Las Fallas in Valencia — a once-in-a-lifetime experience…

Believe me, we had NO idea what we were in store for!

When we booked our apartment in Valencia, Spain for the month of March, I was told that we were lucky — we would be there during Las Fallas, a celebration that happened every year at the same time. I did a little research and was looking forward to witnessing a rich cultural tradition wrapped up in an incredible amount of noise and colour and excitement.

But it was one thing to read about it — and another thing entirely to be there while it was happening. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it all — the parades, the music, the colourful traditional clothing, the throngs of people in the streets, the street parties, the special food and drink, the amazing papier-mache monuments that magically appeared on street corners and in squares all over the city, the gorgeous, elaborate, moving light displays that rose up over the streets.

Yes, I enjoyed it all — EXCEPT for the firecrackers that went off incessantly — at all times of the day, starting in early March and increasing until March 19, the end of the celebration.

I didn’t mind the mascletà, the fireworks display that took place at 2:00 pm every day in the main city square, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This is a display of gunpowder explosions that beats out a unique sound.

The mascletà was noisy, but at least it was predictable. I knew when it was going to happen, so I could manage to be far enough away — preferably in a nice sidewalk cafe eating something delicious — so that the noise wouldn’t startle me.

It was the firecrackers that I wasn’t too fond of. They were totally unpredictable.

As the middle of March drew closer, the frequency with which people throughout the city set off firecrackers increased to any time and anywhere. These sharp cracking sounds often startled me and made me jump. Bob seemed to find this very amusing. “I’m sensitive,” I would say, over and over.

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This was not a posed picture, it was street photography, Fallas style.

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More images caught by chance. A common scene as kids all over the city of all ages — in traditional dress and not — had the time of their lives setting off firecrackers in the streets.

But really, the rest of Las Fallas was fascinating and delightful. It’s astounding to watch as an entire city gets wrapped up in a frenzy of sorts, and as tens of thousands of tourists from all over Spain and other countries converge on Valencia.

I can’t tell you how many times we would be sitting at a cafe having tapas and imbibing a beverage or two and a small marching band would come down the narrow street with  trumpets and trombones blaring.

Yes, it’s an excuse for a big party, but it’s much more. What I loved was that it celebrated all aspects of Valencian cultural traditions. You can see every expression of the Valencian identity (music, costumes, rituals). You could not go anywhere for several weeks without seeing girls and boys (falleras and falleros) dressed in 17th and 18th century traditional costumes walking through the streets. And they were usually quite proud and happy to pose for pictures.

So what exactly is Las Fallas? The term actually refers to three things — the celebration itself, the enormous paper-mache monuments in the shape of cartoonish people and things that were often as tall as buildings, and the Fallas community of neighbours that are the moving forces behind the whole festival.

Las Fallas originated from an ancient ritual of spring in which villages put all of the scrap wood and broken furniture from the previous winter into the streets and set it on fire. In a way, it signified getting rid of the old for a new beginning, a kind of purging. The large falla statues have many ninots (smaller figures) attached to them and the whole thing is a feat of engineering. They are constructed in a precise way, so that when they burn they collapse safely. The monuments and ninots generally satirize culture and society, and the themes range from current affairs to local traditions. Yes, Donald Trump was represented.

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This was one of the most popular fallas which was located in the Ruzafa area of Valencia. We saw it the night of la planta as it was being finished. You can see the scale of it compared with the people admiring it.

Before the festivities, we went to see the Exposició de Ninots at the Museum of Science where we could look at the ninots up close. We voted with everybody else (for a small fee) for our favourites, and the winning ones will be saved for next year.  The rest are burned on the night of the cremà.

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A familiar fellow — my size — seen at the Exposició de Ninots. The craftsmanship of the ninots is remarkable.

We met a wonderful Valencian woman named Vicky who told us about Las Fallas from her perspective. Most neighbourhoods have a Fallas club, which spends a whole year raising money and holding parties in order to hire an artist to design and construct a large and exuberant statue that would be the focal point of the celebration for them.

She was part of such a club in the beach area of the city and she was getting more and more excited as the main days of the festivities grew closer. She advised us which areas of the city had the best Fallas and lighting displays. Vicky told us that Las Fallas was run totally by Valencians, it was not government-supported in any way. There is a competitive element too. There are competitions among everyone for the best everything — costumes, fireworks, statues, ninots, lighting displays, you name it. Las Fallas serves as a focus for neighbourhood communities, which strengthens them and keeps them active and cohesive throughout the year.

 

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Ruzafa is known as the area with some of the best lighting displays as well as Fallas so that is where we headed on the night of the planta. I wasn’t sure what time they would be lit so I was in place with my monopod about an hour too early. But it was fun to people-watch. Despite the large numbers, everyone was respectful and in a good mood, and there were no problems whatsoever.

 

As a festival for all the senses, Las Fallas culminate with the cremà, or burning of all the monuments, on March 19, which is St. Joseph’s Day and Father’s Day in Spain. This fire ritual consumes a whole year of work — a whole year of dreams.

At 10:00 pm the children’s fallas are set to the torch, amid music and fireworks. At midnight, Valencia astonishes the entire world each year by burning its street monuments to ashes, ending with the biggest fallas whose budgets are in the range of many thousands of euros.

We decided to avoid the huge crowds downtown and took part in the cremà in our local neighbourhood. The small fires there were big enough for me! I was gobsmacked to see the tiniest of children learning how to set off firecrackers. But Vicky told us that the parents teach them young how to handle them safely. After the children’s falla had burned down, the children held hands and dance in a circle around the embers to traditional music. Oh yes, there are firefighters and hoses present at every burning to make sure nothing goes awry.

The question everyone asks is why burn statues that cost so much to make in time, energy and money?

As one blog put it: “This is simply yet another traditional quirk of the Valencians, channelling their craftsmanship into an event of international status; people who are in love with aesthetics, beauty, fireworks and music; people who outdo the ancient Greeks and Romans in pageantry; people who see the ironic side of life through their ninots yet allow the flames to consume them in a homage to spring.”

I liken it to the intricate and beautiful sand mandalas that Buddhist monks work on painstakingly for long periods of time only to destroy them in the end, revealing that everything is impermanent.

The day after the burning Valencians wake up to a new morning and are already starting to think about the fallas they will build the next spring. It’s spring renewal unlike any I’ve ever seen.

 

 

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Balcony love…

Valencia in the spring was full of wonders. There were just so many visual delights and so much that I wanted to preserve with my camera.

Now that I’m back from my Spanish odyssey, and as I go through my images, I notice a preoccupation with certain subjects — balconies being one of them.

It seems I was always looking up to appreciate elegant and intricate balcony design, which also has a very functional use.

The hot and sunny Mediterranean climate is perfectly suited to balconies from where residents can enjoy their own outdoor space, or simply watch the world go by on bustling streets below.

I’m drawn to the symmetry and repetition of multiple similar balconies, as well as the opportunities they provide for individual self-expression.

Here are just a few examples.

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blue and green balconies

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The Thalia Theatre

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The colours of Valencia…

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Valencia! Or Valenthia, as it is pronounced here…What a lovely place to spend some time in the spring. Oranges, paella, tapas, Agua de Valencia (a local cocktail), horchata (a milky drink made of tiger nuts), Las Fallas (an annual cultural celebration in March) and warm climate are all immensely appealing to me, as is the history, culture, architecture and Mediterranean coastline. And that’s just for starters.

I’ll be doing a series of posts on Valencia as I explore the area with my camera. But since I just got here, let me start with a short post on what first grabbed me — the colour! So here’s some of my first impressions of this fascinating city, the third largest in Spain.

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The inspiring story of the Angel Oak…

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A six-image panorama of the Angel Oak, one of the oldest trees east of the Mississippi.

Being in the presence of a huge live oak tree that may be older than half a millennium and has survived hurricanes and floods is awe-inspiring enough, but even more so is the story of the determined young woman who set out to save the tree from destruction.

When I was looking at images of Charleston, South Carolina recently, I ran across pictures of an amazing old tree called the Angel Oak, which captivated me. It looks like something out of a beautifully illustrated children’s fable.

I discovered that it wasn’t too far from the B and B we were booked to stay at. I really wanted to see this unique tree and pay homage to its fortitude. I thought I’d like to try a panorama shot of the tree.

But once I dug a little deeper and found out the whole story behind it, I was even more eager to make the visit.

man and tree for scale

The Angel Oak Tree stands 66.5 ft (20 m) tall, measures 28 ft (8.5 m) in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet (1,600 m2). There is considerable debate about the age of the Angel Oak. Some contend that it is more than 1,000 years old. Most believe that it’s probably more like 400 to 500 years. BUT STILL!

Live oaks stay green all year round and never appear to be without life, not something we see in our part of Canada. It has been said that “the Angel Oak’s branches look like they have slowly moved heaven and earth. Some are as long as a blue whale and as thick as a hippopotamus.”

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Siegel: “When you’re standing at the base of the tree, you see the world through the eyes of a child again. You understand how connected the world is.”

Not only is this the story of a tree that wouldn’t give up, it’s the story of a young woman named Samantha Siegel, who also refused to give up.

Samantha had loved the tree all her young life — and had even written a novel featuring it. Angels Living in Trees: A Brief History on Roots tells the stories of the women who have lived around the tree over the centuries, from a Native American to a slave, to Martha Angel (the tree’s namesake) to a modern day woman, Sophie. Siegel wrote the book in the shade of the Angel Oak’s branches over three months in 2007.

When she found out in 2008 that the land around was slated for development she feared for the tree and determined to mount a campaign to stop it. Initially it was a one-woman campaign because although  many signed her petition, nobody thought there was even a slight chance she could actually change anything.

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She was quoted as saying: “Every city employee, every government employee, said, ‘It’s a done deal. There’s nothing you can do,’ and looked at me like, ‘You poor, little, young, idealistic girl. You’re not going to make a difference,'” says Siegel.

It was a long, hard, complicated battle. Samantha and her supporters spent huge swaths of time doing meticulous research, gathering supporters, and constructing road signs to oppose the development. They set up a web site and organized public meetings.

In the end, Samantha instigated enough public awareness and support that adequate funds were raised to purchase the land immediately around the tree and a parcel beyond that. Development was stopped.

Samantha says that she “went from a stagnant dreamer to a full-blown activist in a matter of days. Sometimes it takes something like this to wake you up.”

Here’s a short video of the tree and a remarkable young woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Thank you, Samantha. Such an inspiring story to start the New Year.

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Another view of the Angel Oak

 

 

 

 

 

It needs repeating over and over…

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This is a poem for someone who is juggling her life.

Be still sometimes. Be still sometimes.

It needs repeating over and over to catch her attention over and over because someone juggling her life finds it difficult to hear.

Be still sometimes. Be still sometimes.

Let it all fall sometimes.

 

Rose Cook

Houseboats on the bay…

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As someone who lives on a boat part of the year and loves it, it’s probably not that surprising that I’ve always been fascinated by houseboats — and would love to spend some time in one.

This summer our trip to the Northwest Territories to see family meant that we flew in and out of Yellowknife, which is 250 miles from the Arctic Circle.

This gave us a chance to see a unique community of houseboats in Yellowknife Bay, right near Old Town — Yellowknife’s original centre.

Old Town was founded in the 1930’s when gold was discovered in the area, and is situated on the shore of Great Slave Lake, a body of fresh water the size of Ireland.

I took this photo from the top of “the Rock”, a six-story rock hill in the centre of Old Town.

The image shows part of a community of houseboats that float between Old Town and nearby islands. It is made up of some 40 fully framed houses mounted on floating, anchored barges. Some are simple, one-story cabins. Others are elaborate, two-storey bungalows. I love the bright colours many are painted.

Who lives here? A mix of artists, professionals and government employees who largely work in town.

As the homes are offshore, they are not legally part of the municipality of Yellowknife so their owners don’t pay municipal taxes. But they also don’t receive services such as electricity, gas and garbage collection. Households are run on a combination of solar electricity, propane, diesel generators and wood stoves, and must deal with their own waste disposal.

In winter, they contend with extreme temperatures. Great Slave Lake is frozen six to seven months of the year. In winter, the boats remain frozen in place by ice one-to-two-metres thick. Without central gas heating, these homes can get nippy.

Some of the owners operate Bed and Breakfasts from their houseboats, giving visitors to the North the opportunity for a unique living experience.

I was curious to find out more about what these houseboats are like inside. If you are too, have a look at this short video. The video features the houseboat that is second from the top left in this image.

Having seen this I still love the idea of staying in one of these — in the summer. I think I will pass on the winter stay.

McAvoy Rock, Yellowknife

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Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Walking through Old Town in Yellowknife, you can’t help but be stopped by this striking large-scale public art painted on a very large rock face.

This is McAvoy Rock and the art and sculpture are part of a cross-cultural project initiated by the Federation Franco-Tenoise.

The project began in 1999 with the creation of a marble sculpture by Yellowknife artist Sonny MacDonald, Dene carver John Sabourin, Eli Nasogaluak from Tuktoyaktuk and  Armand Vaillancourt from Montreal.

This marble sculpture is on permanent exhibit in the Great Hall of the Legislative Assembly. A bronze copy of the sculpture is pictured here at the foot of McAvoy Rock.

The first phase also saw the creation of 1,500 multi-coloured symbols painted directly onto the facade of the rock and the installation of a teepee at the summit.

It symbolizes hope for better understanding and cooperation between different peoples. Something there can never be too much of…