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!
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