Thursday, April 05, 2012

A rotten night's sleep salvaged by a walk in the park

The post dinner cup of coffee probably didn’t help, as I finished drinking it at 11:30 PM. Or maybe it was that plus the giant dinner that kept me awake. But while I’d like to blame it on some choice I made, the real reason for my bout of insomnia last night was the surfeit of drunks in the street.

The night life begins around midnight in Spain, and ends when the revelers pass out, run out of money or realize that their job starts in 20 minutes. We first encountered the noisy drunk phenomenon when we stayed on La Rambla in Barcelona. I don’t recall a single uninterrupted hour of sleep during our 5 days there, and while I was hoping for something different this time around, the situation here on Plaza de Manises in Barrio Carmen is if anything, far worse. It’s quiet until 3 or so and then the noise begins. Arguing, screaming, yelling, loud talking, banging on trash cans, and singing old Comintern songs as though they are heading off to fight Franco’s Fascistas – it never ends. In fact each time you think it’s over and you have a five minute lull, they return louder than even before. As dawn breaks you might be soothed by the waking song of Blackbirds in the sweet smelling orange trees in the little park just up the street. But it’s not enough to carry you away; you lie there and wait until 6 when the garbage truck shows up to dump the trash at the government offices opposite our building. I truly don’t know how the people who live here stand it – I’d never sleep. It makes you appreciate how little the mindlessly barking Golden Retriever across the field back home bothers you. It’s noise like no other. And so you catch a wink or two in the short three hours between the delivery trucks and the bells at 9:30 that make you feel like the day is getting away with you.

We did breakfast in house this morning – lemon yogurt, Blood Oranges and strawberries – the fruit of our visit to the Mercado yesterday. Our plan was to walk the two or so miles up the Jardín del Rio Túria to the Hemisferic – Europe’s largest aquarium. It looked to be about 2.5 miles so before embarking we paid a quick stop at the Horchateria Santa Catalina, the oldest horchata shop in Valencia, having been in continuous operation for nearly 200 years. We ordered a glass each and split a farton which is a lightly fried sugared tube of dough for dipping and not what you foul minded readers immediately thought of. Santa Catalina looks like a shrine, lined in blue, yellow and white tile and featuring the history of horchata in ceramic murals around the seating area. Thus fortified we left and headed across the barrio, marveling at how correct our guidebook had been when it said that Valencia is best enjoyed mid-morning, when the drunks have made it home but not yet awakened. The narrow lanes were sparsely populated with people heading to work or sitting in outdoor cafes drinking coffee and beer. Yes, beer.

The Jardín was another matter, bustling with runners, cyclists and morning strollers. I’ve been in a lot of urban parks in my time, but this one was nice enough to make you want to move here. We stopped to read a sign depicting what was available in addition to the dedicated running and cycling paths. Along its 10 kilometer length you can find playgrounds, gardens, tennis courts and soccer fields. Just a wonderful oasis in the center of the city. We walked along, watching people and listening to a background of Collared Doves singing in the palms. An occasional parakeet would fly over cackling. We even passed two mounted policemen atop Andalusians, the horse of Spain.

It took us about an hour to reach our destination. We got a bit confused about where to go and ended up in the Hemisferic Theater which was not the entrance we wanted but was still capable of selling us tickets. I tried to use the fancy “chip and pin” debit card I’d purchased at the Travelex currency exchange on our outbound day in Dallas. Europe has been moving their credit and debit card systems over to this new format, a card with a little identity chip embedded, further secured by a PIN. The US has lagged and a lot of people have found themselves in the unfortunate situation of being abroad without working credit cards. I had tried to get a version but neither of our credit card companies was interested in discussing the matter. I was able to make the purchase after My Lovely Wife produced my PIN which I’d failed to enter 3 times, making me look like a scam artist. $80 lighter we headed across the street and into the park.

It seemed like a lot of money but the place truly was a full day endeavor. The technology of the exhibits was quite impressive, in the same vein as every other aquarium (big tanks in dark rooms, little tanks in dark rooms, underwater tunnels, etc.) but on a much grander scale. Their tropical fish display was incredible, as was their marshland aviary, stocked with Scarlet Ibis, Spoonbills and a host of other ducks, herons and really big catfish. The crowds were a bit unruly, worse even than the tourists in China (if you can believe that) and by the end of the tour I was pretty tired of being run over by screaming children and poorly steered strollers. To get a break we decided to sit with the hordes in a big amphitheatre and watch the porpoise show. While not a big fan of this particular art form it was entertaining and nice to sit for a while. A woman in front of me was trying to breastfeed her baby who was much more interested in staring and smiling at me, a combination of little things that spelled “awkward.” He eventually latched on and left me alone.

By now it was pushing 2:30 and exiting, we were considering our hour walk home. The thought was let’s stroll for a bit and find a restaurant for a late lunch but as we headed out the door we were confronted with a well stocked taxi stand and I offered that riding and then eating might be a better solution. We grabbed a cab and rode back to our apartment, a well spent $10. We had lunch at a local spot we’d scoped earlier in the day – serrano ham on baguette and a couple of stiff coffees – all completed in the amount of time it would have taken us to walk halfway back.

Around 5 PM the bells in the neighborhood cathedrals started to ring incessantly and so we decided to head outside. There were a lot of people in the streets and squares which suggested something might be brewing, but it turned out that this, being Holy Thursday was merely a prelude to Good Friday (a holiday here) and so most of these people were in the neighborhood for the purpose of attending Mass at the main cathedral. We tucked inside listened to the Bishop of Valencia deliver his homily for the impending holiday.

It was now around 8 and we were intent on continuing our Tour de Paella. We chose a place just off the Plaza de los Virgens, around the corner from our apartment and recommended by our guidebook. But being so early, the place was empty. Wishing once again to not appear to be unsophisticated, we decided to walk around for a while in hopes that someone else would be the first to choose this restaurant. After a half hour we caved and asked for a table. As it turned out, there were others in there already, but out of sight on the second floor. We ordered two glasses of Rioja and paella for two. It arrived in a half hour and we asked the bartender if there was rabbit it in. He said “no”, they didn’t offer rabbit as most tourists and city folk didn’t like eating pet quality animals. Even without that extra ingredient, it was quite good and pretty much licked the pan. On the way home we stopped for chocolate mousse, tiramisu and coffee at the lunch place we’d tried earlier in the day. We left there with an assortment of pain au chocolate for tomorrow’s breakfast.

It was still early so we roamed the neighborhood stopping to read the tapas menus at a few of the local spots hoping to file away a place for another night. As we turned to walk away from one, I violated one of the cardinal rules mentioned plainly in out book – watch out for the steel, thigh-high bollards that line the corners, keeping cars from parking on the sidewalk. I turned into one with just enough force to drive the crown into my leg, down to the bone. I eventually regained my breath and limped on, knowing for sure that that was going to leave a mark.














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