Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding the Essence of Catalunya in Girona, Spain

The handsome city of Girona in far northeastern Spain had long been on my to-visit list, becoming irresistible after a series of sensational blog posts and Instagram photos from friends I follow came across my feed.

After all, who could resist a city that gets festooned with an avalanche of flowers every spring, that boasts a strikingly-red Eiffel Bridge, and that is home to the Best Ice Cream in the World™?

Girona, Spain
Girona, seen from the Eiffel Bridge
You might think that Girona (pronounced “zhee-ROE-nuh” [ʒiˈɾo.nə]) would be totally overshadowed by its neighbor Barcelona to the south, but sitting a 40-minute train ride away lets this provincial capital carve out its own unique character and feel. And that personality is 100% Catalan, making Girona a perfect place to experience what makes the northeastern region of Catalunya so special.

As part of my final trip around Spain before moving back home, I spent three nights in this fabulous city and got more deeply acquainted with what makes Catalan culture unique than I would have otherwise as a tourist in Barcelona.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Gràcia Neighborhood & Giving Barcelona a Second Chance

I had a couple of bad first impressions of Barcelona that almost made me want to conclude the city was one big, loud, tourist theme park.

To kick off my flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants trip around France in 2012, I took the trenhotel from southern Spain to Barcelona and spent a layover in the Catalan capital, intending to take a second night train to Paris that evening. I checked off all the main sights in the old town: the cathedral, the Boqueria market, Santa María del Mar, the historical museum, the Picasso museum, even a rediscovered synagogue. However, due to a combination of poorly-announced commuter train delays and poor planning on my part, I missed the night train to Paris by five minutes. Fortunately I was able to get a spot on the high-speed TGV leaving that morning and find a bed at a seven-euro hostel nearby…ah, the glory days.

Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain
Plaça del Sol, Gràcia
I returned to Barcelona a couple months later to attend a concert by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós on the top of Montjuïc hill. This weekend trip was all about the arts: in addition to music, I appreciated art at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the Joan Miró museum, and I also checked off all seven of Antoni Gaudí’s scintillating buildings in Barcelona. But in between rushing from one museum to another Gaudí house, something felt…lacking.

That winter I was back in Barcelona for a layover, this time on my way to Italy. But I arrived in the evening and had to get up at 4am to catch the airport bus, so my only memories of this trip involve threading a path through the disorienting hellhole that is the Sants train station and wading through all the traffic and tourists in Plaça de Catalunya.

Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain
Plaça de la Virreina, Gràcia
It wasn’t until June of 2015 that I realized Barcelona wasn’t so bad after all, but not for the reasons that most folks visit the city in droves. The neighborhood of Gràcia, far to the north of the touristy core, totally changed how I felt about Barcelona.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

6 Daytrips to Take from Madrid, Spain

The Spanish capital of Madrid has enough to keep you occupied for years: a plethora of world-class museums, thousands of restaurants that serve up tasty local grub plus every cuisine you can think of, a handful of historical monuments, a clutch of unique neighborhoods that all have something different to offer, and one of the world’s largest collections of green spaces.

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
Calle Sagasta
But it’s a rarely-talked-about fact that the city of Madrid has no UNESCO World Heritage Sites to speak of, even as European counterparts like Lisbon, Paris, and Rome all boast of this designation that honors and protects landmarks of cultural or natural significance.

What the city center of Madrid lacks in stunning monuments, it makes up for with no fewer than six World Heritage Sites that surround the metropolis on all sides. Each of these cities is no more than an hour away from the capital, which means you could spend a week hopping from one stunning Spanish city to the next yet never check out of your Madrid hotel. That, to me, sounds like a great way to spend some time in the center of Spain!

1) Segovia

Daytrips from Madrid, Spain
View from the Alcázar
This provincial capital is right on the other side of the Guadarrama mountain range, but it feels a world away from the big city life of Madrid. A Roman aqueduct spans a bustling plaza, still standing without mortar after nearly 2,000 years. The country’s most recently-built Gothic cathedral crowns the city center, not too far from the alcázar or castle that was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Don’t head back to Madrid without sitting down for a feast of the city’s signature dish: cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig.

How to get there: Ride the 27-minute high-speed train from Madrid’s Chamartín train station. From the Segovia-Guiomar train station, catch bus #11 to the aqueduct.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Photo Post: Aranjuez, a Royal Escape from Madrid, Spain

Aranjuez, Spain
Royal Palace
It must be nice being a king, because you get to use the word “summer” as a verb. That’s exactly what the kings (and queens!) of Spain decided to do a few centuries ago when the intense summer heat of Madrid became too much for them. They constructed a royal retreat in Aranjuez, a small town to the south of the capital with a slightly-more-agreeable climate thanks to two rivers that run through it and a lush wooded landscape.

Aranjuez, Spain
Príncipe Garden
The main attraction in Aranjuez (pronounced “ah-rahn-KHWETH” [a.ɾaŋˈxweθ] is the Royal Palace, a kind of low-budget Versailles that’s dripping with over-the-top Rococo decorations inside—think gold leaf, porcelain wall embellishments, frescoes, tapestries, and ornate furniture. Spanish monarchs used this palace as their summer residence, but without air conditioning you can imagine the rooms would get rather stuffy, so I’m sure they spent a lot of time outdoors in the gardens next door, where there are plenty of shade trees that fight back against the oppressive summer heat.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Modernista Architecture in Barcelona NOT By Gaudí

There’s some places you visit for the food—San Sebastián in the Basque Country comes to mind, with bars that are literally overflowing with tiny bites of pintxos—and then there’s others you visit for ancient ruins—think Arles in southern France with Roman amphitheaters and sewers.

And there are other cities you spend time in for the architecture. Many of us live in a world of formulaic McMansions, soul-crushing strip malls, big box stores with 30-year shelf lives, and cold glass-and-steel office towers. We travel to cities with excellent architecture because these cities have a sense of place and because they remind us of the beauty in the world.

Modernista architecture in Barcelona, Spain
Palau de la Música Catalana
I think this is one of the big draws Barcelona has on many visitors. Yes, the cozy medieval streets in the Gothic Quarter are nice and all, but the gridded Eixample district, where the city expanded around the turn of the century, is where Barcelona really shines. Grand apartment homes were constructed by the new Catalan middle class, many of whom contracted innovative architects who were trailblazing the modernista style of architecture, a distinctly Catalan form of the prevailing Art Nouveau movement.

Antoni Gaudí is the most well-known of these architects, having designed glamorous houses like the Palau Güell or Casa Batlló and his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church. But Gaudí was far from the only architect active during this time period. In fact, there’s so many Modernista-style buildings in Barcelona that the city government has put together a Ruta del Modernisme or Art Nouveau Walking Route that will take you past hidden gems that people all too often completely overlook as they seek out Gaudí’s work (I myself am guilty of this!).

This itinerary forces you to walk down under-trafficked streets mere blocks from the tourist trail as you intentionally look for stops along the way. I spent a few hours on a refreshing Sunday morning in June doing just this and gained a deeper appreciation for the city’s architecture that goes so far beyond just Gaudí.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Photo Post: Ons Island, Galicia’s Isolated Beach Getaway

Ons Island, Spain
Icy-cold water
I’ve raved and raved about the Cíes Islands on this blog, an archipelago of pristine islands that form part of a broader national park on the western coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain. They’re one of the region’s true natural wonders, boasting everything from white sands beaches and impossibly cold clear water to rugged hiking trails and cliffside panoramas.

But I’ve been holding back a secret from: the Cíes have a little sister called Ons Island. This slender island is situated just to the north of the Cíes and is a natural breakwater that protects the ría or estuary from the worst blows of the Atlantic.

Ons Island, Spain
The whole beach to ourselves
When a few of my friends and I visited Ons during the shoulder season, we shared a beach that was a 10-minute walk south of the docks with only two or three other people. There’s something so very refreshing about having an entire white-sands beach essentially all to yourself while also looking back out toward the mainland where all the noise, traffic, and stresses of daily life are literally kept at bay. Although this brief little excursion was only for the day, we welcomed this escape from real life.

It was the end of May, and because we were all fellow language assistants teaching English in Spain, our teaching contracts for the school year were drawing to a close. We celebrated (and mourned) the end of the year with a picnic feast of empanada de bacalao con pasas (cod-and-raisin meat pie) and intensely-flavorful picota cherries harvested from the Jerte Valley in south-central Spain.

Ons Island, Spain
Colorful countryside hórreo
After we had gotten our fill of sunbathing in the chilly breeze and dashing in and out of the icy ocean, we strolled along the country roads, checking out traditional island architecture and Ons’ lone lighthouse before it was time to head back to the docks to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to Spend 24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

During the two years I spent living and working in Santiago de Compostela, I hosted around half a dozen or so friends in this rainy northwest corner of Spain and showed them around the comfortable, lively place I had grown to call home.

Santiago is a wonderful city, but I’ll be totally honest with y’all—you can see the city in a single day. I usually took friends who visited me on daytrips to A Coruña or the hot springs in Ourense after we had gotten our fill of Santi-town. But that fill was almost always overflowing with endless tapas, walks through parks, and ancient granite churches.

24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Rainy streets in the old town
I don’t live in Santiago anymore, having traded cathedrals for cactuses and tapas for tacos in Phoenix. But even though I can’t personally lead you on a jam-packed itinerary through the Galician capital, I’ve put together a guide you can follow to make sure you have a visit that leaves you dazzled, relaxed, and—most importantly—full.

Before we start our day, make sure you’ve got a good pair of comfortable walking shoes, as days like this in hilly Santiago can easily surpass 10,000 steps, a sturdy umbrella, and lots of cash so you can quickly pay for your coffee without having to wait for your credit card to get charged.

8am

There’s a lot of ways you can get to Santiago: by bus, train, or airplane. Whichever method you use to arrive, catch a bright orange airport bus that connects the bus station, train station, and airport and get off at Praza de Galicia, a busy square at the center of the city.

9am

24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Latte art at Café Venecia
It’s time for breakfast, and you’re gonna need some serious caffeination to get you through this itinerary that stops 6 hours short of actually being 24 hours long. From Praza de Galicia, take the north-south Rúa do Hórreo street until you get to Café Venecia, about one block down the hill on the left side at Nº 27. Although head barista Óscar de Toro serves up the finest coffee in town, this café isn’t overrun by hipsters but instead attracts everyone from blue-collar workers to men in suits and always has a stack of newspapers to flip through and a good wifi connection. You can’t go wrong with the standard café con leche here as they don’t use torrefacto coffee (i.e., it doesn’t taste burnt as coffee usually does in Spain), but if you’re feeling ~third wave~ you can even request a Chemex!

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