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.

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