Saturday, April 15, 2017

Offbeat places and funny faces of Valencia

A resident of Museu Faller in Valencia
Plaza de la Virgen is one of Valencia's oldest meeting places. This fountain
depicts Neptune and eight naked women, representing the Turia River
and its eight irrigation ditches.

Our week in Valencia starts with a free tour of the town. Our excellent guide, Miguel, shares with our small group the culture and history Valencia as well as some of the unexpected details that he loves about his city. He also sends us a follow-up email with a personalized list of can't-miss experiences for the remainder of our week here including the best places to eat paella. ("Never eat paella in a cafe or bar — only in an authentic paella restaurant," he warns.) We'll have the rice dish several times while we're here, but not the traditional Valencian recipe since that includes rabbit, something I won't touch unless it's cute, furry, and very much alive.

Look carefully below the surface of this fountain at Museo de la Almoina and
you can see ancient Roman ruins. Almoinia is Valencia's archaeological museum.

Ken pauses during our bike ride along the Turia riverbed,
now a 9-km-long park.

Valencia is Spain's third-largest city. Located on the southeastern coast, the city has two official languages: Spanish and Valencian (similar to Catalan). The river Turia runs — or ran — through the city, but its bed was converted in the 1960s to a wonderful 9-kilometer-long park, filled with walking and bike paths, sports facilities, gardens, and a guy named Gulliver. At its end lies the City of Arts and Sciences, a futuristic set of museums and an aquarium.

We didn't see the interior of Valencia's Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciències,
but we'd love to come back, maybe with a couple of kids, and check out
the complex of science and cultural museums.

Parque del Gulliver is a giant-size (or is it life-size?) attraction for young
Lilliputians. It is located in the Turia Gardens in Valencia.

Miguel's tour includes pointing out the tiny and sometimes naughty details on Valencian landmarks. The artisans here seem to have had a good sense of humor.

Somewhat normal building adornment in Valencia

Somewhat risque building adornment in Valencia

Somewhat rude building adornment in Valencia

Somewhat intimate building adornment in Valencia

We also peek inside the requisite churches, and opt to come back and visit the Cathedral (officially named Iglesia Catedral-Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de Valencia) at 5:30 when the paid visitors leave and we can get in for free. Locals say the Holy Grail that is here is the real one (a claim shared by several other places), and we take a look at the chalice before heading off to find the mummified arm of Saint Vincent, one of Valencia's most revered martyrs.

The mummified arm of Saint Vincent is located in the
Resurrection Chapel at the back of the Valencia Cathedral.
Saint Vincent of Saragossa is patron saint of both
Valencia and Lisbon.
We pose in front of the Torres de Serrano in Valencia. The
gate is one of 12 that formed part of the ancient city wall.

This tagged building was a bomb shelter during the Spanish
Civil War. Soon it will be turned into a museum.

We are here a few weeks too early to enjoy Falles, a five-day festival in mid-March that has been celebrated since the 18th century (although its current form dates back to the 1920s). All year long, artistes fallers create huge satirical figures and monuments made of cardboard, plaster, wax and wood. The fallas are burned on the final night of the festival. Fortunately, a few fallas are "pardoned" and spared from the flames, and we spend time a couple of hours with them at the whimsical Museu Faller.

A pardoned falla  or ninot  at Museu Faller in Valencia

A pardoned falla  or ninot  at Museu Faller in Valencia

A pardoned falla  or ninot  at Museu Faller in Valencia

No, this is not Ken. It's a pardoned falla at Museu Faller
in Valencia.

A pardoned falla  or ninot  at Museu Faller in Valencia

Sixty days after Easter, Valencia celebrates Corpus Christi with a parade that includes traditional dancing, horse-drawn carriages called Rocks (Rocas), as well as processions of giants. The unusual Corpus Museum, commonly known as Casa de les Roques, houses the 11 official Rocas, huge paper mâché figures and other fascinating Corpus Christi memorabilia.

Large figure used in Valencia's annual Corpus Christi

Large figures used in Valencia's annual Corpus Christi celebrations

How large? Ken is on the right, 

What's a parade without horses? These spend most of the year at Valencia's
Corpus Museum.

Since we're here on a Thursday, we stop by a ceremony with roots dating back to Roman times: the water tribunal, or Tribunal de les Aigües de València. The land around here is divided into irrigation communities. The weekly tribunal is designed to settle disputes, if any, between the various communities. A huge crowd looks on as the judges sit, waiting for someone with water business to step forward. There's no dispute today, so within a few minutes, court is adjourned, photos are posed for and we head off to find some lunch.

A Valencia Water Tribunal judge sports some fancy stockings.

We've been told that we absolutely must visit the nearby lake and wetlands sanctuary of Albufera. On Friday, we've missed the bus as I had misread the timetable, so we try again early on Saturday. In fact, it's way too early as the restaurants (a zillion paella places) don't open until 1 and the boat rides don't start until the afternoon. After thoroughly exploring the tiny village of El Palmar, we decide to do the boat ride first. We've picked a good one that includes a brief lecture about the history of the area, growing rice and the ecological significance of Albufera. The only real way to enjoy the lake (Spain's largest) is by traditional boat, and our hour-long tour is relaxing but a bit monotonous. We decide to splurge on lunch, but (alas!) miss our bus back to Valencia and have to kill two more hours until the next one arrives.

A long-necked water fowl checks us out as we embark on a tour of Albufera
National Park near Valencia.
We never seem to run out of things to do in Valencia. We rent bikes from a cool dude for 6 euros a day and ride to the sea. Another day we visit the National Ceramics Museum, which is located in the Palace of the Marquis of dos Aguas, a sumptuous mansion. And we make several trips to the Mercado Central to buy fresh seafood and other delicious edibles. 

We paid a euro to photograph this high-end sandcastle on the
Platja del Cabanyal in Valencia. 

I'm not sure how to prepare these, so we buy tuna instead at
Valencia's Central Market.

Grand tree in Valencia
Fancy room at Museo Nacional de Cerámica in Valencia

Ken checks out ancient pottery at Valencia's Museo Nacional de Cerámica.

I take a drink from a fountain in Valencia. I believe I would have
preferred some Agua de Valencia — a cocktail of Cava (or champagne),
fresh orange juice, vodka and gin.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Catalonia's mountain jewel: Montserrat

It's a bit hazy when we arrive at Montserrat, Spain.

High in the mountains not far from Barcelona is Montserrat. The mountain is named for its distinct serrated rock formations, like a serrated knife or saw. From its highest peak, Sant Joroni (1,236 meters) one can see nearly all of Catalonia and on especially clear days, the island of Mallorca too.

Montserrat's distinct rock formation gives the mountain its name.

View from Montserrat

In addition to the views it offers, Montserrat is notable for many things: It is Spain's first national park; one of the world's oldest publishing houses (from 1499) is still operating here; a hike up the mountain to watch the sunset is a required rite of passage for many young pilgrims; works of art by Picasso, El Greco and Dail can be found at the Museu de Montserrat; and its main attraction, Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine abbey, houses Catalan's patron saint, the Virgin of Montserrat.

Structure atop Montserrat

Structure atop Montserrat

Structure atop Montserrat

We take an unplanned detour over the mountain on the way to the village of Monistrol where we park and ride the rack railway up the side of Montserrat. We have several hours to leisurely explore the village and take pictures before heading to the Basilica. Each weekday afternoon at 1 (except in the summer), Montserrat's boy's choir, Escolania, performs a short concert and we want to get a good seat. Escolania, founded in the 14th century, is one of the oldest boy's choir in Europe. The choir is composed of boys age 9 to 14, who come to Montserrat from Catalonia, the Balearic islands and Valencia to study academic subjects and music. Their daily free concerts are attended by visitors from around the world.

Santa Maria de Montserrat

Santa Maria de Montserrat

In 1880, while Americans were still recovering from the Civil War, the abbey celebrated its 1,000-year anniversary. Napoleon's troops sacked Montserrat twice and the abbey was closed for restoration and reopened in 1844. The abbey was again under assault during the Spanish Civil War; 22 Montserrat monks were killed by Republican forces (part of a larger violent assault on religion during this period). During Franco's rule, the monastery become a sanctuary for scholars and artists, among others, and today remains a symbol of Catalan nationalism.

The Virgin's Throne inside the Basilica atop Montserrat

After the Escolania performance, we join the line through the Virgin's Chapel and make our way to the Virgin's Throne where especially pious visitors stop to touch the glass surrounding the statue of the black virgin and say a prayer.

View from Montserrat

It is not my thing to be swept up in such fervor — the majesty and wonder of the mountain and the surrounding valleys are religion enough for me.

Our day in Montserrat was a highlight of our month in Spain.

Montserrat is about an hour by train from Barcelona. Indispensable information about how to get here, the cable railway, cable car and funiculars, can be found on the Barcelona Tourist Guide website here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Barcelona bucket list

Exterior detail of Basílica de la Sagrada Famila in Barcelona

This is our second trip to Barcelona and in our two days here I manage to check off two-and-a-half items on my Barcelona must-see list. On Day 1 we take a self-guided tour of Sagrada Famila, Antoni Gaudí's not-quite-finished-yet masterpiece. Day 2 includes a guided tour of Paula de la Música Catalana. But our plans to ride a funicular up Mount Tibidabo are thwarted by winter.

Basílica de la Sagrada Famila

Antoni Gaudí's reputation was already established when he took over the design and coordination of Sagrada Famila in 1883. For the next 43 years, he continued to work on the temple while at the same time designing other projects. From 1914 until his death in 1926, Gaudí focused his energies exclusively on Sagrada Famila. Even today, work continues on the project that is expected to be completed by 2026.

Looking up at the ceiling of Sagrada Famila

Canopy and Christ above the altar at Sagrada Famila

Gaudí is buried in Our Lady of Mount Carmel chapel in Sagrada Famila.

Gaudí was inspired by Holy Scriptures and nature as he designed the massive Sagrada Famila. The church is a festival of light, color and geometric form, like no other place on Earth. For a detailed description and explanation, visit the Sagrada Famila website here.

Exterior detail of the Passion Facade of Basílica de la Sagrada Famila

Exterior detail of the Nativity Facade at Basílica de la Sagrada Famila

Catalan Palace of Music

Built in the early years of the 20th century, the Catalan Palace of Music, or Paula de la Música Catalan, is considered to be one of the finest examples of Catalan Art Nouveau style. In order to compensate for the lack of light in the Ciutat Vella neighborhood in which the concert hall was built, the metal structure is topped with a great glass ceiling, and stained-glass windows surround the auditorium. It is the only music hall in Europe that is illuminated by natural light during the day.

Exterior of Paula de la Música Catalan in Barcelona

Guided tour of the Paula de la Música Catalan

Exterior detail of Paula de la Música Catalan

We arrive about an hour in advance of the 11 a.m. guided tour, buy our tickets and stroll the neighborhood before meeting our group. The tour starts with an interesting and well-done video explaining the history of the building and highlighting the amazing range of performers who have taken the stage. Some familiar names: Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Allen and Norah Jones. The music palace presents about 300 performances each year.

Staircase inside Paula de la Música Catalan

Stained-glass skylight in the concert hall of Paula de la
Música Catalan

Eighteen 'muses' form a semi-circle around the stage at  the
Paula de la Música Catalan


During our first visit to Barcelona in 2014, I took one of my favorite photos; I was on a tour bus in the Tibidabo neighborhood and my trusty Fuji was able to capture a shot of the Ferris wheel atop the mountain. Ever since, I've wanted to return and see that century-old amusement park close up, as well as take in the view from the highest peak in the Collserola mountain range on the northwest edge of Barcelona.

Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor and the Ferris wheel at Parc d'Attracions
on Tibidabo mountain in Barcelona

Today, however, because it's a winter weekday, the funicular doesn't run and we are stranded at the bottom. The mansions lining the street are lovely and I am consoled by knowing I am walking the streets with which I became familiar by reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's novels.

Mansion along Tibidabo Avenue in Barcelona 

Mansion along Tibidabo Avenue in Barcelona 

Random Barcelona

Our pair of days in Barcelona includes countless sites, smells and tastes in addition to the three attractions above. I can't pass up the chance to share a few more odds and ends.

We spot these green moving tubular things at the market, Later we find out
they are razor clams (
navajas or navallas), popular in Galician cuisine.

Flamenco dresses in a Barcelona shop window

Angelic gargoyle on San Pedro church in Barcelona

Small Barcelona plaza at dusk

Yeah ... I'm not a big fan of graffiti either.

Three previous Away to Live blog posts about Barcelona and all my stories about Spain can be found here.