Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Valencia, part four: Mercat Diplomat - Nombassador On the Loose

Valencia, Spain (Valencia, España)
December 2015
In contrast to New Zealand, Sunday is not market day in Spain, at least not at the Mercat Central de Valencia.
So we picked a random weekday for our market ventures. Kitted out in all manner of tinsel and sparkly Christmas decorations, the Mercat Central sold a wide range of produce, such as frutas y vegetales, fish, bakery items and long racks of jamón. An open-air market had been present at the same location since 1839 (right across the street from the old silk market), and construction of the current covered market building was completed in 1928 in a largely art nouveau style.

To top off the Christmas get-up, a nativity scene stood at the very centre of the market, complete with tiny oxen and baby Jesus.

While the market attracts both tourists and locals alike, the nearby plaça Redona is tucked away and sees far fewer visitors from outside Valencia. The setting is very unique, being in a circle of residences with shops and stalls at ground level. Apparently the bars and businesses here are family run and not oriented towards tourist spending. The small shop spaces don't appeal to franchises, and many shops have the same signs and decorations from decades past, adding to the plaça's charm.

For lunch we walked over to another market - the Mercado Colon. This modernist market was opened on Christmas Eve in 1916 and has slowly shifted from a produce market to now mainly housing cafés and restaurants.

With a large underground carpark underneath, the spacious interior plays host to various cultural events, and of course boasts a nativity scene in December. It was difficult to pick a spot to eat, as there were so many, but eventually we settled on a corner restaurant that offered arroz al horno (oven-baked rice). While Yannick chowed down on that, I opted for a chickpea dish that was also very tasty.

On the route that we took every day from the centre of Valencia to our accommodation, there was a tiny facade of a model house constructed along a random wall. I knew I had to get a photo of it to remember our daily 'commute'!

That evening we went on a stroll around the area and saw the Torres de Serranos with a beautiful cloudy sky behind. This gate was one of twelve that were part of the ancient city wall that the Christians built in the 14th-century. These walls were torn down in 1865 by the government, and only a few remnants remain including these towers. They are a pretty special sight for an evening meander, and we also found out what time the street lamps are switched on - 5:50pm.

Yet another lazy day in Valencia was spent on one sightseeing excursion: the Admiral's Baths. 
Our accommodation was on a relatively quiet residential street like the one above. We didn't photograph our own as this was prettier, with trees!

The baths, Los Baños del Almirante, are surprisingly not of Arab construction but Christian. They liked the design and continued to build in the older style regardless of religious conflict. Around fifteen similar bath complexes were present in Valencia in the 14th-century, but the Admiral's Baths are the only ones to survive the passage of time. One reason for this might be that the baths were still in use right up until 1959, and had been renovated from their original condition.

Like Roman baths, Arab baths had an entranceway, and one bath of each temperature: cold, warm and hot.

The warm room was the most relaxing, and was where visitors would spend the majority of their time. It wasn't incredibly relaxing for me, however, as I thwacked my ankle on a column and had to recover on a bench for a little while.

What I enjoyed the most in the baths were the eight-pointed stars that acted as skylights in the rooms. People should make skylights like that nowadays! I'd have that in my house.

Today's post was almost called: Market Forces - Jamón and Jesús Under One Roof

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Valencia, part three: Dumpster Diving With The Ancients - Valentia’s Ceremonial Landfill

Valencia, Spain (Valencia, España)
December 2015
Still becoming fast-travel weary, we planned only one excursion for the day - the Museo Arqueológico de la Almoina, Valencia's main archaeological museum. 
On our way there, we stopped to capture a landmark: the belltower of the church of Santa Catalina. Baroque in style, the tower was built on the site of an older mosque's minaret.

Also on the way was the Plaza de la Virgen. On one side of the plaza is the Basilica de Virgen de Los Desamparados, which is joined to the cathedral via a small covered walkway above the street. Passing under this walkway, we found ourselves in a smaller plaza where the museum is housed.

It was here that we saw a teeny tiny police car which was unintentionally cute, contrasting with the heavily armed and bearded police officer on patrol.

Always one for models, I took the time to point out various places we had been on a city model in the square. 

Once we managed to fight our way through a sea of schoolchildren who were standing in, lounging around and generally blocking up the whole square, we were in the calm of the museum. Valencia's history is rich and long, starting with colonisation by the Roman Empire in 138 BC, when it was known as Valentia (which is Latin for "strength"). The museum showcased two of the major roads used during Roman times, as well as the courtyard of the city during Moorish times, and a 2nd-century bath complex.
I appreciated the effort that had been put into the displays, which often showed representations of what the ruins may have looked like in their heyday.

Picture for a moment that you are an archaeologist. Think of what it must be like digging in the sweltering heat for years, finding nothing but potsherds, until the day that you uncover not one, but a hoard of coins! That must feel pretty special. These coins were from the days of the Alcazar.
Another interesting tidbit that was far less photogenic was a great big hole that had been dug at the founding of the city. The Roman soldiers who were like "let's make a city!" partied for days, throwing all their trash (pots, plates and animal carcases) into this ceremonial well. Founding complete!

Another model! This was of the city's nymphaeum, which was a religious building dedicated to nymphs (don't ask me why). As we were going to leave, we were deeply dismayed to see that the schoolchildren were still outside. They were slumped all around the entrance and we had to repeat the word "disculpe!" while gently nudging them with the door. Finally free, we fled and considered paying the €5 fee to visit the cathedral, but decided to put that money towards lunch instead.
Back at the Plaza de la Virgen, we waited for fifteen minutes to be seated at the bustling café Saona, where we enjoyed three courses and tried to read a Spanish newspaper. After we had finished eating, a waiter came over holding two plates of extra dessert and looked questioningly at us. Sadly we did not receive second helpings for free. 

Today's post was almost called: Arriba, Arriba! Ándale, Tiny Police Hombre

Friday, 26 August 2016

Valencia, part two: Taming Lions With Pen and Paper

Valencia, Spain (Valencia, España)
December 2015
The carpark for our AirBNB was a ten-minute walk away from the apartment, and we missed Denis so we paid him a visit one morning. (We also needed a few forgotten supplies like a colander that Yannick had fun carrying around the streets.)
That day we set our sights on the old silk market - La Lonja de la Seda. 
A main component of the commercial site is the Hall of Columns, where merchants worked out contracts. Once upon a time, the ceiling was painted to resemble the night's sky. The room is hugely impressive, showing how a city's wealth in the 15th and 16th-century could produce amazing Gothic buildings. For good reason, the market was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and visitors from all over the globe come to marvel at its impressive columns.

Down a small staircase in the courtyard, we found a partially underground room that looked like it served as a chapel at one point. It felt a bit dank, but I've seen many weirder places to worship (bone church, anyone?).

Taking the stairs upwards this time, we entered a function room that a royal would envy.

The ceiling alone was so ornately detailed and inlaid with gold that I could imagine selling it would raise so much money that one could purchase the country of Liechtenstein.

And that floor? Daaaaamn girl, that's a fine floor you got right there.

The outside featured crenelations that looked like crowns, tiny gargoyles and a thousand different decorative techniques.

As with every other important building in Valencia, the old silk market just had to have an orange tree courtyard. But this one also had some mandarin trees! Good on them for promoting citrus diversity.

With much of the afternoon left, we walked south through the more downtown area, and found a post box with a lion's mouth as a letter depository. It was interesting to see how different the narrow streets of the old town were to the wide avenues of the modern part of the city.

Further south, we strolled through the Russafa district, which is perhaps best known for its throbbing nightlife. In the daylight, however, people come to sip coffee at hip cafés and shop at markets. On a Lonely Planet recommendation, we lunched at a half-deli-half-restaurant, finishing off our meal with little desserts and a bout of people-watching.
The evening was spent watching Inglorious Basterds alongside cava, chocolate and bread. Not too shabby.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Valencia, part one: Plumbing the Scents of Spanish Street Art

Valencia, Spain (Valencia, España)
December 2015
On our way to Valencia we drove through a town called Elche, known for its palm groves that date back to Phoenician rule. Sadly, it was not only Monday but also a public holiday, so everywhere we tried to visit was doubly closed. As we drove, we enjoyed seeing the tall palm trees towering above us, but were unable to enter any gardens. 
Arriving into Valencia, we checked into our accommodation and settled in for the evening. On TV we found a channel devoted to tarot card reading and attempted to discern the fortunes being told. Once tired of that, we flicked onto a sports channel that was airing a 'hand soccer' game between Spanish and Russian teams. Blitznova was too good for even Peña to overcome and Spain lost. Then I found Castel! Castle dubbed into Spanish is one of the best things in life. We finished the evening with dinner and cava followed by Burn After Reading and Finding Nemo.

In the morning we went in search of a bakery. The atmosphere was wonderful, with church bells ringing all over the city and intriguing graffiti on every wall. The bells were tolling because it was the feast day of the immaculate conception of Mary. Pastries in hand, we returned to our AirBNB to zumo wrestle and have breakfast. 

With no specific plan for the day, we decided to go out and get lost, which is a great way to explore a city as you stumble across places you may not ordinarily. We quickly felt that we liked the vibe of Valencia. It seemed laid-back, with people wandering about chatting to each other and busy cafés and bars spilling out over the footpath with daily specials scrawled on chalkboards.
At one point we edged around a group of people clogging the footpath who seemed to be on a street art walking tour. I bet there are fantastic ones we didn't stumble across, and I imagine some of the pieces have interesting back stories. That's one tour I'd consider going on.

The one thing that didn't agree with us was the smell of excrement. Every few steps, a waft of sewerage would wash over you and we didn't acclimatise to it the whole week we were there. Also, nobody would pick up after their dogs and horse-drawn carriages compounded the problem. Not only dogs but people too would urinate wherever they liked, which meant all over the streets. Unfortunately the sewery smell had seeped into our apartment and we had to air it out for a while every time we returned. The building was old, so we theorised that there may have been some problem with the plumbing.

At some point in our strolling we found a fountain with an anatomically suspect sculpture in the middle. Doktor Johnston investigated the scene, and presented the evidence: many oranges were floating in the giant scallop shell, yet no orange trees hung over the fountain. Therefore, people must have thrown them in, maybe in a kind of wishing ritual that didn't include coins.

Our feet had grown tired so we relaxed in our smellhouse for a while before venturing out again for dinner. Our first two choices were shut, so we turned down a few alleys until we found a suitable choice. It was a vegetarian restaurant, and Yannick had the stuffed peppers while I was more adventurous and ordered vegetable mousse. Comprised of mousse made from spinach, turnip and pumpkin, it was very tasty but lost points because it was all the same texture.
Using our city map and Lonely Planet guide, we marked out some sights to see the next day and slept deeply. 

Today's post was almost called: Olé-factory Delights (or 'For Poo the Bells Toll')

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Murcia: Real Bizarre Candy Land

Murcia, Spain (Murcia, España)
December 2015
On one of the days we were based in Albatera, we ventured further than the town and made a day trip to the nearby city of Murcia. The two reasons we made the trip were: we had intended to visit Murcia at some point, and it was cloudy on the day in question so sunbathing wasn't an option.
Parking in a centrally located underground carpark, we surfaced to find a plaza covered in poinsettias with the occasional fountain and/or atom sculpture. We were some of the only tourists there - most other plaza-goers were families pushing prams or elderly people reading newspapers.

Heading over the golden cathedral, we were immediately distracted by the world's largest turrón, which is a type of Spanish sweet similar to nougat that is traditionally eaten around Christmas. I guess the other world records were too difficult to beat.
But let's get back to the cathedral, which has a fairly interesting history. In the 13th-century, a Christian king called Jaime I the Conqueror rode in and did what he did best: conquering. He wasn't supposed to mess with any mosques due to pacts that had been signed, but he thought 'hell with it!' and did it anyway, deciding to build a church on the site. It wasn't completed until 1467, and since then various bits have been added on, so it's a melange of different styles. When attempting to gain access to said cathedral, we found the doors closed. Thinking there may be another entrance, we walked around and discovered some wedding-type goings-on.

You must be pretty fancy to have your wedding in a cathedral. I dig the car.

Moving on, we made for the casino but were drawn to a bakery that displayed mounds of volcanic rock in the windows. It wasn't volcanic rock, but a Crunchie-bar sort of material called Carbon, which tasted exactly like sugar and nothing else, and felt like biting into pumice. Waiting in line we had also seen a curious dessert called a 'membrillo', which looked like pâte de fruit. Upon tasting it, we discovered it was apricot flavour!

Sugared up to the max, we finally entered the Real Casino de Murcia, where no gambling takes place any more (for commoners, anyway). It was originally opened in the early 1900's as a gentleman's club, and now the ground floor serves as a kind of museum for common folk to be able to experience some opulence of aristocratic life. There was a staircase that was blocked off for everyone except "members", so I think the casino still serves as a club of some kind.

I felt pretty aristocratic.

Pretty damn aristocratic. (I feel the need to mention that this photo was taken in the tocador, aka "ladies' powder room", so I'm pretty much in an old fashioned toilet. Thank goodness they removed the gilded chamber pots.)

There were chandeliers hanging everywhere, and paintings of aristocrats in their most expensive outfits. Some rooms were golden, some peach, some white.

The ballroom had a piano, but nobody could touch it because most of the room was cordoned off. However, the snazzy wedding people must have paid an arm and a leg for their big day, because a photographer ushered them through the barrier and snapped a bunch of pictures of them being aristocrats in the ballroom made of gold and mirrors and pianos. You can't see it from the photograph, but there were tiny balconies up on the walls where musicians would have performed for partygoers dancing down below. Badass!

Yep, it was so large inside that we could get a panorama. Now, the 'real' comes into the scene when the casino was restored between 2006 and 2009. Before that, it was just a plain old casino but King Juan Carlos I of Spain dubbed it to be Real (remember, this means 'royal').
Needing a real-sized lunch, we squeezed into the buzzing Los Zagales and gave the waiter Blue Steel until he wrote our name on the waiting list. Ten minutes later we were seated, jammed into a space that would have housed 2/3rds of the diners in a regular restaurant. This is how you know a place is popular. We were handed a marking sheet on which we wrote down how many of each dish we wanted, rather than having an ordinary menu and then having to rattle off dishes to the server. We ordered three tapas and five bite-sized mini tapas (which were €0.90 each), as well as some red wine and dessert. It was worth the wait. 

On our way back to the car we strolled through a pleasant park lined with enormous trees! The roots were so large you could sit on them, so I did.
We noticed that the cathedral was now free from weddings and open to the public, so in we went. Strangely, a rock band was warming up just outside (between the cathedral and the start of the turrón), and a choir was practicing inside so if you stood in the wrong place your ears would be assailed by a terrible clash of melodies. But deep in the cathedral all we could hear was the choir, and it gave the whole place a wonderful ambiance! Yannick suggested that all churches should have choirs going all the time. Someone let me know if this is feasible. I feel like it should be considering how much money goes into gilding things inside churches. Just reallocate a little gilding money to choir hire.

Today's post was almost called: Hilarity Swank - Let’s Be Aristocrats

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Albatera: Cava Me In Sunshine and Feed Me a Doughnut

Albatera, Spain (Albatera, España)
December 2015
It was around this time in our road trip that we were growing weary of fast-paced travel, so we decided to book an AirBNB in a little town called Albatera for eight days to rejuvenate. Meeting our hosts in the centre of town, they immediately greeted us with "Are you tired?" and then followed that up with "Do you want to see a concert?" We were game! An orchestra was in town playing various Disney songs for the evening, and the music was so moving that I actually teared up when they did a rendition of a Lion King song. Great childhood memories were relived that night. We stood during the performance as a few Spaniards had reserved seats for hundreds of their friends and family members using bags, scarves and other articles of clothing. Mickey Mouse ears had been handed out, and several children paraded around saying cute things in Spanish (one girl even sang a translation of the famous Frozen song Let it Go: "Suétalo! Suétaloooo!"). After dinner at the pensioner's club, we retired for the night.
The next few days were spent lounging on the rooftop terrace, looking out over the surrounding hills.

The wifi signal reached up there so we contentedly lazed from 11am to 4pm each day, as those were the warmest hours. I caught up on much of my 'to-be-read' pile.

In the evenings we cooked simple meals and drank rather a lot of cava. Our hosts were English, so of course there was a kettle! I appreciated the ability to make myself tea.
We were invited to watch a film with our hosts one night in the lounge, but unfortunately the low-budget disaster movie he selected was frankly terrible. Their VFX were so shoddily done that it looked like something out of the Sims (not even Sims 2). In one scene where they were driving away from an earthquake, they accidentally hit a baby hippopotamus. The baby hippo turned out to be unscathed, but then the mama hippo came after them! Perhaps a zoo's fences had fallen down in the earthquake? The protagonists somehow ended up in the sewers but escaped after another earthquake opened a path for them. After that, they found a helicopter pilot willing to give them a ride and were about to heli-flee to safety when an airplane fell from the sky onto the parked helicopter. Sucker punched right in the deus ex machina! In the end everyone was happy because all of the main characters survived and California fell into the sea.

One day we ventured into town and meandered through streets teeming with market stalls - knickknacks, clothing, duvets, flowers, pastries and more. We also discovered that the local bakery, Pyter Pan, do a wicked glazed doughnut. They are possibly the best in all of Spain. So soft. So fluffy.
We got the sense that there was a large UK expat community in the town as we saw many signs, some stating "English spoken here", others "Mushy peas sold here".

Sunday meant market day, so we rode with our hosts to get churros. Well, we got churros and they sensibly bought their fruits and vegetables for the week. At one stall a man kept shouting "euro euro euro" on repeat, followed by "uno euro uno euro" and then "euuuuuuuuuuuuuro!" He was clearly proud of his inexpensive wares.
The market, and the area in general, had more of a North African vibe than much of Spain: stall keepers crying out for patronage, men browsing the market dressed in long desert-coloured robes, and street signs written in Spanish and Arabic.

Watching the churros being made, we saw the stall owner using a syringe-like device to squeeze out long swirling strands of the churro batter into hot oil and then use scissors to chop them into manageable sizes. The dough itself is very plain, as it's only made using water, flour and salt, so sugar is poured liberally over the churros, and we also ordered a hot chocolate for dipping. 

We enjoyed our eight days in Albatera, and especially the hours spent on the rooftop terrace in the sun. What a life to live in winter.

Today's post was almost called: Summer - I Can’t Suéltalo!