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!