Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The chilly UK return

View from the Micalet

Blogging has become rather a 'bottom-of-the-pile' priority in recent months, for which I apologise. I still have it in mind to do some serious video editing from our year in Spain and to post some more of the fascinating highlights, though time is simply not one of those available assets currently. One day... promise...

Well, since mid-August, a fair amount has happened. We had a great final month in Valencia - saw many friends and received our final few visitors before packing got underway, ready for the great return to the UK. Our wonderful landlord and his wife paid us a visit in the final few days, armed with gluten free brownies - took us nearly a fortnight to finish the tray, but the were delicious. Interspersed with visits from friends and fits of box-packing, we managed to make a final few visits to places we had unintentionally avoided during the previous 12 months. A trip to the Cathedral in Valencia and a hike up to the top of the Micalet tower next door. What amazing views across a full 360° panorama - the entire Valencia region in focus on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Sadly as the month drew towards its conclusion, the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One coincided with our own departure on Sunday 24 August. Having got rid of the packed boxes to our wonderful mover - Jimbo the Scot - the previous week, we were left to pack the final oddments and stuff the last bags into our car - just as Hamilton was relinquishing his opportunity to win the European Grand Prix a mile down the road! Of course, packing the bags and stuffing the car was made all the more difficult by the fact that the grown-ups had been up the previous night until around 4am at a number of clubs and restaurants in the Barrio del Carmen area of Valencia, for a finale shindig with our great Spanish friends. Still, despite the cloudy minds and the sleepy heads, we finally departed late afternoon, just as the F1 traffic started moving for the city boundaries, but we still managed good time northwards towards Bilbao, where we stopped off at the Hotel-and-Go in Ribabellosa.

Departing the cold, wet and windy Bilbao, headed for Portsmouth

The next day, we made the final distance to a grey, cloudy and damp Bilbao in less than an hour. A further thirty hours or so later, and we were entering the harbour at Portsmouth - strangely, with marginally better weather!

So that's it. Back in Blighty! But for how long? Well, that's the 64p question. We're now ensconced back at work and play in Cambridge, but there's a desire to find our way back to Valencia at the very first opportunity... and we do have ways, you know!

Liz, Chris and Jo return to the UK with mixed feelings

In the meantime, I really must get back into this blogging lark again. Not only do I need to backfill our year in Spain, but time is marching on here in Cambridge and we have much to report on what's been going on for the past couple of months... back soon!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Iberian tour continues...

Wind- and Kite-surfing at Guincho Beach, near Lisbon, Portugal

Yet another age, I know. We're now back in Valencia - and for the final week or so at that, sadly. Well, the tour throughout Portugal and northern Spain continued through to the end of July, though internet connections became few and far between, hence the lack of posts for the past month or so (again!). Now I'll attempt a rapid hurtle through the final few weeks of the camping and sailing tour, and if time permits, a quick update on the story in Valencia. Whilst the blogs have sadly dwindled, I have been getting my full money's worth over at Flickr where our exploits continue to be recorded as digital images for time immemorial. They're reasonably neatly pigeon-holed into chapters throughout the year - I think there's around 3,500 images up there so far and the number increases by the day.

So to our grand tour, where I left you, cliffhanger-like, near Lisbon in Portugal. The beach at Guincho was stunning. Force 5-6 winds and great scenes of wind-and kite-surfers going about their business - morning, noon and night - sometimes even after dark.

The fairytale palaces of Sintra - how did they get it all the way up there?

We travelled from our Orbitur Guincho campsite slightly inland to the beautiful - and very English-looking - town of palaces that is Sintra the following day. You've probably heard the old line about how many people can one stuff into a Mini, telephone box ("What are telephone boxes, Daddy?", our children might ask!!) etc. Well, to stretch the cliché, how many palaces can one stuff into a town that is scarcely larger than a village? Well, we still don't know the answer precisely, but it is certainly more than a few, and we spent a day hiking through a number of them. Quite a fascinating place where royals and noblemen (and women) built their country retreats over the centuries. The views across the mountains from each of these magical buildings were quite something and well worth the visit.

On the beach near A Coruña, in a boat that was never designed to float!

And so, onwards towards the northern Portuguese border with Spain. We departed Guincho and headed northwards via a lunch stopover in the beautiful university city of Coimbra, just south of Porto. What a fantastic lunch, though with sweltering heat hitting the early 40°s, we decided, regrettably, it was not a day for lots of outdoor sightseeing, and we jumped back into the air-conditioned car and upwards past Porto to the town of Viana do Castelo, where we stayed for a further couple of nights before passing into northern Spain and the region of Galicia to meet our friends, Rick, Charlie, Ellie and Joe at a campsite in the titchy village of Santa Marta, just outside the city of A Coruña. Though we managed a nice day on the beach, the weather moved steadily down from the early 40°s to the early 20°s and a few cloudy and occasionally rainy days ensued. Still, despite the grey skies, we braved a trip to the tiny fishing port of Malpica and managed to convince a local restaurateur to permit us to spend the entire day eating and drinking on his terrace whilst the kids played on the beach directly in front of us. We must have been good for business in the circumstances as, despite the changeable weather our true British hardy spirit attracted a number of other fellow customers to brave the elements and order their lunch on the terrace too. The bars and cafés either side of us appeared empty throughout the day, whilst our for our chosen hostelry it was bonanza day!

A relaxing boat trip around A Coruña with Rick, Charlie, Liz, Joe and Chris

Another pleasurable day was spent in and around A Coruña. I've always been interested in visiting this great port as it seems to me to be the destination of choice for yachtsmen who cross to Spain from the UK, and is also often on the well-worn race circuit for various round-the-world yachting events.

Ayuntamiento (town hall) in A Coruña

Having been urged by everyone we know and by every guidebook ever written, we set off to Santiago de Compostela for its annual festival day. We decided that the city would be overrun with tourists and that rather than taking the car, we chose to drive into the middle of nowhere and catch the train. Despite numerous maps of the area - most of which were a work of fiction - we managed to find the 'one-horse' village of Meirama where we lay in wait for the daily train to Santiago

The train from nowhere to the 'aquarium' city of Santiago de Compostela

Sadly, the day was a real washout in every sense of the word. Not only had most of the festival finished (the fireworks having taken place the night before), but there was a political rally which appeared to be a heavily-policed fight between communists and whatever flavour of fascism is currently in vogue in Galicia. Added to which, we then experienced the heaviest rainfall of the year, so what was planned as a long day out turned out to be a severely curtailed event, though we did manage to get into the city's famous cathedral in between services.

With more than a week of camping to go including the final five days in Asturias, sadly the blog will have to pause for breath (or at least, I need to go to bed!), so until next time when I hope to conclude the trip and get up to date in Valencia...

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A whirlwind tour of Portugal, southern and northern Spain, by boat and tent…

Brian, Chris and skipper, Peter on board Tonia

Just a quick blog today – after a couple of months – a lot has happened in recent weeks and months, but I’ve either been too busy living it, or, more recently, we’ve been without internet access so have been unable to post anything. We are currently on our travels away from Valencia.

Yacht Tonia in Ayamonte border town on the Spanish side near Portugal (photo by Jo!

We departed a week ago last Sunday, 6 July, heading for the southern Spanish / Portuguese border town at Ayamonte (Spain) for a five-day sailing course for Liz and myself. This we successfully completed having sailed around 100 miles along the Portuguese coast to Tavira and then back up the Guadiana River to Foz. I now have my Day Skipper certificate and Liz has her Competent Crew one, so beware RNLI!

Liz, Chris and Jo at the beach in Guincho near Lisbon, Portugal

Since last weekend, we have started our Iberian camping tour which will be around three weeks or so. We started by driving back over the newish suspension bridge over the Guadiana River bridge at Ayamonte (we’d been sailing back and forth under it the previous week) and into Portugal’s Algarve coast. We headed on to a small town called Alvor, a few miles from the larger town of Lagoa, over yet another impressive suspension bridge at Portimao. Our first couple of nights were spent at Dourada campsite in Alvor (not to be recommended – quite expensive and every service after paying for the campsite was charged as an extra – electricity, hot water, swimming pool etc. All rather petty and annoying – why not simply charge an all-inclusive price? Anyway, I could go on…

Sunset over the horizon at Guincho - nearly the most western point of Europe!

We quickly tired of the Algarve, though we had a great day at the Splash and Slide water park in Lagoa. The thought of fish and chips and too many Brits forced our hand and we moved north to the Lisbon area on Monday. A great journey up the ‘B road’ equivalents, avoiding the motorway. I never realised how much wheat was grown in Portugal, but it is also surprising how behind the times the methods of agriculture still appear to be. The wheat fields seem to be heavily populated with a combination of cork and olive trees, which means that the more common combine harvesters would have difficulty navigating their way around a crazy maze of wheat, hence smaller machinery must be used. The entire drive was very beautiful and most of the land as far as the eye could see remains either entirely undeveloped or used for agriculture – no major towns and even the small villages seem quite basic in terms of buildings and services. The final drive over the impressive bridge Ponte 25 Abril was stunning. This bridge, similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco, is a couple of miles long in total. Its sister bridge a few miles up river claims to be 17 kilometres (about 11 miles) long. The river Tejo is obviously wide and very picturesque from both sides. Next to the Ponte 25 Abril is a statue of Christ which, similar to Rio de Janeiro, dominates the skyline on the banks opposite Lisbon. We’ve spent the past three nights at the Orbitur campsite at Guincho, just up the coast from Cascais (pronounced Cushcaish!) which is a great site by comparison with the one in Alvor. Sadly the free wifi seems not to be working – half the staff weren’t aware it even existed and the other half claim it is working!). We’ve had a day exploring the beautiful towns of Cascais and Estoril and spent all of yesterday in Lisbon – more to follow if and when I get the chance. Today we’re planning to visit the town of Sintra and will try to grab a few minutes of broadband somewhere – someone here assures us that McDonald’s has free wifi locally. Now, can we face up to a visit for a gluten-free coffee and fries?!!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Sponsorship for Cubs

Chris on about length number 75 and still going strong!

I've completed my sponsored swim of 100 lengths of my pool for Cottenham Cubs. I raised £106 and 5p all thanks to you!! The reason we are trying to raise so much money is so that we can buy things to camp in comfort.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

It's been a while...

Valencia's own David Ferrer smashing his way to victory, against all the odds whilst defending several match points against him, in the 2008 ATP Open de Tenis Comunidad Valenciana, April 2008

Well, it appears that over a month has elapsed since the last post on this site. Sorry, for those of you who faithfully check-in on a regular basis. I have a list of excuses as long as my exceedingly long arms.

Would you like the one about the numerous guests we've had in the past couple of months that have kept me away from the keyboard? OK, if that excuse doesn't wash (though it is true, and it would be very rude to simply keep blogging rather than showing people the sights of Valencia or cooking them tapas and paella!).

Then there's the other technology-oriented excuse - another genuine one - whilst results from my now-dead Dell PC. The hard drive, which stored by complete life (yeah, yeah, yeah... I did have a full backup!) finally died early last week - a clicking sound of the hard drive gasping its last followed by lots of blue screens and white type (why can't Microsoft vary the bad news with a bit of colour?!). Sadly, despite buying a lovely new hard drive - three times the capacity of the last one at 750GB - it wouldn't let me load Windows properly and so after crashes too numerous to mention, I have now recruited a computer-savvy person to come and bash it until it gets some sense about how Windows XP Professional is meant to just work right out of the box...

All of which means that we are now down to just three computers - one desktop, one laptop and this MacBook Pro. Lovely new Mac, but unfortunately, my life still exists on the backup hard drives and not on this little blighter, so whilst I'm able to just about cast my fat fingers around this titchy keypad, I don't have access to any pretty photos or video at the moment, so it's gonna be a few days more before I can crank something up which will spit out the necessary graphic images (though I've managed to grab one or two for the time-being).

Quite a bit has happened here in not-so-sunny-all-of-the-time Valencia over the past seven weeks or so. Firstly I took delivery of this shiny new Apple Mac and am very slowly teaching myself all the various graphics packages to enable me to be more productive in my 'virtual life', though I am so used to all the Windows shortcuts, I'm not sure if it will be in this lifetime or the next that I'll finally conquer the Mac shortcuts too!

We have navigated ourselves from one set of guests to another. It has been great fun spending time with so many people over the past year and in particular showing off this beautiful city to our friends and work colleagues. It is also simply so rewarding to spend real quality time with people when so often we communicate by occasional email, phonecall or the odd dinner. To spend 2, 3, 4 or more days with our friends - especially when the climate has been favourable - has been a real joy here in Valencia, and something we'll always treasure. Still, there has to be some benefit in all these visits coming to an end... Chris finally gets the chance to move back into his own bedroom, leaving Jo to get on with life in her own bedroom! What a star he's been, camping out, off and on, for the past nine months or so, in his sister's bedroom!

So then to events and activities - we've seen and experienced plenty during April and May. From my old fave, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (last saw them about 15 years ago at the old Sadler's Wells Theatre in London) to the finals of the ATP Open de Tenis Comunidad Valenciana, and from The Night of the Proms concert (one of the most surreal and weird evenings of our life!) to a long weekend camping with friends in Santa Pola (just south of Alicante), we've had an action-packed couple of months.

Going back to The Night of the Proms - we were warned in the advanced publicity within the local 24/7 Valencia Guide that the event would be a little on the strange side, and it didn't disappoint. Where else could you find the following: a 72-piece orchestra performing Land of Hope and Glory and a variety of Strauss waltzes, the Spanish heart-throb Miguel Rios, a male German singer, Galileo, who could belt 'em out in a combination of soprano and baritone - all in the same ballad (astoundingly talented), OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark), Alan Parsons (yes, he of the original 'Project' fame - and a giant of a man), 1970's one-hit-wonder-but-stunning-pianist-and-vocalist, John Miles ('Music was my first love...') and the 1980's supergroup, Simple Minds... in a 10,000-seater echo-ey athletics velodrome? Musically, the evening was superb. With regard to the choice of musical programming - Strauss, Elgar, Simple Minds' 'Belfast Child', Alan Parsons' 'Psychobabble' and OMD's 'Enola Gay' - it all makes the strangest of bedfellows.

The island of Tabarca lies just off the coast of Santa Pola, and makes a great day trip, though it's best to go on a windless day!

Scarcely had we recovered our eardrums and reaffirmed that we were in fact still living within the early 21st century and not the previous one or two hundred years (music aside)... it was time for our first camping adventure. As it turned out, more by luck than by judgement, we picked the last few clear sunny days before an onslaught of April and May showers - nay, storms! Together with friends, we spent three days and two nights camping at Santa Pola, a few miles to the south of Alicante. Well, the good news is that the brand new Decathlon-special 6-berth tent worked fine. We even managed to set it up and put it away again in around 30 minutes on each occasion. However, the land mass required to fully erect the structure is equivalent to the area of Devon and Cornwall combined, so I am anticipating the need for multiple camping 'sites' on each occasion we plan to pitch it in the future. We are really looking forward to two or three weeks' camping up around the north west of Spain in the summer, and possibly some time in Portugal if we can organise things in time...

Chris, Jo and Liz show off that vast tent, and prove the fact that it did turn out just like the instructions said it would!

Of course, aside from all the concerts and camping, we have managed to pack in a number of great meals and parties with friends. A great night out celebrating Angel's 40th back in late April and Margaret's 50th earlier in May. Both events required visits to the best local bars and restaurants, and it strikes me that even if we stay here another decade, partying everyday, we won't have managed to visit every hostelry, though we might die trying!

Chris and Jo have also had their own busy and enterprising times. Both have had schoolfriends over to play; they continue to play football with other children from our apartment block; they've done well at their respective school sports days school concerts and Chris has managed not only to achieve his faith badge for cubs back in Cottenham whilst staying in Valencia, but he has just learned that he has achieved a 'Distinction' in his Royal Schools of Music recorder exam - something he chose to study for and put himself through. Jo was mentioned in dispatches at a school parents day last term for being a finalist in a competition to design a new logo for the parents association. We were subsequently invited to attend a meeting with the parents association but felt that keeping a meaningful conversation going in Valenciano was a step too far for all of us amateur Spanish speakers! Both children have had a great academic year at school and hopefully will continue to benefit from this Spanish experience long into the future. We are both in awe of their abilities to muck in with their Spanish friends, sharing communication between English, Spanish and... Valenciano, which they have both had to study this year. Term finishes later in June and then it's time for the great summer camping fest.

Meanwhile, technology permitting, we'll be back with further blogs from time-to-time throughout the summer. Oh... and I'm still promising those Fallas videos sometime!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Chris's work on the Faith Badge for Cubs

My dad and I made a video for my Faith badge for 2nd Cottenham Cubs in Valencia around my house. Please Enjoy!

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Música en familia: El barbero de Sevilla - for all the family!

A quick post to congratulate the city of Valencia on its continued investment in the live performing arts at Palau de la Música. Yesterday afternoon for a one-and-a-half-hour performance of selected highlights of The Barber of Seville, we paid €3 each (€12 in total for all four members of the family) to see an orchestra of 26, a chorus of 12 and a cast of six principals perform some of the best known arias and musical excerpts from this Rossini opera. There were children ranging from babes-in-arms to older teenagers - plus their parents and grandparents - attending one of four sold out performances over two days in the city's premier classical music concert hall. With a potential gross income of, say, €3,000 per performance, including IVA (Spanish VAT equivalent), it is anyone's guess how much the city and region has chosen to subsidise performances of this quality and stature, but what a fantastic way to introduce children and young people to opera. Sure there was a fair amount of fidgeting and crying (that was just the parents!), but in a performance aimed at younger people, this approach to introducing the 'classical arts' must be preserved and promoted - preferably such lessons could be drawn from arts funders and organisations the UK, assuming Margaret Hodge MP doesn't think such work is too elitist or racially exclusive towards the white middle classes!

The only slight downer on the event was that it could have been slightly shorter - at ninety minutes without interval, some children appeared to find the length a little too challenging. That said, the entire cast - principals, chorus and orchestra - were of an extremely high standard - something which was appreciated by all.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Requena, Chera, Chulilla and Chelva

We often find it surprising how many beautiful towns and villages we can find within an hour or so's drive of Valencia, considering 50% of the area surrounding the city is either sea or the Albufera lagoon!

A quick saunter down at the lakeside of the beautiful Embalse de Buseo

On Tuesday this week, we headed out via Requena (now quite a regular retreat when we have guests) to the villages of Chera, Chulilla and Chelva and some even smaller hamlets en route. On this occasion, we didn't stop in Requena - other than to search for a petrol filling station before going into the mountains. We headed on to Embalse de Buseo, a reservoir in the Sierra de Tejo mountains. The whole area - including the access roads to it - was completely deserted, but evidence shows that the summer season gets busy with a comprehensive camp site set up in the woods surrounding it. Chris decided he wanted to pitch camp there and then (our entire equipment for this day trip consisted of a couple of portable DVD players, cameras and a bag of snacks!), but we managed to get going again after a snack break, dropping into the nearby village of Chera briefly before continuing onto the slightly larger town (everything is relative) of Chulilla, near the banks of the River Turia which continues on down to Valencia.

Chulilla - the town on a cliff-edge

Chulilla provided a great place for lunch and a brisk walk afterwards. The town appears to 'hang' over a steep ravine along one side, with some buildings precariously perched, giving the appearance that a strong wind would send them over the cliff and into the valley below. In many ways, the whole area reminds me of Sedona in Arizona, and in some ways like a miniature Grand Canyon with the deep reddish soil and sedimentary rock colouring.

Reddish sedimentary rock much like Arizona - here a cliff-face hewn into a human face shape - made-made or natural?

Finding lunch was a little more problematic than anticipated as even the few odd bars and cafes that did exist appeared to be closed. Finally with some local help, we found a very small bar which was able to provide a decent three-course menu del día for €7.50-a-head - including wine and coffee! The post-lunch walk took us deep down into the ravine and along the valley floor for about a mile through a dense bamboo and pine forest to a natural diving pool which also appears to double-up as the source of a hydro electric station nearby.

Liz, Chris and Jo at the diving pool

Brian, Chris and Jo pausing on the way back up!

On the way back to Valencia we briefly took a detour north-easterly to the village of Chelva and on the way, an even larger lake, dammed for hydro-electricity, Embalse de Loriguilla. A pretty vista-filled day and a few mountain destinations for our planned camping breaks in the summer!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Video: The last day of Fallas 2008

The end of Fallas 2008

As promised, a short (seven-minute) video of our last few hours of Fallas 2008. A trip into the city in the afternoon to let off fireworks and again in the evening - this time to take a final look around a handful of the 700-odd Fallas around the city before the entire collection was burned to a cinder.

Simply click below to watch the video.

There's more video to follow in due course when I get a chance to edit it, including the burning of our 'own' Falla in Avenida de Francia, and the Semana Santa procession from Easter Sunday...

Monday, 24 March 2008

Semana Santa... another day, another procession

Semana Santa Easter Day Procession in full swing

Easter is a big thing here in Spain. We have seen the set-up for various Easter week processions in Andalucia in the recent past, but I hadn't actually experienced Easter Sunday in Spain since my childhood. It is purely coincidental that Easter week should clash with the end of the Fallas festival this year - one religious celebration rolled into the back end of another.

Jo making use of some of the many thousands of carnations thrown to the waiting crowds

Chris patiently waits in the crowd for his own carnation!

It is as if this city needs no pause for recuperation because scarcely had the costumes of the Falleras been put back in the closet and the trumpets and drums of the Fallas marching bands stowed back in their cases than an entirely new set of immaculate costumes were dusted off and the instruments brought back out for the annual Semana Santa processions. Processions took place 'in three acts' on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and culminating in the Resurrection Procession on Easter Sunday in the Marinera de Valencia - inland from the beach area a couple of blocks.


Marching band after marching band throughout the route

We only managed to attend the final parade on Sunday, but it was yet another show of true city-wide community proportions with thousands upon thousands of marching groups and bands.

All ages participating in the Easter Sunday Resurrection Procession

The costumes - every one of them immaculately detailed - looked stunning. Again, the questions ran through our minds as to who can possibly foot the bill for such sumptuous threads. The thousands of participants, carried hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of carnations in every colour - many of which were dispatched into the crowds lined up on both sides of the street for the 2 or 3 mile route. We also wonder where such vast quantities of carnations could have been harvested for this event.

Babes in arms - not one detail of the costumes was missed out

We stood in one position for nearly ninety minutes and the procession still took around an hour of that time to completely pass us by, underlining the sheer scale of the day's event. Yet again, all ages were active participants - even babes were carried literally in arms - in the full regalia of their group. This will be yet one more video to add to the growing backlog of 'editing projects'!

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The night the city burns...

The last view of our Falla before the ceremonial torching...

It was a most surreal experience right across the city. This yearly festival which, though only officially five days in actual duration, is in fact, a year-long labour of both love and money for many people. It ended abruptly in the very early hours of Thursday 20 March with the traditional burning of the Fallas across the city... a city which looked akin to the TV pictures of Beirut in my youth with burning pyres and thick black smoke rising across the skyline - accompanied by some of the most spectacular firework displays ever seen.

Wednesday evening, we headed for the city centre after dinner, to be accosted by young children throwing fireworks - a daily occurrence from 1 March onwards - arriving to view a number of the city's finest Fallas in their final hours of existence on this world...

Fallas in the city - the final few hours...

After a couple of hours of wandering throughout the streets, seeing the great works of art - each one caringly designed and built over the preceding twelve months - we ambled back to a side street near the market to see the some of the many marching bands returning from their own musical trips around the neighbourhoods - to set fire to the children's ninot - something which, every year begins at 10.30pm on the evening of the 19th.

The first lick of the flames for the childrens' Falla

Another Falla...

...another fire!

Returning back to the apartment in Avenida de Francia for the midnight burning of our 'own' Falla, we discovered that since the fire brigade (bomberos in Castilian Spanish; bombers in Valenciano) have to be present at every burning, the allotted time for Avenida de Francia was not in fact midnight, but 1.30am the next morning, so we managed to keep some very tired children up for another hour-and-a-half until the bombers finally arrived to assist the local association in the cremation of the Falla.

Nou Campanar Panorama_edited-1
The biggest Falla this year - a €900,000 investment at Nou Campanar - and a great bonfire to boot!

None of the Brits present have ever experienced anything quite like the burning of a Falla. With hours of build-up, the final few minutes before 'lighting time' were conducted with a dousing of the structure in something highly flammable; fireworks kept going off all around us - many of them lit by myself and the children - totally legally, of course; the Falla Queens continued to meet and greet their followers; the bombers set up their firehoses; and the Valencian Anthem was playing steadily louder.

Outside our apartment, seconds after the Falla Queen lit the fuse... whoosh!

Finally, the TV cameras moved into position and the skies erupted with an amazing five-minute display of synchronised rockets before the Falla Queen was invited down to light the final 'fuse' - a string of exploding fire-crackers leading to the foot of the massive Falla. With an almighty bang and an instantaneous, searing whoosh of heat which left us and all the other spectators running backwards for shelter, the Falla exploded into a fireball of flames. As the fireball became an inferno, the bombers began hosing - not the fire - but the walls of our apartment (less than 3 metres from the edge of the flames) and the trees and shrubs surrounding the fire. This continued for much of the next thirty minutes or so until the final struts of the supporting frame of the Falla were reduced to a pile of burning embers and the bombers finally turned their hoses onto the fire itself, extinguishing the flames in a matter of a few minutes, turning the once-sweltering furnace into a giant pile of steaming charcoal and the Falla was no more.

As a footnote - the next morning, as promised - there was not a shred of evidence where the Falla had once stood, that anything had ever occurred. No scorch-marks. No burned embers. Just a simple road junction returned to its former state.

An amazing display of flowers at Plaza de la Virgen - creating a gigantic effigy of Our Lady every year as part of the Fallas celebrations. This year, the event coincided with Easter week

Yet more flowers at Plaza de la Virgen - their placement witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators - we could only get near nearly two days after the final flowers were laid

I now fully understand the explanations given of the Fallas festival in the tourist brochures. They talk about the history and tradition of Fallas and explain that Valencian people have learned to control fire. I have to admit, I was sceptical and thought this a bit of marketing bravado; however I now truly believe it really is the case. In many ways, 'our' Falla at Avenida de Francia was in one of the more 'open' locations - being plonked in the middle of a T-junction between a minor side street and the main avenue itself with only one apartment block on one side and pretty much open space on the other three sides. Many of the other 700 or so Fallas throughout the city and beyond, were packed into small crossroads and junctions with antiquated apartment buildings, shops and other ancient structures closely packed in on all sides. Every single one of those Fallas was burnt in the early hours of Thursday morning and I have yet to hear of any injury or 'mistake' which led to the accidental burning down of any of those buildings.

It does seem the strangest series of rituals - and for a 'tourist', quite a sad end to what must have been a protracted year-long programme of planning work, designing, building, fundraising, meetings and rehearsals. Perhaps for the people who create, celebrate and then burn these amazing structures, it is a simple repetition of a ritual passed down through the years in the same way as any other cultural practice. The Fallas year begins on 20 March each year - right after the last of the embers are cleared away from the previous Cremà.

I have video of many aspects of Fallas. I mean... I HAVE hours and hours of video! I will try to get some edited back to 10-minute slots as soon as I can in order to show off some of the highlights on this blog. In the meantime, Fallas has taught me quite a lot about what is and what is not a genuine community event - one which appears not to require a flood of public subsidy and government targets to ensure it provides value for the public purse, or the correct level of engagement and 'access' amongst its population. The event continues year after year - paid for by voluntary public subscription and private sponsorship. It truly involves everyone in some way or another - whether through participating in one of the 300 or more marching bands across the city, competing in the numerous Fallas Queen competitions, involvement in the Flower Offering at Plaza de la Virgen - even buying and throwing fireworks, eating and drinking the festive refreshments or participating in the many street events.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Day Three of Fallas

Fallas 2008 in Valencia
Traditional Valencian Fallas costumes for the Fallera Queens and their courts

A relatively quiet day as far as we are concerned - probably due mainly to the fact that we have plenty of work to do this week and have therefore not spent too much time away from the apartment. [Indeed, the only time we ventured out this morning was when Liz walked over to the El Saler Shopping Centre at the other side of the riverbed to see if she could obtain tickets for the Valencia CF versus Barcelona match in the city this Thursday. After two hours of queuing, a déjà vu experience when it was discovered that the box office system wasn't working... then it would only issue tickets in 'ones'... then there were just a handful of single tickets left... no use to us - another wasted morning queuing in Valencia - just like the Three Days at the Opera last November!]

However, the sounds of Valencia and indeed the experience of walking through the streets must be something akin to walking through the streets of Beirut, although thankfully without the death and destruction - purely the ongoing noise and smell of explosives. We had a handful of mascletàs across the panoramic vista from our balcony at 2.00pm this afternoon. The despertà this morning was lively and as with the mascletà, it appears to get louder everyday. The sound of the marching bands mixed with the cracks and bangs of fireworks commenced at 8.00am. If anything, the fact that today was a Monday and nominally some people were apparently at work and not chucking fireworks, maybe the despertà fireworks weren't as loud as yesterday's, but this was more than compensated by the marching bands. Not being especially fond of brass brands or their music, there is something very appealing about Valencian marching bands. The music has a real appeal - possibly the repetitive nature of many of the traditional songs or possibly it's the beat of the drums. The children are now beginning to whistle some of the catchiest Valencian rhythms, and indeed both Chris and Jo are able to sing the Valencian anthem - in Valenciano. Must check out the copyright and see if I can use the music to accompany some of my many hours of video already 'in the can' for my Fallas record.

Later this afternoon , we ambled down to El Corté Inglés to buy some tickets for the ATP Tennis Open Finals in Valencia (incidentally, we managed to get front row seats for five people for less than the cost of a single ticket at Wimbledon - let's hope the final is between Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal! One successful ticketing story today at least!). The walk to El Corté Inglés is around 500 metres, but as we now know, during Fallas, it is a treacherous journey, safe only for non-combustible humans or the deaf and hard-of-hearing! The noise from the fireworks being lobbed, dropped and surreptitiously left in our path gave us whistling ears by the time we got home. Most of the combatants (!) were 5-6 year-olds and the effects of their parents' pyrotechnic budgets can be seen in the variety of new dances we are now all easily able to perform as we move gracefully up and down the streets avoiding the fizzing firecrackers.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Fallas: build-up to the biggest street festival in the world?

One small piece of one relatively small Falla... out of around 700 Fallas currently installed throughout Valencia

We're already at day two of the official Fallas festival here in Valencia. It runs annually (officially) from 14 to 19 March each year, culminating in the celebrations of St Joseph's Day on Wednesday 19 March.

Falla Avenida de Francia Panoram
The Falla outside our apartment on Avenida de Francia. It's closest point is less than five metres from the apartment block. What will happen on Wednesday during la cremà when the whole lot goes up in flames? Better check the insurance policy!

Whilst we may be at only the second day, it seems that the festival has been going on, at least in part, since 20 March 2007 - the formal end of last year's celebrations mean the immediate start to preparations for the following year's events.

This festival is so vast in every sense of the word - it encompasses the true community involvement of all the city's residents (the city claims a current population just below 800,000 but this figure is said to swell to more than three million during Fallas); the sheer sums of money involved (all private funding - not a penny of subsidy!); the scale of the event - as many as 700 Fallas statues across the city, ranging in budget from €6,000 to €900,000 (rumour has it) - some of them as high as 20 metres; the marching bands (official figures state that there are over 300 marching bands in the city alone); the daily mascletàs at the Ayuntamiento (town hall square); and now across the city every day, the nightly fireworks in the Turia riverbed; the hundreds if not thousands of marquees set-up alongside each Falla - adorned with banners and hoardings from the Fallas sponsors; the temporary refreshment stands everywhere stocked with buñuelos and hot chocolate, horchatas with fartons (cold drink made from tiger-nuts with dunking doughnuts!); the hundreds of thousands of children as young as three or four huddled in groups with their burning wicks, setting light to the petardos, bombetas and on occasion, huge firecrackers, rockets and other explosive devices (rumour has it the EU tried to ban children from buying and throwing fireworks in Valencia, but somehow the legislation failed - the region has to amend its own legislation each year to permit children to buy and throw fireworks from 1-20 March), the daily deafening wake-up call at 8.00am of la despertà - a cacophony of marching bands and petardos liberally blasted up and down each street, giving a formal welcome to the day's festivities (firework-throwing seems to run to an approximate timetable of 8.00am to 4.00am the following day, though not everyone abides by the four-hour ceasefire!); the endless parades of floats, bands, horses and more... much more besides...

Fallas Panorama 3_edited-1
The sheer scale of these structures is mind-boggling. Las Vegas would rank a poor second to some of these giants!

We have never seen anything like it, and there are another three full days to go before a series of concluding events.

The mascletàs have been going off every day at the Ayuntamiento - and elsewhere - since 1 March, and this is set to continue up until Wednesday 19 March, when at 2.00pm, the final mascletà promises to be the longest and loudest series of explosions we have ever heard. So far, the daily events have averaged around 7-8 minutes, getting progressively louder with each successive minute - indeed each successive day! This is perhaps the most audible evidence that Fallas is just around the corner. Indeed as I write this on Sunday afternoon, the siesta is interrupted every few seconds with an explosion - and every few minutes, the sounds of a marching band. From 2.00pm onwards we were able to no only hear but to see around half a dozen mascletàs being set off across the city over the tops of buildings across a panorama from our apartment.

There's still another 10 hours of Sunday to go but we can now understand why they say the city doesn't sleep whilst Fallas is in town...

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

It's getting louder...

Well, it's getting closer.

The Fallas season officially starts this Saturday, 15 March at midnight with Plantà, the erection of around 350 Fallas statues across the city, and ends with their torching at La Cremà at midnight on Wednesday 19 March - Saint Joseph's Day. The daily Mascletàs continue (after a brief cessation on Saturday as a mark of respect, following a terrorist murder in Northern Spain). Today's Mascletà appears below and they really are getting louder every day (though yesterday's may well have been an exception - admittedly we were standing much closer but the sound was absolutely deafening and the 'drum roll' effect continued for the best part of a minute - the buildings and the ground shook all around us). We cannot understand how any windows remain in their frames with explosions of such veracity continuing for around six or seven minutes daily. One thing though: having felt rather ambivalent towards Mascletàs before we saw our first one 'up front and personal', we now totally understand the excitement and the attraction as well as the artistry. God knows how much each session costs - or who pays - but fireworks seem to be the stock-in-trade of Valencia and it seems the pyrotechnic companies continue to outdo each other at every available opportunity. Even tonight another spectacular took place down in the riverbed - presumably another corporate junket.

I hope to find time to cover some of the history of Fallas in one of my subsequent blogs, but meanwhile there are a number of worthwhile online resources available including Fallas from Valencia, Wikipedia and the official website.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Fallas and the mascletàs are on their way...

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. Something of a work and visitors glut which means time has been scarce online. However, we did finally manage to co-ordinate a trip to our Spanish lessons at Hispania Escuela with a visit to the daily 2.00pm Mascletà in the Plaza Ayuntamiento (town hall). I have also managed to edit the video down to around 6.5 minutes. Let's see if it works:

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Well done Beckers and Pongo...

Chris and Jo get ready for Carnaval at El Plantio International School of Valencia

Chris and Jo getting ready for another day at school

Well done Chris and Jo. Today was Carnaval Day at El Plantio International School in Paterna, Valencia and all the children were invited to dress up in a costume of their choice. Chris dusted off his David Beckham outfit complete with leather football (Beckham still seems to be currency in Spanish football eyes when anyone wants to make reference to the beautiful game without naming it outright!). A haircut last night and as much gel as his hair would absorb were part of the morning's preparations.

Jo managed to recreate the 'Pongo' outfut from 101 Dalmations - she's quite used to colouring in black spots on stickers, making tails and 'spotting-up' her face is mascara now - and this time, she won first prize in her class for the best fancy dress.

I don't remember ever being allowed to dress up in anything other than shorts, shirt, tie, cap and blazer when I was at school! Makes me sound like an old person!

Friday, 1 February 2008

No contamina, ni gasto gasolina!

Holding up the streets of Valencia in support of the bike

Well it wasn't the Paris riots of 1968, but it was busy, loud and brought the streets of Valencia to a temporary halt. Yes, we've been out on a protest cycle tonight - pedalling slowly around the streets of the old city, delaying the rush hour traffic, though studiously avoiding entering the bus lanes (busses are OK in this anti pollution, anti-global warming, pro-bike new world here in VLC!). So whilst people in the UK have been brought to a halt in the city and motorway rush hours this evening due to blizzards and snowdrift, we've been bringing misery to the streets of VLC with our protect which must have been around 1,000 strong including children on bikes, babies and toddlers in bike trailers.


The chants, "No contamina, ni gasto gasolina!", frequent rounds of applause, a ghetto blaster, whistles and the occasional car horn in a half-hearted return protest added to the lighthearted nature of the evening. I for one cannot wait for the next bike protest... I hear there's another meeting in a couple of weeks, supported by the Valencia Metro where we can travel with our bikes on the tube - and get free sandwiches at the end of the gig. Sounds great!

Thursday, 31 January 2008

From VLC to BCN for the weekend...

The covered market off La Rambla offers its produce without the familiar processing and packaging

Rather a**e about face I'm afraid. Life moves on apace and if I don't get a blog off the stocks immediately, then I'm constantly running to stand still. In this case, the visit to the Formula One tests comes after our visit to Barcelona (BCN) for the weekend in chronological terms, but in purely blogging terms, it was quicker to dash off the F1 blog before the more leisurely look at BCN (could be something to do with the fact that I know little or nothing about motor racing and only marginally more about BCN!)

A horse and carriage parade down La Rambla... still not sure what it was all about!

So... to Barcelona a week ago last Friday evening at the beginning of a long weekend (a two-day bank holiday or festival for the children, to mark the martyring of Valencia's patron saint, San Vicente Martir Day). We decided to take the train rather than drive, in order to arrive relaxed and ready for action Saturday morning. Just like the UK, a fantastic, fast, comfortable service with complimentary headphones for the free movie on board, a punctual departure and arrival and of course, reserved and numbered seats. Just like the UK! Liz convinced me on arrival at BCN that our hotel was only two inches from the station and should be a 10-minute walk from the station - "why bother with a cab?". Ahem, OK, so it was 20 minutes and with a case full of cameras, a laptop, rucksack and travel pouch, I for one was knackered by the time the hotel finally came into view. However, en route, we did see the stunning Joan Miró art work in the park dedicated to his memory, so there was some benefit to the walk.

La Rambla boasts a range of art and artistes up and down its entire length

With our complimentary broadband all set up and the tourist websites suitably scoured for deals and bargains, we set off Saturday morning for a wander down La Rambla, checking out the heaving under-cover market, local art and artists (including the rather shocking surprise appearance of a street artist who burst out of a cardboard box as I was walking past it - why do these people think I'm going to give them €1 when they scare the living s**t [daylights] out of me?!!) and the pigeons which Chris and Jo chased mercilessly. The highlight of the morning was a visit to the free exhibition at the marquee for the current Barcelona World (Yacht) Race (no, we knew nothing about it either!) Both the exhibition and the event itself which is currently in its finishing stages, were fascinating, highly educational and very motivating for anyone interested in serious yachting. (House of the America's Cup in Valencia, please take note - these people really know how to create an exhibition that inspires and doesn't look like something out of a glossy magazine aimed at humouring your sponsors!). If the Barcelona World Race exhibition was great (it was!), then check out the website which is equally well-presented.

Outside Fundació Joan Miró

The afternoon was given over to a visit to the Picasso Museum (though for my money, whilst the Picasso Museum is set in a delightful building, Fundació Joan Miró which we visited on Sunday, was a far more inspirational trip. Miró seemed somewhat less up his own proverbial!). Later, at the insistence of the children, Liz and I went out for a superb Thai curry at the restaurant opposite our hotel. With mobile phones in place of baby alarms and less than 50 feet to the hotel reception, we were able to enjoy one of the hottest curries for many a long day - a complete rarity in Spain it seems, as there is not yet a Thai restaurant in VLC, though we wait with baited breath!

Bussing it around Barcelona

So, all curried out, Sunday came around and a brisk walk to Plaça España to catch the world famous Barcelona Bus Turístic for a two-day hop-on-hop-off experience around the city. The first route took us around Montjuïc - literally mountain of the Jews and our visit to Fundació Joan Miró. A couple of hours later, and much impressed, we departed for the next stage - back down to the sea front and a look at Roy Lichtenstein's Barcelona Head sculpture - created for the city back in 1992.

The Barcelona Head - Chris had studied Roy Lichtenstein's work at school in the UK and immediately recognised it - unlike his philistine parents!

The end of the afternoon was spent at the quirky Sagrada Familia or 'holy family' - Antoni Gaudí's strange masterpiece - still only 50% built, it remains under construction after 125 years. This is where fact is sometimes stranger than fiction - whether Gaudí's 43-year attraction to the creation of this magnificent building, or the fact of his tragic demise just days short of his 74th birthday - under the wheels of a tram. The only comparison I have - and the styles are a million miles apart - is William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California - another masterpiece created through the single-minded devotion of one, albeit extremely wealthy - media baron. I can only hope, (but am extremely doubtful) that the Sagrada Familia is finished in my lifetime, so I can pay a return visit, without the need for scaffolding and hard helmets!

Sagrada Familia - a mind-blowing experience

Back to the Bus Turístic on Monday and more views from Montjuïc , albeit slightly hazy. We left the bus with the intention of taking the Telefèric cable car out across the harbour from the mountainside. Sadly, whoever is responsible for the marketing and business development of this supposed tourist highlight is in need of lessons in both marketing and revenue management. We were asked for €36 for two adults and two children to travel one-way about 800 metres - this after we spent around half an hour with maps trying to work out precisely where the cable cars departed and how to buy a ticket. Thus a trek back to the bus stop without the cable car interlude - there are some things which are simply too overpriced for the tourist market and this is one of them! Mondays must be the day bus drivers take the longest tea breaks, because the usual 'bus every 5-10 minutes' became one bus after about 55 minutes.

Barcelona Panorama
The Barcelona cityscape from Montjuïc

So, to end the long weekend trip, with two children in tow, the highlight of anyone's visit to BCN must be a trip to the Museu de la Xocolata - how could anyone miss it. Distinctly not Cadbury's (not a single mention throughout the tour), it was nevertheless an interesting stop, with even more interesting purchases at the café afterwards. That said, it was another of those museums which seems to be pitched somewhere half way between some manufacturer's PR showcase and a genuine attempt at educating people about the history, introduction to Spain, and production of chocolate through the recent ages. The glass cases full of chocolate models of horse, battles, villages and everyday life were... well, pointless really. However, the three audio visual 'cubicles' were well worth the visit. Two-thirds of the way around the museum, it suddenly appeared to become a museum about something entirely different to chocolate - rather surreal really. To this day, we still don't know the subject or purpose - it was almost as if the chocolate curator (if there is such a thing) ran out of chocolate exhibits (perhaps they simply melted?), so stuffed a pile of whatever he or she had stuck up their attic out on display and hoped no on would notice. Ah well, the constant smell of chocolate did ensure a sale or two at the end of the trip and the surreal museum-within-a-museum was swiftly forgotten - until now!

A visit to the only gluten-free Mexican restaurant known to exist in Barcelona - Tijuana (how could it be called anything else?) and then the final twenty-minute footslog back to Sants train station (I'm really going to get a cab next time!), and we were on our way back to sunnier - and much warmer Valencia for our final day of the two-day Vicente Martir Day and a picnic on the riverbed, basking in the 28° January sunshine.

Life is such a struggle sometimes.