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.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal

When I went to Portugal for Easter break this spring, my first stop was the country’s second-biggest city, Porto. While the northern city’s glorious church architecture, hand-painted tiles, and Harry Potter pilgrimage sites drew me here in the first place, Porto’s rich and tasty cuisine kept me firmly in one place (the table, that is). Read on to learn what dishes to hunt down when you visit this beautiful, crumbling city on the Douro River.

Porto, Portugal
Porto’s old quarter seen from the Torre dos Clérigos

Francesinha (sandwich)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
Heart attack on a plate
If there’s anything that every tourist and their mom eats when they come to Porto, it’s the francesinha sandwich. Pronounced “fran-say-ZEE-nyah” [fɾɐ̃.seˈzi.ɲɐ], this sandwich-you-eat-with-a-fork puts ham, various sausages, and steak between two slices of bread, melts cheese on top of everything, and then goes swimming in a peppery broth made of beer and tomato sauce. Often cooks will throw a fried egg on top, and if your heart didn’t hate you already, they garnish the sides of the bowl with a bunch of french fries. People either love it or hate it; I thought it didn’t taste too bad at all but it’s definitely not something you should be eating every day!

The name for this sandwich literally means “little French one,” referring to the croque-monsieur, the ham-and-cheese sandwich that inspired the Portuguese creation.

Bacalhau (cod)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: kathy)
As Portugal was historically a seafaring nation, it should come as no surprise that fish makes up a big part of the country’s cuisine, with cod being the most beloved. Most bacalhau you will find is salt cod, or fresh codfish that has been preserved in salt, a centuries-old tradition that dates back well before refrigeration, and one that allowed both inland residents and mariners to enjoy this simple, healthy fish at any time. After soaking for a day or two in a bucket of water to remove the salt, the de-salted salt cod is ready for cooking, be it crispy cod fritters or the bacalhau à Gomes de Sá casserole.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Photo Post: Remembering the Space Race in Houston, Texas

Saturn V rocket, Houston, Texas
Saturn V rocket
A month ago I was down in Houston, Texas, for the weekend applying for a student visa at the Spanish consulate, which I need to go back to work in Spain as a language assistant for one more year. Because the Megabus schedules didn’t allow for me to leave Dallas early in the morning and return from Houston later in the day, I decided to make a city trip out of the whole ordeal and spend two nights in the local Hostelling International hostel.

Saturn V rocket, Houston, Texas
Third stage of the rocket
I was first in line to apply for a visa at the consulate so I ended up having more free time than I thought I would; thankfully I had brought my library's copy of Alas Babylon with me, so I spent several hours in Starbucks over the course of the trip engrossed in this highly-realistic account of what might have happened had the U.S. and the USSR engaged in nuclear war. Written by Pat Frank, the book trailblazed the post-apocalyptic genre and was published at the height of the Cold War in 1959.

With this book fresh on my mind, I hopped on a commuter bus downtown and rode all the way to the end of line: Johnson Space Center. Both a fully-functioning “home base” for the U.S. government’s NASA agency and an interactive space museum, the JSC also houses a never-launched Saturn V rocket inside a gargantuan shed. Initially left to rot in the humid, polluted Houston air, this rocket has since been restored and moved indoors for preservation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding Harry Potter in Porto, Portugal

Confession: I never read the Harry Potter series growing up—even though I came of age as J. K. Rowling was poppin’ one book out after another. Part of it was because my parents didn’t let me read the books (yet The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was fine? hmm…) but another part was my inner hipster mindset that wouldn’t let me deign to read mass-produced fiction. I soon came to my senses and ultimately read the entire series during my first school year working as a language assistant in Spain, and I even signed up for and got placed in Gryffindor house, thankyouverymuch.

Porto, Portugal
Porto’s old quarter seen from the Miradouro da Vitória
Now a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies, I was convinced to visit Portugal’s second-biggest city, Porto, over Easter break not only because everyone I talked to raved about the city but also because of its intimate connection with Rowling herself. Pronounced “POR-too” [ˈpoɾ.tu] (NOT “poor toe,” ahem), this city was home to the author between 1991 and 1993. Writing Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Philosopher’s Stone in the morning and teaching English in the afternoon and evenings, Rowling spent countless hours in local cafés hammering out what would become one of the biggest bestsellers of all time.

One of those cafés she spent time in was Café Majestic, a fancy Art Nouveau establishment along the grand Rua de Santa Catarina. While tourists keep the outside terrace perpetually full, the interior is a grand, classy hall with white and pastel walls, huge mirrors, and warm wood highlights. Today you can order an afternoon pick-me-up and feel transported back to the 1920s when the thinkers of the day would come here to debate ideas and discuss their works.

Harry Potter in Porto, Portugal
Fancy-shmancy interior seating
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