There is a striking monastery outside Albocasser with a small café run by Montse who used to be a radio presenter. It was here, under the arches at one of her scrumptious home cooked breakfasts that I met the colourful Nacho from Valencia. He has a factory that produces threads and as such he supplies the most select fallas costume shop in Valencia, Espai Ripalda.
Several beers into the repast, in a fit of expansive euphoria provoked by a flamenco-soaked singsong with Monste, he invited me not only to visit this shop, but also to go to La Albufera, the birth of paella, and where the best paella is still to be had.
And so it was that the next Saturday I picked up two of Nacho’s friends from a petrol station in Val d’Alba and then drove to La Lonja silk museum by the Mercado Central in Valencia to meet him. What better place to start the day than this evocative 13th century trading emporium arranged around an orange tree filled courtyard? Nacho gave an enthusiastic tour, pointing out some of the more provocative stone carvings and intermittently exclaimed “baw”.
I think this means wow.
Then we settled down around the corner for the first of many beers of the day.
I drank a wine.
After which I was dropped off at the costume shop.
It was really quite extravagant with its costumes and rolls of colourful materials and display cabinets, expensive jewellery and in-house hairdressing salon. A book of their photos showed the effect of all this put together, an unreal creamy dream. The made-to match-shoes were to die for, of vibrant colours like exotic birds of paradise, very feminine. There were also a few styles for the boys, sort of like Tudor court shoes and nearly wearable by brave females with fat feet. They could actually become quite the thing in the right year.
Not surprisingly the silks were not cheap, the hand woven ones about 1200 euros per metre. The manager Raúl pointed out the difference. Basically a lot coarser-looking. This reminded me of the very expensive raw silk caftan I commissioned last year. I had this romantic image of floating around my masia to flamenco music, the gentle silk robes flapping in the breeze. But it was so scratchy and badly cut as to be un-wearable. Not so this silk, it was as soft as, well, silk!
There was a section with antique (used to you and me) costumes and veils and one little white lacy handkerchief thing had a price tag of 2200 euros. I understood it was 400 years old.
Raúl told me that the cheapest outfit was circa 1000 euros – after all they are all made by hand. And some people spent 100,000 euros, he added. When I gasped at the thought, he simply stated that there were those who save up to buy a Mercedes, and others for a fallas costume.
Luckily I save up for neither.
The Fallas of Valencia is a five-day celebration that takes place in March and allegedly dates back to the middle ages, though it has evolved much along the way. I have witnessed it – briefly – and can say that it is VERY noisy with constant partying, fireworks and float displays. At the end of this celebration, the displays are burnt! And the Fallas costumes are retired either permanently, or until the next year.
Costumes aside, with all the accessories, fans, jewellery, hair-dos and photography, the excess did not bear thinking about.
Musing on all this meant, I left the costume shop, glancing in amusement at the real world posing in cardboard costume cut-outs in front. My chaperones were in fine fettle at a small pavement bar. Clearly they had had a beer or two or three. I declined the offer to join them and shortly after we set off for the much heralded paella feast on the edge of La Albufera. Quite apt really as this dish is one of the culinary highlights of the Fallas.
Situated in the Parc Natural de la Albufera, La Albufera is a huge fresh water lagoon bordered on one side by low flat plains where the famous round-grained paella rice is grown and on the other by the sea. It is very green and a host to hundreds of bird species, including rarities such as the pectoral sandpiper, collared flycatcher and blue-winged teal. Nothing like the rest of Spain and so for the Spaniards in my car an exotic visual feast.
Getting through the area is quite a task. One road in and one road out with an endless stream of cars, probably due to it being the summer holidays. After what seemed years we came to a little village on the coast, a higgledy piggledy collection of modern holiday blocks and villas, and a few old fisherman houses fashioned like rounded white tunnels. We walked down the short road to the paella restaurant, Mare Nostrum. The vista in front was flat with dunes and grasses and inland estuaries. And the sea.
It was hot. About 38 in the shade and very humid so it felt hotter. We were shown a table and there was Isabel, an extremely thin exotic creature with a beguiling jumble of expensive tinkling jewellery and an unusually wide mouth. She greeted Nacho effusively and we all sat down.
And so passed an extremely pleasant afternoon at a yummy down-to-earth eatery with lively animated out of this world company. There were so many starters (all fish and very fresh) that by the time the paella came I could hardly eat more. But eat I did because one half of the table was too busy smoking, nattering and drinking beers, brandies and cokes (Isabel) to do more than pick. Not wanting to insult the cook, I decided to make up for it but a few forkfuls in even I was defeated.
We asked for a few doggy bags.
At about 5pm we staggered away from there, but not before I snapped the owner catnapping in his car, the Nacho pack in various juxtapositions and a very fetching fisherman. The heat was momumentally suffocating and I was exhausted by a day of photography, heavy equipment and lack of intoxicating diversions. Actually I could hardly breathe and my dress was plastered to me in a less than becoming manner.
I begged leave.
Several days later I heard that the quarto carried on with its revelries and ended up down on the beach rhapsodying with the fishermen. That must have been a sight as Isobel’s heels were high and sharp with delicate ankle straps.
Apparently a large sea bass was bagged and placed in the boot of Isobel’s car with her share of the leftover paella. She instantly forgot about it, only discovering it the following night when her garage called to enquire. The overpowering smell of decomposing fish had seeped out into the close basement air and it was feared someone had died.
Nacho tells me that Isobel is looking for a new car. I just wonder if she ever eats…
Tap Spanish flag at top for spanish translation by Anna Belles