Sunday, 2 September 2012

Spain - Summer 2012

Pinchos and Tapas
Saturday, 25 August
11 days left of the summer holidays and I am spending 10 of those days in Spain.  Good decision.  We are here for one reason and one reason only; La Tomatina!!  Any food I eat along the way is just a bonus.  And as it turns out, one great big fat bonus!  When I booked this trip I was so wrapped up in the idea of the tomato festival that Spain's unique cuisine completely passed me by.  Luckily the festival only takes up one day leaving 9 days to see the sights and taste the delights.  First stop; Barcelona! 
 
We stayed at a place called TwentyTu "high tech" hostel which was amazing and had everything you could possibly need as a back packer.  The night took us straight out to the tapas bars to dine l'espagnol style.  Why don't all bars do this?! Whoever conjured up the idea of Tapas is a genius.  They're like lots of little different appetisers that you use to satisfy your post beer munchies with instead of the usual bag of nuts.  Appetisers like deep fried calamari, a slice of Spanish omelette or some kind of sausage.  Then there are pinchos which are like 2 bite open top sandwich towers held in place with a toothpick.  Though apparently anything with a stick in it can be called a pincho (pincho is Spanish for spike).  We had a variety of both tapas and pinchos and washed them down with Sangria.  Then we went to another bar and had round 2 of exactly the same thing; tapas and pinchos washed down with sangria.  This is probably my favourite way to eat!  Simply picking at things the whooole night whilst chatting away.  Amazing! It is the perfect social food and at 2 euros a pop its not all that expensive.  We spent way more on drinks than food that night and I felt like I was grazing the whole time. 
 
Yesterday we were up early and ready for a busy day.  This was our only full day in Bacelona and we wanted to cram in as much as we possibly could.  The main attraction seemed to be the Sagrada Familia; Gaudi's 130 years in the making and yet still not quite complete Catholic basilica.  We could see it from our hostel but that didn't quite prepare us for its enormity.  Rising out of the underground you cant help but stand in awe when you turn round.  It is massive but then yet looks so fragile.  It reminded me a lot of one of those sand drip castles you use to make on the beach as a kid.  They just require a small wave to be knocked over.  Unfortunately we didn't anticipate the size of the queue to get in and though we would have loved to have seen the insides, it did not fit into our schedule.  It would have literally taken hours.  The Sagrada - big church, bigger queue.
Instead we headed off to Barcelonas famous market; La Boqueria.  This market had everything i'd imagine a market in heaven would have.  It had all the usuals for a market like fresh seafood, fruit and meat but then it also had bars (tapas of course) and other food joints.  My favourite was the seafood stall that on one side sold fresh produce from the sea and on the other side they cooked it!  It was here where I ate my new favourite kind of calamari.  Chopitos; little baby squid bread crumbed and deep fried.  And I had a whole tray to myself with a fish kebab for 5 euros.  Happy days.  Hanging from many stalls were several pig legs.  These weren't butchers but ham specialists.  Serrano ham (or "Jamon Serrano") seems extremely popular in Spain.  I didn't actually get to try any yet but there's time.  It's not cheap mind.  And Jamon Serrano seems to be the cheaper cut in comparison to "Jamon Iberico" which I think is a different breed of pig.  It can take up to 4 years to cure so I suppose its price tag is somewhat valid.  I have also heard that the price depends on whether it's the left or right leg!  I intend to come back and buy some to take home.  It's my dads birthday so it's going to have to be Iberico!  We went from the market to a castle via a metro and cable car. You get a great view of Barcelona from the carriage and the walk up would have been gruelling in the midday heat. We ambitiously bought a one-way ticket though as we figured it would be a nice walk back down.  Not much to see at the top but if you have got a spare couple of hours then it is worth a visit. 
 
Sticking to Spanish tradition we had a quick siesta back at TwentyTu before putting on our dancing shoes for some Salsa classes.  We spent the evening down on the beach side of Barcelona where we heard the Salsa classes were going to be held.  Dinner first and though I wanted to hold out for Valencia for paella the temptation got the better of me.  I figured it is still Spanish paella just not from its city of origin.  Two of us shared a mixed seafood paella to fuel our disco engines and wiped the platter clean.  The Paella was great but the ultimate fuel was to be found in our Salsa club (Habana Barcelona); Mojitos!!  Looking around it was clear that 90% of the people there were more at the intermediate/expert level rather than the absolute below beginners level like myself.  Furthermore, Salsa is very much a man lead kind of dance so the girls were fine.  Me on the other hand... Well my dancing skills are comparable to a drunk Mr Bean on crack.  It was going to require a lot fuel.  A number of Mojitos later we were having great fun.  There were actually times when I felt like I vaguely new what I was doing!  I probably didn't but I definitely caught a glimpse of an old man copying my moves!  Or I just smiled at an old man who was mocking me...  Either way it has properly fired me up to try and learn properly back in England.  
Valenthia
Tuesday, 28 August
Why do I always feel like I am trying to show off when I say "Valenthia"!?  A five hour coach for about 20 euros took us from Barcelona to Valencia where we had booked a weeks stay in a flat from homeaway.com.  The same website where we got our Sadinia villa from.  It was a great little place right in the centre.  For our first full day we decided to go to the Bioparc.  I have done a few zoos in my time and this one is way up there with Singapore zoo.  It was really good! A very pleasant surprise.  We spent pretty much the entire day there!  Just sitting in its cafe is amazing whilst glugging a cold horchata; a super refreshing milky (but does not contain milk!) Valencian drink made from tiger nuts.  I love it and have had several from street vendors since then. 
 
Yesterday we did some site seeing after a morning on the beach.  First was the Cathedral of St Mary of Valencia which claimed to hold the Holy Grail.  Sorry what?!? The REAL holy grail!?  What on earth is the holy grail doing in the middle of Valencia?!  Surely something like that belongs in St Peters Basilica in the Vatican!!  We had to investigate.  With a sceptical mind we paid 4 euros to enter and took a quick guided tour.  Turns out that the cathedral did house a chalice that was officially dated to a few years BC and so quite possibly was the one used in the last super... I don't know.  It was a nice tour anyway.  From here we walked a length of the river in which they turned into an elongated park.  An ingenious idea for a river that kept flooding the city and would have made a beautiful bike ride had we the time and fitness for it.  The evening took us to more tapas (seriously can't get enough of it!) at a restaurant called Gino's in busy central Valencia.  Four of us shared a selection of mussels, cuttlefish, seafood paella, patatas bravas, little fried peppers and crispy fried aubergine.  The Spanish have got it so right! I can't think of another way you could eat so many different things in one sitting.  It's totally the way forward. 
This morning I was awoken by the clanging of metal poles and the general bustle outside of my window.  It turned out that the roads had been closed off and transformed into a great big street market! Excitement was relatively short lived as it turned out to be more of a car boot style market with nothing really to munch on.  Didn't matter though as we had already planned to visit the Valencia food market today.  Probably half the size of Barcelona's market but still good enough to nose around.  We followed this with a trip to the Fallas museum which I think is definitely worth a visit.  Las Fallas is a festival where people make amazing sculptures out of paper mache and then set fire to them! The best sculpture of the festival, however, is saved from incineration and put in to the Fallas Museum.  It shows off every winner since 1940 and so you can follow the fascinating changes in society through each sculpture.  We spent the afternoon on the beach where I tested out my new goggles (bought for the tomato festival) and chilled in the sun.  Early evening, after sunning ourselves, we ate our first proper Valencian paella in a beach side restaurant.  Rabbit, chicken and snails made the perfect paella which we were warned would take around 40 minutes to prepare and make.  If only I didn't have to share it.
 
Tonight we prepare ourselves for the reason we came here in the first place.  La Tomatina is tomorrow!! I have my goggles, I have decided what to wear and the morning plan is sorted.  Am I prepared?  Probably not.
 
 
La Tomatina!!!
Wednesday, 29 August
 
Today was possibly the craziest day of my life.  Regularly I stood back in my mind and thought "what the @#!*/ am I doing?!".  A day of many first times started with a 4:30am alarm where my excitement for the festival couldn't yet punch through the fact that it was 4:30 in the morning.  Though the festival wasn't until 11ish we aimed to catch the first train out to Bunol as we didn't want to take any risk of not getting there.  As excitement peaked through my tiredness it was starting to get pushed aside by anxiety.  So many people have warned me about it being very rough and dangerous and I had read quite a bit too.  What the @#!*/ am I doing!?  The train station was only a few minutes walk from us and there were already a few people there.  By 6 AM the place was heaving.  Thank god we decided to come in early! 
 
We had to catch a metro to the main station and then from there had to catch the train to Bunol.  Hearts sank as we got off the metro and saw the queue for the main train station.  Seemingly endless; we cried inside and joined the back of it.  Some people hopped into taxis whilst those that couldn't afford a taxi watched on in envy and wallowed in their own self pity.  It was grim.  But not for long!  Gradually word spread that the fat queue was solely made up of people wanting to buy tickets.  We already have our ticket!!!  All anxiety, tiredness and drizz was obliterated as we ran towards the station screaming and waving our tickets in the faces of the queue bound.  I have never been so excited!  On the train absolutely everyone was buzzing and more then ready for the madness to come. 
 
On arrival we followed the crowds through streets lined with buildings covered in blue plastic sheets and past fully kitted out stewards that made me feel a little under prepared. We settled at what would soon be the centre of action.  Right next to the greased pole with the ham on top.  Yes that is what I just said... A greased up, two story tall, wooden post with a whole pigs leg hanging from the top.  What the @#!*/ am I doing?!  Tradition has it that as soon as someone manages to climb the pole and release the ham; the tomatoes will be released.  We watched them grease it up good and proper and then stood back and admired the brave try and scale it.  Just a single failed attempt, as a man jumped on and then slid back down, made it instantly clear that it was not a one man job.  We watched on as people trampled all over each other wanting to be the first to the top.  We saw several people face plant the post after being launched into it and heard a number of thuds as people fell off and the crowed parted from under them.  After the first wave of madness people started to work together.  Every time they edged a little higher they would flick the grease into the crowed as we all cheered.  What the @#!*/ am I doing?!  By this point I was covered in beer, sangria, grease and sweat (very little of which was my own).  The vibe was amazing and didn't seem rough at all.  People had brought big bottles of alcoholic cocktails and sangria and offering it to everyone!  Waiting like baby chicks in a nest it was poured out in to our opened mouths with the majority going in my hair and down my shirt. 
 
Wave after wave of people failed to get the ham.  Human ladders, pyramids and just general piles of people did not manage to get there.  One lovely girl scaled the post and the crowed went crazy.  Not because she had scaled new heights, as she must have thought, but because she had failed to notice that one entire boob was completely hanging out.  She welcomed the applaud and cheer of 40 thousand people with a smile and obliviously climbed back down.  Though great attempts were made nobody got high enough to unhook the ham.  The blast of a canon indicated that the inevitable release of tomatoes was upon us.  This was it!  Being in the centre it took a few minutes for the madness to reach us.  We could see the cloud of tomatoes getting closer to us from both sides.  I put my goggles on.  What the @#!*/ am I doing?!  A single lone tomato landed near me and everyones eyes fired up with excitement.  I remember thinking how strange it was how much hysteria can be caused by one tomato!  Before I knew it I was ankle deep in a cool, sloppy sludge.  I lost the girls straight away.  As the tomato trucks go by you are bombarded with tomatoes and you have no choice but to take cover.  No time to even open your eyes, never mind throw something!  It is so cramped that just bending over to pick up some ammunition was difficult and made you worry that had you gone down would you ever come back up.  Once the trucks passed and the crowed spread it was every man for themselves. 
The goggles served no purpose whatsoever.  Tomato juice just seeped in and it caused more pain then protection when taking a direct hit.  I took them off and carried on.  What the @#!*/  am I doing?! This is frickin awesome!!!  I am getting absolutely battered and all I can think about is how I have never had this much fun!  The best is getting people from far and them having no idea it came from you.  Within about ten minutes it pretty much went from a tomato fight to a pasata fight.  There was barely chunks of tomatoes never mind whole ones.  The street was just a red river of gunk and attack was more of a scoop and pour then a pick up and lob.  After a while the main frenzy had died down and people were just sitting and playing in the stream.  Nobody was rough or aggressive at all and everyone was just having a really good time.  A second canon blast signified the end of throwing and meant I had to go find the girls.  Good job we arranged a meeting point before hand!
 
Heading back was less fun as the adrenaline wore off my eyes started to burn a little and I gradually felt less and less comfortable.  In the heat the tomatoes dried to your skin and scalp making you itch all over.  Locals spraying hoses out of their windows helped somewhat and once I got some fresh water to my face I felt better.  BBQ's lined the walk back and a spicy sausage bap took the mind of feeling rank.  Unfortunately the train tickets and money that I had wrapped in a plastic bag were sodden but the sun managed to dry them out quick enough.  Never had I craved and enjoyed a shower so much.  Full on life experience... DONE!
 
Plenty of fish
Saturday, 1 September
 
Curiosity got the better of me the other day when I opted for the pickled anchovy flavoured ice cream over the sweet strawberry, sticky toffee and rich chocolate flavours.  It was not good.  Infact I had a two scooper of which the other one was Spanish omelette flavour.  They tasted exactly as the title suggested so I don't really know what I could have possibly been expecting.  I did my best to offer it out to the others but in the end it had to go in the bin.  By Thursday we were down to just the two of us and we decided we would kill time with an all day combined ticket in the City or Arts and Sciences.  For a start, the park just to look at, is seriously impressive.  Like something from the future.  The science building was designed to look like a whales skeleton!  Our ticket included half a day in the Science Museum, a film in the IMAX and then an evening in the Marine Park (35 Euros).  This place properly blew my mind.  I have never seen anything like it.  We could have easily had the day just in the Science Park and kind of wished we had.  I learnt so much!  I now know exactly how much water is in my body, how difficult key hole surgery is, that the hottest part of my body is my arm pit and that my friend sits entirely on her left cheek where as I sit perfectly normal.  
 
We ended up sticking to our plan and went to the IMAX to watch a film about the Nile.  It was a first experience for me and pretty cool.  Though put me in a warm darkened room, in a seat that's more horizontal than vertical, the inevitable is going to happen.  All I could tell you is that the film was about the river Nile... and that was in the title.  Off to the "L'Oceanographic"!  Aquariums are cool, I like them a lot.  This was a whole new level of cool though.  Seriously breath taking and without a doubt the best aquarium I have ever been to.  What the hell, why are there so many cool things in Valencia?! A park the length of a river, a brilliant zoo, two world famous festivals, Paella!!, the HOLY GRAIL!?!? and now these two beauties.  We watched a fantastic dolphin show and spent the whole evening until late visiting and revisiting the various exhibits.  It is massive and I could never get bored here.  In one exhibit we witnessed something truly special.  A real treat for the eyes and ears - two walruses mating!  Now how many people can say that they have seen that?  I'm thinking about adding it to my world experiences list.  Don't save the City of Arts and Sciences for a day when you have nothing to do like we did.  Put it at the top of your list of things to do in Valencia... after Paella.    
 
Yesterday we did some final errands, ate one last Paella and caught an over night coach to Barcelona.  We couldn't help but visit La Boqueria market one more time for breakfast.  Spanish omelette, churros, coffee.  Good times.  I bought some Jamon Iberico to take back too.  La Tomatina was the reason for this trip and in the end it played just a small part in the whole experience.  A frickin amazing part but comparatively small nonetheless.  The two national dishes of Spain are Paella and Tortilla Espanola (Spanish omelette) and I have ticked them both off several times.  I can now say with quite some confidence that I have eaten Spain.  And I would do it again.   :o) 

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