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)

The rice fields and Cullera

Rice paddy fields of Valencia

If you thought rice growing was particular to Asia, think again! With Valencia the home of the paella, it would require an awful lot of shipments to keep this dish on the menus and dining tables of millions of people. Take a 20-minute drive south of Valencia and you're into an almost Fen-like vista of rice paddy fields as far as the eye can see. The fields are irrigated through a network of waterways and the growing area extends several miles down to Cullera and beyond. Within the midst of the sea of green lies a small hillock which is home to a beautiful church and an amazing view of the entire 360° rice-growing district. Apparently the mound was formerly and island during Roman times before the local population decided to drain the area in order to plant what is today the staple crop of the region. The view and visibility is so good, we were told by the church caretaker that, last week, a major fire in Castellon, 100km to the north, could be seen clearly from the church!

View from the church

With a morning spent on the beach, a cool-off in our friends' pool and a sumptuous spicy rice and seafood dish at a local restaurant, our trip via the rice fields took us to Cullera - a town we have visited a couple of times before. Indeed, last year, we had considered relocating to Cullera because of its beach, tennis and sailing clubs - that is, before we discovered Gandia and Valencia!

Looking out across Cullera

The city is buzzing during the summer months, but as we found on a visit during February this year, it's a pretty quiet place outside the season. Still a pleasant way to end a summer's day with an ice cream at a local café, while the children burn of some excess energy in one of the mutlitude of kid's play areas!