Guiri 101: A Guide to the -erías

Lisa’s skype call was full of nervous questions about what to pack and how to arrive alive to Sevilla. I’d be about to take the DELE when her train arrived, leaving her with a few hours to wander around town and grab something to eat, per a detailed list of suggestions. She quizzed me on names of places she might need to stop before our rendezvous: estación de autobuses, aseo, farmacia

Her last question: “If I want to have a beer, do I just look for a beerería?” She wasn’t too far off, doing some linguistic gymnastics as I reminded her of the word for beer and finally forming the word for bar: ser-vay-suh-ree-ya. Cervecería.

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One of the biggest learning curves for people moving to Spain is knowing where to shop and what you can find there. That there’s a more convenient place to buy stamps than the post office, or that you’re better off picking up pens and pencils at a copy shop. There’s a specific store for undergarments (pick up a spare zipper or some ribbon while you’re there, too), another sells only fish and sea creatures, and a cafetería is a good place to stop if you want more than just coffee.

Typically denoted by a clue in the word (hence ‘cerveza’) followed by the -ería, here’s a Guiri Guide to the -erías you can find in Spain:

Food & Drink

The –erías are rife when it comes to wining and dining in Spain, and nearly every class of food is followed by the suffix.

Bocatería: Sandwich shop.

This is a general term for anything made with two slabs of a viena, though Spanish sandwiches and subs tend to be severely lacking in ingredients. You can usually get food to go with a drink or some chips.

Cafetería: Cafeteria.

La pallaresa Bakery

This place has just about everything – you can have a coffee or a cold one, a sandwich or a sweet. Cafeterías are a happy mix between bar and coffee shop, and they’re a good go to if your tripa rumbles between lunch and dinner. Have your cake and eat it, too, which is perfectly acceptable here.

Carnicería: Butcher shop.

feria del jamon de aracena 6

Take a number and wait until you’re called to get any sort of beef or pork cut. Your butcher might also have less common meats, like horse or rabbit, and expect to find tripe, cow tongue and pig feet. For good measure, of course. In Madrid, these places are usually called casquerías.

Many carnicerías will also package meat for freezing, or can clean the cut for you.

Cervecería: Beer bar.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Perhaps my most frequent stop outside of the grocery store, the cervecería (or beerería, as Lisa says) serves beer, wine and soft drinks, and usually a limited menu. Think stark white walls, stainless steel countertop and plenty of abuelitos. What sets these establishments apart from another bar is that the bares in Spain tend to have larger menu options.

Churrería: Churros stand.

Just smell that hot oil frying, and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Many bars also sell churros, particularly for snack time and weekend breakfasts, or even fried potato chips.

best churros in Seville

Freiduría: Fried fish joint.

Noticing a trend with fried food? Freidurías will throw anything breaded – namely fish and croquettes – into hot oil and serve it up in a paper cone for you. As one of Seville’s food staples, pecaito frito is fast food that doesn’t make you feel as guilty. Plus, it’s practically requisite to eat fried fish on the first night of Feria and Fridays during Lent.

Note that freidurias are closed on Monday, as no fresh fish comes into the markets.

Frutería: Green grocer’s / fruit stand.

You’ll find all of your fruits and vegetables here, along with nuts, soup mixes and a pumpkin for carving at Halloween. Here you can look but don’t touch – the greengrocer will usually handle the goods for you.

Fruit stands at the Mercado de Triana food market

Fruits and vegetables are seasonal in Spain, so don’t look for strawberries in August or watermelons in February. More exotic fruits like mangos and avocadoes can usually be found at market stalls.

Heladería: Ice cream parlor.

Heladeria Verdu

If you’ve ever been to Spain in the summer, you’ve probably frequented an heladería. Many will serve more than cones and sundaes, with offerings ranging from pastries to mixed drinks. Because a G&T tastes better with dulce de leche ice cream.

Panadería: Bakery.

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A meal in Spain wouldn’t be a meal without copious amounts of bread, and panaderías seem as ubiquitous as ATMs. My go-to local bakeries also serve as mini-marts and offer pastries, snacks, sandwiches and even cold beer.

Pescadería: Fishmonger’s.

For the catch of the day, look no further. You can buy fish and shellfish and have them cleaned or chopped in any way you like. Like the freiduría, the pescadería is always closed on Mondays, meaning the market is a ghost town at the beginning of the week, and offerings – as well as prices – will change daily.

Pollería: Poultry shop.

If your butcher doesn’t sell fowl, a pollería will, along with eggs, turkey and duck – I get my Thanksgiving turkey from José in the mercado and he’ll even pull out those last few stubborn feathers and its innards. Alternately, the chicken shop may be a roasted chicken distributor, too, AKA your Sunday night cooking solved.

Repostería: Pastry shop.

Manu Jara Dulceria Sevilla

If you see a line out the door around January 5th, chances are you’re staring down a repostería, or a fancy pastry shop. While I’m not keen on Spanish sweets, all of the abuelitas congregate here to buy cakes and sweets, though it’s different from a cafetería in that it usually doesn’t have room to snarf the pastel with a coffee or anisette.

De Compras

Copistería / Papelería: Copy shop / paper goods store.

I remember a crisis of not having enough pens to write down my observations of Seville, post-study abroad, in a travel journal. It was my first time in Seville and I’d run out of ink, so I went to the sure-fire place to find them: the Corte Inglés. A simple pack of three Bics put me back 3,50€, or the price of a beer and tapa around the corner.

Copy shop in Spain copisteria papeleria

Copisterías are commonplace, and they do more than print, scan and fax: you can find any school supply you can think of, buy political and geographical maps of Spain and the EU and go insane over the sheer amount of colors and sizes of plastic wallets the peddle. Nope? Just me? Imagine it like an all-ages Kinkos.

Papelerías are much the same, just with no fancy copy machines. What they lack in inkjet they make up for in beautiful journals, fancy wrapping paper and a rainbow of highlighter colors.

Ferretería: Hardware store.
Hardware store Spain

My best friend back home is part of a hardware store dynasty, and I’d often frequent with my handyman father. Spanish ferreterías are a bit backwards because there are lots of small items, many will ask you to place an order and they will find it for you. This is the place to get keys cut, buy tools and even find that old-lady carrito you’ve been eyeing. Some ferreterías are specialized in cookware, others in making plaques and signs, and even others sell kitchen goods.

Leroy Merlin is my new drug.

Florestería: Florist.

It may be easier to pick up a few spare carnations from the peddlers on the street or the venta ambulante, but florists still exist. Just don’t expect to buy satchels of seeds here – floristerías are strictly for flower arrangements and decorative bits and bobs.

Librería: Bookshop.

old world bookstore spain

Don’t fall victim to this false friend – a librería is a place to buy novels and books…and the random book bag, bookmark or greeting card. You’ll find them clustered near schools and they generally have all of the required reading textbooks for private schools on hand.

Lencería: Lingerie shop.

Before you get your panties in a bundle (ha!), remember that lencerías sell a bit more than undergarments. General hoisery is a hot commodity come Autumn, and I’ve also picked up sewing items like thread and buttons here, along with yarn for crochet. Just be sure to push past the old ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead buying their stockings in Calzedonia (they also sell push-up leggings there, DIOS SANTO!)

Peluquería: Salon.

Much like their American counterparts, salons in Spain are a haven for gossip and hairspray. I can’t say enough about Top Image in Seville, where I entrust my locks and secrets to Loli – yes, I plan my visits to Seville around her openings. If you’re looking for a beauty parlor that has a larger array of services, try a spa o gabinete de belleza. A beauty cabinet. Men head to a barbería (as in the Barber of Seville, of course!) or peluquería de hombres.

Perfumería: Drugstore.

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The first time my Spanish roommate sent me out to the grocery store alone, she told me to pick up all of the cleaning products, detergent and toilet paper at the perfumería around the corner from our apartment. Once I fought my way past the fragrances and makeup, all of the cleaning products on the market were stuffed into shelves, from toilet bowl cleaner to air fresheners.

But I accidentally bought myself conditioner instead of shampoo. Those were rough, greasy times. I find that supermarket prices are more appealing, and there are only so many little abuelas I can fend off on any given morning.

Semillería: Nursery.

Maybe it’s just because there’s one on my block, but this is the sort of nursery where you can buy seed satchels and…snacks? Most of the rest of society go to a vivero. And, for the record, I’m still a little wary of wandering into the semillería.

Tintorería: Dry Clearners.

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Not to be confused with lavandería, or laundromat, tintorerías are far more common in Spain than a coin-operated bank of washers and dryers. Check those tags from Zara – there’s a lot more delicate material and non-washables on sale, and Spanish washing machines are notorious for tearing apart clothing!

Zapatería: Shoe store.

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Most of my disposable income went to shoe shopping when I first moved to Spain. I was doing a great deal of walking around town and quickly wore out the soles on all of the ballerina flats I bought. Be aware that European shoes have different number sizes than in the US, which leads to a whole lot of confusion and squished toes on your first few trials.

The non -erías

Ok, so I lied – not all shops and eateries end with -ería. Several other important shops and stops exist, though many with not-so-clear perameters as to what they sell.

Farmacia: Pharmacy.

Denoted by a green cross, farmacias sell strictly prescription and nonprescription drugs. Well, until you add reading glasses, walkers, diapers and pacifiers. Clients tend to be loyal to their local pharmacy, so products may vary according to location. Do keep in mind that should a pharmacy not have what you need, you can have it ordered for next day service, and there are 24-hour pharmacies in every large urban center.

Tobacos / Estanco: Tobacco shop.

My roommate once asked me if I wouldn’t mind picking up an application form for a university scholarship while she was sick. I marched over to the university, stood in line at the purser’s window and ask for the solicitud, only to be told it could be procured at the tobacco stand across the street.

….ok.

Emblazoned in crimson and gold with a large T announcing them, tobacco shops – usually called estancos – sell packs and cartons of cigarettes, pipes, loose-leaf tobacco, lighters and sometimes even shishas (hashtag Spain is different). But it’s also a shop I frequent to buy stamps and envelopes without the long line at the Oficina de Correos, and they also have copies of rental contracts, declaraciones jurídicas and other forms needed for everyday Spanish bureaucracy.

Oficina de Correos: Post Office.

Every address in Spain is assigned to a post office, and Correos is the national mail service, owned and operate by the Estado. For whatever reason, your assigned office is never the closest one, and no matter when you go, there’s always a line worse than waiting to see the belén on Christmas Eve.

Mail service is only the tip of the iceberg here: you can also register to vote, pay traffic fines and utility bills or send money by wire. Just take a number and wedge yourself between the other 100 people there any given morning.

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Supermercado: Supermarket.

Though the older generation still prefers buying at their market and small shops (this abuelita included), supermarkets are one-stop shopping. Imagine the shock and awe when you walk into an American superamarket for the first time in 10 months after having somehow subsided on whatever was packed into a two-aisle ‘supermercado’ in your neighborhood.

I was so spoiled living next to an Alcampo for four years, but have come to relish buying from the market a few blocks away.

Alimentación / Bazar: Mini-mart.

There’s really no way to describe these sorts of shops. Sometimes they have food, sometimes they don’t. Many sell cheap home furnishings, clothes or household items. Cold beer is usually a feature in them all, and even the lady at my alimentación has taken to calling me gorda for my addiction to the green Doritos. These shops are usually open on Sundays, too, so if you realize the fridge is empty and the súpers closed, there’s always the alimentación.

Ultramarinos: Canned goods shop.

Somods Bulcher Candy Shop

How I wish supermarkets hadn’t given these age-old shops a run for their money (as in, livelihood for skyrocketing rent costs). Ultramarinos sold the gamut of dry goods, from legumes to tins of conservas like fish or vegetables. They were usually narrow and stocked from floor to ceiling with merchandise. There’s still one on Calle Arfe in the Arenal district and another near the Setas on Puente y Pellón, but I feel that their days are contados

Kiosko: Newspaper kiosk

One of very few words in Spanish that begin with K, these pop-up booths sell newspapers and magazines. Check near touristic sites in major cities if you’re looking for international press or in a Corte Inglés.

Olé tú if you find one of the kiosks that sells candy and cans of pop instead of reading materials. Have small change handy.

Tienda de ropa / regalos / mascotas / deportes: Shop.

Any shop specialized in a certain kind of merchandise can be characterized as a tienda de something. If you’re confused about any of the -erías above, tienda can subsitute whatever you’re looking for.

Agencia de viajes / inmobiliaria / seguros: Agency.

Storefronts that offer a service are typically categorized as an agencia, or agency. Just as banks and bars are easy to trip over, so too are vacation, real estate and insurance agencies.

Locutorio: Internet Café.

grand luxe hostel seville common room 1

When I studied abroad in 2005, Blackberries weren’t on the market nor did Skype exist. We’d check our newly created Facebook accounts on shared computers and call our parents with – shock! gasp! – real phones in little plywood booths. Though they’re not as commonplace as they were a decade ago, locutorios have fax and printer capabilities if you’re in a bind.

OJO!

Opening Hours

If you’re outside of  a major city, don’t count on anything being open on a Sunday and midday closures are also typical. Most small shops and businesses will be open from about 9am until 2pm and reopen from 5pm to 8pm. Fridays and Saturday hours are shortened.

An exception is anything food-related: an alimentación is open at seemingly all hours, and panaderías will open Sunday mornings. And if all else fails, bars are usually open daily at normal eating times. Do note that many bars and restaurants close midday, so you’re better off having a pastry to tide you over.

grocery shopping in Spain

False friends

Not all -erías are created the same: just as you would blush from saying you were pregnant rather than embarrassed, a few false friends exist. If you need money, don’t ask for monería, as this is an adjective for something cute. Go to a banco or cajero automático instead. And a factoría is not always a brick-and-mortar factory but can be used in a metaphorical sense.

Looking for some of my favorites around Seville? Check out my Seville Superlatives list or let me know about your tried and true! And now that you’re a better shopper than the abuelitas in Triana, why not assemble a Cesta de Navidad for your family?

5 Outdoor Activities to do with Kids and Teens this Summer in Cádiz

Andalusia has the winning combination of weather, history and culture and wallet-friendly prices, making it especially tempting for a family trip to Spain. Kids will faun over castles, stretches of some of Spain’s best beaches and theme parks: older kids and teens will appreciate activities dedicated to their interests and energy levels.

what to do in cadiz with kids

The Cádiz province, considered to be the oldest continuously-inhabited part of Europe, is a favorite for Spanish holiday-makers in the summer. Roughly 30 blue flag beaches, whitewashed mountaintop towns and a robust gastronomic tradition are my top picks for things to do with family in Cádiz:

Kitesurfing, Windsurfing and Adventure camps (Tarifa)

The pico of land at the very south of Spain (and, indeed, of Europe) straddles the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Oceans, making it one of Iberia’s windiest points and one renowned for kitesurfing and windsurfing worldwide – the town of Tarifa boasts about 300 windy days each year! And if that weren’t enough, the beaches of the Cádiz province are amongst Spain’s best stretches of sand and family friendly, too.
tarifa street

For adventurous teens over 14, combination teen summer activity and language camps such as Lenguaventura in Tarifa bring together project-based language learning with sporty activities. Participants can choose windsurf, kitesurf or adventure camps in either English or Spanish, and parents will know that 15 years of Swiss management make the camp safe for their kids. Prices include nearly every amenity; only inscription fees may be added.

A Campo Abierto (Medina Sidonia)

If you haven’t the stomach for bullfighting, you can visit a ganadería, or a livestock farm, where toros bravos are bred. And not just any farm – that of Alvaro Domecq, Jerez de la Frontera‘s prodigal son. Winemaker and former mayor of the Cádiz province’s largest city, Domecq’s name is almost always synonymous with the toro bravo, as it was Domecq that pioneered artificial insemination to ensure quality stock (and bullfighting on horseback, known as the rejoneo).

bullfighter jackets El Jueves Market Sevilla

You can visit the family’s farm, inherited just before the Spanish Civil War from the Duke of Veragua, by guided tour. You’ll learn a bit about bullfighting and the rejoneo in addition to seeing bulls, oxen and stately Andalusian horses. Prices begin at 11€ for children, and you can add on sherry tastings and flamenco performances.

You can book tickets at A Campo Abierto and visit the charming village of Medina Sedonia while you’re at it.

Dolphin and whale watching (Tarifa)

Tarifa boasts more than just windsurfing – the Straight of Gibraltar is home to a variety of dolphin species and even killer whales. With success rates hovering over 95%, most companies will offer 2-3 hour boat trips through the Straight, providing information about the wildlife and ecosystem of Tarifa, as well as facts about marine mammals.

Not got your sea legs? You could consider adopting a dolphin!

Boat ride in the Doñana National Park

Europe’s largest nature preserve and most important wetland, UNESCO-lauded Parque Natural Doñana, straddles the Cádiz, Sevilla and Huelva provinces and is framed by the Atlantic Ocean and Guadalquivir River. Home to the Iberian lynx, wild water horses and countless species of aquatic birds, visitors can visit part of the expansive park as part of a boat ride while on foot (visits to Doñana can only be done via certified tour companies because of park protection measures).

Horseback Riding in Doñana National Park, Spain

Setting out from Sanlúcar de Barrameda (a town known for its sherry production and exquisite tortilla de camarones in case you’re more into the gastronomic offerings), boat tours are about three hours and include a guided visit of the park during two stops. They also serve snacks and refreshments for purchase on the pontoon.

Doñana is under threat of more than just losing its UNESCO nod because of deforestation and human-started forest fires, depopulation of its fauna and ecological threats due to industry. I urge you to use responsible tourism companies whose carbon footprint does not add to the problems the park faces.

Biking the Vías Verdes 

Using old train tracks as their guides, you can actual cycle along the old routes through some of the picturesque pueblos blancos, or white villages. The province of Cádiz boasts four “green ways” between 4 and 46 kilometers long.

archidona malaga pueblo

Snaking 36 kilometers through the countryside and mountains between Olvera and Puerto Serrano, this route (or a portion of it) will take you through natural parks and near rivers, over old bridges and through tunnels that once served the southwest corner of Spain. If you’re looking for something closer to Cádiz city, the Vía Verde Entre Ríos travels along the coast between the towns of Rota, just across the bay, and Sanlúcar la Barrameda.

Pack a bocadillo, rent bike gear, and enjoy an active day out.

Getting to Cádiz is easy via Seville, Málaga and even Jerez de la Frontera, where you can find cheap connections across Europe and even to the USA via Málaga. There are also a number of charming boutique hotels and campgrounds.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Looking for more activities for kids and teens further afield? I’ve written about my top picks for families in Andalucía and great things to do with kids in Madrid. I’ve also written about a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, many of which can be found in Andalusia.

Do you have any tips for great, interesting things to do with family in Andalucía?

Photo Post: the Manchego town of Cuenca

“Just take a look at this!” Pa tossed a magazine across the room towards me, dog-eared to a photo spread of an eagle soaring over lush pine trees. I’d announced my move to Spain a few weeks before. While my grandmother wept and cursed me for leaving the country to find a foreign husband, my grandfather nudged me and told me I’d have the adventure of my life.

They were both right, but that’s not the point of this story.

The article my grandfather had saved for me was about a nature preserve in Eastern Spain, one of its largest and finest. The Serranía de Cuenca is comprised a small hills and rock reliefs and is home to wild boars, mountain goats and that eagle Pa pointed at (which is likely a vulture).

“Will you go for me one day?” he asked with a wink.

Spain Blue

The Manchega city – famous for its casa colgadas, or hanging houses – has been near the top of my list since I moved to Spain because of that promise to Pa.

He was a man of few words. But when Pa said something, he meant it. And when I made him that promise, I intended to keep it.

So when my grandpa passed away in May 2014, plunging me into that dreaded expat fear – grieving abroad – I felt a renewed need to visit Cuenca. The problem was that it lay more than 500 kilometers away from my home in Seville for nearly a decade. A move to Madrid meant I was a car trip away.

Souvenirs from Cuenca

I literally knew nothing more about Cuenca than it was easy enough to see in a day, its famous site are the 15th Century houses that look ready to topple into the Huécar, and that it’s the victim of a vulgar joke. But in an age where fellow Millennials travel for Instagram-worthy pictures, it could have had a crumbling church and a famous dish, and I would have still visited.

When Inma and I left the city on one of those bright, chill-in-your-bones Sunday mornings, fueled on coffee and gossip. As we had often done in Seville, a sunny patch of sidewalk and a cheap glass of beer sidetracked us as we walked towards the city center, built on a crest above the Huécar and Júcar rivers.

I had Camarón with me, eager to use my eye for something more than baby pictures and to capture a place that seemed to house my grandfather’s spirit. Sleepy, surprising and colorful:

Scenes of Spanish villages

Colorful facades in Cuenca Spain

beautiful house facades yellow Spain

colorful homes Cuenca Spain

Cuenca cathedral

Casas colgadas museum Spain

Great view of Cuenca's Casa Colgadas

Pretty view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Casas Colgadas of Cuenca

Inma and I traversed Cuenca’s hills and narrow streets before lunch time, legs as exhausted as our vocal chords. I can’t say that Cuenca lived up to me expectations, but I wasn’t really looking for it to. A promise is a promise is an easy Sunday trip, and I found my Pa in the strangest places.

In an old man bar, the abuelitos tight lipped, hat pulled down over his brow.

In a quiet corner with a wood carving on the door.

A whistle from a passing car.

Spanish Abuelo

It’s been three and a half years since Pa’s heart decided that enough was enough, and he slipped away from this world. It’s been more than ten since I moved to Spain. But as we drove back west, the sun setting over the hills that mark the way back to Madrid, I feel like I’d done good on my word.

Mirando pa Cuenca, indeed.

CUENCA, SPAIN

Have you ever been to Cuenca? Read my posts about other colorful cities in Europe, like Córdoba and Copenhagen.

A First-Timers Guide to Las Fallas

At nearly 6 am, small firecrackers still fizzled on the streets. I’d been awake for an entire day, driving from one end of Spain to the other before plugging my fingers in my ears every three minutes. This is Las Fallas, the Valencian festival celebrating Saint Joseph by burning a whole bunch of paper-mâiché effigies.

Fireworks and charangas? Well, color me hortera and show me the way!

Las Fallas Ninots Flamenco Dancer

I’ve used my Semana Santa holidays to explore the Balkans and India and had planned to walk part of the Camino up to Mérida in 2016. But when Valencia’s biggest festival falls during your vacation time and you have a friend offering up a couch, you curb your walking plans in favor of pyromania.

After a six hour trip from Seville, I parked my car at the end of the metro line in Torrent and hopped onto the train. Emily, a college friend, had recently moved to Valencia and into the trendy, central neighborhood of Ruzafa.

Beautiful ninots in Valencia

Almost as soon as I’d surfaced the street with a duffel bag slung over my shoulder and a pillow stuffed under my arm, I was met with smoke. Smoke from kids lighting firecrackers in the street at their feet, smoke from the stands frying up churros and buñuelos. The streets of Cádiz, Sueca and Cuba had become an all-out festival chocked with food stands peddling stuffed jacket potatoes and corn, people carrying cans of beer and ninots, two-story high effigies that would meet their fiery deaths during the Cremà.

It took me nearly 30 minutes to traverse the narrow streets that had been shut down, save foot traffic, to find my friend’s place via portable wifi in Spain. The ninots – the valencià word for puppet – towered overhead, depicting current events, celebrities and political figures, as well as nods to Valencian culture. Traditionally, each pocket of a neighborhood has a special sort of brotherhood, much like Seville’s religious hermandades, called a casal. Each casal pools together money, time and resources to conceive and construct a ninot and then display it on a street corner in the days leading up to March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph.

what is las fallas like

Valencia has 750 casales with 200,000 members – about one-quarter of the city’s population. That made for a lot of ninots to see (pick up a map of the most popular from the tourism office or look for city patrons on the main thoroughfares and in booths.

Emily’s flat on the eighth floor near the market was close enough to the action but far enough that I could relax for a short time. I’d arrived just after the Mascletà, a daily barrage of noise emanating from the city’s main square. Em and I hadn’t seen each other since we graduated, but we fell into a rhythm, gabbing our way out the door and into the street to gawk at the ninots, cans of beers in hand.

Ruzafa is not only the city’s hipster paradise, home to a dizzying amount of trendy eateries and bars, but a hotspot (pun intended) during Fallas. Every Haussmann-style street corner had a ninot stacked up to three stories and fanciful lights, arbor-style, surrounding them. Even in the middle of the day, young people stumbled around, throwing fizzlers into their wake. It was hazy, despite the overcast afternoon.

Are there fireworks at Las Fallas

Crossing Gran Vía de Colón, we ran right into the L’Ofrena des Flors. One of the Novio’s coworker’s wife is a natural valenciana and gushed about this part of Falles in which falleros don traditional costumes and bring bundles of flowers to a towering Virgen de los Desamparados sitting in Plaza de la Virgen. Behind the barricades, I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to watch the casales pass by, arms full of daisies and sunflowers.

Women falleras take their garb seriously – like southern Spain’s traje de gitana, quality dresses are handmade, unique and costly. Come to think of it, dressing for Las Fallas was more like the Feria de Abril than I could have imagined. Consisting of a hooped skirt and bodice, they are typically made of pure silk and embroidered. Once you add the lace shawl and apron, shoes, jewelry and hair do, you’ve practically bought a wedding dress.

Fallera Women in Las Fallas

child fallera

typical costume in valencia

And it doesn’t end there – each casal elects a fallera mayor, who plays the part of hostess and attends to a court d’honor. This means food and fresh flowers for twelve people, much like entertaining in a caseta – and just about as costly.

Night was falling as L’Ofrena ended. Firecrackers sizzled under our feet as we looked for a tapas bar with room to squeeze into. It was drizzling and the center of town was packed with revelers. Dessert was a classic farton, a spongy cake made from sugar, milk, flour and eggs.

Valencia city center

The night’s main attraction was surprisingly not pyrotechnics. Emily’s friends took us to an outlying neighborhood, Benimcalet, for a charanga. I confess: I have a soft spot for cheesy brass bands and Spanish wedding music. A small square was packed with people swaying back and forth to a rock band, and the old man bar anchoring the plaza served up cheap cubatas whose alcohol content was barely balanced out by soft drinks. By this point in time, I’d been up for 18 hours, and we danced and drank until the sun began to peek through the trees at 6am. I collapsed onto the couch, fully clothed.

A ripple of fireworks – the mascletà – rang through Ruzafa the next afternoon at 2pm. I was groggy, a product of both the deadly gin tonics from the night before and the crackle and pop from the rifles. I could already see smoke rising from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.

I pulled on my boots and gulped down the coffee Em had made for me.Emily had already done her homework for the evening and had mapped out a route to see some of the city’s best ninots and lights displays before they’d meet their fiery end that evening. We spent the better part of the afternoon ducking out of the rain between visiting the city’s best ninots.

Tourists at Las Fallas Valencia

valencia festival las fallas

ninots las fallas mermaids

Popular lore says that the festival began as a way to burn off excess firewood on the spring equinox, eventually coinciding with the Feast of Saint Joseph, the carpenter. A typical piece of furniture burnt was the parot, a structure from which candles were hung. Over time, the primitive parots morphed into the effigies we see today, from rag dolls to elaborate, whimsical art pieces.

Like the chirigotas of the Cádiz Carnavales,  the majority of the ninots poke fun at politics and current events. We saw quite a few Rita Barberás, the former mayor of Valencia who was indicted for fraud in 2016, as well as ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, Belén Esteban and the King.

The rain meant we spent time drinking vermouths in Ruzafa’s trendy bars and watching the light shows on Calle Cuba. More than half a million colored bulbs glitter every hour after dusk, more than making up for the cancelled Cavalcada del Foc, a fireworks parade from Porta da Mar down Gran Via de Colón.

Light shows at Las Fallas

For hours, we powered walked, hand-in-hand, all over the center of the city, pushing past crowds and peeking into casales. The marquees were stocked end to end with tables and folded chairs, and scraps of food remained, untouched, in the centers. Falleras strolled in and out, often followed by a video crew.

As it neared 10pm, we were faced with a choice: nab a spot in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to see the city’s falla be burnt at the very end of the night, or catch a falla infantil and one of the neighborhood fallas. We were at Convento de Jerusalén, just in front of the Estació de Nord.

the ambience of las fallas

This casal is part of the Secció Especial, amongst the most prestigious in the city (if you’re in Valencia before the Plantà on March 15th, you can visit all of the ninots and vote which two to save. They’re at the City of Arts and Sciences, and the expo is 3€ for adults and 1,50€ for children).

Just before 10pm, the casal’s fallera mayor and her pint-sized counterpart stood in front of the smaller, satire-free ninot. This close, you could see the fireworks-laden base that made up the whimsical, storybook creation. At 10 o’clock, the fallera infantil was introduced to the local media. She had a long string in her hand and tears in her eyes as a band made up of trumpets, drums and dolçaina – a reed instrument – struck up. She tugged on the rope, sending off a pinwheel of firecrackers that would eventually spark the effigy – something out of a bedtime story – in flames.

children's falla in valencia

I fingered the earplugs in my jacket pocket, not sure if they’d do me much good against the deafening sound of firecrackers being lit across the city. My face burned from the intensity of the flames and the black smoke rising from every corner in Valencia, turning my camel-colored jacket a dingy grey. The small-scale puppet burned quickly, fizzling out with the help of a firehose in less than 10 minutes.

We rushed through the throngs of people back to Ruzafa. The streets had been difficult to traverse during the daytime, but the proximity to the main attraction – La Cremà – meant that we were pushing through crowds staking out a prime viewing spot. We’d wanted to see one of the Secció Especial ninots, but couldn’t push through all of the people quickly enough. Ducking onto a side street, we got a front row view to one of the neighborhood fallas, a wizard holding a key with a devil on the side. No one seemed to know the significance.

political irony at las fallas

Emily snaked her way through the masses to a street vendor and got some snacks and a couple of cans of beer. Like Semana Santa, there was a degree of waiting around during Las Fallas.

Just before midnight, half a dozen firemen placed their helmets on their heads and stood poised to put out flames, lest they get out of control. The metal gates surrounding the sculpture were pushed back, leading festivalgoers to be crammed into doorways and even scrawl their way up light posts. I saw kids with firecrackers in their hands, ready to toss them at the open flames.

I glanced at my watch. At promptly midnight, the murmur reached a fever pitch and the firemen grabbed their hoses. I couldn’t see over the shoulders of the revelers in front of me, but heat rose from the bottom of my boots and up my legs. One of my greatest fears is dying in a fire (…and jellyfish), but stepping back from the flames was not an option. I had arms tangled in mine, elbows next to my ears and even a child underfoot!

Festivals in Valencia Las Fallas

Ninots burning in Valencia

The Cremà in Valencia

As quickly as it had gone up in flames, the statue burnt to the ground, a mass of smoldering ashes in mere minutes.

We tried to get close to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to catch the city’s gargantuan falla, which is burned after all others have met their fiery demise. From the front of the train station, we only caught a sliver of the multi-story statue of a faceless man’s blaze of glory.

I found it disappointing that every single ninot was set ablaze at exactly the same time. I likened it to having to choose a bunk on the first day of summer camp – you never really knew it if was the best one, if your friends were nearby, or if you’d be stuck next to the kid who talked in his sleep.

ninots in valencia

The whooping and hollering in the streets lasted until the following day’s mascletà. My head was swampy, a mixture of warm beers and smoke inhalation. I’d spend another day with Emily traipsing around the Jardines del Turia before stopping by the Quixotic windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and the UNESCO World Heritage cities of Úbeda and Baeza.

Like the Tomatina, Las Fallas was a festival I was glad to see once, but it didn’t spark (sorry, I am the worst) enough interest in me to go back another year. It felt like waiting in a long line only to be slightly disappointed when you had something shiny and new in your hand.

Perhaps we didn’t do it right. Perhaps the rain hampered the festivities. Perhaps I just didn’t feel the true emotion, my senses dulled after a long car ride and the inability to shake the damp. And as someone whose favorite holiday is the 4th of July, even Valencia’s fireworks and fanfare weren’t enough to move it to my top-of-mind when it came to Spanish festivals. It was a lot of fun, laced with beers and laughter and smoke.

a first timer's guide to

If you go: Las Fallas is one of Spain’s coolest festivals and happens during the first three weeks of March, culminating with the Cremà on March 19th. Book ahead and consider staying in Ruzafa or L’Eixample, where you’ll be within walking distance of public transportation and all of the major casales. Also bring cash – lots of street vendors won’t accept cards. You can find an official 2017 schedule here as well as a map to all of the city’s ninots.

Valencia is a city I love more and more with each trip. Check out their crazy ice cream flavors, the UNESCO lauded Lonja de la Seda and the famous tomato slinging festival, La Tomatina.

Have you ever been to Las Fallas or Valencia?

How to Look for a Spanish Villa for the Fall

Think of booking a villa in Spain and a lot of people will automatically start looking for availability in June, July or August. However, if you’re not following the crowds and would prefer to grab your Spanish sunshine in the fall, here are a few things to consider when you start browsing the Spanish villas for your break in the leafy season.

Think about heading south

The south of Spain tends to be a little hotter than the north, even in the autumn when temperatures are cooling down after the scorching summer. This makes it a good time to book some days away in the Spanish villas on the Costa del Sol, which British expats are so fond of. During the fall, the Costa del Sol enjoys approximately seven hours of daylight, which is a little more than some of the regions of the country.

One of the good things about the fall is that the crowds have started to clear away, so if you’re staying in the Costa del Sol you can visit attractions like the caves of Nerja without having to queue for as long.

Image by Psicobyte, used under Creative Commons license 2.0

Consider the scenery

The Costa Blanca may see its fair share of tourism and cater for that, but it also has some quaint towns and villages for those who want to explore as well as sit out in the sun. These include the fishing villages of Jávea, which has a gorgeously sandy beach, and Altea, which is a curious blend of traditional and cosmopolitan with houses that are whitewashed, streets that are winding and cobbled, but shops that are designer and therefore for more expensive tastes.

While in the Costa Blanca, you can visit the Girona river in the Orba Valley or head to Dènia and visit the castle. The temperature in the Costa Blanca during the fall is pleasant at a warm yet still mild 23°C. There are normally about six hours of daylight.

Image by schermpeter42, used under Creative Commons licence 2.0

Gauge opportunities to travel

When choosing your location, you might want to think about opportunities to travel a little further afield. For instance, if you decide to stay mainland you could book a villa in Portugal somewhere near the Spanish border, then cross the border and do a day trip in Spain. Alternatively, you can stay at a villa on an island and hop on a ferry over to a nearby island and do some exploring.

Flexibility is often the key in travel to getting the most out of your experiences. If you’re feeling a little undecided about when and where you can book a villa, why not consult the Villa Plus website and see how they can help you. They offer accommodation in Spain, Portugal and other popular destinations.

villas-in-spain

And remember: you don’t always have to hit Spain in the summer to get the most out of your Spanish villa. The fall is a fantastic time to visit. In fact, what better time (and excuse!) is there than a milder season to dip some churros in chocolate!

Where are you traveling this autumn?

Five Things to Do in Madrid with Kids

It’s no secret that Madrid is one of my favorite cities to visit – I love the energy, the options and the closest a Spanish city can come to my native Chicago. But it can get overwhelming, and even more so for children.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

The good news is that the Spanish child is rey in La Capi, and there are plenty of ways to keep them busy. What’s more, the activities, accommodations and even transportation deals, like flights from Expedia, can be cheap with minors, such as with Discountrue coupon deals. Once you’ve taken care of your finances, take a look at a few things that are niño-friendly in Madrid – or just perfect for your kid-at-heart self!

Zoo Aquarium (M: Casa del Campo, Lines 5 and 10)

This is not your ordinary zoo or aquarium, and your children will love to see animals roaming about without any chains or wiring. Those who are planning to visit the amusement park located in Casa de Campo – a wonderful green lung not too far from the Royal Palace – will be happy to learn that the Zoo Aquarium is located within the city limits and on public transportation lines. The animals are kept separate from the public by moats filled with water (and some that are not).

There are more than 500 different species of animals who call the Zoo home, including many animals native to the Iberian peninsula. The Zoo is making efforts at conservation to build populations of animals like the Iberian Lynx and Iberian Hawk.

Parque Warner (Cercanías C-3 to Pinto and bus 413 to the park)

What’s a summer vacation without an amusement park? Parque Warner is a wonderful destination for the child who loves cartoons, as all of their favorite Looney Tunes characters will be roaming around and signing autographs. If your kid is more of daredevil type, they will have six different roller coasters to choose from. Water rides are available too, and of course, there are a multitude of gift shops. Theaters and workshops provide visitors with a number of different shows to choose from as well.

The park is located 25 kilometers south of Madrid and package deals are the best way to save money.

Natural Science Museum (M: Gregorio Marañón, Lines 7 and 10)

Natural History Museum

A great destination for children and adults alike, given Spain’s long history. Kids are bound to enjoy all of the dinosaur fossils, while parents tend to take in the extinct animal specimens – there are 6,000! There are three separate zones to choose from and a plethora of activities that are geared specifically toward children. Parents can bring their little ones to educational workshops and have some free time to enjoy the remainder of the museum, a great rainy day activity.

Note that the museum is closed on Mondays. Children under 16 also have reduced ticket prices.

El Retiro and Madrid’s expansive parks (M: Retiro, Line 2)

Looking to have fun outdoors? In this case El Retiro, Madrid’s most famous park, is the perfect. The possibilities for children are endless, as they can choose from a variety of fun activities. They can bring their bicycles and roller blades that have started to collect dust in some forgotten corner of the house or take a relaxing boat ride on El Retiro’s pond, conveniently located in the center of the gardens.

The city has many other green areas near the city center, like Parque del Oeste and the free Egyptian temple, Templo del Debob.

Cuarta Pared, Teatro Sanpol and Other Children’s Theaters

Madrid’s multitude of children’s theaters provide a wonderful entertainment for the child who enjoys plays and musicals – and the city is famous for theatre. The shows are typically put on during weekend mornings and tickets cost far less than most adult activities. Teatro del Arte and La Escalera de Jacob also stage their own shows for children and you’ll have a wide range of magic shows, funny stories and puppet based performances to select from!

You can find shows and workshops on Teatro a Teatro‘s interactive guide.

Bonus: three ways to save euros if you have kids and are traveling in Spain

metro of Madrid

If Madrid is only one stop on your travel itinerary, check out Renfe’s table option. You can get a discount on a bundle of four tickets by choosing a tarifa mesa.

Museums have free  or reduced prices days, as do some attractions. Stop by the Tourism Office in Plaza Mayor for free maps, discount cards and hints at saving money.

Hotels in Madrid typically offer discounted rates for families with children of a certain age (typically 4-16), and AirBnB properties will give you the freedom to cook your own meals and relax. You can also try its European-specific equivalent, Wimdu.

Five Things to do in

What do you do with kids in Madrid? I’ve also got a post on what to do with kids in Seville.

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