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).

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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?