Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Betanzos, Spain: My New Favorite Galician Village

As I headed back home to Santiago de Compostela after spending Good Friday 2015 in Ferrol, I took a cross between a pitstop and a daytrip in the coastal village of Betanzos, one of the hidden treasures of northwest Spain. Santiago will always be first in my heart, but Betanzos quickly won me over as my new favorite village in Galicia.

Betanzos, Spain
Old homes with galerías

Welcoming locals

Betanzos, Spain
In the old town
The single-car diesel clunker I rode to Betanzos on dropped me off at what was more a clearing in the woods than a proper train station. Seeing a backpack-clad boy scrutinizing his phone’s Google Maps app, a dad who had picked up his daughter there offered to drive me in to the old town and save me a hike. In retrospect it probably wasn’t the safest decision to hop into a complete stranger’s car (sorry Mom!) but I trusted my gut and hopped in.

My leap of faith paid off, as these two kind betanceiros dropped me off in the central plaza and were fun to chat with for a couple of minutes as we circled around what were once the old town walls. In short, a lovely introduction to a lovely town.

Monday, June 6, 2016

No Car in Dallas? But How?

A little over a month ago I finally gave in and bought my very first car, a brand-new Toyota Corolla. I first learned how to drive on a 2003-era Corolla, so I couldn’t pass up this familiar yet reliable model when I showed up at the dealership for the dreaded car hunt. But in between moving back home to Texas in July of last year and getting a car this past March, I had to make do without one. Fortunately my parents did have a car that they used for buying groceries and the like, but as far as getting to work, shopping, or having fun, I was basically on my own.

Carless in Dallas
My new car
Now, America isn’t a country known for its public transportation to begin with, and the sprawling nature of Sunbelt metropolitan areas like Dallas makes walking utterly impractical when it takes 20 minutes just to walk from your house in a subdivision to the nearest convenience store. So you can imagine I was a little terrified trying to figure out how to make things work in my initial re-entry period moving back to the States after being accustomed to walkable, transit-loving Spain for so long.

Taking the bus to work for the first time in America

Carless in Dallas
Hoping the bus arrives before the rains do
My lifeline this past half year or so was Dallas Area Rapid Transit, a.k.a., DART: the public transportation agency for Dallas and most of the suburbs that border the city to the west and the north. My hometown of Plano—a suburb half an hour to the north of downtown Dallas—has been a member of the organization since it was founded in the ‘80s, but I recognize that I am privileged to live in a city with any public transit at all, as other suburbs like Arlington—pop. 380,000—have a grand total of ZERO buses to speak of. I’m very grateful that Plano has made a commitment to DART by re-routing a substantial 1% sales tax to the agency, a sum that neighboring suburbs like Allen or Frisco have used to lure businesses and developments.

It was frustrating when I realized that what is normally a 15-minute drive from my parents’ house out to the office in northwest Plano would balloon to almost an hour, between the 20-minute bus ride and a 30-minute hike just to get to the closest bus stop. I’ll be completely honest, the summer sucked majorly, especially when I had to endure 90% humidity in the morning some days and 100º F or higher temperatures in the afternoon, all the while weaving my way around the foot and car traffic of an elementary and middle school.

But with suburban sprawl as bad as it is in places like Texas, I realize that I was lucky to even have the option of a bus route that dropped me off a five-minute walk from my office, and even more lucky to not have to transfer to another bus/train.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Big in Big D, Y’all: What to See, Eat, & Do in Dallas, Texas

When I moved back to Texas back in July after living in Spain for three years, I felt guilty that I could give people better food or sightseeing recommendations for cities like Madrid or Santiago de Compostela than I could for the city I claimed was my hometown, Dallas. Now, part of the problem was that I actually grew up in Plano, a suburb to the north of Dallas, but that didn’t excuse me from not knowing this place as well as I should.

Things to do in Dallas, Texas
Magnolia red Pegasus, the unofficial symbol of the city
So once I was settled in back home last summer, I made it my goal to see as much of the city as I could on weekends and the odd jaunt after work, relying on my own two feet and DART trains and buses to take me around this big, big city. I reconnected with a lot of folks from my high school days and did all the touristy things like going up top the Reunion Tower at sunset or hanging out at the State Fair of Texas with my dad. But I also got to know a whole slew of locally-owned cafés and restaurants (see below for recommendations), gained a deeper appreciation for Dallas history, and learned what makes each neighborhood tick.

Nine months of exploration later, I feel like I’m ready to share with y’all what I think the best things to see, eat, and do are in Dallas…along with a liberal sprinkling of history and cool architecture (as if you could expect anything else from me!).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ferrol, Spain: The Black Sheep of Galicia

#HouseGoals
Galicia, tucked away in Spain’s northwest corner, happens to be one of the most densely-populated regions in the country. Major cultural and political centers include Vigo, A Coruña, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela, and Pontevedra…and if we were to continue rattling off the region’s biggest cities, the coastal town of Ferrol would hold the spot for seventh-biggest, at 70,000 ferroláns.

Ferrol (pronounced “fair-ROLE” [feˈrol]) doesn’t have the best reputation among Galicians, as it’s kind of the black sheep of the region; many folks call this place “ugly” and say “it doesn’t have anything to see.” Of course, I was told the same thing about Almería on the Mediterranean coast and ended up really enjoying the city when I daytripped there three years ago.

Still, there’s a lot about Ferrol that makes it, uh, different from the rest of Galicia.

Military heritage

Military arsenal
Situated deep within one of Europe’s most strategic natural harbors, Ferrol’s economy has historically been linked to the sea—from trading and fishing to naval installations. Starting from the 1700s on, Ferrol has held some of the largest installations of the Spanish navy. A short drive from the city center is the Castillo de San Felipe, a defensive fort that, with its twin on the other side of the water, would cerrar or “lock” the narrow estuary out from enemy ships.

Dictator Francisco Franco’s birthplace

Casa Natal de Franco
I didn’t plan it this way, but in the span of a single week I managed to visit Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s final resting place (in the Valle de los Caídos mausoleum) as well as the house he was born in…right here in Ferrol. After Franco came to power in a military coup and subsequent civil war in the late 1930s, his hometown was renamed El Ferrol del Caudillo—“The Leader’s Ferrol.” Keep in mind that for fascist Spain, the term “El Caudillo” was the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s “Der Führer” or fascist Italy’s “Il Duce.”

Ironically enough, Ferrol also happens to be the birthplace of the 19th-century Spanish politician Pablo Iglesias, who belonged to the complete opposite side of the political spectrum; he founded the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party—PSOE—which endures today as the country’s major center-left party.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Photo Post: Holy Week Processions in Ferrol, Spain

When I lived in Spain and taught English, I always took full advantage of the annual Semana Santa vacation during the week leading up to Easter Sunday to go on a major international trip, since you use up half your time off just getting out of the country and flying back on weekend trips. For my first year, I rode a ferry across the Mediterranean and explored northern Morocco, while in my second school year abroad, I train-hopped from Santiago down into warm, sunny Portugal.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión de Jesús Nazareno (Cofradía de Dolores)
Although in 2015 I still planned on leaving Spain for a brief getaway to Germany, I wanted to be back in the country before Holy Week was over. After all, Spain throws one of its biggest, most unique celebrations for Semana Santa, and I would have regretted not experiencing this fascinating cultural tradition before moving back to Texas.

So I decided to check one off the ol’ bucket list and spend all of Good Friday chasing religious processions in the city of Ferrol on Galicia’s northern coast. Ferrol’s the oddball of northwest Spain for many reasons, not least of which is their enthusiasm for this holiday that seems more in line with their sober neighbors in Castilla or more exuberant compatriots in Andalucía. Galicians don’t really go over the top at all for Easter, so Ferrol is basically the only place you can see quality pasos or processions in the region.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión del Crucificado (Cofradía de la Merced)
These processions need a little explanation for foreigners. Many Spaniards—be they devout or cultural Catholics—belong to religious brotherhoods called cofradías or hermandades, some of which date back hundreds of years. Although they’re involved in other undertakings, their most visible activities are the religious processions that they put on during Holy Week every year. Members don glossy, colorful robes and transform into anonymous, pointy-hat-wearing nazarenos (“Nazarenes”) or penitentes (“penitents”) whose roles run the gamut from looking somber and carrying candles to blasting trumpets at three in the morning and carrying weighty wooden floats on their backs around town. These floats bear wooden sculptures that portray all the biblical events of Holy Week.

City streets teem with residents who show up for these processions during the eight-day period from Domingo de Ramos (“Palm Sunday”) through Viernes Santo (“Good Friday”) and onto Domingo de Pascua (“Easter Sunday”). Schools take the entire week off so it effectively functions as the Spanish spring break.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chasing Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany

As a history major, I’m not one to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The way I see it, inventions, movements, religions, diseases, trade, and geography play a much more crucial role in human events than mere single characters do. And besides, there have been many Great Women! Nevertheless, some people are more influential than others: think Muhammad, Christopher Columbus, or whoever invented air conditioning.

Aachen, Germany
Aachener Dom
When it comes to European history specifically, Charlemagne stands as one of the most significant actors in shaping what we know today as Europe. Following the countless barbarian invasions that had left the western Roman Empire in disarray, Charlemagne (who was himself a “barbarian” Frank) brought the West back together under a single rule, promoted learning amid the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and conquered so much land that he became the father of both France and Germany.

During my weekend jaunt to western Germany last year, I made a daytrip from my home base in Cologne out west to Aachen, once the capital of Charlemagne’s short-lived empire and the final resting place of “Charles the Great” himself. Pronounced “AH-khun” [ˈaːxən], the city has been a spa/resort town since Roman times (thanks to its hot springs) and today borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

Aachen, Germany
Detail of the tiles in the cathedral

So who was Charlemagne? (and why care about a warlord from the Dark Ages?)

(Major #NerdAlert here: If you tend to get that glazed-over look whenever you start reading about history, you can skip down to the next section to get to the good stuff about Aachen, but I’ve tried to make this bio of Charlemagne as brief and as easy-to-read as possible!)

As King of the Franks from 768 to 814 CE, Charlemagne reigned over what now makes up modern France, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, and northeastern Spain—a vast empire stitched together by endless military campaigns, forced baptisms, and blessings from the Pope. It was the first time these lands had been united politically since the Roman Empire.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Ups & Downs of Traveling to Cologne, Germany

For the longest time, Germany never showed up as a blip on my travel radar, even when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, whose Ryanair airport hub has connections all across mainland Europe. I was focused primarily on getting to know northern Spain, especially Galicia, or neighboring countries like France and Portugal before finally moving back to Texas. Germany seemed so foreign and distant, even though it’s as close to Spain as Chicago is to Dallas. While my fellow language assistants hopped from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Berlin, I focused on places like coastal Portugal, southeastern France, or central Italy—all southern European countries.

Cologne, Germany
Old town Cologne and the Rhine River, seen from the cathedral
It’s not that I had anything against Scandinavia, the British Isles, or central Europe…it’s just that I didn’t want to spend my limited savings and strategic vacation time going to places that I had almost no desire to visit. My true passions, the places that I longed to explore and made my heart ache with wanderlust, lay in the Mediterranean basin.

And yet I felt like I was wasting a huge opportunity in not making a weekend trip out of, say, Germany or the Netherlands, since I was already on that side of the Atlantic and only had to worry about resisting the siren song of budget airlines—instead of a wallet-emptying trans-Atlantic flight.

It was Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, that would drag me out of my comfortable southern European routine and force me to re-acquaint myself with a little thing called Culture Shock. It would be a wild ride full of ups and downs, but I don’t regret it at all.
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