Thursday, July 24, 2014

Flamenco in Valencia



They exchange glances, only for a moment, their eyes returning quickly, demurely to the floor. Their hands slowly raise over their heads, the heavy soles of their shoes beat out a rhythm increasingly more frenetic than the Spanish guitar and the distinctly Moorish vocals in the background, and they begin to turn, slowly at first, just enough that the frills of her dress begin to fan out in all directions.

The song becomes a mournful wail, overflowing with emotion and intensity. In response, they begin to move across the small floor, towards each other, and as they pass they spin around each other so quickly they disappear in a whirl of pink and black. They retreat to opposite sides, having exchanged places, the emotional moment of the music subsiding. They glance up at each other with a slight smile and begin again.



We enjoyed this most traditional of Spanish performances at Valencia's La Bulería, a flamenco bar in the southeast quadrant of the city, ironically not very far from the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences. We had walked the dozen or so blocks from our apartment overlooking the bull fighting ring, so when we arrived for dinner at 9:00 we were ready for a pitcher of cold sangria. After a dinner of paella, and starting our second pitcher, the flamenco began at 11:00. When we left, well past midnight, Chuck observed, "We've been in Spain 3 weeks now, and I haven't felt that we've truly experienced Spain until now."

Know that we are dancers, albeit beginners and ballroom dancers at that. Before we left home, we joked to our friends at our Arthur Murray studio that Chuck was going to make Lori take flamenco lessons while in Spain. In truth, just a few blocks from La Bulería, we passed a flamenco school, and classes were in progress. Not having had enough time to take in a flamenco show in Madrid, we were pleased to find La Bulería shortly after arriving in Valencia, but while attending a performance made it onto our must-do list, Lori hasn't yet volunteered to take that class. Yet.

The show starts with a guitar player and a vocalist. To say the music is Moorish is an understatement: for us--only able to speak enough Spanish to successfully order wine, beer, and tapas--the soulful, lilting, sometimes wailing lyrics seem indistinguishable at times from the call to prayer. But somehow, perhaps from the raw, powerful emotions of the dancers, we guess that the lyrics are much less religious in nature.



The dancers, at least at our show at La Bulería, were one man, one woman. He began the show in a solo performance, wearing all black except for his bright pink shoes and tie. He wore a hat and carried a cane, which he used, along with his feet, to pound out a percussion to accompany the guitar and vocals, all while dancing, his frame proud, his face, arms, and hands adding to the expression of the dance. We could hear Mr. Lewis' voice in our heads: you have to exaggerate your stance, your moves (Mr. Lewis is our dance instructor back home). To compare flamenco to tap dance does a disservice to both styles of dance: the only quality in common is that distinct sound of wood-on-wood played in incredibly complex rhythms.

He would meet his match as the woman dancer mounted the stage, completing the performing quartet. She danced solo as well, in a set dressed in black, then in a set dressed in pink. While in black, she seemed reserved, the music perhaps more mournful, yet no less emotional than the more celebratory second set. But the most impressive, the most intense moments of the performance were when they danced together: a slow but steadily increasing courtship rising to a flurry of activity, spinning about each other, then subsiding. Words can't adequately describe it, so we've prepared this YouTube video for you:


The great museums of Europe--the Louvre, the Tate, the Prado--are obligatory visits for travelers. But among our greatest memories from traveling in Europe are the performing arts. Our list of great travel memories include attending a chamber quartet's performance in Venice and a piano concert in Rome. To that list we wholeheartedly add Flamenco in Spain.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meet Spain's New King: Felipe VI

Spain's King Felipe VI
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Looking much more politician than monarch, Spain's new King Felipe VI became king on June 19 of this year after his father, King Juan Carlos I abdicated the throne so that a younger, more energetic generation could take on the modern challenges facing Spain. Younger, indeed: Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos (his full name) is 46. That makes him younger than either of us.

So, do you think his mother, Queen Sofia (now the ex-queen of Spain, owing to her husband's notorious ideals) would use his full name when she reprimanded him? Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos, don't you roll your eyes at me! If I ever have to come get you from the principle's office again Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos, your father will hear about it!

Aside from the fact that Felipe VI has to be the most attractive reigning monarch in the world today, and that he's younger than ourselves, what can we tell you about Spain's new monarch?

He has two older sisters, but the old-fashioned constitution of Spain cites the oldest male--if there are any--as the successor to the throne. He's a family man, married to the quite captivating Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, now Queen of Spain (the Spanish keep whether spouses are dubbed "Queen" pretty simple). They have two daughters, princesses Leonor (8) and Sofia (7), meaning that, unless Felipe and Letizia soon produce a son, Princess Leonor will one day be Queen of Spain. We don't think anyone can deny that they make quite a rather gorgeous royal family.

King Felipe and Queen Letizia, daughters and princesses Leonor and
Sofia, with the outgoing King Juan Carlos ("Pop-pop" as he's known to the girls)

Felipe attended a "regular" school in Madrid, where he wouldn't receive special treatment, and high school in Canada. He came home to Madrid to attend college, earning a law degree and a Master's in Foreign Service. As the Prince of Asturias (the formal title for the heir to the throne, unless of course you're Princess of Asturias, as Princess Leonor now is), he made hundreds of diplomatic trips around the world and, in particular, to Spanish-speaking countries (Spain's modern highly confederated "empire"), with one notable exception: Cuba. Seems the Spanish monarchy turns their nose up to the Castro regime.

Felipe and Letizia were married on May 22nd, 2004 at the Almudena Cathedral (which we blogged about here) with scant mention in the states compared to the British royal weddings of modern times. They are Roman Catholic, not surprisingly, and by selecting Almudena Cathedral over any other more regal or private church venue, they indicated their desire to be close to the people. Juan Carlos and Sofia also often attend mass at this "people's cathedral".

As king, Felipe VI has already announced his intention to follow his father's lead and maintain a mostly ceremonial role, despite the fact that the Spanish constitution actually grants him considerable more power. Perhaps it's this voluntary detachment from power, learned from his father, that so endears Felipe to the Spanish people: according to a recent Spanish newspaper poll, 75% of those polled preferred that Felipe take a greater role in Spanish politics.

Viva el Rey!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

King of Spain Juan Carlos I's Surprise Moves: Coming and Going

King Juan Carlos I of Spain, 1975 - 2014

Americans might have missed that Spain recently coronated a new monarch, King Felipe VI, son of the outgoing Juan Carlos I, who--in a move that surprised the world--abdicated his throne a few months ago. Citing the need for a younger generation to take on Spain's current economic challenges, King Juan Carlos, voluntarily relinquished his power to his son.

It would be truly surprising if he hadn't voluntarily relinquished power before.

Before we get to that, you should realize that the Spanish monarchy isn't as much a figurehead as the British monarchy we Americans are seemingly much more familiar with. While the Spanish constitutional monarchy, like that of the British, entitles the ruling family with the embodiment and representation of the state, the current Spanish monarch is also tasked to act as commander-in-chief of the Spanish armed forces and to take a more proactive role in Spain's international affairs of state. The same can be said of the British monarch, though with greater oversight by the parliament.

So when has Juan Carlos relinquished power previously? Juan Carlos, grandson of the previous monarch, was hand-picked by dictator Francisco Franco to succeed him. Juan Carlos was coronated two days after Franco died. Franco ran Spain as a dictator from 1939 until his death in 1975, coming to power with an iron fist (see our blog on Guernica) and with support from the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. His decades-long regime survived that of his more notorious allies, but was as replete with concentration and forced labor camps and all the nasty human rights abuses typically attributable to dictators. Unlike his contemporaries, Franco got to keep his atrocities going for more than 35 years.

I imagine it was expected that Juan Carlos, having been picked by Franco, might continue ruling Spain with the same iron-fisted oppression as Franco, but soon after becoming King, Juan Carlos began to dismantle Franco's government and set Spain on the path to democracy.

We Americans have a nearly two-plus century legacy of our leaders voluntarily relinquishing power. Many were actually surprised that George Washington stepped aside quietly to allow John Adams to become President. So we might forget how big a deal it is that someone actually lets go of power. Spain's Juan Carlos actually did it twice.

King Juan Carlos, I of Spain
(from Wikipedia)

In tomorrow's blog we introduce you to Spain's new King Felipe VI.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Playa Malvarrosa Beach, Valencia, Spain



One of the reasons we decided to go to Valencia was to go to the beach. Chuck asked me where I wanted to spend July, and I said somewhere with a beach. So here we are. Unfortunately, we couldn't stay right on the beach but staying in the old town has been fun, too. We are only about a mile and a half from the beach, just a short tram ride away.  

Valencia is located on the southeastern coast of Spain along the Mediterranean Sea. The beaches run north and south along the edge of the city above and below a large port. There are several named beaches north of the port that are easy to get to and are popular with tourists and locals alike. The beaches that are south of the port are harder to get to and they don't have the amenities of the northern ones, but I hear that clothing is optional...hmmm.

Anyway, the beach that we have visited is called Malvarrosa and it is located just north of the port.  There are really 3 beaches but they all run together. Malvarrosa is technically the one in the middle, but everyone refers to the entire beach area as Playa Malvarrosa.  

We've visited the beach three times now and have enjoyed it immensely. The beach is big--about 70m deep from the boardwalk to the water, and I-don't-know-how-many miles long. There are lifeguards and wooden walkways every so often with showers and restrooms and other conveniences. On the boardwalk there are restaurants and shops: it's very easy to enjoy lunch and a pitcher of sangria while watching the beach-goers. 

The beach itself is made of a very fine almost brown sand that's nice to walk in and very clean. The water is also nice: it's clear, blue and warm. The whole beach is flat including the shore. The water stays shallow for quite a ways out, so it's nice to wade or float or swim if you are so inclined. Each time we've been, the water has been different. The first time was after a storm so the the water was darker with big (3 foot) waves. The other times the water has been calmer and warmer.  

Closer to the port, the beach has hotels and more touristy shops and, obviously, more tourists. On this end you see more families and hear different languages. The middle section of the beach (Malvarrosa proper) seems to have more locals. Valencians seem to love their beach: young and old alike come to catch a little sun as often as possible. For the young it seems to be a place to hang out, and for the old it seems a part of their daily routine to come and spend 30 minutes or so walking along the water or soaking up some sun. It's not unusual to see people fully clothed in dresses or jeans stripping down to get a few quick minutes of sun.  

Another nice thing about Malvarrosa is it's other amenities--chairs and umbrellas for rent and refreshment stations. The chairs and umbrellas are very reasonable: 12 Euros for the day for a permanently situated thatched umbrella and a pair of cushioned lounge chairs. There are plenty of little blue and white stands that sell cerveza (beer), cold drinks, ice cream, sandwiches, etc. Unfortunately, there are other vendors that bother you with offers of massages or hair braiding or cover-ups...but they usually move on fairly quickly with a 'no, gracias.' Except for the Asian massage ladies: they attempt to start rubbing you!  That's just not my thing at the beach, and please don't touch me unless I give you permission! (I wasn't really found of strangers touching my belly when I was pregnant, either. You know the ladies in the mall that always want to rub your big belly like you are Buddha or something...)

My favorite part of going to the beach is the people watching and Malvarrosa does not disappoint! I'm amazed that people can come to the beach fully clothed, wrap a towel around themselves, and emerge in their swimsuits! I'm also amazed that you would want to wear jeans in 90 degree weather in the first place, but like I said, the locals seem to come to steal a few minutes in the sun when they can.

If you use Trip Advisor or Yelp for recommendations and reviews, the comments about Malvarrosa were correct in saying that the beach was great but they also mentioned that it was 'European'--meaning that there would be topless women around. Some reviews were negative about this and warned people away. Now, I find this funny. For one thing, we'e in Europe! Duh! Tops are often shed at the beach by young and old...it is a part of the culture. Some toddlers even run around naked (gasp)! Only Americans would be so critical to say this was wrong especially since it's not even their home!  

So, yes, there are boobies all around--some covered, some not, some perky, some not, some young, some not. There are also guys in Speedos, girls in thongs...you name it. Most people wear as little as possible. It's fun to watch the locals (who are comfortable) and tourists (who are trying to be comfortable) at the beach. Then there's the guy that just stands and stares...he's fun to watch too!

So, Playa Malvarrosa does not disappoint as a whole! I give it a 90 on my rating scale. It's pretty close to perfect, and I can see why people love it. I can't wait to go back tomorrow!


Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Beach Report Card


Eleuthera, Bahamas

I love the beach. I love the sand, the water, the wind, the frozen drinks...oops, I digress. My mantra is:  if you can't be on the beach you love, love the beach you're on. Having been a teacher for so many years, I love to grade things, even beaches; here's my critique of a good beach and my grading scale. 

The Sand

I grew up with the fine white sand along the Gulf Coast so that's what I typically look for. I've been to beaches that have white sand, brown sand, black sand, pink sand, and pebbles (gravel?), even boulder-sized 'sand.' In Riomaggiore, Italy along the Cinque Terre, the beach had crashing waves and huge boulders. It was not an easy beach to sunbathe on, but people did.

The Rock Beach at Riomarriore, Italy

The Water

I'm a sucker for beautiful clear blue (green, aqua, turquoise, etc.) water. I am also cold-natured so anything above 78 degrees F (that's about 25 degrees C!) is preferred. I like to see the bottom and what's swimming with me, so clear water and little seaweed is a must! I don't mind a little wildlife but I like to see it before it eats me.

Waves

Giant waves are great to look at if I'm not swimming, but I do like some wave action. No wave action can be really dull. And the sound of surf is the most soothing sound in the world.

The Wind

This is a tough one. I like enough breeze to be pleasant and keep the bugs away but not so much that you are being sandblasted and/or freezing.

Eleuthera, Bahamas
Size

Yes, size matters! How much distance from the road (or boardwalk) to the water versus width of the shore. There is a definite correlation between the square footage and the number of people that a beach can hold. I have to have room to spread out my stuff or plan on knowing my beach mates really well.

Amenities

By this I mean the availability of bathrooms, food and drink, showers, umbrellas and chairs for rent, etc. Things that make a trip to the beach pleasant and allow me to not have to bring everything I might need with me.

The People

The crowd, or lack of...also, beautiful (and not so beautiful), young and old, loud, fidgety, playing sports, clothed, not so fully clothed, etc. I do like to people-watch on a public beach but it is also very nice to have a beach to yourself.

South Beach, Less The Crowds

Vendors

These are the people who walk around trying to sell you stuff. They fall into two categories: good and annoying. The good ones sell food (fresh coconut, ice cream, drinks, etc.). The annoying ones harass you with offers of massages (eww!) or cover-ups, hair braiding, etc. The annoying part comes when they keep coming by (again and again) and disturbing my nap.

There might also be shops and booths, which of course are always great if they're located not-so-close to the beach as to be in my way but not-so-far as to be a pain to get to. This might also be part of my amenities scoring.

Weather and Location

I also throw in weather and how easy it is to get there. I mean, I'm sure the beaches are spectacular in Australia but it would take me at least two days to get there.

So there's my criteria for a great beach. I basically rate every area on a one to ten basis and add up the scores giving me a total out of a hundred; 90's and above are A's, 80's to 90's are B's...you get the idea. It gives me something to do when I'm not napping.

I've been to some nice beaches in the last few years...some get really close to a perfect score--Eleuthera comes to mind--others, not even close. Sorry, but I was not that impressed with South Beach.

So, how does the beach in Valencia rate?  You'll have to wait till tomorrow to find out!

Playa Malvarossa, Valencia, Spain