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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


French Toast, Spanish style… and a bit about Semana Santa

This is the first time I’ve been at ‘home’, alone, in Spain over the Easter break. I decided to forgo such an excellent opportunity to travel, in order to be able to:
– Do a big, scary, expensive and unnecessary Spanish exam (tick! fingers crossed!).
– Get on top of work and clean my flat before I go to Poland the week after the holidays, and my parents come to visit the week after that (!!!).
– Organise life/update CV/de-frag dying laptop.
– Save money.
– Catch up on a backlog of Skype catch ups. It seems like everyone in Australia is getting married and eating hot cross buns without me.
– Make some headway on book 2 of Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones), which, as much as I’m loving it and it’s great for my medieval Spanish vocabulary, is looking to take the longest of any book I’ve ever read (possibly longer than 1Q84 and Les Miserables combined).

I must say, being able to get stuck into these projects has been a luxury. There’s something to be said for a bit of time at home, when most of your friends are away (or live on the other side of the world), and you have no choice but to do all those niggly domestic tasks that have been building up for what seems like years. Hem pants, clean the little wheels under the microwave tray, and reply to near forgotten emails – all excellent reasons to not go to Ireland (which was the potential trip I had in mind for the Easter holidays before I realised it just wasn’t going to work).

capuchines de la parroquia de Jesús Cristo de Los GasconesExperiencing Semana Santa, Spanish holy week, was not a motivation for staying here. For some reason, watching bleeding Jesus and weeping Mary statues being paraded through the streets by grieving processions of people dressed in mourning, off-key brass bands, Klu Klux Klan figures, and overpowering incense…is something that just doesn’t attract me. I’ve been hearing the bands rehearsing for weeks, and seen the footage on the news, and for me that’s more than enough. I’ve no desire to go out of my way to attend a procession, and have graciously declined a few invitations to do so. I’m well aware that each statue is different and special, that some are hundreds of years old, some weigh a tonne and are carried cross country, or across rivers, or sometimes along cobblestone streets by bearers on their knees. It is all very specialised and painful stuff. The hermandades and cofradías (parish brotherhoods and guilds) spend months in preparation for the big week. They open temporary bars with names like Misericordia (not misery, mercy) to raise money for the church, and drink to their favourite Saint, Jesus or Virgin. They decorate the walls with posters of previous years’ processions, usually with close ups of Jesus’ bloody wounds and Mary’s tear stained face. Some years, it rains, and this means the pasos (statues) can’t leave the churches, which tends to produce even more waterworks. Apparently the main drawcard of Semana Santa is the sombreness of the atmosphere, as the people re-live Christ’s suffering.

But for some reason, this depressing, self-flagellating, Spanish brand of Catholicism is completely beyond me.

I’m not sure why I feel so estranged by it, but I do. Even more so than by more foreign religions. Perhaps this is the problem. Here, the religion just isn’t exotic enough. It fails to attract me on an aesthetic level (Spanish church interiors are particularly gaudy), and because it’s similar to what I’ve grown up with (it’s just an extreme version), there’s no mystery to lure me in. I know that this is wrong, that it should really be about faith (not aesthetics), but unfortunately I’m a little weak in that department.  So in Spain, all I see is a bizarre mix of unquestioning devotion, robotic obedience, complete indifference, and really tacky statues. Every now and then it occurs to me that I might be missing out on something, that to have a strong faith is probably a beautiful and comforting thing. But the truth is, I prefer not to hang my hopes on the benevolence of any specific deity, and I think “do unto others” is a reasonable, good, and straighforward code to endeavour to live by.

For me, the best thing about organised religion is that it brings family and friends together, and provides an excuse for a feast or a party. As simple as that. In my twisted, morally depraved perspective, religion is synonymous with tradition, tradition with culture, and culture with food. Nice, traditional, home cooked food. So holy wars, discrimination, and antiquated thinking aside, if religion is just an excuse for good food and a party, it can only be a good thing. Or is it?

A couple of years ago I went to a Romería, a celebration in the countryside in honour of La Virgin de la Antigua, one of the patron saints of the small Cordovan village where I was living at the time. Sure, it was a fun weekend (camping and dancing with about 6,000 people) but I couldn’t help but think, I wonder what the Virgin would have thought of the party in her name. Of the tacky carnival rides, the fairy floss stalls, the live football telecast on the big screen, the scantily dressed cover band, the excessive quantities of alcohol and the deafeningly loud music. Or of the perfect opportunity her party provided for all the teeny boppers to sneak away from their family’s tents, get drunk, and do naughty things in bushes. I’ve nothing against alcohol, or teenagers having fun in bushes, but it seemed very sacrilegious for it all to be happening in honour of a virgin.

La Virgin de La AntiguaThe week after the Romería, I was correcting homework for an after school class I had with some of the more ‘troubled’ (read: very very naughty) teenagers in the village. Unsurprisingly, most of them had written about the party. But I was more than a little shocked to read “I love La Virgin de la Antigua because she is beautiful and holy and kind”, over and over, the same sentence, echoed in almost every assignment. For once, I really hoped the students were copying each other.

So, my attitude to religion, and parties, and religious parties in Spain, is more than a little conflicted. The big parties get too debauched. I can’t stand the hypocrisy. The apparent brainwashing frightens me. And most of all, Semana Santa is just so depressing. However, at least it’s good to see Easter being celebrated for what Easter is about (I thankfully haven’t seen a chocolate bunny since I got here). Religion is such a big part of culture and identity. It would be really sad if it began to die out and the people stopped practising their traditions.

Sometimes I wonder, considering that I’m an outsider in the community, and I’m not religious, what’s the point of even thinking about all this?

I don’t know. It’s interesting. And it’s impossible not to have opinions and feelings. I’m curious about the various levels of devotion and participation that are exhibited in the processions. It makes me reflect on my own background and attitude to religion. I was raised a Catholic, consider myself agnostic, avidly dislike commercialism, and absolutely love Christmas. I think it’s a beautiful custom, so long as I don’t think to hard about what it means, or is supposed to mean, or whether or not I have the right to enjoy it if I don’t agree a lot of stuff the Church says/does/has done in the past.

So anyway. It’s happened again. This post was supposed to be a quick one, just a few photos, some interesting cultural tidbits, and ya.

You see, I’m a little tired, possibly even delirious. This morning I went for a run, a really long one, even longer than the half marathon I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. And as I was on the final stretch, I saw a big group of red and black capuchines (hooded Semana Santa figures) congregated in the street outside my flat. They cut pretty striking figures, and it occurred to me that whether I’m into it or not, this was no everyday sight, and it would be stupid to miss a procession that was literally on my doorstep. The show was starting, so I bolted upstairs (very melodramatically, with what little strength I had left), grabbed my camera (and a swig of water) and ran back into the street. I managed to get a couple of photos, but the group had moved on. And I wasn’t about to join in the procession in my shaky, unwashed, salt-caked state.

After stretching and showering, I was just sitting down to eat, when I heard the procession returning. Again, I rushed downstairs, and managed to see the return leg. It was pretty cool. The musicians sounded much better than when they were rehearsing, and the capuchines had a pretty ominous aurora about them. This particular Jesús was carried in a glass coffin, heavily adorned with flowers. The parishioners followed sombrely, all dressed in the darkest shades of their Sunday best, and many of the women wore black veils.

After a couple of minutes of straining to find a good place to stand (my street is very narrow and the procession took up most of it), I heard some voices above me. My neighbours were watching from their balcony, and invited me up. From their vantage point, they could see Jesús inside the coffin (‘isn’t he beautiful’, they all crooned), and a spectacular view of the capuchines disappearing down the street, with the Aqueduct and ancient city walls in the background. I spent a good while longer in their flat, and they told me about the monk who founded the parish (he came from France on a donkey), gave me their photos of the procession on a USB, and we gossiped about the private lives of the owners of the neighbouring restaurants. The two little girls showed me their Semana Santa drawings, and I would loved to have stayed longer, except that by this point I was close to fainting, and could only think about the (now cold) eggs and toast that were waiting for me in my attic upstairs.

So what of Spanish Easter food? Firstly, as to be expected, there is no meat on Good Friday. Except for in Segovia, where cochinillo and cordero (roast suckling pig and lamb) are the traditional dishes. If the only chance you have to visit Segovia is during Easter, well, apparently it’s acceptable to try just a bit of whole dead baby animal. As far as I can tell, the only other specific-to-Easter dish is Torrijas, which is basically sticky honey and cinnamon French toast. I’ve tried to explain that in Australia, French toast is just a regular breakfast food (well, maybe not every day, but it’s on most breakfast menus and isn’t confined to one time of year). This has been met with a bit of uproar. Apparently Spanish torrijas are special, but as far as I can make out, the ingredients (milk, eggs, bread), cooking method, and taste, are all the same. Which is a good thing. Because whatever side of the equator (or Pyrenees), and whatever the name, or motivation for eating it, milky eggy sticky spicy fried bread is delicious.

And that’s all I have to say about Semana Santa


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Segovia, a runner’s paradise

This Sunday was the 8th annual half-marathon of Segovia. Nearly 3,000 people took part, including me. It was my first official half marathon, and despite having splurged on fancy footwear and aerodynamic lycra leggings with little reflective ‘speed’ stripes, and having been training (relatively) regularly since Christmas, I was absolutely dreading it.

This was mostly because of the weather. After a fortnight of spring-like sunshine (a cruel teaser), the weather had reverted back to being overcast, rainy, incredibly windy, and just damn unpleasant. But also because Segovia is just such a tough city to run, even under optimal conditions, and especially when you’ve got to do 21km of it. So the combination of wet weather and winding streets of ancient, well worn cobblestones was inevitably going to make for particularly difficult terrain, and a long, hard race.

Despite all this, the day turned out to be a success. Much to my surprise (and relief),  I finished the course – alive, pain free, and in much better time than I’d hoped. But the best thing of all was that – I had fun! It was actually enjoyable, and dare I say it, an exciting, exhilarating, and overwhelmingly positive experience.  Aside from a runny nose, minor headphone battle, toilet urgency (it passed, but was not made any easier by seeing guys making quick detours whenever there were trees or bushes available, which was totally unfair, and totally disgusting), and a rude, unexpected hill at km 17 (I’d been looking forward to running down it, but to my horror, they’d changed the route so that we had to go up it), I spent the better part of the race running along happily to a perfectly timed ‘inspirational music’ playlist, with a stupid grin on my face, waving at familiar and unfamiliar faces, highplano2013 fiving little kids along the way, thinking, ‘my god, this is awesome’. The atmosphere was electric from start to finish. That’s to say, from the pre-race warm up (so many good looking sporty people, so many hilarious warm up techniques!), to the exhausted post-race bonanza of sweaty hugs, show bag collection, powerade sculling, and the usual ‘trying to find my friends in the crowd’ chaos.

So during the race I had two hours of uninterrupted, compulsory reflection time, and my thoughts rather predictably gravitated towards running, Segovia, and ultimately, why Segovia is such a great place to run. I even made a little list in my head.

1. It’s beautiful. The city itself is full of spectacular monuments, and within five minutes you can be in the countryside, with rivers, hills, and leafy parks and picnic areas (picnicking not for you, you are running)
2. The air is fresh and clean.
3. There are lots of drinking fountains.
4. There are heaps of uphills and downhills. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a decent flat route. Although the uphills do make it tough, they also get you in shape pretty quickly, and the downhills are a pleasant reward. Running Segovia is like doing incidental FARTLEK training, and you don’t even need a stopwatch.
5. It’s at altitude. Only 1,000m, so not enough to completely wipe you out if you’re not used to it. But enough to notice some affects when you first start exercising there. I’m no expert in fitness or physiology, but I’m pretty sure that if you adapt to the altitude and no longer feel the effects, that means you must be getting stronger. Or rather, your blood is taking up oxygen faster and you’re on the right track to becoming super human. Ye-ah
6. Aside from last weekend, the weather is usually quite good. Segovia has a dry climate, so even when it snows, it doesn’t feel as cold as it should. And in summer, unlike most of Spain, it cools down overnight (so you can run quite comfortably in the early morning).
7. There’s very little traffic. The city centre is horrible for driving and has lots of restrictions, and there are plenty of walking and bike paths all around the outskirts. So you rarely have to contend with pedestrian crossings (or feel silly jogging on the spot at traffic lights while all the cars are watching you).
8. There’s no dog poo.

And… those are all the reasons I could come up with. Of course, I was hoping for a nice round ten. Perhaps I needed to run a little further to get some more ideas. Or not.

Well, in the unlikely event that anyone who reads this blog actually comes to Segovia and runs, here’s my only warning: avoid Calle Real (the main street from the plaza to the aqueduct) between 8am – 10am (bottleneck of delivery trucks), or 10am – 2pm (bottleneck of tour groups) or 6pm – 9pm (bottleneck of locals out for their evening stroll).

And the best time to run? At daybreak, especially in the busy tourist period. That’s when you’re most likely to see the hot air balloons floating across the dawn sky. Or you can catch them at ground level; they take off from the fields opposite the Alcazar. The champagne breakfast tourists will happily give you a wave, and you all start the day with a smile on your face.