Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February Monthly Update: Spain, Will You Be My Valentine?

Oh, February, the shortest month of the year. I hardly knew yeh…

Tranco reservoir, Sierra de Segura, Spain
Tranco reservoir, Sierra de Segura


The evening of February 5th my apartment was rattled by two back-to-back, mild but firm earthquakes. It was the first major seismic event (I, at least, had) felt since December, and made for a great small-talk topic on the way to school the next day. It doesn’t bother me since these little earthquakes haven’t caused any damage or injuries, but they do keep life interesting.

Visiting the Sierra de Segura

Segura de la Sierra, Spain
Mountain village of
Segura de la Sierra
In the middle of the month, a group of younger teachers and I took a half-day excursion after school to the mountains east of Villanueva del Arzobispo where we work. Called the Sierra de Segura, this beautiful mountain range reminded me all at once of Arizona (the red rocks), Arkansas (the pine trees), and Colorado (the valleys). We enjoyed a long, filling lunch at restaurant in the natural park before appreciating the views of a manmade lake from the village of Hornos de Segura and ascending the mountainside town of Segura de la Sierra, which is crowned with an old castle.

Every morning on the way to work I see those very same mountains, and I can see another mountain range from my apartment’s living room window, so I was very pleased to finally visit the hills, mountain-person that I am.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Château of Azay-le-Rideau, France: The Floating Loire Valley Castle

While in France’s Loire river valley in December, I visited the châteaux of Chinon and Azay-le-Rideau in the western side of the region. The fortress in Chinon really impressed me as it had some great historical connections to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a medieval ruler of southern France and a queen of England. I had intended on seeing Eleanor’s final resting place in the nearby royal abbey of Fontevraud, but I wasn’t able to visit Fontevraud because it was off-season and there weren’t any public transport connections there from Chinon. Devastated (okay, just disappointed…), I scrambled to find a replacement to fill up the day I would have spent at the abbey.

Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, France
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau
Enter Azay-le-Rideau (pronounced “ah-zeh luh ree-doe” [a.zɛ lə ʁ]). Rick Steves ranked it first on his list of “Châteaux West of Tours” in his France guidebook, not even mentioning Fontevraud and putting Chinon third, so I decided to trust his recommendation and take the train bus there the next morning.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Packing List for a “Puente” Weekend Trip in Spain

If you’re working as a language assistant in Spain or simply living abroad there for a time, you’ll inevitably be treated to long weekends, or puentes as the Spaniards call them, since they are often formed by holidays that fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday that then make a “bridge” to the weekend, taking Friday or Monday along with them.

Toledo, Spain
What better activity to do on these long weekends than travel around Spain? Now, it’s one thing to pack up your life for nine months into a suitcase, backpack, and messenger bag—you have a little leeway in packing extra clothes, books, and “stuff.” But on weekenders, it’s best if you only take a bag or two at most, to make walking around and keeping track of your luggage easier. This isn’t extreme minimalism by any means, but after taking four city trips and planning a fifth, I’ve figured out the essentials that can fit into a single bag.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Château of Chinon, France: Chasing Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Old Haunts

Let me preface this post by saying I am the biggest history nerd out here on the blogosphere, or at least the Spain expat one. So my turn south from Normandy and Brittany into France’s Loire river valley took me not to those stunning châteaux (“castles”) like Chambord or Chenonceau or but to a corner of the region that has more to do with a certain medieval king and queen of England than any Renaissance king of France.

Château de Chinon, France
Royal Fortress of Chinon

This post’s title refers to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was duchess of that same region in southwestern France in the 11th century, and wife of King Henry II Plantagenet of England, for a time. They had eight children together, including the crusader king Richard the Lionheart and the disastrous king John of England, you know, the one who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1212. Eleanor herself was involved in her fair share of political and romantic drama and even traveled across Europe and Palestine. She even governed England and parts of France—something unheard of for a woman in the Middle Ages.

I got really interested in the lives of Eleanor and Henry in college, when I took a yearlong course on the history of Britain and did an independent study that included Eleanor. About this time, I came across the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter, an adaptation of a play about a fictional Christmas court involving Eleanor & Henry’s family and set in the château of Chinon.

Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, France
Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II’s tombs from Wikipedia
Some people visit New Zealand because they want to experience Tolkien’s Middle earth. Me…I go to isolated French villages (like Bayeux) to feel the history. Since I had this opportunity to pass through the Loire Valley (pronounced “luh-wahr” [lwaʁ]) on my way back into Spain, I thought I would take advantage of it and make a nerdy historical pilgrimage to Chinon’s fortress and the nearby abbey of Fontevraud where Eleanor and Henry II were buried (at least, until their bones were scattered during the French Revolution).

I never got to visit the abbey; no public transport runs there and I wasn’t about to bike there in the winter or spend a fortune on a taxi. I did, however, get to see Chinon.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Saint-Malo, France: Brittany in a Mussel Shell

Before I began researching what to see in France, I had never even heard of the city of Saint-Malo (pronounced “san mah-loe” [sɛ̃.ma.lo]), which sits on the northwestern corner of the country in the region called Brittany. But friends and guidebooks kept saying great things about this place so I thought it would be a natural stop along my route westward from Paris after Bayeux and Mont-Saint-Michel. Upon exploring this fortress of a city known for being a home base for pirates, I realized how right everyone who praised it really was.

Intra-Muros, Saint-Malo, France

Intra-Muros: the walled city

Intra-Muros, Saint-Malo, France
Most people come to Saint-Malo for the old city which is snuggled behind its vast stone walls, the part of town called Intra-Muros (Latin for “within walls”). Apart from shopping and eating delicious food (I only partook in the latter, see the Food section below), there’s not much to do here apart from simply exploring the gray avenues and hiking across the ramparts, where you can get a better, elevated view of the city streets.

The ramparts were just plain fun: I had plenty of opportunities to people-watch, I enjoyed a walk where I knew exactly where I was going (you can’t say that for most places!), and I could take a detour back to the ground level whenever I wanted, for example, to see more of a rocky island (see below) or check out some street food. You can find a small cathedral in the town’s center that’s got some pretty postwar stained glass, but when I visited it was dark and dank inside so I didn’t linger too long there.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

6 Reasons to Have a Smartphone in Spain

Before leaving the United States for Spain, I had only ever used a super-basic cellphone that could send and receive calls and texts and take pictures that you could transfer to your computer over Bluetooth. It was enough for my needs, and this type of phone suited me fine for six years.

Fast forward to about five months ago and I was on a plane headed to Europe. I decided to let my parents recycle my two-year-old slider phone and cancel my cellphone number, so I was taking the plunge into the world of Spanish cellphones…which thankfully aren’t too different from American ones. I knew I wanted to get a cheap Android phone because with one, I would have access to important apps like a decent web browser and an all-knowing GPS app.

Smartphone in Spain
New phone by John Watson on Flickr
So far, my cellphone has made adjusting to life abroad much easier than it might have been without one. Here are six reasons I think you should invest in one if you’re moving abroad as well.

1) WhatsApp

Most Spaniards don’t text each other, if at all, because they either have pay-as-you-go plans or their contracts don’t offer unlimited texting. The bare-bones plan I have with Orange gives me 50 messages per week, so one text is 2% of my weekly quota! So instead of using up precious texts with “hi :)” or the like, they use a program called WhatsApp that bypasses SMS altogether and reroutes messages over the data plan. Most conversations will probably only require a dozen or so kilobytes to send, which is nothing, for example, on a 100Mb-a-week restriction like I’ve got. WhatsApp is only available on Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Nokia, and Windows Phone—not your basic phones that send and receive calls and texts.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mont-Saint-Michel, France: An Island Fortress in the English Channel

After Paris and the Bayeux Tapestry, the third thing I wanted to see while traveling in France was Mont-Saint-Michel, a towering monastery built on top of a mountainous island off the coast of Normandy. Before visiting, I really didn’t know much at all about the Mount except that it was only accessible when the tides were out…and that it looked just plain cool. During the visit, I ended up learning a bit about French history and why the Mount is such a big deal for the French people.

Mont-Saint-Michel, France

It was by sheer luck, though, that I was able to visit Mont-Saint-Michel at all (pronounced “mohn san mee-shehl” [mɔ̃ sɛ̃ mi.ʃɛl]). The very day I had chosen to visit Mont-Saint-Michel was the first day in weeks that the tourist bus was running between Saint-Malo (where my hostel was) and the Mount, with maybe one or two other runs more for December. I paid the exorbitant 20 € for round-trip service but didn’t complain because this really freaky coincidence made the whole visit possible. One hour later, the bus driver dropped the dozen or so of us riders off at a brand-new parking lot south of the Mount on the mainland. Although it was really cold and intensely windy, the sun was at least shining and—yes—a rainbow had appeared with one arm ending right next to the Mount. I took the free tram across the bridge instead of enduring half an hour of cold ocean wind on foot.

The bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, France
The bay
To begin the hike up to the abbey, I took Rick Steves’ advice and bypassed the “grotesquely touristic” main street for a quiet, scenic hike across the stone ramparts encircling the island. Ramparts, because in addition to serving as a monastery, Mont-Saint-Michel was a military fortress. During the Hundred Years War—a conflict between France and England over whether the English or the French kings should be rulers of France—the fort was of great strategic importance, although the English were never able to successfully besiege it. These ramparts afforded me some really beautiful views of the bay that leads into the English Channel—which is probably exactly why the French made this island militarily significant.

Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, France
Interior of the abbey
The abbey itself was worth the visit but for me, as a non-Catholic non-Frenchman, probably wasn’t as interesting as it could have been. Nevertheless, it was really cool to explore all the winding rooms that make up the complex. Not only is the whole thing constructed around the island’s pyramid shape, but the abbey church had to be built on a platform of crypts and halls with hefty pillars to support its weight on the cone-shaped hill.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to Apply For a Carné Joven in Spain (European Youth Card)

After the disaster that was almost getting kicked off the train in France back in December, I resolved to get whatever carte jeune meant in English to ensure cheap European train tickets for future jaunts across the continent. I love traveling by train, but train tickets are usually much more expensive than buses (which don’t even exist in France!), so applying for a European Youth Card was high on the to-do list after I got back home from Christmas vacation travels.

Carné Joven / European Youth Card from Spain
My Carné Joven a.k.a. European Youth Card
I kept putting getting one off until I read Cat of Sunshine and Siesta’s blog post about “How to get a Carné Jóven Andaluz” a couple weeks ago. She made the whole process sound really simple, so one rainy Monday morning I set off to Úbeda’s local Oficina de Información Juvenil (“Youth Information Office”) and formally applied for a carné joven or “youth card.” After handing over the requisite paperwork and paying a fee at a nearby bank, I got a provisional card printed on a sheet of paper—enough to get me the discounts on the trains I was taking to Toledo that weekend.

Just last week, the official, plastic card came in the mail and will last me through the year 2021 (when I turn 31...terrifying).

In this post I want to explain how you, too, can go about getting a European Youth Card, assuming you’re probably a language assistant like me. Apart from the biggest advantage of getting 20% off the price of train tickets on Spain’s Renfe network (and 25-60% off in, for example, France), other bonuses include small price markdowns at stores, gyms, and other services.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bayeux, France: Home to a Story-Telling Tapestry

After spending four days in Paris over Christmas, I was ready to leave the big city and experience life in the French countryside; lots of people I talked to before leaving for Christmas vacation told me that the provinces were just as good, if not better, than Paris. While planning for the trip, I didn’t really know what exactly there was to see outside of Paris, but one thing I did know out there was the Bayeux Tapestry, viewable two hours northwest of Paris just off the coast of Normandy.

I don’t think the tapestry would ever make it into Lonely Planet’s “Top Experiences” section, but since I looove history (I majored in it in college, after all), I fully embraced my nerdiness and set off to see it.

Bayeux Tapestry, France
Bayeux Tapestry, scene 38
So what is this tapestry? Well, it’s a huge, 230-foot piece of linen fabric embroidered with scenes that depict the events leading up to the time when the Normans (invaders from Scandinavia who settled in northern France—Normandy—and became French), led by Duke William, crossed the English Channel in 1066 and invaded England to depose King Harold Godwinson.

Bayeux Tapestry, France
Bayeux Tapestry, scenes 32 & 33
You see, William claimed that the crown should have passed to him when Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor, passed away in 1065. After all, he said, King Edward had promised him that he would be his heir. However, Harold had a counter-claim that Edward had promised him the kingdom on his deathbed. Plus, he was the Earl of Wessex, the second-most-powerful man in the country. And since he was already in London when Edward died, the witan—or Anglo-Saxon council of noblemen who chose the king’s successor—met the day after Edward’s death and elected Harold king of England. Obviously, William was not too thrilled about their decision, and made plans to invade, plans that culminated in the Battle of Hastings and Harold’s death in 1066.

And that’s the story the tapestry tells us through 58 scenes with gel-pen-like yarns that are still vibrant after almost a millennium. The story of how William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.

Friday, February 1, 2013

January Monthly Update: Time Flies, I Take the Train Edition

Okay, so January was definitely the shortest month I’ve lived through in Spain so far, despite having 31 days. I guess having the first week off for Christmas vacation and then going to Toledo near the end of the month really pushed things together. Weird.

Windmills of La Mancha, Spain
Windmills in Campo de Criptana near Alcázar de San Juan

Celebrating Epiphany

Epiphany parade, Alcázar de San Juan, Spain
Epiphany parade
On my way back home to Úbeda from traveling across France and northern Spain, I stopped off for two nights in Alcázar de San Juan, a medium-sized town in the plains of La Mancha, because the family of one of my private English class students graciously invited me to stay with them. I was so, so grateful not only that they let me stay at their house over the holidays but also that they shared with me the important Spanish holiday of Epiphany.

This festival, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi/Wise Men to Jesus shortly after his infancy, is celebrated 12 days after Christmas (i.e., January 6) and involves parades, gift-giving, and food. Every Spanish town will probably have a huge parade through its center of groups representing all the local organizations, with people dressed up in costumes throwing confetti and candy everywhere. Spaced between the marching bands and revelers, floats go by carrying men dressed up as one of the three Magi.

Epiphany is also a day kids get really excited for; instead of Santa bringing them presents on Christmas Eve, the Reyes Magos (“Magi”) bring kids gifts—they even have the same do-you-believe-in-Santa drama that older elementary kids go through, but with the Wise Men instead. It’s kind of awkward since the holiday falls at the end of Christmas vacation (less time to play with toys!) but at the same time is a great bookend to the holiday season and a good excuse to spend time with family and eat lots of Spanish food. It’s traditional to share a roscón de reyes (kings’ cake)—a sweet, bread-like cake filled with cream and candies and, most importantly, a figurine of the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby has to buy the cake for next year’s Epiphany.
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