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Trip Report Spain: Las Fallas in Valencia to Madrid: True Travellers Tales #4

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(disclaimer - I'm writing this at 1:30 AM so occasional, hopefully hilarious typos will sneak in.)


TTT #4

This trip was on my bucket list.
About seven years ago, when HD TV was new, one of the few true HD shows was on UHD - Fantastic Festivals. There was a show on Las Fallas in Valencia that looked incredible. Flames, Fireworks, Fallas, street parties, happy people. Fallas are statues, most made of paper mache and styrofoam, some reaching 15 meters high (about 4 stories). There are over 400 Fallas to see, a million visiting celebrants, solemn parades that last literally for days, and enough religious and pagan overtones for a Dan Brown novel.
This year, holy cow! fares to Madrid were down to $650!!!! I had to go. This is a sign from God. By the time I buy the ticket and get times I want, it's up a little to $750 from the West Coast US to Spain! How great is that?! I invite my sister and brother to join me. Trust me - I tell them - it'll be great.

Day 1: March 15
Travel day; long, but not unreasonably so. Air: SFO> FRA >MAD (Join up with sister who had flown in from LAX non-stop): Cercanias C-1 train (fairly new apparently, eliminates 2 transfers using Metro!): MAD/Barajas T4>Atocha station: AVE hi-speed train> Valencia Juan Sorolla: Taxi to WONDERFUL apartment Micalet 2 from Spain-Select. Fare was 8 euro - gosh that was cheap. Got in about 11PM Valencia time.
My sister and I joined up with my brother, who had arrived a few hours earlier from Frankfurt. Of course, i couldn’t wait... so we wandered out into the crowds at Plaza Reina, which was literally a few steps from our front door. I was thinking - wow, there’s a lot of people here. Literally scores of people were walking this way and that within a hundred yards (30 meters to you, Euros).
We wandered around for a while, enjoying the buzz - it was definitely festive already, and the streets were alive with people. Lots of laughing, happy Spaniards. We wandered over to see the naked Blessed Virgin Mary (no flowers yet) that was being finished that night. We walked around soaking up the spanish air. Alright.
We decided to eat (the Spanish eat late don’t they?) and found a place looked kinda OK but a little dive-y by us, who are used to bright, US chain restaurants (we’re fools!). The restaurant was no wider than 20 feet, enough for a serving station on one side and a handful of tables - it looked promising - these people look like locals (no one was speaking english). Got a menu we could only partially read. My brother, who knew some spanish, was realizing how much he had forgotten. Between our crappy spanish, hand waving, and the friendly, attractive waitress’ passable english, we tried to decipher the menu. Finally I settled it by asking her to bring us some ‘a tipico’ tapas for Valencia or the restaurant - and a bottle of ‘a tipico’ roja, please. Wow, what a great meal to start off our night. The restaurant was Jamon Jamon, which I found out later is on some guidebooks’ list of recommended places. We all had some great Serrano ham (of course) Manchego, blood sausage, tiny baby octopi (polpitos!), and some other stuff I don’t remember the names of - but it was ALL really good. This is coming from a snobby San Francisco foodie. The three of us got caught up on years of family news and spent some time there. We pretty much closed the restaurant and left behind two empty bottles of great wine and our thanks to the staff.
It was well after midnight, and the town was still awake! OMG! Not as many people were out, but enough to make you feel safe in company. More over, people walking around were happy happy happy - laughing, singing. I love it. A little buzzed from the wine, being in Spain and all that, I heard a street party going on about a block away. Anyone who knows me will tell you that if I hear loud music playing, I make a bee line for it.
Hoooaa! At a cul-de-sac created by street construction, they had an outdoor bar, full on DJ, lights, overworked smoke machines, banners, loud house-pop-techno music bass that literally just BOOMED right through your body. I love how it makes you feel ethereal when the bass just goes right thru you. Maroon5 was moving like Jagger, and a loose collection of wonderful spaniards were dancing in the street, drinking, having a blast! After a few drinks between us, I decided to be the poseur I am and ordered 25 shots of good vodka. The bartender asked twice - “Si 50euro?” “Si” and handed him the bill. He starts pouring, but I’m having trouble handing them out - I guess when some stranger starts trying to give you shots at a street party, the Valencians are careful - can’t blame them. Only a couple of people accepted. Returned to the bar after making a round and there were at least 20 shots left - I shrugged at the bartender quizzically. He looks at me, smiles and yells “GRATIS!” and within a few seconds, the drinks are mostly gone. I grab one more each for us, dance awhile, have my photo taken and take a few photos then move on, seeking Fallas.
We walked around for another hour or so, just soaking up the atmosphere, shaking off the long day of travel, wandered by many churro chocolate stands (My sister had to try one - it was gross, in my opinion). Crashed back to our cool place; collapse into bed. I think it was almost 4AM.
Gotta get up the next day to make Mascletas and meet up GTG with Lincasanova.
(to be continued)

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    This is fun to read even more details of that first night . What a great gesture to buy a round of drinks. I'm sure they hoped you went back the next night, too! ( maybe you did!). It sounds like you guys enjoyed everything from the first minute!

    PLEASE don't elaborate too much on that HORRIBLE meal I organized. I was totally depressed over my disappointment! The company was great, but oh the food... what a waste.

    P.S. Put a space between paragraphs as it will make the reading much easier!

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    Wow-After a days walking I'm pooped - so energetic! And enquiring minds want to know about this dinner.

    And yes, the Spanish eat late. When I ate at 7:45 pm I was the only one in the restaurant-thought I got personal attention. :)

    And I love, love, love the trains-except when they strike and I'm stuck. But RENFE is awsome. Quick, fast clean, convenient. And people on my train actually respected the quiet cars and talked on their cellphones in the corrider.

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    Day 2 : March 16th (Warning - this is a full chapter. Did I mention my sister's b-day was the 16th? This trip was kind of a b-day present to her.)

    Jeezs - is that my alarm? The iPhone goes off at 11. I know it’s very late morning, but what can you do after being out till 4? I hit snooze. Wake up even later and hurry through showers and what not, getting wifi to work, checking email, orienting on maps, confirming times, etc. My brother *mentions* that firecrackers kept going off intermittently through the night and kept him up. Most were small, but some were powerful - M40 powerful. My sister was dead asleep. We’ve got to make it to the GTG by 1pm. How do the Spaniards get up in time for work after partying to the wee hours of morning? From what I’ve read, they do this All The Time. Now I understand Siesta. But still, the mind boggles.

    We hurry out to the GTG ( admittedly a little late). On the way there, we notice that the crowd was even bigger, denser and more excited. We squirm past people, and walk by the first of many Starbucks (they are ubiquitous, aren’t they); my sister pined for coffee, but I march relentlessly onwards, like the White Rabbit. Yup, the crowds were getting thick - we had to slice through the crowd like Jordan to the hoop to make it to the rendezvous hotel lobby.

    Lincasanova was already there with her family and friends - I have no idea how she figured out who we were - her ‘tourist’ radar must be quite acute. Introductions all around - her husband Vicente, daughter Elisa with good friend Linburgh, and Anja(sp?) staying with the Casaovas (who also happened to be from Germany). We said our hearty hellos and made small talk and a few awkward pauses (what do you say to a person you’ve only met over the internet after Hello, how was your trip?), we went into the crowd at Plaza Ayuntamiento (town hall square). We joined tens of thousands of celebrants (I’m not exaggerating) waiting for Mascletas. Google it up. I’ve posted a video on Flickr: xxxx .

    Mascletas can be described, but it cannot be understood - unless you experience it yourself. World class pyrotechnicians use fireworks/mondo-firecrackers/sticks of dynamite (i swear) to beat out a rhythmic cacophony of explosions that is music! The sound reverberates through the city and can be heard miles away. For us in the Plaza, it causes our clothes to tremble, our bodies to vibrate; you can Feel the Air being compressed and blown past you; it’s like being inside a giant drum while a rhythmic Flamenco dancer pounds on it with all her power.

    The explosions start slowly, reaching peaks and valleys in amplitude and tempo that is the art of the pyrotechnician. The volume and tempo builds until the crowd is screaming, shouting along, adding to the noise until it reaches a climax (yes, I mean climax in every sense) and cathartic release - and with a great roar, me and tens of thousands of humans cheer in joyous unity.
    Holy Moly - what an introduction to Mascletas. I look around to see if any windows were broken. You. Must. Go.

    Gathering our wits and ourselves back at the rendezvous, smiles all around. The natives immediately dissect the performance and it’s agreed that it was Very Good. They’ve heard more melodic, lyrical interpretations before, but nevertheless - the whistle screams, rhythms, booming build up and rousing ending of this one was Very Very Good. As a first timer, I thought it was incredible, fantastic, and literally blew me away - no amount of YouTube video watching can prepare you for the real thing, live and shaking your bones. You. Must. Go.

    Lincasanova had arranged a lunch for us at a nearby bistro. Sorry to say, I have no recollection of the name - but it was great! The chef served traditional Valencian fare, but with a modern twist and humor. I had a seafood rice dish - with a giant buggy shrimp which looked like a cross between a centipede and a lobster, which I really liked. Valencians love their rice and seafood - being Asian, that works for me! The presentation was particularly whimsical, with one traditional tapa (I think) served as a patty in a restaurant baked hamburger bun, complete with take-out container. Here, I began my vacation love-affair with Clara con Limon- no, not a tart girl, but a refreshing combination of beer and Lemon Fanta that is now one of my favorite drinks. It’s like the much-derided Shanty, only much better and thirst quenching. Only much better in Spain.

    After the great lunch, Lincasanova led the way to a traditional, favorite cafe for Horchata - a rice/milk much loved across Spain. It was much better than the Horchata’s I’ve had in burrito joints back at home. Smoother and milkier, not too sweet, but with good body (characteristics many of us prefer in our loves). I had signed us up for a walking tour, so after dessert, lincasanova even dropped us off at the tourist office. I gotta say - she was sooo good to us. We felt right welcome and comfortable. With a promise to meet the next day for Mascletas, she and her family bid farewell.

    I’ll admit that when I’m new to a place, I’m more of a tourist than a traveller. So I like to sign up for tours to get oriented to new environs and culture. This was a walking tour of 7 of the Major Fallas in the Special section - i.e. the big important ones. The tour also promised to give us a little history, cultural background and even into the inner sanctum of three of the major Fallas, past the barricades that kept us riff-raff a safe distance away. Prime for me was a chance to throw on traditional Fallas clothes for a cheesy photo-op, which sadly they cancelled for that day.

    What I’d missed, though, was that it was a FIVE HOUR walking tour. FIVE HOURS on our feet. Non-stop. There were no breaks at quaint cafes to soothe our feet, no chances to rest our fat tookus on chairs. Our energetic guide was a very nice, articulate Valencian who was well spoken and knew her stuff. She was also like a Soviet Ice Breaker through the crowds, holding her “follow me” sign up high so we could keep track of her. Which was a good thing because she was on the small side, and could easily have ditched us hapless tourists in the middle of some very very thick crowds. For most of the time, these crowds were THICK - where a little body contact was all part of the fun. Think New York Eve crowds at Times Square. Lemmings heading to the beach. Apple Fans crowding the store on the first day of a new iPad. Shinjuku at rush hour, only twice as crowded. It was like that, especially on the “Viva la Paris” street which had TONS of pretty light bridges which spanned above and across the street. There was even a kind of light show where the twinkling lights flashed and faded and lit up in time to the music. Lous Armstrong sang “What a Wonderful World” - and for a few minutes, yes it was.

    She led us through what now is a blur of beautiful Fallas, satirical Fallas, uproariously hilarious Fallas and serious Social Commentary Fallas. All were great - even the small ones, put together by small associations and tucked away in corners. I don;t know of any other place where neighborhoods work together for pride and Joy and tradition like Las Fallas. Enough talk. Just go to Flickr, type in “Las Fallas” and see some amazing images of Fallas. Five exhausting hours later, we were back in Plaza Ayuntamiento.
    Where is the nearest bar where we can sit and get a Clara con Limon?

    Among our fellow Tour folks, we met up with a great gal from London: Remy. The four of us hit it off and decided to try to hunt down dinner together. We found a small tapas bar that looked promising. We asked for a spread of 'a tipico' selection. Truth be told, I don't remember much about the food - it was neither great or bad enough to remember - so it must have been at least OK. What mattered though, was that it was great company and we traded tales of our cities. I wanted to know more about London because I hadn't spent any decent time there. One thing that was memorable, though was the beer that Remy ordered "FREE Damm" beer. Honest. I'll post up a picture on Flickr as soon as I can.

    It was getting late - just after midnight - so we hustled off across town toward the seco river park to see Desperta: the nightly 1AM Fireworks for Fallas. Spain has a great reputation for putting on great shows, and I didn't want to miss it. I heard it last night but couldn't see it. From the length and booms I heard the previous night, I knew it would be good. Remy had seen it from her hotel high-rise hotel room; she thought it was spectacular. My brother was feeling pooped though, and headed back to the apartment. Hours of walking and being on his feet, plus restless sleep due to Petardos and Borrachos (firecrackers) last night took it's toll.

    On the way to the river park, we marvelled as we walked by a Starbucks open long past midnight. Joining the surging crowds, we got to our spot and waited near the foot of the Pieneta (Comb) bridge in great anticipation along with a few thousand celebrants, shoulder to shoulder. We couldn't get to the front however, and as soon as the fireworks started, we realized our mistake. The fireworks were just around the corner, and the building next to us blocked our view! Dang! The entire crowd surged to the left to get a better angle. Being on the edge where we were however, we only got a 20% view of the Desperta. We could hear and feel them though - which only made it worse because we couldn't see them! Feeling bummed, I viewed them as best as I could and took a few neat pictures of the crowds and some bad ones of fireworks blocked by buildings.

    After Desperta, we walked back toward Plaza Reina and bid our farewells to Remy. On the way back, we stopped at yet another tapas bar: a chain tapas place that operated kind of like the 'sushi boat' places back home. There were tapas behind glass, with toothpicks in them. You just picked out whatever you liked, and pay for however many toothpicks you had when you were ready to leave. It was good to be able to see what you were getting, not so cool that everything is not made to order. We grabbed a few promising looking ones and settled in at the tables with our Claras for our 3AM snack. We made like spaniards and hung out for an hour, ate a few more tapas and people watched. Walking home, we saw yet another Starbucks, open at 4am. Wow. However, coffee was the last thing we felt like and hustled past it.

    Made it home about 4:30 AM.

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