Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That's our house to the left and behind the tree!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Island-hopping, European-style: Sicily and Mallorca

Now that Todd finally has some leave accumulated, and since my sister Suzanne and company are leaving mid-July, we decided to check RyanAir’s schedule to find exotic destinations on the cheap.  

(picture of the two families)

As Todd’s favorite cuisine is Italian, Italy beckoned.  Even better, Sicily, the island at the toe of Italy’s boot with its bad-boy reputation as the mafia stronghold, seemed like the ideal place to eat well.   We bought the tickets (60 euros round-trip) and booked a villa in the lesser-traveled southern part of Sicily.

(picture of Modica area)

We arrived late one Wednesday night to a villa that was half romantic medieval palace, half grandma’s creepy Munster mansion.  The flickering fluorescent lights jammed into the cobwebby chandeliers did little to enhance the pictures of dead relatives and jampacked 50-year-old décor and doilies, and I watched my sister for her reaction—a dead giveaway when she said nothing at all.  “This is so—interesting!”  said Ethan, my ever polite brother-in-law.  Todd, Tia, Sasha, and I took the small, plain guest house, leaving Suzi, Ethan, and the boys to fend off the phantasms certainly inhabiting the villa.

(Link to Suzi’s blog, creepy picture of the villa)

The bright Sicilian sunshine the next morning made all the difference.   We threw open all the French doors, lace curtains blowing in the breeze, turned around some vases with unsettling faces painted on them, and hid several pieces of the worst clutter in closets.  The pool was simply glorious, a recent addition to this 300-year-old residence, and the balconies and pathways afforded views of the pastoral countryside, rock walls everywhere, testimony to generations of Sicilian attempts to clear the land.  We loved it.

(walls, pool)

Sicily has heavily touristed areas; we visited Taurmina’s cliffsides and Agrigente’s Roman ruins.  But our villa lay near the hidden gem of Modica, its claim to fame the Aztec chocolate brought from the New World (similar to but even better than the very familiar Ibarra chocolate from Mexico).   We wandered Modica’s streets, climbing up to the top of the town through winding footpaths, and dined al fresco in an unassuming but delicious street café. 

(Taurmina, Agrigente, and Modica pics)

Tia and Sasha were in search of “turquoise waters,” their brains full of images of Tahiti and the Caribbean, but while Sicily’s beaches were pretty, we had to wait until Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands of Spain, to finally bask in blue.  Two weeks later (squashing months of travel into a span of several weeks), we arrived at our catamaran, home for a week of sailing around this famous (and overrun by Germans) island.   We all prayed that we wouldn’t kill each other cooped up in 500 square feet of living space! 

Sailing, sailing, over the bounding blue…leads to seasickness.  I was okay after a day, but every beach landing led to mal d’embarque, the rocking sensation you feel once again on dry land.  Ethan had it worst, the wristbands and Dramamine not particularly helpful, and he spent most of the first few days gazing at the horizon from topside. 

(view from the boat)

Still, the turquoise, crystal-clear water was enchanting.   Snorkels and masks in hand, we paddled through the seagrass, finding fish, rays, an octopus, and—uh-oh—jellyfish!  Despite our best efforts, Ado came screaming out of the water, big welts forming on his backside, but thanks to a lovely enfermera on the little island of Cabrera, he was fine in an hour. 

(Sunset, turquoise)

Sleeping on a boat is charming and taxing at the same time.   A catamaran affords more space, but still, it’s a boat.   Cooking anything resembling our typical gourmet meals was also a big challenge, given that Ethan could spend approximately 30 seconds in the kitchen before needing to skedaddle topsides.  But we managed, pasta and rice our staples, and

(on the boat)

We traversed the southern coast of Mallorca, seeking turquoise coves (easy) and  uninhabited beaches (impossible!).   The more daring showed off their cliff-diving skills, and we watched the US lose to Belgium (World Cup fever is alive and well in our family) at a fancy resort we sneaked into.   We were set upon by pirates, but talked them out of attacking with an offer of pasta with tuna, arugula, and grated cheese with a side of rice. 

(kids as pirates, Sergio launching)

The weather was fickle, bringing us a couple days of overcast and high winds which led to big waves, not great for a catamaran nor for seasickness.  A catamaran is wide, its living areas spread out across two pontoons, and this square design creates a rolling tossing bucking sensation that the kids loved. We made them put on life jackets.

(Ado at prow)

But in the end, we were happy to have sailed together, traveled together, and bonded even further in the confines of what is equal to a small apartment.  We were happy to get home to our palace, where we spent the final days preparing for Suzi and Ethan’s departure back to the states.  Cousin Olga came to visit as a distraction, and of course the world cup drama captured everyone’s attention.   Now for our next challenge:  Getting ready for Todd’s retirement October 1st!


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ser Una Feriante

Battling for the Title:  Queen of the Feria 

The feria season lasted a solid month this year.  Rota started out the month with its Feria de Primavera, followed by the exquisite dresses and casetas of Sevilla, then the splendor of horse-driven Jerez.  Hometown Puerto followed (my personal favorite), and Sanlúcar’s feria in the middle of town wound up the month. 

El Puerto de Santa María: Dedicated to the U.S. of A.

I have officially achieved feriante status.  To be a feriante, you must 1) go to the opening of the feria  2) go to all the days of the feria, and 3) close down the feria.  I managed to do this in Puerto, MY feria, where this year it seemed like I knew someone on every feria streetcorner. 

Rocking Rota
Splendid Sevilla

My family does not know what to make of me.  “Why do you like feria so much, Mom?” my girls ask me.  They want to go to the cacharritos, the horrible city of amusement park rides aptly nicknamed the Calle de Infierno, or Street of Hell because of the top-volume noise-music blaring from every speaker—a different song for each ride.   I, on the other hand, want to stay in the casetas, or cruise the dusty streets, avoiding the horses and carriages and searching out the casetas that are playing live flamenco—although I did take 15 kids from La Merced, the kids’ school, to feria this year for the afternoon!

This is what we love!

I am joined by a number of feriante friends who have taught me something about the feria.  And being a feriante is an art form, something that must be learned and observed, even apprenticed.  A clear master is my friend Carolina, a Venezuelan by birth who has made studying flamenco and feria her passion.  I learned the sevillanas from her, and I dog her tracks in each feria as much as she will let me! 

Carolina:  Perfect from any angle

And a superb dancer as well!

Carolina's apprentices

There are several guiding principles for maximum feria enjoyment.  First and foremost:  go with good friends, and find more friends there.   Gawking at dresses, dancing sevillanas, sharing rebujito (a sherry-Sprite concoction) and tapas all are far more entertaining when paired with conversation and laughter.   

Feria + Friends = Fun

When we went to our first feria in Villamartin back in 2011, it was just Todd, me, and the girls.   It was incomprehensible.  What were these people doing, dressed in these crazy dresses (or not) and staying up until all hours of the dawn enduring such cacophony pouring out of each caseta and cacharrito?  We were out of there by 10:30 pm.  It wasn’t until 2013, when I went with Carolina and her group of 25 friends , mostly my age or older, dancing our way from caseta to caseta in Jerez, that I started to realize just how enjoyable the feria could be.

Every year they have a group this size--or bigger! See if you can find me...

We all pitched in to a vaquita, a purse where everyone contributes 20 or 30 euros.  One person holds it, and everyone follows the vaquita.  This keeps the group together (that’s your food and rebujito walking away there!) and ensures that drink and tapas flow your way all night long.   We perused the streets, with Andrea bursting into song spontaneously and creating a crowd around us to watch her and Carolina dance. 

Sevillanas, Jerez-style
We traded partners for sevillanas constantly, and ended the night at 5 am for chocolate and churros before heading home.  This year I joined them again and it was just as wonderful, a group that sees each other just once a year but takes the time to truly enjoy the whole experience. 

A delicious way to end the evening

Which leads me to principle #2:  You need to take TIME to enjoy feria.  It’s not something that can be scheduled in two-hour blocks.  In fact, don’t even consider going to the feria for just two hours—it just doesn’t make sense.  Things move slowly—crowds move slowly—lines at the cacharritos can move slowly, and a large group definitely moves slowly.  

I love to see the kids in their dresses on the rides

This point was driven home to me when I went to the feria with my friend Conchi.  She brought her two-year-old in a stroller—No WAY!  I thought, when I saw the crowds.  But she and Luis, her husband, calmly navigated the throngs with such good nature and relaxed attitude—at times moving at a snail’s pace—that it calmed ME!  And that’s how the Spanish are—they have such a live-and-let-live attitude that you can’t help but be affected by it.

Sevillanas with Sasha

This year we decided to see the feria on horseback.  Not just any horses, of course—the marvelous Andalusians we’d been riding, and not just any saddle, but sidesaddle!  The Spanish call it a silla amazona, or amazon saddle, which suits me just fine.  We rounded up the traje amazona, the traditional outfit complete with hat, and sashayed around the feria.  Tia and Sasha won a prize for their style!

First time astride in Jerez!  With Jesús, our favorite horse guy

Watch us on horseback:  Click here  and   Here

Seeing the feria from the back of a horse forces you to take the time to enjoy the scene.  And anyway, rushing around ensures that you will miss something wonderful and spontaneous that will happen if you just give it time.  Rushing to a caseta that is playing bulerias usually results in being on the outside looking in, without a prayer of getting to dance.  On the other hand, if you show up early and hang out with friends, you not only get a good seat but you make friends with those around you, and you will be invited to dance!  

Click here and here for this year's attempts at bulerias!

Bulerias con Montse al cante

I have stumbled on the most wonderful spontaneous events at feria:  Dancing sevillanas while Enrique plays a huge tambor and flute simultaneously; Carmen singing a rumba and jumping up to dance at 2 in the morning, and dancing bulerias as a pair with my friend Ana (we practiced first).  

The more, the merrier: Late night ops
Cousins Dana and Bill came over to get in on the action!

Which, of course, leads to the third critical principle:  learn to dance.   The sevillanas are old courtship rituals and human emotion concretized in dance.   They look complicated, but are actually fairly easy to learn—even Todd has them down pat after three seasons and looks sharp on the dance floor.  

Watch us dance: Click here

Todd cutting the rug--uh...wooden planks

The first sevillana describes the lovers’ first meeting—the blazing attraction, the infatuation.  The second sevillana epitomizes the smoldering focus as they come to know each other.  In the third sevillana, the lovers fight and clash, turning away from each other—only to reconcile and twirl into each others’ arms in the fourth sevillana

Patriotic in red, white, and blue...and purple and green

Dancing makes the feria multiples of times more enjoyable.  I watched in fascination after having learned the basic steps from my friend and teacher Carolina—where were the steps she taught us??  The women I was watching were amazing, spinning and posturing with Spanish attitude—but I hardly recognized anything I’d learned, except for the eventual pasada where the pair changes places.  

Fast-moving action

Three feria seasons and three teachers later, I have learned several dozen variations on the sevillana theme, and have stolen as many steps as I have paid for!   The countless different ways to dance this simple dance make it endlessly fascinating (next up for me: castanets!) and I can watch and dance for hours, trying out what I see and goofing around with friends.  Tia and Sasha get it, too—they spent an afternoon at the feria making up the ugliest, most ridiculous, most outrageously clownish version, executed perfectly in time to the music. 

Future feriantes:  All dressed up

The final principle, which I take more or less seriously, owning now approximately 14 trajes gitanos:  Dress up!  The traje gitano, or feria dress, also known as a traje flamenco, is one of the most wonderful parts of feria.  I can people-watch for hours, intrigued by the colors and combinations that these women come up with.  This year the Puerto feria was dedicated to the Americans (USA!  USA!) and we had a ball with the red-white-blue theme.  

A perfect blend of cultures
Our band Vale That also played at the American caseta, and I tried out my latest look, complete with sombrero.

Rocking the USA caseta

Our friends tease me mercilessly about how fascinated I am with the feria, but I don’t care.  It is a cultural event that combines many of the things I adore about Spain and Andalucía—dance, friends, horses, food, hanging out, community—and I’m already looking forward to next year.  May it not be my last!

Feria 2050

Saturday, May 31, 2014

La Vida Española: Everyone’s invited!

One of the things I love most about Spain, besides the exquisite beauty of its countryside and the crumbling palaces and cobblestone streets, is the powerful sense of community and exuberance that permeates our town.  The celebrations during Semana Santa, “Sainted Week,” are full of life and a crosscut of the entire community, from the very young to the very old and everyone in between. 

My aunts Heide and Traute blended right in!

In Spain, as opposed to other places I’ve lived, people don’t segregate according to age.  Go to the Gaslamp district in San Diego on a Friday night, and you will see the 21-to-30-year-old crowd almost exclusively.  Not here.  Hit downtown Puerto at midnight on Friday, and you will see infants in strollers, parents watching their toddlers play, teenagers partying in botellones (street drinking, while not exactly legal, is tolerated, and a plastic bag with a bottle of gin and 2 liters of tonic is common).  Older people hang out with their grown children at the outdoor cafes, and it’s not uncommon to see grandmas in wheelchairs being pushed through the streets by their kids or grandkids. 

Watching the processions

During Semana Santa, this mixed community is even more obvious.  Semana Santa is the week-long celebration of processions leading up to Easter, and probably the most religious time in Spain, at least in Andalucia.  My aunts Traute and Heide were in town for a visit; this was particularly fortuitous for Traute, a long-time Catholic.  That didn’t mean she wasn’t shocked by the hoods and eyeslits worn by the pentitentes during the processions; these Ku-Klux-Klan-lookalike costumes are startling to just about everyone the first time you see hundreds of cloaked figures come down a darkening street.

Click here to see what I'm talking about

Here they come...intimidating at first

But there’s the community:  Everyone comes out to see the processions.  Or so it seems.  There are all ages, from babies to the oldest senior citizen, watching and clapping as the tortuously heavy floats, borne by dozens of men known as cargadores, are revolved around corners and under electrical wiring in Puerto’s narrow streets.

Click here to see a procession  

Semana Santa is a whole-sensory experience, with the visuals of the stunning floats bearing suffering Christ and a radiantly sorrowful and exquisitely beautiful Maria.  These icons, or statues, or whatever you’d like to call them, have taken on much more meaning for me; seeing them in their alters at the church, I found them beautiful but mildly amusing, dressed in splendor that Jesus and Maria would never had seen.  Now that these figures have passed right past the front door of my house, they have taken on a life of their own, becoming familiar and dear to me.  

A visit by an old friend...or so it seems
Click here to see another procession!

The visual is accented by the odor of incense and the mournful laments of the bands.  All ages participate in the bands as well, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of music achieved by these multi-age marchers.  Primarily made up of trumpets and other brass instruments and supplemented by drums, you can see all ages, men, women, boys, girls, teenagers, and everyone in between, playing and marching together in unison. 

Looking for wax

And these processions include the onlookers, including our American, very-much-not-Catholic kids.  The penitentes carry large, long candles to light their way through these 4-to-5 hour-long processions, and as they stop to rest and switch out cargadores—the onlookers clapping appreciatively every time the float is hoisted successfully—children of all ages dart out with balls to collect the wax.  Tia and Sasha have accumulated an impressive bola; Griffin and Ado keep losing theirs and have had to start over several times.  But the interaction delights our kids, and we watch them slipping from one candle-bearer to the other, intent on their part of the celebration, while the ever-tolerant Spaniards watch and even help them with their task.

Not so scary after all

And the Spanish are nothing if not tolerant, on all sides.  During the morning procession, which begins at the church at 5 am, the silent penitentes wind their way through the narrow streets to the riverfront, passing by the Resbaladero, home to no fewer than 4 discos.  As the procession stopped before its turn up the street right around 7 am, the partygoers spilled out of the dance halls, loud and drunk.  The contrast was fascinating, and I waited to see what would happen, as the discos usually are open until 8 or 9 in the morning.  But after watching for a few minutes, the nightlife crowd dispersed into the onlookers, joining the crowds and clapping for the cargadores.  Or maybe they just went home,  I’m not sure.  Whatever it was, the discos turned off their pumping club music, closed their doors; it was peaceful and friendly, and as the sun rose, the procession band gathered at the corner fell into step and began to play. 

Santa Maria's float
Click here to see Santa Maria pass by