Sunday, 20 December 2009

It was the weekend before Christmas

Belen del Ayuntamiento de Madrid - angel with cotton wool cloud

I have become mildly obsessed with the art of the belenista! When I first saw the paraphernalia for sale at the christmas market in Plaza Mayor, I have to confess to being surprised at this phenomena. Do people really build mini scenes of Bethlehem depicting the nativity? Oh yes they do! They do it anywhere and everywhere in Madrid and I am really enjoying seeking them out. There is a brochure devoted to the nativity festival and three pages of listings of where to go and see belenes so we made this the theme of our Saturday walkabout.

Feeling mischievous, I decided that at some point in the day Moira and I would be creating our own mini belen and so I packed a few plastic palm trees and zoo animals and set off to our meeting point at Colon metro. I chose to go by bus as it was a glorious sunny day and hit my first snag of the day. The bus was the 146 to Callao and it went up the hill to Manuel Becerra and turned round and headed back. However as I had my nose deep in my street atlas, I missed the moment and the Spanish warning from the fur coat clad lady who I thought was after my seat! So that was twenty wasted minutes as I got off and headed back up the hill to get on the metro.

However the belen at Colon was well worth the effort. It is billed as the biggest in Madrid (I am not so sure about this as I think there is one near Sol that is also on a grander scale). It is laid out in three scenes - the annunciation, the nativity and the journey of the three kings. The kings are a big deal in Spain. Traditionally it is the kings that bring presents to the children on 6 January. These days they also get a few gifts on Christmas day. Everyone I have spoken to about this tradition, says how much they like getting their gifts in January, just before they go back to school. There is a great cake tradition for this time too. A roscon del reyes, which is a ring-shaped pastry filled with cream or chocolate truffle and decorated with glace fruits. The ring has a figure concealed within it and whoever gets the figure has to pay for next year's roscon.

Our next stop was by Ruben Dario where I was keen to show Moira the cheesiest belen I have found so far. It is made from lifesize figures - shopfloor dummies - and it is horrible. There is a musical soundtrack and the figures are all as pale as zombies and dressedin white surgical-style gowns. Hideous! We warmed up with coffee and a mini roscon (well Moira is out of town for the actual day!) This turned out to be the perfect place for indulging my belenista tendencies and we built our own with the addition of some sugar for sand and it looked pretty good. Moira dressed a wolf in a napkin and declared him to be "a wolf in sheep's clothing" so that was the sheep sorted. A Christmas card from my friend Maria represented the holy family and the plastic animals stood in awe and wonder.

Fortified, we set off for a suburb of Madrid called Mortalaza and arrived to find it much colder and getting dark. We decided to do one of the two places in the listing and as it had two belens, it was a good find. The first was a traditional scene with "83cm high figures from the 1880s" and a fake waterfall made from woollen skeins. The second was modern. Snowy white plaster figures before a stained glass window. The animals were passable but the family were dreadful. They were located at a modern evangelical church and the whole thing felt very Bible-belt American. Only the twinkly lights in the trees redeemed it and I was glad to say goodbye and hit the metro back to the city.

Landing in Sol, we were soon caught up in the crowds that have been out on the streets every day since the beginning of December. There were plenty of reindeer and Christmas tree hats on view plus a sprinkling of jesters with bells and many "deely bobbers" with flashing lights. Soon different musical sounds were around us as we were assailed by groups of singers and musicians from all over Spain. Dressed in national costume and playing folk instruments, I loved the choir wars that were breaking out.

We wandered along Calle de Mayor (weaving our way being the word here) and I made Moira stop to admire the cakes and goodies in my favourite pasteleria. It was a good stop because inside the window was an amazing chocolate belen! I wanted tea and a chance to survey the good things on offer but Moira was determined. We were soon heading for the last of our major belens for the day. Located in the Basilica pontificia de San Miguel in San Justo, this turned out to be the cherry on the cake. The church is gorgeous with lots of paintings and the usual Catholic touches! The belen is a gem and really tells the story well with its different perspectives and settings. There was an orchestra and choir setting up for a concert of John Rutter's Requiem later that evening and so our visit was short but it was special.

From here it is a short step to an old friend - the Mercado de San Miguel! Fortified with vino tinto, some rather good sepia and garbanzos soup (stew?) and a shared portion of our favourite Austrian cake, we headed into the frozen night. One last stop at a Bank to admire their belen and for me to have a dance with an inflatable santa at the bar next door and we were soon homeward bound.

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