Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Photo Post: Colexiata de Sar, the Leaning Church of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Colexiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Central nave
Most days of the week I end up passing through Santiago de Compostela’s Praza de Galicia, a major hub for traffic and city buses traversing the northeast-to-southwest sprawl of this regional capital. On my way home, I usually head east along the city’s main loop, a road that changes its name about eight times as it circles Santiago’s small but stately historic center.

Colexiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Right aisle
Before I reach the sidestreet that leads down to my apartment, I pass by a large, bold magenta sign informing drivers of a “Colexiata de Sar” down to the right. Walking past this intriguing sign nearly every day for a month after I moved to Santiago made me think that there had to be something pretty significant for there to be a tourist sign put up for it.

Colexiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Left aisle
So, one day I descended down, down Santiago’s central bluff, under the highway and train tracks, to the edge of the Sar River. Here, in a quiet, sunny neighborhood, I came across a simple church that dates to the Romanesque era of architecture (think medieval times), but with six great stone buttresses flying out from either side of the church. The buttresses seemed kind of odd, as that architectural element came into vogue centuries later when the grand Gothic cathedrals needed them to prop up their soaring walls.

Colexiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Flying buttresses
Come to find out, the Colexiata de Santa María a Maior e Real de Sar, or the “Royal Collegiate Church of St. Mary Major of Sar,” was built on some rather, uh, swampy land on the riverbanks, and so by the 1700s things had gotten so bad that the walls, columns, and vaulting were buckling outward. Oops. Thankfully, authorities had some granite buttresses built on either side to prop up the church, saving it from collapse. Today it’s a fun building to explore—not only for being an architectural oddity in Santiago but also for holding a simple yet well-preserved example of Romanesque architecture, both inside the church and in its calm cloisters.

Colexiata de Sar, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Gallery of buttresses
What other “Leaning Towers of Pisa” can you think of? What was your favorite photo from this post? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Confessions of a Texan in Spain

Alright, guys, it’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses that too often get put on when I talk about traveling or how amazing Spanish food is, and time for some #RealTalk. As an American living in Spain, trying to speak Spanish, and living to tell the tale about it on this blog, I’ve got some thoughts and reflections that I’d like to share in a confessional-style post, touching on the subjects of life, travel, language, and blogging.

Life

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Instagram link
Almost two years since graduating college, I’m still not sure what comes next in terms of a career or job. This point is a major source of anxiety for me: do I sell out for the ever-elusive 9-5 desk job, attempt to make ends meet by pursuing writing full-time, or attempt to teach high-schoolers some combination of Spanish and history? Don’t get me wrong—I’ve really enjoyed teaching English but I can’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life, which is one reason that…

I can’t see myself living in Spain long-term, making the transition from temporary expatriate to permanent immigrant. I love this country: it has some of the most fascinating history and architecture, tastiest food, most beautiful languages, and most gorgeous countryside I’ve experienced in the world. But literally one of every two Spaniards my age is unemployed, job prospects for English-speaking foreigners are mostly relegated to ESL, and American teachers are often sidelined in favor of EU residents like Brits or Irish. I’m also not dating a Spaniard, either, which is often the most common stepping stone to gaining residency.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Instagram link
It’s really pathetic how much the weather here in Santiago affects my mood; these past weeks have been full of glorious sun, warmth, and blooming flowers…yay! But the wintry months of January and February were long, dark, cold, and extremely rainy: it literally rained every single day for over fifty days straight! While the sun has banished any lingering Seasonal Affective Disorder I may have caught, this year has made me wonder if it’s really worth enduring the terrible months of winter.

Although praised by some of the most popular writers in the travel world, the idea of long-term travel, of being a “digital nomad” and having a “location-independent” job or career does not appeal to me at all. I get cranky and exhausted after ten days on the road, and as a major homebody I enjoy having a bed to call my own, a dresser for my clothes, and a stovetop I know how to operate. Although I’m almost never homesick, more and more I’ve been feeling this strange urge to settle down and put down roots, making local friends and giving back to the community, and I like I said above, I don’t want to do that in Spain. America is on my horizon.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Photo Post: Monte Pedroso in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
View of Santiago de Compostela
Lots of famous Spanish cities are relatively flat and easy to walk around, from Barcelona to Sevilla to Córdoba. Santiago de Compostela, in the country’s northwest corner, however, was built on a series of hills and bluffs on the high ground between the Sarela and Sar rivers, so you tend to get a good workout going to work and getting the groceries here.

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Sunset
The surrounding area is rather hilly as well, with the distinctive, pointy Pico Sacro rising up to the southeast and Monte Pedroso looming right outside of town to the west. You can enjoy the best views of the city from the summit of this mountain just an hour-long hike from the Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral.

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Trail
Crowded neighborhoods give way to rural mansions and farmland, which in turn surrender to the fragrant forests of pine and eucalyptus trees that cover the falda or foothills of the mountain.

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Trees
While Santiago is by no means a huge city, it’s always nice to go up to the summit and relax away from all the hustle and bustle. Plus, it’s fun to try and figure out where your favorite haunts in the city are from hundreds of feet up. Too bad my house is hidden by the bluff that contains the historic core of Santiago, but I can at least see my second home, the farmers market!

Monte Pedroso, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Dusk
What was your favorite photo from this post? Do you enjoy taking a break from sightseeing and eating while traveling to enjoy nature and public parks? Tell me in the comments below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Mercado de Abastos (Farmers Market) of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I haven’t written much yet about the city I’m currently living in this year—Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the northwestern Galicia region—mainly because I have a backlog of 300+ pictures to edit and upload. Hopefully this summer I’ll have everything put up so I can start talking about what has become one of my favorite cities in the country. For now, at least, all I’ve got are some shots of the city’s mercado de abastos or farmers market, which is one of the premier markets of its kind in all of Spain but still small enough that you don’t feel lost inside.

Mercado de Abastos, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cabbage and carrots
Santiago’s market is one of my favorite places in the entire city, mainly because a huge part of Galician culture is its famously-delicious food but also because I love eating, cooking, and supporting local producers rather than big chain supermarkets.

Mercado de Abastos, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Tetilla cheese
Although the current collection of eight granite naves or halls was built in 1941, the farmers market has been held almost daily since the late 1800s in a location due east of the cathedral on the edge of the historic old town. Bounded by the huge Church of Santo Agostiño to the north and the tiny Church of San Fiz de Solovio to the south, the market grounds house dozens of family businesses offering every kind of local meat and produce you can think of.

Mercado de Abastos, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Nécoras or velvet crabs
The stalls generally fall into one of the following categories: seafood (mariscos), fruits and veggies (frutería), meat (carnicería), chicken & eggs (pollos), cheeses & sausages (quesos/charcutería), bread & pastries (panadería), and salt cod (bacalao).

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My 10 Favorite Churches in Rome

When I was back home in Texas last summer I decided to teach myself a little about all the different architectural styles that have left their mark across the centuries in western Europe. I had a vague idea of what Romanesque, Gothic, or Neoclassical buildings looked like but I would have been stumped had you asked me to explain what exactly made each time period stand out from the others. So I embarked on History of Architecture I, a free iTunes U course taught by Ohio State University professor Jacqueline Gargus. Although I have no background in architecture, engineering, or design, I found it super easy to jump right to Prof. Gargus’s lively discussion of western architecture.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy
Ceiling of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore
Watching these lectures really helped me to grow in my knowledge of the major styles, and I now feel comfortable explaining the differences and revolutionary ideas of each era. I also enjoyed being introduced to some of the most significant examples of each architectural style, most of them in Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. So I was understandably very excited to head to Rome this December so I could see, in person, such important churches like the ones I’m going to talk about below. (#NerdAlert warning!)

Although Rome has to be home to countless hundreds of gorgeous churches, I’d like to share with y’all a few of them that really stood out to me. Starting in the northern Piazza del Popolo, I’ll move in a clockwise spiral, ending in the Pantheon neighborhood.

1) Santa Maria del Popolo

(Source: Kræn Bech-Petersen)
The Church of “St. Mary of the People” has a lot going for it. First of all, it’s filled to the brim with opulent Baroque-style side chapels, many of which hold dozens of works of art like Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul.

The church also sits just inside the old city walls at a commanding position on the north side of the busy Piazza del Popolo. According to tradition, the ashes of infamous Emperor Nero were said to be buried near the location of the present-day church, and during the Middle Ages his ghost and/or demons in the form of crows apparently perturbed the people of Rome so much that the pope had Nero’s urn emptied into the Tiber River and a tree—the crows’ favorite haunt—cut down to make way for today’s church.

But what Santa Maria del Popolo is made of fascinated me the most: white travertine marble that, according to Rick Steves, was plundered from the Colosseum when it was used as a quarry in Baroque times. Buildings like this are why merely a third of the original ancient stadium remains!

2) Sant’Agnese (Mausoleum of Santa Costanza)

Mausoleum of Santa Costanza, Church of Sant’Agnese, Rome, Italy
(Source: Lawrence Lew)
Far outside the old city there’s an early Christian mausoleum that dates to the 300s CE. Currently attached to the Church of Sant’Agnese, the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza beautifully encapsulates the transition from ancient Roman to early medieval architecture with its unique, “in-the-round” layout. Although dedicated to St. Constance—a mythical character based on Constantia, the real-life daughter of Emperor Constantine—the mausoleum was probably built for Constantia’s sister, Helena.

The original red porphyry sarcophagus that was once here can now be found in the Vatican Museums. Regardless of who exactly is being commemorated in this place, the barrel-vaulted ceilings that cover the circular ambulatory have somehow managed to preserve early Christian mosaics. I wasn’t able to see this church because of awkward opening hours on Christmas Day, but I would love to should I ever return.

Monday, March 10, 2014

3 Cold Spanish Soups (& Recipes!): Ajoblanco, Salmorejo, Gazpacho

When I first applied to work in Spain two years ago, I knew I wanted to live in the southernmost region of Andalucía, not least for its warm and sunny reputation. I was also drawn by its treasure trove of Moorish architecture—from castles to palaces to mosques—and the infamous andalú accent, which I hoped would be most similar to the Latin American Spanish I studied in school. In reality, my Andalusian winter turned out to be one of the rainiest and bone-chilling I’ve experienced yet, the province of Jaén where I got placed was a Renaissance exception to the Moorish norm, and the Andalusian accent may as well be classified as a separate language it was so hard to understand.

But the food lived up to all my expectations: tangy marinated olives, spicy boiled snails, savory cured ham, and generous free tapas made for a, uh, belt-tightening year. One of my favorite parts of Andalusian cuisine was its ancient and varied tradition of cold soups, although perhaps the word “soup” in English doesn’t quite convey the smoothie-like nature of the recipes I’m going to talk about below. Still, let’s stick with “cold soup” for now.

All of these soups are based off of a foundation of garlic, olive oil, salt, vinegar, and usually day-old bread. From this simple starting point it’s easy to add more ingredients yet still be able to appreciate their flavors. Featuring almonds, tomatoes, or the pick of the garden, these cold soups are a light and refreshing way to try out Spanish cuisine on a hot summer day.

(Note: when using raw garlic in recipes like these, it’s best to cut the cloves in half longways and dig out the germen or green sprout-like “germ,” which can be strong and bitter if not cooked.)

Ajoblanco

Ajoblanco / Spanish cold almond soup
(Source: Alexa Clark)
Ajoblanco’s name literally means “white garlic,” but it omits the most important ingredient, ground almonds! This cold almond garlic soup, sometimes called white gazpacho, dates back to Moorish times, when almond trees began to be cultivated along with other now-typical Spanish fruit trees like oranges and lemons. But ajoblanco was merely an improvement on a much earlier, ancestral dish from Roman times. Ajoblanco’s predecessor was a humble mix of ancient ingredients like bread, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and water. Adding ground-up blanched almonds (raw almonds parboiled to remove their skins) transformed it into what is now a popular soup in Málaga—where it’s garnished with halved grapes—and Granada—where it’s served with a baked potato.

Ingredients
* 250g blanched almonds
* 100g crustless, day-old bread
* 2 garlic cloves
* extra-virgin olive oil
* sherry vinegar
* 1 teaspoon salt
* grapes

Directions
1) Combine the blanched almonds, bread, and garlic in a blender and fill with ice-cold water.
2) Add heaping glugs of olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar, the salt, and blend.
3) Strain and refrigerate.
4) Serve with grapes sliced in half and a drizzle of olive oil.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thoughts from Aragón, Spain’s Forgotten Interior

Just a couple days ago I arrived back in Santiago after a week of exploring the region of Aragón in eastern Spain, and now that I’ve done several loads of laundry and slept in ’til noon in my own bed, I think I can put together some thoughts and reflections on one of the most interesting and unique rincones (corners) of Spain I’ve been to yet.

Basilica of El Pilar, Zaragoza, Spain
Zaragoza’s Basilica of El Pilar
Aragón location in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
I’m sure you wondering, where is Aragón? This landlocked, eastern part of Spain stretches south from the central Pyrenees mountains, nestled between Castilla on one hand and Barcelona-dominated Catalunya on the other. It’s actually one of the largest autonomous communities in all of Spain but, because most Spanish people over the past half-century have flocked from the countryside to the biggest cities—it’s one of the most sparsely-populated swaths of the country.

Albarracín, Spain
Albarracín, seen from the castle
Perhaps because of this, Aragón is kind of a “forgotten” part of Spain, skipped over by whirlwind tourists on their way from Barcelona to Madrid or Sevilla. Zaragoza—the capital with over half the region’s population—doesn’t nearly draw as many visitors as Madrid or Barcelona do, despite being smack-dab in the middle along the highways and AVE high-speed rail. But maybe since mass tourism has passed over Aragón, it has still retained its unique charm: Zaragoza holds a no-nonsense attitude, proud of its importance since Roman days…cozy Teruel hides colorful Mudéjar church bell towers between its Modernista apartment blocks…and grand Huesca kicks back and relaxes on the reclining seat of the Pyrenees.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

3 Warm Spanish Stews (& Recipes!): Callos, Fabada, Lentejas

If you asked me what my favorite part of Spanish cooking is, I wouldn’t answer with tortilla (potato omelet), jamón (cured ham), or paella (a meat-and-veggies rice dish). What I love most about the cuisine of Spain is the country’s savory tradition of soups and stews. Usually centered around one of what I like to call the Holy Trinity of Spanish Legumes—chickpeas, white beans, and lentils—these one-pot meals cook on low heat for hours, letting the flavors of the aromatic veggies and spiced sausages combine together to create a simple, yet tasty, product.

When cooler temperatures roll around in November, restaurant cooks and abuelas alike will start preparing these warm, comforting stews that are beloved by Spaniards but under-appreciated by foreigners. Let me share with you three of the essential stews to try if you visit Spain off-season (or to try your hand at in your own kitchen). Each recipe serves 4-6 people, or one person and enough leftovers for a week!

Callos con garbanzos

Callos con garbanzos / Spanish tripe with chickpeas
(Source: Héctor Herrero)
This dish’s literal translation—“tripe with chickpeas”—may not sound very appealing, and I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone. But the stinkiness of cow stomach vanishes as it cooks for three hours with spices like cumin, black pepper, and cloves—medallions of some good Spanish chorizo help, too, of course. I’ve had heaping bowls of this stuff all over the country and the tripe meat has always been melt-in-your-mouth tender, not chewy or slimy by any means. The earthy chickpeas add a nice contrast of texture and flavor to this stew.

Ingredients
* 500g tripe
* 1 lemon
* splash of vinegar
* 250g dried chickpeas
* 2 tablespoons callos spices (cumin, pepper, cloves, etc.)
* 2 chorizo sausages
* 1 onion
* 4 garlic cloves
* 1 bay leaf

Directions
1) Soak the chickpeas overnight for at least 12 hours, changing the water every 4-6 hours.
2) Let the tripe soak for an hour or so in water with some vinegar and/or lemon quarters. Make sure to clean it vigorously under running water, cleaning off the slime.
3) Chop the clean tripe, bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat and pour out the water. They are now ready to cook.
4) Add to the tripe the chickpeas, spices, chorizo, chopped onion, garlic, and bay leaf, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then let cook over low heat for 3 hours until the tripe and chickpeas are tender.
5) Slice the chorizo, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
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