Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Albarracín: The Most Beautiful Village in Spain

Is it possible to fall in love with somewhere after seeing just a single photo of the place? If so, that’s exactly what happened to me when I saw a picture of the Spanish town of Albarracín in rural southern Aragón. I don’t remember when I first came across it, but at some point a few years ago as I was browsing the Wikipedia categories for all things Spain (#NerdAlert), I found this shot of the village’s old town snuggled up against canyon walls, with the buildings golden and ruddy in the warm, waning light, the church bell towers bright and colorful, and the whole atmosphere reminiscent of whatever “Old Spain” is supposed to mean. I was hooked.

Albarracín, Spain
The town seen from the castle
Albarracín, come to find out, is one of the most isolated places in the whole country. Pronounced “ahl-vahr-rah-THEEN” [al.βa.raˈθin], this tiny village is a half-hour drive into the mountains from Teruel, the only provincial capital in peninsular Spain without direct train service from Madrid. Because my time teaching English in Spain has brought me to the south of the country—Úbeda—and the far northwest—Santiago de Compostela—I thought I would have to write off ever getting a chance to see this far-flung town that had so captured my imagination.

Fast forward to early 2014. I was planning an ambitious journey around landlocked, east-central Aragón, and I wanted to make sure I saw as much of the region’s unique Mudéjar-style architecture as possible. While the big, regional capital of Zaragoza is home to several churches built in this style, the bulk of the World Heritage-listed sites are found to the south in Teruel…which just so happens to be right around the corner from Albarracín. I decided to book two nights in this picture-perfect village: a dream come true.

Arriving in town

Albarracín, Spain
At “ground level”
As I left Teruel in the only minibus that leaves for the mountains each day, it seemed as if I were going back in time—back one thousand years, to be precise. In the 11th century CE, as the Caliphate of Córdoba was falling into oblivion, local Muslim noblemen took advantage of the political vacuum and quickly grabbed power, forming taifas or independent kingdoms. These tiny taifas—centered around a major city—endured for a hundred years or so until a better-organized dynasty from North Africa invaded and reunited Muslim Spain: the Almoravids.

During this chaotic time period, a powerful Berber family called al-Banu Razin (“the sons of Razin” in Arabic) based their taifa in what is now the Castle of Albarracín and controlled the southwest part of modern Teruel province. Only three kings ruled until the Almoravids swept through the area, but it wasn’t long until Albarracín would enjoy another century-long period of independence, this time as a Christian lordship in the late Middle Ages called Santa María de Aben Razín.

Albarracín, Spain
Stray cat with Vespa
Today’s Albarracín is a heavily-restored version of the village it was half a millennium ago, as the town was essentially in ruins after the Spanish Civil War. In the postwar period, local authorities rebuilt crumbling homes according to centuries-old traditions, chose a uniform paint scheme by adding local, ruddy clay to the plaster, and re-tiled the roof on the cathedral’s bell tower in an attractive zig-zag pattern. This major investment was a big risk—but it paid off big time as tourism is now the town’s main industry.

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Updated Review of Spain’s North American Language & Culture Assistant Program

Another school year in Spain has come and gone, and right now I’m back home in Texas with my family and working to save money while I get ready to return again this fall. Last summer, I wrote what I thought about the North American Language & Culture Assistant program, which allows recent college graduates like yours truly to teach English in Spain. That review was based on my experience working in an elementary school in rural Andalucía and living in an off-the-beaten-track, mid-sized town called Úbeda.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, during a night rain
Having worked at another elementary school in coastal Galicia and lived in the regional capital of Santiago de Compostela this year, my opinions of the program have become more nuanced, although they are still generally positive. Since I’m going back to the same school in the fall, I find myself at the midpoint of my time in Galicia (northwest Spain): a perfect time to reflect on my experience in this program.

A quick refresher: the auxiliares de conversación program is sponsored by the Spanish government—the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports—but because the autonomous communities are ultimately responsible for education, language assistants report to the regional governments.

In exchange for working 12 hours a week in Spanish public schools, assistants receive 700 euros a month and health insurance, and get time off during school holidays. (FYI: in the Community of Madrid, they work 16 hours a week and get paid 1000 euros a month.) These auxiliares work in preschool, primary, secondary, or adult-level classrooms and assist teachers in English-language education, but experiences vary widely.

First, I’ll talk about my time in Galicia and my coastal elementary school, and then I’ll tell you my thoughts about the program in general.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Photo Post: An Ape-Free Visit to Gibraltar

The Rock of Gibraltar
On my way back home from running around northern Morocco last spring, I decided to go out on a limb and check out Gibraltar on my layover between the sketchy port town of Algeciras and my train back to Jaén. Officially a “British Overseas Territory” (like Bermuda or the Falkland Islands), this slender peninsula that juts out from far southern Spain is as English as any place in jolly ol’ England.

Main Street
It’s kind of hard to describe the culture shock I felt after crossing the border runway that separates Spain and, uh, the United Kingdom. I had recently re-emerged into Spanish-speaking Europe after a week spent in the Arab World, so I kind of felt a little whiplash now that I could speak English without blinking an eye. As I converted 30€ into £20, I uneasily spoke to the money exchanger in my native tongue despite having traipsed across from Spain just minutes before. It was really eerie…but also a refreshing change! Money in hand, I set out down Main Street in search of the crowd-free, untouristy side of things.

Gibraltarian-minted pounds
The name “Gibraltar” comes from the Arabic Jabal Tariq (“Tariq’s Mountain”), a reference to one General Tariq ibn Ziyad who led Muslim armies into the Iberian Peninsula and conquered the feeble Visigothic kingdom in 711 CE. The area was taken by Castilla in 1462 at the same time that the rest of far-southern Spain was falling to the Christian “re-conquest.”

Gibraltar (pronounced “khee-brahl-TAHR” [xi.bɾalˈtaɾ] in Spanish) belonged to the Castilian crown for 242 years until the British invaded in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession. Since then, the tiny peninsula has become thoroughly anglicized over its 310-year history as a British territory. Ethnic Gibraltarians—who look a lot like their Andalusian neighbors—speak English, Spanish, and Llanito, the name for the fascinating codeswitching that goes on between those two languages.

Mosque at the southern tip
One scrumptious meal of fish and chips later (which sounds a lot tastier in English than bacalao frito con patatas does in Spanish), I basically got lost in residential Gibraltar, ultimately finding my way through a tunnel out to the southernmost point of the island. Had I had more time to spare, I would have gone up to the Rock and hung out with the gregarious Barbary Apes—Europe’s only non-human primates—but I had to content myself with strolling by quaint English cottages and reading English signage for the first time in half a year, a stark change from the Spanish, French, and Arabic I had encountered that school year.

The southern edge of Gibraltar was beautiful, and mostly contained in a calm, green, tourist-free park that had a bright, white mosque and some ship-shape lighthouses for boundary stones. A small fleet of barges floated out in the Strait of Gibraltar, silent ghosts poised over the inky blue Mediterranean.

My time soon came to an end, and I hopped on the city bus and left what little remained of my twenty pounds on the counter for a ticket. It wasn’t long before I was marching across the (still empty) runway, leaving the English-speaking world behind and re-entering the land of Spanish.

What was your favorite photo from this post? Have you ever been to Gibraltar before? Do you think Gibraltar should be returned to Spain? Add your comments to the discussion below!

For more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Another Day in the Life of a Language Assistant in Spain

Last year on the blog I wrote a post about what a typical day in Spain looked like for me. Obviously, living in a completely different part of the country (Santiago de Compostela in the northwest) this past school year meant my life looked a little different than from two years ago. Following the same structure as I did in my original post, I’ve put together something to give y’all an idea of what life as an auxiliar de conversación is like—but reader beware: this is only my experience, and even people living in the same city can have wildly varying times in this program. Hope you find this interesting!

In the morning

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
My street
My morning schedule is surprisingly similar to the one I had my first year: I get up around 7am…sometimes later…have breakfast, shower, pack a lunch, and dash out the door not long after the nearby monastery’s bells chime eight-o’-clock. I always enjoy walking the quarter of an hour it takes to get from my apartment across town to the carpool pickup spot, as Santiago is calm then and doesn’t have much car or foot traffic. It’s usually not raining, too, which is a major plus. Fran, my bilingual coordinator, arrives at 8:25am and I hop in to her car. We then head to Milladoiro, a bedroom community outside of Santiago where we pick up another teacher (or pile into his car, depending on whose week it is) and begin the commute to school.

It’s about half an hour from the “rendezvous point” to Abanqueiro where our school is. In the first 15 minutes we pass through dozens of tiny villages, roll around hills, go in and out of forests, and pass by rural homes, chapels, and vineyards. By the time we get to Padrón, we shift into high gear and merge onto the highway that traces the coast of the Ría de Arousa, a narrow inlet of the Atlantic Ocean.

Abanqueiro, Spain
Neighborhood plaza near the school
We usually arrive about five minutes before classes start—9:30am—and in this narrow window teachers corral the amazingly-loud students who congregate in the hallways, converse with their colleagues, down some drip-coffee from the teachers’ lounge, or deal with bureaucratic official things in the offices.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Abanqueiro, Spain: The Village Where I Worked in Galicia

Since October 2013, I’ve been teaching English at a rural elementary school on the western coast of Galicia, northwest Spain. Although I’m writing this back home in Texas right now, I’ll be heading back in the fall to renew at the same school for another year, so I thought this summer intermission would be the best time to share with y’all a little bit about the whole reason I’ve been able to live and travel abroad for this past school year.

Abanqueiro, Spain
Blue house

The surrounding region

Abanqueiro, Spain
Gratuitous photo of stray kitties
Abanqueiro (pronounced “ah-bahn-KAY-EE-roe” [ˌa.βanˈkej.ɾo]) is a small farming parish that belongs to the broader municipality of Boiro, a city of about 20,000 people in one of the many Rías Baixas or “Lower Inlets” of the Atlantic Ocean that flow into the region’s western coasts. Like most of Galicia, Abanqueiro is green and lush, and receives a lot of rain in the wintry months. But because the village is situated on a flat peninsula close to sea level, the weather here is generally more agreeable than further inland, where the hills love to wreak havoc with balmy breezes (I’m looking at you, Santiago de Compostela!).

Many of the folks here work in the fishing industry, be it the physical act of catching of them, tending to bateas or mussel farms that float offshore, or canning fish in factories that have made the Rías Baixas famous all over Spain. Of course, because of Abanqueiro’s rural setting, tons of people run their own family farms where they grow anything from corn to potatoes to cabbage. It’s pretty common for locals to cultivate Albariño grapes in their tiny vineyards to make homemade white wine.

Abanqueiro, Spain
Mañóns Beach
This little peninsula also has a fair amount of natural beauty about it, from wild forests where frogs croak and roar, to simple beaches like the Praia de Mañóns frequented only by locals. During our lunch break, some of the teachers and I would often go on strolls around town, passing through minty-fresh eucalyptus woods, over hot, expansive farmlands, and past the colorful houses that our students call home.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Boiro, Spain: A Typical Galician Coastal Town

Before getting placed to teach English at a rural elementary school in a village called Abanqueiro, I knew very little about the western coasts of Galicia, Spain’s green northwestern region. Although I was going to work in Abanqueiro, the address my placement letter gave me included “Boiro” in parentheses, something that really threw me off; was my school in Abanqueiro or Boiro?

Boiro, Spain
Boiro, seen from my plane window!!!
Both, actually. Come to find out, the population in Spain’s northern regions is distributed a lot differently than it is down south. Whereas in Andalucía you have a tight, compact urbanization that belongs to a single municipio (municipality) with virtually no “settlements” outside the city limits (that’s where all the olive groves are, silly!), in Galicia things are a lot more spread out.

The whole region is broken down into various concellos (municipalities) each with their own town hall in the main city center. But each concello is divided into several administrative parroquias or parishes since so many people have their own homes and family farms scattered around the built-up core. So the concello of Boiro was, indeed, where I was destined to work, making Abanqueiro the rural parroquia my school was at, a five-minute drive south from downtown Boiro.

I’ll talk more about Abanqueiro—the village and the school—later this week. But right now I want to talk about the urban setting of Boiro, which I think is a typical Galician coastal town.

Introducing Boiro

Boiro, Spain
Church of Santa Baia
There’s little historic core to speak of, maybe a stone house here and a Baroque chapel there, because most of the Boiro you see today was constructed in the past ten years or so during Spain’s big construction bubble. The modern city center follows a spacious grid layout, with plain granite apartment façades peeking over shops, restaurants, businesses, and empty lots. A brand-new, white town hall commands an austere praza or central square where kids play on a playground and grandpas buy the daily newspaper.

Boiro’s main industry has to do with seafood caught from the ría or inlet of the sea that laps at the beach just minutes from town. The Ría de Arousa provides locals millions of bright-orange mussels, which they grow and harvest on floating structures called bateas. These and other shellfish often get taken to factories where they’re cooked, canned, and sent off to the rest of the country and the world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Legend of the Lovers of Teruel, Spain: Fact or Fiction?

I loved getting a chance to explore Teruel last March, one of the most off-the-beaten-track cities in Spain. My inner architecture nerd couldn’t get enough of the dazzling Islamic-inspired Mudéjar church bell towers, and the cheap but high quality jamón ibérico (Iberian cured ham) pleased my stomach and my wallet. I often felt like I was the only tourist in this extremely-isolated provincial capital, and I relished the chance to get to know the region of Aragón on my own terms, without hordes of daytrippers or menus that foist paella and sangría at me.

Lovers of Teruel
Sculpted tombs
Some parts of the country have traditional song—Andalucía’s flamenco—others have dance—Catalunya’s sardana—but this city is unique in that it continues to retell its famous legend of the Lovers of Teruel. Called Los Amantes de Teruel in Spanish, this account of two star-crossed lovers draws from a tradition dating back 800 years and even today any elementary school-aged kid in Teruel can recite the story to you. Now, whether the Lovers of Teruel actually existed in real life is a matter for debate (more on that below), but first let’s all sit down in a circle for storytime.

The legend

Lovers of Teruel
Section of a huge modern painting
As the story goes, Teruel in the 1200s was home to Juan Diego de Marcilla and Isabel de Segura—he, the second son in his family and unlikely to receive much of an inheritance, and she the only child of a wealthy nobleman. Diego and Isabel were madly in love with each other, but their romance was doomed unless he could prove himself worthy to her father. Diego convinced this Don Pedro to give him five years to make his fortune and return triumphant. He promised Isabel he would come back for her, and that they would get married soon.

Isabel waited those five years for Diego, yet never heard a word from him either good or ill. She turned down countless suitors and engaged in stalling tactics to prevent her father from marrying her off. Meanwhile, Diego was involved in wars against the Muslims to the south, be they inland or coastal battles. Yet he was too late, and failed to return to Teruel before the end of the fifth year. Don Pedro wasted no time in arranging a marriage for his daughter against her will, which was held the very next day.
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