Monday, May 2, 2016

Big in Big D, Y’all: What to See, Eat, & Do in Dallas, Texas

When I moved back to Texas back in July after living in Spain for three years, I felt guilty that I could give people better food or sightseeing recommendations for cities like Madrid or Santiago de Compostela than I could for the city I claimed was my hometown, Dallas. Now, part of the problem was that I actually grew up in Plano, a suburb to the north of Dallas, but that didn’t excuse me from not knowing this place as well as I should.

Things to do in Dallas, Texas
Magnolia red Pegasus, the unofficial symbol of the city
So once I was settled in back home last summer, I made it my goal to see as much of the city as I could on weekends and the odd jaunt after work, relying on my own two feet and DART trains and buses to take me around this big, big city. I reconnected with a lot of folks from my high school days and did all the touristy things like going up top the Reunion Tower at sunset or hanging out at the State Fair of Texas with my dad. But I also got to know a whole slew of locally-owned cafés and restaurants (see below for recommendations), gained a deeper appreciation for Dallas history, and learned what makes each neighborhood tick.

Nine months of exploration later, I feel like I’m ready to share with y’all what I think the best things to see, eat, and do are in Dallas…along with a liberal sprinkling of history and cool architecture (as if you could expect anything else from me!).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ferrol, Spain: The Black Sheep of Galicia

Galicia, tucked away in Spain’s northwest corner, happens to be one of the most densely-populated regions in the country. Major cultural and political centers include Vigo, A Coruña, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela, and Pontevedra…and if we were to continue rattling off the region’s biggest cities, the coastal town of Ferrol would hold the spot for seventh-biggest, at 70,000 ferroláns.

Ferrol (pronounced “fair-ROLE” [feˈrol]) doesn’t have the best reputation among Galicians, as it’s kind of the black sheep of the region; many folks call this place “ugly” and say “it doesn’t have anything to see.” Of course, I was told the same thing about Almería on the Mediterranean coast and ended up really enjoying the city when I daytripped there three years ago.

Still, there’s a lot about Ferrol that makes it, uh, different from the rest of Galicia.

Military heritage

Military arsenal
Situated deep within one of Europe’s most strategic natural harbors, Ferrol’s economy has historically been linked to the sea—from trading and fishing to naval installations. Starting from the 1700s on, Ferrol has held some of the largest installations of the Spanish navy. A short drive from the city center is the Castillo de San Felipe, a defensive fort that, with its twin on the other side of the water, would cerrar or “lock” the narrow estuary out from enemy ships.

Dictator Francisco Franco’s birthplace

Casa Natal de Franco
I didn’t plan it this way, but in the span of a single week I managed to visit Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s final resting place (in the Valle de los Caídos mausoleum) as well as the house he was born in…right here in Ferrol. After Franco came to power in a military coup and subsequent civil war in the late 1930s, his hometown was renamed El Ferrol del Caudillo—“The Leader’s Ferrol.” Keep in mind that for fascist Spain, the term “El Caudillo” was the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s “Der Führer” or fascist Italy’s “Il Duce.”

Ironically enough, Ferrol also happens to be the birthplace of the 19th-century Spanish politician Pablo Iglesias, who belonged to the complete opposite side of the political spectrum; he founded the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party—PSOE—which endures today as the country’s major center-left party.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Photo Post: Holy Week Processions in Ferrol, Spain

When I lived in Spain and taught English, I always took full advantage of the annual Semana Santa vacation during the week leading up to Easter Sunday to go on a major international trip, since you use up half your time off just getting out of the country and flying back on weekend trips. For my first year, I rode a ferry across the Mediterranean and explored northern Morocco, while in my second school year abroad, I train-hopped from Santiago down into warm, sunny Portugal.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión de Jesús Nazareno (Cofradía de Dolores)
Although in 2015 I still planned on leaving Spain for a brief getaway to Germany, I wanted to be back in the country before Holy Week was over. After all, Spain throws one of its biggest, most unique celebrations for Semana Santa, and I would have regretted not experiencing this fascinating cultural tradition before moving back to Texas.

So I decided to check one off the ol’ bucket list and spend all of Good Friday chasing religious processions in the city of Ferrol on Galicia’s northern coast. Ferrol’s the oddball of northwest Spain for many reasons, not least of which is their enthusiasm for this holiday that seems more in line with their sober neighbors in Castilla or more exuberant compatriots in Andalucía. Galicians don’t really go over the top at all for Easter, so Ferrol is basically the only place you can see quality pasos or processions in the region.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión del Crucificado (Cofradía de la Merced)
These processions need a little explanation for foreigners. Many Spaniards—be they devout or cultural Catholics—belong to religious brotherhoods called cofradías or hermandades, some of which date back hundreds of years. Although they’re involved in other undertakings, their most visible activities are the religious processions that they put on during Holy Week every year. Members don glossy, colorful robes and transform into anonymous, pointy-hat-wearing nazarenos (“Nazarenes”) or penitentes (“penitents”) whose roles run the gamut from looking somber and carrying candles to blasting trumpets at three in the morning and carrying weighty wooden floats on their backs around town. These floats bear wooden sculptures that portray all the biblical events of Holy Week.

City streets teem with residents who show up for these processions during the eight-day period from Domingo de Ramos (“Palm Sunday”) through Viernes Santo (“Good Friday”) and onto Domingo de Pascua (“Easter Sunday”). Schools take the entire week off so it effectively functions as the Spanish spring break.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chasing Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany

As a history major, I’m not one to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The way I see it, inventions, movements, religions, diseases, trade, and geography play a much more crucial role in human events than mere single characters do. And besides, there have been many Great Women! Nevertheless, some people are more influential than others: think Muhammad, Christopher Columbus, or whoever invented air conditioning.

Aachen, Germany
Aachener Dom
When it comes to European history specifically, Charlemagne stands as one of the most significant actors in shaping what we know today as Europe. Following the countless barbarian invasions that had left the western Roman Empire in disarray, Charlemagne (who was himself a “barbarian” Frank) brought the West back together under a single rule, promoted learning amid the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and conquered so much land that he became the father of both France and Germany.

During my weekend jaunt to western Germany last year, I made a daytrip from my home base in Cologne out west to Aachen, once the capital of Charlemagne’s short-lived empire and the final resting place of “Charles the Great” himself. Pronounced “AH-khun” [ˈaːxən], the city has been a spa/resort town since Roman times (thanks to its hot springs) and today borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

Aachen, Germany
Detail of the tiles in the cathedral

So who was Charlemagne? (and why care about a warlord from the Dark Ages?)

(Major #NerdAlert here: If you tend to get that glazed-over look whenever you start reading about history, you can skip down to the next section to get to the good stuff about Aachen, but I’ve tried to make this bio of Charlemagne as brief and as easy-to-read as possible!)

As King of the Franks from 768 to 814 CE, Charlemagne reigned over what now makes up modern France, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, and northeastern Spain—a vast empire stitched together by endless military campaigns, forced baptisms, and blessings from the Pope. It was the first time these lands had been united politically since the Roman Empire.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Ups & Downs of Traveling to Cologne, Germany

For the longest time, Germany never showed up as a blip on my travel radar, even when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, whose Ryanair airport hub has connections all across mainland Europe. I was focused primarily on getting to know northern Spain, especially Galicia, or neighboring countries like France and Portugal before finally moving back to Texas. Germany seemed so foreign and distant, even though it’s as close to Spain as Chicago is to Dallas. While my fellow language assistants hopped from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Berlin, I focused on places like coastal Portugal, southeastern France, or central Italy—all southern European countries.

Cologne, Germany
Old town Cologne and the Rhine River, seen from the cathedral
It’s not that I had anything against Scandinavia, the British Isles, or central Europe…it’s just that I didn’t want to spend my limited savings and strategic vacation time going to places that I had almost no desire to visit. My true passions, the places that I longed to explore and made my heart ache with wanderlust, lay in the Mediterranean basin.

And yet I felt like I was wasting a huge opportunity in not making a weekend trip out of, say, Germany or the Netherlands, since I was already on that side of the Atlantic and only had to worry about resisting the siren song of budget airlines—instead of a wallet-emptying trans-Atlantic flight.

It was Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, that would drag me out of my comfortable southern European routine and force me to re-acquaint myself with a little thing called Culture Shock. It would be a wild ride full of ups and downs, but I don’t regret it at all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Alcalá de Henares, Spain: The College-Town Birthplace of Cervantes

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Plaza de Cervantes
Something that’s always striking to me about Spain is that in one moment you can zip around beneath Madrid on the Metro, refresh your Twitter feed at a McDonald’s in between sips of espresso, and rub elbows with visitors from around the globe at some of the world’s leading art galleries…and in the next moment—a mere 40-minute train ride—you can emerge onto the sun-baked plains of Castilla where it seems as if a village hasn’t changed much since its most famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, was born here way back in 1547. Yes, that Cervantes, the author of Western literature’s first novel, Don Quixote. Some may call Alcalá de Henares a mere suburb of Madrid, but this “small town” of 200,000 is a world away from Spain’s cosmopolitan capital when it comes to architectural and cultural heritage.

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Café con leche & rosquilla de Alcalá
One warm spring morning last year I was excited to check out what made Alcalá deserve World Heritage status—but first, coffee. At the venerable Café de Libreros in the city’s old town, I briefly dipped in for one of the best-crafted café con leches I’ve had in the country, pairing it with a local specialty, a rosquilla (think of it as a mini cronut).

The former campus of Spain’s premier university

Invigorated with caffeine, I moseyed on down to Alcalá’s central Plaza de Cervantes—more grand promenade than town square—and checked in to the palatial College of San Ildefonso, which once served as the main hall of the Complutense University. You can think of the Complutense as the Spanish counterpart to Oxford: an extremely-prestigious university with medieval roots that has played a major role in educating many of the country’s pre-eminent authors, thinkers, and politicians.

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso
Now, the Complutense began here in Alcalá as a medieval school of higher learning in the year 1293, gaining official university status from the Pope in 1499; the name complutense refers to the original Roman name for the city—Complutum—which was later replaced by the Arabic-influenced name Alcalá de Henares (lit. “Castle on the Henares River”). Anyway, by the 1830s the city of Madrid was in need of an illustrious university befitting a major European capital, so by royal decree in 1836 the university based in Alcalá was transferred to Madrid, where it remains to this day: the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

This move, however, left half a dozen or so monumental buildings abandoned and in danger of being sold off or demolished, so local alcalaínos formed the Sociedad de Condueños (“Joint-Ownership Association”) to pool their funds and purchase their town’s architectural heritage for the good of the community. Although the centuries-old institution that was the Complutense had left the buildings for good, in 1977 these exquisite late-Gothic and Renaissance gems gained a second lease on life when the University of Alcalá was founded: a brand-new school that would occupy the city’s historic campus.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mornings in Spain

Putting on my threadbare IKEA slippers, I shuffle into my apartment’s kitchen to figure out what I might have for breakfast. I open a cabinet and find no eggs left in the cardboard container, and it looks like the only tea I have is caffeine-free chamomile. Ugg. The kitchen window that looks out into the light well is ajar, and from it I can hear pigeons softly cooing, almost in derision that I have no food. I make a mental note of the things I need to go to the grocery store for and hop in the shower.

My hair still drying, I pull the house door shut behind me, in accordance with the handwritten “Mantén a porta pechada—Grazas” sign I see every day on the way out, and I quickly zip up my hoodie: it’s a little chillier out here than I was expecting. Four faint, almost-imperceptible dings trickle down the street from the Baroque-style convent that sits on the other side of Belvís Park, calling the nuns who live there to prayer. I look up to the cloudy, gloomy skies, and, noticing I didn’t bring an umbrella with me, offer up a prayer for no rain.
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