The Difference Between Tapas & Pinchos

My fellow blogger Fork on the Road  “Travel Tips for Curious Cooks” has finally written the post I’ve been waiting for, the one that describes our evening of food grazing in Valencia, Spain sponsored by the Valencia tourism board. As he is a foodie and I’m not, the finer details of what we were eating were lost on me. I was there for the ambiance, history and company. He was there to learn about tapas, pinchos and how a traditional evening of eating and drinking unfolds for the average Valencian. He took photos of food. I took photos of the interior of the restaurant and people. He gets credit for the photo and I get to share his expertise with you.

Read his post here.

The Agua of Valencia

It was a Mother’s Day Vulcan mind meld! As promised in my previous blog post,  I started to write about Agua de Valencia, the specialty cocktail of Valencia, Spain. However, fellow blogger Fork on the Road (aka Glenn Kaufmann) beat me to it with a Mother’s Day post on the same topic. We took an evening tapas tour of Valencia compliments of the city tourism bureau that ended with Agua de Valencia at what became my favorite haunt, Cafe De Las Horas.  During our tour Glenn suggested I try another specialty of Valencia called horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. His Fork on the Road informative blog about both drinks is posted here. He’s a food blogger focused on the story behind the food. Me, I’m an eclectic travel blogger who was enamored about the ambiance of the place and if I would ever be able reproduce the nectar known as Agua de Valencia once I got home.

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My first foray into the cafe was late at night with a tour guide and Fork On the Road. When trying to find it on my own during the day, it was hard to believe this nondescript exterior housed the magical interior of my first Agua de Valencia experience.

But once inside, Wowzer! There was the crystal bar chandelier and painted blue ceiling with gold stars that I remembered from my first Agua de Valencia night. But it was my second time that had me noticing all of the art deco lighting, the bouquet of fresh cut flowers and the play of light off the well-stocked bar.

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On my third venture in I studied the marble, the historic art on the walls and the lush red coat of paint everywhere. Fork On the Road describes it as a bordello-like atmosphere. Maybe so. I just know I was charmed by its baroque over the top attitude enough to return multiple times during my month’s stay. Literally translated Cafe de las Horas means Coffee Hour, but I never came for the coffee. It was their Agua de Valencia that brought me back every time.

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I asked the bartender for the recipe and he said good bartenders each have a slight variation in their ingredients, but an authentic recipe with advice could be found at SpanishWines.com. Here it is:

Recipe for Agua de Valencia

  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 50ml Gin
  • 50ml Vodka
  • 700ml Cava (or Champagne)
  • Pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Into a pitcher jug, pour one glass of orange juice – best if it is freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Add a bottle of semi-dry Cava (or Champagne if you do not have Cava).
  • Add a shot and a half of both vodka and gin.
  • Add the sugar according to taste.
  • Refrigerate before serving.
  • Serve in the jug, and then pour into glasses to drink. Enjoy!

If you are planning on making this drink then you may want to consider these pieces of advice. Do not use orange liquors such as Cointreau to make the drink as it is the fresh orange juice that gives the drink its aromatic qualities. Also, try to use oranges grown in the Valencia region as this will make the drink more authentic.

Naturally, good quality alcohol will make the drink taste better, and Cava is always preferable to Champagne as it is truly Spanish. The sugar is optional, and if you prefer a drier cocktail instead of a sweet one, then you can always use dry Cava or Brut. It is also a good idea to prepare this Spanish drink in advance as it is best served very cold which means time in the fridge. You should mix the drink in the pitcher with a spoon, but when serving the drink, you should try and remove the spoon from the jug without disturbing the mixture too much.

The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.

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My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

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Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:

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IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.

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LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.

 

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.