Monday, October 26, 2015

10 Museums to See in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela isn’t exactly a city known for its museums. As it’s the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, once you’ve checked in at the cathedral, there really isn’t that much to see and do besides checking out tapas bars in the granite-paved old town, strolling through the myriad of green parks and trails nearby, and generally relaxing after walking six hours a day for a month. That saying “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” definitely applies to the Camino.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to check out in Santiago besides the purported resting place of the Apostle St. James. Although Santiago might not have museums on the grand scale of those in Lisbon, Madrid, or Barcelona, this city has several museums, exposition halls, and centers that will tell you more about the city’s past and how it influenced the Santiago we see today.

1) The cathedral museum

Museums in Santiago de Compostela
The reconstructed stone choir stalls
Like any Spanish cathedral’s treasury worth its salt, you’ll find the usual suspects in the Museo da Catedral: statues of saints, silver chalices, and impossibly-intricate hand-woven tapestries. What makes Santiago’s worth visiting is its recreation of the cathedral’s original stone-sculpted choir stalls. These granite choir stalls were lost for centuries but have since been excavated and reconstructed. A ticket to this museum lets you walk around the Gothic cloisters, which guard a large medieval fountain where stinky pilgrims would have bathed, and you can also hike up the stairs to peek out onto the main square from the upper-level balcony.

Address: Praza do Obradoiro, s/n

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Photo Post: Monte de Deus in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Monte de Deus, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Panoramic view of the city
Santiago de Compostela may be the capital of Galicia and a bustling university town just shy of 100,000, but locals still often affectionately refer to it as a pueblo, a small town. And not without reason: you can walk to most any place in Santiago in around half an hour, a series of parks and greenbelts circle the old town, and despite the constant influx of tourists it’s not uncommon to run into people you know in all corners of the city.

Monte de Deus, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Camellia in bloom
You’re also never too far from the green Galician countryside, as you only have to walk 15 minutes from the built-up parts of town to get into rural areas where pine forests and family farms take over from apartment blocks and supermarkets. Nowhere is this more visible than from the Monte de Deus lookout point, just north of central Santiago. Called the “Mountain of God” for reasons I’m not clear on, Monte de Deus offers a unique, south-facing perspective that complements the more panoramic vistas you can get from up top Monte Pedroso and Monte do Viso.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon & the Simple Pleasures of Southern France

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France
Ivy-covered house
When my friend Melissa and I took a bridge across the Rhône River into Villeneuve-lès-Avignon last February, the city reminded us a lot of what in Spain they call pueblos: villages in the countryside where traditional, slower ways of life continue, where cozy family homes line the streets, and where you can say buenos días to people you pass on the sidewalk. Replace buenos días” with “bonjour” and that’s exactly what Villenueve felt like.

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France
Our friend the chat
We didn’t exactly go out of our way to check out this charming southern French town, as it’s simply on the other side of the Rhône from the tourist hotspot of Avignon. In French placenames, lès simply means “near,” so you might translate the name as “New Town Near Avignon.” After a jam-packed morning crawling around a gigantic papal palace and getting a French nursery rhyme stuck in our heads, we decided to cross the river into this tourist-free town to relax for a bit.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

My Guide to the 17 Regions of Spain

One of the most striking ideas that I came across during my college-level Hispanic Culture & Civilization course was this notion of España y las EspañasSpain and the Spains. It forced me to reconsider my preconceptions of Spain as a land of Don Quixote, paella, and sunshine and instead come face to face with the rich history and endless variety of this country that refuses to live up to its stereotypes.

During the three years I lived in Spain I was fortunate enough to visit 14 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions that the central government has granted varying degrees of home rule to. Many of these regions are considered nationalities within the larger Spanish nation-state, either because they speak a language other than Castilian Spanish or because they hold culture and history in common.

Getting beyond the standard Madrid-Barcelona-Sevilla itinerary gave me a more nuanced view of the country, told me the deeper truth of the country’s past, and (most importantly) introduced me to all the different leaves that make up the Spanish dinner table. And I think that’s what makes Spain such an interesting place: hardly homogenous, this country revels in its inherent diversity.

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in Spain, I highly encourage you to detour from the “road more traveled” and check out the 17 regions that compose the Kingdom of Spain. Hopefully the breakdown on today’s blog post will point you in the right direction!


Location of Andalucía in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Andalucía, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “an-dah-loo-THEE-ah” [an.da.luˈθi.a]

Population: 8,440,300

Size: 87,268 km² (33,694 sq mi), about the same as Maine or Serbia

Demonym: andaluz (m), andaluza (f), andaluces (pl)

Languages: Andalusian Spanish (andaluz): almost a language in its own right, this accent is spoken extremely fast and consonants like D, L, R, and S are dropped off at the ends of words

Major cities: Sevilla (capital), MálagaCórdoba, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera, Almería, Huelva, Cádiz, and Jaén

My take: Historically separated from the rest of the peninsula by the Sierra Morena mountains, Andalucía was dominated by the Moors longer than any other part of Spain, and it’s here that their legacy is most visible in monuments like Granada’s Alhambra palace or the Great Mosque of Córdoba. This isolation and other-ness contributed to the region’s inscrutable, fast-paced accent, but I’m sure the intense summer heat encouraged “lazy” speech patterns, too. Said sunshine paved the way for mass tourism to invade Andalucía’s Mediterranean beaches and today the south is one of the most heavily-visited regions in the country.

Córdoba, Spain
Córdoba, de fiesta
But Andalucía is also home to Spain’s liveliest culture: warm, loud, and extroverted. Throughout the spring and summer even the tiniest villages worth their salt will host weeklong town fairs dedicated to their patron saint, with Sevilla’s Feria de Abril being the most famous (and exclusive). Córdoba goes all out with their patio-decorating competition, and Granada finds itself festooned with crosses of flowers for the Cruces de Mayo festival. Unlike much of the north, bullfighting is still a big part of the culture. Tapas, or small plates of food that accompany your drink, are a universe all their own here, and come free with your drink order in the eastern half of the region.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Santiago de Compostela’s Rocha Forte Castle Ruins

Rocha Forte, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The ruins
It began as a passing blur, a brief break in between thick trees and rural farms as the train headed south out of Santiago. What did I just see? I wondered. Later, I would catch passing references to the crumbling foundations of a long-forgotten fortress, hiding in plain sight just outside of town. Then I came across banners advertising what was once “the largest castle in Galicia.” In a town known for its cathedral, its granite-paved old town, and its pilgrim heritage, I was intrigued that there was something more unique to explore than yet another over-the-top Baroque monastery. Completionist that I am, I added the ruins of the Rocha Forte to my Santiago bucket list and finally went hiking into the countryside one sunny May afternoon.

Rocha Forte, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Foxgloves nearby
Even after living in Europe for three years, this history major never lost the thrill of stumbling across a church whose doors had welcomed the faithful for a thousand years, walking over glass-covered excavations of Roman-era mosaics, or strolling past a house with “1678” carved onto the lintel. It still blows my mind that I could simply start walking from my front door for an hour and come across the ruins of a medieval castle, whereas back home in suburban Plano, Texas, it’s a sea of sprawl for miles around…and then endless farms from here on out to Canada.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Living Like Popes in Avignon, France

Y’all. I am SO behind in blog posts. I’m just now getting to travels from way back in February…so ashamed that I’ve let tumbleweeds roll all over this blog but I’m trying to get back up to speed, so stay tuned!

Avignon, France
The Papal Palace
It was mid-February and my friend Melissa and I were not amused with how the Galician winter had been treating us. Dark skies and rainy nights kept us indoors most of the time, and because of high humidity, the cold temperatures were particularly bitter despite never dropping below freezing. Simply put, we needed to get out, and sunny southern France seemed like a great place to escape from Santiago for a long weekend.

We took a similar path that the Roman Catholic popes did in the 1300s, who were also fleeing an unsavory (political) climate. They left chaotic Rome for the security of Avignon, a major city along the Rhône River not far from the Mediterranean coast. We scored (and later endured) super-cheap Ryanair flights to Marseille’s airport and looked forward to encountering not only papal history but also Roman ruins and endless French pastries.

Why we used Avignon as a home base for the region

Avignon, France
The city seen through the windows of the Papal Palace
So why Avignon and not, say, Marseille, or any of the fine provincial capitals scattered around Provence? Well, for one, it was centrally located between the airport and all the places we wanted to make daytrips to: Arles, Nîmes, and the Pont du Gard. But to be honest, the main reason we chose Avignon had to do with the existence of a hostel, which are far and few between in a region that isn’t necessarily on the backpacker trail. Call us cheapskates, but there’s no need to pay 40€ a night for crappy hotel rooms when 20€ bunkbeds work just fine. (Pop’ Hostel, by the way, is worth looking into if you’re planning a trip here!)

Avignon, France
Window murals
In the end, Avignon (pronounced “ah-vee-nyon” ​[ɲɔ̃]) turned out to be a great home base for exploring southern France. We were never more than an hour away from our daytrip destinations via efficient TER trains or intercity buses, and there were plenty of cafés, bakeries, mini-markets, and restaurants in the old town, giving us a plethora of options to choose from for our pre-train breakfasts and evening dinners once we were back in town.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Moving to Spain, 3 Years Later: My Spain-iversary

Now that I’m back home with my parents in Texas this summer, I’ve recently been leafing through all the old travel journals that I kept when I moved to Spain and traveled around Europe. They’ve put me in a real emotional mood remembering how excited I felt to be moving to a foreign country. At the same time, all my old anxieties came flooding back: what city would I live in, what apartment would I choose, how would I get to work, would I make any friends, and what the heck comes next after all of this is over.

moving to spain
The Acibecharía façade of the cathedral in Santiago
It’s now been three years since I landed on the tarmac at the Barajas airport in Madrid, giddy and jetlagged and naïve all at once. I thought it would only be appropriate to commemorate this anniversary—or Spain-iversary, in Cat’s words—with a retrospective blog post looking back on my first day in España, the journey I’ve taken since then, and some of the lessons I’ve learned while living abroad.

I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today I’m a much different, wiser person than the freshly-minted college graduate I was, the young man that would step off of that sleepless trans-Atlantic flight into a crisp, Castilian morning.

Reminiscing on my first 24 hours in Spain

As luck (or fate) would have it, my seatmate for the overnight flight between Philadelphia and Madrid happened to be an American named Annie, a fellow language assistant going to teach in Galicia. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our shared love of all things Spain…and our shared anxieties about dropping everything and moving across the ocean for nine months. I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging companion to begin this journey with, and while our paths diverged as we left the airport—she hopped on a bus north to Lugo while I had to catch the Cercanías train into town—we’ve stayed in touch ever since and have met up multiple times in Galicia.

The vastness that is the Atocha train station really threw me for a loop. Serving as the rail hub for the entire country, Atocha sends off high-speed trains to all corners of the country, not to mention medium-distance and commuter rail…oh, and there’s two metro stops. And the “old” train station is a huge garden foyer. I literally walked in circles before finally finding the ticket stands. Unfortunately it was already half past nine and I would have to wait until a little after 3pm for the next train south.