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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blanket Trip to Guadalest

This past Thursday I took the day off for a "blanket trip" to Guadalest. These blanket trips are not like the fabled blanket parties of my youth. They are free bus trips, sponsored by a blanket manufacturer, to various tourist attractions. All you have to do is promise to sit through a half-hour demonstration of the company's premium merino wool bedding products. The company provides coffee and a muffin as an inducement. Since the demo runs a little over the half hour, they add a mild liqueur at the close of the demo.

We were picked up at a nearby bus stop at 9:15 and had very comfortable seats in an air-conditioned coach for the one-hour trip north to Benidorm and then inland to our destinations. Informative English commentary along the way pointed out sites and gave us history of the area that was new to us. We got the blanket excursion out of the way in the morning and then had two and a half hours in the beautiful mountain village of Guadalest in the afternoon.

Our first stop in the village was at a Spanish bar for tapas of albondigas (meatballs) and tortilla, washed down with a small glass of vino tinto. Fortified, we wandered on the stone-paved walkways toward the castle perched at the top of a granite mountain. On the way, we passed by an incredible number of museums, shops, and more restaurants, but we couldn't resist a tiny open-air museum. It was the Magic Garden of the Museum of Ribera Girona, outdoor home to sculptures of over 150 animals and insects, all hidden among the lush vegetation. I could have spent the entire afternoon there and still not found all 150 species.

On we went again up the stone walkway toward the Peñon de la Alcalá tower, and then we found a beautiful surprise--the lake of Guadalest. I knew there had to be some water. I learned a long time ago that guad means "water" in Arabic, and al is the definite article "the." Este is "east" in Spanish. Guadalest has existed since Moorish times, so I believe the name of the town means "water to the east." This is not what our guide told us, but I think she was wrong. This is my fantasy and I'm sticking to it.

And it will be a long time before I forget the luminescent turquoise blue-green of the clear water far below the ancient town wall of Guadalest. It could be the most beautiful lake I have ever seen, but it's not really a lake--it's a reservoir. Formed when the Guadalest River was dammed from 1953-1964, the reservoir  provides water to several surrounding towns, including the huge tourist center of Benidorm. I now realize that one can drive or even hike around the reservoir, so I have Guadalest on my agenda for another trip in the future, this one not dependent on the good graces of the blanket company.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An Eventful Trip Home

I've been out of Spain for several weeks, off to Washington, DC to participate in the annual conference of the American Library Association, and then on to Cincinnati for family visits and taking care of the many little things necessary to maintaining a bit of my life in the U.S. while I live in Spain: banking, driver's license, IRS, retirement funds, and renewing my acquaintance with American television, culture, politics, and shopping.

Since I had flown directly to DC for the conference (directly, that is, from Alicante to Madrid to JFK to National/Reagan airport), I was going to reverse that itinerary going back. We drove from Cincinnati to Washington in ten hours on Wednesday, through some beautiful countryside over the top of Maryland, and spent the night pleasantly visiting with more family in Silver Spring. Thursday noon we set off for Reagan National Airport to drop me off, while the others continued on for an excursion to the Spy Museum.

I was glad that I had observed the "three hours in advance" arrival time for international flights, even though the first leg of my journey was only a short hop to JFK in New York. When I entered the terminal, there were lines snaking around the entire floor at American Airlines. Not a square foot was vacant, and I couldn't even see where I was supposed to check in. But the person in front of me assured me that I was in the line to check in for American. Although I had confirmed all three flights the previous day and had seat assignments, I had been unable to print boarding passes due to the complications of my itinerary, with its cooperating airlines but non-cooperating websites.

Terminals B and C at Reagan were experiencing a power outage--the third such outage this year, I learned much later after I was home. What happens when an air terminal doesn't have power? Not much of anything except the accumulation of long lines of people and baggage. The automatic boarding pass kiosks don't work; desk attendants cannot check you in; baggage tickets cannot be printed; baggage can´t be scanned; you can't go through security machines; and even many shops and restaurants are closed. The public address system did seem to work and so, thank goodness, did some air conditioning. Numerous times the PA system carried an announcement about the temporary nature of this disruption and "thanks for your continued cooperation." Numerous times human attendants came through the line and called the few flights that were getting out--I don't know how. They also advised people that they could check in on their cell phones--not laptops, but cell phones. Several people around me took advantage of this ability, but clearly they were not the ones who were embarking on transcontinental journeys  and who had baggage to check.

Surprisingly it took only an hour and a half for me to reach the front of my lines and get checked in. I left my two bags with a prayer in a tremendously backed-up pile in front of the baggage scanning station, and proceeded downstairs to the security gate. I held out my hand when an official asked if anyone was willing to carry a piece of paper to the beginning of the line--the paper was time-stamped and they were checking to see how long it would take to get through security.

Forty-five minutes later I had made it through the security scan and handed the paper to the TSA official. He was shocked at the time required to get through, but I wasn't. And even though I had just begun to realize that it was getting uncomfortably close to my boarding time, I didn't need to worry or hurry. Several flights were backed up, and mine was delayed an hour. But even with the delay I still had two hours in JFK to find my way between terminals and buy books at the Hudson Booksellers that seem to have sprung up in many airports with their buy-three-books-and-get-a-carryall-bag to tempt my carry-on limits.

The flight from New York to Madrid, now on Iberia, was accompanied by a very unhappy crying baby and no audio in the row in which I was seated. These problems did not seem serious, however,  after the call for a doctor on board, which came just a few minutes before we were ready to land in Madrid. Though sympathetic, I was relieved that the aid was rushed to the back of the plane rather than the cockpit. Again, our departure from the plane was delayed while the ill person was ushered out, but I still had plenty of time to find my way through the immense Barrajas terminal 4--especially since my flight to Alicante was delayed due to "intense air traffic."

It was only delayed an hour, and in less than 45 minutes we were ready to land in Alicante. But Alicante was not ready for us, it appeared. The pilot came on the PA system to tell us that "intense air traffic" required that we fly another 15 minutes before landing. Then he courteously informed us that we had enough fuel to fly for 25 minutes.

Twenty-five minutes later, or maybe it was a half hour, we were down, thank goodness, and I had finished my last plane trip for awhile. Miraculously, when I got to the customs-controlled baggage return, so had both my suitcases. When I opened them later at home, the usual greetings from the TSA were nowhere in evidence. What with the limited electricity and all the disruption at Reagan the day before, I guess they had been too busy to inspect the contents. Somehow I was sad that no one had had the chance to sift through my eclectic collection of new clothing, over-the-counter drugs, books, clever conference freebies, and USA-only food items that I had carefully assembled until the next time.


I hadn't been back in Spain for 24 hours before I was off to a fiesta--Gastronomic Day in Benijofar. Our friends in this neighboring town had advised us that this annual festival was a tribute to the international character of their community. Cooks of all nationalities were invited to contribute a dish special to their national cuisine.

The first specialty I heard about was that someone had baked 500 pieces of shortbread. Then I saw hundreds of gorgeous English trifles, cleverly served in clear plastic shot glasses with tiny spoons. There were also quiches, Indian chicken, spicy tomato relish, Spanish meatballs (albondigas), bread slices with the terrific serrano ham (pan con jamon serrano), various tartlets, pasties, and crepes laced with chocolate. Each of the volunteer cooks, adorned in made-for-the-occasion Jornadas Gastronomicas aprons, stood behind their creation, which was identified by name, and served. It was hard to say "no, gracias." There were more selections, but I only got through half of the line before my plate was full.

As if all this were not enough, the real star of the fiesta was the gigantic paella made by the Riquelme family, who have been making paellas for public celebrations since 1986. I saw the start of this open-air cooking feat before we went to quench our thirst with a beer, listen to the Torrevieja Pipe and Drum Band, and stand in line for the opening of the buffet. Men were pushing chicken pieces around the giant paella pan, which was swimming in olive oil. The pan must have been at least a yard and a half in diameter. No sooner was I wondering how much rice would be needed to fill that pan than the men had lined up the bags on a table: sixteen bags, each weighing five kilos. That equals 80 kilos, or about 175 pounds of rice! As Riquelme paellas go, however, this was a relatively small one--their website says they make paellas for from 300 to 5,000 people.

It was all good. The sun was shining and there was a breeze. Both English and Spanish were heard in abundance. A Spanish woman immediately in front of us in line told us to go and save a table in advance. Clearly the trick is to station some people at the table, while others go through the food line. We saw some carrying eight plates of paella at once back to their table--on a collapsed wooden folding chair! We ate and drank, and some went back in line a second time. Then we watched children playing around the long tables that had been set up in the municipal soccer stadium (some future world champions in practice) and finally, helping to clear the tables. Three hours later we returned home, more than full, and I did not have to make dinner that night after all.