Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spain: Alicante, a vibrant Mediterranean getaway

Alicante is such a charming Mediterranean city and a popular tourist getaway being the center of Costa Blanca. After exploring Elche in the morning, I decided to breeze through Alicante in the afternoon before proceeding back to Valencia. Ever since I was a child, Alicante had been very familiar to us since we had a granduncle, a retired diplomat, who lived there. Sadly, he passed away last year even before I could meet him.

The capital of Alicante (Alacant) Province, the city was described by the Valencian author Joan Fuster as the most pleasant city in the Valencian Region, “the city you would choose to live in if you had to exchange your village for a town.” Its more than 3,000 years of history was evident in its rich architectural heritage.

I immediately noticed the Castillo de Sta. Barbara perched on top of Monte Tossal. There are buses that take you up the hill to visit the castle. The city hall of Alicante is a gem of Baroque civil architecture. Equally impressive are Alicante’s churches, particularly the Concatedral de San Nicolas de Bari and the Basilica de Sta. Maria with its impressive Baroque façade. They were closed when I got there so I had to wait until late in the afternoon to see the interiors.

But with 300 days of sun every year, one of the city’s main highlights is its Mediterranean coast, especially the Playa de Postiguet, an urban beach located on the city’s sea front, and Marina Alicante with its many yachts and sailboats docked in the area. In fact, there was a competition ongoing while I was there.

It was fun walking along the Explanada de Espana, the city’s paseo par excellence bordered by date palms with a spectacular tile mosaic floor. On one end of the Explanada is Casa Carbonell, an enduring edifice that has become a symbol of Alicante’s Mediterranean vibrancy.

When the bells of the co-cathedral and basilica tolled at 6 p.m., it was a signal for me to walk back to marvel at their interiors. High up the main altar of the co-cathedral is an image of the Virgen del Remedio. Behind the main altar is a chapel to the city’s patron, San Nicolas. Below the image of San Nicolas is the reliquary bust of Santa Felicitas of Alicante which houses her bones.

The city’s oldest church, the Basilica de Santa Maria, is dedicated to the Asuncion de la Virgen, and was recently elevated to Basilica Minore by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. The Baroque main altar is as grand as its façade. After visiting the two churches, I still had time to spare since my bus back to Valencia was still at 9 p.m. So I made some last minute exploring.

As an aside, it surprised me that the ALSA bus ticket to Valencia from Alicante (17,60€) costs more than the bus from Elche (10,94€) which is even farther! The ticket counter explained to me that the bus from Elche stops in a lot of towns while the one from Alicante is direct. But not exactly since it had one stop in Benidorm.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spain: Palmeral de Elche, a palm forest within a city

Elche (Elx in Valencian) is host to two cultural treasures, the Palmeral de Elche (Elx Palm Groves) which is in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the Misteri d'Elx which was declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. And the good thing was it was just two hours and 30 minutes from Valencia. So I decided to make a day trip to Elche and Alicante.

The RENFE (train) ticket to Elx-Parc cost me 13,45€. I got on the 7:04 a.m. trip arriving at 9:32 a.m. Had I gotten an earlier trip, it would have posed a problem since the first trips on the Metro usually start at 6 a.m. And I would have been forced to take an expensive cab! Trains leave on the dot so don't even try to arrive a minute later.

As soon as I arrived, I immediately looked for the tourism office to get a map. Elche's old quarter is an easy walk and the map conveniently suggests two routes around the city center and the palm groves.

Indeed, Elche is an urban forest of palm trees which creates a very unique cultural landscape. It has some interesting buildings as well including the Alcasser de La Senyoria, Basilica de Sta. Maria, Mercat Central and Ajuntament among many others.

But the main attraction of the city is the different palm groves, parks and gardens. Check out the Huerto del Cura and its Palmera Imperial (Imperial Palm Tree), a 170-year old palm tree with eight arms attached to the main trunk. The garden also sells dates and date sweets in its souvenir shop.

You should take the route around the palm groves which is a little over 2 kilometers if you want to explore this cultural treasure some more. Shortly before lunch (that's 2 p.m. in Spain), I proceeded to the bus station to catch a bus to Alicante, which is just 30 minutes away. I spent 1,80€ for that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Spain: Valencia Cathedral and the Holy Grail

Within the old city walls of Valencia alone, there are dozens of old churches all stunning in their own right. At the center of all these churches in the Catedral Basilica Metropolitana de Santa Maria or the Valencia Cathedral. Founded in the 13th century, it incorporates several architectural styles (its exterior is mostly Gothic but the main entrance is lavishly Baroque), and houses a large number of artistic and religious treasures.

One of those treasures is said to be the Holy Grail which has a long history. Legend has it that St. Peter transferred the grail to Rome in the first century. It was then brought by St. Lawrence to Huesca, Spain together with Pope Sixtus II in the 3rd century when they escaped the persecution of Emperor Valerian. The cup was hidden in various places during the Muslim invasion that started in 712 A.D., finally finding itself in the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. It was given to King Martin of Aragon who kept it in the royal palace in Saragossa, and later in Barcelona when he died. His successor, King Alfonso transferred it to the palace in Valencia. During his stay in Naples, it was transferred together with other relics to the Cathedral where it finally stayed.

Inside the cathedral, aside from the main altar, there are close to three dozen chapels, each housing its own treasures. Just looking at every one of them, absorbing the rich history of these artistic masterpieces, was an enriching experience.

In two of those chapels, you'll notice skulls and bones enshrined in reliquaries. One chapel houses the tomb and remains of Sto. Tomas Villanueva. While another belongs to San Luis Obispo. Behind the altar, you can find the arm of San Vicente Martir. But in the Cathedral Reliquary, there are even more saintly remains including those of San Juan Ribera, San Luis Bertran (a hand that is the only part of his body that is entirely kept), San Luis de Anjou and other saints as well as other recently beatified Valencian people.

Finally, there is El Miguelete or El Micalet, the Cathedral bell tower that has become a symbol of the city. You can climb its 207 steps to see the various bells and a great view of the city.

They usually charge 4€ to enter the Cathedral. But since there was a fiesta, I got to enter for free.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spain: Virgen de los Desamparados of Valencia, Spain

Every second Sunday of May, Valencia comes alive with the feast of the Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados. Our stay coincided with the big celebration, most of which are centered in the Plaza de la Virgen. It would have been a really great event with religous festivities and bullfights scheduled. But it was raining. And it never rains during the fiesta! Is this global warming at work? It was good though that some major events still pushed through. Festivities usually begin the night before the fiesta or the visperas.

The bullfight or corrida I was supposed to watch in the afternoon was canceled even if it was not raining since the ground was too soft and therefore not safe for the matadors. In fact, the matadors were all dressed for the event.

So I then proceeded to the Cathedral to check out the festivities. And I got to attend a Mass celebrated by His Eminence Agustín Cardinal García-Gasco y Vicente, Archbishop of Valencia.

It was good the weather cooperated up until the evening events were completed. The program at the Plaza de la Virgen started with a concert by the Banda Municipal de Valencia. As soon as the bells of the Miguelete signaled 11 p.m. the band played various classical songs from Spain. What struck me was the strong patriotism of the crowd when the band played the patriotic songs. As soon as they heard the first notes, the crowd erupted in applause, some were even teary-eyed. You could see people silently singing together with the orchestra. I wonder when Filipinos will react the same way upon hearing Pilipinas Kong Mahal or Bayan Ko being played. Let's admit it, many young Filipinos today even consider singing patriotic songs corney in fact! I hope that changes.

For the last song, the conductor faced the crowd and everyone started singing with fervor the Himno de Valencia. As the last part of the song was sung, you could feel the power of the crowd: "¡Glòria a la Pàtria! ¡Vixca Valencia! ¡Vixca! ¡¡Vixca!! ¡¡¡Vixca!!!" Indeed, it was a spectacle we should learn from. The concert ended at exactly midnight as the bells of the Miguelete tolled anew.

The Dansà followed with dozens of locals in intricate regional costumes. Just like the Philippines where many cities used to dance the rigodon de honor the night before a fiesta, the Dansà is performed for the same reason, in honor of the feast of the Virgen de los Desamparados. It was great we got a good position to watch the performance. And I captured some videos using my Sony Ericsson K850i camera phone.

The next day, I was supposed to attend the morning events at the Plaza de la Virgen. But it was still raining. So I was content with watching the festivities on TV. After the morning Mass, the Virgen de los Desamparados is transferred from the Basilica to the Cathedral in a fervent procession called the Translado. It was heart-warming to see the faithful raised on the shoulders of other people in impromptu bursts of poetic praises to the virgin. The image is brought out in a Quiapo-like procession, showered by a deluge of petals from the buildings as it passes by. But what is peculiar about the Translado is that it's women and children trying to touch the image. It scared me seeing parents pushing their babies and young children, screaming and crying, in order for them to touch the image during the morning procession.

Early in the evening, a grand procession is held. The streets of Valencia were decorated for the grand event with symbolic banners hanging from balconies and flower ornaments to match. It would also have been a great opportunity to witness the intricate fiesta costumes of Valencia. But the procession was canceled at the last minute since the archbishop was afraid it would rain. But ironically, it didn't rain! It's a pity since all the falladoras were all dressed-up in lavish gowns for the procession.

Update: The procession pushed through the week after. But sadly, we were already in Barcelona by then. The video above is from YouTube.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Spain: Requena's bodegas, vinos and cava

Requena gave us a glimpse into the wine culture of Spain. It is a municipality in the Valencian comarca of Utiel-Requena which is said to have a viticulture tradition that is more than two thousand years old.

We visited the bodega or wine cellar of Torre Oria. Founded by the Oria de Rueda family in 1897, it's one of the most popular wine cellars in the Valencian Region and receives a lot of visitors. Tours are by appointment.

Our visit started at the palace-house of the wine cellar designed by Jose Donderis in the early 1900s. The cava (champagne) and wine-making process was explained to us before we proceeded to the production room, cava tunnels, and barrel warehouse. But the highlight of the tour was the cava-tasting which sent all of us buying bottles to take back with us to the Philippines.

After the tour, we proceeded to downtown Requena for lunch. Our host family had mentioned to us that the specialty of the place was chorizo and embutido so we made sure to order some. I was expecting the embutido to be the stuffed sausage we have here in the Philippines. But in Spain, it's actually a mixed dish of potatoes, longganiza, chorizo, adobado and costillas.
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