Lavender fields in Spain: the Brihuega Festival de la Lavanda and what you need to know

You don’t need to travel from Madrid to Provence to see lavender fields in bloom this summer.

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Brihuega, a blip of a village in the Guadalajara province, has come to produce close to 10% of the world’s lavender. My parents had a few scattered plants in the backyard of my childhood home, and, along with lightening bugs and scrapes on my knees, the lavender bloom was the true sign of summer. During a rare weekend without my kiddo or the Novio, I stumbled across the Festival de la Lavanda, a touristic initiative in Brihuega to celebrate the town’s most famous resident.

Open road, the scent of lavender hanging over a village and a muggy afternoon ahead of us, Danny, Inma and I headed northwest on the A-2 motorway shortly before lunchtime. “¡Ponte algo blanco!” Inma urged, reminding me that the soft purple would pop more if I wore something white or light-colored. The two-lane highway was crammed with cars descending into a town of barely 2400, and the bars were much the same. In a province where fields are often tinged yellow by the sun and heat at this time of the summer, the lavender fields shone a vibrant violet.

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Lavender is huge business in this little town – half of the shops are dedicated to selling products made with the flower, from cosmetics to lavender-infused cakes to handkerchiefs embroidered in violet. Although Brihuega has only been producing for around three decades, the festival has gained national and international attention in Spain – in fact, it has only been celebrated for seven years!

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The story goes that the village and the pedanías surrounding it relied heavily on the Real Fábrica de Paños, or a linens producing facility, for work and commerce. When production was reduced, farmers in the area began to look for different business avenues to help keep Brihuega from becoming a ghost town. Andrés Corral reputedly went to France and, upon discovering that his hometown’s agricultural conditions were ideal for cultivating and harvesting lavender, began to plant.

To date, there are around 1000 hectares of lavender in Brihuega and Villaviciosa, and Spanish haute fashion house Loewe derives many of its perfumes from Brihuega’s aroma. Who ever said the Spanish weren’t innovative or took risks?

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While in town, there isn’t much to see but the winding, narrow streets open up to small, cozy plazas. Since the bars were packed with other tourists, we ate most of our lunch a base de tapas – snacking on the morsels bars give you with your drink order. Apart from the lush Jardines de la Antigua Fábrica de Paños and old city ramparts, you can visit a smattering of old churches and convents, as well as the city history museum.

Post-coffee and souvenir hunting, the lavender fields were waiting. The sun was still high enough when we left that we beat most of the crowds and were able to park just a few feet off of the fields, which rolled over knolls with exposed earth, each hump bursting with violet blossoms. I went to Provence as a 16-year-old on the tail end of the lavender season, but this time, I was intoxicated by the smell and the stark way the color popped against the sky and the soil.

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When is the Brihuega Lavendar Festival?

The typical bloom time lavender is in the summer, from late June through July. This, of course, depends largely on the climate during the spring, but it’s safe to assume that the booms are at their fullest around the second and third week of July.

The 2019 Festival de la Lavanda in Brihuega will be celebrated the weekend of July 19th with a series of outdoor concerts (you get seated among the rows of plants!), guided tours and street decorating contests. You can purchase concert tickets on the official website as well as reserve a spot on the guided tours for 4€.

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How to visit the lavender fields in Brihuega

The best time of day to see Brihuega’s acres of lavender crop is around sunset, though this is the busiest time. There are designated parking areas if you travel by car, and the tourism office offers limited spots on chartered buses for 4€ during weekends in July at 7pm and 8:30 pm, just as the light wanes.

There are no facilities, so be sure to bring water and a fan if it’s hot. There are also swarms of bees, in case you’re allergic. Uh, and sandals are not the way to go because you’ll be jumping over the bushes and walking on uneven terrain.

Getting to Brihuega, Spain

It’s easiest to reach Brihuega via car – the pueblo is about 90 kilometers northwest of Madrid. From the A-2, take exit 73 and follow signs towards the village or the other town attraction, Mad Max’s miniature museum. This will also allow you to visit the lavender fields at your own pace.

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If you’re coming from Madrid or Zaragoza, connections through Guadalajara offer regular bus service to Brihuega through Autocares Samar. You can find hours and prices on the village’s tourism page. The village is surrounded by over a dozen lavender fields (over a thousand hectacres of the beauties!) but also sunflower fields you should stop off at, if you have the time.

Summertime is rife with festivals in Spain, ranging from traditional to bizarre to well-known fètes, like La Tomatina or Los San Fermínes.

Brihuega Lavender Festival

What are your favorite small town festivals in Spain? Share them with me in the comments!

Is Aníbal the Most Instagrammable Restaurant in Seville? (and a food review, duh)

A blast of hot air met me as soon as I’d unloaded my bag, a stoller and my kiddo from the bullet train. Ay, mi Sevilla. Nearly two months had passed since the Feria de Sevilla, but that’s the best part about this city – it never seems to change. Not random wooden mushroom where a bus depot once stood, not fiery new gastrobars cozying up to age-old casas de comida.

Sevilla is Sevilla. Forever and ever, amén.

A staple in my Spain life is my guiri group of girlfriends, las sevillamericanas. So when one comes back from Indosnesia for a weekend, believe me when I say I’m not spending my euro coins on the high-speed train to stay at my mother-in-law’s; Kelly’s estancia in the city where these Chicagoans-turned-trianeras merited a fast trip down for catching up and eating up. And documenting on social media – we are nothing but slaves to our screens.

Instagram Worthy Restaurants and Food in Seville, Spain

My friends love food but I’d been clued into the new kid on the restaurant block, Aníbal. “But you don’t even live here! How do you even know what’s new?” In a city that makes eating fun and one of Lonely Planet’s top picks for 2018, there isn’t a lot of elbow room for a brand new bar. But an old school vibe?

Aníbal by Origen is the first concept by the restaurant group, a departure of sorts from Rafa’s first venture at ROOF. While the food game wasn’t as strong, the terrace bar was sleek and reasonably priced. I expected Aníbal to be the same: its Instagram began with a photo like this, after all:

The palacio

My friend Rafael Toribio was one of the first to put a bar on a rooftop in Seville, housed in a botique hotel with views of Old World Seville’s Giralda and the modern Metropol Parasol.

Now that terrace bars in Seville are de moda, Rafa has moved on and, along with two other socios, bought an old palace in the heart of Santa Cruz, just an uphill stumble away from one of Spain’s famous flamenco tablaos and a cheap tapas bar where Kelly and I would spend our hard-earned private lessons money.

The man behind Aníbal Restaurant Sevilla

Airy and expansive, the restaurant is located in a casa señorial on Calle Madre de Díos, buried in the heart of Barrio Santa Cruz. Comprised of several rooms around a central patio andaluz, several of the original elements, like elegant fireplaces, frescoes and iron chandeliers.

restaurants with beautiful interiors in Europe

The front bar is roped off by heavy velvet drapes, seemingly out-of-place in a modern spin on a protected building. But once you walk into what was once a parlor, the space feels open, lit by natural light, and a fusion of old and new.

The word Origen seems fitting – the jungle theme is snaked throughout the space in playful tones and nods to continents where Spain has left a cultural legacy. Given that the menu has hints of these countries and flavors, the play on cultural elements allows each room to have its own feel while staying true to the theme.

cool new restaurants in Seville

the bar at Aníbal Sevilla

Hotel and Restaurant Aníbal

food and tapas at Anibal Sevilla

We were sat at a high wooden table. Had we been more than five it would have been too large to reach across the table and share food and gossip, but we formed a U, never out of arm’s reach of the plates or the bottle of wine.

The food

My friends and I order tapas like we order beers – with abandon, and one after another. You know you say, “Everyone pick a dish?”

We each chose two – we’d ordered half the menu and requested our vegetarian friends have some off-menu items, like grilled espárragos trigueros, coarsely chopped tomatoes drizzled in olive oil and revuelto de setas.

Manu at Anibal Sevilla

The food offering is mostly based on what’s fresh and in season, plus some market finds that sneak onto the fuera de carta menu. They’re rooted in old school Andalusian cooking with a modern, international twist – and oh-so-perfect for an Instagram feed.

tapas for vegetarians Seville

Queso payoyo

seafood dishes at anibal seville

Seared tuna belly over a bed of arroz

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Salmorejo con carne de centollo

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Presa Ibérica 

typical Spanish pinchos

Tostas de pimiento de piquillo to cleanse our palate

revuelto de setas tapa Anibal Sevilla

reveuelto de setas

For the most part, the food was spot-on – full of flavor without departing from traditional methods or tastes. The tuna belly got fought over, and the crab meat with the creamy salmorejo provided the right touch of texture for a hot summer day.

I found the lack of options for vegetarians to be surprising and disappointing, especially given that when I called, I was even asked if anyone had any dietary restrictions! I didn’t try the revuelto de setas, but it came out cold and watery and like someone had forgotten the salt.

The service

Invita la casa, the maître’d announced, setting down a barrage of sweets.

de postre Spanish desserts

True, it was a hazy day in late June where the restaurant sat empty – locals were assaulting the beachside chiringuitos in Cádiz – but we never had to flag down a waiter or send back any food. In a city where good service isn’t the norm, I had zero complaints. We could eat and gaggle in peace but never be without a full glass in hand.

The verdict

cool restauants in sevilla spain

Aníbal won’t make my short list of haunts in Seville – I’m far more partial to places with crass bartenders and a wine list that consists of only tinto or blanco – but it’s r for a fancy night out, a cocktail or Instagram postureo. We paid about 22€ a head with food and drinks and the cubierto – a bit pricier than most other restaurants in Barrio Santa Cruz but less than I’d have paid in Madrid by at least a nice bottle of wine.

There’s no doubt that Sevilla is changing. But the more the city seems to reinvent itself, it always stays true to its (ahem, rancio) roots – even when a restaurant touts a modern look and feel.

Aníbal by Origens review

You can follow Aníbal on Instagram and Facebook and check out their pop up events – everything from cocktail master classes to designer markets to music on their rooftop.

Full disclosure: Aníbal kindly picked up our desserts and coffee, but opinions are – and will always be – mine. Aníbal is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon until midnight or 1am. You can make a reservation by calling 672 44 85 78.

Have you been to Aníbal? Know another restaurant that’s worth an instastory? Comment below! You can also view my posts about the best tapas bars in Seville and Spanish Tapas 101.

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.

Photo Post: A Perfect Day in Tapia de Casariego, Asturias

When we returned to Western Asturias, where we took our babymoon, we had two things clear: we’d stay at Agustina and Angel’s guest house, la Casona del Faedo, and we’d let the baby mark our rhythms. Enrique would turn six months old during our sojourn, and as such, was on the verge of starting solids. He’d already earned his wings and had become a proven road warrior, so we were confident that he could handle a few nights of sleeping in a new place.

Tapia de Casariego Asturias

If it were up to Enrique, he’d wake up at 8am sharp. Wake up slowly, blinking in the morning sun that streams in, accompanied a damp breeze. A horse bellows in the distance as he balls his hands into fists and stretches them down towards his feet.

While the Novio refueled with a coffee and prepared a day bag, I fed the baby with one of Agustina’s cakes in hand, my back pressed up against a 19th Century headboard. The morning had dawned chilly but bright, the promise of a perfect day. Agustina wrapped up a few spongy squares of cake and pressed plums into our hands for the road.

Tapia de Casariego was within reach when I did the Camino de Santiago in 2013. Everyone raved about its picturesque port and laid-back surf town vibe. Just like that July day four years prior, the weather would have been perfect for a diversion back up to the coast instead of dipping down to A Caridad; four Julys later, I had convinced the Novio to spend a morning before taking the baby to Playa de las Catedrales during low tide that evening.

Camino de Santiago signage in Tapia de Casariego

The familiar yellow shell met us as soon as we’d parked the car and steered ourselves into the main square. A sea breeze lifted off the peninsula and swept through the sleepy center of a town that thrives on fishing, agriculture and tourism. There was little more than the requisite church, one which channeled Tenerife’s temples, and a few shops, still shuttered in the early morning.

We wound around the steep streets of the fisherman’s barrio, a mismatch of humble homes that fans out over an isthmus, stopping to have a beer right at noon next to the small port.

view of Tapia de Casariego

The port of Tapia de Casariego

Yep, it’s as picturesque as they say.

Rather than the packed ports at Luarca and Cudillero, Tapia’s humble puerto boasted less boats and of those there, not one screamed luxury or even a fresh coat of paint.

I have come to realize that I need a body of water to feel calm and full. Being from the landlocked Midwest, even a river will do. But a bustling little port with cheap beers and sunshine? Sold. One hundred times sold.

Tapia de Casariego

beer on a sunny day

Most of Asturias’s festivals fall in July around the Virgen del Carmen feast day on July 13th, and Tapia treated us to a small parade, complete with a doll-sized Virgen Mary that would eventually be floated out to sea. The drums and bagpipes called Enrique’s attention, and he squirmed in my arms, grinning.

Banda de Gaitas Tapia de Casariego

Regional dress in Asturias

Traveling with a baby is…different.

Gone are the lie ins and leisurely lunches; the lack of planning, non-existent.

But the beauty lies in the little moments, in his discovery of a new place, a new flavor, a new feeling. We took Enrique down to the Entreplayas beach, littered with treasures of the low tide. Stripping off his cloth shoes, he gingerly set his toes in the damp sand, squealing with toothless delight.

I slipped off my sandals, resting them on a rock beside the baby’s, and rolled up my jeans. As the cold water rushed in, he curled his toes and shuddered before breaking out into his laugh.
the beach at Tapia de Casariego

Baby's first glimpse of the ocean

Following the Novio’s cousin’s spot-on recommendations for food, we made a reservation at La Terraza, a long-standing cider house in the heart of the village. Being just a few kilometers from the River Eo, which separates Asturias and Galicia, we had the pleasure of a menu that included both – and we went full-on Galicia with raxo, pulpo a la feira and a salad drizzled with escabeche.

Asturian food menu

where to eat seafood in Tapia Asturias
Delicious food at La Terraza Tapia de Casariego

And, as always, no faltó la cidrina, the Asturias habit we can’t seem to break. Enrique snoozed in his stroller, obviously to our cider-fueled laughter and clinking glasses.

Even though the day was only halfway over, it was the broche de oro on baby’s first trip.

Have you ever been to Western Asturias? We’re planning on making it our thing and would love tips! Be sure to check out La Casona del Faedo near Cudillero and my tips for an Asturias roadtrip!

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?

A Tale of Two Sunday Markets: Madrid’s Rastro and Mercado de los Motores

Madrileños take Sunday Funday to a whole new level.

madrid-sunset-from-the-roof

It seems like no one stays home on a Sunday afternoon, particularly when the weather behaves; one of the most beloved eventos domingueros is market browsing.

I’ve long been a fan of how Madrid’s most castizo markets provide the freshest, cheapest produce, and the modern food halls are an easy way to introduce guests – who often eat with their eyes first – to madrileño cuisine.

On any given Sunday the city pulses: morning flea markets are the start to a day plan that will end in a long lunch, countless cañas and some indie rock band in some rincón of the center of town.

madrid-markets

Madrid, me matas. But mostly because I’m not cool enough for you.

In trying to get to know the city before the baby comes, I’ve drug myself out of bed the last few Sundays for some browsing, starting with the granddaddy of them all, El Rastro. Starting in Plaza del Cascorro and permeating the side streets in La Latina, the flea market operates every Sunday and local holidays from about 9am to 3pm. Believed to have begun 500 years ago when Calle Ribera de Curtidores was home to the city’s tanneries, the mercadillo bustles with everything from antiques to birds, clothing to flamenco dresses. It’s a bigger, more curious version of Seville’s El Jueves market.

view-of-the-rastro-market-madrid

I took my best friend recently, meeting up with a friend who lived in Plaza del Cascorro before the Sunday morning ruckus forced him to move. We weaved in between stalls, looking for souvenirs for her to bring back to her family in Chicago – an apron for her mom, a t-shirt for her dad.

I was far more interested in the treasures to be found on the side streets, from antique glass bottles to old books to vintage Spanish products, like Cola Cao tins or siphones with the plastic crumbling off. We stopped into the pet stores on Calle de San Cayetano and the antique shops tucked into old corrales de vecinos before snaking through the hilly alleyways of La Latina, stopping in the shade of the stalls to browse literally everything and anything. El Rastro has a life of its own come Sunday mornings.

rastro-market-madrid-finds

madrids-rastro-market

vintage-posters-in-the-rastro

A trip to the Rastro means that every bar is spilling with people. We bounded from bar to bar, eventually taking turns eating a slice of tortilla and balancing our purchases in one hand with a drink in the other. Try Bar Santurce on Calle Amazonas for a cheap bite – they’re popular for their fried sardines and Padrón peppers – or the immensely popular Txirimuri for pintxos at the bar.

mercado-de-motores-exhibitors

The following Sunday, I again pulled myself out of bed for the modern Mercado de Motores, housed in the railway museum a stone’s throw from El Rastro. Having grown through word of mouth, Motores is mucho más vintage – jazz bands plays catchy versions of Rihanna songs, a pop-up bakery pedals out treats to market-goers and second hand clothes vendors sidle up to artisans making jewelry from precious gems or bookshelves from salvaged wood.

vintage-clothes-market-mercado-de-los-motores-madrid

mercado-de-motores-vintage-finds

ferrocarril-museum-in-madrid

I arrived at 11:25am and was shocked to find the place packed with more than just hipster looking to pick up a silk bowtie or new pair of kicks. There were German tourists pushing past groups of teenagers snapping photos next to trains and families sharing a warm cookie.

By far the most interesting part of the market is the building itself, a romantic, wrought-iron and glass nod to train travel in the late 19th Century, which houses eight vintage trains and a number of rotating exhibits. There’s even a coquettish steam train outfitted with a small cafeteria.

mercado-de-motores-cafe-on-a-train

I couldn’t leave empty-handed – whether it was some cool piece for my house or at least a wedge of artisan cheese or a jug of artisan vermouth for the Novio – so I picked up a Blues Brothers movie poster for our room makeover and salvaged letters from an advertisement in Cubby blue that spell ‘Chicago’ from the bonafide flea market outside of the museum installations. Chill out music and the scent of burgers and papas arrugás from a circle of food trucks wafted from the back of the museum.

Thirty minutes later, I met the Novio for a Sunday afternoon aperitivo where he reminded me how careless I can be with money, even at a seemingly free event. But Sundays are for cañas and second hand stuff and meals outdoors! Maybe next weekend we’ll stay in?

El Rastro is held each Sunday and on public holidays from 9am until 3pm,  weather permitting. The closest Metro stops are Embajadores, Lavapiés, La Latina and Puerta de Toledo. Free. Mercado de Motores is held the second weekend of each month from April to October, from 11am until 10pm at the Museo Ferrocarril, Paseo de las Delicias, 61. Closest Metro stop is Delicias. Free, though there’s often a line to get in.

Interested in other Sunday markets in Madrid? The Matadero Cultural Space sometimes runs their Mercado de Diseño, featuring young designers, food trucks and a 2€ entrance fee with drink.

I’m on the lookout for cool things to do before Baby Micro arrives! Any cool ideas? Share, por favor!

 

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