All posts by Sue Fernández

Las Fallas, Valencia

When I first moved to Madrid I earned some money as an English teacher. Well, I say English but actually American English was more in demand. It was quite galling to be asked if you could teach someone only to be rejected because you spoke British English!! But anyway, at the academies I worked for – they abound in Spain – as long as you are a native speaker (of English or American!) you can always find work – and in the course of my work I came across a lot of young Americans who were really only teaching so that they could earn enough money to work their way across Spain from festival to festival –  whereas I had married a Spaniard and settled in Madrid and  had no money for festivals so I had to stay put! I was quite envious when they got together to plan their next sortie and a festival called ‘Las Fallas’ cropped up time and again in their conversations. Now, this may sound incredible, given that my husband was Spanish and he had close relatives in Valencia, where Las Fallas is staged, but it took me another 34 years before I got to see this renowned spectacle!
If you get the chance to go – go! Don’t leave it as long as I did!

Las Fallas is a week long festival, culminating on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th – another reason it took me so long to get there, maybe – it’s not the time of year when you’re usually on holiday. Valencia is on the east coast of Spain (Levante – where the sun rises) and the climate is sub tropical. The area around Valencia is known as ‘La Huerta de España’ – the Market Garden of Spain. The Arabs, who had invaded Spain in the early 700s, saw that Valencia was very fertile and they built an intricate system of irrigation channels known as ‘acequias’ to distribute water around the cultivated land. This system survives today and the area continues to produce all manner of  fruits and vegetables, including, of course, the famous Valencia oranges. I remember on my first trip to Valencia seeing orange trees along the roadside – a bit different from England! My mum and dad had come out to see us and we decided to visit Bienve’s relatives. We stopped to brew up one of my dad’s essential pots of tea (old habits die hard – he went nowhere without a primus and a tea pot!!) It was a very warm day in late July. While we brewed up an old man happened along – he was weather beaten in that Spanish way – gnarled and brown like a bit of dry bark! He stared curiously at the primus!

Of course, Valencia’s other claim to fame is the ‘paella’ , that delicious rice and seafood dish on the menu in restaurants the length and breadth of Spain, but it is actually Valencia’s regional dish.


Anyway, I digress. Let’s move forward to 2005. Sadly, my husband had died by then but I still hadn’t seen the Fallas so I went with a cousin of mine. She had been my bridesmaid and the man we were going to stay with in Valencia was Bienve’s cousin, Hortensio, who, 34 years previously,  had been Bienve’s best man – so it was going to be a great reunion. My husband’s family had a penchant for giving their male children unusual names – my husband was called Bienvenido (which means ‘welcome’ and in all the time I lived in Spain I only ever came across ONE other! Now, if his name had been Pedro…) and his cousin, like I say,  was called Hortensio – again, I only ever came across ONE other and that was his dad! Anyway, my cousin and I arrived quite tired at Valencia railway station at about 10 pm. Luckily, Hortensio lived literally round the corner so he sauntered up to meet us and we wandered back towards his place through the mayhem – hardly believing our eyes or our ears – little kids gleefully hurling sticks of dynamite (aka  fire crackers – health and safety? what health and safety?), people laying out squares of turf and primus stoves on every available bit of pavement, ready for the paella competition – this lasted till the early hours and to be honest, no, I didn’t really want to try it, despite their insistence – I wanted to go to bed by then but there was no point really because there were bangers going off everywhere like artillery shells and hundreds of people, thronging the streets, laughing and drinking – or occasionally starting to doze off. It’s important to pace yourself – there are 7 days of this!
Now luckily for us, Hortensio had a flat right in the middle of the action – over the next few days we were able to watch a lot of things from our vantage point on his balcony, but to truly appreciate the amazing goings on we had to get in amongst it.
Spaniards have no qualms about combining the pagan with the religious – they don’t see any incongruity or inconsistency – nothing odd about throwing themselves heart and soul into the religious activities of their *peñas (neighbourhood groups), but at the same time revel in the dancing, drinking and enthusiastic burning of effigies! (*a linguistic note here, well more of a plea – I don’t speak valenciano – the only word I remember from this trip is ‘ninot’ – which is the figure on top of the falla, the falla being the bonfire in waiting, so to speak, so valencianos please forgive me! In fact, I found it quite frustrating – having gone to the trouble of learning ‘castellano’ (the Spanish spoken in Castilla) to find that the captions and explanations of the fallas were in valenciano – and, to be brutally frank, Hortensio wasn’t much of an interpreter so I was short changed there! It would have been nice to learn more but I was in the wrong company!

But, anyway, here’s the idea:  essentially, each neighbourhood group builds a structure on top of which they can place a figure or sometimes lots of figures, and they put the whole thing at an allotted spot in the city – usually a road junction – and after a week spent touring the streets admiring each others’ handiwork – they burn them to the ground !!

Of course, there is a bit more to this week long celebration than that!  One is the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary and another is the pageant where they elect a Fallera – very akin to our beauty contests, where they choose a pretty girl dressed in regional costume to be Fallera Mayor. She holds the position till the next year and gets roped into good causes and charity work.

FallerosFor the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary,  they build a wire framework outside the cathedral  and, as each ‘peña’  processes into the cathedral for Mass, one of their number leaves flowers on this framework, which  gradually builds up into the most amazing floral representation of the Virgin Mary.


The week is punctuated by all sorts of peripheral events: each area (and these include towns and villages from across the Autonomous Community of Valencia, not just the city itself)  holds ceremonies and competitions of its own, but the coming together of all of them in the cathedral at the end of the week is a sight to behold – they come in one after another through the main entrance, impeccably turned out in regional costume, and marching to the beat of a rousing brass band – this constant stream of humanity takes several hours to fill the cathedral.

On the final day of the festival, the 19th of March,  the citizens of Valencia  throw themselves with abandon into the Cremà (the Burning). As you can see from the picture below, not one square inch of pavement can be seen – this is what you call a street party a la española! So they take advantage of the daylight hours to feast on lots of glorious tapas and seafood and then when darkness falls ………..the serious business of lighting the fallas and setting off the most impressive, ear shattering firework display this side of Sidney HarbourBridge! 

Although they may seem outwardly blasé about their fallas, when you quiz them about it and you realise that they have spent a whole year planning, designing and building them, their passion is obvious. For those involved it’s all to do with carrying on the family tradition, the desire to out-do your rivals, the need to be the biggest and best, the most ingenious and  provocative, the most imaginative and outrageous – and always better than the year before!

I remember when I was still living in Madrid hearing news reports about  fatalities at this festival – someone standing too close to a burning falla for example and it toppling over onto them – it has happened more than once, so they take more precautions these days. A falla must be made of something that will ignite – obviously –  the whole point, after all, is to burn it to the ground, but it must be a material that doesn’t produce toxic black smoke as they used to; and these days there is also a more judicious positioning of safety barriers – a relatively recent measure, unbelievable though that may seem).

 So what do the fallas look like?  Well, an overall theme for the year is chosen – the year we went it was ‘Inventions and Personalities of the 20th Century’.


It is then up to each peña to design and build a falla in accordance with the theme – but more importantly, it’s an opportunity for people to make some sort of satirical comment on people in public life – Spaniards are not known for their subtlety ! Politicians, bankers,  judges and even sportsmen  are fair game.

When we went in 2005 there were over FOUR HUNDRED fallas positioned at crossroads and junctions all over the city, which gives you an idea of the scale of the festival.



Some towered above adjacent buildings and were very elaborate. These days the authorities bring in fire engines from forces all over Spain and they hose down the facades of the closest buildings – this is just as well, I can tell you, because once the flames had taken hold on the nearest falla to us we could feel the intense heat bouncing off the walls around us.


Of course, it would be a shame if all this artistry and ingenuity were lost forever when it is reduced to cinders, so before that happens, a panel of judges tours the city and selects a ‘ninot’ (figure) from both the adults’ and the children’s sections to preserve for posterity in the Ninot Museum.

buitresThis Museum is well worth a visit, and apart from marvelling at the talent of their creators, you see that these ninots do indeed provide an insight into the political and social landscape of the time – some are comical and some are downright cruel!

Of  course, Valencia is the third largest city in Spain after Madrid, the capital, and Barcelona, the capital of Cataluña, so they couldn’t have those two cities outdoing them in the Top Ten of Spanish Fiestas.

There’s something about an Austin Healey

There are two reasons why I’m posting this now – (1) February 2 was my  dad’s birthday and (2)  it is also my Spanish sister-in-law’s birthday. She is called Candelas and was given that name because in the Christian calendar Feb 2 is Candlemas – and, depending on which country you’re in, this religious holiday is variously known as the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Purification of the Virgin Mary, or simply a Festival of Candles – I prefer the last one – getting together and lighting lots of candles to chase away the  mid winter gloom of February is a great idea –  and if you were Spanish parents of a certain generation ‘Candelas’ was the perfect name for a baby girl born on that day.

However, my English grandparents didn’t think along the same lines when their baby was born on February 2nd – but then he was a boy !  They christened him Douglas !


Douglas grew up to like fast cars and all things mechanical so many of his  weekends were spent tinkering with engines or watching motor racing. He followed the fortunes of people like Graham Hill and Stirling Moss, Nikki Lauda and Jack Brabham.  There’s one of them going past in a blur in the rocket below! – a far cry from today’s sleek computer controlled machines.

images[6] As kids my brothers and I got to know most of the racetracks in England – Oulton Park in Cheshire, Brands Hatch  in Kent, Donington Park in Derby , Silverstone in Northampton , and Goodwood, of course, near the south coast, and, when my brother, Steve,  took up motor bike and side car racing, we got to know some of the smaller ones too – they tended to be airfields like Staverton – plenty of room for the odd unscripted detour into the surrounding wall of tyres! Steve was the sidecar man, aka ‘the passenger’ , and his late pal – known as ‘ Ivor the Driver’ piloted the outfit around the track. sidecar2They did well, picking up trophies at various meets and were sponsored for a time by local cider company, Bulmers – hence the brand ‘Strongbow’ emblazoned on the fairing and the matching leathers and helmets in a fetching shade of canary yellow. Doug (or Dad as we knew him!)  was chief engineer and all round miracle worker, and loved every minute of it. Most of their outings involved setting off at the crack of dawn on a long drive in an uncomfortable  van crammed with spare parts, tool kits, usually 4 or 5 adults, (a couple of whom would dive under a tarpaulin to avoid paying the entrance fee onto the circuit), oh and then there were the  bike and side car themselves, of course. The journey home involved a detailed post mortem if success had evaded them – usually due to some mechanical disaster –  or a celebratory plate of steak and chips, washed down with lots of beer, at one of their regular watering holes if they had bagged a trophy (or even if they hadn’t, come to think of it.)

Now I quite like the sound of fast cars and motorbikes myself – there’s just something about the smell of hot engine oil and the pulsating roar as all that horsepower explodes into life! So in 2012  I fulfilled a long held ambition and went back to Goodwood racetrack for the Revival. My son Simon came with me – he didn’t take much persuading when I said I was thinking of hiring a 1962 Austin Healey for the 4 day trip. I had my reservations because the Goodwood Revival takes place in September, albeit in the balmier south of England, but still  – a 250 mile round trip for us and, given the vagaries of the English climate – well…….it could mean getting very wet….or…driving a convertible with the hood up (what a waste!) Of course, we could just strike lucky and get some sunshine. I am also what they call ‘nesh’ in these parts – I feel the cold, so I didn’t relish shivering for 4 days  in an open top car.  But do you know what? The sun shone on us for the whole trip!! HealeyDashboardAnd another thing I didn’t know about the Healey is that (dare I say it?) due to bad design i.e.  the location of some very hot pipework in the footwell under the dash, there was never any danger of being cold because once the engine’s running there is hot air blasting up at you all the time!

But before we picked up the car we had to get ready for the event. If you’ve been to the Goodwood Revival you’ll know it is ‘de rigeur’ to dress the part – anything from the 1940s, 50s or 60s, really. Of course, what I didn’t know was that you can get all togged up when you get there because there are all manner of shops selling authentic outfits, as well as shoes, hats and bags –   you can even get your hair and make-up done a la Rita Hayworth  (…..suits you, sir!)

GoodwoodOutfitLuckily,  I unearthed a few things from my wardrobe which looked a bit 50s so all I had to find was a leather jacket for Simon

so he could go as a greaser and he then did a fine job with some safety pins and studs to customise it.

We rented the car from a place just outside Bath which specializes in classic car hire – the only limitation was that it had to be red (the phone conversation went like this: ‘Can I have a two tone blue and cream one?’  ‘Well, we’ve got red …….or red.’  ‘Okay, I’ll have red.’) Don’t get me wrong – it was a great place to hire a car from – the owner took the trouble to explain the controls and told us there were blankets and cushions in the boot (ah no….    these were to pad out the driver’s seat because the pedals were quite a long way away if you happen to be a short-a*** like me; also, when you’re used to a modern car with seats that actually glide on their runners, well,  let’s just say that it’s just as well Simon did come with me because I would never have moved the seat on my own. There were a few other minor irritating features like the static seat belts, the hot air from the pipes under the dash and the fact that unless you pulled the choke out (the choke! remember those?) when you came to a roundabout or junction you were in danger of stalling the engine – NOT what you want when you’re showboating. Oh, and a petrol gauge which was worse than useless – the needle just flickered about. Given that the car had a 3 litre engine I was a bit worried we would run out of petrol but we did what the man said – made a note of the mileage and bought our next tankful after about 100 miles.

BUT ………the engine!! Just the SOUND of that engine more than made up for those few minor irritations.

On the open road the Healey came into its own. Needless to say, Simon was itching to put his foot down and the car obliged – it went like the wind and turned a lot of heads. I don’t know if the beautiful weather just meant people were in a good mood but the sight and sound of the car made them smile and when we arrived (noisily) in a car park people admired it, walked round it and asked if they could take a photo. These old cars are held in a lot of affection – that much was clear.

On our journey to the south east we stopped off at Stonehenge (the monument itself was disappointing, being behind that ten foot high fence, but it’s an excellent comfort stop with the toilets and a little sandwich bar in the car park opposite.) We motored (you don’t ‘drive’ in these – you ‘motor’!)   down  past Salisbury and Winchester and made for our first night’s accommodation in a leafy residential area in Romsey. Next morning we got changed into our 50s gear and slunk out to the car early  – no point frightening the locals! I looked more like Dame Edna than Rita Hayworth, but hey! you can’t say we didn’t enter into the spirit of things.

At the entrance to Ticketsthe Goodwood Estate  you’re given a goody bag with a map and a programme, some earphones for the race
commentaries and a few other bits and pieces. Of course, I also had my camera at the ready –  I was hoping to practise my panning technique!! – but it seemed that every other person there was toting a fancy camera with a huge telephoto lens attached, so when I stood up to take a picture so did 20 other people right in front of me.

But what a great day out!  – above us Spitfires trailing coloured smoke across the sky as they performed their aerobatics  and all around us magnificent vehicles in every size and shape and all in gleaming, immaculate condition – you just had to stroke them and they purred back at you. There was a ’50s dance band in one huge marquee, and a massive food hall catering for hungry punters in another.  But, of course, the main attraction is the racing  – a wander round the pits  and towards the starting grid and you’re transported back to a very glamorous era – it’s like being an extra on a film set.

The racing included motor bikes, one of which was taken very gingerly round the track by actor and self confessed bike fanatic, Ewan McGregor, who apologized profusely for doing the slowest lap ever recorded on a vintage motor bike – he said he was petrified, in such exalted company, of stalling it or breaking it or, worse still,  falling off.

SilverCar   Race11

Race6     Race3

AmericanClassic   ACCobra

BlueConvertible   Jeep

There were Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Jags, Jeeps, AC Cobras, double deckers doubling (geddit?!) as cafés, a row of vintage motorbikes (not sure if it was the Harley Appreciation Society – what do you think?) with their riders and whilst we enjoyed looking at them

they enjoyed watching the dance troop performing a 1940s swing number.


At around one o’clock we went in search of the restaurant marquee. The sides were decorated with items from past race meetings – grainy photos of veterans like Stirling Moss, old programmes and posters and the like, and the table cloths were maps of the surrounding area- like the one below – some very ingenious decor and the attention to detail was what made everything so special.  It must have taken years to amass the racing memorabilia on display here, and everywhere else on the Goodwood estate – and it was absolutely fantastic.

But we had parked our Healey up in a field all day to see this spectacle  –  it was time for a reunion and to go in search of our accommodation for that night – a hotel somewhere in the New Forest. Now there is one other snag with a classic 1960s car which I forgot to mention – it doesn’t take a Sat Nav.  This didn’t matter to Simon – he has a mobile, equipped with GPS  – although he had to admit there wasn’t really anywhere to rest it in the car – except in the hands of his short-sighted and technophobic mother!  But I didn’t really want to drive the Healey after dark so I had to grasp the nettle – or rather the mobile – and track our progress through the country lanes of Sussex – or was it Dorset by then?

Eventually we found our hotel, parked up, had a well earned drink and went into the village on foot in search of supper. The car park, tucked away in a lane at the back of our hotel,  was empty when we arrived, apart from the odd New Forest pony standing about munching. But next morning the Healey was sandwiched between these two beauties – a Jag and a Corvette.


After breakfast – i.e. in the daylight –  we went for  a spin through the New Forest and drove slowly past some more beauties – as well as the forest to graze in, these lovely ponies had the run of the village we stayed in, and sauntered around in small groups taking little notice of the human element.


But it was nearly time to return the car. With the weather still glorious,  we sped along the south coast towards Sandbanks, stopped to admire the most expensive beach huts in the land (apparently),  had some lunch, watched a re-run of Hitchcock’s The Birds (well, that’s what it sounded like when we came across these fishing pots!) CrabPotsand then we headed back up country  towards Bath.  A great four days.

And Dad, you  would have loved the Healey.

One for the scrap book.

Horsin’ Around

Every year a friend of mine gives up a week of her time in the summer to run a Youth Clinic for young riders. The aim of the clinic is of course to hone their riding skills, but also to encourage them to socialise with other youngsters, and learn how to help themselves and each other. I have volunteered in the past but as I know very little about horses, and the bewildering array of tack they wear, I’m not much use! But I can ride and I like horses and enjoy their antics so this year I thought I’d go along to take some photos – you know, document the goings on for posterity.

The first day was horrendous as we had to endure torrential rain, but as they say ‘the show must go on’ – I’ve come to the conclusion that riders are no different from, say, golfers in their attitude to weather conditions: there are two types – ‘rainy’, which is ‘okay’ and ‘dry’, which is better!


The Youth Clinic is held in the beautiful grounds of Monnington Stud, which nestles in the Herefordshire countryside alongside the River Wye. The facilities for the horses are second to none with a beautiful stable block, a green and schooling areas galore for the lucky equine residents.

A lot of those who sign up to the Youth Clinic bring their own horses and therefore their own accommodation – it seems horse trailers have come a long way. Some of the children still like to camp out – it adds to the excitement, so they bring tents …….    and  scooters ………. and bikes ………… and their favourite teddy and ……….. well, you get the idea.

An hour or two is spent on the first morning getting the children settled and playing name games, but the very young ones must to be accompanied by a parent so there are plenty of adults on hand if they fall over,  get homesick etc.

After breakfast and the group photo it’s all hands to the pumps.


Carriage driving is one of the activities the kids can do but horse riding is also about tacking up and bonding with that ‘gentle giant’ (hah!) No, obviously these equines are hand picked for their kind temperament and patience. The objective is for the week to be fun, but they do a lot and so they learn a lot.

So as not to overwhelm them on the first day, a trip to Gifford’s Circus was planned for the afternoon. It was great fun – Gifford’s is a tiny family run affair and the star of the show was definitely the clown, who held it all together and kept us entertained for over two hours.

Over the next few days the sun came out, the kids relaxed, played games,


and tried their hand at some vaulting – from the expressions on their faces some liked that a lot more than others – 

and they learned something about the Morgan horse which is the breed that Monnington Stud promotes.

 Of course, the week has to be worthwhile for the older teenagers as well so they had instruction    from a very talented American trainer with lots of exercises in the outdoor school and on the green.

The week always ends with a gymkhana and a fancy dress parade and lots of rosettes being given out. The visiting judge casts her critical eye over proceedings and I’m sure all the young riders feel they have achieved a lot. Some have come from as far afield as Manchester so they must think it’s worth it. It wouldn’t happen without the dedication of the stud manager, Trudy, the owners of the stud, Angela Connor and John Bulmer, but it most definitely wouldn’t happen without the dedication of my good friend Hilary.