Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Italy

Earlier this week I came back to Spain after spending ten days in its southern European counterpart to the east, the Republic of Italy. I am so grateful to have had both the means and the opportunity to travel around the central part of this country, a country I have dreamed about visiting ever since first studying Latin in 5th grade. I flew into beautiful Florence and spent three nights there, making a daytrip to nearby Siena on my way down to Rome. In my four nights in the capital, I hit up the Vatican City, many ruins, a dozen famous churches, and ancient alleyways. Heading south to Naples, I browsed this sketchy city’s significant archaeological museum, ate pizza, and daytripped to Mt. Vesuvius and the Roman ruins of Pompeii.

Florence, Italy
The trip was expensive and exhausting, but experiencing some of the art, architecture, history, ruins, and food that are so foundational to Western culture was everything I had hoped it would be as well as a peek into Italian culture. There was a lot to take in, and almost two weeks of nonstop travel gave me a lot to think about, too. These are my random musings about Italy, travel, and myself that I’ve gathered these past few days back home in Santiago de Compostela. It’s become somewhat of a tradition of mine to do a “collected lessons” posts after international trips I’ve taken so far (see France and Morocco), so here we go again!

* I made eight “ascents” on the trip: 1) Florence cathedral’s dome and 2) bell tower, 3) the bell tower of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, 4) Monte di Firenze where the church of San Miniato al Monte is, 5) the bell tower of Siena’s town hall, 6) the façade of Siena’s cathedral museum, 7) the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and 8) Mt. Vesuvius

* Italian shows some interesting U-raising in certain words: uffizi (“offices”), udienza (“audience”), and uscita (“exit”), for some examples with their cognate English words that are closer to Latin

* Would I go back again someday? I think so, yes, but only after some time decompressing and perhaps studying the language more; the hill towns of central Italy and the island of Sicily are definitely calling my name!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

22 Fun Facts About the Galician Language

Galician is a Romance language (i.e., from Latin) spoken by about 3 million people in Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. Although it’s most closely related to Portuguese—which is spoken south of the border—it shares many similarities with Castilian Spanish, including sounds and spelling.

A Coruña, Spain
A Coruña
If you’re planning on spending any time traveling or living in this unique corner of Spain, or walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that ends here, even a tiny knowledge of Galician will help you get around and navigate menus, maps, etc. If you happen to speak Spanish, you’re already 80% of the way to understanding Galician, and I’m serious! Getting a grasp on the grammatical and phonological differences will turbo boost you up to 90%.

To whet your appetite (both literally and linguistically), here’s a little selection from the Galician Wikipedia’s article on empanada, or meat pie:
Unha empanada é unha preparación culinaria consistente nunha masa e un recheo que se frixe ou coce no forno. Consiste nunha masa de fariña, elaborada máis ou menos como unha masa de pan rechea de carne ou outros produtos (tamén verduras peixes, ou mariscos variados), previamente cociñados de formas moi variadas segundo a gastronomía local, pero sendo con moita cebola frixida en aceite o modo tradicional en Galicia. Este é un tipo de alimento de orixe moi antiga que se da en case tódalas culturas.
And if you’re trying to get an ear for the language, listen to this advertisement from Galician supermarket Gadis:

Galician’s a really cool, unique language that’s really easy to pick up on if you take a little time to figure out what makes it different. Like I said, if you already know Spanish, you can basically figure out what Galician means, even if you can’t speak it yourself.

Fun facts

1) Articles (think “the”) are simple vowels: o for masculine words and a for feminine ones. Where Spanish has el, la, los, las, Galician has o, a, os, as. Because Galician lost the initial L over the centuries as the Latin spoken by everyday people transformed into what we have today, this makes for some fun, and sometimes confusing, contractions.

2) Contractions—Galician’s got a lot. I’ve used articles as the examples below, but pronouns also combine, too.
* with a (“to”) and an article: ao, á, aos, ás
* with con (“with”) and an article: co, coa, cos, coas
* with de (“of”) and an article: do, da, dos, das
* with en (“in, on”) and an article: no, na, nos, nas
* with por (“by, for”) and an article: polo, pola, polos, polas
And so on…

3) I love Galician pronouns: “I” is eu, “you” is ti, “he, she” is el, ela, “we” is nós, “y’all” is vós, and “they” is eles, elas

Monday, December 9, 2013

Photo Post: Meknes, Morocco’s Forgotten Imperial City

Meknes, Morocco
Bab el-Mansour
Of the four major cities that have served as capitals in Morocco’s past—Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat—Meknes seems to be the most-overlooked Imperial City for most people coming to visit the country. It’s a mere half-hour train ride from Fez, yet many people pass it over on their way to Casablanca and Marrakesh. Admittedly, there isn’t a lot to see here and the real treat here are the Roman ruins of Volubilis, a half-hour grand taxi drive outside of town. Even Sufyan, a native meknassi I met on the train and who kindly guided me toward my hotel, assured me his city isn’t worth visiting and recommended I check out Marrakesh and Essaouira instead.

Meknes, Morocco
Imperial City
I myself would have skipped Meknes had I not wanted to see the Volubilis ruins, which are difficult to get to except as a daytrip from town. Thankfully in my hotel’s lobby I happened to overhear that a group of three Americans were trying to organize an intercity taxi to visit Volubilis, and when I asked if I could join them, they graciously let me pitch in the cost of the grand taxi ride. It was a great experience and I am so grateful I met Alice, Frank, and Nicole at the hotel; it was a refreshing change to hang out with English speakers after struggling through broken French up to that point!

Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl
But while in town, I actually kind of liked spending time simply wandering around the old city’s medina (read: not getting lost) and fortified palatial grounds. The city was quiet and untouristy, and I felt very out-of-place as a backpacking white kid from America in this fascinating country. (But that’s a good thing, of course!)

The first night I was there, I attempted to seek out the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl, a Moroccan ruler in the 1600s and 1700s who established the city of Meknes and was an all-around bad-ass warrior king. However, I made one wrong turn and ended up walking all around the cité impériale proper at dusk for an hour. By the time I made it back to the central Place el-Hedim square, the mausoleum was already closed so I decided to come back again the next day. Sure enough, when I followed the signs, they took me straight to it.

Meknes, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Ismaïl
A succession of smaller and smaller halls and courtyards culminated in Moulay Ismaïl’s burial chamber, an incredibly lavish room covered from floor to ceiling in tilework and carved marble. I had to take off my shoes before entering out of respect for this important figure in Morocco’s history.

Meknes, Morocco
Place el-Hedim
Back in the center of the old town—right outside the winding medina—I climbed a few stairs to a second-story teahouse terrace. There I enjoyed a mint tea from my perch, watching the sun set in the distance and taking in the trading, music, and movement in the plaza below.

What was your favorite picture from this post? Have you been to Meknes before? What other historically-significant yet perennially-overlooked cities can you think of? Tell me in the comments section below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

6 Things to Do in Ourense, Spain: Galicia’s Best-Kept Secret

In early November my flatmate and I took a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to the city of Ourense. Pronounced “oe-oo-REHN-say” [owˈɾɛn.se], it’s the capital of Galicia’s only province without coastline. However disappointing that may sound to you, it shouldn’t be, because Ourense province is actually one of the most beautiful parts of Spain and even has its own Grand Canyon, the Cañon do Sil. I had little to no expectations about Ourense capital when I came, but I was very, very impressed by this place that no one (apart from my bilingual coordinator who is from the province) ever says boo about when talking about Galicia.

Ourense, Spain
Medieval Bridge
Ourense seems like a city that tourism is just about to uncover, but which is still relatively anonymous. I can expect that the arrival of the AVE (high-speed long distance trains) will bring many visitors from Madrid on weekenders, but for now, it’s got very few visitors so you’ll feel like you have the entire city to yourself. So what to do when you’re there? I recommend you try these six activities, but make sure to take a few hours to relax every day at the natural hot springs (#6)!

1) Ride the high-speed train from Santiago de Compostela or A Coruña

Ourense, Spain
Soportales by the cathedral
Slowly but surely, high-speed rail is making its way from Madrid to every corner of the Iberian peninsula. High-speed service came to Sevilla in 1992 and to Barcelona in 2008, and you can also take the AVE train to the Mediterranean and the meseta, the central Castilian plateau. More “spokes” of Spain’s high-speed network continue to branch out from the hub in Madrid to places like wild-west Extremadura, the far-northern coast, and eastern Andalucía. Galicia—Spain’s fifth-most populous region—is also set to join the high-speed world…but construction between the end of the northern line and the region has gone very slowly, and it could be until the end of the decade that this part is finished.

However, most of the work within Galicia is already done, and you can now travel between A Coruña on the coast, to Santiago de Compostela the capital, southwest to Ourense in a little over an hour—formerly a 2-3 hour train ride. The train tracks pass through numerous tunnels and cross dozens of canyons on great bridges, making for a quick but lovely journey through the prettiest landscapes in Spain.

2) Enjoy (or endure) the extreme weather

Ourense, Spain
Church of Santa Eufemia
Ourense is different from the rest of the region in that its weather makes you feel like you’re in central or southern Spain rather than in mild, rainy Galicia. Because of its location in a river basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, Ourense enjoys a distinct “micro-climate” from the rest of the region—frigid and icy in the winter, sizzling hot in the summer—so much so that it’s one of the handful of cities in Spain that vie for the dubious honor of being la sartén de EspañaSpain’s Frying Pan.

If you get off the train here in the winter, bundle up, and if you come in the summer, bring an, uh, egg…to fry on the sidewalk. (Just kidding!)

3) Eat up free tapas with your drink

Ourense, Spain
Café bombón with a little cookie tapa
Although it isn’t the custom to give free tapas (little appetizers) with whatever you get to drink in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, western Andalucía, or the Basque Country, most everywhere else in (non-touristy) Spain still holds on to this centuries-old tradition, and Ourense is no exception. At lunch, go all-out with a big, two-course menú del día, but then at dinner, go from bar to restaurant and fill up on tapas like a slice of empanada (meat pie), some chorizo and bread, or chunks of fried potato with garlicky ali-oli sauce.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Saying “Bye!” to Say “Hi!” When Passing Friends in Spain

When I first came to Spain in September of last year, culture shock really wasn’t that big of a problem for me, thanks in no small part to the plethora of resources available online—expat and auxiliar blogs, for example—and in print—books like Culture Shock: Spain, and even the back matter of Lonely Planet Spain. Reading about little (and big) cultural differences beforehand prepared me well for my initial few weeks in the country, from giving kisses when meeting women to eating dinner at nine in the evening instead of five- or six-o’-clock.

Úbeda, Spain
Calle Obispo Cobos, Úbeda
Moving to Úbeda, in the northwest corner of the southern Andalucía region, I expected the local accent to be rapid, consonant-dropping, and generally different from textbook or news reporter Spanish. I had studied what made the andaluz accent different from “standard” Castilian, and was ready to interpret what I heard as comotá to mean ¿Cómo estás?—“How are you?”

But already in that first week of getting settled in Úbeda I was hearing taló and taleugo being thrown around in the streets, and it appeared that people were just saying it to random folks as they passed them by. It really threw me for a loop; I wondered, are they really saying “hasta luego,” See You Later, to their friends as they walk past them? It didn’t make any sense for people to say “goodbye” when you’re supposed to say “hi” to someone you pass in the street.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Photo Post: Visiting Alicante, Spain, for the Friends, Not the Museums

Alicante, Spain
Old town Alicante
Some cities you go to for the sights, others for the fun, still others for the friends. When I went to Alicante on the Spanish Mediterranean coast back in March, it was for the friends, and I don’t regret it at all.

Alicante, Spain
Dinner with us international kids
Also called Alacant in the local Valencian Catalan language, Alicante is one of the biggest cities in the country and a big home base for beach bums in the summer. For many years now, it has also been a popular study abroad destination for students at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University. So when I learned that a handful of acquaintances and fellow Spanish majors would be in Alicante the same time I was in Spain, I decided to try and have our paths cross at least once! That chance came the first weekend in March when I was visiting Valencia, two hours to the north. On my way back home, I swung by Alicante for two nights and had a great time simply hanging out in town.

Alicante, Spain
Pretty neighborhood in the old town
Visiting college friends in Alicante was a nice change from the usual monument-museum-eating pace I had gotten accustomed to in my travels: we got coffee, hot chocolate, and ice cream together; had Indian food and pizza; strolled the beachside esplanade; and even went to the local Protestant church, an anomaly in nominally-Catholic Spain.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is It Blasphemy to Dislike Granada, Spain?

(Disclaimer: I’m fully aware I’m about to step on approximately 11,920 toes with this post…)

Granada, Spain
Patio de los Leones, the Alhambra

Granada is:

one of the biggest cities in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía…home to the Alhambra, a beautiful Moorish palatial complex built in the Middle Ages during the last Muslim kingdom in Spain…a center for generously-big free tapas with your drink…the burial place for the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella…a home base for going skiing in the snowy Sierra Nevada…a great place to study abroad in…the last city in Spain to be “re-conquered” from Muslim rule in the 1400s…full of interesting neighborhoods like the winding, hillside Albaicín…a popular place for the springtime Cruces de Mayo festival…and an essential stop for almost any trip to Spain.

Granada is nice and all, but…

Granada, Spain
Tilework in the Alhambra
Don’t get me wrong, the first time I visited Granada back in November of last year I loved it. I had been very anxiously looking forward to wandering around the city’s Alhambra palace for years and it was merely two hours south of my adopted-home-for-eight-months, Úbeda. Going with two new American friends in town, we saw the sights, got soaked in the rain, woke up at an ungodly hour to wait in line for Alhambra tickets, drank Moroccan tea, and strolled down the Gran Vía at night together. (We also discovered the wonder that is the tortilla sandwich, but that’s a story for another post.) It was a really great trip and at the time I looked forward to returning again soon.

And so I went back for a second visit. A short jaunt down to Málaga the first weekend in May left me with a long layover in Granada on my way back home. I took advantage of this opportunity to see the Alhambra again, this time in spring. It was still just as stunning the second time around, and I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes: the seasons had changed, I was now a seasoned traveler across Andalucía and Morocco, and it would be the last major trip I would take in the region before heading back home to America. Flowers were everywhere—purple, perfumed wisteria hung from every post and beam, roses enlivened the Generalife gardens, and the intoxicating aroma of azahar, the orange blossom, drifted from orange trees within and without the palace grounds.

Granada, Spain
Wisteria in the Generalife gardens
Although I relished the chance to experience the Alhambra in the sweet-smelling spring, I think the city soured on me when I went back. Granted, I did happen to visit during the Cruces de Mayo festival in which the various cofradías and hermandades—Catholic brotherhoods known for carrying around religious floats during Holy Week—construct massive crosses of flower planters and set up open-air bar-restaurants. Let me tell you: the city was insane. People (rather loud and slightly-buzzed granadinos, mostly) crammed the streets from just after siesta until who knows when the next morning.

The charming atmosphere I enjoyed when I first visited was gone. Perhaps it was because stupid, slow-walking tourists had packed the Albaicín, because I had experienced what a Muslim/North African country is actually like, or because FREE TAPAS!!! were no longer restricted to just Granada, but were also served in much of the rest of the country. I soon concluded that apart from the Alhambra, Granada as a city just isn’t worth the time of day for me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Culture Shock at a Supermarket in Spain

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in Spain, chances are you’ll end up at a supermarket, whether for a late-afternoon snack or ingredients for dinner if you’re cooking for yourself. And when you do end up going to one, you’ll inevitably experience culture shock since some customs in Spanish supermarkets are a bit different from those you may be used to. You won’t be falling on the floor in shock over them, but if you’re aware of these small but significant differences in the way you go about doing things, your shopping trip will go much more smoothly.

Supermarkets in Spain
(Source: Nacho Pintos)

1) Putting your bag in a locker before entering

At the entrance to most supermarkets there are always a couple dozen cubbie-hole-sized lockers for you to stow your backpack/heavy belongings/shopping bag from another store in. This is nice because you don’t have to lug your crap around with you all over the store, but the lockers are probably there to prevent shoplifting, so make sure to lock up your large bags before shopping or the cashiers and/or security guards at the front will yell at you.

It’s pretty simple: just find an empty locker, open the door, stuff your bag inside, drop a 50-cent, 1-euro, or 2-euro coin piece inside the slot, close and lock the door, and remove the key.

2) Weighing & pricing produce at the stand, not the checkout

Supermarkets in Spain
Mercadona in Úbeda
In a big change from American stores where the cashier punches in the code and weighs your produce at the checkout, in Spain you bag your fruits and veggies and take them to a central scale where either you or an employee weigh your items and print out a little sticker with a barcode to put on your plastic baggie. Then you take these pre-priced baggies to the checkout lane where the cashier can fly through them like they were any other item with a barcode.

3) Making change for your total easier

Let’s say your groceries cost, say, 15,02€, and you hand your cashier a 20-euro note when it’s time to pay up. I would be willing to bet that 20 euros that they would ask you if you happen to have two cents so they can instead give you ten- and five-euro notes—because otherwise, they’ll have to crack open a roll of pennies and leave you a pile of metal including a 50-cent coin, two 20-cent ones, a 10-, a 5-, and two 2-cent pieces. What a mess. So if you happen to have change with you (and you should, since you’re carrying it around in your pocket-sized coin purse like it’s the manliest thing since the Euro man-purse), everyone involved will have a much better day.

This isn’t restricted to just pennies, though; if your ingredients to make tortilla add up to 6,37€, you can hand over a ten-euro note and a one-euro coin to get a pretty, green five-euro note back with much less spare change.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Photo Post: The Sierra de Segura Mountains in Eastern Andalucía

Tranco Reservoir
There’s a lot to love about the province of Jaén, a cozy corner of eastern Andalucía in southern Spain. You’ve got the lovely villages of Úbeda and Baeza, graced with Renaissance architecture, as well as countless other sleepy towns scattered amongs the endless olive groves. There’s the capital city of Jaén, with its charming, Moorish-style old town and free tapas scene. Although there’s no doubt that people here talk with a thick Andalusian accent, it’s not nearly as difficult to understand as that of Cádiz, for example, on the coast. And who could forget that the best olive oil in the world is made in almazaras (factories) in every village’s industrial park?

Sierra de Segura
But while I’ve expressed my love for the region in many posts on this blog, I haven’t written yet about the sierra, that unmoving wall of mountains that serves as the eastern limit of the province and the region. Countless sunsets seen from Úbeda’s eastern lookout point made me wonder what these hills were like up close and personal, so I made it my goal—as a Mountain Person, rather than a beach bum—to explore the Segura mountain range at least once during my time in the south.

Olive tree, with Segura de la Sierra in the background
I finally got that chance in February when a handful of teachers and I went on a little excursion after work for lunch and touring in two pueblos (villages) in the Sierra de Segura: Hornos de Segura (“Ovens of Segura”) and Segura de la Sierra (“Segura of the Hills”).

Hornos de Segura
In Hornos, we had a long, delicious dinner of various raciones—appetizer platters of cheeses, meats, sandwiches, and other little bites that added up to a full meal. After a quick pick-me-up of coffee, we wandered around the old town, stopping at the lookout point over the Tranco Reservoir to enjoy the beautiful lakeside scenery before seeing the local castle and parish church.

Castle of Segura de la Sierra
To get to Segura de la Sierra, we drove about 15 minutes through olive grove-covered fields up the steep hill that the tiny village is situated on. My bilingual coordinator, Pedro, told me that he used to work at a school here that was built over the old medieval walls. So cool! The sun was setting fast, though, so we all parked and hurried up the hill to the castle, from which we got to take in the surroundings at twilight.

What was your favorite photo from this post? Are you a Mountain Person or do you prefer the beach? Either way, these mountains are only a few hours from the Mediterranean coast!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Segovia, Spain: 3 Facets of a Castilian Gem

Not even two days back in Spain in September, I had already hit the ground running after a summer home in Texas. The central city of Segovia was the only pitstop I made on my journey between Madrid and Galicia, where I’m now working for Year Two as a language assistant. Merely half an hour north of Madrid via the high-speed train that cuts through the Guadarrama mountains, Segovia is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to in the country so far.

Segovia, Spain
The White City of Gondor Segovia skyline
Most people run up on that high-speed train from Madrid and make a daytrip out of the city, but I ended up staying two nights here and really enjoyed taking it all in at a relaxed pace. Although Segovia is well-known for its massive Roman aqueduct, its impressive Gothic cathedral, and fairy-tale castle, I think the city deserves more credit for its Romanesque churches and tasty food.

It’s the only major city I’ve traveled to in the vast north-central region of Castilla y León, but if Segovia is any indicator, I can’t wait to see more of Castilla in the future.

1) Monuments

Segovia, Spain
Roman aqueduct
Even though the Romans essentially stole the basic forms of their architecture from the Greeks, their invention of the arch—and its permutations in vaulted ceilings or domes—combined with their engineering prowess really revolutionized construction in ancient times. They brought “civilization” to cities across the Mediterranean world, partly by the wonder that was the aqueduct, a miles-long series of canals that bore fresh water from sources in mountains down to large settlements. This is something we take for granted in modern times, but it would have been a breakthrough back in the day.

These aqueducts (literally “water channel”) were inclined at precise angles to keep water moving all the way to the cities, so whenever a valley opened up, vast, stacked arches had to be put up to support an elevated span. Few aqueducts remain in Europe, but the ones that do are truly amazing, like southern France’s Pont du Gard and this one in Segovia that cuts straight through a valley on the edge of the old town. During the reign of Ferdinand & Isabella, 36 arches were carefully rebuilt, and the aqueduct continued to bring water into Segovia through the 1800s.

Segovia, Spain
The cathedral
Most every big Spanish city has its own cathedral church to be proud of (and even some small ones, too!), but after a while these Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches all kind of mush together in your memory. Segovia’s cathedral, however, really stands out because it’s the youngest cathedral in the world that was designed in the Gothic style. You’d think a cathedral built in the late 1500s—the height of the Renaissance—would look something like what you can find in Jaén province, for example, but for whatever reason the segovianos just couldn’t let go of the Gothic. The result was stunning: the Late Gothic church has typical squared-off, boxy transept arms and lots of floral, pointy spires, very reminiscent of Sevilla’s cathedral. However, the Renaissance was too hard to resist, for the stained glass windows are joined in triplets, like a triumphal arch, and a central dome—unheard of in medieval times—ties everything together.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How to Drink Coffee in Spain: 8 Ways to Order a Cup of Joe

Confession: I’m not that big of a coffee drinker—tea is really more my thing. But I do enjoy the occasional cuppa joe about once a week, and after living here in Spain for a year I’ve figured out how to add some variety to my morning injection of caffeine beyond the standard café con leche. Most of these are just variations on a shot of espresso and steamed milk, but there’s a few surprises, too. Get your coffee pot started and join me as I explain the basics of drinking coffee in Spain.

Café solo

Coffee in Spain
(Source: thiery49)
“Only coffee” (or more literally, “coffee alone”) is simply a shot of espresso, the coffee beverage that is made from forcing hot water at a high pressure through ground coffee beans. It’s served in a short, tiny glass or ceramic cup with a saucer, spoon, and a bag of sugar. A good café solo will have a thick, almost bitter body capped with thin layer of foam. This is coffee at its rawest.

Café cortado

Coffee in Spain
(Source: Alexandra Guerson)
A café cortado is called so because the shot of espresso is “cut” with some steamed milk—but only some, as there’s more coffee than milk in this drink. It’s not quite as strong or bitter as a straight-up café solo; instead, the creaminess of the milk makes it a little more palatable. Author David Lebovitz, who writes about pastries in France, has praised the simple pleasures of the cortado in a really lovely blog post you should check out here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Photo Post: The Medieval-Renaissance Village of Sabiote, Spain

Sabiote, Spain
Sabiote Castle
Just a short 10km from the southern Spanish city of Úbeda, the village of Sabiote offers a lot despite its small size. You might be surprised to find a Renaissance-era castle and well-preserved set of medieval walls in this passed-over corner of Spain, but it’s no wonder; after all, the province of Jaén is the region with the greatest number of castles in Europe!

Sabiote, Spain
Sabiote Castle
I would have never even given Sabiote the time o’ day had it not been the hometown of my bilingual coordinator, Pedro. One afternoon after school, he took me and a group of teachers out for lunch to his pueblo and afterwards led us on a tour of town in which we got to explore the inside of the recently-restored castle. Standing upon the fortress’s battlements at sunset, I really enjoyed getting to survey the whole countryside, which was covered, of course, in gridded, green olive groves.

Sabiote, Spain
Church of San Pedro silhouetted at sunset
While training for the Camino de Santiago, I would later come back to the city—this time on foot with one of my fellow Americans-in-Úbeda, Ashley. It was only a two-hour-long hike, but when we arrived we were greeted by a medieval festival in which we saw locals dressed up in jaunty costumes, ate cheap, delicious food in open-air restaurants, and watched reenactment-style horses racing around the town.

Sabiote, Spain
Streets of Sabiote
Sabiote may be yet another quiet Spanish village, but it’s hardly a pueblo del culo del mundo (“village at the butt-end of the world). Rather, Sabiote is a true pueblo con encanto—a “village with enchantment.”

What’s your favorite Spanish village? Do you like to make excursions to smaller towns while passing from big city to another? Talk about it in the comments below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

On Saying “Enjoy Your Meal!” to Strangers in Spain

It’s taken me about a year to pick up on this little cultural idiosyncrasy of Spain, but after talking with some fellow expats who have also noticed it, I’ve decided to put together an exposé of this fun part of Spanish culture.

I’m talking about complete strangers telling you they hope you “enjoy your meal!” as they walk by. Yeah, it sounds kind of weird, but it is a Thing here in Spain that everyone from your server to your housemate to casual acquaintances will wish you as you’re chowing down on dinner. Let me give a few examples:

My daily bocadillo from the school I was at last year
1) I’m munching on my chorizo-and-olive oil sandwich during recess/morning break in the teacher’s lounge at my school in Andalucía last year, minding my own business and just chilling out at the table. A teacher pops in, looks around for something, sees me with a foil-wrapped bocadillo, and offers a ¡qué aproveche! before dashing back out.

2) I’m having dinner in the living room at my apartment one evening, just me and Harry Potter, when my flatmate comes home, out of breath from hauling bags of groceries up five floors, but still manages to spurt out ¡qué aproveche! before dropping everything on the kitchen counter.

3) My friend Annie and I were discussing this very thing while enjoying some pimientos de padrón at a sidewalk terrace in Lugo when all of a sudden a lot of traffic built up. A garbage truck was stopped a few tables away from us, and one of the waste collectors was hanging off the back of it. Once the traffic started moving, the truck passed by a table that had just gotten their food, and the man holding on to the back of the truck said ¡qué aproveche! to the girls eating lunch—in true Spanish fashion. In true American fashion, Annie and I burst into laughter.

4) And just two weeks ago I was having breakfast at my hostel in Santiago where I was staying while looking for an apartment, when a new arrival peeked in to the common room, looked around, wished me ¡qué aproveche! while nodding in the direction of my croissant, and went out.

I don’t have any deep conclusions to draw from these fun little vignettes of life abroad in Spain. But while it’s part of good manners in Spain, don’t think that this common phrase is a direct translation of “enjoy your meal”—¡qué disfrutes tu comida! would be that. Instead, Spanish uses the verb aprovechar (to take advantage of, to be a benefit to) with the meal as the subject, rather than the object. The full phrase implied by good-wishers would be qué te aproveche la comida, translated as “that your meal would nourish you.”

Next time somebody sits down with a meal they just prepared, or gets served their next course, be polite and say ¡qué aproveche! to them. You’ll be one step closer to sounding like a native Spaniard!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to Apply for Your NIE in Santiago de Compostela (and Get Your TIE)


One of the most annoying parts about living and working in Spain is cutting past the red tape to get residency, albeit temporary. You have to wake up super early, go to a godforsaken office that’s only open mornings on weekdays, wait for hours until your turn is called, and then cross your fingers that you’ve brought all your required documents (and multiple copies, too). If everything goes correctly, you have to just…show up…in 30-40 days to pick up your ID card.

Police station in Santiago
Although it can be intimidating to undergo this months-long ordeal to get your NIE (número de identidad de extranjero—“foreigner’s ID number”) and corresponding TIE (tarjeta de identidad de extranjero—“foreigner’s ID card”), it doesn’t have to be. If you show up early and prepared enough, however, you can beat Spanish bureaucracy at its own game.

In this post, I’d like to explain how to go about applying for your number and card if you happen to be living in Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of the northwest Galicia region. Even if you end up going through the process at a different oficina de extranjería (foreigner’s office) in Galicia, it should be mostly the same—but don’t quote me on that!

Where to go

You can submit your NIE & TIE application at the Comisaría Local de Santiago de Compostela, the city’s main police station. It’s a plain granite building at Rúa de Rodrigo de Padrón, Nº 3, in a part of town between the Alameda park and the Obradoiro plaza and just past the high school (instituto).

What to bring with you

* your passport

* copies of the two passport pages that have your visa & entry stamp and the one with your personal information

* application form EX-17 if you’re not an EU citizen (EX-18 if you are)

* your placement letter if you’re an auxiliar de conversación (carta de nombramiento)

* 1 color ID photo (foto carnet)


* copies of your entire passport

* extra fotos carnet

* your empadronamiento certificate

* your health insurance card/proof it’s being processed

What to do at the office

With all of the items above and two copies of each, get up early and go to the police station no later than 8:45am. Get a ticket for the Oficina de Extranjería and wait until your turn is called. Once you’re in, present all your documents, copies, etc., sign any forms needed, and get your fingerprints taken.

For the last step, you’ll have to run out to a bank to pay the Código 012, Modelo 790 fee of 15,30€. There’s a Banco Pastor, a Kutxabank, and a Banco Santander that can process your fee directly south of the police station about five minutes’ walking distance. Come back with the approved stamp to get your little receipt that you came to the office (resguardo).

And boom! You’re good to go and now have a provisional NIE. Congrats!

Come back to the office in around a month to pick up your TIE (ID card) and you will be officially legal in Spain.

If you have any questions, post them below—or if your experience was different, please, do tell!

Friday, October 11, 2013

How to Get Empadronado (Registered) in Santiago de Compostela

One of the least-discussed aspects of living abroad in Spain is getting empadronado whenever you move to a new city. Oh, everyone will have their (horror) stories to tell you about dealing with the Spanish bureaucracy—don’t get me wrong!—but I’ve barely heard boo about this simple act of going to the town hall and registering as living in the city.

My certificate of residence a.k.a. empadronamiento
In Spain, the padrón is a registry office that is coordinated by the local council for people who live in the municipality. When you move to a town in Spain it’s a good idea to go and register yourself (empadronarse) at the town hall, because you need the certificate of residence—the empadronamiento—to sign up for a library card among other things, but also because you need it to prove you are actually living in Spain when you go to apply for your NIE and TIE (residency). Not all provinces require that you present your empadronamiento, but many do.

If you happen to be living in Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of the Galicia region, this is how you can go about getting empadronado once you’ve moved in to your new apartment.

Where to go

Entrance to the padrón office in the town hall
It’s pretty straightforward: go to the town hall (ayuntamiento in Spanish / casa do concello in Galician), the Raxoi Palace on the west side of the main Obradoiro square opposite the cathedral. Head down the steps on the north (left) side of the building and enter a nondescript door on the ground floor. Within you’ll find the office of the padrón.

What to bring with you

* your passport

* your apartment contract or rental agreement

What to do at the office

During business hours on weekdays only, go up to the window in the padrón office and ask to register yourself (“quisiera empadronarme”). Present your passport and contract, sign a form if asked, receive your certificate, and you’re good to go. That’s it! No fees, taxes, nada. If you lose the empadronamiento (empadroamento in Galician), you can go back and get another one for free—no worries!

I hope this simple process goes smoothly for you, dear reader. If not, post any questions (or horror stories) you may have below!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Photo Post: The Cozy Renaissance Village of Baeza, Spain

Baeza, Spain
Interior of Baeza’s cathedral
I talk a lot about the Spanish town of Úbeda on this blog, and for good reason—I lived there for eight months, after all! But I have no reason for barely even mentioning next-door Baeza here; forgive me! Pronounced “bah-AY-thah” [baˈe.θa], this village of a little over 16,000 is often thought of as Úbeda’s little sister mainly because of its shared Renaissance heritage. During the same time that idealized, stately palaces and churches were being put up in neighboring Úbeda, similar buildings were constructed in Baeza as well.

For example, the soaring local cathedral (which shares a bishop with the cathedral in Jaén) seems almost out of place in a village of this size, but its ethereal, light-filled interior will shoo away any misgivings you may have.

Baeza, Spain
Winding street near the cathedral
Like any good Andalusian city, its old core will make you feel like you’ve gone back to Moorish times—tortuous alleyways and quiet, arched streets make Baeza a true historic pueblo of the south.

Baeza, Spain
Jabalquinto Palace
The local university’s administration is housed in a magnificent Renaissance palace, the Palacio de Jabalquinto. On the outside, you can marvel at a highly-embellished plateresque façade, and on the inside you can stroll around an ideal Mediterranean courtyard beneath cool, shady arcades.

Baeza, Spain
Baeza and the countryside
Don’t miss going up to the top of the cathedral’s bell tower. The staircase may feel claustrophobic, but the views of the heart of Spain’s olive oil country will free your spirit. Take in the scope of the town, nearby Úbeda, the Sierra Mágina mountains to the south and the Sierra de Cazorla to the east. And like an incoming tide, millions of olive groves fill in the gaps everywhere in between.

What was your favorite picture from this post? Are you inspired to spend a few hours (or days!) in Baeza when you pass through the province of Jaén in Andalucía? Tell me in the comments section below.

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Tearing Down 6 Spanish Stereotypes

Except for three months home for the summer, I’ve been living in Spain for one year now. After reading countless blogs about the country, running into my fair share of tourists, and sharing my experiences with friends and family, I’ve gotten a sense of the sort of stereotypes that Spanish culture has in the minds of the rest of the world. In this post, I’ve gathered six of them that I find particularly annoying and have tried to break them down, giving more accurate examples of what Spanish society is really like. Let me know what you think of them in the comments section once you’ve finished reading!

1) Paella is the national dish

Seafood paella in Valencia
Paella (pronounced “pah-AY-yah” [paˈeʎa]) is a famous rice-based dish that originated in the Mediterranean region of Valencia. Saffron gives the rice its warm, golden color, and the savory rice is usually cooked with vegetables like artichokes and meat like rabbit, chicken, or various crustaceans and shellfish. It’s a big part of the culture of eastern Spain, and families often have paella for dinner on Sunday much like a Sunday roast in the UK.

But I need to emphasize that paella is a regional thing; it wouldn’t be correct to label it “the” national dish at all. While folks across Spain will order it for dinner or make it themselves every once in a while, there are other dishes that you can find all over the country that are dear to every Spaniard’s heart. I suggest as more appropriate national dishes the tortilla de patatas—a potato omelet eaten hot or cold—and the many varieties of jamón—whole cured ham legs, the meat of which is sliced super-thin and served on its own or in sandwiches, with cheese, etc.

2) Everyone loves bullfighting—¡olé!

Pamplona bullring
Bullfighting is a centuries-old sport art that involves a series of opulently-dressed toreros (bullfighters) taunting testy bulls before finishing them off with a huge sword. In many parts of Spain even the smallest village will have its own plaza de toros (bullring), and the bullfighting season from March through October draws big crowds in Madrid, Sevilla, and town fairs.

While el toreo still commands a large, devoted following, it’s still understandably controversial. Movements to ban it have succeeded in Cataluña and the Canary Islands, and you would be hard-pressed to attend a fight in Galicia, where only a single bullring exists. I personally know a handful of Spaniards who refuse to patronize bars and restaurants decorated with bullfighting memorabilia and stuffed bull heads.

There was an article published last week on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown blog that claims “Spain has at least one common thread: bulls.” Ha! Hardly. Want to know the real national sport? ¡FÚTBOL!

3) Sangría is the national drink

(Source: Mitchell Bartlett)
Sangría—emphasis on the I, not the first A—is a mixed drink of red wine, chopped fruit, sugar, brandy, and usually something fizzy. Spaniards usually drink sangría in the summer, often at parties or at get-togethers for friends and family. Think of it as kind of like punch, as it’s sometimes served in the equivalent of a punch bowl.

It’s the mark of a green tourist, though, to order sangría at every meal; although many places do, indeed, make pitchers of the stuff, it’s as weird as ordering fruit punch with your hamburger in America.

Instead of sangría, Spaniards tend to imbibe a similar refreshing wine-based drink called tinto de verano, “red (wine) of summer.” They add some ice cubes and lemon slices into a glass before they fill it halfway with gaseosa (sweetened carbonated water) and top it off with a few glugs of red wine. It’s also called vino con casera (“wine with Casera,” a brand of carbonated water). This isn’t the national drink by any means—wine from Rioja will cover that—but it’s a more authentic beverage than touristy sangría.

4) Everyone can dance flamenco

(Source: Peter Johnen)
Flamenco, a unique style of music and dance combining western and eastern rhythms and sounds, began hundreds of years ago in Andalucía, where the gypsy community is strongest. This passionate genre involves not just dance but also guitar-playing, hand-clapping, and extremely soulful singing. I can’t get enough of it, whether it be local youth flamenco contests or spontaneous saetas sung during Holy Week.

However, flamenco—be it the dance of the accompaniment—is an art form that people have to study and practice all their lives, mainly people from the southern half of the country. Your average Spaniard walking on the streets of Córdoba or Sevilla, while probably very familiar with all things flamenco, wouldn’t be able to break out in claps and fancy footwork on cue unless they’ve been trained. You’d have a much better chance of running into somebody who knows the fancy footwork to the traditional jota dance or a Catalan who can join in on a sardana.

5) It’s always sunny

San Sebastián, seen from Mount Urgull
Probably because of Spain’s reputation abroad for its thousands of kilometers of sunny Mediterranean beaches, many people assume that all of Spain is always sunny. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To be fair, temperatures in the central meseta plateau can reach 100+ (40+) in the summer, often accompanied by months without rain. But Spain has seasons, too, y’all! This past winter in southern Spain was one of the most brutal I’ve ever experienced: overcast skies and rain at least once a week, for days at a time; temperatures hovering above freezing—WITHOUT central heating; and strong winds blowing in from the flat plains to the north. This was the norm from, oh, November through March, almost half the year!

Additionally, the entire northern coast of the country, famous for being lush and green, is equally famous among Spaniards because llueve mucho there, it rains a lot. Regions like Galicia and Asturias are called the Irelands of Spain because the climate there isn’t Mediterranean Paradise™ but temperate rainforest—much different from the stereotypical sun and heat!

6) Everybody takes a siesta

(Source: Manuel Romero)
Now, although Spanish society shuts down between the hours of 2 and 5pm for the midday siesta, this doesn’t necessarily mean everybody lies down to take a nap. In fact, most Spaniards, if asked, would probably admit they don’t sleep during siesta, either because lunch stretched for a long time (a good sobremesa conversation), or because there simply wasn’t enough time for it (having to go back to work or take the kids to activities).

A custom that a majority of Spaniards partake in, however, is the paseo, or afternoon stroll that immediately follows the siesta. The contrast outside can be rather jolting for first-time visitors to Spain, as the previously-deserted streets are now full and bustling with people going for a walk, meeting up with friends, walking the dog, or getting a pick-me-up cup of coffee. The paseo lasts anywhere from 5pm until suppertime.

Do you agree with how I’ve torn down these stereotypes about Spain? What would you add to this list? Talk about it below in the comments!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Guided Tour of Úbeda, Spain

So far, I’ve written an homage to Úbeda—the city where I lived for eight months while teaching English in southern Spain—as well as a post outlining my favorite restaurants in town. To conclude Úbeda Week on the blog, I’d like to present a (free!) Guided Tour of this really nice village I once called home. Famous for its Renaissance architecture, its tradition of pottery that dates back to Moorish times, and its bottles that overflow with high-quality olive oil, Úbeda is a small city but with plenty to keep you occupied.

Úbeda, Spain
Holy Chapel of El Salvador
So I’ve put together three itineraries in this post that you can follow, combine, or rearrange if you like. Obviously, opening and closing hours may not always correspond with the given path, but hopefully these routes give you an idea of what there is to see in town so you can put together your own personalized plan of attack.

A Tourist Map of Úbeda by yours truly (click to enlarge)
I’ve also drawn up a map of Úbeda (thanks Google Maps!) with the routes through town highlighted in red, brown, and blue, so you can follow along as you read below. The old town still conserves its medieval mess of streets and alleyways, so don’t feel bad if you get lost—it’s part of the adventure.

I’ve made a fancy new interactive Google Maps Engine map with all these cafés, restaurants, and more you can check out here!

Itinerary #1: Monuments

Úbeda, Spain
Roof of one of the towers of the Hospital de Santiago
Start at the bus station (estación de autobuses) in the west part of town and walk due east on the main drag, Avenida Cristo Rey, which quickly becomes Calle Obispo Cobos. Look to the north (your left), and gaze up at the Hospital de Santiago. Finished in 1575, this former hospital (surprise, surprise) is the first work on our itinerary by Andrés de Vandelvira, a Spanish architect who single-handedly brought the Italian Renaissance to southern Spain. Two huge towers define the space on the east and the west, and behind the central patio is a soaring chapel that is now used for the town’s musical concerts. Úbeda’s bullring is directly to the south, hidden by a residential block.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza de Andalucía with the clock tower
Continue walking east on C/ Obispo Cobos, which forms the main shopping street along with C/ Mesones. You’ll soon reach the exact center of town, the Plaza de Andalucía. In medieval times, the area this lively square occupies today would have directed you to the Puerta de Toledo (Toledo Gate) at the northwest corner of the old walled city. Although that gateway is now gone, the tall defensive tower that would have stood guard near it today functions as a clock tower.

Úbeda, Spain
Church of the Santísima Trinidad
In the northeast corner of the plaza is the Church of the Santísima Trinidad (“Most Holy Trinity”). This church is a Baroque anomaly in typically-Renaissance Úbeda, but go to the west façade and you’ll be greeted by a riot of swoops, shields, and swirls. Fun fact: the two cloisters of this church’s former monastery now serve as an elementary school, and the town’s post office sits on what once was the third cloister.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza 1º de Mayo
Now, take the narrow winding street near the clock tower and the BBVA bank. Soon you’ll be heading down the hill along what was once the main commercial street but is now a hotspot for bars, cafés, and restaurants—C/ Real. Turn east (left) at C/ María de Molina and continue on into the Plaza 1º de Mayo (“May 1st”—a.k.a. Labor Day). The site of the medieval market and later the place for spectators to watch bullfights and Inquisition executions, this center of the historic walled town still is a popular place to hang out even though Úbeda’s center of gravity has clearly shifted to the Plaza de Andalucía. Observe the façades of the houses that look into the plaza; although they are all similarly designed, they add a Plaza-Mayor-of-Madrid air of respectability to the square.

Úbeda, Spain
Old town hall
At the southwest corner you can find the old town hall (antiguas casas consistoriales), the current musical conservatory. A square Renaissance structure with a pleasant, double-arcaded façade, it housed the town council until it moved to its present seat in 1869. It’s always nice to walk by it in the afternoon and hear piano notes drifting out from the upper balcony, where hundreds of years ago dignitaries would have watched toreros fight bulls heretics, uh, burn. Moving on…
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