Saturday, June 28, 2014

Photo Post: Moulay Idriss, Morocco’s Spiritual Birthplace

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
One of the two hills
As I explored Spain’s neighbor to the south, Morocco, during Semana Santa last year (Easter break), one of the spots on my hitlist was ruined Roman city of Volubilis. I thought it was such a fascinating place not only because of the cool monuments and half-standing houses, but also because it seemed so out of place outside mainland Europe—and yet, there the Roman ruins were, a silent reminder of the reach of the Roman Empire. Although Volubilis has long since drifted into oblivion, its community continues to this day a hop, skip, and a jump away in the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, situated atop two hills.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Circular minaret
Trivia buffs might like to learn that Moulay Idriss is home to Morocco’s only circular minaret, a stout tower decorated in green and white mosaics that spell out pixelated Arabic script. But the real reason this town’s on the map goes back to the year 788 CE, when a man fleeing Arabia with a bounty on his head named Idriss (who also happened to be a great-grandson of Muhammad) came to Volubilis and set up camp.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss
He soon became the local Muslim imam and political leader—what is traditionally considered the “founding” of Morocco, as the Idrissid dynasty was the first line of Moroccan kings. Idriss made plans to establish a new capital at Fez, but he was assassinated before he could see them through. Fez was ultimately built under the reign of his son, Idriss II, and Volubilis slowly declined as Fez and nearby Moulay Idriss Zerhoun drew prestige and people away. By the year 1000, Volubilis was deserted, and Moulay Idriss Zerhoun was the only town in the area.

Idriss the king was buried here in town, and his mausoleum is a grand, sprawling complex with attractive, green tiled roofs. Non-Muslims are barred from entering, but perhaps this is because Moroccans believe that making five pilgrimages to Idriss’s mausoleum is equal to going on one hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Stray cat
If you’re not a Muslim, the best way to appreciate the town’s beautiful mausoleum is by hiking up one of the two hills it lies between. You might feel like you’re getting lost (you probably are), but just keep moving up and you’ll eventually emerge from a steep, narrow street at a petite terrasse or even a grande terrasse. Take a moment to rest at these lookout point terraces and bask in the afternoon sun, snapping photos and slurping on water bottles. Just watch out for the stray cats!

Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Green Moroccan countryside
What was your favorite photo from this post? Did you have any idea that Morocco’s history stretched so far back? Comment below!

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

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teruel, Spain: An Architecture-Lover’s Dream

Perhaps the highlight of my late winter trip around Aragón, a landlocked region in east-central Spain, was the lonely, oft-forgotten city of Teruel. Although it’s the capital city of the province of the same name, Teruel is home to a mere 35,000 people—as much as the mid-sized town of Úbeda, where I lived two years ago—and is one of the remotest corners of the country; Teruel doesn’t even a direct train connection with Madrid. The area was so isolated up until recently that a group called Teruel Existe (“Teruel Exists”) was formed to bring attention to the neglected province. Due to their efforts, a new highway now links Zaragoza with Valencia, passing through Teruel.

Teruel, Spain
Teruel Cathedral
So how did I come to love this scarcely heard-of outpost in the middle-of-nowhere Spain? Well, for one, several of the city’s monuments form the core of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragón World Heritage Site; basically, in Teruel there’s a priceless collection of unique medieval architecture lying in plain sight! My inner history and architecture nerds could barely contain themselves when I hopped off the train on a cold and windy (but sunny!) February afternoon.

After all, the Mudéjar style is a pretty big deal. Pronounced “moo-DAY-khahr” [muˈðe.xaɾ], it’s the only architectural style unique to Spain; i.e., you won’t find Mudéjar buildings anywhere else in the world as it was a distinctly Spanish phenomenon. The name comes from the Arabic word mudajjan, which means something like “tamed” or “domesticated,” but probably “subjected,” and was originally applied to the Muslims who were allowed to stay in territories conquered by Christian kingdoms. In late-medieval Spain, convivencia was the rule of the day (“living-together-ness”), partly out of good-natured tolerance but also for pragmatic reasons: Muslims made up a large portion of the population and were integral to the economy, especially in eastern Spain.

Teruel, Spain
Bell tower, Church of El Salvador
Out of this diverse cultural setting, in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived side by side, the Mudéjar style arose. The Muslims shared the intricacies of Islamic art—which gave the world the wonders of the Great Mosque of Córdoba or the Alhambra palace in Granada—with the Catholic newcomers, who had imported the prevailing Gothic style from continental Europe. The result was a fascinating fusion of Christian forms (church, bell tower, cloister) with Islamic decorations; often a bell tower resembles a tall, rectangular Muslim minaret more than a round European belfry.

Moorish craftsmen shared their tradition of geometric designs or floral flourishes with their Christian conquerors and explained how to use low-cost materials like brick, plaster, wood, and ceramics to great effect. Flat surfaces were never left untouched. Instead, brick—the building material was always brick—was aligned in zig-zags, interlacing arches, and pyramids. Ceramic tiles filled out these exterior geometric designs, while inside, sharp, pointy stars emerged from wooden ceilings that were frequently painted with plant- or flower-derived forms.

You can find Mudéjar architecture all over Spain, but Teruel has a particularly high concentration of Mudéjar-style churches. Read on to learn about the unique churches that the city has to offer.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Zaragoza, Spain: The Aragonese Metropolis

As February was making way for March to arrive, I was taking a much-needed break out east from cold and rainy Galicia to…cold and windy Aragón. I wasn’t able to escape winter but I relished the chance to break free from two months of non-stop rain (literally; it had rained every single day) and to explore another part of Spain just as unique as Galicia.

Zaragoza, Spain
Pilar Basilica and the Ebro River at the blue hour
My first stop was the regional capital, Zaragoza. Pronounced “thah-rah-GOE-thah” [θa.ɾaˈɣo.θa], it’s been an major city in the area ever since Roman times, and today more than half of Aragón’s population calls Zaragoza home, making it Spain’s fifth biggest city. Sitting along the banks of the Ebro River, Zaragoza finds itself in a strategic location halfway between Madrid and Barcelona with a high-speed train station and an airport to serve its more than 700,000 residents. Most of them are local Aragonese who fled the countryside to find work in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but quite a few are immigrants from Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa, China, and Latin America, so the city has a cosmopolitan feel to it not unlike Spain’s other big cities.

Zaragoza, Spain
The city sprawls out to the north
Ever since its founding in 14 BCE—named after Caesar Augustus himself—Zaragoza has been an important urban area in eastern part of the peninsula. It’s not surprising at all, then, that Zaragoza has accumulated an impressive monumental heritage over the centuries. Let me share with y’all some of the most interesting corners of the city’s historic core.

Roman Caesaraugusta

Zaragoza, Spain
Roman walls
Like most cities that have been continuously inhabited since Roman times, not much remains in Zaragoza of when it was called Caesaraugusta after the Roman emperor. However, over the past few decades, there’s been a lot of archaeological work done in the old town that has unearthed several key buildings from the Roman era. Walking past a segment of the once-mighty city walls takes you into the grand, spacious Plaza del Pilar (but more on that below). At the other end of this long plaza you can see the cathedral, but beneath it was once the Roman forum, the ancient city’s civic and religious center. To be honest, the excavations only yielded a few pillars and rocky outcroppings, so it was hard to imagine the grand scale of the colonnaded square. But it was cool to crawl around a cloaca, or sewer tunnel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Ride the Train in Spain

One of my favorite things about living in Spain—apart from speaking Spanish, eating good food, and seeing layers of centuries-old history around me—is riding the train around the country. Although the network may not be nearly as comprehensive as France’s, for example, it reaches nearly all corners of the country, making it possible to explore Spain solely by public transportation.

Riding trains in Spain
(Source: Mikel Ortega)
It’s super easy to take advantage of Spain’s extensive network of regional and long-distance trains, but it can be a little dizzying or confusing the first time you arrive if you don’t know what the heck you’re doing (hello, Trevor from 2012!).

In this blog post I’d like to share nearly everything I know about Spanish trains, divided into the following categories: the main divisions of the network (e.g., commuter vs. cross-country), big stations and regional hubs, where you can cross into France and Portugal, the current state of the high-speed network, a breakdown of the various fares you can buy, how to actually buy a ticket, and customs while riding the train. Read on!

Main divisions

Riding trains in Spain
(Source: Antonio Gil)
Cercanías: These are short distance or commuter rail that you can find in the biggest metropolitan areas like Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and so on. They make few stops in the major city they’re named for but they continue far out into distant suburbs and surrounding villages. You can distinguish them by their red and purple design scheme. Also called Rodalies in the Barcelona area.

Media Distancia: For regional “medium distance” trips you can take MD trains. Sometimes they travel within a single region (e.g., Galicia or Andalucía), but often they can go halfway across the country (e.g., from Madrid to Badajoz on the Portuguese border). Look for the orange and purple livery on the train cars. Also called Intercity and Regional in certain areas. The high-speed variant of MD is called Avant and works as a regional train service that runs on the high-speed rails.

Larga Distancia: Literally “long distance,” these trains make cross-country hauls, often from Barcelona to Galicia or Alicante to Asturias. Spain’s half dozen or so night trains (trenhotel) fall into this category, as do all AVE high-speed trains that depart from Madrid. The Alvia train is a hybrid of normal- and high-speed service, and can hop on and off the high-speed tracks if a section of the journey hasn’t been completed yet. All long distance trains offer a cafeteria car for coffee, sandwiches, and snacks, and bear two purple stripes to distinguish them from MD or Cercanías trains.

Feve: An minor player in the Spanish train network, Feve is a system of narrow-gauge rail that runs along northern coast (and in Murcia). A series of mountainous routes connects eastern Galicia with Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. Feve’s tiny train cars are usually painted blue and yellow.
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