Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Que Comienzen las Despedidas...

The time has arrived. Here I am, sitting in my living room in Liverpool – the first time I’ve been back since Christmas – having left Spain for good. I say ‘for good’ with a certain reluctance, because I suspect that one day I’ll be back; I can’t imagine leaving Cuenca, and all the people with whom I’ve forged close bonds, completely in my past.

Since my last post, life has been a whirl of goodbyes and tying up loose ends, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. While I was very much ready to wave a hearty goodbye to my teaching career (let’s face it, I was never under the impression that it was something I’d want to do in the long-term, and my experience at San José, while brilliant in its way, has done nothing to change that), I was rather less enchanted with the idea of parting with all the lovely people I’d met and, indeed, with Cuenca itself.

But there’s little time for being forlorn, particularly as I have just two weeks of quality time in England before jetting off on my Australian adventure. So, what did I get up to during the last couple of weeks in Spain? Needless to say, they were physically and emotionally exhausting but I feel I saw out my time in Spain in style. In spite of the frankly volatile weather, which was quite regularly lurching indecisively between excessive humid heat and dramatic storms with torrential rain (I was told repeatedly that this sort of climatic behaviour is ‘not normal’ for May – just my luck when all I wanted was a few days of uninterrupted sunbathing!), I’ve managed to squeeze in a fair bit of socialising.

Me with some of the teachers I worked with. From left to right: Elena,
me, Yolanda, Ana, Raquel and Alicia.
In my second to last week at school, all the teachers from the English department and I went up to the old town for a few drinks and tapas to mark my imminent departure. While it was my idea for all of us to get together before I left – it didn’t seem right to do  nothing at all – I still felt a bit awkward as I didn’t quite know how to deal with being the one for whom the get-together had been arranged. Although I’d worked with many of these teachers for several months and felt more than comfortable with them in a working environment, going for drinks with a whole group of people (all of them older than me and speaking a different language) was still a mildly intimidating prospect. However, I needn’t have worried because they were as laid-back and friendly as ever, and the conversation flowed quite naturally, even if I did do rather more listening than speaking! After two rounds of drinks and some delicious food, I was already feeling very fortunate that I’d had the pleasure to work with such genuine people, when all of a sudden they presented me with a bag containing a present from all of them. It was a total surprise and I was very touched (if a little self-conscious) as I opened my package to reveal a purple bangle and bracelet (my favourite colour!) and a beautiful handmade sculpture of a Menina (Maid of Honour) which is based on the very famous painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age. It’s nice to take a piece of history and something that’s so typically Spanish home with me!
Corinna's birthday picnic in the countryside
That Saturday, Jaclyn, Corinna and I set off for the countryside in Corinna’s flatmate’s car. We went to the Serranía de Cuenca, just a short drive from the city itself, to an idyllic riverside picnic spot with tables, benches and barbecues. The place was packed with families, couples and groups of friends relaxing, enjoying the sunshine, kicking footballs about and of course, eating and drinking. Between us, Corinna’s flatmates and their friends, there must’ve been about 10 of us, yet in true Spanish style there would’ve been enough food for about double that. Our table was covered with a spread of 
homemade Spanish omelettes, big wedges 
Jaclyn and I having a
spontaneous (and
bracing!) dip in the river
of cheese, pasta salads, tomatoes dressed in olive oil and salt, crisps, wine, beer, soft drinks and just about every type of meat you can think of (freshly barbecued on the premises, of course). After feasting all afternoon, we sat around in the pleasant, hazy warmth feeling like beached whales until Jaclyn and I thought it would be a good idea to go for a dip in the river. As we hadn’t thought to bring swimsuits, we decided to strip down to our smalls and brave the icy water. Once we’d got past the squealing and hyperventilating stage there was something very liberating and refreshing about being the only two people in the river, with no one around to see us except Corinna, who was having great fun taking photos! That is, until we heard the distant voices of a group of kayakers, panicked and scarpered for the woods. At least that’s what Jaclyn did, but for some reason I thought I’d be safer hiding behind a nearby tree. Big mistake. Of course, the tree was not wide enough to protect my modesty and within a few seconds the kayakers had come round the bend and into sight, spotted me and began wolf-whistling and cheering. Mortified, I made a beeline for the woods where Jaclyn was hiding. With hindsight I probably would’ve been better off staying where I was, as I’d forgotten the water had made my white knickers go see-through and by running away from the kayakers I was actually giving them even more of an eyeful, but such are the joys of wild swimming...

Me with one of my classes at San José
who threw me a little leaving party
The following week was my last week at San José, which was both lovely and slightly anti-climactic at times. What with exams, school trips and leaving dinners for the older students, it seemed there was so much going on that some teachers hadn’t realised it was my last week. In that vein, my last classes with some groups were just like any other classes, and it was strange to go without saying goodbye. However, I can’t complain because two of my classes threw me surprise parties, bringing in bagfuls of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. Although I don’t feel I had a special bond with any of my classes in particular, I do think I got on with all of them well and hope that they’ve at least learnt something from me over the past eight months.

That week was probably my most hectic yet, because as well as it being my last week at school it was, of course, my last week of private classes and the week when both my parents and my lovely friend Anna were arriving for a visit. My parents arrived on Wednesday, bearing a suitcase full to the brim with boxes of chocolates, cards and other presents, all of which I intended to give as thank you and goodbye presents. It all went surprisingly smoothly, and everyone seemed delighted with their gifts, especially the English department for whom my mum had bought the biggest box of chocolates in the whole of Thornton’s (containing 80 chocolates and weighing over 1 kilo – apparently she misunderstood my request for a ‘fairly big box for the English department’ and instead thought I wanted a box big enough for the entire staff of the school)!

A proud moment: one of my classes being interviewed for
TV before performing my rendition of
'An Inspector Calls'
The other big highlight of the week was seeing the students of one of my British Council classes finally perform their rendition of the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ in English. It was something which was close to my heart, as I’d not only suggested they do that play, but had subsequently put in a lot of time and effort more or less re-writing it. My task was to shorten it down from a full-length play to something which could be performed in 20 minutes or less and simplify the language, without losing any significant parts of the play or altering the story too much. Unsurprisingly, it was no mean feat, but it was worth it for the glow of pride I felt as I watched them glide through the performance without a hitch. Although they’re only 13 and 14 years old, they have a good level of English thanks to following the British Council’s ‘bilingual programme’, so while it was always going to be a challenge it was definitely within their grasp. A journalist and cameraman from new channel CNC even turned up to cover the event, their arrival received by lots of nervous giggling. Of everything I did at San José, I think the success of the play was probably my biggest achievement, something I feel I can be proud of and hopefully remembered for.

Me with sisters Irene and Ana, one
of my private classes on a Wednesday
Saying goodbye to all my private students was very emotional, especially when it came to Ana and Irene, the daughters of a teacher at San José. They are 12 and 13 and extremely sweet, very talented girls. I really enjoyed having classes with them and I think they did too. At the end of our last class they gave me a notebook and pen, and when I opened the notebook I almost cried when I saw they’d drawn pictures and written messages for me in the first few pages.
Me and Juan, the Spanish
teacher at San José with
whom I had a regular
language exchange
It also saddened me to say goodbye to Juan, the Spanish teacher at San José with whom I’ve had a weekly language exchange for the past 8 months. Over time we’ve not only benefitted from being able to practise our respective languages with each other, but I feel we also became good friends and I’ll miss him a lot. Before I left he gave me a beautiful compact mirror and matching notebook (to record my experiences in Australia in) as well as a bookmark, which seemed appropriate as we both share a love of reading.

Me with Rafael and Marta, one of my
private classes on a Thursday
Equally, my last class with married couple Marta and Rafael (and my last class ever, for that matter, as they’re my last class of the week) was an emotional affair. When I walked in, they beckoned me to the kitchen where they’d prepared an English tea party as a surprise for me, complete with Earl Grey tea and biscuits! When Marta dropped me off home she started crying which set me off too. I’ve never been good at goodbyes.

The curry club!
However, I didn’t have much time to brood because on Friday I was up early and on a train to Madrid to meet Anna. Despite having to hang around in the airport for longer than expected as her flight had been delayed by two hours, she got here in the end and we headed back to Cuenca. That evening, Krista arrived from Villarrobledo and I cooked a huge curry for everybody including her, Jaclyn, Corinna, Anna and my parents. It was so nice to have so many people I love in the room all at once, and the perfect end to a high-emotion week.

Anna, Mum and me wild swimming
in La Toba
The beautiful lake, La Toba,
in which we swam
On Saturday, having hired a car, my mum, dad, Anna and I set off for the countryside. It was a beautiful day and we ended up stopping at several places of natural beauty, including a little town called Uña which is known for its laguna and an absolutely enormous lake called La Toba, where all of us except my dad wild swam to our heart’s content. The water was so blue and what with the surrounding mountains, trees and even a little waterfall I felt as though I could be a member of the Swiss Family Robinson!

Waterfalls at the idyllic
Nacimiento del Río Cuervo
We also visited El Nacimiento del Río Cuervo (The Birth of the River Cuervo), a local beauty spot with gorgeous waterfalls and crystal clear pools. On the way back, we stopped at La Ciudad Encantada (The Enchanted City), which is a fascinating collection of natural rock formations which have been eroded into bizarre shapes (many of which have been given names according to what they are supposed to look like, such as ‘La Foca’ (The Seal)). Many of them look like they must’ve been sculpted by human hands, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s all nature’s doing.

One of the rock formations at La Ciudad Encantada: 
this one is called 'La Foca' (The Seal)! 
That night, sunburnt and tired but content, it was time to get ready for my birthday night out. Mary and her cousin who was visiting from the United States had also arrived from Villarrobledo and it was both an exciting and sad occasion as it would be the last time we were all together. The only person missing, sadly, was Natira, who was in Salamanca for the weekend with her brother, but all in all it was still a great night. The girls had all put money together to get me a birthday present, which included a book they’d made themselves, entitled ‘The Tale of Six Friends in Spain’, with the story of our shared experiences in Spain, complete with accompanying photos. It was so lovely and unexpected that it was all I could do not to burst into tears on the spot. It just served to remind me how lucky I’ve been to meet likeminded people with whom I’ve been able to talk, laugh and travel as if we’d known each other forever. I really feel as though I’ve made some friends for life through these girls, and for that I feel truly blessed.

Me with some of my favourite girls (and our male friend
Santi!)enjoying free shots in our favourite bar,
El Quinto Pecado.
After my parents left Cuenca on Sunday, the reality really began to set in that I too would be leaving in just three days. The days that ensued were spent packing and squeezing in final sentimental trips to some of our most frequented spots like our favourite bar El Quinto Pecado  and of course the old town. My birthday itself was probably one of the most surreal I’ve ever had, as I knew that the next day I’d be leaving Cuenca with all my suitcases and not coming back. I saw Elena one last time and she gave me a beautiful present of a necklace with an elephant pendant, having remembered that I’d told her I collect elephants. The next day, Anna, myself, three suitcases and one backpack set off for Madrid, where we’d be spending our last night in Spain before heading back to the UK.

And here I am. I can barely believe it’s all over but there’s no point in looking back when I’ve got so much to look forward to. On that note, I’ll just say that my year abroad exceeded all of my expectations and has given me friends, skills and memories that I’ll carry with me throughout my life. Heartfelt thanks go out to each and every person who helped to make my experience as special as it was; you all know who you are. Well, that leaves me with nothing more to say except...


Monday, 16 May 2011

Peregrinos y Mariscos

As I write, I can barely see the screen in front of me for the huge, bulbous, angry-looking stye that has taken up residence on the lower lid of my right eye. I’m exaggerating, of course; it hasn’t really affected my vision but I’m allowing myself a bit of artistic licence (and the right to be a drama queen) as this is, after all, the first time I’ve had a stye. And what a thrilling experience it is...! 

Santiago's famous cathedral, the destination of the
Camino de Santiago
Despite not wanting to leave the house for fear that the whole world will be staring, pointing and gasping at the puffy monstrosity that is taking over my face, at least I can say with conviction that it’s a sign that I’ve had a good time. As ever, I’ve been guilty of somewhat burning the candle at both ends and inevitably, the amount and quality of sleep I’ve been getting haven’t been as they should be. The latest and most extreme example of this – and probably the direct cause of my stye – was on Thursday night, when I could be found camping out on the cold floor of Madrid airport, sleeping bag and all. Strangely enough, this was by choice; I had an early flight to Santiago de Compostela to catch the next morning, and after considering my limited options (and equally limited finances) I decided kipping in the airport would be my best bet, due to unsuitable bus and train times meaning that I couldn’t have made the flight on time had I left on Friday morning. Add to that the lack of affordable accommodation (i.e. anything that’s not a Hilton) in the area surrounding the airport, and the fact that Madrid’s metro system doesn’t start until 6am, and it was a no-brainer. 

A view over Santiago
After telling almost everybody I know in Cuenca about my thrifty plan, a couple of kind souls took pity on me, one lending me a nice lightweight sleeping bag, the other an eye mask. Thanks to them, my night roughing it was a bit more bearable than it would otherwise have been, although I’d be fantasising if I said I actually managed to get anything resembling decent sleep. I did manage to snatch about 3 broken hours, but finally threw the towel in at around 4am, when the civilised people who had slept, washed and dressed started arriving – fresh as daisies in comparison to myself and my fellow dossers – for their equally early flights, and I became very conscious of looking like a tramp! At that point, I dragged myself through security, breakfasted on a scandalously priced orange juice and croissant, and stared into space some more until it was time to board my flight.

Luckily it was all worth it. When I arrived in Santiago, I only had to wait about half an hour in the arrivals lounge before Hugh turned up too, looking almost (but not quite) as dazed and dishevelled as myself. In spite of the whole world telling me that ‘in Galicia it rains more than England’, the sun was blazing in a cloudless blue sky, and I knew it was going to be a special weekend.

The main plaza in Santiago, taken from the cathedral steps
The capital of Galicia in the far northwest of the country, you’d be forgiven for thinking Santiago wasn’t part of Spain at all. In stark comparison to the beaches of the south coast and the dry terrain of inner regions like Castilla-La Mancha, Galicia is a very green part of the country. It looks more like parts of France or even Ireland than Spain, and even has its own language – Gallego – which resembles the language of its close neighbours in Portugal more than Spanish. In fact, by all accounts Gallegans would prefer not to be associated with the Spanish at all.

Having never been to the north of Spain, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about (I’ve been told many a time by my various Spanish sources that while the south of the country might be pretty, it’s the north that’s truly beautiful). Suffice to say, Santiago did not disappoint me. With its small stone streets, intimate plazas, terracotta rooftops and rugged green mountain backdrops, it has an almost fairytale-like feel to it.

The famous cathedral by night
Of course, I couldn’t visit Santiago without mentioning the one thing it’s most famous for: El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), the famous pilgrimage route which Christians have been following for over a thousand years. According to legend, St. James’s remains were taken from Jerusalem to northern Spain by boat, where they were then buried on the site that is now Santiago de Compostela.

Even today, a steady stream of pilgrims from all over the world  - easily identifiable by their backpacks, hiking gear, leather-like skin with white sock marks and the faint smell of sweat which is left hanging in the air in their wake – can be spotted all over the city. Santiago’s impressive Baroque-Gothic cathedral in the heart of the city is the destination of the pilgrimage. This became immediately clear to Hugh and me when we slipped inside to have a look around, only to find ourselves in the middle of a pilgrim-packed, deeply religious service, surrounded by people dropping to their knees, crossing themselves, bowing their heads in prayer and in some cases, it seemed, even crying. Thankfully we weren’t the only non-pilgrims (or indeed, non-Catholics) there, and were able to go about our tour, tiptoeing respectfully around the hordes of hardcore worshippers, without feeling guilty for interrupting. Nevertheless, it was still quite an unnerving experience for two non-churchgoers such as ourselves, and I must admit we found it all a bit overwhelming. As beautiful as the cathedral’s interior was, I’d be lying if I said the overall combination of the elaborate decor (huge, glassy-eyed cherubs staring down at you from ceilings; that sort of thing) and the sombre atmosphere (complete with several confessionals, most of which were occupied) didn’t give me the creeps slightly.
The poor shellfish before meeting
their inevitable fate...

The perfect match: Ribeiro
white wine with octopus and
prawn brochettes. De-lish!
Aside from its pilgrimage, Santiago is probably most famous for its seafood, something which is much more familiar territory for me! The local dish, pulpo a la Feria (octopus cooked Gallegan style, with potatoes, olive oil, salt and paprika) did not disappoint, and nor did the rest of the fishy delights we sampled. Prawns, mussels, hake, sole, salmon, clams... it was all delectable and wonderfully fresh. The only slightly off-putting thing was seeing our potential dinner very much alive and proudly displayed in cruelly small tanks (crabs and lobsters were literally on top of each other, their poor little pincers entangled for lack of space to move) in the windows of almost every restaurant in town, but I suppose if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to be faced with where it comes from.
Hugh sipping wine from a
saucer, the typical Gallegan

So, to summarise the rest of our trip without going into too much more detail, the weekend was blissfully spent wandering around the city’s charming streets, soaking up the sun in parks and tucking into various culinary treats. One evening we watched the sunset over the mountains from a park near our hotel, then went on to a bar to watch something altogether less classy – the Eurovision Song Contest – while getting suitably tanked up on the local white wine, Ribeiro, drunk in the authentic Galician way: out of saucers! Perfect.

The gorgeous Galician sunset
In other news, now that I’m into my second to last week of teaching and my second to last full week in Spain in general, it really is beginning to feel like things are coming to an end. Last Tuesday I had my last private class with Marta, the lady who I met in the bank when I opened my Spanish account at the very beginning of my stay. Over the past few months, we’ve become good friends and she’s been an invaluable contact for me if ever I’ve had any sort of problem. Our last meeting was spent amicably wandering around in the sunshine, having what we call one of our ‘shopping classes’, which involve a quick sweep around Cuenca’s modest selection of clothes shops – while speaking in English, of course – followed by a couple of drinks in a nearby bar. Both of us being shopping enthusiasts, this seemed a fitting way to round off eight months of gossip and laughter (never once has my class with her actually felt like a class). In her typically generous fashion, Marta insisted on buying me an early birthday present: a beautiful pair of sandals which I’d made the mistake of saying I liked as we passed by them in a shop window. Despite my protests, she dragged me into the shop, made me try them on and, when she could see I liked them, swiftly bought them for me before I could object. They cost €45 and I was simultaneously mortified and grateful. Nonetheless, that kind of gesture is typically Marta and every time I wear the sandals I’ll think of her, which can only be a good thing.

Jesús and me 
The following day, another of my private class students, Jesús, a dentist who is an art and photography fanatic in his spare time, took me to see his second home in a tiny village in the mountains of Cuenca. The village is called Buenache de la Sierra, and he’d originally bought an empty plot of land there on which he built a workshop to use for making and storing his sculptures. He’s an amazingly talented sculptor, and has made dozens of different ones, all from beautiful stone like marble. Most of them are in collections of 13, each collection sharing a theme. He’s had pieces displayed in art galleries as well as at least one exhibition dedicated to him. Having built the workshop, his friends and family began urging him to buy more land and build a house next to it, to make the most of the beautiful surroundings. So he did; the house and garden have been designed and built exactly to his taste, down to the very last brick and plant. It’s entirely built from locally sourced stone, wood and terracotta, and has been done to perfection, so that everywhere you look it’s plain to see that he has an artistic eye.

Me outside Jesús's beautiful country house (with one of his
many sculptures to my right)
Having spoken to me about it on various occasions – his eyes always lighting up as he did so – he wanted to take me there and I’m very glad he did. It really was beautiful, in an idyllic setting, overlooked by nobody and surrounded by rugged countryside. The only sounds to be heard were the birds chirping and the wind rustling through the trees. I could see why he loves the place so much, and how it must serve as a great source of artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, a while ago Jesús developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a neurological disorder affecting the hands) and can no longer sculpt as a result. For this reason, seeing his workshop, full of so many lovingly created sculptures – some sadly unfinished – was both a pleasure and a sadness. Still, I enjoyed seeing him in what I imagine to be his ‘natural surroundings’, and I always appreciate visiting new places. 

And on that note, I’m going to wrap up this rather long, rambling post and go and attend to my stye. I shan’t complain anymore about it, though, as like I said it’s a sign that I’ve been living life to the full. After all, as I’m sure the pilgrims would agree, no pain no glory...

¡Hasta luego! 

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Las Bodas, Las Turbas y Lluviosa Oliva

When I first arrived in Spain in September (by all accounts excited, though equally apprehensive and overwhelmed by what lay ahead of me) this day would’ve been difficult for me to picture. Even now, it’s not easy to fathom that here I am, on the first of May – the first day of the last month of my year abroad – with seven months of living and teaching in a foreign country behind me. I’d be lying if I said I’ve loved every minute of it (after all, who can honestly say that about any given period of their life?) but all things considered, it’s certainly right up there with the best experiences I’ve ever had.

The beautiful bride and groom
But enough pondering; now is the time to fill you in on the last three weeks. On April 14th, I headed back to England for the first time since the Christmas break. It felt strange to be going back, and it was a shame that I couldn’t have stretched my time to include a visit to Liverpool, but I was very excited about Dan and Erin’s wedding, the main purpose of my trip. It was lovely to see my whole family united for such a special occasion. We stayed two nights in a B&B on the seafront, with cooked English breakfasts (one of the things I’d been craving in Spain) each morning . I couldn’t have asked for a more English weekend!

Mary and me doing
touristy things in London
The wedding itself was a delight, in a picture-postcard church with the sun shining and everybody looking suitably bright and beautiful. The reception, in a nearby manor house, was equally picturesque, with more gratefully-received English food (lamb shanks followed by rhubarb crumble), comical dancing and plenty of booze flowing. As is often the way with weddings, it was all over in the blink of an eye and Hugh and I were on our way back to London on Sunday afternoon.

On Brighton beach with a
bottle of vino
The remaining three days of my little English break were also idyllic, although they too went by in a blur. On Monday, I met up with Mary (who was visiting London with some Spanish friends) for an Indian lunch followed by a spot of sightseeing. The sun was blazing and if it hadn’t been for Big Ben and the red phone boxes, I might’ve thought I was back in Spain!

Anna picnicking in Hyde Park
The summerlike weather continued into Tuesday and Wednesday, which were blissfully spent lazing around in the sunshine and catching up with my dear friend Anna. On Tuesday, we went for a picnic in Hyde Park followed by drinks at Camden Lock, and on Wednesday – after I spent a lovely morning with my aunt Kate and cousin Emily at the playground – we spontaneously decided to go to Brighton, somewhere I’d never been before. It was a perfect day and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an English beach so packed, especially in April! We ate fish and chips, paddled in the (admittedly icy) sea and got sunburnt while drinking wine and sitting in stripy deck chairs. Textbook stuff!

All too soon my visit had come to an end, and at an ungodly hour the next morning, Hugh and I began the long journey back to Cuenca. When we finally arrived in the late afternoon, it was clear that Cuenca was in the throes of Semana Santa, and gearing up for Good Friday, the biggest day of religious processions yet, which is called Las Turbas (The Crowds). Of course, as is the case with most religious celebrations, there are only really a handful of people who take part because of their strong religious beliefs, whilst the rest are just there to get drunk and have a good time. For this reason, the night before Las Turbas is widely known –though not in religious circles, as it’s seen by some as offensive – as Los Borrachos (The Drunks).

A paso of the Virgin Mary being carried by
several members of an hermandad
One of the delicate pasos covered in
plastic sheeting to protect it
from the rain
The processions begin at around 5 o’clock in the morning, so many people choose to do an all-nighter and stay out partying before stumbling into the processions at dawn. It’s one of the most famous Good Friday processions in Spain (and believe me, there are many) and draws thousands of people from all over the country and further afield. Each procession is organised by a different hermandad (brotherhood), in which there can be hundreds or thousands of members depending on how well-known and established they are. Every brotherhood has their own paso, which can only be described as a huge statue of a holy figure such as Saint John, the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ, representing a scene from the Passion. These pasos are carried through the streets by around 25 members of the brotherhood (sometimes more, depending on the size and weight of the paso) and members pay up to thousands of euros for the honour of being one of those who carry it. Everyone who takes part in the processions is clad in matching robes (the colours of which correspond to their brotherhood) and their faces are entirely covered by long, pointed hoods, with just two small holes cut out for the eyes. For an outsider like myself, I’m sorry to say the costumes conjure up images of something the Ku Klux Klan might wear...

The crowds making crucifixes with their drumsticks
Anyway, Hugh and I decided not to stay up all night drinking (a sensible choice given the lack of sleep we’d had) and instead got up at around 8 o’clock on Friday morning to go up to the old town with one of my private students, Marta, her sister and her friend, who is somewhat of an expert on Las Turbas. It was thought the processions might be cancelled due to weather, but luckily they still went ahead (although some of the ancient, delicately painted pasos were draped with plastic sheeting to protect them from the rain, which rather took away from the overall image).

Typical costume of Las Turbas
in the traditional colours of 
that particular hermandad
Despite the damp weather, Cuenca was heaving with people and the atmosphere was almost tangible. As we watched the first couple of processions go by, with throngs of hooded people walking ahead of the pasos playing drums and trumpets (which I was reliably informed are deliberately mistuned, so as to sound more mocking and macabre than melodic) and others dressed as Roman soldiers solemnly bringing up the rear, I must admit I felt strangely emotional and drawn in by it all, though I still don’t profess to
 understand it all. Every so often, the crowds of drum-players would pause and turn round to face the paso, making crucifixes with their drumsticks raised high above their heads, and shouting to symbolise how the crowds mocked and jeered at Jesus as he carried his cross up the hill.  The hoods, incidentally, are apparently a deep-seated tradition and give reference to the fact that the Jews who mocked and threw stones at Jesus were ashamed to be seen by Jesus and thus covered their faces.

A windy walk on the beach in Oliva
After a couple of hours of watching all this, it was time for Hugh and me to go to Oliva, a small seaside town between Valencia and Alicante, where we were going to spend the Easter weekend staying in an apartment which belongs to a teacher at my school, Juan. Unfortunately, our plans to spend a relaxing weekend on the beach were marred by the uncooperative weather, and as there wasn’t much else to do (the downside to visiting a small town in Spain during Easter weekend is that more or less EVERYTHING is closed) we spent much of the time hibernating and watching DVDs. That said, we did venture out a few times to forage for food or walk around the old part of the town (pretty but again, like a ghost town) and once we even braved a brisk walk on the beach. Overall, although fairly uneventful, it was a much-needed restful weekend after a very busy week.
Hugh's birthday meal

That brings me to last week, which was my first week back at work after the Easter break. Hugh stuck around until Friday, which was great as having him around made it feel as if I was still on holiday, and we were able to spend his birthday on Thursday together. After I finished work, we caught the AVE to Madrid where I’d booked a 5* hotel as a birthday treat. We had a tasty meal in an Argentine-Italian restaurant to celebrate, and spent the next day wandering around Madrid before it was time for him to fly home.

I don’t suppose I can wrap up this post without mentioning the Royal Wedding, so I’ll tell you that against our better judgement, we were both sucked into the hype and eventually decided to stop pretending to be too cool to watch it, instead opting to have breakfast in a café which just happened to be showing it on TV. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish coverage was appalling – they went to an extremely long advert break right in the middle of the ceremony, when the hymns were being sung and seemed to be more interested in bitching about Princess Letizia of Asturias’ dress than anything else – but we didn’t feel able to ask the staff to switch over to the BBC! Anyway, we at least saw The Dress, the vows and that slightly awkward moment where it looked like William wasn’t going to be able to get the ring on Kate’s finger...

¡Hasta luego!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

El Día de la Madre y la Fiesta con Las Tunas

Following a whirlwind 3-day week at school (I’d taken Monday off to fly back from Portugal), I was pleasantly surprised to find myself on my way to Madrid on Thursday afternoon to meet my mum, who was coming to stay for a long weekend. Just in time for her arrival, the grey and miserable weather of the last few days had suddenly taken a turn for the better, and Cuenca was once again doused in gorgeous sunshine.

Mum in front of the Puerta de Toledo in
Having met her in Atocha, the main train station in Madrid, we caught the metro to a nearby hotel which we’d booked to stay in for one night before returning to Cuenca. Chatting away animatedly and helping Mum with her case, I was almost oblivious to the hustle and bustle of rush hour in Madrid which was going on around me. As a result, I wasn’t as vigilant of my belongings as I usually am, and when we stepped off the train I had a moment of panic when I realised my bag felt lighter than usual. Frantically, I scrabbled around for my purse, only to realise almost immediately that it was gone, along with my sunglasses. An expert pickpocket had clearly relieved me of them, having seen that I wasn’t paying attention to my bag and taken advantage of the situation. Although it was ultimately my own fault, and something that I know happens all too often on metro systems in capital cities, I was still a bit rattled that someone had so quickly and deftly swiped my personal items without me even realising.

Still, I had to see the funny – and heavily ironic – side; just hours earlier, I had had the luck to find €55 lying on the steps outside my school. Although I reported my find to reception in case anybody came forward to claim the money, I was already thinking ahead to how I could spend my loot, and had stowed it away in my purse for later. The subsequent robbery of my purse, along with the €55, can only be seen as karma, I suppose.

Anyway, after swiftly cancelling my cards, I took Mum to a favourite Indian restaurant of mine in Madrid, Tandoori Station. It was a balmy evening so we sat outside and enjoyed one of the most delicious three-course tasting menus I’ve ever eaten. Although I’d had it before, it’s not something I could ever get bored of!

Mum watching the sunset over Cuenca
The next day, we caught the AVE back to Cuenca. It was another beautiful day, so that evening I took Mum up to the top of the old town to watch the sunset from the cliffs overlooking Cuenca. Afterwards, we met up with Jaclyn and Corinna for some traditional Spanish food and drinks (I was keen for Mum to try my favourite tipple, tinto de verano, and the Cuenca speciality morteruelo, which is like a warm game paté). As she enjoyed the tinto de verano – a drink similar to sangria, but better! – so much, we decided to take her to a bar which is famed for making the original and best tinto de veranos. They are lovingly prepared by the owner of the bar, who recognises us every time we come in and is very proud of his drinks, boasting that he’s been making them for 33 years and that they’re the best tinto de veranos you’ll find anywhere.

Me and Mum sipping on our giant
tinto de veranos
While we were sipping on them, in marched a group of traditional Spanish musicians, clad in matching velvet breeches, tights, sashes and capes adorned with colourful badges, and brandishing guitars and maracas. Jaclyn, having seen them before, was able to tell us that they were one of Spain’s many university bands, collectively called Las Tunas. Each city has several groups of them; in Cuenca alone, there are 10 groups, and each group can contain around 20 or more people, almost always men. As we were all a bit tipsy, Jaclyn asked them if they would play a song for us. Very obligingly, about 8 of them assembled on the floor of the bar while we all traipsed upstairs to watch them from the balcony above, Romeo and Juliet style.

Las Tunas serenading us from
below, while we watched from the
upstairs balcony!
Mum showing she can party like
the rest of 'em!
They serenaded us with a typical Spanish song, by which we were all delighted and cheered raucously. Seemingly pleased by the reception they were getting from their small audience, they proceeded to play another song, then another, then another... until eventually they all came upstairs to join us. More and more of them kept arriving until in the end the six of us (me, Mum, Jaclyn, Corinna, Natira and Natira’s friend Jen) were all wedged into a corner surrounded by a group of jolly Spanish musicians, playing their songs with infectious enthusiasm and passion – just for us! We had taken up the whole of the upstairs of the bar (luckily the typical Spanish laid-back mentality meant that the bar staff didn’t seem to mind, which we were worried they might when customers couldn’t get to the toilets because our newfound friends were blocking the way!) by this point, and as tinto de verano flowed, the atmosphere only got better and better. What started off as a hopeful request for them to play us one song turned into a full-blown private concert which lasted for over two hours and saw us all merrily laughing, clapping, cheering, singing and even dancing with our new idols.
Having a great time with our new friends!
All in all, it was an unforgettable night, and when we finally stumbled out of the bar at around 2 o’clock in the morning our faces were aching from the big grins which had been plastered to them all night. I was especially impressed by Mum’s willingness to party with the rest of us – I think she enjoyed herself more than anyone! 

The next day, with slightly sore heads, Mum and I decided to go for a long walk. Partly intentionally but partly by chance, we found ourselves on the steep upward path leading to the statue of Jesus which straddles a mountaintop and keeps watch over Cuenca. I’d always wanted to walk up there, but had never had the opportunity. Although it was a long, hot and humid trek, it was worth it for the views when we were up there. Who knew that Cuenca could look even more beautiful from a birds-eye perspective?!

Mum having a well-deserved rest after
our climb up to see Jesus
The rest of the weekend was equally wonderful, except from the rainy weather on Sunday, which happened to be Mothers’ Day. We ate at several different restaurants, visited several museums, I showed Mum some of my favourite haunts and all in all, I think it’s safe to say that we well and truly ‘did’ Cuenca.

Mum left on Tuesday, the sun still blazing in the sky and the weather generally doing its best impression of summer. Four days on, and it’s been the same every day, if not hotter. Yesterday, I went to Madrid for a day of shopping with Jaclyn, which involved a fair bit of travelling for a just a few hours in Madrid, but was lovely nonetheless.

I know I keep saying it, but time is flying by at an alarming speed. We’re almost halfway through April now and in just five days I’ll be on my way back to England for the first time since Christmas, to see my cousin Daniel and Erin get married. I can’t wait, but as excited as I am about everything that’s still to come, I’m sad in equal measures that I only have just over 7 weeks left until I leave Spain for good. The end really is in sight...

¡Hasta luego! 

Mi Viaje Romántico a Oporto...

The following Thursday, the day before I was due to fly to Porto, I came down with a vicious stomach bug. I’m not really sure where it came from, but I started feeling queasy on Wednesday and by Thursday morning I found myself rushing to and from the toilet with alarming urgency. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I wasn’t vomiting...

After a frightening dizzy spell where I was convinced I was going to faint, couldn’t see anything but stars and had a ringing sound in my ears, I phoned Elena to tell her I wouldn’t be coming to school. Instead, I retreated back to my bed and spent the whole day drifting in and out of sleep, drinking litres and litres of water to combat my severe dehydration and feeling thoroughly lousy.

On Friday morning, feeling only slightly better, I decided to bite the bullet and go to Portugal anyway. Hoping it wasn’t the wrong decision, I embarked on the long journey to Porto – the meeting place of my dear parents – to begin what I like to think of as a romantic pursuit of my roots (or at least re-tracing my parents’ steps).

Krista, me, Ashly and Mary on the Porto pub-crawl
When I arrived, I still felt fairly dreadful but it was a relief to find the hostel where Mary, Krista and Ashly were awaiting me and ‘freshen up’ (as Americans – with whom I’m spending an increasing amount of time – would say!) after my long journey. That evening, we cooked a cheap and tasty vegetable stir-fry (which was unfortunately rejected almost instantly by my delicate stomach) in the hostel’s kitchen and decided to go on an arranged pub-crawl to acquaint ourselves with Porto’s nightlife. As the cost of the pub-crawl was €12 – with several free drinks included at each bar along the way – I declined to pay on the basis that my body would almost definitely punish me, and instead tagged along as a teetotaller. As usual, we met some really interesting people (including a merry, overexcited Liverpudlian girl who practically jumped up and down on the spot and enveloped me in a bear hug as soon as she found out she was in the presence of a fellow Scouser).

A good night was had by all, but as time crept on and everybody around me slipped further and further away from sobriety, I decided to call it a night before the party reached its final stop which was a nightclub. I slept well, but my stomach still wasn’t itself.

Ashly, Mary, me and Hugh
outside the Taylor's wine cellar which
overlooks the city and river
The next day, Hugh arrived from England and we moved to a different hotel, which described itself as 4* and was supposedly part of the Best Western chain. However, when we stepped inside we felt as though we’d been transported back to another era. The retro fixtures and fittings, loud carpets, worn looking wooden furniture and largely brown colour-scheme were all telltale signs that the hotel had not been renovated since its opening back in the early eighties, when it was probably considered the height of modernity and sophistication. After getting over the initial shock and disbelief (which included a lot of laughing as we discovered more and more retro touches in our room, including old-fashioned light switches and positively Jurassic radio dials built in to the bedside tables) we concluded the dated interior of the hotel was a casualty of Portugal’s declining economy.

In fact, as beautiful as the city was, we noticed the lack of tourists – and lack of people in general – everywhere we went, and couldn’t help thinking that it must be a sign of the times. When we went on a boat cruise on the River Douro, the tour guides casually told us the speaker system was broken and proceeded to do the rounds of the boat, shouting out odd facts in several different languages, about various landmarks we were passing.

The Ribeira, as seen from the boat cruise
Nevertheless, we greatly enjoyed the cheapness of everything , especially the food – though sadly I couldn’t take full advantage of that due to my unsettled stomach. 

On Saturday, we rejoined Mary, Krista and Ashly for some free port wine-tasting at one of Porto’s most renowned wine cellars, Taylor’s. It was in a beautiful setting, overlooking the city and the River Douro, with perfectly manicured gardens, wisteria-framed archways and an impressively grand interior, complete with polished wooden floors, beams and big armchairs. Despite being convinced my taste buds weren’t mature enough to appreciate such things, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the sweet taste of the wines and how the flavours varied so much.
A man of leisure: Hugh enjoying his free
port sample in the
luxurious interior of Taylor's

The next morning, the other girls went home, leaving Hugh and me to enjoy another day of exploring the city (in the torrential rain, of course). Having enjoyed Taylor’s so much the day before, we returned – somewhat sheepishly, as the woman who’d served us our free samples the previous day inevitably recognised us – for some more tasting and a guided tour of the wine cellars to learn about the long and careful process of making port wines.
Me on the impressive staircase inside
Lello & Irmao
The Hogwarts-esque interior of
Lello & Irmao

We also visited a charming bookshop called Lello & Irmao, which has become a tourist attraction since its interior was said to have inspired JK Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. Although not a Potter fan myself, I could see why Rowling found the place inspirational. With its stained glass ceiling, grand staircase and dark wood panelling, it certainly did give me the feeling that I was somewhere more surreal and magical than the ordinary world.

The River Douro by night 
To see out our last night in Portugal in style, we went to a lovely restaurant in the Ribeira area of Porto, overlooking the river. Undeterred by the chilliness and rain, we decided to dine alfresco. Under the shelter of the restaurant’s strategically-placed awnings and umbrellas, and with the warmth of a nearby patio heater, it was the perfect setting for a romantic dinner and a lovely way to round off the weekend.

İHasta luego!