Monday, 14 January 2008

Navidad and more

Christmas starts in early December in this part of the world, and continues all the way to Three King´s Night on 5 January. So, let´s start at the beginning.

Turning on the street decorations is a big deal, and in Antequera this happened on 3 December. We even got a token string of lights here in Cuesta Real. Ashleigh, Max´s niece, arrived here on the 5th, and it was time to decorate our own house in the spirit of things.

Look closely and you'll see the strings of fairy lights on the upstairs balconies.

As everywhere, Christmas here is also about food, family and holidays (plus religion, but I'll get to that). We had plenty to do. Brian and Sal had found a cottage in the Sierra Nevadas, big enough for all of us, including Sal´s parents over from the UK, to stay in for a week. I baked a couple of Christmas cakes, and set about procuring un pavo - a turkey. Paco, one of our Spanish teachers, recommended Antonio´s. A small doorway just off the main street led to this bustling traditional carcinero. I went to order the turkey, as advised by Paco, and found myself in another world - full of women, full of noise and full of meat. Cleavers were flying, but not time. I stood there for 40 minutes, patiently waiting my turn to speak with the two guys in charge, Antonio snr and Antonio jnr. I ordered the turkey, 8kg as per my recipe (if you're interested, and of course you are!, check out, Catalan turkey), to be collected on the 21st. Come early one of the Antonios urged me, it will be crazy that day.

During the next week we bought in supplies of turrón (local nougat), mantecados (those famous biscuits), and chocolate coated almonds, as well as exotic things for the turkey stuffing, and bottles of Faustino V, as recommended by Bernardo. I returned to Antonio´s to collect the bird (with Max, who was in charge of carrying the beast home). It was crazy alright, even at 9am. We waited again, and yes they had my turkey. It was enormous. They must have seen my face. Would I like a smaller one. Vale. They just happened to have one out the back. I then asked for something to make the stock with. Without a thought, Antonio hacked into the rejected 8kg turkey, presenting me with the chest bones and offering me a chunk of pork fat to go with it. Stock is taken very seriously here.

So is Christmas. There are belenés everywhere - these are nativity scenes and you are just as likely to see them in store windows, as well as in churches and public places like the town hall. On the Friday before Christmas, the Antequera council hosted a free flamenco concert, in San Juan de Dios, the location of one of the town's premiere belenés. We went along, getting a free glass of sherry and more of those Antequeran cakes to tuck into as we admired the belen and settled ourselves for the concert.

As well as the traditional manger scene, belenés also show typical street scenes.

The flamenco concert took place in front of the magnificent Baroque altar of San Juan.

Here´s my first attempt at videoing, our local flamenco artists.

The next day we set off, in a rental car, for the Sierra Nevada town of Monachil - the first time we'd driven in Spain, in fact the first time we´d driven since Namibia. Thank goodness for Google maps, which made finding this small mountain village relatively straightforward. We arrived at the same time as Brian and Sal, and were all pleased to see that the cottage (well, two adjoining houses really) were cosy, comfortable and well-equipped. And the area was just lovely. We spent the next week exploring nearby Granada, walking in the mountains and checking out the skifields of Sierra Nevada, as well as doing all those usual Christmas things like eating, drinking and getting presents. A really lovely week.

The Cahorros walk is well known locally for its steps, swing bridges and rock tunnels. It takes you through a river gorge and into the craggy nearby mountains.

Two very excited boys on Christmas morning.

Max and I relaxing a little during the present opening ceremony.

Sal, Jill, Ashleigh, Reece, Derek, Aidan, Brian and Max - sitting down to Christmas lunch.

We spent a lovely couple of days on the mountain, about an hour's drive from Monachil - one day just playing in the snow and looking around the mountain village, and another day skiing.

As you all know, New Year follows Christmas, and for this we joined Brian & Sal up in Madrid. We spent a great week enjoying the sights of this fantastic European city, visiting the galleries, the parks and the not-to-be-missed ice sculptures.

We visited King Juan Carlos on his birthday (Jan 5) at the Palacio Réal in downtown Madrid.

The ice sculptures were amazing, but it was eight below in there which meant no-one could stay and admire them for too long.

The Plaza Mayor is the biggest square in Madrid, but...

Puerta del Sol is its literal and metaphorical heart. It is where all streets in the city are measured from, and is home to the city's mascot - the bear and strawberry tree (not Tio Pepe).

Some Madrid landmarks: Atocha Station, the cathedral, and the Cybelene fountain.

We enjoyed some great food and had fun partaking in all the customs the Spanish indulge in at this time of the year - like eating a grape for each toll of the bell at midnight on New Year's Eve. We were glued to the live broadcast from Puerta del Sol, which was packed with partygoers, watching the TV presenters before apparently going out and partying until about the 2nd. We stayed up for a couple of hours, making phone calls mostly, before the thought of the boys waking up at 8am sent us upstairs.

Brian and Max wishing Australia feliz año.

However, the really big deal for the Spanish is the night of 5 January, Reyes (or Three Kings), when the wise men visit. Each town has a cabalgata (parade) at which the Reyes are the stars. They bring gifts to good children who must leave their shoes out overnight, and to niños malos, they leave chunks of coal. Majadahonda´s was a fine effort, lots of floats, lots of caramelos, lots of bands and music, and the stars of the show arrived in fine form at the end of the parade. We did suspect though that Antequera´s effort may have been even better - including as it did horses for the Reyes (who were treated to lunch at the council before their arduous parade duties), camels and bears! We read in our local paper that after distributing gifts in Antequera, the Reyes were taking a special AVE (our new fast train that goes around 250km/hour) to Madrid to do their work there! And on the morning of the 6th, once you´ve checked your shoes for coal, the tradition is to indulge in a roscon for breakfast - a sort of bread ring decorated with candied fruit to represent jewels, and containing a gift somewhere inside it.

Reece and Aidan enjoying Majadahonda's cabalgata, which featured lots of eastern-inspired bands and floats, and street performers.

We went for a drink after the parade, and had to smile at this sign. Upstairs is for smokers, lovers and smilers!! Needless to say, we weren't allowed up there with the children.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Outings and events

Our first formal occasion, the cycling club´s end of year dinner was the same yet different to such an event in NZ. First of all, it didn´t start till 9.30, all the women were given flowers as we entered and we all received raffle tickets. A nice touch. The food was the real talking point. I´m constantly amazed by how the men here are not just interested in food, but really passionate about it. Specially local produce. We were fed a four course meal. Wine and water, nuts and chips, were on all the tables, and we were all given small take-home bottles of the local olive oil (best in the world we were assured by Juan, or Jose or Paco...). The dinner started with plates of ham and cheese, casseroled pork cubes and prawns, followed by deep fried prawns and chunks of fish. Main course was fish or pork. There´s not much point, or much understanding of being a vegetarian around here - even restaurant vegetarian menus often include ham or tuna.

After dinner was the prize giving, where everyone got a trophy, even Max. The process seemed to be that the prize winners were called up, presumably in some kind of order, and were able to select the trophy they liked best from the table. We also won a raffle - a hand-carved bird house that Juan, one of our neighbours (and a 70 year old cyclista) had made. There were lots of photos, lots of clapping, cheering and toasting with the freshly-supplied Cava (bubbly) and a range of local desserts. At about 1am, the drinks trolley was wheeled around, with brandy, whiskey, Baileys etc, and a selection of Antequera's famous biscuits to choose from. The whole evening finally finished round 3am, time for us to walk the 2km home, reflecting on an evening of pleasant company and good food, weighed down with our haul.

Our table mates showing off their haul of trophies, and the club posing. Every member at the dinner received a new club jersey.

In the build up to Christmas there are lots of events in the town, and one we both participated in, tempted by the offer of a free T-shirt, was the local Milla - a one mile race. They seem quite popular here. We entered (gratis) the day before, and on the night of the race the street was thankfully full of people. There were only three races, one for small children (the benjamins and pre-benjamins - not sure quite why they are called that), one for older children (infantiles and cadetes) and one for everyone born after 1990. That's us! Having run very little all year, mine was a very modest effort, over-rewarded by coming first in my age group, thus revealing that I was in fact the oldest woman to participate. This would account for the typical Española of my age always looking immaculately turned out, rather than pink and sweaty. But hey, I got the free T-shirt and a good-looking trophy. Max came fifth in his rather more competitive age group, and for his troubles got a fine-looking medal.

Now what to do with these!

In late November the Malaga football stadium hosted a charity match, fronted by Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo. We booked tickets online and went along, partly to see a match, partly to see the stars and partly to see the stadium. Malaga are winning the second division, and if promoted to La Liga will see themselves playing Real Madrid, Barcelona and Seville next season. It was a fun night, with the surprise stars being Michael Schumacher - who can really play football - and that famous bald referee. Zinny scored, and the end was a respectable and predictable 2-2 draw.

Another pre-Christmas outing was with our neighbourhood association. Every now and then someone slips a photocopied notice under our door, advising of an excursion. So we decided to take one to Almeria and Nijar. We didn't know how it would all pan out, but our fee bought us breakfast, lunch, a guide and the bus transport to Parque Natural Cabo de Gata-Nijar, and apparently included dancing! The bus left at the incredibly early hour of 6.30am, and we stumbled up the hill in the dark and joined our neighbours who were full of the joys of life, whooping and laughing as if they were kids off to camp. We were probably among the youngest on board, but people smiled and spoke to us. The route took us towards Granada, and we stopped at a highway hotel for a fortifying coffee after a couple of hours. The temperature was bitterly cold, a reminder of how it would be up here at Christmas we thought. The countryside, now it was light and we could see it, was fantastic. Desert, caves and Tabernas. You've probably seen it, as it was the location for lots of spaghetti westerns, as well as Lawrence of Arabia and some of the Indiana Jones films. There is still something called Texas Hollywood, which is an extant film set you can visit.

We headed out towards the coast, past miles of greenhouses growing tomatoes (someone has to, they're eaten at every meal it seems), and stopped at another hotel around 11, this time for breakfast. The hotel was all ready for us, tables laid out with bread, coffee, ham, cheese and wine. Just what you need at this hour! Then we collected our guide and headed off for the coast. We made stops at a few places, strolling round small fishing villages and admiring coastal boardwalks. All very pleasant in the late autumn sunshine. Then it was back to our hotel for one of the highlights, lunch and dancing. This all started about 3 and went on till about 5. Lunch was the requisite three courses, more wine and coffee. We were a bit reluctant to join in the dancing but were eventually persuaded, much to our neighbours' amusement. They grooved away to the Latino tunes that a young guy played on his mobile disco for them, then we were bundled back into the bus, to head home I thought - but no, the day was far from over. Next we were taken to the historic town of Nijar, famous for its ceramics and textiles. A guided tour of the 16th century church, and a visit to a local souvenir store were in order. In the swing of things by now, we bought a couple of small mats for our bathrooms, and then stopped for another coffee. We needed sustenance to keep up with these people. A couple of hours later we were stopped again at the same highway hotel we'd been at earlier this morning. It felt like days later, but our companions happily tucked into beer and sandwiches to get them through the last couple of hours. We arrived home about 10pm, absolutely worn out. Since then, we receive many a wave and a "buenos" from strangers - who we figure "must have been on the bus". We will certainly do another outing with these kind and fun-loving people.

A few of our vecinas, dancing the afternoon away. Max reckons all the husbands were happily spending the day at the Socorilla, the local bar.