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.
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