Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tale of Two Cities

Madrid and Barcelona are, respectively, the two largest cities in Spain, both by physical size and population, but in terms of culture they could not be more different. We recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Barcelona, with a short side trip to Madrid.

After spending several months in Spain and experiencing a majority of the country, Barcelona is the last place I will recommend for someone looking to go to Spain on a short vacation... ok, second to last just ahead of Benidorm. Don't get me wrong, Barcelona is not a bad place but seemed the least Spanish of any of the places we've been in Spain. This is partly due to the Catalan culture that makes a point of separating itself from the rest of the country. The other part is that it is absolutely flooded with tourists and not in a charming, "oh, you're here from the US too" kind of way. Experiencing Barcelona for a week or less finds the city short on quality, overpriced and overrated.

Perhaps if one had a month or longer to spend in Barcelona, the view might be different. The few times we were able to get out of the touristy areas and blend in with the locals were most enjoyable. The challenge is finding these areas in this large and spread out city.

Pickpocketing is a serious problem in Barcelona. You will hear this everywhere and for as prepared as you feel, it will hit you when you least expect it. You must be on full alert... constantly. Now in all fairness it is not the US, so you're not likely to get randomly shot, mugged, carjacked or raped... just pick pocketed. However, you should count on a pickpocketing attempt to happen to you while you're there. Perhaps consider it part of the Barcelona experience... see the nearly 20 year old Olympic ruins, the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi architecture, Las Ramblas, get pick pocketed and return home. We (and our friends visiting from the US) knew of the pickpocketing problem and took all precautions to prevent it. Hurrying to catch the green line metro from Sants, with suitcases in tow we must have looked the perfect targets. A couple guys entering the train in front of us suddenly wanted to get off the train, while their 'partners' were behind us pushing to get on. This created the perfect 'sandwich' for them to attempt to clear our pockets. However when one has nothing in their pockets, there is nothing to steal and so this turned out to be just a quick 'TSA pat down' and the would be thieves left empty handed. I call this out because it is so pervasive that everyone should be aware and expect it when you least expect it... it is not always subtle.

Here is a great article that talks about the scams and ways to protect against them while in Barcelona. It is just no fun to have to be on guard every second you're trying to enjoy the experience of a new place. However, if you are overly-cautious and bring only what you're willing to get stolen with you when you leave the house... you will survive. It doesn't hurt to try to fit in with the locals and not make yourself a target by outwardly appearing to be a tourist.

As for Barcelona itself - the city is clean and the public transportation is cheap and efficient. The city does have some charm. The 'Magic Fountain' is just off of Plaza Espanya and on weekend nights it has a very nice water display choreographed to music. Barcelona has a nice hop-on/hop-off bus tour with 2 routes through the city (3 in the summer) that hit the popular spots. The former Bull Ring converted into shopping mall is popular. The Gothic District just off the Ramblas is reminiscent, albeit much more touristy and expensive, of the Old Towns we've seen in other Spanish cities. The Picasso Museum is quite good.

There are some nice neighborhood tapas bars and taverns in the Poble Sec area of town on either side of The Paral-lel. There were a few stand outs. 'Lolita', a small, modern tapas bar with an excellent variety of seafood, beef and veggies. 'Casa Jacinta', a tiny, old tapas bar with excellent food, drink and rock-n-roll atmosphere served by the owners. On the other side of The Paral-lel is 'Raxeria', a tap on your table, pour your own beer bar... quickly becoming my favorite kind of place.

The highlight of Barcelona for me was not actually in Barcelona, but an hour train ride out of town... Montserrat. This is a small tourist town built around a working Monastery at the top of a mountain. There are several ways to get up to Montserrat, we chose the 'gondola' over the train. The funicular was under repair and closed the day we went. The Basilica is beautiful and the town has wonderful views of the surrounding areas and the valley looking toward Barcelona.

Overall Barcelona was nice to see and I am happy we went, but it is very easy to hit the few highlights worth seeing in a day or two. For fans of Gaudi, the city does not disappoint and aside from that, one does not need a lot of time here. It is an overly expensive place, especially for what you get and the quality compared to other cities in Spain.

Madrid on the other hand, was fantastic. There is no doubt you are in Spain, and the capital no less, from the second you enter. We took the high speed AVE train from Barcelona that gets you into Madrid in around 3 hours. Driving would take more than 6.

We stayed at a very nice hotel - Hotel Opera, which is just off Plaza Isabelle II near the Opera House, Theater and Palace. Our first night there we we joined 'The Old Madrid Tapas and Wine Walking Tour'. The host, Andres, is very knowledgeable about wine and took us through the oldest part of Madrid, popping in and out of tapas bars sampling the house specialty at each place. We tasted Spanish vermouth which although dark amber in color, actually starts as a white wine. Up to 40 different spices are added as it ages. Very tasty on its own - on the rocks with a slice of orange, or in a martini. As we discovered, if you want to try this tasty unique vermouth, ask for "vermut de grifo" (on tap) and make sure it is poured from the wooden barrel. The Tapas tour is well worth the 60 euro (includes all the food and wine) a person. We sampled fantastic wines and ate enough tapas that we were full and satisfied. This is a must if in Madrid.

Our second day in Madrid we took the obligatory trip to The Prado Museum which is vast and worth seeing, even if it is just a quick pass through. You could, of course, spend all day (or more than one) at The Prado, but there is so much more to see in Madrid. We enjoyed a great lunch
just across from the Market San Miguel and ended our day by taking in a Bull Fight.

Before taking the afternoon AVE train back to Barcelona, we spent our last morning in Madrid touring the Palace. The 3rd largest in the Europe, the Madrid Palace is typical of European Palaces and worth the trip. The line to get in was long, but it moved at a steady pace. The view from the main courtyard overlooking the countryside was vast. The Cathedral is situated right next to the Palace, but as it was under renovation we were only able to see the outside... next time.

Just walking the streets of Madrid, viewing the Spanish architecture, people, culture and town plazas is a treat in and of itself. Cheerful (and somewhat talented) musicians play for money in the subway cars while locals sometimes sing along and tourists get a laugh. When people think of Spain, they typically think of Andalucia - Seville, Granada, the White Hill towns - sunshine, beaches, Flameno, Sherry, Grand Cathedrals, etc. and with good reason, however while Andalucia may be the soul of Spain, Madrid is definitely its heart. Our few days there were just enough to whet our thirst for more. The next time we are in this wonderful country, Madrid and a minimum of a week there is at the top of the itinerary.

Bull Fighting in Spain

Bull Fighting dates back to 711AD and like it or not, is the National Sport of Spain. It is also seen in parts of France, Portugal, Mexico and Central/South America. In Spain, there are hundreds of cities that stage Bull Fighting and most are in the Andalucia region. We've seen the 'Plaza de Toros' (Bull Ring) in Seville, Valencia and Granada. However, according to the locals the place to see a Bull Fight (outside of Andalucia) is in Madrid. The Bull Fighting season runs from March to October and similar to other sports, starts with a 'pre-season'.

Our recent trip to Madrid (accompanied by good friends from the US) enabled us to catch one of the final pre-season matches for 2011. Pre-season is really no different from other Bull Fights except the Matadors are young novices trying to gain popularity in the sport.

I was recently asked, "so they kill the bull, right?" Yes, and 5 to 7 more. Each "match" lasts around 15-20 minutes from the time the bull enters the ring, until they drag its dead body out. I call it a "match" but in reality the bull doesn't really stand a chance. Although we did see one pass where the bull got hold of the Matador, flipped him airborne and came close to trampling him. The other Matadors, assistants and men on horses quickly came to his rescue and distracted the bull. It happens but is rare. In that match, score one for the bull.

When we were in Seville we toured the Bull Fighting museum. Our guide told us how many years ago, in the 1950's I think, one of Spain's most celebrated Matadors was killed in a match. She then pointed to this killer bull's head mounted on the wall, next to its mother. After they put the killer bull down, they killed its mother so that she would never produce another killer bull.

Bull Fighting is not pretty, but does have a beautiful artistry and ceremony to it. It is bloody, cruel and has to be seen to really be understood. I am not advocating the sport or recommending everyone sees a Bull Fight, but when in Rome... or in this case Spain. It is truly unique and very, very Spanish.

The next part of this post describes a match... and in some detail, so be warned.

A match starts by several Matador's assistants (Picadors) and Horsemen (Rejoneadores) teasing and angering the bull. This is in an attempt to gauge the bull's behavior and reactions. After about 5 minutes of this, the Horsemen stabs the bull in the shoulder once to twice to start the bleeding. The Matador's assistants have the bull take several passes at them while they attempt to drive Banderillas (long decorative spikes) into the bull's back. Once the bull is further weakened and made more bloody by the Banderillas, the Matador throws his hat into the ring and comes out to finish off the bull.

The Matador and bull perform a sort-of dance to the death as the bull makes many charging passes. The Matador is judged by his skill and artistry at getting the bull to charge and successfully avoiding getting gored in the process. After the bull has made many passes and the Matador is ready, he is presented with his killing sword, or Espada. This time it's the Matador that charges at the bull and attempts to drive the Espada into the bull's heart. If he misses, he is booed by the crowd and tries again until he succeeds. The bull will then fall to the ground and will finally be put out of it's misery as the Matador drives a Puntilla (small dagger) into the base of bull's skull severing it's spinal cord. Lastly, the dead bull is attached to horses and dragged out of the ring. Within minutes, a new match starts. Most Bull Fights consist of 6 or 8 matches.

People say, you either love bull fighting or hate it. I'm not sure how I feel about it. I imagine in the dead of summer, with seats in the shade among a packed arena of fans and more experienced Matadors is a better way to see a Bull Fight. I would like to experience that, perhaps with a local fan who can better explain the history, culture and sport. I'm not sure my sensibilities would allow me to become an ardent supporter, but I think to travel is to explore, be open and learn more before judging via those sensibilities.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Las Fallas

Las Fallas (fie-yas) is a tradition in the Valencian region of Spain, is one of the biggest festivals of the year and takes place in the weeks leading up to St. Joseph´s Day on March 19.

Fallas (Falles in Valencian) began as a festival celebrated by the local artisans in honor of St. Joseph. In the Valencian Community this festival dates back to the mid-1700´s, when it was just a small part of the general St. Joseph´s Day celebrations. At daybreak on March 18th small straw stages appeared in the streets on which one 1 or 2 doll-like figures were displayed depicting in a satirical way, some local event, misconduct or town personality. During the course of the day, the local children collected as much combustible material as they could find and constructed large trash heaps which they called fallas. At dusk, on the eve of St. Joseph´s Day these fallas were set on fire as the town people gathered to watch them burn.

The Fallas in Dénia started in the early 1900´s when a group of locals would make a fabric figure filled with seaweed, they they named ¨Tio Pep¨ (Uncle Joe). On St. Joseph´s Day they paraded this figure around town and eventually set it on fire atop a mountain of old furniture and other household trash that would easily burn. As the years passed, more groups became involved, each creating their own figures. The special characteristic of these satirical fallas is that they are intended to portray a criticism of social policy. They choose a specific topic and give it either a satirical or humorous twist, representing scenes alluding to personalities, events or political actions which the falleros (members of the fallas groups) consider worthy to be made fun of.

Today, Fallas in Dénia has evolved into many groups working all year to raise money and commission the building of their individual fallas, which can run in excess of 80,000 euro. These groups are very large and the members consist of all ages. For the children, special fallas are commissioned by the groups. These are not political or satirical, just more ¨cute¨ and cartoonish... but of course, these are also eventually burned.

The fallas themselves are extremely elaborate and very large, some are 5 and 6 stories tall. The order in which the fallas are burned is of significant importance. Each falla, both large and children´s is (independently) voted on by the main Fallas committee with the winner in each category getting burned last... usually around 3am on the 20th.

In the week leading up to March 19th, the fallas begin to take shape as they are constructed in their respective area of the city. Each day at 2 and 7pm there is a massive fireworks display. There are tons of members-only activities for the fallas groups that take place throughout the week. While walking the city streets and eating in the local restaurants you are sure to see the members in costume enjoying the entire Fallas experience. On March 17th (who´s St. Patrick?) they announce the ¨winners¨ and there is more partying.

St. Joseph´s Day and Las Fallas, starts early with a very long parade that includes all of the members (from elderly to infant) of the groups. They parade through main street carrying flowers that will be used to construct ´Our Lady of the Foresaken´ in front of the main church. The parade ends with yet another fireworks display before Siesta.

The evening is kicked off by a fireworks display and there is club like atmosphere in the streets. Instead of music, the beat is provided by children lighting firecrackers, while the parents admire the fallas, eat and drink. Street vendors sell balloons, toys and food. At around 9pm, the cremá of the fallas begins. If you aren´t sure of the order in which they will burn, just follow the crowds or a fire brigade.

Each falla is loaded with cardboard and paper, and doused with gasoline before the lights are dimmed. Fireworks (what else?) are set off around the falla and if that doesn't set it ablaze, then they just throw lit fireworks on to it. The crowd ¨oo´s and ah´s¨ as these things burn. There is cheering when it finally falls, amidst the fire fighters trying to keep the very close buildings, trees and people from also going up in flames.

The burning process is systematic and actually pretty safe considering the flames from the big ones shoot into the sky higher than most of the buildings. Even more surprising is the apparent lack of injures (or parental concern) from all of the firecrackers being constantly set off by the children... of course, we didn´t stop by the Emergency Room to view the waiting area.

For as much as we heard about Fallas beforehand and sortof knew what to expect, it was difficult to really understand this bizarre, but incredibly wild and fun festival without seeing it, so I did my best to condense my hours of Las Fallas footage into this short (4.5 min) video.

Monday, March 14, 2011


We had heard good things about Valencia from the locals in Dénia and seen parts of the city before, but only en route to the Valencia airport and bus terminal. On a recent trip to Valencia we found the city to be very much better than had been described.

The city is probably best known for it's oranges and being the home of paella, but that only scratches the surface. Valencia is the 3rd largest city in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona) and is a great mix of old and new. We were there the weekend prior to Fallas (fie-yas) and were able to see some of the festivities leading up to the event. (Stay tuned for a dedicated post on Fallas coming soon).

The old town is reminiscent of the old towns of Granada and Seville, but with a somewhat Parisian feel. Quaint cafes outline the squares. There is a large shopping district and endless bars and restaurants that serve jamon, tapas and paella, as well as street vendors selling churos and chocolate. The old town is situated between the beautiful train station (next to the bull ring) and the ¨river¨.

Valencia´s river was diverted many years ago due to flooding and the area that was the river is now flowing as a park system that runs through the city. There are gardens, concert and sporting venues, trails, etc. On the other side of the river is the new city, with the business district, new fútbol arena, zoo and ¨the city of arts and sciences¨.

The city of arts and sciences is an area of Valencia that is home to the largest aquarium in Europe, state of the art symphony hall and many museums. It was designed by architect Santiago Calatrva and is ¨jewel¨of Valencia. The zoo is better described as a wildlife preserve and focuses mainly on African species.

The city has a very nice hop-on/hop-off bus tour with 2 different routes. The red route focuses on the old city, while the blue is dedicated to the new city. You can get a ticket good for both lines for 24 or 48 hours and this is an excellent way to see the city, get transportation to the highlights and learn some Valencian history along the way. The blue route also covers the beach, the marina and the port. Valencia's port and water front is very nice and was host to the last 2 America's cup yacht races.

Valencia is also a major transportation hub for Spain. There is high speed (AVE) train service to Madrid (in 3 hours at over 230MPH). Barcelona is also only 3 hours away by train... it's not high speed yet, but won't be long and it is a beautiful journey along the coast. By bus, you can get to many of the other beach towns of the Valencian Province in just a couple hours. Valencia also has a very nice airport host to many low-cost European carriers.

While Valencia may not be my favorite Spanish city (jury is still out on that one) it is on the short list and not to be missed. In fact, for a week or two in Spain, my suggestion on a "home base" is Valencia. Very family friendly and safe... it has everything and an easy way to get anywhere... oh, and the paella is out of this world!


Benidorm is such an odd little place that I felt it deserved a small write up. On the opposite end of the L9 Alicante tram line from Dénia, the best way to describe Benidorm is as a Monty Python sketch (of hell). It's a beautiful place with a fantastic beach, but when look beyond your beautiful natural surroundings...

Benedorm is where the British come to play, get away from harsh English winters and show off their tattoos . It is also where they retire. If you don't want to feel old, go to Benidorm. The paseo along the beach is a great people watching spot. There are too many English pubs to count, a few very cheesy "American" bars, usually with some dude doing bad covers of Jimmy Buffet, and a McDonalds next door to the Burger King. Every night from 4 to 9pm there is a "nice" restaurant on the paseo where a small orchestra plays and the retirees dress in their suits and evening wear for some dinner and dancing... often times, they get bad lines that aren't quite sing-able... it is quite a scene. Benidorm Palace is the major entertainment venue and tourist trap.

Benidorm is not all bad... in fact, it can make for a very fun day or weekend. We found the Amsteleria, a nice little bar with your own personal beer tap on your table. Have a seat, grab a mug and fill up. The digital read out on the tap counts the amount of beer you pour. Have a pint or two, a tapa or two and pay on your way out. Benedorm also has "El Payaso" Bar... The Clown. We just had to stop in. It just opened and the owners, a couple from Holland, were very friendly offering us a tapa and free shot of caramel vodka to go along with our pint. The gems in Benidorm are in plain sight, but hard to see amidst the high rises and crowds. If you go, bring a sense of humor and a lot of patience... Think County Fair, Orlando and Branson mixed together, served with mash and a side of mushy peas.

¨On second thought, let´s not go to Camelot... It is a silly place¨