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.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My 5 Favorite Overlooked Cities in Spain

So many people coming to Spain tend to focus on checking off the country’s Big Four touristy cities: Madrid, the city that really never sleeps; Barcelona, with its medieval and turn-of-the-century charm; Sevilla, the beating heart of Andalucía; and Granada, whose Alhambra is the finest expression of Islamic art anywhere in the world.

off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Roman walls of Lugo
I’m not trying to encourage people to avoid visiting Spain’s major touristy centers; obviously if there wasn’t anything worth seeing and doing they wouldn’t be the popular places they are today! I’ve had wonderful experiences in all four cities and believe they give a great cross-section of Spanish history and culture. Don’t get me wrong; I will go back to the Prado Museum every time I pass through Madrid, and the Alhambra will always be my favorite spot in the country.

What I’m trying to say here is: there is so much more to Spain than just Madrid or Granada! Even though it’s only the size of Texas, Spain is an endlessly varied country where most folks identify more strongly with their town or region than the nation. My favorite cities I’ve stayed in and experiences I’ve had have often been the places that you just never hear about in hostel common rooms or Top 10 clickbait lists. I believe that it’s just so much easier to get a deeper appreciation for the country when you spend some time away from all the paella-and-sangría menus or red double-decker tourist buses. Let me share with y’all five of the places where I think you can most easily do this!


off-the-beaten-track cities spain
Parador hotel (Palace of Dean Ortega)
I would be remiss if I didn’t include my beloved Úbeda on this list. Although I initially wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of living in one of Andalucía’s “lower-tier” provinces when I first moved to Spain to teach English, I quickly came to love the province of Jaén over the course of the school year—and my adopted village, Úbeda. A medium-sized town of 35,000 people, it’s strategically located along major bus and train routes between Córdoba and Granada. But what makes Úbeda a World Heritage Site (along with its little sister, Baeza) is its amazing collection of Renaissance architecture, unique in the region. Stately palaces and grand churches dot the city’s old town and enliven the winding Moorish alleyways. You can see traces of Úbeda’s Moorish heritage in the handful of kilns still used in the potter’s quarter, where craftsmen glaze pots and plates in the traditional Islamic green.

Read more: An Homage to Úbeda, My Pueblo in SpainHow to Spend 48 Hours Eating in Úbeda, Spain, and A Guided Tour of Úbeda, Spain

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Taste of Spain in Dallas, Texas

Since the auxiliares de conversación program only lets English-speakers like me stay in Spain between October and May, I have inevitably come back home to Texas in the summers to work and save money and to spend time with my family.

Café Madrid, Dallas, Texas
Plato Ibérico from Café Madrid
But to hold me over from my last menú del día meal in Madrid and to satisfy my love of Spanish painters, Dallas thankfully has a lot of Spanish-themed offerings, all within the same general area.

Meadows Museum

Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas
The Wave by Santiago Calatrava
On the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas’ elite Park Cities enclaves, the Meadows Museum is probably the premier collection of Spanish art outside of Spain. It opened in 1965 as a result of countless donations from the private collection of oilman Algur H. Meadows. As head of the Dallas-based General American Oil Company, he frequented the Spanish capital of Madrid in the 1950s since his company was searching for oil reserves there at the time. While in Madrid, Meadows got to spend hours browsing the world-class Prado Museum and gained a lifelong appreciation for Spanish art.

Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas
The museum moved into its current location in 2001, a building that blends in with the neoclassical brick-and-stone structures on SMU’s campus but also recalls the stateliness of the Villanueva Building that houses the Prado itself.