Thursday, May 14, 2015

San Millán de la Cogolla, the Cradle of the Spanish Language

San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain
Fall landscapes in rural Rioja
When traveling, some people seek out the best beaches or tranquil getaways, while others (the so-called “foodies”) research their destination’s tastiest dishes and the best places to eat them at. For me at least, I plan a lot of my trips around UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as I’m a big fan of historical sites and national parks. This program, associated with the UN since 1972, has recognized some of the planet’s most significant cultural and natural monuments. Spain has 44 such sites, making the country home to the third-highest concentration of Patrimonio de la Humanidad in the world.

San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain
Vaulted cloisters in Yuso
During my weekend trip out east to Logroño to visit my friend Mike in December, I got the chance to explore the Spanish region of La Rioja’s sole World Heritage Site: the Suso and Yuso Monasteries, out in the village of San Millán de la Cogolla. Although little known outside of this small province, these two monasteries are a great point of pride for riojanos. After all, Castilian Spanish was written down for the first time here in San Millán, and the first known poet in the Spanish language lived and worked here, too.

Mike told me that nearly all of the adult students he teaches at the language school insisted he visit the monasteries, so we took their advice and ventured out into the cold with a few other language assistant friends in Logroño.

Suso Monastery

San Millán’s story begins with, well, San Millán himself: St. Emilian of Cogolla, a monk who lived as hermit out here in the hills of Rioja in the 500s. After his death, his disciples started a small monastic community where the Suso Monastery is today, and this site slowly evolved over the centuries from its original Visigothic structure into the Mozarabic and Romanesque building we see today. I loved the eerie link to the past that the horseshoe-shaped arches gave as they cast shadows on the thousand-year-old floor and framed the coffins of a dozen or so monks.

San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain
Approaching the church
In the 20th century, researchers working in the nearby Yuso Monastery (more on that below) discovered the Glosas Emilianenses while perusing the Codex Aemilianensis 60, one of many huge Latin tomes stored in the monastery’s library. These glosses—minor sidenotes written in the page margins—weren’t written in Latin but instead in the local vernacular language that had evolved from the Latin introduced by the Romans a thousand years prior.

The original codex or book was put together in the 9th or 10th centuries, but a hundred years later a scribe evidently felt the need to clarify certain words for future readers. Fortunately for us, he did so in Very Very Old Spanish, which gives us a fascinating peek into the Romance language dialects that would have been spoken in the area a millennium ago. When these glosses were discovered, they were considered to be the oldest written witness to the Spanish language.

San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain
Inside the church
Not long after an anonymous monk had scribbled down these notes in the page margins, another monk from the same monastery would go on to become the first known poet in the Spanish language. Gonzalo de Berceo lived from around 1196 to 1264 and was the monastery’s notary, a job that put him in contact with the community’s library and archives. It wasn’t long before he began writing hagiographies (religious biographies of saints) like the Life of St. Emilian and The Miracles of Our Lady. While the famous epic poem El Cantar del Mío Cid is older than Gonzalo’s works, we don’t know who wrote it, so Gonzalo de Berceo remains the oldest poet in Castilian Spanish.

It really is incredible that this tiny monastery in rural Rioja played such a formative role in the history of the Spanish language!

San Millán de la Cogolla, Spain
Alabaster column capitals

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Scenes from Logroño, Spain, the Capital of La Rioja

Logroño, La Rioja, Spain
Logroño Cathedral
One of my favorite things about keeping up a travel blog is all the connections I’ve been able to make with it, be it meeting up with fellow bloggers while traveling, giving advice to followers via email or comments, or simply making new friends based on shared common interests. Case in point: I would have never made any effort to go out east to La Rioja had it not been for the community I’ve gotten plugged into in the Spain expat/travel blogosphere.

Logroño, La Rioja, Spain
Tree-like columns inside the cathedral
When I first applied to teach English in Spain way back in 2011, I closely followed Liz Carlson’s Young Adventuress blog, as she was working that year as an auxiliar de conversación in Logroño, the capital of the Rioja region. She raved and raved about this under-appreciated region, its fabulous pinchos, and of course its namesake wine. Although she put Logroño on my travel radar, the city never really moved into my “essential visits” list.

Fast-forward to this school year, when my longtime blogger friend Mike began working as a language assistant in the city. We both had made plans to meet up at some point this year, whether in Santiago or La Rioja, but when December rolled around and I had an extra-long holiday weekend, I jumped at the chance to buy train tickets and headed out east.

Logroño, La Rioja, Spain
Typical Castilian balconied homes
On my way to Rioja, I made a pitstop in Burgos about two hours west, where I explored its heavenly Gothic cathedral and snacked on smoky roasted chestnuts. When I finally arrived in Logroño, I honestly felt like I was still in the same region—and to an extent, I still was, as the autonomous community of Rioja was broken off from the historic region of Castilla only in the 1970s. The scent of garlicky dishes drifted out of the windows of colorful balconied homes, people walking by on the street had loud conversations in “proper” Castilian Spanish, and a deep blue sky contrasted with warm sandstone churches.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Photo Post: The Gothic Cathedral of Burgos, Spain

Burgos Cathedral
The cimborrio in the transept
Sitting at the top of my travel hitlist for this school year was the north-central Spanish city of Burgos, one of the major stops along the Camino de Santiago’s popular French Route. Although it’s five hours away from Santiago by car and close to approximately zero major airports, I was still determined to swing by this provincial capital, if only to check out its World Heritage-listed Gothic cathedral.

Back in early December an opportunity to visit Burgos finally presented itself to me: I would take the day train out here before transferring to a bus on my way to Logroño to visit my friend Mike. I’ll be talking more on the region of La Rioja in the days to come, but safe to say I was delighted to explore what is now one of my top ten favorite cathedrals in Spain.

Burgos Cathedral
West façade
Tourism boards love to brag that Burgos’s cathedral is the only one in all of Spain to be declared a World Heritage Site on its own, unlike many others (e.g., Santiago, Córdoba, Salamanca) that form part of a larger protected old town). I’m not sure if this means the cathedral is simply outstanding, or that the rest of Burgos’s old town wasn’t worth declaring as a World Heritage Site…but I digress.

The cathedral was built between 1221 and 1260 in what was then called simply the “French Style.” Inspired by designs from the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains, French Gothic architecture slowly made its way across the Camino de Santiago and influenced both the cathedral here in Burgos and further west in León, whose cathedral wows visitors with wall-to-wall stained glass.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Castro de Baroña: Celtic Seaside Ruins

Castro de Baroña
Castro de Baroña
Apart from the Roman walls of Lugo and the refurbished Tower of Hercules in A Coruña, Galicia doesn’t have much going for it in terms of ancient ruins. However, you can still catch a fleeting glimpse of its long-lost Celtic heritage in ruins scattered across the region, like a hilltop perch in A Guarda that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. These castros or pre-Roman fortifications consisting of circular stone huts were built all over Galicia and even lasted throughout Roman times.

Castro de Baroña
Fishing on the beach
While on a weekend trip to coastal Ribeira, about an hour or so west of Santiago de Compostela, I daytripped with a friend of a friend, who drove me around the area and gave me the chance to experience the wonders that the peninsula called O Barbanza has to offer, like mobile sand dunes and even a dolmen (prehistoric megalithic burial mound). On the northern coast of this mountainous peninsula, we stopped off for a few minutes to check out the Castro de Baroña, probably the most impressive ruins from Galicia’s Celtic past.

Castro de Baroña
Prehistoric street
What made these ruins so interesting wasn’t so much the stone foundations themselves as it was the natural backdrop. The pre-Roman builders took full advantage of the setting when they decided to construct a fortification here: except for a narrow, rocky isthmus this hill would otherwise be an island surrounded by rough seas, and the nearby beaches that attract (nudist!) bathers today would have been the perfect source for fresh seafood.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ribeira, Spain: A Galician Mariners Village

Corrubedo lighthouse, Ribeira, Spain
Corrubedo Lighthouse
I teach English at an elementary school in Boiro, which is just one of half a dozen cities that dot a mountainous peninsula called O Barbanza. This small region on Galicia’s western Atlantic coast is blessed with windy forested hills, expansive beaches, and a fertile habitat for growing mussels. At the very far southwestern tip of this peninsula lies the town of Ribeira, the capital and largest city of the comarca or county of Barbanza.

Back in November, I finally took the bus past Boiro for the first time to meet up with some fellow language assistants who work in the area and really enjoyed my time in Ribeira—in spite of the torrential rains that are all too common in Galicia in the fall and winter.

What is Ribeira all about?

Ribeira, Spain
In Ribeira city
There’s absolutely no question that Ribeira lives off of the sea. As one of the most important fishing ports in Spain and all of Europe, this city receives the catches that folks bring in from all over the northwestern Galician coast and out into the Atlantic; it’s not uncommon to see fish in Santiago de Compostela’s market that were first delivered to the lonxa de Ribeira, the main commercial fish market in town.

As Ribeira is a major fishing village, its residents unsurprisingly talk like mariners. Here, the harsh gheada accent dominates; the word for “black cat,” o gato negro, would be pronounced with a deep, guttural G sound like so: “o KHAH-to NAY-khro.” Locals represent their dialect on Facebook by replacing the G with the letter J, as in Spanish: Jalicia, qué jrande, etc. In fact, several of the students at my school further east speak this way!

Ribeira, Spain
Looking out to the Ría de Arousa estuary
Ribeira is also a huge center for the fish canning industry. Tuna, sardines, and mussels are all tinned in small factories here in this city, continuing a tradition that the Catalans introduced the region to a couple centuries ago. Most of the fish is caught locally, cooked not long after, and preserved in Spanish olive oil. Back home I was never a fan of canned sardines (too stinky!) but after living in Galicia I’ve acquired a taste for these small cheap fish that are packed with nutrients.

Apart from a couple old homes and a small Neoclassical parish church, there really isn’t much to see in Ribeira as most of the city has been built over the past couple decades (which coincided with increased summertime tourism to Ribeira’s fine beaches). However, outside of the city center there’s a handful of cool things to check out, so make sure to rent a car if you’re ever passing through the region!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Photo Post: Valença do Minho, Portugal

Valença do Minho, Portugal
Turret in the fortress-like old town
After snooping around the interesting cathedral in Tui last November, my friends and I hopped back in the car and crossed the Miño River, and in doing so also crossed into Portugal from Spain. On the other side of the river, the town of Valença do Minho sits on a commanding hilltop and is just as Portuguese as Tui is Spanish: houses are decorated with pretty azulejos or colorful tiles, the locals speak indecipherable European Portuguese, and small parish churches show off their jaunty Baroque domes and whitewashed walls.

Valença do Minho, Portugal
Spaniards with bags of linens
For Spaniards, especially those living in Galicia, the main draw of Valença is shopping. Portuguese-made linens, like sheets, towels, and blankets are both affordable and of high quality, so Spanish people dash south of the border, load up their car trunks and bus holds with bags of linens in Valença, and then head back home. It’s not uncommon for espanhóis (as they’re called in Portuguese) to pick up a bottle of vinho verde wine or a kilo of not-burnt natural, non-torrefacto coffee before returning to Spain.

Valença do Minho, Portugal
The main shopping drag
Apart from shopping, Valença do Minho didn’t really have that much to offer except for the novelty of feeling like you were in another country. (Although I’ve been told it’s a great place to try Portuguese bacalhau or cod). Northern Portugal has so much more to offer: Porto’s crumbling riverside, Braga’s stunning Baroque churches, and Guimarães’ medieval castle. But it makes a nice pitstop on your way from Galicia south into Portugal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tui, a Cathedral Town on the Spanish-Portuguese Border

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Granite + greenery = Galicia
When I began my second year teaching in Galicia, I knew I wanted to go the completionist route and hit up all five of Galicia’s cathedrals and all seven of the region’s historical provincial capitals. Some of them, like Pontevedra, were only a quick train ride south from Santiago, but there were others, like Mondoñedo, that ended up being in distant valleys far from home and required a car to get there. So naturally I jumped at the chance to explore the border town of Tui when two Spanish friends invited me to ride with them down there for a traditional autumn dinner in their village.

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Gothic façade
Outside of Tui’s city center (mere minutes from Portugal) we settled down at the Ribadelouro community center, where they were selling 10€ tickets for an all-you-can-eat cookout supper. My housemate and I were the only two non-Spaniards in attendance that evening; everyone else had probably grown up in the countryside or was married to someone who did. It was sometimes difficult to follow along with the conversations as there were a good hundred or so people eating in a loud communal dining hall, but we made it work in some mixture of Galician and Spanish.

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Gothic sculpted portico
The dinner itself was out of control. We started off with plates of chewy chorizo and the most tender orellas (pig ear) I’ve ever had, lightly seasoned with olive oil and smoked paprika. The main course was carne ao caldeiro, enormous hunks of beef boiled in a pot (a caldeiro) along with potatoes and a little bit of lard for flavor. And then came the desserts. And the café de pota (drip coffee). And then the sobremesa: that conversation you have when you’re too stuffed to get up from the table so you just sit and chat until things digest.