Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The 7 Craziest Things I’ve Eaten in Spain

Despite what many Spaniards may tell you, the food here is not spicy at all. But that hardly means Spanish cuisine is boring! I’ve broadened my palate and tried so many new things since moving to Spain in 2012, picking up a taste for everything from sardines and anchovies to cured beef and cheese. During this culinary adventure I’ve had throughout the country, though, I’ve come across some pretty crazy stuff, most of which I actually enjoy eating now! Read on to see some of the exciting dishes you can try in Spain.

1) Octopus

Pulpo á feira
No, this isn’t like those little fried calamari you get as an appetizer sometimes; pulpo á feira is adult octopus, tentacles and all, slow-boiled under tender. After the octopus is finished cooking, apron-clad women (the pulpeiras) snip the purple tentacles into little medallions with scissors, discarding the mantle or “head.” Garnished with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pimentón (smoked paprika), the white tentacle cross-sections are often served with boiled potatoes.

2) Snails

Weird food in Spain
Caracoles a la andaluza
Not even Spaniards who live up north will touch these little guys, but they’re still hugely popular in the southern region of Andalucía in the spring and early summer months. They’re nothing like the saucy, high-brow French escargots you might be familiar with, though; Spanish snails are fun finger food slurped down by the cup-full. The little ones are slow boiled in a broth of garlic, fennel, cayenne pepper, spearmint, and bay leaves, and the bigger ones (cabrillas) tend to get cooked in thicker, tomato-based sauces. Both are usually served in glasses or bowls with their broth, which is uncharacteristically spicy by Spanish standards.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Photo Post: The Galician Resort Town of Sanxenxo, Spain

Sanxenxo, Spain
Silgar Beach
My weekend trip down south to Vigo back in January took me to a few new places I hadn’t explored before in the area: a legit Mexican restaurant in Vigo, the monumental old town of Pontevedra, and the granite-paved fishing village of Combarro.

Sanxenxo, Spain
Fishing boats
My last stop took me west of Combarro and Pontevedra. Hanging out on the north side of the Ría de Pontevedra estuary lies Sanxenxo, a resort town whose population (and rent) doubles in the summer as out-of-town folks flood the apartments that sprawl across the south-facing beaches.

Sanxenxo, Spain
Apartment ad
Pronounced “sahn-SHEN-show” [sanˈʃen.ʃo] (probably the funnest Galician place-name of them all to say), this town was unfortunately rather dull in the cold of winter, despite the unusual January sunshine. The friends I daytripped out here with and I all wished we could have just laid out on the beach, but instead we buttoned up our coats and tightened our scarves when we got out of the car.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Combarro, Spain: Galicia’s Most Beautiful Village?

Combarro, Spain
Two hórreos
Early on in my first year teaching English in northwest Spain, my bilingual coordinator told me there was one place I absolutely could not miss before returning back to the States: seaside Combarro, Galicia’s most beautiful fishing village. She’s never made such a recommendation before or since, so I took her local advice to heart and daytripped out here while I was in the Pontevedra area this January.

Combarro, Spain
The historic Rúa do Mar
I am all about that village life, and Combarro did not disappoint. This viliña mariñeira or “little mariner’s town” mainly draws folks to stroll down its historic, granite-paved streets that date back to the 1700s, where you can appreciate traditional Galician houses, their covered porches, wrap-around balconies, and tiny gardens and flower planters.

Combarro, Spain
Housecat
Combarro’s also a great place to get to know two of the most emblematic structures you’ll run into in the Galician countryside (or on the coast). No fewer than eight cruceiros or monumental granite crosses dot this tiny town, and every other shorefront house will have a grand hórreo granary (or three) out back to use for drying corn or fish in.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The 5 Cathedrals of Galicia, Spain

As a major architecture nerd, there’s nothing I love exploring while traveling so much as a sprawling castle, a light-filled church, or a stately mansion. I really enjoy getting to see in person how western architectural styles evolved over the centuries, from the most primitive of pre-Romanesque to the fascinating contemporary stuff built today. And while I may not be a Roman Catholic, I nevertheless did grow up in the church, so cathedrals hold a special place in my heart.

Over the past two years it’s been exciting to check out all five cathedrals located in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern region, from Santiago de Compostela’s monumental masterpiece to the humble mountain sanctuary of Mondoñedo. Let me share with you the interesting churches that head up the five Galician dioceses.

Lugo

Lugo Cathedral
West façade
Like all the rest of the cathedrals in Galicia, Lugo’s is at its core a Romanesque church, characterized by thick, heavy walls and columns with narrow slits for windows and lots of sculpture. But there’s quite a bit of Gothic going on here, too, especially in the apse behind the high altar and in the bell tower.

Lugo Cathedral
Interior transept
I’ll admit that Lugo’s cathedral is probably my least favorite in Galicia, and its uninspiring Neoclassical main façade seems pasted on to the rest of the church. Every time I go on a stroll at night on top of the city’s still-standing Roman walls, however, I find the cathedral all lit up…and I almost change my mind.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Photo Post: The Old Town of Pontevedra, Spain

Pontevedra, Spain
Bridge over the Lérez River
Out of Galicia’s four provincial capitals (A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, and Pontevedra), Pontevedra was my last to check off the list, despite being barely an hour south of Santiago. An almost-coastal town, it straddles the Lérez River right before it empties into the Ría de Pontevedra estuary on Galicia’s western coast.

Pontevedra, Spain
Virxe Peregrina Church
I spent the better part of a day in Pontevedra back in January when I went down south to Vigo to meet up with some friends from college who were now teaching English together there. Pontevedra surprised me: the town was one lively plaza after another where terrace cafés stretched out beneath soportales arches and children bothered pigeons with their impromptu soccer games.

Pontevedra, Spain
Weathered walls in Praza de Ourense
The old town reminded me a lot of Santiago de Compostela, as it was also built almost entirely out of local granite stone. Huge slabs paved the roads and sidewalks, and stately mansions and humble apartments alike were constructed with this igneous rock. The Virxe Peregrina Church welcomed me into the historic quarter, a tall Baroque church with a floorplan designed to resemble a scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago. Amazing, right?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Daytripping to Medieval-Walled Ávila, Spain

Ávila, Spain
The medieval walls
You need a good five to seven days to fully explore the Spanish capital of Madrid: its world-class art museums, neighborhoods, sprawling public parks, and historic bars and restaurants. But you’d arguably need another week just to check out the World Heritage Sites that circle the capital, all no more than an hourlong train ride away. Monumental cities like Segovia and Toledo guard Madrid’s northern and southern borders, while El Escorial and Alcalá de Henares attest to the region’s royal and educational heritage. West of Madrid on the other side of the Guadarrama Mountains lies a city that is still completely surrounded by its original medieval walls: Ávila.

Ávila, Spain
North side of the walls

Spain’s first Gothic cathedral

Ávila, Spain
Rugged granite construction
When I daytripped here on my way back home from Salamanca, I was so short on time that I unfortunately wasn’t able to walk around on top of the murallas, the old city walls. I did get to check out the cathedral, however. It was a really interesting church because it’s the oldest Gothic cathedral in Spain—and you can really tell, as double rows of stained glass windows take up almost the entire second “story” inside. I was not expecting the interior to be so bright and clean as all the pictures on Wikipedia made it out to be rather ugly.

Ávila, Spain
Gothic: filled with light
A really unique building material makes up much of the apse (the back-end) of the cathedral. Called piedra sangrante or “bleeding stone,” these stones are rich in dark red iron oxide that gives them a spotty or speckled look that is a fun surprise from the otherwise drab granite exterior.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Salamanca, Spain: A Warmth in Winter

Salamanca, Spain
Tormes River with the two cathedrals
Few cities were as high on my northern Spain hitlist as Salamanca. Yes, there was León, with its wall-to-wall stained-glass cathedral and free tapas action, or Oviedo, Santiago’s cousin out east in Asturias, or even Albarracín, the most beautiful village in Spain. But Salamanca always kept tugging me down there, even after I nearly booked a marathon train journey down there from Galicia and chickened out.

Salamanca, Spain
View of La Clerecía and the old town from the New Cathedral’s bell tower
The perfect opportunity to swing by this monumental university town presented itself to me this January, when I was dropping off my family at the Madrid airport after having shown them all around the capital, Segovia, and Santiago for a week. On my way back northwest to Santiago, I took advantage of being so far south to make the trek out to Salamanca before riding the trenhotel home.

A break from the Castilian cold

Salamanca, Spain
Casa de las Conchas: The Shells House
Contrary to any stereotypes you might have about Spain, it gets cold in the winter here—really cold. It isn’t hot and sunny year-round here unless you live in the Canaries or Málaga or something. In fact, (and I’m sure folks from Minnesota or Sweden will laugh at me for this) some of the coldest winters of my life have been in Spain, partly because so much of life is lived outdoors, mainly because my apartments haven’t had central heating…but I digress.

Salamanca, Spain
The out-of-control university façade
While I was showing my family around Segovia, just north of Madrid, it was so i c y—overcast skies with light rain, powerful winds careening down from the plains, and near-freezing temperatures. Fortunately by the time we got to Santiago in Spain’s far northwest corner, the sun had decided to come out for a change; there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky both days we were in Galicia! But in Segovia and Santiago you couldn’t leave the hotel without putting on scarves, gloves, and winter coats, and sometimes an extra pair of socks. In case you couldn’t tell, winter is my least favorite season.

Salamanca, Spain
Centuries of faded paint
So I welcomed the change of winds when I hopped off the MD train in Salamanca, a little under three hours west of Madrid beyond the granite boulder-strewn Guadarrama mountain range and the flat Castilian plains. The sun shined from a clear blue sky, making the sandstone old town glow in its afternoon rays. Everybody and their mom (literally) was out and about enjoying a paseo by walking the city’s grand avenues and nibbling on tapas like snails or tiny sandwiches of locally-made cured ham. As I walked across the “Roman” bridge to the other side of the Tormes River, I actually ended up working up a sweat! It was a refreshing change to take off my coat and soak up some sun on New Year’s Day.