Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Belvís Park

Parque de Belvís, Santiago de Compostela
Belvís to the south
A few months ago I talked about Santiago de Compostela’s Alameda Park on the blog: the city’s historic public park with great views of the old town and many beautiful old trees. It’s a great place to go for an afternoon stroll in, and the trails that run around the wooded hill are perfect for jogging. But it’s always busy with people at all hours of the day—be it tourists getting their pictures of the cathedral from the lookout point, a wall of grandmas stretching from one end of the path to the other, or packs of joggers careening around the corners. So it’s not surprising that the introvert in me and my inner hipster prefer Santiago’s Belvís Park, just to the east of the old town.

Parque de Belvís, Santiago de Compostela
Belvís to the north
Pronounced “bel-VEES” [belˈβis] with the accent on the second syllable, I was told by a tour guide that the name derives from the Galician phrase bela vista or “pretty view,” which makes sense because from the highest point in the park you can get a lovely overview of the eastern side of Santiago’s old town as well as the new town as it trickles down toward the train station. The park itself occupies a lush, green valley which a gentle creek flows through. The eastern half of Belvís is one long grassy hillside: a perfect place to go for a picnic on a sunny day or lay out and soak up some sun. On the other side of the river there’s a small dog park that’s almost always in use and which is a great source of entertainment when you’re lying on the hillside hanging out with friends.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The 4 Churches of Santiago de Compostela’s “Skyline”

Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwesterly region of Galicia, is by no means a big city, barely reaching 100,000 on weekdays (and plummeting on weekends and school vacations when students go back home to mamá). Its monumental old town, while impressive, is often overshadowed by the cathedral’s west façade, and the ugly new town has buildings of perhaps ten floors at most. Because of this I put the word “skyline” in scare quotes in this post’s title.

Church of San Martiño Pinario, Santiago de Compostela
Central dome, Church of San Martiño Pinario
However, if you can manage to escape the tourist (and pilgrim) madness along Rúa do Franco south of the cathedral, you’ll likely find yourself in Santiago’s major public park, the Alameda. Walking north along the grand, tree-lined esplanade called the Paseo da Ferradura, you’ll eventually end up at a wide, semicircular mirador, or lookout point. From this strategic location you can take in the whole old town as it sprawls from north to south. You’ll notice that there is a lot more going on in Santiago’s zona vella than just the cathedral, though. What are all those other bell towers and domes doing there?

It’s taken me a year of living here to finally figure out what tower belongs to which church, but in this post I’ve identified the four major churches that show up in the old town’s skyline that you can see to the west in the Alameda Park.

Church of San Francisco

Church of San Francisco, Santiago de Compostela
South façade
Founded by St. Francis of Assisi himself when he went on pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in 1214, the Church of San Francisco belongs to a community of Franciscan monks dating back 800 years. The present-day church, however, was built as recent as 1749: a clean, two-story, monumental Baroque sanctuary. It’s interesting that it’s oriented north-south instead of the traditional east-west layout, but because the main entrance faces south, a huge window at the main entrance lets warm sunlight pour in at all hours of the day—an important feature in often-gloomy Galicia. The bottom half of the church’s south façade was designed in the Baroque style, but the top half and the two bell towers are pure Neoclassicism. I actually went to a beautiful Easter Sunday Mass here this year…since the cathedral was standing-room-only outside in the plazas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Photo Post: Cruceiros, or Galician Crossroad Crosses

Galician cruceiros
Cruceiro in Santiago de Compostela
The word cruceiro in the Galician language has a double meaning: on one hand it can simply mean the place where two roads meet, but on the other hand it can also refer to granite stone crosses that often accompany said crossroads. Pronounced “kroo-THAY-EE-roe” [kɾuˈθej.ɾo], these monumental crosses guard intersections but also show up in cathedral cloisters and on residential property in rural Galicia.

Galician cruceiros
Cruceiro in Abanqueiro
My Guía Azul guidebook to Galicia describes how cruceiros came about:
The cruceiros’ origin can be traced back to the lares (laribus vialibus) or gods of the hearth that magically protected the road and to whom the Romans dedicated altars with inscriptions, mainly building them by crossroads. Ancient Galicians would light candles on the altars because they believed they were connected with the underworld. As the Christianization of the region progressed, said altars were torn down and in their place the cruceiros were put up. (Translated from Spanish, p. 47)
Galician cruceiros
(Source: José Antonio Gil Martínez)
Today cruceiros add a nice artistic and religious touch to both urban and rural Galicia. Often you can see small sculptures of Christ on the cross on one side and a Madonna and Child on the other. Although many are plain and simple, quite a few are ornately decorated and several date back to Gothic times.

Have you ever encountered cruceiros in or outside of Galicia? Tell me what you think of these sculptures below in the discussion thread!

Monday, December 15, 2014

5 Great Hikes from Santiago de Compostela, Spain

If the region of Galicia were a state in the U.S., it would have to be Arkansas, if only for the state motto, The Natural State. Rugged, forested, and a little hilly, Galicia has in my opinion the most beautiful countryside in Spain. Not only does the region have gorgeous coasts and beaches, it also has simply wonderful interior landscapes. Living in Santiago de Compostela has given me a chance to get a taste of Galicia’s natural beauty by means of various hiking trails and mountain summits. You can see most of Santiago’s old town in around a day, so if you’re ever passing through here definitely take some time to leave the city life for the outdoors!

1) Monte Pedroso

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela
View of Santiago from Monte Pedroso, Pico Sacro in the distance
The “Stony Mountain” rears up directly northwest of the old town, and is even visible from the central Praza do Obradoiro, just past the Parador hotel. If you’re short for time but are looking for that panoramic photo shot, Monte Pedroso is the place to go. Starting from the cathedral, it only takes one hour to hike up the gently-sloping hillside, and the summit is wide and spacious with several radio towers and maintenance buildings to keep you from getting lost. Just beneath the summit is the friendly Parque da Granxa do Xesto, a great place to have a picnic or cookout or even an afternoon coffee before you finish going up to the top.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Photo Post: Hórreos, or Galician Countryside Corncribs

Galician hórreos
Hórreo seen on the pilgrimage to Fisterra
Spend any time outside of the seven major cities in Galicia and you’ll quickly notice peculiar little sheds that are everywhere in Spain’s northwestern countryside: the hórreo. Not to be confused with Oreo cookies (though I love them so), they’re pronounced “OR-ray-o” [ˈ] and are simply the traditional corncribs or granaries that Galicians have used for centuries to store corn, grain, and other harvested crops.

Galician hórreos
Hórreo in Abanqueiro
Sided with wood to keep out the humidity and elevated on stilts to keep out the critters, hórreos are a common sight in rural Galicia—in fact, it’s estimated that there are 100,000 of them around the region. The most typical form is a small, rectangular construction with a granite skeleton, wooden slatted siding, and a roof of clay tiles. The further east you go, however, they become larger and more square-shaped, often donning slate shingles. Sometimes recently-built hórreos emulate contemporary Spanish housing and sport a concrete frame with brick walls.

Galician hórreos
Hórreo along the Camino de Santiago
If you ever happen to be hiking the Camino de Santiago, you most certainly will walk by hundreds of these guys as you approach Santiago de Compostela. I really enjoy seeing them whenever I ride the bus to school or outside of town, as they’re a really charming feature of the green Galician countryside.

Have you seen hórreos outside of Galicia before? Tell me anything you know about them below in the comments!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What to Eat in Galicia: 10 Dishes to Try

Hey y’all, I just signed up with Bloglovin the other day and I recommend it as a great way to keep updated when any new posts go live. Follow my blog with Bloglovin!

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and argue that the region of Galicia in the northwest part of Spain churns out the best food in the entire country. Give me some Galician food any day over expensive Basque pintxos, snobby Catalan cuisine, or the famine food of the central meseta. I realize I probably offended just about everybody out there, but exaggerations aside, I believe Galicia occupies a particularly special place on the peninsula that has allowed a rich cuisine to develop over the centuries: a rugged coast from which bountiful seafood arrives inland, a fertile, rain-blessed interior to grow anything from corn to peppers to greens in, and a climate friendly to raising dairy cows.

There’s a lot to see and do in this fascinating corner of the country, from Romanesque cathedrals and Roman ruins to glorious beaches and thermal baths, but enjoying quality home cooking ranks pretty high up there on the list. If you don’t know what to order when visiting Galicia, try any (or all!) of the dishes I’m about to talk about below.

1) Polbo á feira (octopus)

Pulpo á feira
A plate at Lugo’s San Froilán festival
“Fair-style octopus” refers to a dish that consists of common octopus caught off the Atlantic shores of Galicia, which is then boiled in a copper pot for up to an hour until nice and tender, then snipped into medallions and garnished with olive oil and pimentón or smoked paprika. Often served with cachelos or boiled potatoes, pulpo a la gallega (as it’s called in Spanish) is the most emblematic of Galician food and endless wooden platters of the stuff are served up during any of the region’s countless festivals and fairs (hence the á feira in the name). Although you can find quality pulpo anywhere in Galicia, head inland to places like Lugo or Ourense to get the crème de la crème. And don’t worry—the suckers don’t stick to your mouth!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Edible Creativity: Santiago de Compostela’s Tapas Competition

This weekend Santiago de Compostela’s seventh annual concurso de tapas or tapas competition finally came to an end after half a month of exciting bites served on black slate tablets. I was disappointed that it was over, but my gut and my wallet were relieved. Organized by Santiago’s association of hotels and restaurants, it was a clever way to stimulate the local economy as it enters low season (and as the rain begins to keep folks at home). For a flat price of 2€, you could go into any participating café, bar, or restaurant and order their tapa del concurso—which made it a great way to explore higher-end restaurants that otherwise might be out of your budget.

Santiago de Compostela - Concurso de Tapas
Santiago (é)tapas
At every place you could ask for a tapasporte, a “tapas passport” inspired not only along the lines of a travel passport but also on the credencial or “pilgrim passport” that people hiking the Camino de Santiago carry with them as they walk to Santiago. Inside, the participating restaurants were organized geographically into five etapas or stages, and the first people to visit every single place in a given group could receive prizes like bottles of wine, a fancy dinner, a night for two in a nice hotel, or round-trip airline tickets to Istanbul. The name of the contest, “Santiago (é)tapas,” was a play on words with the Galician for “Santiago (is) tapas.”

As you went from place to place, you got your passport stamped to prove you ordered their tapa, and you also filled out a little voting card to rate the tapa itself, the quality of the service, and the “tapa con chispa” or the creative “spark” conveyed by the tapa.

Santiago de Compostela - Concurso de Tapas
Tapasporte (Tapas Passport)
I really enjoyed this two-week celebration of the tapa, or a little bit of food that, at least in Galicia, you receive for free as part of your drink order at a restaurant. Traditionally it’s nothing too fancy—a small bowl of stew, a mini sandwich, or chips and olives—but for the contest most restaurants went all-out and served some really outstanding (and tasty!) creations. I loved getting to explore some of my favorite neighborhoods like the northern half of the old town or San Pedro while also getting to taste some unique flavor combinations that often recalled typical Galician cooking.

Santiago de Compostela - Concurso de Tapas
Name: Ensalada de repolo e mazá con tataki de xurelo

What: A base of cabbage and apple salad, which surprised me with its similarity to American-style coleslaw, supported three chunks of Japanese-style tataki or rare, lightly-seared mackerel. This was my first foray into the tapas contest and still one of my favorites from the whole month.

Where: Garum, Praciña das Penas, Nº 1

Monday, December 1, 2014

Taking a Tourist’s Highlighter to Madrid

I’ve been writing for two and a half years now, but a Madrid-shaped hole on this blog has been growing bigger and bigger ever since I first landed at Madrid-Barajas airport in September 2012. I’ve never really done a proper “city trip” to Madrid in my time here because it’s always been a convenient bookend for flights to and from the States. Consequently, I’ve never felt the need to put together a blog post about the Spanish capital—until now.

Approximately half a dozen mini trips to Madrid later, I feel like I’ve gotten a chance to get a true feel for this capital city and finally seen all the museums I’ve wanted to visit. And since my family is coming to visit me for Christmas, I think I ought to distill my impressions and tidbits into something I can share with them while I’m their unofficial tour guide for the week.

Madrid, Spain
De Madrid al cielo
I’ll be up front with y’all right now: Madrid is not my favorite city in this country. Give me extroverted, Moorish-influenced Sevilla or Córdoba; subdued, Old Spain outposts like León, Zamora, or Teruel; or my charming adopted hometowns of Úbeda or Santiago de Compostela. Madrid is far too huge, loud, and expensive for my tastes, and this introvert can only take the capital in small doses every couple of months.

But there’s something about this city-that-never-sleeps that keeps calling me back (perhaps it’s the nonrefundable round-trip plane tickets, but I digress). Madrid has only been the country’s capital since 1561, when King Felipe II moved the royal court from northerly Valladolid south to what was then a village of 30,000. But what la Villa de Madrid lacks in awe-inspiring monuments, it makes up with a contagious joie de vivre that the sleepy pueblos and workaday provincial capitals fail to exude. I love the buzzing energy I feel walking around town as the sun is rising or the warm merriment that pours out of a jam-packed restaurant at night. Madrid tiene vida.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to check off your hitlist in town; on the contrary, Madrid has a lot to see and do. In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the biggest tourist draws to the capital of Spain. I’m fully aware that this is nothing original; however, countless folks pass through here every year and completely miss half of what I’m about to talk about—so take note!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spain’s Cíes Islands: The Best Beach in the World?

As last school year was drawing to an end, the weather was heating up and the sun had decided to come out, so a handful of friends and I decided to hop on the train south to Vigo to catch the next ferry for as Illas Cíes—the Cíes Islands, which are home to what was called the “world’s best beach” in 2007 by the British newspaper The Guardian. It was a glorious daytrip from Santiago and a much-needed break from the rolling hills and rain of inland Galicia.

Cíes Islands, Spain
No caption necessary
The three Cíes islands form an archipelago that guards the entrance to an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean called the Ría de Vigo. From north to south, the three islands are named Monteagudo (“pointy mountain”), Montefaro (“lighthouse mountain”), and San Martiño (“St. Martin’s”).

Why are the beaches the best?

Cíes Islands, Spain
Dunes connecting the middle and northern islands
Part of the reason the beaches on the Cíes Islands (pronounced “THEE-ays” [ˈθ]) are so wonderful is the fact that they belong to the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park, so they have been protected from the runaway tourism and development, for example, that happened to beaches in Benidorm or Marbella on the Mediterranean coast. Here the natural beauty of these coastal islands has been more or less preserved and there are no high-rise hotels or trashy clubs to ruin the views. Additionally, there’s a daily limit of 2,200 visitors to the islands, so there are never mobs of sunbathers filling up the beaches.

Cíes Islands, Spain
Perfect turquoise water
The beaches themselves are basically perfect: extremely fine, white sand covers the half dozen or so beaches that stretch around the islands’ perimeter, and waves of almost-neon turquoise water gently splash along the beaches. The only way they could improve is if the ocean water wasn’t so ice-cold!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Santiago de Compostela’s Cidade da Cultura: Fab or Flop?

When you think of Santiago de Compostela, you usually think of moody Romanesque architecture, over-the-top gilded Baroque churches, and charming homes with glassed-in balconies and overhanging arches. So it might come as a surprise that the city is actually home to a huge project of contemporary architecture built on Monte Gaiás, a hill to the southeast of the city center. Called the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia or “City of Culture of Galicia,” it’s an ambitious arts and cultural center designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman and constructed between 2001 and 2011.

Cidade da Cultura, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cidade da Cultura
The Cidade currently consists of the following four buildings:

* Arquivo de Galicia: the “Archives of Galicia,” which stores the archives of newspapers and publications in Galicia
* Biblioteca de Galicia: the “Library of Galicia,” which is a repository of all books published in the Galician language or dealing with Galicia in other languages
* Museo de Galicia: the “Museum of Galicia,” which is supposed to house a museum dedicated to the history and heritage of the region of Galicia but right now only has temporary exhibitions
* Servizos Centrais: the “Central Services,” or the facilities management and administration building

Two buildings have yet to be constructed:

* Centro da Música e das Artes Escénicas: the “Music and Performing Arts Center,” essentially an opera house
* Centro de Arte Internacional: the “International Art Center,” a contemporary art museum dedicated to Latin American and European art

You can’t miss the Cidade’s distinct, swooping visage, which is visible from the train station and much of the ensanche or new part of town.

Modern architecture

Cidade da Cultura, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cidade da Cultura
The whole complex is rich in symbolism. You immediately notice the lack of right angles as all four buildings are sculpted to look like waves, waves of the Atlantic Ocean half an hour away on the coast. The Cidade’s footprint is nearly the same size and shape as that of Santiago’s zona vella or historic old town. And the crevices or pathways between each building recall the grooves on a scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

Cidade da Cultura, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cidade da Cultura
No two windows here are alike; they had to be individually fabricated and brought here (something that caused the budget to grow out of control). And, curiously, they used Brazilian split quartzite for walkways and roofing tiles instead of the granite that is native to Galicia.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Photo Post: Pizza & Roman Art in Sketchy Naples, Italy

Naples, Italy
Pizza margherita alla romana
While traveling around Italy last December, I dipped out of Rome after Christmas Day and took the train south to Naples to do three things, and three things only: 1) Explore the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, sealed for ages under volcanic ash 2) Eat pizza in the city it was invented and 3) Check in to the archaeological museum, where all of the treasures and wonders of Pompeii were taken for safe keeping. I hadn’t heard great things about Napoli proper, so I (perhaps ignorantly) decided to crash in a hostel for two nights and focus exclusively on my hitlist rather than explore this sketchy city.

Naples, Italy
Pizza marinara
The pizza lived up to all my expectations. This dish beloved the world over was invented here in Naples in the late 1800s, so what better place to chow down on pizza than the source? My first night in town I had dinner at Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro, a joint that dates back to 1923. I ordered pizza margherita alla romana, which was your basic Margherita pizza (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves) but “Roman-style” with some salt-cured anchovies. Nothing too fancy, but this simple combination of fresh, quality ingredients was an affordable, delicious introduction to Neapolitan pizza.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Padrón, Spain: Peppers, Pilgrims, & Poets

Everyday on the way to and from school I pass through the town of Padrón, situated about halfway between Santiago de Compostela where I live and Boiro (on the coast) where I work. Just barely inland, Padrón straddles the Sar River before it empties into the estuary called the Ría de Arousa.

Padrón, Spain
Sar River
A small but proud village of almost 9,000, Padrón dates back to Roman times when it was known as Iria Flavia (which is still the name of a parish to the north of the city center). Today it’s known for producing peppers of the same name, for being a major stop along the Camino de Santiago, and for being home to two significant poets of the Galician language.


Padrón, Spain
Pementos de Padrón (ignore the eggplant)
Even non-Galicians have heard of Padrón at least once, if only for the famous peppers that originated just outside the city center in the parish of Herbón. Brought to the area by Franciscan monks after the Spanish conquest of the Americas, these pimientos de Padrón have been cultivated for centuries and are now a part of the Spanish national cuisine.

Padrón, Spain
Monument to “the Pementeira” or pepper-picker
Typically fried in olive oil and garnished with chunky sea salt, they are rarely, if ever, spicy…however they are infamous for heating up once in a blue moon. As the Galician saying goes, “Coma os pementos de Padrón: uns pican e outros non” (“Like Padrón peppers: some are spicy and others are not”). These peppers are in season from May to November, although every now and then you can find them in plastic bags in the supermarkets thanks to year-round greenhouses.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Culture Shock in Spain: It’s the Little Things

Whenever you move to another country, you’ll invariably go through what’s known as culture shock, a roller-coaster of emotions that you experience while dealing with the obvious (speaking a foreign language, listening to weird accents) to the benign (nothing open on Sundays) to the bizarre (blackface Epiphany parade-goers). I’ve talked about culture shock before on this blog, from all sorts of little differences I’ve noticed in Spanish elementary schools and Spanish apartments to saying things like “see you later” in the street when you mean “hi!” or “enjoy your meal!” to complete strangers.

culture shock spain
Galician countryside
Although some people might complain about how everything here in Spain is sOoOoOo different from cultures in the United States or England or what have you, I believe there is actually a lot we share in common and the main cultural differences—i.e., those things that can wear you down and cause culture shock—are just a lot of little things that can build up over time. It’s not like in East Asia where they place a big emphasis on saving face, or in Arab countries where you have to learn a completely unrelated writing system; I don’t believe there are that many huge cultural hurdles to leap over when moving to Spain coming from another Western country.

However, while much of daily life in Spain is similar to that in other countries in Europe or North America, you do tend to notice small differences every now and then that make you go “hmm.”

* Addresses in Spain follow this general convention: 1) The type of street (avenue, road, etc.) 2) The name of the street 3) The street number 4) What floor and 5) what door the apartment or office is at. For example, you could have an address like this one:

Calle de Alfonso X, 56, 3º Dcha.

Let’s break it down: Calle means “street,” Alfonso X is the name of the street, 56 is the number of the house or building,  means the apartment is on the tercero piso or third floor, and Dcha. is an abbreviation for puerta derecha or “right door.” You can also have Izq. for izquierda (“left”) and for more than two they go by letters A, B, C…

* It’s common courtesy to greet complete strangers when you go into an enclosed public space, such as the changing room in a gym, an elevator, or even a quiet, small restaurant (where you would also wish a ¡qué aproveche! to someone eating). Don’t forget to say goodbye as well; if you get called up for your doctor’s appointment mumble a quick hasta luego to your fellow strangers in the waiting room.

* The same goes for stepping into a shop or a café-bar; just throw out an hola or buenas and acknowledge the shopkeeper/bartender.

* To answer the phone, you rarely say hola; instead, it’s a fast, get-to-the-point ¡dime! Literally translated, it means “tell me!” which to English ears sounds quite rude and blunt, but it’s simply an expression of the very direct Spanish culture.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I Love Galicia in November

While there’s probably no one here in Galicia who is excited for the changing of the seasons and all of the miserable rain and bone-chilling cold they bring, there’s something really special about November here in northwest Spain that made me really look forward to the month this school year. It may not replace that warm fuzzy feeling I get from spending Thanksgiving with the family (and Mom’s cooking!), but Galicia in November is still a festive month that makes fall a just plain nice time to be around in this part of the country.

All Saints’ Day

galicia november
Huesitos de Santos
November begins with the annual Tódolos Santos holiday. The Catholic Church has got a saint for every day of the year, but November 1st is the day to honor all of the saints. This feast day is also when Spaniards traditionally get together with their families to visit the graves of their loved ones and leave flowers. Because of this, cemeteries and mausoleums are busy places on the Día dos Defuntos or “Day of the Dead.” I don’t have any deceased relatives buried in Spain, so naturally my favorite thing about this holiday are seasonal pastries called huesos de Santos (“Saints’ bones”), little marzipan tubes with flavored “marrow” filling, such as egg yolk, chocolate, almond, or strawberry.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

galicia november
At my school’s Magosto celebrations
During fall, castañas (chestnuts) fall to the ground and make traipsing beneath chestnut trees a poky and dangerous endeavor, for sharp, spiky husks protect clusters of brown, glossy chestnuts. In November, Galicians go around soutos (chestnut groves) picking up these nuts to roast directly over a fire or to boil to use in a stew or to make various desserts.

Historically, the chestnut was the main source of carbohydrates in the region until corn and potatoes from the Americas were introduced centuries ago. However, Galicians still consume chestnuts today in huge quantities, and the Magosto festival held in mid-November celebrates this important nut. Wander through the streets of the old town in Santiago and you’re sure to find someone manning a miniature train engine with chestnuts roasting away. A couple euros can buy you a newspaper-roll of warm castañas!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Thoughts from a Road Trip Across Spain’s Northern Coast

This past weekend, my American housemates and I all happened to have the same four days off of school due to a fortunate overlapping of three-day workweeks and school breaks for the All Saints’ holiday. Taking advantage of some of the last non-rainy days in northern Spain of the season, we hopped in a rental car and drove from Santiago de Compostela out to San Vicente de la Barquera, a small fishing village on the Cantabrian coast about halfway between Galicia and the Basque Country.

Northern coast of Spain
We crashed at our housemate Rachel’s boyfriend’s apartment and used San Vicente as a home base to explore the northern coast of Spain, Asturias and Cantabria. On Friday, we spent our time in Cantabria, hitting up Comillas (for architect Antoni Gaudí’s El Capricho de Gaudí house), Santillana del Mar (which did not live up to its slogan as “the most beautiful village in Spain”), two sunny beaches, and the Cueva de El Castillo, an impressive cave in its own right that also housed stunning prehistoric art.

Saturday we dedicated to the Picos de Europa National Park. Coffee, sweets, and strolling were the highlights of Cangas de Onís, the gateway to the park; fancy churches and Spanish tourists were those of Covadonga. We tried to visit the Lagos de Covadonga within the park but the fog was so thick we could only see the lake shore and hear cowbells jingling playfully, mysteriously in the distance. Thankfully the rain held off long enough that we got to hike for an hour or two in the Garganta del Cares, a breathtaking river gorge that is understandably packed in summertime.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Colorful Coruña, Spain’s “Glass City”

I’ll be honest: I’m not the biggest fan of A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest city and the major metropolis along the region’s north Atlantic coast. Its residents have a reputation of being pijo (snobby), the city is sprawling and confusingly-laid out, and much of Coruña has all that Big City character Madrid is known for…without the charm.

A Coruña, Spain
Town hall, seen from Avenida Puerta de Aires
But there’s something attractive about Coruña that I just can’t shake. Compared with Santiago and the rest of inland Galicia, A Coruña is bright and colorful. While I love the simple granite, whitewashed houses with green doors that are oh-so-typical here in Santiago, it can get a little repetitive when all the houses look the same. In most Galician coastal towns, however, people paint their homes a variety of colors, and A Coruña is no different. Here you can find red, pink, orange, and blue homes, and the town hall has pretty red roofs to boot.

A Coruña, Spain
Hydrangeas in the Castle of San Antón
While Coruña may not be my favorite city in Galicia, it’s got a lot going for it and is a pleasant place to make a daytrip to from Santiago.


A Coruña, Spain
All across the northern coast of Spain it’s common to find houses with galerías, or glassed-in balconies that let the sunlight in and keep the rain (and humidity) out—an important feature in this green but rainy part of the country. Interestingly, galerías were first used in shipbuilding Ferrol, where they initially adorned the sterns of the great Spanish galleons. They eventually migrated to the back porches of local houses, finally drifting southwest from Ferrol down to A Coruña.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Don’t Leave Spain Without Trying These 10 Dishes

I haven’t announced it yet on the blog but I am getting more and more excited for my parents and brother to come visit me between Christmas and New Years this December. To get ready to be their personal tour guide and translator, I’ve been thinking about what places I want to highlight in Madrid, which restaurants I want to take them to in Santiago, and certain survival phrases in case we get separated (fingers crossed that doesn’t happen).

My family is only going to have six nights to spend in Spain, which is almost too little time to do this country justice—but hey, it’s better than nothing! It would be impossible to cover all aspects of Spanish food in such a brief stay, but I’m hoping that if we stick to the highlights they’ll leave having gotten a good overview of what authentic Spanish cuisine really is (hint: it’s not paella on a Tuesday evening in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor!). Below are what I hope to share with my family when we head out for lunch or dinner during their trip.

1) Tortilla de patatas (potato omelet)

Tortilla de patatas
(Source: Luís Rodgríguez)
In Spanish class, we learned that the most typical dish from España was paella. Like many tourists, I held this misconception until I moved here, but it wasn’t long before I became a convert to tortilla de patatas, this most Spanish of Spanish food. Slices of potatoes and onions are fried in bubbling olive oil before being combined with beaten eggs to create a thick, hearty omelet more akin to a pie than a flimsy breakfast omelet.

You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can eat it on its own, with mayonnaise, or stuffed into a loaf of bread to make a sandwich. You can order an entire tortilla to share with friends and family at dinner…or you can eat the whole thing yourself. You can order it poca hecha where the egg is still runny and the potatoes are oozing out, or you can ask for it “well done,” firm, starchy, and fluffy.

When tortilla comes up in conversations among expats here, we almost invariably discuss how to deftly flip the frying pan in order to cook the other side of the omelet (i.e., without having eggs and potatoes spill all over the stovetop). Native Spaniards, however, continue to debate whether or not to include onions in the recipe.

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!

1) Úbeda

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.
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