WHY SPAIN? Doomed to forever live on the edge of the Spanish experience

If I had a dollar, even a NZ dollar, for every time someone asked me why I love Spain, I would be retiring to a charming village outside of Valencia right now. Sadly, I instead work for a living like everyone else. But still, the question remains, why Spain?

I was born and bred in New Zealand, just like my parents and grandparents. I am very kiwi. The story of my great-grandparents making the harrowing boat trek to this young pioneering nation is a story for another time. My father’s mother was dark, not unusual in this multi-cultural oasis, but it was because my father told me she was part Spanish. She died when I was very young, and I have few memories, but my interest in some European country I knew nothing about was ignited. Part of the place ran through me. I attempted to learn Spanish in high school, as the sole student of the subject in my whole school. I passed probably only because my correspondence teacher felt sorry for the idiot country kid and her strange desire to learn Spanish.

Years passed and my general interest in Spain continued quietly in the background of a career and marriage, but a huge part of my life twisted sideways into all things Italian. With a cache of Italian friends, their culture, their food and with an Italy based job for my husband, Spain dimmed until in 2004 when the chance to move to Valencia reared its head into my already full and complicated lifestyle. Still, despite all the obstacles, in 2005 my husband and I with our two babies fought the immigration system (a year’s worth of fighting in New Zealand) and won a place in Spain.

I knew nothing about Valencia or even its existence, until a Swiss billionaire decided we, in our line of work, should all move there. And move we did, in droves. I moved to Valencia with a ready-made groups of close friends from all over the world (some keen, some not) and the first three months felt like one long Spanish holiday. It couldn’t be better. After that, reality dug in as the Spanish summer eroded into winter, and day-to-day life in Spain took over. Added to long days and happy nights with wine and tapas collided with realities of emergency rooms, loss of comforts and serious illness a long way from home. Now, you can read these types of everyday life compliments and complaints on any expat blog, so I won’t dare go into it. But it dawned on me, about 10 months into the adventure as we signed up to a second property, that I could really make Spain work.

Fast forward a space of time, and I left Spain. I loaded my life into a container (which got lost for 16 weeks, in true Spanish style), and hubby and our four kids and returned to New Zealand for ‘three months’. The economy collapsed, billionaires argued and life changed forever. Loving Spain was confined to talking to friends who still lived in Valencia, endless reading and holidays. For the first long while, I hated everything about not being ‘home’ in Spain. But slowly I returned to life in New Zealand, and now love that I live at home. Home has few traditional comforts, for example, I have no family here. But I love my home and am proud to live in NZ. The lifestyle gives freedom to all, no matter where you start out in life (even those like me, who started right at the bottom). For work it’s a great place for opportunities, the education for my gifted sons is great, as is the health system, which is essential for my oldest boy. But it’s not Spain.

Is that a problem? Yes and no. I love Spain. Part of it runs through my veins. My lost Spanish relative is still a subject of interest. I moved to Spain young; only 24. It shaped me. The list of things I learned could fill a blog post. The most important thing was about chilling the fuck out. Spain does things in its own time. It both fires up and helps my anxiety disorder. Tranquila is probably my favourite Spanish word. The pull to the nation has existed for almost as long as I have. But I don’t live there.

Does that make me a bit of a ‘Spain fraud’? It can feel that way. I belong to #Wabas – the Writers and Bloggers about Spain group. All are people who have made a real effort to live in Spain and make the lifestyle work. There I am, surrounded by people who are legitimate Spain writers and entrepeneurs, and have to hope I don’t get found out as a fraud and deleted from the group since I live 20,000 kilometres away.

I consider my writing about Spain solid. I understand the nation (as best as it can ever be understood), I have travelled most of the country as well as lived there, and I have tens of thousands of hours worth of research on its history, culture and politics. I can write Spain in a fiction or non-fiction capacity and feel confident I have my facts right. In terms of Valencia, I know that place inside out. On my last trip there, I settled into the city in about five minutes, as if I had never left. My next book Vengeance in the Valencian Water is definitely the best book I’ve written and I have no doubts over its accuracy.

You won’t find me blogging from some charming white-washed village in Andalucia, you will find me blogging from Auckland, New Zealand, on the edge of the big city, and only planning trips to visit Spain, rather than live there. The why’s and whatever’s aren’t necessary. There is no answer why I, or anyone, loves Spain, because the place provides so much inspiration. I can’t argue the day-to-day highs and lows of Spanish life because I don’t live there. I’m not sure I even want to anymore. I’m not really interested in Spanish sightseeing trips, the foods and churches, the parks and the art, because life in Spain is all and none of those things. I get Spain on a level far beyond the tourist experience. And yet, I don’t have to be immersed in it. I am doomed to forever live on the edge of the Spanish experience.

But why Spain? Go there and see for yourself. You may find yourself changed forever, too.

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‘LA RIUÁ’ October 14, 1957: The Flood That Changed Valencia Forever

On October 14, 1957, a little known disaster occurred in the Spanish city of Valencia. When I first moved to Valencia in 2005, I heard the story of the Turia (the Valencia river) flooding the city in the 50’s. Now, the city has the beauty of a park in place of the dry riverbed. Years after I first moved to Spain, I decided to research the event  in more depth (excuse the pun), and it is the backdrop for my second Secrets of Spain novel, Vengeance in the Valencian Water (out Jan. 2014).

In my first book of the series, Blood in Valencian Soil, Cayetano, a bullfighter from Madrid and Luna, a bike mechanic from Valencia, team up to find the burial-place of a murdered Republican soldier and his involvement with an International Brigade nurse, who disappeared from Cuenca in 1939.  The second book of the series, while on the search for more civil war mass graves,  Cayetano’s Falange member grandfather, José, is forced to tell his story of survival  during the Valencian flood which changed his life forever.

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The Turia wasn’t always a flowing torrent of water. While there has been recorded flood records since the 1300’s, the riverbed spent most of its time dry, where people would walk to the tiny stream, to wash their clothes. Shack houses sprung up in the riverbed. Sales of animals were held down in the riverbed. It was not a year round flowing river. Serious floods had happened every century the modern city was based against the Turia, the most recent in only 1949 when several dozen people drowned. Even so, they were unprepared for October 1957.

Before you read on, here is the link to a documentary made in 2007 by Valencia University, with radio reports, video footage and eyewitness accounts of the flood. It’s all in Spanish, but if you don’t speak the language, you could just mute the sound and watch the video if you want, you will get the idea. Floods pretty much speak for themselves.

Each October, rain comes to the Valencia region, not so much in the city area, but in the surrounding plains and mountainous area that separates the city from inland Spain (If you’re new to this area, Valencia is both a city and a province of Spain. Just a heads-up). The rainfall surges during this change in autumn, onto land that is very dry after a long year without much rain. On Saturday 12 October, 1957, the heavens opened up over Valencia city, in conjunction to the torrential rains in surrounding villages in the Turia (plains around the city) region. On the morning of Sunday 13 October, Las Provincias newspaper noted that the outlying towns of Lliria, Segorbe, Chelva, Requena and Buñol had received rainfall of 500 millimetres in only two days. The Barranco del Carraixet and Palancia rivers north of the city, and the Magre river to the south, along with the Turia river through than ran Valencia city had all risen, but said there was no reason to worry. The rain began to die down in the city, and by late evening, had stopped completely. What the people of Valencia didn’t know was the immense torrent that was gushing its way down the Turia river towards them.

At around 9.30pm, an emergency call came through from the towns of Pedralba and Vilamarxant, 40 kilometres from Valencia, announcing that both towns had been flooded by a deluge of water as the river swelled beyond breaking point. At 11pm, an alarm sounded in the city, notifying all Guardia Civil and Police to be on alert, as the flood was heading directly towards the populated city.

Just after midnight, with the absence of rain, the river continued to swell, and logs and debris began floating through the city, blocking the bridges that connected the two sides of Valencia. Alarms sounded to alert people, and messengers knocked on doors in the El Carmen and Campanar areas, both the closest barrios on each side of the river’s edge. Radio messages went out with a flurry as police rushed to warn people of impending water. Soon after, the first waves began crashing over the edge of the riverbed, instantly flooding the flat streets on both sides, just as the torrential rains returned. In one hour, the water height pouring against the central city was between one to two metres and rising, cutting people off from any escape in the dark. More than 1000 cubic metes of water per second flowed into the streets, reaching over two metres in some areas. The Manises Dam at the edge of the city rose to seven metres above normal height as the river tripled its width and swallowed up much of  the city and surrounding area. All water, power and phone connections were swamped and collapsed under the water. Reports say manhole covers exploded into the air followed by a violent shot of muddy water  as the water took the city one street at a time.

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(If you don’t speak Spanish – blue: river, green: populated flooded farming areas, purple: city/town flooded, grey: not flooded populated areas. Notice the tiny safe area in the centre of the disaster zone?)

In the centre of the old town lies the Plaza de la Virgen and Plaza de la Reina, where today stands the Valencia cathedral,  the Basilica and the archbishops palace just behind them. Along with  Calle Micalet, this tiny pocket was once home to a mosque and before that a Roman city. This area is built on the slightest, and almost impossible to see, ridge in the land, resulting in these treasures not getting any water and instead were surrounded. (Coincidentally, in my novel, the main character lives one street over from Calle Micalet in this magical pocket of space, but don’t be fooled into thinking they are all going to be safe – you know I don’t write happy endings!)

At 4am, the flood reached its peak of approximately 2,700 cubic metres of water per second, but then quickly tapered off. As the sun rose on Monday October 14, the water continued to decrease and the Manises dam was no longer inundated. From the peak of around eight metres above average to only two metres at the dam, Valencians thought the worst was over. A single telephone line to Castellon in the north remained, so emergency services could get word to Madrid, calling for help. All roads and rail lines leading out of the city towards Madrid, Barcelona and Albacete were blocked, damaged or completely swept away. Many of the bridges that crossed the Turia were damaged or destroyed, along with the beautiful stonework  that lined the river one day earlier.

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As people ventured out into the water and mud-filled streets, the government received a message around midday that things were about to get worse. The towns of Pedralba to Vilamarxant had again been inundated with a second flood, washing away all  landmarks. The water took two more hours to reach Valencia city, with 3,500 cubic meters of water per second hitting around 2pm, accompanied by the worst downpour of rain yet seen; around 100 millimetres in just half an hour, enough that people couldn’t even see in front of them. By 3.30pm, the flood reached its peak of around 6,000 cubic metres of water per second, enough to start washing away  buildings that had been weakened in the first flood. The river had expanded to cover 2,200 hectares. While Valencia city gave many the luxury of multi-story buildings to find shelter above the water line, which rose between 2-5 metres above street level in places, the more outlying areas by the beach and port, including the towns of Nazaret, El Cabanyal and Malvarrosa at the mouth of the river, were on flat land and single level buildings, resulting in a complete catastrophe and loss of life as the water poured into the sea. Only five bridges, the longest-standing stone ones remained in place, though some were damaged and impassable. The worst had finally passed, and the riverbed emptied out into silence again. The final death toll was recorded as 81, though the actual figure remains unknown.

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In the coming days, the army came in by truck and helicopter, bringing up to 500,000 kilos of bread to feed stricken residents. Many needed to be airlifted from rooftops and isolated pockets of dry land as the water receded. Much of the city, port and beach areas were filled with a heavy mud and debris, resulting in a ‘on hands on deck’ response from army and locals alike to clean up. On October 24, dictator Francisco Franco arrived (when much was cleaned already, of course) to survey the damage and have his loyal (oppressed, whatever) subjects cheer for him for coming to the disaster zone. As people lived on bread brought north from Gandia and milk given out by the ladle-load, the long process of rebuilding began. The mud was not completely cleaned away until the end of November.

In June 1958, the outlying port and beach areas suffered a second minor flood, as their drains were still clogged with mud, and the following month ‘Plan Sur’ began, a project to divert the river. The plan had initially been designed over a decade earlier but sidelined due to excessiveness (which is ironic considering the ‘excessiveness’ of everything the Valencian government spends money on). A plan to build an enormous green space in the city was put up against building a huge highway to get people from Madrid to the beach a fraction faster. In 1965 construction began to divert the river south of the city, resulting in  water  flowing around the city for the first time in 1972. At the same time, land cleared by the flood on the other side of the river from the old town was used to create many new buildings, mostly apartments, giving Valencia a construction boom (that’s a whole other tale). The flood had accidentally given Valencia a whole new chapter in its story, already thousands of years old. (I have never seen any water in the river diversion, other than the tiny part where the sea flows into the river mouth. If you have a photo of the Plan Sur river diversion (any  year) with water in it, I would love to see it).

Here is a short clip (in Spanish) made as they designed Plan Sur in the 60’s, with some aerial shots of Valencia if you’re so inclined

In 1976, on his first visit to Valencia as head of State, King Juan Carlos I gifted the dry riverbed to the city, and the highway plan was shelved forever; the 7 kilometre park won its place in Valencia’s history. Construction on the final part of the Turia riverbed park continues today, with most of the park now complete. The ‘top’ of the park has Valencia’s zoo, the Bioparc, and footpaths and bike lanes weave though gardens, streams, sports fields, playgrounds to the other end, home to Valencia’s massive Arts and Sciences complex. The final part, where the old riverbed meets the sea is still to be completed.

While Valencia is an amazing city, the park is the jewel in the crown.

This is a tourism video was taken a few years ago, but shows Valencia from the air, over the park and areas rebuilt after the flood, plus many of the great sights you can read about in my books.

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All photos in 1957 are courtesy of Juan Antonio Soler Aces and 2013 photos are author’s own. 

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 9: Thunderstorms, Jesus and Ghosts in Cuenca

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You will long know by now that Cuenca is one of the central locations on my novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil. What you may not know is that when I wrote the novel, I worked purely on information given to me when researching the real characters that inspired their fictional counterparts in the book. While I know the outlying areas around the town, I never made it to the small hilltop town the entire time I lived in Spain. So, once the book was finished, I decided that while on my trip to gain information for my second Spanish novel, it was time to visit Cuenca in the flesh.

Name a town anywhere in Valencia province and I can almost certainly say I’ve been there. The mountainous region north of Valencia city is one of my favorite places. I have also spread out north-west of the city into the Aragon region many times, but Cuenca was last on the list of places to visit.

Whilst the town of Uclés was the ‘real-life’ town that my 1939 book characters worked in during the war, I moved the story to Cuenca for the later war storyline, and the town did not disappoint. The views of Cuenca are well-known, the cliffs, the hanging houses, the parador, but the place largely gets ignored during the lists of places to visit in Spain. Personally, the (albeit oddly shaped) triangle that runs from Valencia to Barcelona to Madrid is my favourite part of Spain, and it lies mostly untouched by tourism.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a high-and-mighty speech about the ‘real Spain’. What Cuenca does offer is an opportunity to have a day trip to a town where there are no set rules on what you should experience.

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The trip started well enough, out of Valencia. I was torn by leaving my  favourite city; while I could easily stay in the place forever, heading for Cuenca was 200 kms closer to getting back to Madrid and on a flight home, which I am not ashamed to say I was missing. The A-3, while a quick route inland, does mean you miss little opportunities to explore the Valencia region more, but I was not the driver (I hate driving); instead I settled for a familiar sights along a familiar road (my ill-fated trip to Teruel had the exact same problem).

We headed up the N-320, and Spain’s quiet interior peace settled in. It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind and head through small villages. For me, just seeing little places and knowing their wartime history was a great experience, though I had no one to share any of the information with. To be honest, I did wish I had taken the train, which I had in my original plans, but never mind.

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We arrived in Cuenca at about 2pm, and quickly bypassed the new town, filled with your standard Spanish locales, since obviously the locals require these businesses for work and life’s daily needs. My car-ride companion had a desire to get through the area as fast as possible, complaining of its ugliness. We arrived at the parador, the former Convento de San Pablo, one of Cuenca’s most enduring sights. As it is a location in my novel, I was determined to stay there, despite the fact a single night cost me more than three nights in a classy Madrid hotel on the same trip.

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View of the parador

I applaud anyone who has the desire to take care of a historic building and those at the parador have done just that. With a quiet, well maintained yet basic courtyard in the building, and hallways that give you the chance to feel the soul of the place. With a room on the second floor, I felt lazy taking the elevator, despite carrying my bag, and opted for the stairs for the rest of the stay, since the elevator is slow and filled with tourists not quite as agile as me.

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Main hallway

The room – I paid for a view, hence the slight increase in price and the view did not disappoint for a moment. Located above the main entrance, the room gave an instant view across the bridge over the gorge and over the old town dangling over the precipice of silent cliffs. A huge thunderstorm hung over the town, reminding me to stay inside for a little while. After an irritating car trip, I didn’t particularly want to hang out in a dated and poorly decorated room with terrible wifi, but the pouring squall slashing its way over the town was best viewed from the behind the windows.

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I left my dark depressing room and headed down the hallway to a charming area where seating was laid out, with a view over the interior courtyard of the building. I met a charming man named Jesús, on holiday with his parents from Madrid. He said the town has become a popular place for visitors from the capital over the past few years, but as we sat together, all that passed us was a Japanese family eager to do some sightseeing. The silence of the building made us wonder if the nuns were still running the place! Jesús was the only person my age (ie. 30’s) I saw there. Maybe the price puts younger travelers off; Jesús had just got a new job and wanted to treat his parents because he hadn’t had a job for over a year.

I bid farewell to the flirty Jesús and headed outside into the frail sunshine, amazed (though not surprised) by the cool temperatures of the mountainous area. Still free of my car-ride buddy, I started a walk down to the base of the Huécar gorge, and I was entirely alone the whole time. Not a soul walked by and as I wandered around the base of the town, and back up, popping out on the side of the old town, skipping the gorge walk bridge entirely.

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San Pablo bridge all to myself

After the frenetic tourist-ridden locations like Barcelona, to stand alone in this picturesque area is a real chance to breathe. I took about 1001 photos of the area, which could easy take up your whole day. With my handy copy of BITVS in tow, I got to see the areas that has been so accurately described through photos and friends while working on the book.

Past the Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses (which houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art), I wandered in the Barrio San Martín, a labyrinth series of streets, portrayed regularly in my book. More photos and some glorious time to be alone, something I wanted more of, I got to see the places in my book, which made me immensely happy. I didn’t pass a soul in the area, and walking along the steep and easily confusing area, it would be easy to think you have gone back in time. The silence is stunning and the town speaks to you instead.

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Legit street in Barrio San Martín

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House used as inspiration in BITVS

Onwards to Plaza Mayor, the heart of the old town. After popping out onto the square by luck rather than planning, it was interesting to see a main plaza with almost no people. For all the talk of the place being a tourist area these days, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen, and not many locals either.  I went straight in the direction of the cathedral, another pivotal location in my novel, and will also feature in subsequent books.

The interior of the church doesn’t disappoint. The solemn religious works sit in an air of silent and cold (almost as cold as Segovia’s frigid cathedral) peace. I sat at the altar for a while, the first time I had taken a break on my whole trip (or so it felt), to soak in the moment. It may sound crazy, or juvenile even, but being in Cuenca made my own book come to life for me, more so than Valencia and Madrid. I could imagine Cayetano Beltrán praying in the same seat, with Luna Montgomery watching in silence, wondering what the hell she was doing there with the bullfighter.

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Cuenca cathedral 

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With the intention of walking up Calle San Pedro, the ‘main’ road leaving up out of Plaza Mayor (try watching a bus go up there with a car coming down the other side – impressive skills and nerves), I instead peeled off along tiny and intriguing little alleyways, in search of my Cuenca (mine, as in ‘in the book’ Cuenca). The lack of people and noise makes it easy to develop your own opinion of the town and indeed imagine yourself in a novel.

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I reached the 18th century San Pedro church. Though basic, it’s home to a bell tower,  is a must-climb. The few hundred stairs are an easy climb and the views once up there are amazing. The climb is a real highlight (see what I did there?)

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Parador view from bell tower

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View of Júcar gorge from bell tower

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odd bit of artwork looking to old town from Júcar gorge

For me, I felt exceedingly lonely in Cuenca. I missed my family, who weren’t on this research trip with me. Without them, the majority of sights seemed hollow. Cuenca is a sight best seen with someone you love (or at least like!). I wandered back to Plaza Mayor, and grabbed a map from a nice young guy named Carlos at visitor information. I prided my lack of maps on my trip, but it was quite handy for a quick walk up and down stairs on the hillside to view the Júcar gorge on the other side of the old town, and then I was officially tired of the whole area. My enthusiasm had gone. I went back to the parador, this time over the San Pablo bridge, and took a break.

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Creepy homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, see the little Falangist symbols beneath? I nearly fell over when I saw this on the cathedral wall near the entrance to the Archbishop’s palace. Odd in 2013.

Surely evening could be interesting. With exhaustion ruining the trip, my car-ride buddy suggested a drink at the restaurant in the parador. Before even poking my head in, she said that everyone looked too old and boring (note from me – if you are in your 50’s, I’ll happily share a drink with you). Instead, we headed over the gorge and into the old town, to a random little in Plaza Mayor bar where I spent my evening mulling over several white wines from Cuenca – all of which I would recommend. The barman brought so many tapas over that dinner wasn’t required!

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The walk home at about 1am was a highlight, I’m not one for heading out late at night, but walking the pitch dark and silent alleyways, suitably spirited with wine and relatively lost makes you feel like someone is creeping up behind you, or that you’ve stumbled into a Jason Webster novel. The cliffs lit up at night is a sight to behold, even if my iphone couldn’t capture them very well, as is crossing the bridge in the dark.

A rough attempt at sleep on a bed so hard I thought it had been built from nearby rock, I got up at 4am and went for a walk on my own, to the amusement of hotel staff. I did this on almost every night of my trip and it’s interesting what you can see and hear when out when no one else is stirring. I crossed the bridge in the freezing air, and heard what I think were owls, the sound echoing through the gorge like an eery cry. It took little imagination to feel like it was 1913 or even 1713. I sat between some trees on a lonely bench and felt very alone, which felt strangely liberating. The oddest thing, and I don’t believe in ghosts et al, but I felt very watched. I walked down under the bridge and walked the lonely road that arches through the waterless gorge. The sun had began to ease its way through the darkness as I headed back along the path to the hotel. A solitary figure stood on a driveway at one of the basic houses in the gorge, an old woman, who placed a hand on my shoulder as I passed her with a hello. ‘Women are always busy here, even when the men sleep’ she said and then simply turned away. I felt like I had found Spain, there that moment in the dark gorge, the wild Spain I had been looking for, one filled with a presence that was intangible.

After the fear of loneliness and darkness combined with bitter temperatures chased me back into the hard bed for an hour or so.  The creepy quiet night walk was worth staying in the town, otherwise I would recommend Cuenca as day trip rather than an overnight.

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one last look

I checked out of the parador as soon my car-ride buddy was ready to leave and we headed for Madrid, just 165 kms away. I felt great for having seen Cuenca, but more than ready to catch up with friends in Madrid.

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legit two-way street!

Must see and do –

Covento de San Pablo, even if only from the outside, just to see the view of the town staring back

The San Pablo bridge, were you must add your pledge of love to

Plaza Mayor, were tourists don’t exist

The bell tower at Iglesia San Pedro

The narrow streets of Barrio San Martín, and stop in any almost medieval-looking bar you can find

The view over Júcar gorge tends to get forgotten in postcard snaps but it just as beautiful and wild, and has a long nature walk in and around

The Cathedral, even if you just take in the facade

The alleys that lean against the edge of the Huécar gorge, try Ronda Julián Romero for a quiet alley walk

The wilds that surround the area. The landscape makes you want to cry, especially this civil war nerd

Drink the wine, eat the snacks. Nobody ever regretted that

The not-so great – 

Unless you are planning to take on the wilds around Cuenca, I would recommend taking the train. Cuenca is an easy place to get to by public transport and having a car was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even drive it! Plus you meet fun people on trains, unlike in tedious car trips, especially if you can’t stop along the way. Plus I don’t like being yelled at for not knowing where to go/park in locations I’ve never been to, or haven’t been to in years

The parador – iconic, yes; but worth the costs? Neither Jesús or I were convinced of that. With other options available, do your homework first. If you’re determined to stay there (as was I), you should. I got the chance to visit the restaurant for breakfast (included in room cost) which served a buffet of both Spanish and English choices. Any day with churros is a good one. The rooms are not that nice or big, so be careful who you room with. Prince Felipe stayed there on his honeymoon, but I’m guessing he had more fun things to do and had well-chosen his companion! The cost of the bar/restaurant has been debated as over-priced, but I saw plenty of unusually pricey menus in windows while out on my walk. But, not every place is attempting you rip you off.

Spain is not hot all year around, despite what some think. Cuenca is located in a gorgeous but unforgiving landscape, so take a jacket unless its August.

Don’t expect Cuenca to be lively and exciting like a city. You might be disappointed. The place met all my expectations, but if you want to meet a sexy 19-year-old man-boy in an old town bar to engage in a fling with, you might be pushing your luck (What?! Some people like to judge people on looks and dream of Spanish interludes. Not me, but some people, it’s how romance novels are born). Likewise, if you’re not interested in war history, don’t travel with me!

The same generic Made in China souvenirs are available, like with anywhere. I did manage to buy a heavy stone model of the hanging houses, which was made locally.

Want to go but don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Spanish Thyme Traveller, who have just added Cuenca to their list of already well-planned holidays. Here is their latest blog post, all about a trip to Cuenca – A Visit to Cuenca Spain

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people declare their love on the San Pablo bridge so I did just that!

A Wistful Day in Valencia – Lost in a Sea of Familiarity

For me, the day starts with noise. Normally, it’s the sound of one of my young sons singing in the bathroom down the hallway. Or, if I’m lucky and the children have slept in, it’s my 6am alarm, waking me to the sound of Recuerdos de la Alhambra. But I’m not at home today, I’m in Valencia city. The hum of the city is immediately evident; Valencia is never quiet, and in my absence, I had forgotten just how noisy the city can be. Fourth noisiest in Europe, someone once told me. Statistics aside, the place buzzes with life 24 hours a day. I hear it while I lie in bed, the constant whirring of traffic somewhere, of scooters and buses on the street three stories below me. I wonder how long ago the love affair with leaning on the car horn began. The city sighs, breathes and releases a sound that is not unique, yet oddly comforting.

Out of bed and I pull open a window, to look down on Carrer de Sant Vicent Mártir. Two street cleaners are emptying a bin. I’m sure I heard one yell to the other that he didn’t have sex last night because his girlfriend was constipated. You can’t accuse Spaniards of not sharing. Only a few people are walking the streets at 7.30. The air is still cool, but that won’t last, even on this narrow shaded street. The beautiful building across from me is silent; I hope it has life inside somewhere, it deserves life. This street has seen a lot of history. Franco and his troops marched down here when the city was overcome in the war. That plays on this war nerd’s mind.

The apartment has a little patio in the well of the building. I step out in the cool air and privacy and sip my drinking yoghurt. It’s not a favourite thing, but I used to buy it in Spain when I lived here. The cheap price gave me a sense of nostalgia at the Mercadona last night, as did the organic fresh milk from Galicia, and the Valencian oranges. I don’t even eat oranges, can’t stand them. But they are part of the life I used to have in this city, and today is my chance to enjoy that life again, if I can find it. One floor up, a woman is talking to her daughter in French; the smell of cigarette smoke is overwhelming. Time to go for a walk.

Last night’s exuberance is still in my head. I walked the streets and alleys of Valencia old town in the dark – because it’s safe enough to do so – and found myself in a club late at night, with an old friend in tow. Places close earlier than they use to; all-night parties seem to have faded. Maybe the long-suffering residents of the El Carmen got their way with their noise protests, maybe the recession keeps people home more often. Maybe not, there are people everywhere. I had forgotten how many people live in Europe. Too much south Pacific island living? Is there such a thing?

La plaza de goerlich

Plaza del Ayuntamiento 1933 and today

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The tourist route can wait, though it will be filled with cruise-ships parties following their guide soon. That’s new. I wander into Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the main square of the city. Two police officers stand at the main entrance, which is still closed. They both smile and nod hello as I walk by; that’s not new. There are a few other tourists out early in the day, but are all at least twenty years older than me. I have learned a lot about Plaza del Ayuntamiento in my absence – it was called Plaza Emilio Castelar during the Second Republic, and Plaza del Caudillo when Franco took over. They tried Plaza del País Valenciano for a while, too. Since I’m in Spain on a civil war research trip, I can stand and imagine the propaganda posters and protesters, plus soldiers from both sides of the battle.

ENTRADA DE FRANCO EN vALENCIA EN 1939

Town Hall balcony 1939 and today 

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desmontaje estatua de Franco

Franco gets his marching orders

A statue of Franco stood in the square once, to commemorate 25 years of peace under his reign (no comment!). Now, a statue of Francesc de Vinatea stands in its place, a 14th century Valencian hero. The plaza once had a flower market embedded in the centre, underneath a fountain-littered promenade, but that was ripped out in 1961. Now, flower vendors are stalls that dot around the open space. I buy some; pink somethings (I don’t know my flowers!), for no reason than to say hello to the old man who was selling them. The plaza teems with people driving around its exterior, the audible hum of life is in full swing. There are stickers on posts; protests against government cuts to education. Valencia’s voice is coming in to protest later, but I don’t know that yet. My first day in Valencia years ago, as a new citizen to the city, there was a fireworks display in the plaza. I had never seen such a spectacle; Valencia like to burn things with a lot of noise. It was to commemorate an event being staged, the same one that had brought me across the world. The fireworks, which were let off in the centre of the plaza, where I’m standing, were so loud that a glass bus shelter shattered into a gazillion pieces. Nobody batted an eyelid; shit happens. Now, my friends, who shared the moment, aren’t here. We’re spread out across the world again. It changes the feel of the city remarkably.

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BOOM

I leave the plaza and the older part of this ancient city, and head down the pedestrian Carrer de Ribera. It’s cold in the shade. The stores are still closed, but the cafes are all open, filled with people having breakfast at 9am. Everyone looks so relaxed. I’m glad I brought my pink scarf on holiday; it seems to be part of the fashion. New Zealand may as well be another planet when it comes to clothes; finally my scarf has a home. I’ll need to buy more before I go back.

Carrer de Colon is busy, its one way traffic speeds past as I wait to cross the wide street. A bus stops and many people, mostly women, get off, obviously on their way to work. It’s the Number 19 route, almost at its end. I’ll take that bus at some point, it’s the route I took many times before. One woman is loudly telling another that her period is really bad this morning. There’s that over-sharing again. I cross the street, next to a woman pushing a worn-down stroller. The girl, perhaps three, looks tired. The mother is struggling to push the child on wobbly wheels and suck on her cigarette. I don’t like to tell people how to live their lives, and hate to receive advice, but smoking like that in a child’s face annoys me. I forget I come from a place where smoking is considered strange.

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I pass by the bullring, Plaza de Toros de Valencia, which is closed this early, even the ticket booths. Posters are up for the upcoming weekend fight. I must go (it will later disappoint me). The statue of Valencian fighter Manolo Montoliu has had an artificial wreath put around his neck, and it’s covered in ribbons the colour of the Valencian flag. The anniversary of his death has just passed.

Down busy Carrer de Russafa, past a panadería selling the most delicious-looking pastries, and there is a space in the line-up of conjoined buildings. I think of Jason Webster’s novel, A Death in Valencia, when the main character’s apartment block collapses in this suburb. There hasn’t been a building on that site in years. Wasn’t it once a public carparking space? Knowing Valencia, they probably went to build something and found Roman or similar artifacts. The place is good for finds like that.

Down Gran Via del Marques del Turia, a street I’ve wandered many times. You can wander either side of the multi-lane street, or through the middle, in the tree-lined walkway lovingly placed in the centre. The cobbled path is dusty, like Valencia always seems to be. There are many beautiful buildings along here; I had several friends who lived here, in gorgeous apartments. They don’t live here now; they were in San Francisco or New Zealand last I heard. My doctor lived on this street. His office, in his apartment, has a plaque outside his door, and I touch it when I walk past. In very difficult times, it was good to have someone who listened to serious concerns. The old bookstore is still there, still not open for the day. Imagine all the stories hiding inside. The optometrist is still there; a young woman is opening the place as I go by. I wonder if the old couple who worked there have retired yet. I hope they were able to. The traffic is building as I reach the end, at the Pont d’Aragó, the bridge over the Turia across the street. The light says I can cross, but cars stream through their own red light anyway. It was always dangerous crossing here, though I don’t have my quad (yes, quad) stroller with me anymore. The sight made cars stop, but running down a single woman seems to be of no concern, as always. I stood on this bridge late one night, eight months pregnant with my fourth child, knowing I had to move away from Valencia. What a depressing evening.

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Into the Turia I walk, one of the grandest sights you will ever behold. Bikes drift past as I head along familiar routes. The Chinese guy is still doing tai chi in his usual spot after all these years. Keen runners are out, along with pairs of old women out for a stroll. One tells me that I’m beautiful enough to find a good husband. How generous. One of my favourite spots, the fountain outside the Palau de la Musica, is silent. My children loved running along the edges and watching the water displays. No one is playing now. A young guy is setting up a tripod and he goes out of his way to say hello to me as the sun begins to warm up the city. I remember seeing a friend here, a famous New Zealand sportsman, one hot summer evening as he was riding his wife’s bike, and had a pizza in the front basket. His front wheel wobbled when he waved hello. He’s gone now, runs some kind of hovercraft company these days. Another friend told me to stop running along here, because I was too pregnant; she’s gone now, too. There used to host open-air concerts here at night in the summer, maybe there still are. Sitting under trees with picnic baskets and enjoying noisy Spanish life; I hope the recession didn’t claim them.

Turia

A walk along familiar paths brings back memories, like the bike stand where tourists grab a ride, Gulliver playground, which is amazing, but in all honesty, not that clean and my children were too small to really enjoy it. The concrete mini-golf thing is still there, looking as worn as ever. The cafe with foul-tasting horchata ice-blocks is open, and mothers sit outside with young kids. When we took our kids there with friends, we went around as a group, and collected the rubbish before the children could play. After a while, you accept that as standard practice. I remember learning of a friend’s miscarriage while at the playground, and wondering how could I tell her that her husband had been cheating on her after that? She forgave him, once she found out.

park

The skateboard ramps have even more graffiti and it seems angrier than before. Spanish life has got harder. ‘My’ part of the park, the area around the Arts and Sciences has a huge amount of familiarity, yet feels so different at the same time. On the whole, nothing has changed. The Reina Sofia theatre, the giant eye, could use a wash, but the place is exactly how I remember. I walked along here every day, and after being away so long, coming back is a bizarre experience. There’s no way of explaining what is it like to walk past things that I have missed for so long that I almost felt as if they no longer existed. The playground where my children played is exactly the same; the bushes still rustle oddly, too. The kids always suspected giant rats (not sure who started that rumour. It’s just birds). I sit in a spot under the shade of a tree. I did that one day, with my sons, then aged 23 months and 7 months, and wondered why we were alone. Then I noticed it was 44 degrees, according the temperature gauge on Pont de Montolivet. I had a pain in my stomach and I had a feeling I was pregnant. Four weeks later I had that confirmed, while looking out over the park in my apartment.

Turia

It’s odd to see my part of the city so lifeless. Once, I couldn’t walk down the road without bumping into 30 people I knew, friends to chat with, husbands wheeling pink shopping baskets home for their wives, locals who were amazed at how many sons I had and how close together they were all born. Now, almost no one is about. The woman at the perfume counter I used to visit seems happy to have a customer when I buy a bottle of Prada. The smell is an instant reminder of my old life.

It’s easy to waste hours walking around old haunts, up and down streets, filled with memories. The facade is all the same, but the atmosphere has changed. Valencia moved on without me. Of course it did; I moved on without Valencia. I was only meant to be away three months, not six years. But it’s great to be back. The day is quickly lost by wandering old haunts. I stop by the Disney store; there was a robbery at the nearby Carrefour once. Friends had been there, and dived behind piles of stuffed Disney characters. One guy dived behind his girlfriend. I don’t think the relationship lasted much longer after that. Today, the whole place is quiet.

serranos

Walking among the tourists at Torres de Serranos

It’s time to walk back through the park, to Torres de Serranos and dive back through the old town. People to see, places to go. I have to play tour guide later, not something I’m sure I can do. The way I know the city can’t really be explained. Plaza de la Virgen is gearing up for a fiesta, but I can’t even remember which one. I’ve seen a few girls in their fallera dresses, so it’s something big. I sit at the fountain, a popular spot, and remembered sitting here with my father, while heavily pregnant with son number 3 of 4. My father has passed away now.

fallera

I see familiar spots, places I put in my first Spain novel. New(er) places will be in the next novel. I’ll visit those spots later. The beverages in Cafe le las Horas are as good as ever in the mid-afternoon, as is the decor. I might sit here for a while; little do I know I’ll be wandering busy streets later and getting caught up in a giant-sized anti-government and banking protest. This spot will do nicely while I laugh with a friend. Valencia exists entirely inside the people who are there. 

cafe

All 2013 photos author’s own. Valencia history photos courtesy of Juan Antonio Soler Aces

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 8: I Don’t Trust Anyone in Spain… or their Sangria

Blogging has been tough lately. I read about Spain and the posts are mostly about food experiences, or “oh, Spain is so pretty and shiny”, or “Spain is going down faster than a $2 hooker”. What does someone like me, who stands in the middle, post about without sounding like a whiner? It’s impossible.

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A not-so typical holiday snap

I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m the first to admit that. Fortunately, Spain is a place that allows people to make mistakes and move on. I once had the opportunity to spend a few years living in Spain, and get to experience being an expat in a country where few of my countrymen and women go to live life abroad. So, when I found myself with the opportunity to have the chance to go back to Spain purely as a tourist, I thought that would be a piece of cake. Turns out I was very wrong.

I first went to Spain in 2005, and landed in Valencia on a hot summer day. After the tidiness of the airport in Auckland, the ruthless chaos of San Francisco, the soulless efficiency of Munich, (the then) basic and dilapidated airport was a real sight. I joked to my husband that it was the kind of the place you expected to see live chickens in cages moving along on the luggage carousel. Imagine the laughter when we heard the call of a rooster only moments later – it turned out to be the ringtone on the phone of our friend who had come to pick us up. With suitcases, prams, portable cots and many other baby items, myself, hubby, and our one-year-old and newborn sons got to see Spain for the first time. Lucky I was 24 and had the exuberance of youth on my side; because after Spanair broke my $1000 double pram, my mood wasn’t terrific. I met another friend at the hotel, who said I could get straight into flamenco classes. Bless him, he had only been in Spain a few months himself, and still full of the joys of expat life in Spain. Of course, Spain wasn’t full of flamenco and sangria – it was real life instead.

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How many friends can fit in one photo for a magazine shoot? Which magazine? Gente in Italy, I think. Don’t quote me

After my complicated permit to live in Spain was revoked in late 2007, I had only just got the hang of Spanish life. There is a beauty of living abroad; you get the reality of living there, combined with only having to take on the customs you choose. You can understand the place, but not be weighed down with a lifetime of expectations or stereotypes. Expats can really live it up; life is filled to the brim with experiences, trips are taken, foods are tasted, wines flow freely, friends are made, and rose-tinted glasses can get you a long way. You also have reality to pull your head from the expat clouds – your health insurance is a constant drama, your language skills always need work, if your gas stops working you know you will wait two weeks for the repair guy to show up, and visiting the bank is an exercise in endurance. Don’t get me started on the hassle of registering a birth of a baby that has foreign parents, and was born in the Alacant region, not the Valencia region, so you need to blah, blah, blah.

xmas2006a

Expat odd moment – because everyone has given money to a billionaire while he wears your homemade apron, that happens all the time

What I learned is that I couldn’t trust anyone in Spain, because as with living there or being a tourist, no two people experienced the country in the same way. One week after I arrived in Valencia, I shared a lift ride with an American woman. Turned out we were going to visit the same friend. Her husband and my husband had come to Spain for the same jobs, and she had been in Spain for several months. She asked me how long I had been in Valencia, and I said one week. Her reply – “give it two weeks before you decide you hate Spain. Everyone hates it, but give it at least two weeks”. (SERIOUSLY – to this day, we still laugh about that). How does that advice help me learn about Spain? It doesn’t. I suspect the reason her husband was a cheat was because he got sick of her complaining. I lived in a community that left me surrounded by expats from many different nations, due to the reason I went to Spain (it was the America’s Cup, that may mean something, it may not. Your call). I had the best of everything in Spain and felt no need to apologise for that. I loved my life there. However, the bubble I existed in was not Spain, it was a lie. It got to the point where many people had no idea about the place, hated so many things and formed a comfort zone around themselves, until we could leave again (note – that’s a generalisation, some people are amazing friends with open minds and hearts). One guy took years to go into Valencia’s old town and then went to the Mercado Central, and had to panic call a friend to rescue him. The notion of Spaniards, speaking Spanish and buying fresh food freaked him out because it wasn’t like home. True story.

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I’ll pass, thanks

About a year into my adventure, two friends were talking. One said “should we go to  (insert generic closed down bar here)”, and the other said, “no way, it’s always full of whining Aussies and Kiwis.” Ouch. I felt relieved to have never gone there. It burst the expat bubble with spectacular success. When I left Spain, I thought I had built up a realistic opinion of the country. To understand the nation and the culture, I studied the history. I grew to understand the politics and the origins of customs (alas, the freedom of time!). I left Spain with double the number of children I started with, and that in itself opens the eyes. An expert on the place? Hell no, it takes far longer to fully understand Spain. It was never my intention to stay away from Spain, but more important things came my way.

Fast forward six years, far more study, novels written and passionate debates abound, I decided to go to Spain for a few weeks just to help me out with writing, to see friends and soak up the ambiance, which I knew had changed remarkably in my absence. So, would it be easier to be a tourist, after knowing so much about the country? This time, would it be all sangria and sunburn? Nope. I fear knowing Spain well only made it harder.

vlc

Valencian manhole cover – as you do

This is why I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because no two people see Spain in quite the same way. If you’re from the UK or Europe, a trip to Spain sounds like nothing much. Everyone does it, all the time. Most go to the same few places, like the Brit and German invasion of the beaches (I hate the beach). I couldn’t read guide books before my trip because a) they suck, and b) I wouldn’t learn anything. After booking my trip, my enthusiasm plummeted. Had I shot my own holiday in the foot faster than King Juan Carlos can take aim at an elephant or family member? But, as I did when I lived in Spain, I decided to grab the opportunity and shake it until its balls hurt. No time-wasting for me!

Talk about mixed feelings. One morning was spent on a tour to El Escorial (yes, a organised tour group – don’t hate me, I’ve done enough self-loathing for us both) and those on the trip seemed to have a good time. They felt like they were educated and saw all the sights. I felt rushed and given info I already knew.

Toledo – you will have to hold a gun to my head to make me visit again. I imagined the battle for the Alcazar during the civil war, but all you will find there are tour groups led around by disinterested chain-smoking guides who don’t take you to the best sights. But who decided which are the best sights? That’s the trouble, the Spain I know and want to see and that of others are totally different. I remembered that piece of my own advice and carried on alone.

toledo

All I could hear was the sound the customs officer would make as he had a heart attack upon my return home

Avíla and Segovia – two places I don’t know well. I met up with a gay couple and a lovely English woman, all on a getaway from work and we had a good day out. Was it Spain, or the people I met? The people and the upbeat attitude.

Barcelona – I felt conflicted the entire time. I went out one evening and had laughs with friends and had a good time. Was trying cheese the highlight? No, it was getting an evil glare of a balaclava covered riot policeman outside the town hall building during a protest. Some people don’t put that in their holiday scrapbook, but I thought it was awesome (until the batons appeared). I was relating to the angry mob who are upset at the state of Catalonia. I got to tour civil war Barcelona and feel like I had received a meaningful connection to a city, but got plunged straight back into Americans complaining outside Starbucks  that the coffee doesn’t taste like it does at home. (Tip – YOU’RE NOT AT HOME) But then, many don’t give a toss about the history of Barcelona, so who is right and who is wrong? No one.

toledo2

Romantic postcard image meets reality of living here

Madrid – I wanted to see a bit of civil war-ness and the weather thwarted me. There is still the park, the art museums and the hell that is Gran Via to see, but I didn’t want any of them, though I wandered briefly for specific paintings. I popped into the Dalí exhibit at the Reina Sofia and got crushed by tourists, but then went to their civil war exhibit and had the place to myself (happy dance time). Many other people did enjoy the Prado et al, though. But, the city redeemed itself, in the people I met there. You gain more Spain-ness in a ten minute chat at a bullfight with a guy named Emilio than you can standing in the Prado (Disclaimer, I have ‘done’ the Prado in the past, so whip me with the tourist cane again). I see the Prado paintings and think of them being smuggled to safety during the war and how half a million refugees in France were left to freeze and die while paintings were covered and warm. Does anyone else care? Maybe, maybe not.

Valencia – finally a place where I could breathe! Familiarity with the world’s greatest little city makes a holiday. But do you gain anything out of sangria in a cheap restaurant with English-speaking waiters? So people might, but I didn’t. People flock to the Arts and Sciences, and it’s great, but I feel like I’ve only seen the city when I see a couple kissing in the park (wow, that sounds pervy). Showing a Valencia tourist around the city makes me want to cut my eyes out, but standing at the baseball field watching a portable cricket pitch being set up feels like a good way to spend an afternoon. If I recommend that as a sight to see, people would think me mad.

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Easy little streets to navigate. And by easy, I mean you will never get anything delivered – ever

Cuenca and Teruel – I didn’t give either of these places enough credit. I just didn’t want to visit (is that awful?) I might try Teruel again (with the right people) while meandering out in Awesome Aragon, but Cuenca? No way.

See what I’m saying? You can’t trust anyone in Spain. No two people can see it the same. I went there with no expectation, and found it hard to dig through the shiny veneer of tourism to find what I felt would make a successful holiday. Every time I sipped a sangria, I felt like I had let myself down (because I don’t like it much, a bit meh. Don’t worry, I tried plenty of other drinks too. No glass went undiscovered).

beers

See? I visited the craft beers, like any good tourist

I Spain I loved –

Buying hairspray at the Mercadona where I used to go food shopping

Sipping wine in Cuenca

Imagining fascist troops in Teruel

Standing the summit sign at L’Oronet

Getting evil looks for talking about Franco in Madrid

Laughing with a maid because we couldn’t get a door open

Taking the No. 19 bus in Valencia

Paying for an umbrella in a Madrid junk shop

The young guy named Carlos at the Cuenca tourist office. He got to try his English, I got five minutes company in an otherwise dull excursion

The Spain I hated –

People who ignore the ‘no photos’ rule! It’s not there to ruin your holiday, they have a reason!

How much Valencia has changed (total foreigner nostalgia moan right here!)

Barcelona – I failed to have anything in common with the place (and I tried!) Though, El Raval was nice

Driving anywhere (and I was only the passenger! Should have gone by train)

Walking around Madrid (the place seems so down on itself these days) Wander Lavapies to wipe out this feeling

Cigarette smoke

Not finding the right mix of alone time and time with friends (yes, my own fault)

The fact my old Valencian neighbourhood is not only devoid of my family and friends, but devoid of all life and soul (thought I was on the scene of a zombie movie!)

English menus (who orders the ironed sepia?)

Complaints from others about Spain (yep, I’m complaining about complaining)

fallera

Oh, it’s that time yet again

I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because they won’t see the place like I do. By that theory, no one can trust my opinion either! You will just have to go and experience it for yourself! Will I go again? Hell yeah, I have no doubt about that. The beauty is, I have the power improve my Spain experience every time I visit, because the country gives so much choice. However you enjoy Spain, all power to you. Pick your holiday companions carefully, because if they see it totally different, you could find frustration under every tapa. A civil war researcher and heavy on the political and economic conversationalist like me can’t enjoy Spain with tea-sipping, bullfight and flamenco inquisitor with the dream of Spanish romance in the orange groves.  Lucky Spain is big enough for all of us!

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When the everyday places are this beautiful, who cares who is right and wrong?

Up next… back to serious posts… Teruel and the back roads of Valencia and Aragon

Click here to see previous posts in the series – Spain 2013 in Review