Monday, 22 April 2013

Semana Santa

Semana Santa was a great opportunity to get some serious travelling in around Spain. It's the period of time when Spain celebrates Easter and large processions are held in every city. Although the most famous are held in Andalucia my friend Amanda and I decided to escape the crowds (and the costs) and head slightly northwards. Our plan consisted of Madrid, Segovia and Salamanca and it was undoubtedly one of my favourite trips in Spain.

Statue of Velázquez outside the Prado
On the Friday morning I set off alone on a 7 hour bus ride to Madrid. Amanda was already there are she and our friend Steph had headed up the day before or the Mumford and Sons concert. I managed to struggle my way around the metro system (somehow) upon arrival and make my way to our hostel. I will admit at this point that I was not overly excited about being in Madrid, not through any first impressions but rather from opinions of other people I'd met in Spain. Most described it to me as "grey" and gave few other adjectives.
Antiques at El Rastro!
However as it turns out I was pleasantly surprised and ended up loving my time there! Madrid is most famous for it's 'golden triangle' of art galleries, consisting of El Prado, La Reina Sofia and The Thyssen-Bornemisza. We managed to check out the two former and while I'm not really an art connoisseur I did fall slightly in love with El Prado. La Reina Sofia is home to Picasso's hugely famous 'Guernica' which depicts the Spanish  civil war and also one of my favourite works 'Un mundo' by Ángeles Santos. However El Prado contains las Pinturas Negras of Goya, something which just cannot be missed. Other sites which got a visit in Madrid included the Royal Palace, the stature of Don Quixote and, my all time favourite, El Rastro. El Rastro is basically an enormous version of all the mercadillos which take place around Spain, however what it's famous for is the huge number of antique shops. I literally can think of no better Sunday in Madrid than spending the morning rummaging around the side streets of El Rastro, followed by El Prado in the afternoon. We also managed to stop off for some churros and chocolate at the most famous chocolatería in Madrid- San Ginés.

Chocolate and Churros at San Ginés

Favourite hostel ever <3

Monday was time to head to Segovia and despite a minor hiccup of going to the wrong train station we managed to depart in one piece Segovia may only be about an hour away from Madrid but it feels like stepping into a different world. Small cobbled streets have a celtic feel to them and the Alcázar looks so magical that Walt Disney based Belle's castle upon it, in Beauty and the Beast. After an exhausting three days in Madrid it was absolute heaven to enter our cosy, adorable little hostel, complete with lots of sofas, books and blankets. We spent three days exploring this beautiful city which is hardly bigger than a town. The aqueduct which cuts through the centre was built by the Romans in the 1st or 2nd century and is still standing, without the help of mortar. Amanda and I both fell totally in love with this place, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for an alternative to a big city break in Spain.

The magical Alcázar
Beautiful Segovia

Plaza Mayor
However before long it was time to set off for Salamanca and experience my first ever Semana Santa parades. Salamanca is famous for being a student city and although most of the students had left or home by the time we got there, the city still maintained it's youthful feel. The famous Plaza Mayor really does live up to it's reputation. There's something kind of surreal about just hanging out in one of the most famous images of Spain. The city is really compact and you're surrounded by history everywhere. The university dates back to the 12th century along with the Old Cathedral. We also used this city to take advantage of student lifestyle and have a really good night out. It was eventful to  
                                                                                       say the least!
Semana Santa parades
Aside from the partying I also managed to see two Semana Santa parades, one of which was at midnight and  the marchers were dressed in black. The parades are pretty cool to see even if there are a bit creepy. They carry effigies of Jesus at various points throughout the Easter story and are followed by a band who play mournful music. The most dedicated march barefoot but all are physically challenged as the route are long and the statues very heavy. Unfortunately I couldn't see any more as many were cancelled due to the rain but the images of people crying and praying on the news in Seville were enough to show me how dedicated people in Spain are to these processions. I find the contrast between the general church attendance and the turnout at the processions rather interesting and would like to know more about how people are chosen to take part in the parades.

Overall it was a great week. Three very distant cities which greatly impressed me and wouldn't hesitate to visit again.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Las Fallas y San Patricio

I've fallen slightly behind in my blog posts due to general exhaustion and laziness in equal measures. Since I last posted I have visited 4 more places in Spain but this post will only deal with one of those places: Valencia.

 My friend Kieran is doing the same job as I am, but in a Valencian secondary school. I went to stay with him not only to see one of Spain's most famous festivals, Las Fallas, but also so we could celebrate St Paddy's day together. It was one of my favourite weekends in Spain and I would DEFINITELY consider visiting Spain again, solely for Fallas (although not if it coincides with Paddys again, can't be missing that).

Las Fallas takes place in memory of St Joseph and the surrounding cities tend to have similar, smaller celebrations. Las Fallas is both the name of the monuments and of the festival. The statues are huge comical looking figures which are built by the various barrios of the city; some are huge while others are slightly smaller. They are always a satirical comment on current day Spain, normally throwing jabs at politics or religion. Some are cute, some are downright vulgar. At the end of the five day period, the Fallas are burnt all across the city. It's claimed that it started when people took their old furniture to the fields and burned them to celebrate the Spring equinox.

The party itself is enormous. The streets are full to the brim, drinking on the street ceases to be illegal and there are street vendors everywhere. Every day the 'mascelta' is held outside the city hall at midday, which is basically a deafening firework display, and each night more firework displays are held at midnight. However these aren't the fireworks you have to watch out for. Everyone told me before I went to Valencia that I needed to keep my wits about me- good advice! All over the place people are setting off 'cohetes' on the street. Mostly it's children but the parents fully encourage them to do so! After a while you get used to huge bangs around you, and keeping an eye out for little flames on the pavement. There are also parades and women dressed in traditional Valencian dress. These women are called 'Falleras' and they are respected guests at many of the more famous performances. Later in the week they offer flowers to the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Unfortunately I wasn't there long enough to see the burning but I did get a good enough taste of the festival to know that I absolutely love it. It was a great location to celebrate Saint Patrick's day as well- irish bars, people in Guinness hats and ridiculous amounts of drinking- just like home (almost).

A fantastic, mad, loco Spanish festival which cannot be missed it you find yourself in the country at that time.