Thursday, November 30, 2017

The 7 Major Cities of Galicia, Spain

Galicia in northwest Spain is famous for its lush green countryside. Standing in stark contrast to the dry, high plains of central Spain, Galicia’s wooded hills guard a landscape that reminds many visitors of Ireland or the Pacific Northwest, and its thousands of small towns preserve distinct accents, delicious dishes, and centuries-old festivals.

Yet today, most Galicians live in cities scattered along the Atlantic coast, a region that the train company Renfe refers to as the eje atlántico. This “Atlantic Axis” stretches from Vigo at the southern edge, through Pontevedra and Santiago de Compostela, and ends on the northern coast at A Coruña and Ferrol. Keep reading to learn what makes these big cities and others tick.

1) Vigo

Vigo boasts 292,817 residents, making it Galicia’s most populous city. Strategically situated along the Ría de Vigo, an estuary on Galicia’s southwest Atlantic coast, Vigo has Europe’s second-most important fishing port. Because of this, the fish canning industry is huge here—and the fresh oysters are second to none. Apart from good seafood, there’s not much to draw you to Vigo’s old town, and the newer parts of the city were built so quickly and haphazardly over the last century that they are, in a word, uninspiring. Fortunately, ferries depart multiple times a day for the city’s Cíes Islands, three pristine islands that float out at the mouth of the estuary and offer white-sands beaches and forest hikes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

How to Spend a Week in Galicia, Spain

There is SO. MUCH. to see in Spain that you could live there for decades and still not manage to see the entire country. From beaches to mountains, big cities to villages, and national parks and monuments, Spain is home to a rich and diverse heritage of culture, history, food, and languages.

This can sometimes be overwhelming for folks who want to travel to Spain but who only have a limited amount of time. Cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, and Granada all beckon, yet so do cozy corners of the country like Asturias and Aragón…not to mention the 3,000 miles of coastline and myriad of islands.

My recommendation for this quintessential #FirstWorldProblem is to focus on a single region or part of the country and get to know that one part really well over the course of a week. Rather than a whirlwind tour where you spend 1-2 days in the biggest metropolitan areas that are scattered at huge distances across the country, traveling like this slows you down and saves you the stress of forever catching that next train or flight; plus, it also lets you savor a region’s unique character.

Having lived for two years in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, I’ve put together a suggested itinerary for folks interested in spending a week in northwest Spain.

This circuit starts in A Coruña, where you could fly in via Iberia or Vueling, but you could just as easily start this trip in Ourense or Lugo as a road trip from Madrid.

Day 1: A Coruña

A Coruña, Spain
A Coruña
Arrive in A Coruña in the early morning and introduce yourself to Galicia at a local café-bar. A small plate of sugar-drizzled churros will get you started for breakfast. Spend your first day in Galicia by exploring Coruña’s old town, by checking out museums and military forts, and by strolling along the oceanfront promenade, where you can appreciate the beauty of the city’s galerías or glassed-in balconies that stretch from one house to the next. An essential part of any visit to the Glass City is the Tower of Hercules, a monumental lighthouse that has been in continuous use since Roman times. What to eat here? A mariscada, or seafood platter, that you can order at any of the restaurants behind the Praza de María Pita square.

Sleep in A Coruña

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The 4 Natural Wonders of Galicia, Spain

Spain’s far northwestern corner is only a third the size of the U.S. state of Indiana, but it’s got a plethora of manmade sights that are truly astonishing, from the historic old town of Santiago de Compostela and the Tower of Hercules, a monumental lighthouse that has been in service since Roman times, to the slate-stone Roman city walls that encircle Lugo.

There’s a lot of monuments that nature has created as well. The region of Galicia sometimes feels a world away from the rest of Spain with its rugged terrain, rainy climate, and green forested landscapes. This unique setting has given us some jaw-dropping scenery that sets Galicia apart from the flat, high plains of central Spain or the overdeveloped beaches of the Mediterranean.

1) Ribeira Sacra — Galicia’s grand canyon

Sil Canyon, Spain
Sil Canyon
Although nothing can live up to the majestic scenery and diversity of ecosystems that Arizona’s Grand Canyon offers, Galicia’s own “grand canyon” comes pretty close. The name Ribeira Sacra or “Sacred Riverbanks” has been applied to the Sil River Canyon that cuts deep into the granite massif of central Galicia because this austere, isolated landscape was home to no fewer than 18 monasteries from the early Middle Ages onward.

Sil Canyon, Spain
Sil Canyon
The human activity here only serves to make the natural surroundings that more stunning. Tour boats cruise the Sil as it flows through here, minuscule against the vast canyon walls. Weathered Romanesque monasteries hewn from the earth beneath them reveal the building materials that sustain the Cañón do Sil today. And a glass of rich red Mencía wine lets you taste the unique terroir of a wine-producing whose stair-stepped terraces were originally planted by monks.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

My 10 Favorite Cathedrals in Spain

Eighty-seven—that’s the number of Catholic cathedrals in Spain today. Although I didn’t grow up Catholic (I’m a Southern Baptist turned Episcopalian), this church nerd managed to visit 26 of Spain’s cathedrals that span a multitude of architectural styles and layouts when I lived in the country from 2012 to 2015.

Why cathedrals? There’s nothing intrinsic about a cathedral that automatically makes them big and beautiful; they’re simply home to the cathedra or seat of a bishop. But from the Middle Ages onward, bishops enjoyed great social status, and the churches where they presided reflected this prestige with monumental works of architecture. (Fun fact: Barcelona’s soaring Sagrada Família is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of the bishop of the diocese of Barcelona).

With so many cathedrals to see in Spain, it’s hard to know what to focus on. Below I’ve composed a list of my top ten favorite ones, which includes crowd-favorites like the cathedral of Sevilla as well as off-the-radar churches like Teruel Cathedral.

1) Córdoba

Mosque-Cathedral, Córdoba, Spain
The prayer halls
Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral almost single-handedly drew me to Spain so many years ago (almost, because the other hand was the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage). What was once the Grand Mosque of Córdoba, and today is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, deserves the title of the most interesting building in the world.

In many ways, the Mosque-Cathedral is a microcosm of Spanish history. Here, spolia or repurposed Roman columns decorate the prayer hall that seems to stretch to infinity. A glassed-over crevice in the floor offers a glimpse of the old Visigothic church upon which the mosque was built in the 700s. The dizzying array of double arches that fly from one column to the next are a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, but the horseshoe arch itself that today we think of as quintessentially Islamic was actually borrowed from the Visigoths in Iberia. The dazzling mihrab or niche that orients prayer toward Mecca is dripping in gold that was a gift of the Byzantine emperor, a gift when Spain was at the center of the civilized world.

The mihrab
And then there’s the main chapel, a towering Gothic/Renaissance cross-shaped hall built in the dead-center of the old mosque. This intrusion is so abrupt, it seems as if a cathedral from northern Spain has been teleported to the south and dropped on top of the prayer halls. In many ways, this is a metaphor for what happened in the Late Middle Ages as Christian armies “re-” conquered the Muslim kingdoms of Andalucía and ultimately expelled Jews and Muslims a few centuries later.

A #ProTip for visiting the Mosque-Cathedral: you can visit for free—without tour groups!—between 8:30am and 9:30am, Monday through Saturday, in the quiet cool of the morning. I also recommend an additional summit of the bell tower, which envelops the old minaret and gives you a unique perspective of the Mosque-Cathedral’s architectural evolution.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Seeing D.C. Through a Local’s Eyes

Earlier this spring, right around the time I was grudgingly turning my apartment’s A/C back on in hot, hot Phoenix, I got to escape a busy season at work for an extended weekend in chillier Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.
I had already visited my nation’s capital five years earlier, getting to check off the Senate galleries, the Supreme Court, all the Smithsonian museums, and a hostel-sponsored pub crawl in Georgetown. So I wasn’t necessarily returning to do touristy things. Instead, I got to reconnect with one of the best American friends I made when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain—Priyanka—and I got to see this exciting city through the eyes of somebody who has made the city her home.

I fell in love with D.C. all over again over the course of this long, low-stress, no-pressure weekend. We did a lot of walking, a lot of eating, but not a lot of sightseeing per se, and I am 100% O.K. with that. Sometimes when traveling we get so swept up in checking off a list of monuments and museums that we forget to enjoy ourselves! After a weekend of hanging out in a world-class city, I returned to Phoenix feeling refreshed.

Below are the highlights of my return visit to this expensive, international, and walkable city.

Free simple pleasures

Let’s be honest: D.C. is a really expensive city to live in, so free stuff and activities are the name of the game in the nation’s capital. When rents for a room in a shared apartment start at $1,000 and go up from there…you figure out how to make a paycheck stretch pretty quickly. Fortunately, D.C. has a plethora of free things to see and do, and I’m not even touching on the Smithsonian museums! Apart from restaurant meals and metro passes, essentially everything I did on my four-day jaunt here was free.

Washington, D.C.
(Source: Ted Eytan)
My first stop was right around the corner from Union Station: the headquarters of NPR. This was something of a pilgrimage for me, as I’m currently working for the NPR member station for the Phoenix area, but I’ve also been listening to public radio for years so it was fun to see where all the magic happens. In true fanboy fashion, I wore my NPR t-shirt and freaked out when I saw All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro walking through the lobby.

Free tours are given weekdays at 11am that take you through their biggest production studios, up to the broadcast areas where major shows are produced, over the newsroom, past the Tiny Desk (of Tiny Desk Concert fame), and back down to the ground floor where the gift shop is.

Washington, D.C.
Tidal Basin
I specifically visited D.C. at the end of March because I wanted my trip to coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin southwest of the National Mall. Pictures always made springtime along the Basin look dazzling, from the obviously-gorgeous pink flowers that take over the park to national monuments perfectly framed by pastel tree boughs.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Photo Post: Going Out for Vermouth in Reus, Spain

When people come to Spain for a visit they almost always try to get a glass (or three) of sangría, but to Spaniards this comes across as bizarre, as sangría is typically only consumed at parties, big family gatherings, or Sunday cookouts. It’d be like ordering spiked fruit punch at a sit-down restaurant in the States…just weird.

Instead of sangría, to get that iced-wine fix, Spaniards often order tinto de verano, which is simply a tall glass of red wine with lemon soda, ice, and maybe an orange or lemon slice. Fast and simple, refreshing but not inebriating, it’s a great choice for those hot summer months.

Reus, Spain
Miró vermouth at the Museu del Vermut
An authentic pre-dinner option is vermouth, a beverage that has seen an explosion in popularity in just the past few years as the younger generation has rediscovered this traditional Spanish drink. But what exactly is vermouth? Simply put: fortified, aromatized wine. Vermouth makers take a neutral spirit and macerate it with selections of up to 70 different herbs, spices, and roots that lend a medicinal quality to the drink. After letting these botanicals work their magic, manufacturers add white wine (not red), caramel (for coloring), and sugar to finish the product.

Reus, Spain
Rofes vermouth + snacks
Vermouth has been around for over a hundred years in Spain, first introduced from France and Italy via the small northeastern town of Reus (pronounced “RAY-oos” [rɛws]). In that time, Spaniards—especially the Catalans—developed a fun, simple tradition around imbibing vermouth called fer el vermut.” Literally “doing vermouth,” this custom involves going out to the bar down the street from your house with friends and family to order a glass or two of vermouth before midday dinner while nibbling on salty snacks like olives, potato chips, and gourmet tinned seafood (like mussels). Once you’ve worked up an appetite with this apéritif, it’s time to go back upstairs and have dinner.

Reus, Spain
Memorabilia at the Museu del Vermut

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ribeira Sacra: The Grand Canyon of Galicia

I’ve been living in the state of Arizona for over a year now (more on that in an upcoming post), and in that time I’ve learned there’s really no topping the Grand Canyon—it’s the Grandest Canyon, in fact.

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
The Sil Canyon
That being said, before I moved to Arizona I visited what you could call the “Grand Canyon of Galicia”—a canyon carved by the Sil River as it passes through northwest Spain. But whereas Arizona’s canyon takes the cake for majestic views and hiking opportunities, the Sil River Canyon stands out because it forms the backbone of a cultural landscape called the Ribeira Sacra, the “Sacred Riverbank” of Galicia.

Why “Sacred Riverbank”?

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
Monastery rooftop by the river
This region takes its name from the plethora of monasteries that were founded here in the Dark Ages in this most isolated part of the Iberian Peninsula. The steep, rugged terrain on either side of the Sil River served as a perfect setting for hermits fleeing the chaos and pleasures of the world, although the eremetic monasteries quickly became cenobitic or community-oriented centers as the word got out. Ultimately 18 monasteries flourished here along the Sil River, leaving us with stunning examples of Romanesque architecture.

These monks also left us with another important heritage: wine. Still produced today using traditional methods—vineyards are planted on terraces along either side of the canyon—Ribeira Sacra wine is today one of Galicia’s five denominaciones de origen or protected regional varieties. Grapes commonly used include red Mencía and white Godello.

Walking off pound cake in the cloisters of the Monastery of Santo Estevo

Ribeira Sacra, Spain
A slice of bica at the Parador’s café
The most impressive monastery you can easily visit in this area also happens to be a hotel you can stay the night in. This parador or fancy state-run hotel lets you sleep in luxury and avoid 2am wake-up calls for morning prayer, but it’s also a great place to try a slice of bica, or a pound cake with a sugary crust that’s commonly made in Ourense province.
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