Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

Seville Snapshots: Halloween in Seville

When I left work on Halloween night, belly full of candy corn and about ready to crash from the sugar, I was shocked to see zombies walking the streets in Nervión. Now, I love Halloween and cemeteries and ghost stories, but Halloween has never been a thing in Spain.

Six years ago, I suggested a Halloween party at the high school I worked at as an auxiliar de conversación. Everyone came dressed as something scary but me. I must have repeated how to carve a pumpkin 31 times during my classes.

Afterwards, I was exhsuated and had to calm down by drinking in Ireland for the weekend.

In these six years, Halloween has taken over costume shops and restaurants, schools and bars. In fact, the only people who carved pumpkins at our annual Halloween bash were two little Spanish kids, one dressed as a tiger, and the other ones as a dinosaur.

The new Taste of America store meant we had actual American goodies this year – candy corn, funfetti cupcakes wrapped in Halloween wax paper, napkins with Frankenstein on them. I was once again reminded of how odd it feels to be so American in Seville, and so sevillana in America. It’s always at this time of year that my homesickness creeps in.

On Halloween, I had to put my game face on for work (meaning a plastic cup covered in pink paper). Many of the little kids dressed up, and we made ghosts out of lollipops and spiders out of construction paper. Afterwards, a quiet drink with a friend – a far cry from my first Saiman in Spain.

How did you celebrate Halloween?

Practical Advice for Attending Spain’s Messiest Festival, la Tomatina

If I could live on one food for the rest of my days, I would choose the tomato (or maybe ice cream…just not tomato ice cream). Like Bubba Gump can eat shrimp in every which way, I’m a huge lover of the perfect fruit/vegetable/I don’t even care and easily eat them daily.

Then, say you, what happens when my friend convinces me to hop a flight to Valencia to attend the Tomatina, a tomato chucking festival and one of Spain’s most well-known fêtes?

You say tomato, I say HELL YEAH!

A Brief History of La Tomatina

Buñol, a small village just a half hour’s drive from Valencia, has been practically half-asleep for its history. In the mid 1940s, however, a group of youngsters wanting to demonstrate during the town’s festivals grabbed a bunch of tomatoes from a local frutería and began throwing them. The following year, they did the same. Since the early 1950s, the town hall has allowed revelers to chuck tomatoes (grown in Extremadura and unsuitable for eating) on the last Wednesday of August.

The Tomatina is now considered a Festival of Touristic Interest – so much so that the town decided to limit the entrances this year, allowing just 20,000 tickets to be sold to help pay for operating costs, including clean-up and security. About 5,000 of these were reserved for the residents of Buñol.

Getting to Buñol

The town of Buñol is located about 40km inland from the region’s capital of Valencia, cozied up to a mountain. Served by the regional RENFE commuter trains on the C-3 line, you can arrive to Buñol’s train station (if you can call it that) in 45 minutes. The station is located at what locals call ‘Buñol de Arriba,’ or the part of the pueblo on the hill, and there are plenty of places to buy souvenirs, leave your bag at a local’s house in exchange for a few bucks, and grab a beer or sandwich.

In the end, we decided to take a tour bus, which promised round-trip transportation and safe-keeping of our belongings. Though Kelly and I made an effort to speak the bus driver to get an idea of just how safe the bus would be in the middle of a festival of drunk guiris, we watched the bus pull out 20 minutes before the assigned return time, and we were forced to wait 90 minutes while it went to Valencia and came back for us. We had decided to take our bags with a change of clothes and snacks with us and store them at a local’s house, thankfully, or we would have been cold and stinky for hours. The organization was terrible and not worth the 35€ we paid for the entrance, transportation and luggage storage. If we did it again, we’d take the cercanías train.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to the Tomatina after this year – revelers are required to pay a 10€ entrance fee, and only 15,000 tickets are allocated for visitors. While there was outcry that the town hall of Buñol has privatized the festival without debate, I personally thought this was the best way to make the party accessible and enjoyable.

The Clothing and Gear

Rule of Thumb: everything you wear to the Tomatina will be covered in tomato gunk and stink, so be prepared to part with it once the tomato slinging is done. I threw everything away but my swimsuit!

Kelly and I made a run to Decathlon for a plain white cotton T, elastic biking shorts, a swim cap and goggles. You’ll see people in costumes, in plastic rain coats, in swimsuits and the like. We also bought disposable waterproof cameras, a small wallet for our IDs and health insurance cards and paper money, which we put into plastic bags.

I was surprised to see the number of people with GoPros. Having gotten mine for the Camino and then unpacking it for sake of weight, I wish I would have had it on me. Word on the street is that you can get relatively cheap cases for your DSLR or point-and-shoot, so consider it if you want better pictures than this:

Without fail, you should bring a change of clothes. Most townspeople near the center of the village will let you use their hoses for a minimal fee, but wearing wet clothes in damp weather won’t do you any favors. I brought a simple dress and a pair of flip-flops for the after party that rages on all afternoon, as well as a bottle of water and a sandwich. Food and drink is available in Buñol, and for cheaper than the Feria de Sevilla!

The logistics of La Tomatina

There are two parts to the city of Buñol: la de arriba (upper Buñol) and la de abajo (lower Buñol). Kelly and I got a call from our friend Gatis just as we pulled into the parking lot. Scoping out the party, we assumed we were near the entrance, so we told him we’d meet him at the gates in 10minutes, after we dropped off our bags.

Turns out, the village is a lot longer than we thought, and it took us far longer to get there!

When you sign up for the Tomatina, you’ll be given a wristband that you must show to access Plaza del Pueblo, where the action takes place. You then have to walk about 500m downhill towards the castle, passing food stands and bars, before arriving to two of four access gates. Show your wristband, but not before going to the bathroom – there is NOWHERE to pee once you’re in Buñol de Abajo.

Shortly before 11am, one of the townspeople participates in the palo de jabón. Climbing up a wooden pole slicked with soap, the trucks can officially pass through once the pueblerino has reached the top and hoisted the ham leg, which sits at the very top, over his head. Five trucks carrying tons and tons of tomatoes will pass through once a siren has been sounded. Participants understand that they cannot throw anything but tomatoes (which you should squeeze first to avoid injury), and only between the sirens signifying the beginning and end of the event, which only lasts one hour.

Those who live in the city center board up their houses and drape plastic sheets over their facades, though they’re quick to douse you with water after you’re finished. Call them campeones – they’ll hit you with water first.

The majority of the after party from what we could see is held in the part of the town uphill. There was music, beer and sausages. Had I not been so cold and smelly, it would have been my happy place.

The Experience

I can’t say that experiencing La Tomatina was ever on my Spain bucketlist (and neither is San Fermines, so don’t ask if I’ll ever go to the Running of the Bulls). But when a week with nothing to do, a cheap place ticket and an eager friend suggested going, I figured this would be my one and only chance to do so. Am I glad I did it? Most definitely, but I’m not planning on signing up for it again.

That said, it was a lot of fun. Being crunched up between total strangers, mashing tomatoes in their hair and putting it down the backs of their shirts, swimming afterwards in what was essentially an enormous pool of salmorejo, was serious fun. Belting out Spanish fight songs, squashing the fruit so as not to hurt anyone when I pelted him with it. The water fights, the after party, the townspeople who so graciously gave us their gardens and their hoses to use (Luisa, I’m looking at you, and we owe you a bottle of your beloved fino). I even found the downpour just before 11am to be hilariously good fun.

Have you ever been to the Tomatina, or are you interested in going? What’s your favorite festival in Spain – have car, will rock out – y’all know me!

Shooting My First Wedding: Andrea y Carlos

I’m a sucker for a good love story. Maybe it’s the midday hours watching Spain’s answer to Lifetime: Television for Women, but having been in a relationship for the last 5.5 years, I find myself seeing myself settle down, and for real this time.

I especially love the stories when people have overcome language barriers, visa issues, and the naysayers. When a fellow blogger married her gatidano boyfriend a few years ago, I loved his English vows, claiming that a bilingual relationship is twice as enriching, twice as fun. I wholeheartedly agree. How great is making Thanksgiving for your extended family or teaching one another idioms and swear words?

I’m just one of many who have fallen in love abroad and who fumbled in Spanish for love, so when my friend Andrea called me and asked if I’d be interested in photographing her wedding to her sevillano, Carlos, I jumped at the opportunity. Being another guiri-sevillano couple it was a pleasure to help them capture their special day that was full of laughs and a ton of love. Like the Novio’s family, Carlos’s relatives have really embraced Andi and their bilingual love.

I spent hours researching shots, looking for interesting places around Triana and Plaza de España to take pictures of the pair, and testing lighting in the venue. When I turned in the pen drive with 5.8GB of photos, video and touched up shots, Andrea and Carlos told me that they would be delighted if I shared them. Shooting a couple that was in love and looking forward to their new life in Maine was such a pleasure, and I was flattered that they asked me and Camarón to join in.

I had loads of fun shooting Andrea and Carlos’s wedding, from Andi’s hair appointment into the wee hours of the morning. If you’re looking for someone to shoot special events, get in contact with me at sunshineandsiestas[at]gmail.com

Tapa Thursdays: Caracoles

Spain is a country in which some foods are seasonal: pumpkins are ripest around Autumn, chestnuts are peddled on the street at Christmastime and strawberries show up on the market in February or March.

Then the signs start showing up: HAY CARACOLES. Snails here.

For someone who’s a texture freak when it comes to food, I slurped down my first little tentacled creature during my first Spring in Seville. And I wanted more. Like shrimp, I’ve learned to love them and giddily wait for la temporada de caracoles.

What it is: This little bugger, a common snail in English, has been eaten since the Bronze Age, and in Spain they’re prepared by cleaning the mollusk while it’s still alive, and boiling them over low heat with garlic, spices, salt and cayenne pepper for nearly two hours. You can get a tapa for around 1,80€, a plate for 5€ or even buy bags of live snails on the street near market and make them at home.

Where it comes from: Snails are eaten all over the place, but the caracoles that you’ll commonly find in Seville are found near the Atlantic coast and in Morocco.

Goes great with: Alright, it’s getting trite now…everything just tastes better with beer. The Novio and I often meet after work for a beer or two and a tapa of caracoles.

Where to find them: Bars all over Seville (as well as Córdoba) will serve up tapas of caracoles during the springtime. My picks are Casa Diego in Triana (Calle Esperanza de Triana, 19. Closed Sundays) and Cervecería La Tiza in Los Bermejales (Avda. de Alemania, s/n. Open daily).

Like caracoles? Have a Spanish food you’d like to see featured on my bi-weekly tapas feature? If you’re interested in learning more about mollusks, read more on my guest post on Spanish Sabores.

Jaded Expat: Four (and a half) Things I Dislike About Living in Seville

Truth be told, Seville was never on my list of places to study, let alone live. My plans included free tapas along Calle Elvira, views of the Alhambra from my window and weekend ski trips to the Sierra Nevada. But the Spanish government had other plans for me, sending me to work as a Language and Culture Assistant in the town of Olivares, 10 miles west of the capital of Andalusia.

In retrospect, it was a disappointment that initially had me thinking twice about my decision, then became perhaps the best choice I’ve ever made. Indeed, it has worked out in wonderful ways: learning Spanish to impress my new Latin amante and take on pesky bank tellers, finding a career choice that I enjoy and leaves me time to blog, facing my fears of living without my family to run to.

aaaand I shall call this photo “Spain, you wack sometimes.”

But my vida in Seville is more than sunshine and siestas, tapas and trips to the beach. My life is Spain is still life: I have a job that requires my presence, bills to pay, and enough headaches with bureacrazy to make someone’s head spin. Just like anywhere else on earth, I have irksome moments. As much as I love living in Seville, there are elements that make me roll my eyes and utter an Hay que ver (alright, ME CAGO EN LA MAAAAA) under my breath.

The Weather

When I initially moved to Spain, I toyed with the idea of returning to Valladolid. The promise of living with my host family in exchange for English classes seemed too good to pass up, and I have a soft spot for Vdoid and all of its castellano goodness. Then I remembered that I was there during a drought, a far cry from the stories I’d heard of the city of Cervantes turning into a tundra during the winter and early spring months.

Vámanooooh pal South!

While Andalusian winters are much more mild than their Castillian counterparts, the summers are also unbearable. Come May, the city turns into a hide-and-seek from the sun game. temperatures spike from a blamy 22° Celcius to 35° in a matter of days, which also means that I can’t sleep at night, I take multiple showers a day and gazpacho becomes the basis of my diet. Air conditioning is non-existent on buses, whereas the Corte Inglés department store is an enormous ice cube that, upon spitting you out and onto the hot pavement in Plaza del Duque, gives you an automatic cold. Just like in Goldilocks, the weather is either too hot or too cold, and rarely just right.

The Transportation

Seville is a sprawling metropolis, at least by Spanish standards. While one can get across the city in about 30 minutes by bike, traffic and frequent bus stops make it an absolute pain to moverse in public transportation. While I usually take my bike or my own two feet everywhere, there are rainy mornings or extremely hot afternoons where I have little choice but to swipe my transportation card.

Seville has oodles of bus lines and a new app that lets you see waiting times and investigate routes as well as one metro line and one light rail. If you’re in the center, you’re well-connected. If you live a bit further away, like me, your options are much more limited, and I often have to pay for a transbordo, or transfer, to be able to get to places like the gym or the Alameda. I’ve since opted to pay for a Sevici pass, which is a city-wide bike share, paying 25€ yearly instead of the 1,40€ charges by bus or metro. Still, the big bikes are clumsy and not always maintained, and acts of vandalism are rampant. There are days where actually moving around the city seem like such a big ordeal that I prefer staying at home.

The Bureaucracy

Ah, yes. The pain of my expat existence. Nothing is ever easy for a little guiri from America, from registering for a foreign ID card to even picking up my mail; it seems that Spain keeps coming up with ways to drain my wallet and make me spend my mornings waiting in line, testing my patience and willingness to be in a relationship with Spain. Is there any doubt as to why my fingers unintentionally write bureaucrazy?

Case in point: my recent tryst with getting a driver’s license. I learned to drive in 2001, and since then have not a parking fine to my name in America. When I rented a car with some friends to drive to La Rioja, the GPS guided us right into a roadside check and a 100€ fine. My suegra proclaimed that getting a driving license was absolutely necessary, and that she would even float the bill (Mujer is a saint, de verdad). Still, I spent two whole weekends in a driving course, had to deal with both my first and middle name being wrong on the theory exam, and am forced to learn to drive stick shift. Turns out, non-EU residents who have lived in the Eurozone for two years or more and required to take both the theory and practical exams. I swear, it never ends. Ever.

Then, or course, there’s the post office: I live not 200 meters from a post office and another 800 meters from another. Still, I was assigned to an oficina de correos that takes me 20 minutes to walk to, and inquiries into how to switch have been met with head shakes and shoulder shrugs. Worse still, any non-certified mail not claimed within 15 days of the original delivery date is returned to sender. I’ve lots checks, books and information packs because of this rule, in many cases can’t be avoided because of my time out of  the country during the summer and Christmas.

The enchufe starts early. This kid will probably be the amo of all of his friends when he gets beer here at age 16.

As an off-shoot, there’s the concept of enchufe, too. An enchufe is an outlet (like where you’d plug your computer in), and it refers to the business deals and underhand deals. Iñaki Undangarín, much? This concept has been both a benefit and a curse to me, giving me jobs and taking me out of the running for others, allowing me to have a great time at Feria (or not). Like in America at times, it’s all about who you know.

The Social Circles

The saying goes that sevillanos are the first to invite you to their house, but then never tell you where they leave. In my experience, making friends with sevillanos, particularly females, is quite difficult. I’ve thankfully got a great group of American female friends, but I’ve found that breaking into social circles in Seville is tough. The Novio has been close with his best friend since they were six – o sea, my whole lifetime. I have many friendships that are still close and have grown even as I moved away and they got married, but I have many more non-Spanish friends than Spanish ones. Plus, a majority of them have come from the Novio and not my own cultivation.

Another pitfall to moving abroad is the inevitable goodbyes when someone moves away – even the Spaniards! When my friends Juani and Raquel moved to Chile a few months back, it was like losing our social coordinators and my little sister at the same time. I remember the dozens of friends I’ve made here who have since moved on or moved back to their home cultures and often wish that they could have stayed. My group of friends often ebbs and flows as the years pass by.

My guiri girlfriends

What’s funny is that many of these gripes would be the same if I were living in Chicago – the bitter cold winters and heaps of snow, the expensive CTA system and highways choked with cars during peak times, and the hoops that would no doubt need to be jumped through if I moved back. It’s the kind of thing that I seem to warn bright-eyed guiris about when they first come to live or study in Seville: they’re often fascinated that I’ve been able to make a life here after so much time, but it’s not like study abroad. I’ve experienced grief and loss, heartache and even strep throat, found out I’m allergic to OLIVE BLOSSOMS in one of the world’s foremost producers of olive oil and had many tearful goodbyes.

My friend Kelly, a wise-cracking Chicagoan-turned-sevillana puts it well: if these things happened to us back in Chicago, we wouldn’t bat an eye. Not break ups or headaches would have us on the first plane back to what we know. Life is life here. It’s just Spain being Spain.

Besides, where else is it socially acceptable to drink sherry at noon, stay out until 4am on a school night, have crushes on Gerard Pique despite an extreme dislike for FC Barcelona and use Spanglish as your tongue-of-choice?

Do you have any headaches where you live, or any stories to tell about what you don’t like about your city?

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