Thursday, October 30, 2014

Colorful Coruña, Spain’s “Glass City”

I’ll be honest: I’m not the biggest fan of A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest city and the major metropolis along the region’s north Atlantic coast. Its residents have a reputation of being pijo (snobby), the city is sprawling and confusingly-laid out, and much of Coruña has all that Big City character Madrid is known for…without the charm.

A Coruña, Spain
Town hall, seen from Avenida Puerta de Aires
But there’s something attractive about Coruña that I just can’t shake. Compared with Santiago and the rest of inland Galicia, A Coruña is bright and colorful. While I love the simple granite, whitewashed houses with green doors that are oh-so-typical here in Santiago, it can get a little repetitive when all the houses look the same. In most Galician coastal towns, however, people paint their homes a variety of colors, and A Coruña is no different. Here you can find red, pink, orange, and blue homes, and the town hall has pretty red roofs to boot.

A Coruña, Spain
Hydrangeas in the Castle of San Antón
While Coruña may not be my favorite city in Galicia, it’s got a lot going for it and is a pleasant place to make a daytrip to from Santiago.

Galerías

A Coruña, Spain
Galerías
All across the northern coast of Spain it’s common to find houses with galerías, or glassed-in balconies that let the sunlight in and keep the rain (and humidity) out—an important feature in this green but rainy part of the country. Interestingly, galerías were first used in shipbuilding Ferrol, where they initially adorned the sterns of the great Spanish galleons. They eventually migrated to the back porches of local houses, finally drifting southwest from Ferrol down to A Coruña.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Don’t Leave Spain Without Trying These 10 Dishes

I haven’t announced it yet on the blog but I am getting more and more excited for my parents and brother to come visit me between Christmas and New Years this December. To get ready to be their personal tour guide and translator, I’ve been thinking about what places I want to highlight in Madrid, which restaurants I want to take them to in Santiago, and certain survival phrases in case we get separated (fingers crossed that doesn’t happen).

My family is only going to have six nights to spend in Spain, which is almost too little time to do this country justice—but hey, it’s better than nothing! It would be impossible to cover all aspects of Spanish food in such a brief stay, but I’m hoping that if we stick to the highlights they’ll leave having gotten a good overview of what authentic Spanish cuisine really is (hint: it’s not paella on a Tuesday evening in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor!). Below are what I hope to share with my family when we head out for lunch or dinner during their trip.

Tortilla de patatas (potato omelet)

Tortilla de patatas
(Source: Luís Rodgríguez)
In Spanish class, we learned that the most typical dish from España was paella. Like many tourists, I held this misconception until I moved here, but it wasn’t long before I became a convert to tortilla de patatas, this most Spanish of Spanish food. Slices of potatoes and onions are fried in bubbling olive oil before being combined with beaten eggs to create a thick, hearty omelet more akin to a pie than a flimsy breakfast omelet.

You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can eat it on its own, with mayonnaise, or stuffed into a loaf of bread to make a sandwich. You can order an entire tortilla to share with friends and family at dinner…or you can eat the whole thing yourself. You can order it poca hecha where the egg is still runny and the potatoes are oozing out, or you can ask for it “well done,” firm, starchy, and fluffy.

When tortilla comes up in conversations among expats here, we almost invariably discuss how to deftly flip the frying pan in order to cook the other side of the omelet (i.e., without having eggs and potatoes spill all over the stovetop). Native Spaniards, however, continue to debate whether or not to include onions in the recipe.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sintra, Portugal: Lisbon’s Romantic-Era Getaway

While I was kickin’ around in Lisbon this April, I took a couple daytrips from the city center to some admittedly touristy destinations. A modern-day tram that shares tracks and wires with the creaky, classic Tram 28 took me to the coastal neighborhood of Belém, a World Heritage Site dripping with history, museums, glorious architecture…and pastries. The next day I hopped on a speedy regional train from the Rossio station to the nearby city of Sintra.

Sintra, Portugal
Looking down from the Moorish Castle
Inhabited since, like, forever, Sintra’s strategic location perched on a hill between the Atlantic coast and Lisbon has made it an attractive place for kings, the wealthy, and daytrippers alike. Famous for its mystical fog and pleasing natural surroundings, Sintra became a favorite retreat in the 1800s. Relics from the Middle Ages, like the Sintra National Palace, or from Portugal’s Islamic past (the Castle of the Moors) played in to the age’s prevailing Revivalism and Orientalism. And Sintra’s dramatic, rugged setting caused the emotions of the Romantics to run wild.

Sintra, Portugal
Sintra cityscape
Today Sintra is one of the most popular daytrip destinations for tourists visiting Lisbon, and for most of the same reasons it was all the rage in the Romantic era: beautiful architecture, a stunning natural backdrop, and stirring views.

Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle)

Sintra, Portugal
Spooky fog
Like I said above, Sintra occupies the highest point between Lisbon and the Atlantic, which has made it a key point of military control since Roman times. When Lisbon was known as al-Ishbuna during the Muslim Caliphate, an imposing fortress was built here on the mountain to complement the São Jorge Castle in Lisbon proper.

Friday, October 17, 2014

How I Write Blog Posts

Last week fellow Spain blogger Cassandra of Gee, Cassandra tagged me in a “Blog Hop” that’s been going around (although we both agree that’s a lame name so we’re not going to call it that). Basically you have to talk about your personal writing process and how you go about blogging, and then you tag/nominate/@-reply three fellow bloggers to write their own response to the Blog Hop meme going around. So let’s get started!

1) What am I working on / writing?

I am the worst at getting around to doing write-ups of places I’ve been to; I’m just now finishing up talking about Portugal (April 2014) and there are several cities and villages in Galicia that I’ve got some (empty) drafts for, too. One of the biggest items on my blogging to-do list right now is simply to get caught up on travel posts.

This school year I’d really like to talk more about Santiago de Compostela, where I’ve been living for the past year. Now that I’ve uploaded 400+ photos of the town to Flickr I feel like I can finally write some general city posts to do Santiago justice, anything from a tell-all post about the cathedral to restaurant recommendations to a historical examination of this city’s foundation legends. I’d also like to share more about Galician culture: typical food, things you see in the countryside like hórreos and cruceiros, and even the chestnut-roasting festival called Magosto.

Current projects in my queue include a guided tour inside and around the cathedral of Santiago; a much-needed discussion about travel and privilege; and a “For Dummies”-style post summarizing the history of Spain.

My draft posts page

Friday, October 10, 2014

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Alameda Park

Parque da Alameda, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
An abuelo goes on paseo
All across Spain you’ll often find that each city has their own principal public park, usually established a century or two ago and which functions as the city’s backyard. For example, Madrid has the Retiro Park, Sevilla the María Luisa Park, and Barcelona the Parc de la Ciutadella. Santiago de Compostela is no different; its Alameda Park—just to the west of the old historic core—is where the whole city comes out to go for an afternoon stroll or a late-night jog, or to simply get a breath of clean, tree-purified air.

Parque da Alameda, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
As dúas Marías
Built on land that the Counts of Altamira donated to the city in the 1500s, the park’s three main gravel avenues trace around a small hill, upon which hundreds of ancient oak trees have taken root. While the Spanish word alameda literally means “a place with álamo trees” or poplars, the term has come to mean any sort of grand, tree-lined promenade—which Santiago’s Alameda definitely fits.

The Santiago tourism board describes the park aspacego (adjective applied to the ancestral country houses in Galicia or pazos) because it was the recreation and leisure area of the city in the same way that the gardens of Galician pazos were areas of pleasure and enjoyment.” Envision the gardens of a palatial country estate, and you’ll get an idea of what the Alameda is supposed to be like.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Lisbon’s Historic Neighborhood of Belém: What to See & What to Skip

Before getting off the train in Lisbon’s magnificent Gare do Oriente train station, I was most looking forward to visiting the Portuguese capital’s historic neighborhood of Belém. Six kilometers west of Lisbon’s historic center, Belém (pronounced “bih-LANG” [bɨˈlɐ̃j]) has a concentration of museums and monuments a lot higher than the rest of Lisbon—or any city, for that matter.

Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
Insane ceiling tracery in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos church
The area of Belém gained significance as an important harbor for sailors departing from and arriving in Lisbon during the Age of Exploration, when Portugal dominated the seas. Today, with the advent of modern tourism, Belém is a great daytrip away from the city center; a great place to moor your ship for a spell and take in the wonders of this World Heritage Site.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery)

Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
South façade
This sprawling, gargantuan complex owes its creation to King Manuel I, who ordered a monastery to be built here in 1501 to minister to Atlantic-bound mariners and pray for the souls of the kings of Portugal. It was paid for with the 5% tax the crown levied on all goods coming from Portuguese trade and exploration abroad; spices were a big deal half a millennium ago! Until the mid-1800s a community of Hieronymite monks (i.e., the Order of St. Jerome) lived in the cells, strolled through the cloisters, and prayed in the church.

Constructed in gleaming white limestone, the monastery was designed in the Late Gothic style, also known as Manueline because King Manuel was a big sponsor of architectural projects at the time.

Belém, Lisbon, Portugal
Fanciful cloisters
Although the orderly and idealizing Renaissance was in full swing in Italy at the time, I think it’s so cool that Portugal took the Gothic style to its fanciful and otherworldly extreme: richly-decorated cloister arches float from one column to another; flowers, leaves, and natural motifs creep up pills and columns; and inside the church you feel as if you’ve entered a forest—the columns branch out into vaultings that cover the ceiling like spider webs.

Verdict: SEE

Monday, September 29, 2014

Photo Post: Impressions of Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal
The famous Tram 28
Ah, Lisbon—the Portuguese capital. Before visiting Portugal, I had always had this image in my mind of the country as warm, sunny, and kind of dreamy. Lisbon lived up to all those preconceptions, but the actual, living-and-breathing city itself turned out to be much more interesting than I thought it would be when I was there in April.

Lisbon, Portugal
Orange blossoms in the Moorish Castle
First of all, I was really struck at the similarities between Lisbon and its southern neighbors in Spain, such as Sevilla, Málaga, or Córdoba. The hilltop Moorish fortresses, the red-tile roofs, the winding, whitewashed streets, and the warm, refreshing atmosphere all reminded me so much of Andalucía—and it really shouldn’t be too surprising because it wasn’t until the 1200s CE that southern Portugal was separated politically from Spain. I thought it was too good to be true, though, when I happened upon some orange blossoms by the cathedral. Their delicate springtime fragrance became synonymous with springtime in Andalucía for me, so to smell it again after a year away from the south of Spain was glorious.