Friday, January 30, 2015

Zamora, Spain: An Open-Air Museum of Romanesque Architecture

There are a few parts of Spain that I know really well, places like Jaén province in Andalucía to the south, the populated western coast of Galicia, or even central Madrid to a degree. Others are just completely off the radar for me: Madrid’s bedroom community of Guadalajara, coastal Castelló de la Plana, or the Basque Country’s inland capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Had it not been for my friend and fellow Spain blogger Kaley (who writes at Y Mucho Más), the northern Spanish city of Zamora would have been relegated to this proverbial no-man’s-land in my mind as it typically gets lost between pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago to the north (e.g., Burgos, León, etc.) or weekenders hitting up Salamanca and Ávila to the south.

Zamora, Spain
View of Zamora from across the Duero River
You see, Kaley’s husband is a native of Zamora, and so, naturally, she has talked a lot about the city and province of the same name a lot on her blog. Having followed her posts for the past several years, I was eventually inspired to check out this mid-sized Spanish city in the Leonese half of the huge Castilla y León region in Spain’s meseta or north-central plateau.

On my way back to Santiago from Madrid this fall, I made a two-night pitstop in Zamora, which is conveniently located along the train line from the capital to Galicia. Coincidentally enough, Kaley and her husband happened to be visiting the in-laws that same weekend so I was fortunate enough to be able to go out in the evenings with some local zamoranos and visit all their favorite haunts. I loved partaking in the custom of the bote, in which a group of friends pool, say, ten euros each and then go from place to place getting a tapa, something to drink, and maybe a platter of fried peppers to share and then moving on.

I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to try pinchos morunos—pork shish-kabobs topped with creamy molten cheese—and potato omelet that had spicy tripe stew sauce drizzled over it. All the while Kaley, her husband, their friends and family, and I code-switched back and forth between Spanish and English depending on who spoke (or wanted to practice) what language. It was a great experience to get shown around this anonymous Spanish city by longtime residents and not feel like an outsider or tourist, if only for a few hours. (Thanks, Kaley!)

Zamora, Spain
Plaza de Santa Lucía
During the day, though, my inner history nerd had a heyday getting to explore one of the finest concentrations of Romanesque architecture anywhere in Europe. From the austere but well-preserved cathedral to half a dozen atmospheric parish churches, Zamora offers what is essentially a free, open-air museum of the first pan-European architectural movement that emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire. Common from the 1000s through the 1200s, churches built in the Romanesque style typically have semicircular arches and barrel vaults, ornately-sculpted entrances and column capitals, and thick, heavy walls that only allow for narrow windows…and thus rather gloomy interiors.

I can’t get enough of the Romanesque, so I hope my enthusiasm for this most medieval of movements inspires you to pass through Zamora one day, too.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Goals for My Last Year in Spain

It’s almost February, and that means there’s only one more month of wintry coldness left to endure—but also that my contract to work as a language assistant here in Spain is halfway up. I’ve got four more months left until it’s time to start writing the dreaded “The End” to this volume of my life and figure out what the name of the next book is called. I’ll keep y’all updated, but for now I’ve got some big, and hopefully attainable, goals I’d like to accomplish by the end of June this year.

How my trip to China fell apart

Foggy night in Vigo
Originally, I had been planning on flying out to China in June to take advantage of 475€ round-trip flights from Madrid to Beijing; from Dallas it costs twice or three times as much. My college roommate is currently teaching English in Beijing and two other good friends from college are also teaching out west in Xi’an. I was looking forward to making a Grand Tour of the country, swinging down to Shanghai and maybe even a tea plantation on the way back to Beijing.

This weekend while I was FaceTime-ing with my roommate from college, we got to talking about our plans to travel around the Middle Kingdom together in June. He gave me the green light to go ahead and start the visa application process, which involves buying plane tickets before you go down to the embassy in Madrid to apply. Later that evening, once I started seriously looking into the procedures, I learned that China has been cracking down on people who apply for visas outside of the country they got their passport in.

I’ve also been losing a lot of sleep over my Spanish residency (or lack thereof) come June, as my TIE card expires May 31st. I was planning on getting a round-trip ticket to Beijing, but I feared the worst upon returning to Madrid because I would be leaving the Schengen Area after an eight-month stay and returning a mere three weeks later. Non EU-resident tourists must leave the Schengen Area for 90 days after spending three months in the region. Many language assistants claim we get an “automatic tourist visa” once our TIE is up to travel freely, but I don’t buy it. (And I don’t want to risk getting deported or being blacklisted from returning.)

In the end I had to cancel my China trip, but thankfully I did this before purchasing any non-refundable plane tickets.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

10 Things to Do in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela is a real crowd-pleaser. My family came to Spain to visit me for the holidays this December, flying into Madrid before all of us hopped on the train up to Segovia and Santiago for two nights each before returning to the capital for New Year’s Eve. Last school year I had two American friends I met in Jaén province down south stay with me while we explored Galicia, and I’m expecting at least two more friends to visit Santiago this spring.

Safe to say, after visiting dozens of museums, churches, and parks, I’ve whittled down what I think are the ten essentials of any visit to the Galician capital. If you’ve got limited time, stick to the cathedral, the market, and octopus-eating, but if you can stick around for longer I hope you can try to hit up everything on this list.

1) Enter the Cathedral

10 things to do in Santiago de Compostela
Obradoiro façade
Take away the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the city—both past and present—would literally fall apart. Santiago, the capital of Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia, was founded on the belief that the relics of the Apostle James the Greater were discovered in the year 820 in this lonely outpost of Christian Spain—back when the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba dominated the peninsula. Over the centuries, devotion to St. James grew and grew causing millions of Catholics to set off from all corners of Europe and hike on foot to Galicia: the Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James.”

10 things to do in Santiago de Compostela
Barrel vaulting in the main nave
The cathedral we can see today is actually the third such church to occupy the purported burial ground of St. James. Constructed in the austere Romanesque style between 1075 and 1211, grand Gothic cloisters were later built to the south and an over-the-top remodeling left almost no corner untouched during the Baroque era. There’s a lot going on here, from façades and side-chapels to palaces and bell towers, so I’ve put together a guided tour that will take you all around the exterior of the cathedral and then in a similar circuit inside the church.

I recommend reserving a spot on a guided tour of the cubiertas or cathedral rooftop. Not only is it a unique experience to explore a place normally off-limits in a cathedral, but it’s also an enlightening way to learn more about this building dripping in history. The views are pretty great, too!

Monday, January 19, 2015

The 3 Reasons I Fell in Love with Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I think it says a lot about the city of Santiago de Compostela—up here in Spain’s green northwest corner—that I stuck around for another year here despite it raining every single day for two months straight last winter. For some people, that might be a deal-breaker, but I held out hope that the following year wouldn’t be so bad…and I’m only just now breaking out my umbrella and rain boots for the first time in nearly two months.

3 reasons to love Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral’s west façade…before the scaffolding went up
So what is it about this enchanting city that made me renew my apartment lease for one more school year? Read on to learn about what I love so much about the Galician capital.

1) The granite old town

3 reasons to love Santiago de Compostela
Rúa do Vilar in the old town
I love old towns just as much as the next guy, but there’s something magical about Santiago’s that makes it irresistible. Declared a World Heritage Site alongside the cathedral, this historic center once circled by medieval walls deserves as much attention as the 800-year-old church it grew up around. Its centuries-old houses are built from local granite, sometimes whitewashed save for the windows, sometimes letting the natural stone show, and often capped with glassed-in balconies called galerías.

Two of the major streets in the southern half of the old town—Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova—are bounded on either side by soportales or arched, covered walkways that spring out from these homes and provide shelter from the rain. It’s fun to dash back and forth across the street from one side of the road to the other in an attempt to stay dry when it’s pouring rain.

When the rain does inevitably let up in the evening, the granite streets glisten in the lamplight. Some of the sett stones used for paving the many rúas in Santiago are earthy and brown, others cold and gray. But wander around at night when the old town is reflected in this mirror, listen to the baritone of the cathedral’s bells calling out the hour, carefully avoid the puddles that hide in the middle of the road as you hop from tapa to tapa—and you’ll catch Santiago at its most dazzling.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Huxhams Invade Spain

This past Christmas break, rather than hopping on a train or a plane and exploring another European country like France or Italy like I did the past two breaks, I stayed in Spain. I was originally planning on going home to spend the holidays with my family, not only because I didn’t feel like traveling for 2+ weeks and draining my savings, but also because I had been away from home on Christmas for two straight years.

Family visits Spain
Family selfie in front of a Christmas tree in Madrid
However, that all changed when my dad texted me early last year wanting to bounce off the idea of flying the family over to Spain so we could all spend Christmas together. Back home during the summer I had always joked about them coming to visit; after all, they would have a free tour guide and translator! I wasn’t expecting my parents to actually seriously consider making a trip across the ocean to come visit, so I was surprised (and excited!) when I learned that my mom had finally come over to the idea of a six-night jaunt across the country. My brother had gone on a trip to Italy once in high school, but neither of my parents had ever left the U.S. before—so it was a big leap of faith for them to commit to taking a vacation in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language.

I’m so glad they did, because the four of us had a blast running around Spain between the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day. It wasn’t without its challenges, and jetlag, lots of walking, weird food options, and translating from Spanish to English left us all pretty pooped at the end of each day, but we made the most of the short time that we had together as a family and got to experience a lot of this exciting country.

Everyone enjoyed Spain in the end, but we ran into a little turbulence at the beginning when American Airlines canceled my family’s flight from Dallas to Madrid. I found this out while attempting to fall asleep on the night train to Madrid, and promptly freaked out and got zero sleep that night. They ultimately got on the next plane to London and from there made their way down to Spain, but we lost our whole first day in the capital.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rediscovering the Magic of Segovia, Spain

Jetlagged, running on little sleep, and exhausted from the go-go-go life of touring Madrid, my family and I daze out on four spacious seats that face each other while riding the high-speed Avant train from Madrid. The train rumbles beneath a mountain going 250 km/h (155 mph) and sharp blue security lighting regularly whooshes by the windows. The ride is so smooth it feels like we’re flying through the Earth…and then we emerge from the darkness on the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range: welcome to Castilla.

Segovia, Spain
Segovia-Guiomar train station
As the train begins to brake for its approach to the Segovia-Guiomar station, we look out the windows and gasp in excitement at the powdered-sugar dusting on the mountains we just cut through. Thankfully, the snow is limited to the mountaintops; the brown, desolate fields that undulate for miles around are dry and lifeless, except for a few steers who are unamused at our arrival.

Once we’re settled the shuttle bus, we anxiously crane our necks for a glimpse of the monuments Segovia’s old town is home to: the Roman aqueduct, the late-Gothic cathedral, or the fairy-tale Alcázar castle.

As the city bus rattles down a curve paved in granite cobblestone, the aqueduct finally comes into our view. It dominates the busy Plaza de la Artillería and effortlessly leaps from one hillside to the other on forty-four double arches. Colossal granite blocks rest one on top of each other as they have for the past two thousand years, without mortar, and each arch’s keystone floats incredibly without support, demonstrating the ingenuity of Roman engineering.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Guided Tour Inside & Around the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Take away the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the city—both past and present—would literally fall apart. Santiago, the capital of Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia, was founded on the belief that the relics of the Apostle James the Greater were discovered in the year 820 in this lonely outpost of Christian Spain—back when the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba dominated the peninsula. Over the centuries, devotion to St. James grew and grew causing millions of Catholics to set off from all corners of Europe and hike on foot to Galicia: the Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James.”

Guided tour of Santiago de Compostela cathedral
The passageway leading into Praza do Obradoiro
The cathedral we can see today is actually the third such church to occupy the purported burial ground of St. James. Constructed in the austere Romanesque style between 1075 and 1211, grand Gothic cloisters were later built to the south and an over-the-top remodeling left almost no corner untouched during the Baroque era. There’s a lot going on here, from façades and side-chapels to palaces and bell towers, so I’ve put together a guided tour that will take you all around the exterior of the cathedral and then in a similar circuit inside the church.

The tour starts at Praza do Obradoiro, the largest and grandest square in Santiago, just west of the cathedral. Go down a tunnel-like passageway, where there are often bagpipe players performing traditional Galician music, and head for the center of the plaza.

Praza do Obradoiro (west façade)

Guided tour of Santiago de Compostela cathedral
Praza do Obradoiro
Once you’re oriented in the plaza, look around for a few minutes and simply take in the views, as they’re some of the best in the country. When the cathedral was being built, the obradoiro or workshop would have been set up along the hill in front of the church and was where stonemasons would have prepared huge blocks of granite or carved sculptures. Although the workshop has been dismantled for 800 years, the name stuck. Today tourists frustrated with the rain mingle here with pilgrims joyously celebrating the end of their journey. Biking groups line up side-by-side while those who came on foot simply lie down in exhaustion.

Guided tour of Santiago de Compostela cathedral
Obradoiro façade
Look up at the cathedral. The church’s west façade is one of the most beautiful in the country, if not all of Europe, and is featured on the obverse of Spain’s one-, two-, and five-cent Euro coins. This exuberant façade would be unrecognizable to Europeans from the Middle Ages, however, as it completely substituted the earlier one that was designed when the cathedral was built.