Monthly Archives: March 2017

Las Fallas, Valencia: Festival of Ninots and Fireworks

2017_032623_2915_626How do putrid gunpowder smell, fire, fumes, noise from almost incessant firecracker blasts, fireworks display, more fire, and crowded streets pedestrianized for the holidays appeal to you? Would you wade thru throngs of frenetic merrymakers as you wander around town for hours on end, until you find yourself trudging along on already wobbly knees yet determined to witness the midnight finale, which is the destruction by fire of beautiful papier mache works of art?

This is exactly what I did at Valencia’s Las Fallas, that time when the town becomes Spain’s biggest street party, and everyone was in deep festive madness. It was March 19, and I was feverish the moment we arrived, never wavering up until the day’s end.

Las Fallas, Valencia: What to See and Do

2017_032612_4942_711The celebration is a four-day long affair that started on the 15th of March, when locals take to the streets to assemble and display their ninots with pride. These are structures made of paper erected to reach a number of stories, and built to look like they are scaling up the skies. There are also minor ninots or the ninot infantile, smaller ones that I observed were burned hours before the finale.

The festival culminates on the 19th of March, when finally, most ninots are burned and subjected to a fiery destruction until only ashes remain, this amidst the cheering of the spectators and participants. The festival coincides with the Feast day of the patron saint of carpenters and builders — Saint Joseph.

What can you expect during Las Fallas?

Impressive Ninot Displays on strategic points of the town

2017_032812_2851_883image image imageimage2017_032820_4844_622imageThe best of Valencia’s sculptors and artists design and create impressive ninots, which were built with popular cartoon characters and nationalities as themes. Some neighborhoods boast of both huge and small ninots, with the latter being burned to ashes hours before the burning of the larger ones, as seen on the picture immediately above.

Everyone participates at the Festival

2017_032807_5624_620This couple is off to join their neighborhood’s street party
imageBefore this smile, the princess sobs as the ninot burns, as if to express grief from its destruction
imageChildren hold hands to form a circle, dancing and chanting in front of the ninot infantile, a small-sized ninot found in many neighborhoods
2017_032700_0211_169Beautiful child princess, together with other children of the neighborhood, look over the burning of the ninot
imageYoung musicians playing a lively piece celebrating the burning
2017_032700_0230_401I wore the white and blue scarf associated with the Las Fallas known as the Pannulo de Hierbas
2017_032812_2832_906Having the time of our lives in Valencia

Impressive Firework Displays

imageAs if the blinding, spellbinding bursts of fire and light created from the burning of the ninots are not enough, Valencia further brightens its night skies by igniting beautiful fireworks, sending them up high to create colorful, dancing incendiary displays. The fireworks are an integral and indispensable part of Las Fallas. One of the best places to witness the fireworks is at the Carrer L’arquebisbe Mayoral.

Bullfight games throughout the festival

imageThe best bullfights events happen at the festival, and so afficionados of the sport can expect a truly exciting spectacle. Bullfighting has been part and parcel of the celebration of the Las Fallas.

Las Fallas / Valencian Food Delicacies

image
imageThese are bunuelos, local pastry likened to a donut. Made of pumpkin paste, it is one of the traditional foods at Las Fallas. To make for a truly delicious snack, have a hot choco drink where you can dunk your bunuelos in. Half a dozen sells at 2.50 euros

  • imageAlthough I love senyoret, or the sea food paella, I ordered valenciana instead. The one on the photo is just right for two persons, and approximately costs 29 euros, or 14.50 euros per head. Tastes great! My friend with whom I shared it, however, didn’t want no rabbit meat, and so, I have all of it for myself.
    imageChurros, like bunuelos, are also sold aplenty during las Fallas. Eaten best when dunked in a thick chocolate syrup

    Burning of the Ninots

    The efforts of the artists were hardly futile as the best ninots are identified, and awards and recognitions are handed to the artists and their winning creations. Well, for the rest, the fact that their works of art were chosen to participate and was admired by everyone was still a great recognition. In the end, at the finale, hundreds of huge and minor ninots will be sent burning into flames.
    2017_032610_3700_510This Sino-themed ninot, with all the vital Chinese elements, a towering, colorful papier-mache masterpiece…2017_032610_4149_553…met its fiery fate at around 12 midnight, to the shouts and cheering of spectators. Immediately after the structure was engulfed by strong flames, steady water was doused from the firefighters’ hoses to control the fire.

    The Las Fallas, undoubtedly, is one of the must-see festivals of Spain. All roads lead to Valencia at this time of the year.

    One word of advice, though; if you’re not used to loud firecrackers, its best to come to Valencia on the first day of the event. This way, you’ll get used to the booming noise by the time Las Fallas culminates on the 19th, and the fireworks are at their strongest and loudest. I must say everything about the Las Fallas is spectacular (do watch the fireworks video below), and strongly recommend that everybody attends the event next year.

Suffice it to say that it was total excitement throughout the last day of the fiesta. By the time we boarded the bus en route back to Madrid, I was dog-tired, but happy nonetheless to have gone thru the experience, and confirm what every one else is saying about it, that Las Fallas is Spain’s best of the best.

Ten Nearby Madrid Towns that are Bona Fide Day Trip Destinations

So charming is Madrid, Spain that first-timers are likely tempted to stay within its confines and wallow in its beauty. Every barrio of the city is unique and fascinating that it is pure fun to hop from one place to another, walk thru paseos, loiter around the plazas and calles, and soak up on what it can offer. Trust me, I did all this a countless number of times — and every time, it’s just insane fun.

Everywhere in Madrid are breathtaking sites and attractions — world-class museums like Prado and Reina Sofia, among many others; towering basilicas and cathedrals such as San Gines and Almudena; and gargantuan parks and gardens like Retiro and Sabatini, respectively.

The city is a gastronomic paradise.  Restaurants and cafes of different shapes, sizes, and culinary delights are scattered all over — there’s Museo del Jamon, Bar Santurce, Botin, Cafe Melo’s Bar, to name a few of my favorites. I swear there must be a joint offering sumptious Spanish comida in every street corner.

Madrid is where you blend easily with the crowd at evening street parties and gatherings — events commonplace in the city, on any day of the week. Here is also where you can witness solemn processions that venerate the Lady and various saints, and participate, to your heart’s delight, in thunderous festivals held all throughout the year.

Still, did you know there’s so much to see and discover on the outskirts of the city? So many towns are situated very near the capital, and needless to say, all are a must-visit as they boast of tons of attractions as well.

I myself had traveled, wandered, and explored quite a number of these pueblos. Referred to as day trip destinations, they are so near that you can go there, experience and relish these places, and be back in Madrid — all within the day.

Here are my top 10 beautiful and exciting towns near Madrid:

1. Avila

Bright yellow walls of AvilaOne of Spain’s major Castilian towns, Avila is famous for its perfectly preserved Murallas or Town Walls. The haunting Catedral de Avila is touted as one of the first Gothic churches built in the country. And if you happen to be in Avila, make sure you have a taste of its popular yema, a sweet delicacy, among many other traditional pastries offered by the town.

How far from Madrid: 2 Hours
Recommended Mode of Travel: Autobus – Avanza Bus (at Estacion Sur)
Cost of Fare: More or less 14 euros (lda y vuelta)

2. Alcala de Henares

imageThe town is known for being the birthplace of famous Spanish Writer, Miguel de Cervantes. In front of his home are the bronze figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Pancho, the main characters of the Cervantes’ novel, the Don Quixote de la Mancha. The prestigious Colegio Mayor de Sn Ildefonso or the University of Alcala is the reason this pueblo within the Community of Madrid is called the University Town.

Number of hours from Madrid: 50 minutes
Best Travel Option: Cercanias trains. Get your ride at Nuevos Ministerios, or other select Metro stations such as Chamartin and Atocha.

3. Colmenar Viejo

imageThis town is proud of its tiny, historic hermitage called the Ermita de Santa Ana, and the Basílica dela Asuncion de Nuestra Senora.

Distance from Madrid: 37 kms. (less than an hour)
Best Travel Option: Autobus 721 at Plaza Castilla
Cost of Fare: 7.20 euros round trip

4. Manzanares el Real

Manzanares el Real Castle is also called Castillo de los MendozaA town made famous by its two castles, the New Castle of Manzanares and the Castillo Viejo. The former is also a fortress and said to be the most preserved castle within the Communidad de Madrid. If you love to hike, the nearby Pedriza Mountain can be reached by walking in just under an hour. Continue further up the hill beside the mount and you will encounter the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Peña Sacra.

How far from Madrid: 50 kms. (less than an hour)
Enjoy going there via: Autobus 724 at Plaza Castilla
Cost of Fare: 8.40 euros Ida y Vuelta

5. Town of Chinchon

imageSome 40 minutes or so away from Madrid is the quaint and tranquil pueblo of Chinchon. Its plaza mayor is a bit peculiar because it is shaped like a bullring. The fact is that the square is used actively for the sport; because of this, Chinchon is recognized as one of Spain’s bullfight towns. Must-eat are Teta de Novicia and Pelotas de Fraile, delightful, traditional breads sold in pastelerias within the town’s plaza mayor.

How far from the capital: 45 kms. (55 minutes)
Recommended travel option: Veloz Autobus 337 at Avenida de Mediterraneo
Fare Cost: 4.20 euros one way

6. Segovia

The Roman Acqueduct at Segovia, SpainIf only for its historic Romano Acueducto and breathtaking Alcazar or fortress, I’d take the bus or train trip to Segovia in a heartbeat. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of seeing these wondrous Segovian landmarks. The aqueduct, for one, is the main symbol of the town. Did you know that this ancient structure still works, and is capable of transporting water throughout the city? The Alcazar, on the other hand, is compared to the castle of Disney — both are charming and enthralling. The whole town itself enjoys the fine distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By the way, don’t leave without having a taste of its savory and mouth-watering delicacy – the Cuchinillo or suckling pig.

Recommended mode of travel: RENFE train (Chamartin)
Time of travel by train: Less than 30 minutes

7. San Lorenzo El Escorial

imageI recommend this place if you are looking for a fine and quiet respite, away from the noise, and the hustle and bustle of Madrid. Be sure to check out the interior of the fabled Monastery, which once served as a royal palace of the King. Visitors will be mesmerized by the grandeur of its library, while the mighty courtyard of the Old Testament kings is something to marvel at. You must also see the Pantheon, where the remains of many royalties are kept.

How far from Madrid: 45 kilometers
Best Travel Option: Catch the autobus 661 at Moncloa, if you want to go the Galapagar route. Take 664 if you want to pass by the Valley of the Fallen gates.
Fare Price: 4.20 euros one way

8. Toledo

imageOne of the most visited towns within the Community of Madrid, not only because Toledo is very near the capital, but also because it is filled with many spectacular attractions. Its alcazar is its most recognizable landmark, a magnificent site lying in the town’s highest peak. The best view of the edifice can be had from the Tagus River. Other interesting sites to see in Toledo are the Museo de Separdi, the Toledo Cathedral, the Ancient Walls and Towers, and the Transito Synagogue.

Distance between Madrid and Toledo: 45 minutes
Recommended Bus: ALSA autobus, at Plaza Eliptica.
Price of autobus ticket: 5.39 euros single trip; 9.70 euros for ida y vuelta tickets.

9. Aranjuez

imageIt is bestowed the title, Spain’s Royal Town. The stately Palacio Real will not be missed, since its grandness conspicuously sprawls right in the midst of Aranjuez. The palace, the beauty of which rivals Madrid’s own Palacio Real, is accentuated by gardens of manicured hedges and multi-hued flowers dedicated to both the King and Queen. It is surrounded by gushing waterways — natural and man-made. The Iglesia de San Antonio, the Royal Church, is found in one part of the plaza of the same name, and one of the Aranjuez’ major attractions.

How to go: Via 423 autobus at Estacion Sur bus station, Mendez Alvaro.
Fare cost: 4.20 euros, one way

10. Cuenca

imageAnother quiet, enchanting pueblo within the Castille La Mancha region. Cuenca is a little over two hours away from Madrid, making it as one of the farthest nearby towns. Still, you’d realize the rather long trip is well-compensated after seeing the breathtaking Casas Colgadas, or Hanging Houses. Another must-see is the mesmerizing Cuenca Cathedral, looming on one end of the Plaza Mayor, opposite the arch gates.

Hours from the capital: 2 hours
Best travel option: Via autobus Avanza, at Estacion Sur
Price of bus fare: 25 euros for round-trip tickets

Pueblo de Cuenca: Amazing Madrid Day Trip (Be There in Two Hours)

imageNo doubt about it, Madrid Spain has tons of amazing places to offer that you’d be at a loss on which to visit first. In case you’re in the city for a few days and would love to see exciting towns that are a stone’s throw away from the capital, I suggest that you include Cuenca in your itinerary.

It is one of those beautiful pueblos situated right within the Castille La Mancha region of Spain you have to visit — a quiet and charming one, I have to say. What’s true is that the town reeks in so many sites and attractions – museums, churches, monastery, winding streets and alleys, cafes — and of course, its famous ancient houses called the Casas Colgadas. The latter appear to be clinging precariously on the cliff that looks over the narrow, shallow river called Hueca. This body of water moves along an area nestled beside the collosal Cuenca Mountain range.

If only for these breathtaking casas, or the Hanging Houses in Spanish, a visit to the town is all worth it — even if for just a day. However, for anyone with a fear of heights, it might be a herculean feat to get to the site since you need to cross a bridge that spans the gorge, which is a few hundred feet below.

No need to fret, still, as you have another option, a less exciting one at that. There is a street on the side of the cliff that goes up to the location of the hanging houses and into the ancient city.

My suggestion is that you take the bridge and just avoid looking below, and you’d be perfectly fine. In the first place, you would want to cross it especially if you must take the best photos of the houses.

Did you know that much of the cliff was once lined with many of these houses on its side. Over time, however, only a few proudly exists; the remaining ones now serve as historical remnants of such once glorious past of the Cuenca town.

Here are some truly amazing Cuenca, Madrid attractions that you must see:

1. Catedral de Sta María y San Julian de Cuenca
imageThe Cuenca Cathedral, or the Basilica of Our Lady of Grace, is constructed using a strong Gothic architecture. It has features that resemble other world-famous churches such as the Soissons Cathedral and Notre Dame de Paris. Like a number of Spanish churches, visitors are prohibited to take pictures. The cathedral has been mentioned by Notradamus in one of his predictions, identifying it as the sole bastion of Salvation during the End of days. In another legend, Rodrigo de Luz mentioned the church as the place where the Holy Grail is kept and preserved. The presence of the Holy Grail will save the church from destruction during the Final Hour.

2. Plaza Mayor (Town Square)imageTourists have a number of cafe and restaurant choices at the Plaza Mayor of the town. The Cuenca Cathedral is located within the square.

3. Casas ColgadasimageThe few remaining hanging houses in Cuenca. The edifice emits a yellowish glow from the incandescent lights that are turned on as the day moves into nighttime. Known as the Casas Colgadas in Spanish, they are found in the eastern side of the old town, just overlooking the Rio Huécar. Only three are existing, unfortunately, and it is the most popular and photographed house of the group. Every night, indeed, the house becomes a spectacular sight; but for me, it is more like a haunting image from afar.

4. Hanging Houses at NightimageThe Casas Colgadas become a enthralling sight as they illiminate because of the yellow incandescent light that glow from the interior. While in the beginning, the cliff was lined with these houses, but now, only a few remain.

5. Puente de San Pablo (Steel Bridge)imageThey say the St. Paul Bridge is the best location from which to take photos of the Casas Colgadas. And indeed, it is, albeit the cold wind and dizzying heights rendered taking pictures of the Hanging houses a difficult task. I actually crossed the steel bridge twice. The first time, I crossed it to reach the ancient time, while the second was at nightfall, in order to take night pictures of the houses.

7. Parador de CuencaimageFrom the Steel bridge of Cuenca, you may also enjoy a grand view of the Parador de Cuenca. A wondrous sight during night time, the parador is recognized as a treasure of the town, the Parador is actually a convent converted into a beautiful hotel for tourists who would love to have a breathtaking look of the town, the hanging casas, and the Hoz del Huécar.

8. Iglesia de San AndresimageOne of the more popular churches in Cuenca is the San Andres church, a 16th century church designed by master architect Pedro de Alviz. Numerous renovations were done to the church because of the ravages brought about over time.

8. Cuenca Arched GatesimageThe wide arched gates is the entrance to the plaza mayor and into the town. Also known as Los Arcos, it is part of a building that serves as the City Hall or Ayuntamiento building. The square is not totally pedestrianized — you would encounter light vehicles passing by the narrow plaza mayor and thru the arch gates.

 9. Ruins of Iglesia de San Pantaleonimage

In Calle San Pedro, just after the town’s Plaza Mayor is the remnant of what is known as the Iglesia de San Pantaleon. It is said to be the oldest church in the whole town, and is known to possess an ogival arch from the 1200’s that’s supported by columns. It also has a flat-shaped apse, which suggests that it was of Templar origin. The church ruins is closely associated with Spanish Federico Muelas, a major poet of the town.

How to go:

imageYou may take a autobus trip to the town via the Avanza bus service, which is stationed at Estacion Sur de Madrid. One of the city’s largest bus stations, you  can reach it via Madrid Metro Linea 6 Circular, at Mendez Alvaro. Ida y Vuelta ticket fares are at 25.00 euros. Duration of bus travel is more or less two hours.

Map: