It’s Festival Time. Part 1 of…

Between the San Fermines (Running of the Bulls), La Tomatina, Fallas, Semana Santa, Aste Nagusia, San Isidro, the Feria de abril, the Goose Torture festival of Leikeitio and the Saint Day of anyone and everyone who has ever become a saint in the history of the world, Spain has a long-standing tradition of festivals. Although I despise large groups of people when they are sober, let alone drunk, during my six years in Spain I have had the opportunity to attend a few of these festivals.

Every village, town and city in Spain has a patron saint, and they have a festival to celebrate said saint. My first touch of Spanish festivity was during my three months study abroad in Toledo. Like the naïve guiris we were, my study abroad group took taxis to a nearby village to see a bullfight during the festival of the town. I don’t remember the name of the village, as my knowledge about how the Spanish autonomous communities and provinces worked at the time was nil, but I do remember being attracted to the bullfighter (torero, not matador, as that means killer. Granted, most modern Iberians see toreros as matadores, but I digress.) I remember being worried that the beef we were eating next day came from the bull that we had seen slaughtered the day before. Most Spanish festivials do have bullfights, although most of the Spanish avoid them.

Fast forward to 2011 and my first touch of a famous Spanish festival. I was living in Valencia and experienced firsthand the chaotic madness that is Les Falles (Las Fallas in Spanish). For those of you who don’t know what the Falles are (I’ll use the Valencian spelling), they are a cleansing of the winter just in time for the spring. To properly cleanse from the winter, one must build a giant, elaborate paper-maché sculpture and burn it down four days later. Over the years, they became to be connected with Spanish Father’s Day (San José) on March 19th, right around the first day of spring.

During the years of Franco, everything had to be related to Catholicism, so suddenly the festival added two days of marching folks in traditional Valencian costumes taking a rose to the Virgin Mary in Plaza de la Virgen and placing a flower, one by one. Add in fireworks and some agua de Valencia and you’ve got yourself a huge festival.

flores para la virgen     la virgen

The festival kicks off with a mascletà at the end of February. A mascletà, for the uninitiated, is a bunch of fireworks going off in the middle of the day creating a bunch of smoke that makes one feel as if they are in the middle of Baghdad during a bomb. These mascletàs happen daily in the month of March, becoming more and more elaborate as the month marches on to La Crema (Valencian for The Burning).

Mascleta

The festival official gets underway in the evening with fireworks and the presentation of the Falleras, or La Crida. The mayor (currently Rita Barberà) attempts to speak valenciano. People line up at the Torres de Serranos to see this event.

la crida

A few of the streets in the Russafa neighbourhood of Valencia have a competition to see which street can decorate itself better with lights, Els Carrers de Llum (the Streets of Light). They turn on the dancing lights to classical music every night starting in early March. At the same time, the city starts erecting the Falles Monuments around the city. Every important plaza and every neighbourhood has at least one, and they are in a competition with each other to build the best. They spend the entire year creating them. On March 15th, they are finally revealed to the public in all their glory. The nightly fireworks begin the same night, and the biggest and best celebration is the Nit de Foc (careful pronouncing Night of Fire in valenciano, folks!) on the 18th.

Llum

Bunyols, a fried squash treat, are eaten all over town as people oooo and ahhhhh over the monuments satirizing the Spanish and Valencian governments and culture.

My fave Falla will always be La Bella y la Bestia with Rita Barberà as the Beast and La Bella is ex-Valencian president Francisco Camps as the Beauty with all his new suits.

bella y la bestia

I also enjoyed BarackNieves (a pun of Snow White in Spanish) and the Seven Thieves of South America.

BarackNieves

Then there was the monument for Las Princesas, which compared La Princesa del Reino (now Queen Letizia) with La Princesa del Barrio, Spain’s very own Kim Karshardian BELEN ESTEBAN!

princesas

And then on the 19th everything is set on fire and Valencia is cleansed of their yearly sins. The morning of the 20th, it’s like nothing happened. By the time the city wakes up, hungover and super tired, the city is back to normal, or what constitutes as normal in Valencia.

La Crema

A continuación…Pilares, Semana Blanca (Vitoria) Aste Nagusia, Orgullo and the poor geese of Leikeitio.

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Not a Happy Camper. Summer Camps.

It’s that time of year again. The time where I sell my soul to the devil (summer camps that teach English) so I can afford to survive until my next pay cheque in late October or early November. It’s not an easy job, but someone has got to do it. I usually approach it with a sense of dread as it requires me to be superextroverted for long hours every day, and my total relaxed Spanish attitude to life clashes with the high maintenance ideas from people who are not used to dealing with Spain. Trying to look on the bright side, it gives me money to travel, and it usually takes me to places that I otherwise might not have ever visited.

My first summer working as a camp monitor was in 2010. I won’t name any names of companies here, but this is for a well-known disorganized camp where things fly at you last minute, and the lack of communication and understanding between the headquarters hundreds of kilometres away and the actual camp taking place adds to more stress. All of this happens behind the scenes as the staff is trying to put on a successful camp.

This camp took me to the village of Daimiel in Ciudad Real. What who where what huh? There are the Tablas de Daimiel somewhere close to this place, but I think even Quijote himself must have looked at this town and actually saw it for the middle of nowhere nothingness it was. There weren’t even any forests or anything. Just fields, sun and temperatures well over 40ºC (104ºF). This was also the camp where there was no safe water to drink and they refused to give us money for bottled water. The teens had a very low level of English (normal), so it added to the pressure as we were not supposed to communicate in Spanish whatsoever. This did not happen.

The best part of this camp was being located in “España Profunda”. The seven monitors made fast friends dealing with all the “interesting things” thrown at us, including an owner of the property that did not want teens there in the first place. It was an old boarding school at the end of town. It gave us a sense of what Spain must have been like 50, 100, 500 years ago. It was another world.

Whenever someone asks me “Where were you when Spain won the World Cup?” I have to say “Working at a camp in Daimiel in Ciudad Real with a bunch of teens who went crazy when Spain won.” It was an awesome moment of Spanish history and a night I’ll never forget. We let the teens party a little bit longer that night, and it was a tough task getting them to bed.

During these camps, any time for siesta is well appreciated. Usually, the monitors have to watch to make sure none of them kill each other. There was a high amount of drama, and everyone was quite thankful to board the bus back to Madrid.

The next year, I was invited back in a higher capacity after surviving that experience for a full month. This time, I was sent to Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz, Spain, for a month. The idea was to have “mini camps” where none of the students were allowed to see each other. It did not work. Running the mini-camp was madness, and we got permission to throw it out the second week. I do not recommend working a full month at a camp as there is only so much you can take of salty chips and teens fighting and sneaking out and sneaking in alcohol. And this year, there was no World Cup to keep their minds occupied. I actually lost it and had a breakdown the last week, mainly to the counselors, not the teens. The site was brand new and had never been used as a camp, and we ended up having a cook fired. Healthier dinners! The vegetarian had to make a ER run as she was starving.

I was never so glad to be on a 9-hour bus ride back to Madrid.

But the beauty of that camp was being in Jerez, which will eventually be written about whenever I get around to Cádiz. Yes, I did get free samples of sherry. And free golf lessons from taking the children to golf lessons every day. Golf is boring.

After the horrors of that camp, you’d think there was no way I’d sign on for a third year of this madness. I needed the money. And you can imagine my happiness to find out that I was headed back to JEREZ to the same campus. Everything had changed. The fellow monitors were friendly and not backstabbing drug addicts. Imagine it! The camp was relaxed and fun, and I am glad to have ended that place on a high note. I was invited back a fourth year, but they conveniently forgot to mention that I couldn’t work with them again due to having the type of visa I have, despite never causing them a problem in the past!

I’ve worked at two other camps, one with my former school. It was a padel (some Spanish sport played with rackets and tennis balls but is not tennis, squash, racquetball, or anything like that) camp, and I got to spend three hours a day playing games with them in English, taking them to order from the English ice cream shop and going with them to the beach. That camp began with the 2012 Eurocup win, and it was probably the most fun I have had at a camp as I knew the students. (The food was terrible though.)

Last year, I worked at a day camp in Madrid that I planned entirely by myself and ran entirely by myself. The kids were horrible, and by the end of the month, I was quite ready to go insane. 9-2 is a very long time with no support and having to keep children occupied without being able to say a single word in English.

The thing is, although the camps seem like hell at the time, looking back, I only remember the good parts. That doesn’t make me NOT dread the camp I’m working at this year. It should be completely different as I will be a teacher-only, not monitor, which is more my speed. I know what to expect. Chaotic fun and punishment for having bothered to learn Spanish.

As long as it isn’t a repeat of 2011, I think I’m ready for it. However, due to the business, I’ve had to cut back on writing to once a week. The horror! I’m actually writing this before the camp and scheduling it to be published while at camp. I should be able to explore the Set Meravelles of Zaragoza much better afterward!

See you in August in (spoiler alert) Zaragoza, Valencia and a look at Spanish Festivals!

Lisboa, or Europe’s San Francisco. (Portugal 3 of 3)

I am finishing my series on Spain’s western neighbour, Portugal, with a look at its capital. In the future, I hope to return to this great country so I can write more about it and discover more about it. But for now, I just have to live with my memories and pictures and anticipation of another visit.

Both of my visits to Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese) began with early morning arrivals, in which I had to find breakfast, which you know could be the most important thing (that or family). I have now managed to reference Arrested Development in all three Portugal entries.

My first visit took me to Lisbon’s Aeroporto da Portela, a short metro or bus ride from the city centre. The second time was by an overnight train from Madrid, which dropped me right at Santa Apólonia, one of Lisbon’s four major train stations and a short distance from the city centre. One of the best things about Lisbon is the transportation. Metro, buses, taxis and a cable car can get you where you need to go, although I do prefer walking myself. You get to know the city better on foot than by any other means of transport. However, to see some of the coolest places, some public transport will be needed.

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Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco for three reasons. 1. They have hills (seven to be exact). 2. They have cable cars.

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3. They have a bridge (Pont 25 de Abril that crosses the Rio Tejo/Tajo/Tagus)) that could pass for the Golden Gate should the Golden Gate get drunk at Pride and be unable to to show up the next morning. The first time I saw a picture of it, I thought it was the Golden Gate. However, the Golden Gate does not lead to a giant statue of Jesus, Cristo Rei. (In this photo, however, it appears more like the Oakland Bay Bridge. In person, it’s the twin of the Golden Gate, I swear.)

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One of the most famous Lisbon sites is the Torre of Belem, an UNESCO Heritage Site and former defense tower. It’s a 5€ entry with narrow stairs, but well worth the entrance fee. This is one of the places you’ll want to catch the cable car to, as the Belem neighbourhood isn’t too close to the centre. The neighbourhood itself is one of my faves as it’s right on the water and is a bit rough around the edges.

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My favourite neighbourhood, however, is the Bairro Alto (High) and it’s neighbour, Bairro Baixa (Low). You can walk or take an elevator between the two. The Bairro Alto has the maze of streets that I love about European Cities (and the nightlife), and the Bairro Baixa has the tourist attractions (including the aforementioned elevator, which also has an observation deck to look over the city).  The famous Praça do Comercio and Praça Rossio are located in the Bairro Baixa. The latter is a place where locals like to meet and both offer splendid people-watching opportunities.

A short walk from the Barrio Baixa is the Castelo de São Jorge, or Castle of St. George. This castle is well worth the entrance fee and also well worth walking around the area surrounding it before and after. It attracts a lot of tourists, but for a good reason. A short walk higher offers a view of the entire city. The castle itself is a relic from the medieval times and comes with a 7€ entrance fee. The prices are going up in Portugal, unfortunately. A little bit of research shows that it’s two euros more than when I visited in 2009.

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Another bridge, this one with its own identity, is the Vasco de Gama Bridge, which is the longest bridge in Europe at 17.2 kilometres (10.7 miles).  It opened in 1998 and is pretty impressive itself.

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Whenever I travel to big cities, I always try to have time for a day trip to a nearby village. I’ve managed to do this both of my trips to Lisbon. In 2009, I went to the fabled city of Sintra, an easy train trip from Lisbon Centre. It’s like the stuff Walt Disney could only dream of. 28 kilometres from Lisbon, this Unesco World Heritage Site is home of several palaces and castles. Walking around this quaint town, I felt as if I were walking through Disneyland, but located in Segovia, Spain. The only things missing was Mickey Mouse and a Roman aqueduct.

Sintra00110

My second visit to Lisbon, I went to another village, Cascais, located on the bay of the same name. Once a residence of the Portuguese royals, this village offers a variety of sporting activities, musuems and spectacular views of the bay. It’s definitely worth the 40 minute train ride from the centre.

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“Decadante” is the word the Spanish use most often to describe their neighbour. Decadante and decaying. And while there is a bit of that edge around, it should not be a deterrant to visit the country. The Spanish say it with a smile, meaning well. Lisbon gives a sense of the old life but also a sense of modern day Portugese life (yes, there are Starbucks).

Overall, Portugal is one of my favourite places to visit. I can’t wait until visit number three.

 

A nice glass of Port(o). Portugal Part 2 (of 3)

The wine known as “port” is famous throughout the world. However, the Portuguese city of Porto (“Porto” in Portuguese and English, and the Spanish are still using “Oporto”, which has never been the actual name), is nowhere near as famous as its wine. We, as the human race, have made a huge mistake. (I might as well continue referencing Arrested Development for the Portugal entries.)

Porto 2

Porto is the second-largest city of Portugal after Lisbon with 238,000 people (over a million in the metropolitan area). It is one of the most enchanting cities I have had the opportunity to visit, and I remember the city (although perhaps not the names) as if I were there yesterday and not five years ago. It is a place I want to return to so I can savour it with more time and better weather, as it was raining one of the two days I was there. That didn’t stop me from exploring as much as I could.

Porto 6

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon the week before Easter. Most things were closed, so I had a nice walking tour of the city and entered the churches that were open to look around. The Douro River snakes through the city, separating the main part from the wineries across the river.  It’s a hilly city, just like its rival to the south, Lisbon. However, it offers an elegance and charm Lisbon does not.

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The Igreja dos Clérigos and its towering Torre dominate the cityscape, and it is the tower itself that offer the best views of the city and the surrounding countryside.

Porto 5

 

The Ponte do Dom Luis I (Bridge of Sir Louis I) is another famous landmark and the most used bridge of the city.

Porto 1

Of course, the wineries and bodegas where they make port are the most famous tourist attraction. Sunday evening I ate at a restaurant looking at the bodegas just opposite the river.

Porto 3

On Monday morning, I walked around the other side of the river where they are located in the drizzle, trying to decide which one to visit. I felt weird, as I was travelling alone (as I tend to do). In the end, I decided that as I lived in Spain, I should pay homage to Osborne, one of Spain’s most famous wine makers. It wasn’t too expensive, and I got a personalized tour from a knowledgeable and friendly Portuguese tour guide. He seemed very interested in Spain, although he gave the tour in English (I’m sure if I went back today, I’d find a Spanish-speaking guide!) At the end of the tour, of course, was the free samples. I forget which sample I preferred, but I knew I had to find lunch soon as all those free samples could make someone a bit tipsy. (There was cheese with that wine though.)

It was also nice to see Porto from the other bank of the river.

Porto 4

The weather cleared, which meant I had time for another stroll through the town and watch the sunset from the river. Sunsets are always free and are always well worth watching whenever you travel.

I haven’t been back since 2009, but I have been wanting to go back for quite some time. It’s a quiet, charming city full of beauty and friendly people.

Porto 8

Portugal has amazed me, and although I live in its rival neighbour, it’s a place I always will return to. I still have a lot of things to discover there, I know. The Portugal series will conclude with a look at its capital, Lisboa (Lisbon), the San Francisco of Europe.

Toledo. Not just a city in Ohio.

Toledo 2013 061       My introduction to Spain in 2003 was Toledo, a beautiful medieval city located just an hour south of Madrid (or half hour if you take the AVE high-speed train). It was here I fell in love with Spain and here where I decided that I would have to live in Spain.

Despite being the capital of the Toledo province, it has a very small-town feel (its population is 60,000, smaller than another city in the province, Talavera de la Reina). Toledo is known as the City of the Three Cultures as it has been under Catholic, Jewish and Muslim control, and influences from all three major Western Religions are present today.

Another interesting fact about Toledo is that it was once the capital of Spain until King Phillip II (Felipe II) decided to move the capital to Madrid. It also was one of the first major cities to fall to Christian troops during the reconquest of Spain. It’s one of the most important cities in Spain from a historical standpoint, and in my opinion, offers a lot more to see and experience than the giant metropolis to its north.

Most people discover Toledo on a day-trip to Madrid, but as I lived there for three months, I know there is much more to experience that can be done in one day.

The Alcazar (fortress) is now home to a library and an Army Museum. It was a symbol of Nationalism during the Spanish Civil War due to an important victory by the Nationalist (Nationalist is Team Franco) troops.

The Cathedral is one of the most important in Spain, and you can see the work of El Greco, who once called Toledo his home, in the Church of Santo Tomé.

Toledo still conserves the medieval walls that once protected the great city. You can take the escalators from the new part of town to the Old Part, or, if you know the back way, you can walk there in about 15 minutes from the bus station.  Of course, this shortcut bypasses one of the main gates and takes you to Puerta del Sol gate instead.

toledo retiro torres kio12

By continuing climbing the hill, you will end up in the most important plaza, Plaza de Zocodover. Yes, there is a McDonald’s there. However, why eat there when you have all kinds of delicious Spanish food nearby? Although it is not exactly in Zocodover, I recommend Palacios for sentimental reasons. (It was where my study abroad class ate daily.)

toledo retiro torres kio20Toledo Palacios

The charm of Toledo, like so many Spanish and European cities, is getting lost in its streets. Closer to Zocodover, you can discover many shops and buy swords, which Toledo is known for. I know how to get to the Jewish Quarter from here, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone in any language for the life of me.

The River Tajo snakes around Toledo (before eventually making its way to Lisbon and the Atlantic Ocean). Many places along the medieval wall or high on the hill offer beautiful views of the river and the surrounding Castilla La Mancha landscape.

The province of Toledo is located in the heart of Castilla, the Castilla of Cervantes, the Castilla where Cervantes saved the Iberi   an Peninsula from the dangers of windmills. (They are giants, I SWEAR they are giants.) Although his travels are supposedly fictional, there are many places along the Ruta de Quixote (Quixote’s Route) that can be visited. Those famous windmills are located all over La Mancha, but it is Consuegra that markets them as the windmills Quixote fought.

Sixty kilometres from the capital, Consuegra is a bit off the map but well worth the effort it takes to arrive. Next to the windmills overlooking the town of 10,000 habitants are the ruins of what once was the Consuegra Castle. And who wouldn’t want to travel to Toboso to see the home of Dulcinea, that beautiful woman who inspired Quixote to save La Mancha from giants and other misadventures?

Toledo the province offers the best of Castilla La Mancha , and Toledo the capital offers the best of the province. Toledo is the crown jewel of Castilla.

Set Meravelles 

This one is hard to just do seven.

1. Toledo Itself

Toledo

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2. Alcázar (hello GH fans who found this googling Ted King. I like how I have no close up photos of the Alcazar. That is what I call an epic fail 🙂 )

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3. Catedral

Toledo Catedral

4. El Río Tajo

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5. Plaza del ayuntamiento

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6. Los molinos (windmills) de Consuegra

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7. El Castillo (Castle) de Consuegra

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The Algarve, or the South of Portugal (Portugal 1 of 3)

I can’t help but think of Arrested Development every time I think of Portugal. I remember Maeby being bound and determined to go to South America to make her parents notice her, despite George Michael’s warning that the plane ticket said “Portugal”. Later, Gob found the ticket and thought the ticket meant Michael had been learning Spanish for a trip to South America.

The joke that (I hope) the audience was in on is that Portugal is in Europe and does NOT speak Spanish but Portuguese. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

I have been to Portugal twice now, and I find it a nice, refreshing change of pace from the big brother Spain that engulfs it and separates it from the rest of Europe. It’s quite cheap, and the Portuguese are friendly and just as cute as their Spanish neighbours. They unfortunately refused my regift of Cristiano Ronaldo, as I TRIED to return him. However, the rest of Portugal is nothing like CR7, and he gives a bad name to the Portuguese.

The second part of my second trip was to Lagos in the south of Portugal. Lagos is one of the most visited places in the Algarve. I “did case” (hacer caso in Spanish, or listened to the advice of) to a few Portuguese friends of mine who said Lagos was the more beautiful of the two. And beautiful it was.

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Lagos, meaning “lakes” in both Spanish and Portuguese, is a small town of 31,000 that attracts a lot of tourists due to it’s proximity to the beach and the Algarve region. Its laid-back lifestyle is quite attractive to those wanting to get away from it all, and the people of this town are accostumed to tourists. Lagos also has a seedy past as it was Europe’s first slave port and was important during those years.

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The food was great, and even though it was seafood heavy, I was able to find some delicious chicken. On the second day, I cheated and went to a Spanish restaurant. Don’t tell! One of my biggest pet peeves about myself is my inability to eat seafood. I love trying new foods, but I just can’t deal with seafood or fish.

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While the old town and the city walls were quite nice, it was once again God who proved He (or She) is the better architect. The cliffs along the shore and the walk to the lighthouse in the evening for sunset were the best part of this town. The coast is spectacular, and the sunset was beautiful.

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On my second day, I was torn between kayaking and going to Cabo Sao Vicente. I ended up going to the Cape as it was the southwestern point of Europe. The bus timetables don’t allow for a lot of time there (and really, there is nothing more than a lighthouse), so I ended up hiking the six kilometres back to the nearest village, Sagres. The cliffs over the Atlantic provided a scenic route, and I worked up an appetite for that Spanish restaurant I found.

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My favourite find in Portugal my second time there was the galão, a café con leche (in English, relaxing café con leche) in a tall glass. It’s not the same as a café con leche in a glass, I swear.

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I was sad, just like that aforementioned Portuguese Boy Cristiano Ronaldo, when I had to board the bus to Huelva that Saturday morning. There is a lot to be discovered in the Algarve region, and I look forward to my next opportunity to explore it. To come, entries on Lisbon and Oporto…to be continued…WHEN? Stay tuned.