Easter and Holy Week in the U. S. are pretty wan affairs these days. The Easter Egg Roll at the White House, a neighborhood or family egg hunt and perhaps dinner with the extended family. For many of us, the highlight is sneaking some jelly beans from our children’s candy filled baskets or perhaps nibbling the ears off their chocolate bunnies. For my family, at least, it’s also pretty nonreligious. Not so, in Spain, predominantly Catholic, at least nominally. Intricately woven designs made of palms make their appearance on the Sunday before Easter and concerts, processions, special masses and all manner of holy business fill the next seven days. In Valencia, the highlight of Santa Semaña is the procession on Saturday evening, when the men, women and children of scores of religious fraternities march through the ramshackle maritime district of El Cabanyal. There’s a sameness to much of the procession, which was not yet finished when I and fellow American visitors Gerry and Dennis called it quits after more than four hours. But the colorful costumes and exotic religious nature of the event easily holds the attention of someone like me, whose religious upbringing might best be described as half-hearted. As children, my siblings and I were trotted off to my mother’s Methodist church on most Sundays, but her enthusiasm for organizing and enforcing our attendance waned as we grew older, and my father’s lapsed Catholicism did nothing to bolster it. Most of what I know today about the Bible and early Christianity comes from movies and novels – entertaining but not entirely reliable sources. So I was glad to have Gerry, a graduate of a parochial school education and product of a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic family, as my guide to the various Bibical characters and saints marching by us. Salome—yes, she of the seven veils—was easily recognizable and clearly the prize role for the neighborhood sexpot. Though the Biblical Salome would have been a teenager when she danced for her stepfather King Herod and demanded the death of John the Baptist in return, the Salomes we saw ranged in age from a prepubescent 10-year-old to a siren well past the likely age of Salome’s mother. All, however, strutted their stuff imperiously, uniformly posing with hand on hip and a haughty sneer on their faces. The Herods, the legions of Roman soldiers and the occasional Jesus were also easy to identify. Ditto, the personage Gerry refers to as the BVM—Blessed Virgin Mary, for those of us who didn’t have the benefit of a nun-led education.. There seemed to be multiple incarnations of her—one with a crown of thorns and another who clearly took pride of place in each fraternity’s group: of marchers.This Mary wears black mourning clothes and a long veil, topped with a halo, a combination which I can’t recall ever encountering in Methodist Sunday school classes. In fact, I don’t remember Methodists making much of Mary at all, except in her role in nativity scenes. A slew of other female characters paraded by, some carrying grapes and others dates, bread, wheat, bandages and a cloth, which sometimes had an image of Jesus on it. The one carrying this I assume was St. Veronica, whose claim to fame was wiping Jesus’s face as he struggled to carry the cross up ;Mount Calvary. How does someone with a severely deficient religious education know this? It once came up in a semi-drunken game of Dictionary in college. (Did you know that a veronica is a handkerchief?) Like any good parade, this one also included some beautiful floats, many covered with flowers.. Each fraternity carries or wheels what seems to be essentially a mobile shrine, often with a statue of Christ on the cross or the BVM or some other Easter-related holy body. Some of the floats are especially pretty after nightfall, when dozens of votive lights twinkle on them. And then there are the hooded guys. Their outfits would look an awful lot like Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods if it weren’t for the vibrant colors of most of them: green and yellow, royal blue and white; red and purple, etc. In this case, they wear hoods not to terrorize or to escape responsibility for their actions but to symbolize their belief that the acts of charity they perform should be anonymous. So what does all of this have to do with shoes, you may ask. Well, you see, Gerry and I noticed that all of those guys marching in their rainbow-hued robes had shoes—sandals, actually—that matched their robes. Purple sandals. Teal sandals. Gold sandals. Orange sandals. Where do you suppose they get them, we wondered? The colors were far more likely to be found in women’s shoes, but they would hardly be large enough. Though Spanish men aren’t typically very big guys, their feet still seem to be considerably larger than your average ladies size 8 or 9–or even a 10 or 11, which are hard enough to find my big-footed female friends tell me. It wasn’t until a few days later that the shoe dropped for me–when I found out that Spain, particularly, the area around Valencia and south of it, in the Alicante region, is a major world shoe producer. Though in total output it’s dwarfed by China, Spain is the 6th largest exporter or shoes and the 7th largest in per-capita shoe consumption. (And, yes, Virginia, the U.S.is number one in per-capita consumption.) So, it’s probably pretty easy to get mauve-colored man sandals made. And lest any of you conclude that Spain can only produce espadrilles or colorful chunky sandals, let me remind you that American fashionistas (including, notably, Sex in the City character Carrie Bradshaw) adore the designs of Manolo Blahnik. Though his company is now American, Manolo is definitely Spanish and got his start designing for Spain’s very style-conscious females.
It’s after 6 p.m. I’m still in bed. Yes, I was up and out last night till past 2 a.m. watching the spectacular Las Fallas Nit de Foc fireworks (worthy of a post of their own). And no, I haven’t actually been asleep all day. Since about 10 a.m., I’ve alternately read or browsed the web for a few hours and drifted back to sleep to the sound of nearly constant firecrackers set off across the city. I was definitely awake at two this afternoon, when the last Mascletá of the officially four-day, unofficially two-week-long festival went off a few blocks away at the city’s main plaza.
Las Fallas, in general, and the Mascletá, in particular, is a 12-year-old boy’s pyrotechnical dream. When I think of the mischievous delight my son and his fellow miscreants had in designing their own jerry-rigged noisemakers, blowing up everything from potatoes to discarded GI Joes, I know they’d give their right arms to be in Valencia during Las Fallas. (I strongly suspect that some young Valencianos have sacrificed body parts to the gods of loud noises.)
Everywhere, all day and all night, people set off firecrackers. Tots throw and stamp on those tiny poppers. 5-year-olds and their dads light and throw what I recall as salutes. Teens and adults set off explosives that sound powerful enough to take out a car or a small building. They seem to be constantly going off just a few feet away, scarring the dickens out of unseasoned visitors like me. Mentally, I hear the perpetrators, like the bad guys in an old Western, gleefully shooting firecrackers at my feet, saying “dance, tourist, dance.”
Every day during the festival, the city sets off its own barrage of the loudest possible fireworks. Crowds throng to the plaza and the streets surrounding it awaiting the moment when the first nearly deafening boom announces the day’s entrant to what is essentially a competition for the best—that is, the loudest, most pulse-pounding, smoke-billowing—Mascletá of the festival. The din lasts for at least five minutes, and the noise is amplified by the echoes off the buildings surrounding the Plaza. The ground trembles. Tourists are warned to keep their mouths open when at the plaza for the event, lest the pressure from the explosions damage their ears. No one talks about earplugs, however, and I notice what seems to be an extraordinary number of audiologists’ offices and hearing aid stores around this city. I wonder if anyone has done a study to see if Valencianos have a higher-than-usual rate of deafness?
The surprising thing about the Mascleta is that it’s not cacophony. There’s a rhythm to the noise, with waves of smaller, quieter fast pops, interspersed with and underpinned by crescendos of bigger explosions. It’s rather like listening to an all-percussion musical performance, and it makes you want to stamp your feet in unison.
So, after nearly a week of the noise and pageantry that is Las Fallas, as dusk arrives today I’m still lolling in my rented apartment, occasionally nibbling the sweet local strawberries I bought at the market yesterday and munching some of the fresh bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, I also picked up. I feel a bit guilty wasting this time in such a lovely city, lying in bed. But I’m also enjoying it, thinking “Ah, this is what retirement is about: doing nothing if that’s what I want to do.”
Still, it is the last night of Las Fallas. The night when hundreds of Fallas sculptures across the city are set alight; the last one, the huge lion at the Plaza de la Ajuntament, well after midnight. The last night to catch a glimpse of some of the spectacular Fallas I haven’t yet seen and to check out the reportedly fabulous light displays in the Russafa neighborhood. I guess it’s time to get up!
Valencia is a city with an overabundance of food. I’d swear that two of every three store fronts is a café, tapas bar, gelato stand or or some other sort of food seller. Tiny 5-foot wide storefronts sell sandwiches of fresh bread and delicious Spanish ham, beers and soft drinks. Only slightly larger take-out places showcase three-foot-wide pans of paella, dishing up lunches of authentic paella Valenciana (chicken and rabbit) to hungry passers-by. And because this is the week of Las Fallas, Valencia’s incredible end-of-winter/beginning-of-spring festival, the streets are also lined with tents and booths selling freshly fried buñuelos (a sort of Spanish funnel cake), grilled sausages and more.
When I discovered the Valor café on the Plaça de la Reine, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.. Valor is, of course, a maker of Spanish chocolate and the café’s menu is nothing but this food of the angels. Chocolate granitas. Chocolate crepes. Chocolate gelato. Chocolate lava cake. Chocolate fondue. Chocolate everything. Since it was my first meal of the day, I decided to be temperate. I ordered by pointing on the menu to a picture of what looked like a cup of hot chocolate and a buñuelo. What arrived was delicious but nothing like what I was expecting. I’ve always believed in the rich variety of hot chocolate: the kind made with milk (preferably whole, not namby-pamby 2%, or even worse, 1%), a generous scoop of high quality cocoa (can you say Ghiradelli?) and a big sloppy schlag of sweetened whipped cream. That’s a pale shadow of the Spanish stuff.
First, the hot chocolate here is dark brown, not the usual muted milky cocoa color. A rich bittersweet brown: the color of melted Lindt chocolate bars. Then there’s the consistency. It’s liquid, but barely. Pop this stuff in the fridge for an hour and I’m pretty sure you’d have fudge. Think pots de chocolate right when they come out of the oven and are barely done—the middle is still wet and liquid, but thick. Finally, a serving is substantial: an average sized coffee cup, not some dinky little expresso thimble.
When the waiter put my first cup in front of me, I was nonplussed. Was I supposed to drink it? If so, how? I had visions of thick brown goop glopping out of my cup and down my chin. The presence of two packets of sugar and a spoon on the saucer further puzzled me. Did they think I could possibly want to make this stuff even sweeter and thicker?
So I watched and waited, looking around to see what others were doing with their cups of melted chocolate. Alas, no one at a nearby table had ordered hot chocolate. (Despite temperatures only in the mid 50s, Valencianos were queuing up at the gelaterias and ice cream stores). I knew you could dunk the buñuelo in it, thanks to a picture in the menu. So I settled for doing that while I tried to figure out if I’d look more foolish attempting to slurp up the stuff from the cup or asking for some hot milk to pour into it. Once I’d scarfed up about a third of the cup along with half of the golden crunchy goodness of the buñuelo, I was too stuffed to care about the rest anyway. So I just paid the bill and headed off to see the nearby Roman ruins.
By the time I ordered my next cup, I’d watched half a dozen people in the Horchataría de Santa Catalina order and consume hot chocolate. Yep, they drink it from the cup (makes a helluva milk mustache). They also spoon it up and dunk. Any which way, it’s wonderful.
Sitting at Hahn airport in Germany, waiting for my cheapo RyanAir flight to Valencia, Spain, I’m popping gummy bears reflexively. Sugar—more usually in the form of chocolate – is my preferred method of self-medication. I’m more excited and more nervous today than I was six weeks ago when I departed from Washington, DC for Germany, the first stop in a multi-month expat retirement exploration trip
I know no one in Spain. My entire Spanish repertoire consists of three phrases: “Da nada”, “Que pasa?” and, appropriately “No hablo Espagnol”. I have an AirBNB apartment lined up for the month, but other than knowing it’s a fourth-floor walkup in the city center, rented by Ana, a young Valenciana with a fondness for the Beatles, I haven’t a clue about what it will be like. It’s possible that the apartment won’t even faintly resemble the modern one-bedroom flat with a flaming red kitchen prictured in the photos. But assuming it’s decent, I’ll at least have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. Since I figure I can always just point at food at the market or on a menu, I’m not likely to starve, either. Food and shelter–what more can a girl ask for?