Monday, March 2, 2015

Covadonga and the Founding of the Spanish Nation

Covadonga, Spain
Church of Santa María la Real de Covadonga
There are some places in Spain that draw tourists from all over the world—Antoni Gaudí’s still-unfinished Sagrada Família church, the Moorish wonders of the Alhambra, or the Prado Museum in Madrid—but then there are sites that draw a much more local crowd, monuments like Zaragoza’s Pilar Basilica, the royal pantheons where medieval kings and queens are buried, or a monastery where the Spanish language was first written down.

The Royal Site of Covadonga, hidden deep within the mountains of the Picos de Europa National Park, belongs to the latter group of destinations. A small, underwhelming collection of monuments, Covadonga holds a special place in the Spanish national psyche for being the place where Spain was born.

What happened here?

Covadonga, Spain
The strategically-located cave
The year was 722. Eleven years earlier, Muslim Berbers from North Africa had invaded the Iberian peninsula, quickly overrunning the feeble Kingdom of the Visigoths. A new Islamic emirate was established that encompassed almost all of modern-day Spain and Portugal—all except the steep mountains that line the north of the peninsula. It was here that a remnant of the old Visigothic ruling class had fled after King Roderick was killed and the government fell apart. They hid out between the lonely river valleys and rugged mountain peaks that dominate the Asturian countryside.

Call them Christian noblemen, call them barbarian warlords—whoever they were, their leader was named Pelayo. And in 722, having previously refused to pay the jizya tax imposed on non-Muslims, Pelayo and the men under his command engaged in combat against a band of Moorish troops…and won, here in Covadonga. After this military success, Pelayo would move to nearby Cangas de Onís and establish the Kingdom of Asturias, the first Christian realm founded after the Muslim conquest.

Covadonga, Spain
Statue to Pelayo
Muslim chronicles obviously downplay the significance of the Battle of Covadonga, a small skirmish against ragtag mountain men on the caliphate’s fringe. But this battle would enjoy a huge status in the Spanish mythos, because to Christian Spaniards it represented the first battle in the centuries-long struggle to push the Moors out of Spain, a struggle they called the Reconquista because it was an attempt to “re-conquer” the peninsula. Reality was much more complex than this tidy propaganda makes it sound, but that’s a story for another day.

Christian dominion would later expand east to Galicia, south to León, and west to Castilla; i.e., from Asturias, the predecessors of the modern Kingdom of Spain were born. As the saying goes, “Asturias is Spain, and all the rest is conquered land.”

Saturday, February 28, 2015

13 Maps That Explain Galicia

You may not know it, but I am a HUGE nerd when it comes to maps. On family road trips, I would pass the miles by browsing the jumbo-sized road atlas, and I even memorized the regions and provinces of Spain…for fun. So I thought I would combine my love of maps with my love for Galicia, this unique region in Spain’s northwestern corner. I hope you enjoy staring at these thirteen maps as much as I have!

1) Galicia from space

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Even in the satellite view you can tell how green and forested Galicia really is—a stark contrast from the Castilian meseta or flat plateau to the southeast that is mostly covered in rolling plains.

2) The Roman province of Gallaecia

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
By the 1st century BCE, all of the Iberian peninsula had come under Roman rule, and its northwestern corner belonged to the vast imperial province known as Tarraconensis. Years later, during the administrative reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), this region was cordoned off into a province of its own called Gallaecia, the name that became today’s Galicia. This province spanned all of modern Galicia as well as the Spanish provinces of Asturias and León and northern Portugal down to the city of Porto.

3) The medieval kingdom of Galicia in the 11th century

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Before the medieval kingdom of Galicia joined forces with León (and later Castilla), it once stretched halfway down the western coast of the peninsula, encompassing much of modern-day Portugal. But in 1143 the County of Portugal broke off from the Kingdom of León, forging the political border between Spain and Portugal that has endured to this day.

What this map shows is that, a thousand years ago, Galicia and Portugal were once the same country and spoke the same language. Nothing happened overnight when a border was drawn just north of Braga, but over the centuries the two dialects began to diverge. The Galician one drifted into the Castilian sphere of influence so much so that today Galician and Portuguese are two separate languages.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Photo Post: Cangas de Onís, Gateway to the Picos de Europa

Cangas de Onís, Spain
The so-called “Roman” bridge
On the road trip that my roommates and I took across Spain’s northern coast this past fall, we divided up our sightseeing into four manageable chunks: one day we would focus on Cantabria, the next on the Picos de Europa National Park, the following day on the region of Asturias, and on the way back home we would stop off in Oviedo for half a day. We aren’t normally this organized at home, but since our days off from work and holidays miraculously aligned, giving us all the same four-day weekend, we decided to aprovechar or make the most of this fortuitous turn of events and strategically sight-see in Asturias and Cantabria.

Cangas de Onís, Spain
Cangas de Onís was the first stop on our excursion into Spain’s most beautiful mountain range, the Picos de Europa. You can think of this small mountain town as the gateway into the national park, kind of like Jackson Hole is for Yellowstone or Estes Park for the Rocky Mountains. Although there wasn’t much to Cangas except for two or three major streets, it was the relaxing bakery-cafés, cozy shops selling Asturian specialties like beans and cheese, and the gorgeous fall scenery right outside that really impressed us.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Santillana del Mar: NOT Spain’s Prettiest Village

Santillana del Mar, Spain
The main drag through town
After killing an hour or so in the Cantabrian town of Comillas by seeing a house designed by Gaudí, we hopped back in the car to continue our Roommate Road Trip and drove a couple of minutes further east to Santillana del Mar, just inland from Spain’s northern coast. This village has a reputation of being el pueblo más bonito de España—“Spain’s the prettiest village”—so our hopes were high as we cruised around tree-lined country roads, passing among fields that smelled of manure and a few shuttered-up hamlets.

Unfortunately, Santillana didn’t live up to its fame.

Santillana del Mar, Spain
Afternoon shade
Before I continue, it’s basically required of me to repeat that stupid joke that everyone tells whenever this town’s name is mentioned in passing. Santillana is known as la villa de las tres mentiras (“the town of the three lies”) because it isn’t holy, flat, or on the sea. Ha ha ha, so funny, right? Wrong. I’ve never really got the joke because not only does the village claim to hold the remains of una santa, St. Juliana of Nicomedia, it’s actually fairly flat, and you can get to the beach in a little over an hour—on foot.

The name actually comes from said saint, who in Spanish is called Santa Juliana; her name evolved into Illana over the centuries and the del Mar was added because the village is, indeed, close to the sea.

Santillana del Mar, Spain
Typical Castilian balconied homes
Anyways, although I was underwhelmed by Santillana del Mar, that’s not to say it wasn’t pretty at all. Half-timbered houses stood side-by-side with noble mansions built out of warm, local stone, and the two streets the town had to speak of were paved in a pleasing cobblestone pattern. It’s clear this village lives on tourism, though; when we visited, nearly every other house had their doors opening into a restaurant offering an overpriced menú del día or a tiny shop selling traditional Cantabrian crafts or sweets.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Southern France

Arles, France
Colorful streets of Arles
A couple of days ago I made my way back to Santiago de Compostela after spending four nights in southern France over my school’s long weekend for the Carnaval festivities. My friend Melissa and I set up base camp in central Avignon (home of the popes in the 1300s) and took daytrips to the colorful, bustling Roman city of Arles, rained-out Roman Nîmes, and Europe’s tallest Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

We came to Provence ostensibly for two reasons—to see as many Roman ruins and eat as many French pastries as possible—and we left the region impressed at how kind and mannerly the French are.

Avignon skyline
Avignon, seen from the Papal Palace
Apart from the old walled city of Lugo or A Coruña’s refurbished lighthouse, Galicia isn’t a region known for its Roman heritage, so it was a real treat to encounter such monumental reminders of the Roman Empire in plain sight, from amphitheaters and theaters to temples and aqueducts. Since studying Latin in high school left me with, for better or for worse, a lifelong fascination for all things classical, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve focused on hunting down such ruins in my time in Europe instead of vineyard tours, soccer games, or WWII battlefields.

(But more power to you if those are your thing! It’s important to know what you yourself prefer to experience instead of feeling obligated to do or see this or that when traveling.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Photo Post: El Capricho de Gaudí in Comillas, Spain

El Capricho de Gaudí, Comillas, Spain
Rooftop view
Today I’m finally getting around to writing about the road trip my housemates and I went on along Spain’s northern coast…in October. Sorry, guys! I’m so far behind, but I’ve got a long backlog of posts to work through. Our first stop along this tour of Spain’s most beautiful cliffs, beaches, mountains, and countrysides was the seaside village of Comillas in tiny coastal Cantabria. After warming up with the last fall rays of sunshine over a short cortado coffee, we packed in to our rental car and headed out of our base in San Vicente de la Barquera to Comillas.

El Capricho de Gaudí, Comillas, Spain
Sunflower tiles
This town wouldn’t even have been on my radar had it not been home to one of the three buildings that architect Antoni Gaudí designed outside his native Catalunya. In fact, it was one of his first: El Capricho de Gaudí. Earlier in the year I had visited the other two commissions he took outside Catalunya, the Casa de los Botines in León and the Episcopal Palace in Astorga, and really enjoyed getting to experience some unique Modernista buildings in northwestern Spain. After the Gaudí pilgrimage I made around Barcelona in 2013, I further indulged my completionist tendencies in 2014.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Photo Post: Mondoñedo, a Galician Ghost Town

Mondoñedo, Spain
Mondoñedo Cathedral
On the way back from our daytrip to Praia das Catedrais, the “Cathedrals Beach” along Galicia’s northern coast, my friends and I stopped in the small village of Mondoñedo, hidden away in a mountain valley deep within Lugo province. By chance of history this tiny town has been home to a cathedral for a thousand years, although the one we can see today dates to the 1200s. The cathedral isn’t anything too exciting, just par for the course in Galician church architecture: a Romanesque foundation with a flowery façade added in the Baroque era.

Mondoñedo, Spain
Rose window inside the cathedral
A little interesting factoid: the cathedral guards the Virxe Inglesa, the “English Virgin,” a decorated Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary that was made in Tudor-era England. When the iconoclastic English Reformation blew through in the 1500s, this statue was saved from the destruction that befell similar religious artwork. It’s remained in Mondoñedo ever since 1555.