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.
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