Monday, April 20, 2015

Time-Traveling to the Dark Ages in Oviedo, Spain

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Church of Santa María del Naranco
Out of all the places we had on the hitlist for our Roommate Road Trip across Spain’s northern coast, I was most looking forward to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. This city’s pleasant old town, nestled between green mountains and full of restaurants that serve hearty traditional dishes like fabada bean stew, reminded me a lot of Santiago de Compostela’s.

Oviedo kept showing up on my travel radar because of its impressive collection of monuments that date back to the 800s CE—yes, you read that correctly; not 1800 but 800. My inner history geek couldn’t wait to check out three well-preserved pre-Romanesque churches, built in a style that blossomed in this part of Spain during the otherwise gloomy Dark Ages.

What does it mean to be “pre-Romanesque”?

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Carved capital on an engaged column
Also know as Asturian art, this architectural style was born in the earliest days of Spanish history, when the tiny Kingdom of Asturias ruled far-northern Spain. After Muslims from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, Christian nobles from the routed Visigothic kingdom fled the capital, Toledo, and regrouped in the hard-to-conquer northern mountains. What we now call the pre-Romanesque style flourished between their victory over the Moors at a skirmish in Covadonga in 722 and the departure of the royal court south to more-accessible León in 910.

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Stairs leading up to the Church of Santa María del Naranco
But enough history. What makes this so special? As the name would suggest, it was a precursor to the Romanesque, the first architectural style to be used across Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. But just as it looks forward to the movement that would create soaring cathedrals like the one in Santiago, it also looks back to the legacy of Rome. After all, in the 700s and 800s there was still plenty to see leftover from Roman times in Asturias—temples, houses, baths, you name it.

Abandoning the distinctive horseshoe arches from Visigothic times, Asturian architects reached further back and drew on the simple, semicircular Roman arch and threw it in everywhere it could fit: vaulted ceilings, windows, doors, and halls. They also were inspired to resurrect the basilica plan for their churches; this simply means having a long central nave or hall bounded by an aisle on either side, capped with three slanted roofs.

The few churches that remain from this two-century-long movement have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and for me I think the fact that they’ve lasted 1,200 years more or less intact, despite wars and bad weather, is just as fascinating as their unique architectural style.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tapas Crawl in the Spanish Capital with Madrid Food Tour

It can often be really intimidating to visit a new country, especially if you don’t speak the language, aren’t acquainted with cultural habits and customs, or aren’t familiar with the local cuisine apart from one or two famous dishes. Even the simple act of walking into a restaurant can be an anxiety-inducing feat: how are you supposed to greet the servers, when is it appropriate to eat lunch or dinner, and what exactly should I order?

Madrid Food Tour
Grilled mushrooms
This is exactly what happened to me when I was in Germany for a few days last week and Portugal last year; I didn’t do my research and was forever frustrated when it came time to eat.

I can only imagine that many tourists have similar experiences when they come to Spain for the first time. The three years I’ve got under my belt have made me feel so very comfortable in this country: I know the polite set phrases you’re supposed to say when entering a restaurant, asking for more food, or going up to pay; plus picture-less menus and unlabeled trays of food at the bar don’t scare me at all. But not everyone has the luxury to live abroad in Spain, and apart from the stereotypical sangría + paella combo, lots of times people simply just don’t know where to start with Spanish cooking.

A different kind of guided tour

Madrid Food Tour
Translucent sliced cured ham
Enter Madrid Food Tours. Founded a few years ago by language assistant-turned-entrepreneur Lauren Aloise, this company offers visitors a chance to get an authentic taste of Spanish food by recreating the tapas bar hopping and market shopping that madrileños do every day. English-speaking tour guides lead small groups of no more than ten from place to place around Madrid’s historic center, eschewing the touristy restaurants that advertise defrosted paellas in favor of small, decades-old joints frequented mostly by locals.

Madrid Food Tours offers a handful of options to get to know the city with your stomach, but I chose to join in on their evening “Tapas, Taverns, & History” tour while I was in town for Holy Week vacation this March. Debbie, a gregarious Londoner who’s called Madrid home for five years, took our group under her wings and introduced us to some of the best restaurants in the city.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lastres, Luanco, & Llanes: Highlights of the Eastern Coast of Asturias

Llanes, Spain
Llanes sunset
Pastoral scenes of grazing cows, quaint fishing villages, cinematic landscapes featuring terrifying mountains, and weathered cliffs punctuated by secret beaches: the coast of Asturias in northern Spain really has it all, and walking the Camino del Norte pilgrimage would give you only an introduction to what the northern coast is all about.

After road-tripping through the highlights of Cantabria (a house by Gaudí, Spain’s “prettiest” village, and prehistoric cave art) and the wonders of Picos de Europa National Park, it was time to pivot east to Asturias and check out a handful of famous coastal villages. There’s a lot to see on the Asturian coast, but we decided to limit ourselves to the towns of Lastres, Luanco, and Llanes.


Lastres, Spain
The View to end all views
First stop: Lastres (also called Llastres in the Asturian language). Advertised as merely “one of” the prettiest villages in Spain, Lastres blew this understatement out of the water. I was first inspired to take a brief pitstop here after seeing Christine in Spain’s beautiful photographs of this town that hangs precariously off the hillside.

Lastres, Spain
Pretty petunias everywhere
It was a little difficult getting that postcard-perfect view, though, since we initially entered town at sea level. The sun was shining on the narrow switchbacks, we had the endless ocean to our right and clay-roofed houses to our left, and folks were out enjoying a pre-dinner drink on terrace cafés…safe to say it felt like we had stumbled into an Italian fragrance commercial.

Once the stoplight changed to green, we slowly crept up the one-way road to the top of the hill and found space to park near the Mirador de San Roque, the lookout point where I captured one of my most popular Instagrams to date.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Confession: Why I Can’t Stay in Spain Forever

This past Thursday, people on the Facebook groups for language assistants in Spain began posting elatedly that they had heard back from the Spanish government about getting placed in a region for the 2015-2016 school year. The placements started rolling in: Andalucía, Madrid, Castilla y León, and even an odd first-year getting placed alongside the priority renewals. I always enjoy the exciting atmosphere in the groups during this time of the year, as everyone is either simply euphoric at the opportunity to work in Spain or thrilled that they finally got assigned in their dream region.

Magnolias in the Parque do Paxonal
This begs the question: are you renewing for another year, Trevor? I know a lot of my followers are wondering if they should expect to continue learning for another year about Spain’s under-appreciated region of Galicia, its language, food, and villages; one more year living vicariously in Santiago de Compostela; yet another year getting to know Spain’s rich history and stunning architecture.

After three years working as an English language assistant in bilingual elementary schools, though, my time in Spain is drawing to a close. Once my contract ends on May 31st, I’ll have one last month to spend in this country before flying back to Dallas at the end of June. I haven’t renewed for the 2015-2016 school year and don’t have plans to transfer to any of the other similar, private English teaching programs.

These past three school years have been the best years of my life: I became fluent in Spanish (and learned Galician along the way); I traveled broadly—across southern and western Europe—and deeply, crossing off 14 of Spain’s 17 regions; I moved out of my parents’ house (if only for nine-month stretches) and learned how to cook for myself, from scratch; I gained practical, real-world experience teaching English, working in another country, and speaking another language; I continued to improve my writing skills by publishing twice weekly on this blog and pitching guest posts on other websites; and I made lifelong friends both Spanish and expat.

But the thing is, I’m ready to go home.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Hiking in Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park

One of my favorite things about the U.S. is our country’s rich heritage of natural monuments, from Arizona’s Grand Canyon to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I grew up taking family road trips out west to see the national parks and always hopped at the opportunity to go camping in The Natural State with my college’s Outdoor Rec program.

Picos de Europa National Park
Dusk in the Cares River Gorge
Apart from Galicia’s Cíes Islands and the Praia das Catedrais beach, my travels in Spain have been mostly limited to cultural treasures like cathedrals, castles, and cooking; natural wonders have been sorely lacking in my itineraries.

I made sure to fix this problem during the road trip my housemates and I took across Spain’s northern coast back in November: after getting coffee in cozy Cangas de Onís and appreciating la España profunda (“deep Spain”) at Covadonga, we drove deeper into the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park. Literally the “Peaks of Europe,” this compact collection of mountains sits at the center of the Cordillera Cantábrica, the east-west mountain range that forms the natural border between Spain’s northern coast and the flat meseta to the south.

But the Picos are more than just a geologic definition; they’ve got some of the most beautiful natural scenery I’ve seen in the country.

Cutting through heavy fog at the Lakes of Covadonga

Picos de Europa National Park
At least I got to recreate that Mac wallpaper
What Enol Lake looks like when it’s not foggy
The higher we drove up into the mountains, the foggier it got, and by the time we finally reached the Lakes of Covadonga, we could barely see the car in front of us. This was a major letdown because we had high hopes for these two glacial lakes floating ethereally in between craggy mountainheads. With clumps of mist hurrying by, we parked the rental car a little ways above the main loop drive and decided to make the most of the foggy day.

Picos de Europa National Park
Hopping to an island
As our cellphones were worthless in such a rural area (14km of switchbacks away from Covadonga), we didn’t want to risk getting lost in the disorienting fog, so we made one big circuit of Enol Lake, hugging the shore and scrambling over rocks and boulders. On a (mostly) dry patch of hillside we stopped for a small snack lunch of empanadas and PB&Js, contemplating the smooth, clear water of the lake in a chilled silence that was broken only by the cacophonous music of cowbells jingling on the opposite shore.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Guide to Santiago de Compostela for Pilgrims

I finished the Camino de Santiago almost two years ago, arriving in Santiago de Compostela a weary, dazed pilgrim who couldn’t get his bearings straight in the monumental old town. The skies were overcast, the cold weather chilled my shorts-clad legs, and all the plazas in this very gray city seemed to blend together; safe to say, it wasn’t the best of introductions to what would become my favorite place in Spain.

The next morning, I ended up getting the hell outta Dodge by starting the Camino de Fisterra, the extension hike that takes you to Spain’s Lands End on the Atlantic Ocean. Santiago had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I even regretted my decision to transfer up to Galicia for the coming school year.

I feel if I had had a better first impression of Santiago I wouldn’t have left the endpoint of the Way of St. James’ as disappointed and confused as I was. So I’m writing this post today to give future pilgrims something to use when they finish their Camino, so they don’t end up lost, grumpy, and exhausted like I was.

Getting oriented

Pilgrim guide to Santiago de Compostela
An overview map of town
Santiago revolves around the cathedral, so if you can find the church, you can get anywhere—don’t worry! You can walk from one end of the tiny old town to the other in around ten minutes but the rest of the city sprawls to the southwest and the northeast. Zona vieja, the “old zone,” is bounded by the tree-lined Alameda Park on one side and the sunny, picnic-friendly Belvís on the other. The French Way of the Camino enters the old town at its northeast corner via the historic Rúa de San Pedro.

Praza de Galicia is the true center of modern Santiago, a busy square at the southern edge of the old town and the very top of the new town. Called zona nueva or el ensanche, this 70s-era development of admittedly-ugly apartment blocks spreads out down the hillside toward the train station. Santiago’s university is split between Campus Sur, which begins to the west of the Alameda, and Campus Norte, based in the far north of the city.

A mini tour of the four plazas

No fewer than four monumental squares surround Santiago’s cathedral, so it’s easy to understand if you get all turned around. I’ve written an extensive introduction to the cathedral and its plazas, but here’s a condensed version of that “guided tour.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Photo Post: Monte do Viso in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Monte do Viso, Santiago de Compostela
Hiking through the forest
One of the things I love most about getting to live in Santiago de Compostela is having so many great hiking opportunities available within an hour of my doorstep. I talked about the various hikes you can take from Santiago on the blog a couple months ago, but I thought one of them merited a post in its own right.

While the most popular place to get an amazing, panoramic view of Santiago is from the summit of Monte Pedroso to the northwest of the old town, there’s another mountain to the southeast that offers similar vistas but with zero crowds: Monte do Viso.

Monte do Viso, Santiago de Compostela
Almost at the summit
Snuggled in between the futuristic Cidade da Cultura complex and the pilgrim checkpoint of Monte do Gozo, the barren, rocky summit of Monte do Viso looms over the heavily-trafficked Autopista do Atlántico below. The “viso” part of the name is a Spanish and Galician word that means “height or elevation, high point or place, which you can see and describe a lot of terrain from” (thanks RAE dictionary!). A lonely and unforgiving summit, yes, but a good place from which to take in the expanse of the modern city of Santiago.