attractive apartment blocks built up around a series of man-made canals, all of which lead out to the sea. For boat-minded people, what better place to have a holiday or weekend apartment and a mooring outside the front door than Port Saplaya? There's a small sailing club at the entrance to the canals, so again, another visit is called for during office opening hours, to see if there's a chance we might get some sailing practice in.

Looking forward to the week ahead, Liz and I are looking forward to a concert at the Palau de la Musica tomorrow evening, featuring Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition along with Mozart and something more contemporary. It will be our first venture into another of Valencia's great iconic buildings - again, a stone's throw from the apartment. Just what we need during an otherwise busy working week!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Renault rocks

L'Hemisferic set for the Renault show

We've been wondering what the constant partying has been going on over the past week or so down in the Turia riverbed and tonight we got our answer when we wandered down to check out the noise and coloured lights. Still can't work out exactly what's going on but several bus loads of executives and their wives (yes, I think it probably is that way round!) were dressed to the nines (aka penguins) for some big shindig - billed as a 'product convention 2007'. A great place for a corporate bash if anyone's thinking along those lines. The caterers seem to have set up a cordoned off area by the Science Museum and are scuttling back and forth to L'Hemisferic with trays of plates and glasses loaded up with an array of exquisite-looking food and drink.

Along the Science Museum at dusk

We managed to get a few piccys whilst the coaches were arriving - looked like something from the Oscars only without the red carpet - but I doubt the fireworks, light and water show will kick off until at least midnight (it was 1am last night!)

Across to El Corte Ingles and Aqua Shoppping Centre from the Science Museum

In the meantime, Chris and Jo have now had their second day at school and today for the first time, they ventured back and forth on the El PLantio school bus.
Chris and Jo return from school

Independent or what?! Their uniforms seem to fit and so far everything they went to school in or carrying has been returned home. Day two and nothing lost, damaged or stolen!

Back to Renault - spoke too soon. The music and lights have kicked off and it's only 11.20pm! It's 500m away from us but sounds like the music is next door. I haven't seen the little man from environmental health with his traffic light and clipboard about measuring decibels and... presumably exceptions are made for this part of town!

Thursday, 6 September 2007

A nightly occurrence

L'hemiferic at night, originally uploaded by snowgoose1.

There I was around an hour ago, minding my own business (re-building my computer for the umpteenth time - this time, relocating it on in brand new furniture which arrived today [mainly] ahead of schedule), when an almighty explosion and sharp bursts of light caught my curiosity. Once again, they're partying over the way at L'Hemisferic in the City of Arts and Sciences. Tonight, like last night, a fantastic music, lights, water and laser show, but to end the evening, we were treated to a bunch of paragliders descending on the event with flares strapped to their boots and the most amazing array of fireworks we've seen all week!

Quite whose budget gets plundered for these spectaculars - which seem to happen on a regular but impromptu basis - is anyone's guess, but the free light and sound show from our balcony is much appreciated!

It's now 12.30am and there's still music outside and L'Hemisferic is still changing colours at a rapid rate - must be an all-nighter! Very pleasant entertainment, but I suppose I ought to call it a day soon as we have to be up bright and early to take the kids to school for their first day...

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

A busy few days with work and play

Puente de Calatrava
Puente de Calatrava in Jardin del Turia

My original ambitions for this blog were for something approaching a daily paragraph or two. Perhaps not quite the hourly update with full streaming video, but whatever the preferred frequency (for both writer and reader), it is proving a struggle to generate an update more than once or twice a week at present. Perhaps once the children have started at school, in a 'non-magazine week', when we're not having our furniture ripped from under our feet (see below)... and when there's a 'Z' in the month, we'll get to a more regular post!

In the meantime, I am sitting here in a rather empty apartment - everyone has crashed out for the evening; Newsnight is on the TV here in Valencia (via the amazing Slingbox over the internet from less-than-sunny Cottenham, through the Dell laptop and by cable onto the apartment's TV set). There's something of an echo around the room tonight as nearly all our furniture has been removed and sold by our landlord who has promised to replace it all with a brand new range tomorrow morning! We're slightly nervous that if the dovetailed removal/replacement schedule doesn't work out precisely, we could be sitting here at the weekend on four plastic deckchairs with our plastic garden table as the sole remaining serviceable furniture. We have had a steady stream of buyers traipsing through the apartment tonight, like vultures circling their next meal. With Chris and Jo trying to watch a DVD before tea, they were constantly being moved around the room as people dismantled and removed the two sofas, dining room chairs, a sideboard, dining room table and more besides!

So, to the last few days which have been as busy as ever (thoughts of an easy life once we left the UK has fast dissipated!). After a fabulous day in and around Cullera last Saturday, we had a slightly more relaxing day on Sunday when we cycled all the way along the Turia riverbed (Jardin del Turia) from our apartment alongside the old city and almost up to the point where the old riverbed meets the actual River Turia, diverted around the city after the great flood of October 1957. It's around 6-7 kilometres in distance from our apartment, but the entire length is filled with an array of fascinating mini-parks, sports grounds, recreational activities, games, cafés - even a doggie-toilet for, presumably, well-trained pooches!

The doggie-toilet - complete with graphic sign - presumably for illiterate dogs?

Sunday evening, we had planned to make it to the final performance of Robert de Niro's 'The Good Shepherd' at the Filmoteca open air cinema. However, the event didn't start until 11pm, and with food and drink first, followed by a film of nearly three hours, we chickened out before leaving at around 10.30pm, and stayed in to watch one of our new Pedro Almodovar DVDs (we managed about 20 minutes!).

Filmoteca outside Palau de la Musica

This week has been a 'mag week', so we have managed to intersperse shopping, swimming with the kids and cycling with proofing and editing. It's the last few days before Chris and Jo start at their new school, so we have been spending time with them in between calls and emails to the office! Of course, the main purpose of our shopping has, over the past week or so, been concerned mainly with the acquisition of school uniforms. The last two items - school bags - are now on order from the wonderful El Corté Inglés - hopefully they'll be here by the weekend. No one mentioned the need for a mortgage when buying two children's school uniforms. With a full summer and winter uniform required for each, together with winter and summer sports kit, overalls, school bags and all the text books, we'll all be on (gluten free) bread and water for a while!

Well, the magazine has gone down - the first issue since arriving in Valencia, so it's something of a triumph (the technology worked and the team back in Cambridge did a sterling job, as ever), and so we hope to visit Chris and Jo's new school tomorrow - just one day before the start of the Autumn term. Both children are excited (we think!), though they do miss their friends back in Cottenham and have managed to phone some, email others - and publish a blog for those who just happen across the site. Fingers crossed that the new furniture arrives in the morning or it's back to the plastic suite!

Spain is FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chris climbing (again!) near the Gulliver park

Hello 3 days ago we went to an apartment on the beach with a swimming pool deep enough to dive.......... How Coooooooool is that.
The next day we went to Gulliver's again which was really fun.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Spain Glorious Spain

Here's the beautiful view from our apartment
(photo by Chris)

Hi! We are in Spain at last, here are a few of our photos of the apartment and of Valencia.
Yesterday we went to a BIG Rice Field that went on for miles.
Over here the main religon is Catholic and we went to some of their chuches.

Jeremy and Teddy lying in my bed
(photo by Chris)