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: