Valencia Spain’s Maritime Easter Celebration

Because of the 2016 calendar specs, there was exactly one day between the end of the three week, high decibel, frenetic celebration of Fallas and the beginning of Easter week called  Semana Santa in Spain. One day. How do Valencians survive a never ending month of celebration with only Saturday to clean up Fallas, put away costumes and prepare for the traditional Spanish Palm Sunday processions?

Valencia survives because much of the city leaves on vacation after Fallas and its maritime community of Cabanyal is where you find Easter. They say the city of Valencia turns its back on the sea. If you only toured the old city and its adjoining districts you wouldn’t know Valencia has a thriving Mediterranean port and charming maritime community of Cabanyal nor miles of sand beaches. Its a legacy of the Romans who preferred to build their settlements so they couldn’t be easily attacked by water or land. Valencia’s bus and metro systems get you easily to Cabanyal and the tourist bureau, Tourismo Valencia as well as 24/7 Valencia, the monthly English tourist guide both publish schedules of Semana Santa Marinera.

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There are twenty Cabanyal brotherhoods called Cofradias who plan and carry out the week’s activities. During the early processions of the week they participate wearing peaked hoods that obscure their identities. On Easter Sunday they march carrying their hoods.

The fishermen and women of Cabanyal have a proud history of independent thinking and their version of the Easter Sunday procession is a less pious version of what you might see in other parts of Spain.

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There are brass bands playing everything from traditional Spanish music to John Phillip Souza with some bands entirely made up of drum corps.

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There are platoons of Roman soldiers complete with wigs, swords and plumed helmets.

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There are Herods, sexy Salomes, Roman maidens and charioteers of all ages.

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Children are an important part of the Sunday parade with parents in costume carrying infant children the entire route and older children playing in brass bands, marching in Confradias and dressed in Biblical costumes waving and throwing flowers to onlookers.

Its a family event with the crowds of onlookers and parade participants retreating to homes or local restaurants for an Easter meal when the parade ends.

The streets go quiet. The costumes are packed away for another year. The Cabanyal Easter Sunday procession signals the end to four weeks of Valencia spring festivities.

Valencia, Spain: The Artists of the Fallas Festival

Squeezed in among the expectant crowd on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, Spain, I knew I was about to watch an explosion. The 2pm Mascleta is a daily tradition of the Fallas Festival. I did not anticipate the teeth tingling, throat vibrating, ground shaking impact of over 200 pounds of gunpowder going off in what the tourist brochures describe as a “perfectly synchronized rhythmic symphony of noise finishing with a 20 second grand finale.” The March festival of Fallas is a noisy, colorful nineteen day event that begins on March 1st and ends late on the night of March 19th, St Joseph’s Feast Day, which is where the celebration has its more humble beginnings. Its an opportunity for local artists and craftspeople of to showcase their talents and that includes the pyrotechnicians responsible for Mascleta and the fireworks shows that are part of the festivities. Also the cooks who make the bunuelos, the pumpkin fritters that are a Fallas specialty; the brass band musicians and dancers and the seamstresses who create the elaborate traditional costumes seen on the streets.

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But the original artistic stars of Fallas are the designers, carpenters, painters, moldmakers and technicians who create and assemble life-size and larger  figurines called ninots onto neighborhood platforms in scenes that depict all manner of political and satirical statements. A scene of ninots is called a fallas which is how the festival got its name and the fallas aren’t on full display until the final three days of the festival when their artistic teams have a designated window of time to fully assemble their creations. There are only a few days for the public to wander Valencia to view all 500-700 ninots before the final act of Fallas, the burning of all the ninots in a fire known as Crema which occurs on March 19th.

It was in the 18th century that early versions of ninots became part of the celebration of the Feast Day of St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and craftsmen in the Catholic religion. Craftsmen would traditionally sweep out their shops of wood scraps accumulated over the winter on St Joseph’s Day, a symbolic end to the winter and welcoming of spring. Their large T-shaped candleholders called parots would get propped in front of buildings (or suspended as puppets between buildings) dressed as figures that represented some injustice that had occurred during the previous year.

Those simple early ninots have evolved into magnificent wax and polystrene figurines that require such precise skills that the artists who create them now have their own guild, The Guild of Falleros Artists; at least two schools who specialize in training them; two museums dedicated to their work and a part of Valencia known as Cuidad del Artisto Fallera  (the City of Falleros Artists) where many of them have full-time workshops.

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To find out more about the art of creating a fallas, begin at the Museo del Artista Fallero located in City of Falleros Artists in the quiet Benicalap district northwest of Vallencia’s historic quarter. The museum is open year round from 10AM-2PM and 4pm-7PM Monday-Friday and Saturdays from 10AM – 2PM. There is a small auditorium in the back of the main floor and if you ask the museum staff they are happy to show you the video (available in multiple languages) that traces the evolution of the process of building ninots from its humble beginnings in the 18th century to the complex craft it is today.

Then wander the two story museum to see the process for yourself. There are examples of early water color and pencil sketches (the first step in the process as the ninots must be approved by the neighborhood committees who ultimately pay for their creation); scale models of the fallas, examples of the wooden skeletons on which the larger ninots are constructed and the final product including the previous year’s favorite ninot voted on by the public. The talents of the Falleros Artists are in high demand and  many of them have been internationally commissioned to design movie and theatre sets, displays for industry and trade shows and other museums which are also on display in the museum.

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Turn left when exiting the front door of the museum and wander among the industrial buildings housing the workshops of many of the artists. I was there the first week in March and many of the workshop doors were open with artists putting the final touches on their Fallas creations. I asked permission from the working artists to go inside their workshops and take photos and though my Spanish didn’t fully appreciate the tours they gave me, their evident pride in their work and my appreciation for it crossed language barriers.

One of the largest workshops belonged to Manolo Garcia whose team had been selected to create the 2016 fallas monument representing the City of Valencia displayed in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento; the one subjected to the blasts of the daily Mascleta of gunpowder explosion and traditionally he last fallas to get burned in the fire on March 19th.

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The scale model and the massive pieces of the scene in the workshop did not do justice to the full scale of the monument as it was being constructed.
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Because of its sheer size, much of the actual carpentry happened in the plaza where the public could watch its daily progress. The monument, called Fallas of the World, consisted of a tall wooden human figure surrounded by world “monuments” that had been part of previous years’ fallas structures – the EIffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Concorde jet, the statues of David and Moses.

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Equally large and impressive fallas monuments could be found throughout the city in the neighborhoods who had commissioned them. The most impressive were lit up at night which is one of the best times to appreciate their artistic creativity. Festum Bacchas, a large scale monument showing the life cycle of the area’s wine industry cost 90,000 Euros to build and display according to a member of the neighborhood committee. The committees work all year raising money in a variety of events to pay for their fallas monuments to show their neighborhood pride in Fallas and in hopes of producing a winning monument from the judges who only have two days to see and judge the completed structures.

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Each committee selects one of the ninots from their fallas to display in the Exposition of the Ninots, held this year in the Prince Felipe Museum in the City of Arts and Sciences. For 38 days (in 2016 from February 5-March 15) members of the public (including tourists) can wander through the display of ninots and cast a vote for the one that should be saved from the fire. Called the Ninot Indultant, the tradition of saving one figure from the fire first became a tradition in the 1930s in response to public sentiment that something should be saved to commemorate the artistic effort of that year’s fallas artists.
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In 2016 it was a ninot from the Festum Bacchas fallas that the public voted to save; a farmer playng a guitar while a small girl and her dog listen. In addition to the Museo del Artisto Falleros, the city has a second museum open year round dedicated to Fallas called the Museo Falleros where all of the ninots indultants saved from the fire since 1934 are on display. The progression of technology and art over the years is evident in the chronology of ninots. The early ninots were wooden and paper mache figures dressed in real clothing. As the artists began to use wax, clay and cardboard, polyester and then polystrene, the ninots got more complex and the fallas monuments more extravagant.

The art of the Fallas Artist Guild can be appreciated any time of the year by visiting both museums, but to see it in its full glory, it really must be seen during Fallas and in particular, in the three days leading up to March 19th. If you are not a fan of the high decibel noise of the daily Mascleta and the miniature neighborhood mascletas that seem to occur all day and much of the night in the final week, then finding accommodations outside the historic city center is advised. Bus and metro transportation run frequently and you can just wander the city’s streets where you’ll  find a fallas on most street corners. Ask locals for the best fallas to see since you won’t be able to see all of them. And don’t get too attached; they all go up in flames on March 19th save one ninot indultant. By the morning of March 20th, the streets have been cleaned of burnt debris as though nothing was there. But the artists of Fallas Artist Guild are busy planning their creations for the following year.

 

 

 

India: Waking and Putting the Ganga to Sleep

“It is not an easy city to comprehend for those of us who stand outside the Hindu tradition. As we survey the riverfront at dawn, we are challenged to comprehend the whole of India in one sweeping glance.” Diana Eck, Banaras, City of Light

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Every morning I could hear the soft chanting from my hotel room at Assi Ghat (a ghat is literally a stairway down to the river; there are thirty in Varanasi). It was my alarm clock; the signal to put on my clothes and, in the dark of early morning, walk past the wandering bulls and waking streetside vendors to the Ganges River to join in the waking of Ganga, the Hindu river goddess. It became my daily ritual; my way of making sense of Varanasi, an ancient city that many say is the oldest  in the world. Carbon dating of artifacts dates it back to at least the 9th century BC.

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The ceremony to wake Ganga up begins before dawn. Seven designated Hindu priests line the river bank on a platform and perform a ritual of Sanskrit mantras using drums, cymbals and elaborate cobra shaped camphor lamps. As they call out to Ganga, the sun begins to rise over the river and another day begins in Varanasi.

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Immediately after the ceremony there’s a free community yoga session. Locals quickly fill up the chairs and floor surrounding the stage with women seated seperately from men. On my first day I wondered if I could participate since I could see no obvious tourists but the friendly women in the women’s section, noticing my hesitation, smiled and patted a space indicating that I should join them. Each day I sat with them as they demonstrated the yoga breathing exercises for me and checked on my progress.

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My final morning turned out to be Varanasi International Tourism Day. When I showed up for the waking of Ganga, I was escorted to the VIP chairs, given a necklace of marigolds and my photo was taken with my yoga companions and local officials by the media.

I found Varanasi the most difficult place to comprehend during my month of travelling around India. It was bigger than I’d anticipated; most of the city spreads back from the river. The poverty seemed more bleak and the sky had a constant brownish hue from pollution. The Varanasi City Guide I bought while there said, “Outwardly its just an old city, crowded, chaotic and rather dirty. The ancient buildings seem on the verge of collapse; the traffic is a maddening din of cars, buses and rickshaws; there is squalor and poverty on the streets and beggars crowd the door of every temple. Death is a constant palpable presence in this city. The vivid fires of the cremation ghats burn by the riverside, bodies are constantly carried through the streets, the hospices for the dying echo to the chants of mantras.”

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In the Hindu tradition, bathing in and drinking from the Ganges River is a sacred practice. Having your ashes spread in the Ganges guarantees that your soul will go to heaven. The river is the focal point for Varanasi and so I tried to not let the city overwhelm me and tried to comprehend it in some small way from the river.

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Every evening at sunset, Ganga is put to sleep in a much more elaborate ceremony than the waking ceremony. Called Aarti, this one takes place at Dasashwamedh Ghat. While the ceremony can be viewed on the ghat, many people hire a boatman to take them to view the expanse of the ceremony from the river. The crush of boats allows vendors to walk from boat to boat selling food and souvenirs.

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There were three sets of seven priests spread along the ghat and as with the waking ceremony, putting Ganga to sleep involved drums, cymbals, Sanskrit chants and elaborate camphor lamps called aarti lamps that were raised high in choreographed movements by the priests and then arched back into the water.

The timing of both ceremonies depends on the season as they coincide with sunrise and sunset. I attended the waking ceremony and yoga session daily. Somehow the routine of that was both meditative and became familiar and l was able to contend with the chaos of Varanasi easier. It also helped me understand how the Hindu tradition thinks of the river as a living goddess where waking her, bathing and drinking her, dying by her, putting your ashes in her and putting her to sleep each night are all central to the religion.

Kolkata: Remnants of the British Raj at the Fairlawn Hotel

Arriving in a new city after dark always gives a surreal first impression that usually rights itself the next morning. When our taxi from the airport turned right onto Kolkata’s notorious Sudder Street, the narrow, pot holed road was ablaze with neon lights and crawling with international backpackers. It is lined with dark alleyways that house what guidebooks warn is the worst of Asia’s cheap accommodations: no running water, squat hole toilets, cockroaches and rats. I was relieved when the taxi pulled into a courtyard and the old two story structure inside glowed a brilliant nile green color under Christmas lights hung everywhere. Cartons of empty Kingfisher beer bottles stood next to wicker furniture,  and potted palms. In the crowded “beer garden” just off the lobby came the voices of Brits, Kiwis and Aussies. The Fairlawn Hotel‘s first impression never changed; it enlarged.

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The building was constructed in 1781 on land bought by an Englishman from Sheik Ramjam and Bonay. It passed through several British owners before being purchased by British military commander, E.F. Smith and his Armenian wife, Violet in the early 1900s for use as a guesthouse and their private residence. Violet passed away two years ago but her personality and influence are everywhere in the Fairlawn. Guests, many who are regulars, still talk about her evening descent down the staircase in pearls, full make-up and a red haired wig for a nightly gin and tonic with guests.

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The stairway to the second floor rooms is lined with family photos, portraits of British royalty and framed newspaper clippings about the Fairlawn and its famous guests. Multiple times a day staff polish the banisters to remove fingerprints.

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The upstairs sitting room is a combination museum of English history in India and photograph album of Smith family vacation snapshots.

At breakfast the first morning I asked for a cup of milk tea, the traditional Indian drink we’d been served everywhere at all times of the day: sugar with tea and milk. The waiter looked appalled (the Fairlawn is a proper British establishment) and returned with a silver tray holding a bone china teacup and saucer, sugar bowl, silver creamer and a silver teapot covered with a tea cozy. Also the breakfast menu’s two choices: a proper English breakfast or porridge and toast with marmalade. No lassi. No pickled vegetables. No rice and curry sauce. Clearly inside the Fairlawn I was no longer in India’s India.

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Outside the courtyard of the Fairlawn and the window of my room, the poverty  of Kolkata was very real. Desperate locals and immigrants from surrounding regions live on the streets hoping to eke out some kind of basic existence from the backpacker crowd. You can buy anything on Sudder Street. Anything.

Inside the Fairlawn each day brought a new group of tourists. Some were researching English family roots of grandparents and uncles who had lived in Kolkata when it served as the capitol of the British Empire in India. Others were Fairlawn regulars who found Kolkata to be more interesting than India’s other cities. And some were there as I was to volunteer at one of Mother Theresa’s charity homes for the sick, disabled and dying. The Fairlawn staff have worked at the hotel through its generations of owners passing jobs down from father to son. They know the regular guests well. Which beer they prefer – Kingfisher regular or strong; at what time they like their afternoon tea; if they like the lobby air fan off or on while reading their morning India Times.

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Crossing the courtyard threshold of the Fairlawn as I did multiple times daily became an exercise in attitude adjustment. Outside was the Mother Theresa home for disabled children where I volunteered, the hand push rickshaw drivers who labor hard to earn $1 USD per day and the extraordinary poverty of Kolkata. It’s both shocking and sad. Inside the ghost of Violet Smith still presides over polished banisters, proper tea and an evening gin and tonic.