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!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Memories from Jaén, Spain: Andalucía’s Most Underrated City

Of the eight provincial capitals in Spain’s southernmost region of Andalucía, Jaén too often gets short shrift in favor of historic cities that overwhelm you with their monuments—Sevilla with its gigantic Gothic cathedral, Córdoba with what remains of the Great Mosque, and Granada with the country’s crown jewel, the Alhambra palace—or in favor of coastal cities that entice you with their beaches and fresh seafood—Málaga, which needs no introduction, Cádiz, Europe’s oldest city, Almería, secluded away behind deserts and mountain ranges, and Huelva, where Columbus set off for the Americas.

Jaén, Spain
Flickr link
I ponder this as I grow more and more impatient with the intercity bus I’m on…and more and more nauseated. The air coming from the A/C vents smells like a dirty bathroom, the advertised on-board WiFi has ground to a halt, and that hot summer sun is really bearing down on the windows.

I’m reminded of the bad first experience I had with Jaén (pronounced “khah-EN” [xaˈen]) when I moved to Spain and had to come to an ugly part of town to process my paperwork for residency. Having to deal with government bureaucracy would make anybody hate a city, and I initially wrote off Jaén for months until I returned as a tourist rather than a hapless foreigner. But by the time I warmed to Jaén, my sojourn in southern Spain had come to an end and it felt as if a budding friendship were cut short by a move.

So here I am in Andalucía again, making a “farewell tour” of my old haunts before I move back to Texas after teaching English in Spain for three years. I’ve already gone out for snails and shandies with my friend Cat in Sevilla and caught up with my former English teacher colleague in Úbeda (my adopted pueblo in Spain), so now it’s time for the finale: Jaén.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fisterra, Muxía, and a Sunset at the End of the World

If you happen to find yourself in Santiago de Compostela and have run out of things to do, I’d recommend going on day trips to check out more of Galicia’s beautiful cities and natural wonders, from the “Glass City” of A Coruña and Roman-walled Lugo to the pristine beaches of the Cíes Islands and the natural hot springs of Ourense. You can reach some really exciting places on a one-hour train ride, but if you know how to drive stick shift, it’s best to rent a car and head out west to hug the coastline until you reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Muxía, Spain
Lighthouses at Muxía

The historic fishing villages of Noia and Muros will whet your appetite for Gothic architecture and seafood tapas, whereas coastal Carnota has kept an entire beach reserved just for you. Just around the corner, the Ézaro waterfall is the only point in mainland Europe where a river empties into the sea via a waterfall.

The cherry on top (the shrimp on the paella?) is without a doubt Fisterra, also called Finisterre, from the name the Romans used to describe this area, finis terrae—“Lands End.”

Fisterra: The true ending point for the Camino de Santiago

Fisterra, Spain
The shell marks the way
The Camino de Santiago proper ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the supposed remains of the Apostle St. James are buried. Medieval Christians would go on pilgrimage across northern Spain to reach the Christian world’s third-holiest site. Afterward, many would proceed on to Galicia’s Atlantic coast—which is, after all, only 89km (55 miles) from Santiago. In Roman times, you could find an ara solis or “altar to the sun” where the lighthouse stands today, so this rocky outcropping has likely had a spiritual pull on humans since time immemorial.

A handful of pilgrims today continue to make the extension from Santiago to Fisterra, motivated by a desire to collect more stamps in their pilgrim passport…or perhaps drawn by the inexplicable allure of the sea. Barely a tenth of all pilgrims who reach Santiago keep walking to Fisterra, so this lonely, three-day hike offers an introspective escape from the hordes on the camino francés. When I hiked this route three years ago, I enjoyed passing through thick, fragrant eucalyptus groves, over old, eroded ridges, and next to rural family farms and ranches.

Fisterra, Spain
The lighthouse
The 0,0 km marker is posted at a whitewashed granite lighthouse that towers over the cliffs below. It serves as a beacon for the fleet of fishing boats that moors here every day as well as for the dozens of pilgrims searching for the Way. Plodding wearily in between the throngs who have parachuted here on charter buses from Santiago, they’re overcome with joy, having finally reached their goal. Many have walked here on foot from the Pyrenees Mountains back in France—with the blisters to prove it.

Traditionally pilgrims would burn their stinky clothes and bathe in the ocean, and you can often find some sun-bleached t-shirts tied to crosses or tattered hiking boots with sentimental quotes plastered nearby. Whether they walked 3 or 30 days to get here (or rode on a 3-hour bus tour), everyone ends up hanging out on the cliffs to watch the sun pass beneath the horizon in the evening.

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.
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