Monday, 30 March 2015

Semana Santa in Madrid: What to do

Madrid is known for many things: its art galleries, its nighlife, its football teams. It is not, however, known for its Semana Santa. While parts of the rest of the country spend this week gripped by procession-watching fever, Madrid carries on doing its own thing.

If you're in Madrid this week and hoping to catch a paso or two though, fear not: a few processions do pass through the city centre. And if you're enjoying a week's holiday in the capital, there are plenty of other things going on to keep you amused.

Staying in the city


See a procession

The paparazzi couldn't get enough of Mary

If you've never experienced Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain before, it's worth making the effort to see a procession. It's also worth securing a spot early: make as the Spanish do and stock up on drinks and snacks. During the week, there are 13 processions in Madrid's city centre, most notably on Thursday (Jueves Santo) and Friday (Viernes Santo) evenings. Note that processions move very slowly and take several hours: this website has maps of the routes of each one so you can try to calculate the best time to arrive at your chosen spot. To find out more about Semana Santa in general, read this post. The Madrid Town Hall has set up a website specifically for Semana Santa, so if you fancy trying any more traditional activities such as concerts and exhibitions, check it out (Spanish only).

Eat torrijas

Honey-soaked torrijas with ice cream: Hello, heart attack!

During Semana Santa, it's traditional to eat torrijas, a sugar-high inducing dessert that marks the end of Lent (cuaresma). Made with bread, milk, eggs, cinnamon, honey and plenty of azúcar, this recipe came about as a way to use up hardening bread. Nowadays, you'll find torrijas on offer in cafés,  pastelerias and restaurants all over the city during Semana Santa. The most famous place to tuck into torrijas is La Casa de las Torrijas (Calle Paz 4), which has been cooking up these treats since 1904. They're hearty and delicious – perfect procession-watching fuel. Other typical Semana Santa sweets include pastry flores and pestiños, although these are more common in Andalucía.

Go sightseeing


If you're a Madrid resident who's staying put for the week, use this opportunity to sightsee and visit those places that are closed at the weekend, such as the Real Fábrica de las Tapices, or those with limited opening on Saturdays and Sundays. If you're on a budget, you can find a list of museums with free entry here. It's worth bearing in mind that Patrimonio Nacional sights like the Royal Palace and Convento de las Descalzas Reales offer limited free opening times on Wednesdays, so if you usually work during the week, now's the time to visit.

Getting out of town


If the idea of staying in Madrid for the whole week is too much to contemplate, plan an easy day trip.

Traditional: Alcalá de Henares


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Georgina's Year Abroad in Huesca: Part 2

Back in December, Georgina Dorr shared her experiences of her first term as a language assistant in Huesca. Now two-thirds of the way through her year abroad from Exeter University, she gives us an update on life in Huesca, learning Spanish and travelling around Spain. You can also find her over at her blog The Treasured Notebook

Where does time go?

It only seems like yesterday when I was writing the post about my first three months in Spain and how I was just settling in. Flashforward three months and I’m two thirds through my year. How did that happen?!

So, an update.

I’m still loving my Year Abroad, and although there’s the odd moment of sadness and home sickness, it’s very rare and overall I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I really feel settled in Huesca, and am still getting on wonderfully with my housemates. Six months of living together and not a bad word has been said, if only student living in Exeter was this easy!

Exploring what's on her doorstep: Castillo de Montearagon

As for my Spanish, it’s slowly getting there! Some days are better than others and one moment I feel like I’m really there and understand it all, then someone mentions something that leaves me dumbstruck (but that happens to me in English too!). But overall, I’ve improved leaps and bounds since my first day here when I sheepishly muttered ‘Soy Georgie’ and hoped for the best.

In my last post I mentioned that I accidentally signed up for an Economics Masters, and I’m very proud of the fact that I completed the course! It was Economics from a touristic perspective, which was right up my street with my love for travel so I really enjoyed it. 5 hour lectures will make returning to lectures in Exeter next year so much easier, but I actually really enjoyed the module and learned loads, both Spanish-wise and Economics-wise.

Wine tasting with fellow auxiliares in La Rioja

As my course finished in January, I decided to fill my Wednesday afternoons with something else productive, so have started Salsa classes! I have never been any good at dancing and have absolutely no coordination so it’s interesting to say the least, but it’s great fun, as well as being a good place to meet people my own age and to practise some Spanish.

Visiting Sevilla - girl after my own heart!

Friday, 13 March 2015

Caminos de Pasión: Semana Santa in small-town Andalucía

Being from a country where traditional festivals have all but died out or become so commercialized they bear no resemblance to the original event, Spain's fiestas fascinate me. It's no secret I'm a fan of feria, and I'll attend any saint's day going (although you won't catch me running with any bulls or getting involved in a tomato fight any time soon). However, until 2014 I hadn't really engaged with one of the country's biggest events: Semana Santa.

A paso begins its journey in Carmona

Easter is taken much more seriously in Spain than in the UK, with its supermarket shelves of chocolate eggs distributed by the Easter Bunny. Semana Santa (Holy Week) retains a strong religious link, with towns and cities around the country (notably in Andalucía, Toledo, Valladolid and Zamora) hosting processions of pasos (huge wood and metal platforms) topped with biblical figures, often intricately adorned and bedecked with candles. As someone who isn't remotely religious, I was never quite sure about Semana Santa: what would it mean to me?

In 2014, Caminos de Pasión invited me to experience Semana Santa in the eight Andalucian towns that make up its route: Alcalá la Real, Baena, Cabra, Carmona, Lucena, Osuna, Priego de Córdoba and Puente Genil. These small towns provided a unique insight into Semana Santa: the cultural and traditional implications; the way the festival weaves itself into the fabric of local life. Through meeting members of cofradías of all ages, both men and women, I learned that Holy Week is more than a religious ceremony. It's an event of huge cultural significance, a social opportunity, a shared experience that has the ability to unite a community, even if just for a few days.

Starting young: Nazarenas in Priego

In the Caminos de Pasión towns, it's also much more fun than I had imagined. Yes, there's pomp and ceremony; there are solemn moments such as the poignantly silent night-time processions. However, there's also a riot of colour, notably so in Baena with its red-blazered drummers in their feather-topped helmets, and noise – the characteristically Spanish soundtrack of chatter overlayed with the blast of a marching band. Add in high emotions and a high calorie count from traditional Easter dulces such as honey-soaked torrijas and pastry flores and you have a sensory feast.

Flores: A Spanish Easter treat

In this article for Flush the Fashion, I explain more about Semana Santa and its traditions, as well as the experience of visiting the Caminos de Pasión towns. Here's an extract to whet your appetite:

The heady waft of incense hits you first. Then you notice the relative hush settle over the expectant crowd. Next, it’s the distant bang of the drums and the strident notes of the brass band starting up. The guiding cross and its bearer step into view. The procession is beginning.

No matter where in Spain you find yourself during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, this will be how most processions start. A tradition observed mainly in the southern region of Andalucía and certain pockets around the country (including Valladolid and Zamora), processions during Easter week involve members of local brotherhoods carrying ornate figurines of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and sometimes other saints and biblical characters around the town’s official route. If this sounds deeply dull or irrelevant to all but the most devout, throw in crowds of hundreds (or even thousands), from newborns to the elderly; a marching band or two; rich cultural traditions, and above all some Spanish passion, and it may start to sound more inspiring. And if that doesn’t move you, maybe the night-time fiestas that often accompany Semana Santa celebrations might.

You can read the rest of the article and see more photos here.

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Thursday, 5 March 2015

February Travels: One night in Lleida, two in Utrera

I have a tendency to return to old haunts. My affection for Andalucía  sees me journeying down south more than I do up north. But it's more than just familiarity that pulls me back to places: so many Spanish cities have charmed me with a taster visit and drawn me back in for more.

Lleida by night

This may prove to be the case with Lleida, a pint-sized Catalan city I had no expectations of. Work rather than choice took me there in February, a month when the mercury often drops below zero at night and the famous cathedral is commonly shrouded in Lleida's characteristic mist. Armed with only the information that the aforementioned cathedral –  La Seu Vella – was beautiful and that Lleida smelled of cows (I'll leave you to judge on that one if you've ever visited), I rolled off the AVE and into town.

La Seu Vella, Lleida

Business trips don't often allow much time for sightseeing (funny that), but even a post-7pm arrival time and the damp chill in the air didn't put me off hitting Lleida's casco antiguo. With a population of around 140,000, Lleida (also known by its castellano name of Lérida) is pretty petite, but it's the provincial capital and one of inland Cataluña's biggest cities. The old town was easily walkable; its smart streets lined with a good selection of shops and broken up by a scattering of pretty plaças. The real highlight, even from the exterior, was La Seu Vella, one of two cathedrals in town. Perched atop a hill, La Seu Vella lords it over Lleida and is spectcularly illuminated at night. Reached either from Pla dels Gramatics (the easier way, although it is in a bit of a dodgy barrio) or via a lift from Carrer Canyet, the 'old' cathedral sits behind defensive castle walls, adding to its imposing position. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries on the site of a mosque, it's impressive from the outside, with carved doorways, windows onto the cloisters and a staggeringly high bell tower. The interior is meant to be equally beautiful, giving me a good reason to return and explore.

Outside La Seu Vella

Following a local tip, the rest of the evening was spent in city-centre Restaurant Aggio, a friendly pizzeria and braseria. Serving a range of local and regional specialities at a decent price, it's worth a visit. The decor may be a little tired but the food's decidedly fresh: a platter of seasonal grilled vegetables and octopus cut and seasoned in front of us didn't disappoint. One night in Lleida was enough to whet my appetite to return one day: a world-class cathedral, a friendly low-key atmosphere and the chance to practice una mica de català are all fine by me. I'll just return when the temperature's a bit more inviting.

From a city with a small-town feel to a little town with a big heart, my next trip was to Utrera. I mentioned last month that the tricky part of the #take12trips challenge would be visiting new places. Well, although Lleida fit the bill, Utrera decidedly didn't. Small-town Sevilla at its finest, Utrera is home to one of my best friends and this weekend break was my eighth visit there. Around half an hour from central Sevilla on the cercanías, it's a pretty little place with an Arab castle, plenty of churches, a lively central square... and an abundance of great bars. Not just of the tapas variety.

Lovely Utrera

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