Tuesday, September 13, 2016

All Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela

The Camino de Santiago phenomenon has completely taken Spain by storm over the past decade or so. This pilgrimage route originated in the early Middle Ages, fell out of popularity, and only recently has enjoyed newfound popularity with modern-day pilgrims, who are drawn to the trek by religious devotion as much as they are by adventure.

The Camino or “Way of St. James” terminates in Spain’s green northwestern corner, in the rainy city of Santiago de Compostela—the purported burial place of the Apostle St. James. While the most popular route—the French Way—trickles across north-central Spain from the Pyrenees toward the Atlantic coast, there are also around a dozen or so other trails that thread routes across the diverse quilt that is modern Spain.

Some are brief, requiring less than a week on foot—the English Way, for example—while others recall the great overland trips from Roman times—like the Vía de la Plata that starts in Sevilla.

During the three years I spent working in Spain, I managed to pass through every single region in the country except one (Murcia), and in the process I stumbled upon countless segments of the various Caminos (plural) de Santiago that link such far-flung cities as Huesca, Figueres, and Granada with Santiago de Compostela. Read on for a retrospective photo post of nearly every yellow arrow or shell I came across during my travels in Spain.

Camino francés — The French Way

Camino de Santiago
Pamplona
The most popular route by far starts in the Pyrenees on the French side of the border in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and crosses the mountain range, entering into Spain via the region of Navarra. The first major city along the “French Way” is Pamplona, famous for the Running of the Stupid People Bulls every July.

Camino de Santiago
Logroño
It continues on to Logroño, the capital of Spain’s most famous wine region and a hoppin’ center for pinchos (Basque-style tapas).

Camino de Santiago
Burgos
Moving west, pilgrims stop at Burgos, the region where the Castilian language was born and the home of the country’s most dazzling Gothic cathedral.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Photo Post: Watching the Ézaro Waterfall Empty Into the Ocean

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Ézaro waterfall
Northwest Spain continues to amaze me the more I learn about it. You’d think it’d be hard to top a region that happens to have coastal islands with pristine white-sands beaches, one of the most beautiful historic town centers in Europe, or the only city that is still completely enclosed by its original Roman walls. But Galicia’s got yet another stunning treasure: the only river in continental Europe that empties into the sea via a waterfall.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
On the boardwalk
The Xallas River pours down the glossy hillside of Mt. Pindo, having trickled out of a dam that’s been generating hydroelectric power since the ‘60s. When friends both Galician and expat alike raved to me about the Ézaro Waterfall—pronounced “EH-thah-row” [ˈe.θa.ɾo]—I always imagined a river rushing over something like the White Cliffs of Dover before dramatically crashing into the ocean. The real thing is a lot more subdued, as the river merely rolls down an eroded hillside into a tiny estuary before it reaches the open seas. But knowing that there’s nothing like this anywhere else in Europe makes the Ézaro a special place indeed.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Flowers above the falls
This waterfall is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the popular pilgrimage site of Fisterra (“the End of the World” on the Camino de Santiago), so it’s understandably mobbed by tourists daytripping from Santiago de Compostela in charter buses on their way to see the cliff-bound lighthouse. To escape the crowds, it’s best to drive up, up, and away from the parking lot to the miradoiro or lookout point within eyeshot of the dam. The lookout point gives you some perspective on the whole lay of the land as Galicia’s rugged granite terrain gives way to the infinite Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Photo Post: Deserted Beaches & Fresh Seafood in Carnota, Spain

Carnota, Spain
Mar de Lira beach
It’s not every day you come across a deserted beach that literally stretches for miles beneath a deep blue sky. Yet that’s exactly what happened to me one warm, sunny Saturday in April while exploring the far western reaches of Galicia in northwest Spain.

Carnota, Spain
Gorse-covered hillside
The town of Carnota (really just a collection of rural houses and small family farms) stretches across a flat tract of Galicia’s Atlantic coastline, tucked away in a bend of the Ría de Corcubión—one of many inlets of the sea that extend like fingers into the mainland. Five of these estuaries trickle down the region’s western coast, where steep hillsides contrast with white-sands beaches and where the economy depends on both fishing and white wine production.

Carnota, Spain
Longest hórreo in Galicia
But Carnota’s got more than just stunning, vast beaches and pretty rural scenery. This little coastal town is also home to one of the region’s longest hórreos or stone corncrib used to store corn and other crops after the harvest—a common sight across the region, but never as long as the one here. Called an hórreo comunal, this “communal granary” served multiple families when it was built in the late 1700s and is one of those “curiosities” you often find in rural Galicia.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Muros & Noia, Spain: Two Charming Galician Fishing Villages

Many folks visit Santiago de Compostela because they’re drawn to the medieval mystique of the Camino de Santiago, which ends in the city. A popular daytrip from Santiago involves heading out west to the tiny coastal town of Fisterra, the “Lands End” of Galicia, which many pilgrims consider the true ending point of this pilgrimage that runs across northern Spain. A mighty lighthouse guards craggy cliffs, what the Romans considered to be finis terrae, the ends of the earth.

Noia, Spain
Outside Noia
Sadly, many people hop on charter buses that make express runs between Santiago and the Atlantic coast, completely bypassing the intervening countryside. It’s a real shame because there’s so much to see and do in between those two points, from charming fishing villages to secluded beaches and even waterfalls.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend some time on the blog sharing with y’all the best places to see on your way from Santiago to the End of the World. Today, let’s visit our first two stops: Muros and Noia.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

5 City Parks to Picnic At in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I fell in love with the northwest Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela for several reasons when I lived there for two years, not least the glorious granite old town and delicious tradition of free tapas. One big reason I renewed to teach English in the area for a second year—despite two consecutive winter months of endless rain—was the city’s attractive system of public parks. There’s just so many different places you can go to hang out with friends, people-watch, and enjoy a slice of empanada or some fresh local strawberries.

1) The Alameda

Parque da Alameda, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
An abuelo goes on paseo
Santiago’s grandest and oldest city park might seem like an odd place to lay out a picnic blanket; after all, who wants to sit down in the way of all those joggers and fur-coat-wearing old ladies? Yes, most of the park is one big promenade that offers impressive views of the old town and a lovely curated garden. But there’s a small parcel on the far eastern side of the Alameda near a busy intersection with a flat, grassy lawn that’s the perfect spot for people-watching, guitar-playing, and doing handstands. It’s right in front of a high school so it definitely attracts a younger crowd, but every time the sun is out you’ll find folks here basking in the sunshine.

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.

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