Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Madrid - still trying to recover

On arrival in Madrid both of us were still feeling rough so we took it easy trying to get well.

Unfortunately an early night didn't help as we'd hoped but since we were running out of time we had to at least try and see Madrid. We took the free walking tour because in the past these tours have always come through for us and this was no exception. Our guide was from Wisconsin and did a fantastic job showing us the ins and outs of Madrid.

For future travelers we want to recommend these free walking tours. We have taken quite a few now and they always turn out great. Since the guides are usually local university students or travelers who have traveled and stayed they are a great source for local reliable off the beaten path suggestions. Better than the tour books! These are locals living in the city who can tell you where to go, what to see, what and where to eat, what not to do, etc. Before you travel next, check to see if they have a free tour in your destination. Here's the London tours for all our future visitors.

Since we were the walking-wounded there wasn't much more excitement in the last few days of the trip. We struggled on seeing the famous Prado Museum along with the Reina Sofia but that's about it.

However we did enjoy the famous artwork especially the Picasso anti-war piece, Guernica and a few of Dali's works.

So after a bit of Candyland, being covered in wine & tomato, sunning on the beach to some culture in Madrid - we did a lot. However to the churros con chocolate we missed, the Flamenco dancing we wanted to see and the monastery cookies we planned on eating all I can say is blame injuries and illness. Maybe next time!

Finally continuing with our not feeling well spirit we couldn't be bothered to have somebody take a picture of us in the Plaza Mayor but we were able to capture the moment with the photo above. We did get some good photos but that sort of sums up Madrid portion of the trip for us.

All in all Madrid was nice way to spend a couple days and wish we'd felt better to really settle in and enjoy it.

Well, that's all from Spain, hasta mañana!

Spain Photo Collection

Monday, September 1, 2008

Valencia - De-tomatoing

With the past few nights, including Barcelona, our bodies were starting to adjust to the late Spanish lifestyle. Our last night with the tour group was no exception. We started the night (after showers and our nap) at a local restaurant in Old Town Valencia. Here we met up with 2 couples, also in our group, from Ireland. Valencia is famous for Paella so we all tried to order our own Paella. The only problem is house rules wouldn't let us each order our own as its made-to-order so we had to order one huge paella for 6. We settled on the Paella Valencia made with chicken and rabbit. Fantastic! (the other option was the seafood version....squid, octopus, who knows what!)

After a few other stops along the way we found ourselves at the beach some time well into the morning. The night club that the crowd ended up at was a little too much for us. So, we wandered off from the club on to the beach. The silky soft sand and the warm breeze made the perfect setting for light snooze under the stars.

As Steph previously mentioned this is the point in the trip where our late nights and strenuous activities started to catch up with us. On top of Steph's bum foot which has now stayed swollen and very sore I've come down with a sore throat and just feeling sick with a headache and weakness. Eek. Not the way we envisioned spending our last day in Valencia before moving onto Madrid.

Before we left Valencia instead of touring some of this sights we limped to the beach and spent most of the day resting up soaking in the sun. Poor us, I know...

For dinner we weren't up for much so instead of going into the old town where all of the night life was supposed to be we decided to explore the streets around our hotel where we found some incredible tree lined streets filled with local Spaniards enjoying the lovely evening which brings me to one of the things we have enjoyed most about Spain. The evenings! They are so nice with comfortable temperatures, great outdoor spaces to enjoy and plenty of night life to keep you busy.

So back to dinner. We found a great little Spanish restaurant serving tapas with an open table outdoors. The staff spoke very little English and we stumbled through the menu ordering a few tapas dishes we recognized including what I thought was steamed mussels. Turns out I didn't order mussels but snails. So after trying to figure out if we were going to eat the snails one of the staff that could speak some English came over and we were able to tell her we wanted mussels and not snails. It took a few hand motions of trying to cup our hands like little mussel shells but we got the dish switched out. We also had a steak tartar dish which I think has been throwing my stomach for loops since. In any event it all worked out and was a good (Steph's interpretation: interesting) dinner.

The next morning we woke up thinking we felt better so we headed out to tour some of the sites we neglected but to no avail. Carrying our backpacks we didn't last very long and headed to the bus station to catch the bus. Bum-foot-Steph and sick-feeling-Josh aside, Valencia was great and we could see ourselves going there again!

La Tomatina - Anybody for Tomatoes?

The wake up call came bright and early after only 3 hours of sleep but we got up, threw on our grungy clothes and boarded the bus to the small town of Buñol where La Tomatina is held.

First, let me say a little about La Tomatina for those that may not know about it. La Tomatina is really only 1 hour of a week long festival in Buñol, a town of only 10,000 people. For that hour trucks drive down the main street dumping who knows how many hundreds of thousands of kilos of tomatoes for some 40,000 people, mainly tourists, to throw at each other. The fight is only on the main street of town where shop keepers and home owners have to board up windows/doors and tarp up their building and balconies to keep out the tomatoes. The fight does not begin until someone is able to climb a greased pole to reach a ham at the top which usually takes hours. When this is done a big canon is fired signaling the start of La Tomatina and water canons then starting soaking the crowd as the tomatoes are delivered by trucks that drive through the crowd unleashing the all out war!

There are 3 rules. Squash tomatoes before throwing them. Only throw tomatoes. And stop throwing when the canon fires after 1 hour. How much of that was adhered to??

At the arrival meeting our tour guides stressed that this was a "full on event"! Most of us said ah, we can handle it not realizing what we were about to get ourselves into. From experience I can now say they were right. The street got so packed that you could not move. You couldn't leave if you wanted to as there is no where to go so if you don't like tight spaces, then stay away. The street is so narrow, maybe officially a lane and half wide, and there are so many people. One not-so-fun tradition that the organizers of Tomatina warned us about was the t-shirt fight. While waiting on the tomatoes shirts are ripped off by groups of guys then are tied in a knot and heaved into the crowd. I can tell you from experience that when you get hit in the face by a wet and nasty shirt it STINGS! Especially when you can't see it coming or raise your arms to block it.

On the other hand, squashing the tomatoes before throwing them usually held true. The only exception is for a few tiny green tomatoes that are too tough to squash which aren't fun to get hit with either.

Now back to the event. I'm having a hard time finding the words for how many people were packed in the street and how LITTLE room we had to maneuver. At times the crowd would surge and you just had to go with the flow. It would move you to the left, right and even move just the upper half of your body. You could not stop the surge. which was at its worst when the trucks crawled passed to deliver the tomatoes. There was no room before and even less room while they were there. I'm not talking pickup trucks here, I'm talking garbage size trucks with dump beds making their way through an already sardine-packed crowd. I don't know how people didn't get run over. You would sometimes be 10 feet from where you were after the crowd parted to allow the trucks to pass by. You just had to move with the crowd.

Once we got some tomatoes and into the fight it was an absolute riot. It was such a laugh to be covered in tomatoes. Then with a fist full of tomatoes I couldn't help but find a bit of ruthless pleasure having the opportunity to pick some unassuming soul out of the crowd and hurling tomatoes at them when they didn't see it coming. Even though people were doing it to me I still got such a chuckle out of it. One option instead of throwing the tomatoes is to squash the tomatoes on peoples heads. Of course for me this included Steph's and was so fun. Watching the tomatoes juice run down was totally worth it. She of course returned the favor smashing one in my ear which I'm still finding pieces of even back in London.

I do have to say however that it was a seriously long hour. Getting hit by shirts, tomatoes, flip-flops, cups (people throw anything they can get there hands on) does get tiresome not to mention the sheer energy it takes to manage the surge and hold your place in the crowd. When the canon fired again we took a big sigh of relief and started heading off the main street.

Walking down the street we were ankle deep in tomato puree. Splashing and swimming in it was almost more fun than throwing the tomatoes. To have the opportunity to do a two-footed splash down into the deep tomato puree is such a boyish pleasure. You know like splashing in a puddle when you were a little kid, soaking your mom in the super market parking lot and the trouble that followed. (Sorry Mom!). The look on Steph's face the first time I covered her in tomato puree was priceless. She just shook her head as globs of tomato slid slowly down her legs and then followed suit. The entire event was over the top!

Finally we made our way to the bus and stripped off our tomato ruined clothes. By this time the heat of the day was starting to awaken the rotten tomato smell, yuk! Even after changing clothes and leaving them on the side of the road, we still stunk. Tomato fragments were everywhere. Steph's poor hair. Last night soaked with wine, today embedded with tomato. What fun!

We headed back to Valencia where the clean up began. Oh, and a nap too! Steph kindly let me shower first knowing the feat in front of her. After spending 30 minutes on her hair alone (dry combing the big tomato bits out in the sink, then 2 shampoos, then wet combing, then conditioner, then combing, then conditioner again), she was finally able to call herself tomato-free and joined me for some much needed sleep!

Here's all the photos that turned out from our disposable cameras.

Requena - Water and Wine Festival

After a 4 hour bus ride south we arrived in Valencia. It was now time to prepare for our main events of the trip: La Tomatina (the main event) and the Water & Wine Festival (and add-on event that our tour company offered). We arrived in Valencia around 3:30pm and our first event started at 8pm. So after a little last minute shopping it was time to depart by bus for the all night water and wine festival in Requena, just outside of Valencia, to celebrate the town's grape harvest.

This is a local festival that our tour company has sole access to which basically means our group would be the only foreigners at the festival. The locals keep the itinerary fairly hush hush so we did not know exactly what was going to happen. The tour guides said they usually have all of the local bands play while leading everyone through streets of the small town, with trucks providing free red wine all along the route (BYOV - bring your own vessel - aka cup) and some of the locals stay up in their balconies and dump water on the passers-by. To elicit a water dumping or hose down you are supposed to stand under their balcony and chant "agua, agua, agua!" Hence, the reason its called the water and wine festival.

When we arrived we made our way up through the old town of Requena where what appeared to be the town mayor was blessing the wine harvest after a series of fireworks. Then we heard the bands playing some where in the distance. Fortunately, we were hanging our with one of the many tour guides and she said they may be at the bull ring. Bull ring? Yes, the town had its own bull ring - it looks like a mini coliseum.

The four of us (Steph, tour guide girl, an Aussie guy and I) ran up to the entrance to try and get in but noticed everybody had tickets to get in. Since it was so hectic and so many people going in all directions the tickets didn't account for much because we were able to sneak in. Yep, sneak in! Here's how:

Standing there wishing we could get in, our Aussie friend said, "I'm going in". He had found a corner of the yellow dollar-bill-sized tickets on the ground. He got in line, held up the ticket corner and just walked in with the crowd of locals entering (it was quite obvious that only locals had tickets to the event. We thought he only got in because he had dark hair...a tall blond Aussie might have stuck out a bit more! ha!). After the shock factor of him just waltzing in wore off, we decided we had to try and get in as well. The tour guide girl took a piece of paper and tore it in to 3 ticket-sized pieces. We ran to another entrance and while the people taking tickets were distracted tearing tickets of others, we just jumped right thru the barrier. Nice moves, huh?

Since it was really full we had a bit of trouble finding seats but eventually wedged our way in. At this point the crowd was already rocking, singing and dancing to the bands (brass and percussion) who are all wearing different color shirts like teams, spread throughout the ring. They took turns playing different songs as the music blared around the ring and you couldn't help but join in, especially on the O'le...O'le O'le O'le...Ole chants! The atmosphere was amazing as everyone eagerly awaited the featured attractions, the bulls.

Now, before I go to much further let me clarify that we knew in advance this was going to be a "fake bullfight". Or "play bulls" as the tour guide said. No bulls would be injured in this event, but people might and funny enough, they were (I thought it was funny, but Steph did not). Basically they bring a bull out and young men run around the ring baiting the bull who chases them as they then hurdle the side wall to get away. "Play bulls" are small bulls. They looked big to us but the guide insisted they were maybe a third of the size of a full-sized bull fight bull. And mind you, the guys out in the ring are amateurs so small bulls is the only way to go. Here is a short video of one bull running around the ring.

By our count there were around 10 bulls on display, one at a time. There were a few close calls with huge "oohs" and "ahhs" when a guy would narrowly avoid being taken out. It all went fairly smooth with only a couple of guys getting hit by the bulls but quickly jumping up with huge cheers. That is until Bull #8 when this poor guy was a little too daring and got absolutely hammered by the bull. He got hit, flipped, knocked down, and trampled on. OUCH! You could tell he was passed out when the bull was done by the way his limbs just flopped like a doll. Luckily all his fellow dare devils came to his rescue to distract the bull as they drug him out of the ring and over the wall while he was still unconscious.

Don't get too worried. There wasn't any blood and he didn't get gorged but I highly doubt he made it without at least a couple broken bones. Strangely, the crowd watched as he disappeared within the arena walls, then the bands took up playing again and out came the next bull. I guess the crowd really understands that that's the name of the game.

There was also one really good guy who a couple times was able to wait for the bull to charge him, then put his hand on the bulls head as it lowered to buck him and then jumped over the bull - NICE! Too bad I wore flip flops. I could have hurdled a bull!

After 10 exciting bulls, the show was over. Everybody exited onto the streets where the bands were all playing next to a tanker truck full of red wine hosing people down. I'm talking firefighter water hose amounts of wine flooding the crowd. It was quite a site and great way to start the parade! (And what a waste!) Check out this quick video.

What's interesting is that the entire town takes part in this event. The younger generation does the walking and most of the wine drinking while the older generation watches in laughter and dumps water from their balconies after the agua chants. Even old gray-haired ladies had their hoses or buckets out dousing the people below with water. One particular sweet little old lady was out on her balcony looking down at everyone with a "you all are nuts" kind of look, then stepped inside her dark apartment only to emerge with a big bucket of water! I bet she paraded in her glory days! You could tell she was having fun!

Coming up on 1:00am the parade started moving through the streets, music blaring and everybody singing and dancing. To top it all off free red wine was given out through the entire parade route. There would be a big yellow truck with a huge container of wine with people taking cups and filling them up for you.

At one point I ended up getting my shirt ripped into a toga as a couple of locals, whose shirts were also ripped as this is somewhat part of the tradition, looked me up and down motioning to my shirt then they all grabbed hold and ripped it for me.

After parading down many streets amongst multiple water dumps and hoses, it was now 3:30am, time to catch the bus back to Valencia for tomorrow's show, La Tomatina. Back to the hotel by 4:30am and on the bus to La Tomatina by 7:30am. Sleep? Who needs sleep? Steph's only concern was that she was going to stain the hotel pillows with her wine-dampened hair...and when you are about to participate in a huge food fight within mere hours, a shower doesn't get put high on the priority list! :)

Apologies for the poor photos in advance.

Photos of the water and wine festival