Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 3 World Heritage Sites of Galicia, Spain

Even if you’re not familiar with the concept of a World Heritage Site, almost all of Spain’s most impressive monuments fall into this category, from the Moorish glories of the Alhambra to Gaudí’s dizzying Sagrada Família. Established by the UN’s Unesco agency in 1972, the World Heritage program recognizes and protects places of outstanding natural or cultural significance, including world-famous places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona but also lesser-known ones like the Chaco Culture ruins in next-door New Mexico.

In fact, Spain is home to the third-largest amount of World Heritage Sites in the world, behind only Italy and China, with 44 sites on the list, and the small region of Galicia in the country’s northwest corner lays claim to three of those. Now, in my highly-biased opinion (having lived there for two years) I think there ought to be a few more Galician sites selected, from the monasteries and vineyards that perch along the Ribeira Sacra canyon to Atlantic islands like the Cíes and the Ons, but that’s a story for another post. Galicia’s three World Heritage Sites still capture part of what makes this region so very fascinating.

Santiago de Compostela’s old town

World Heritage Sites of Galicia
Praza do Obradoiro
Catholics in the Middle Ages considered Santiago de Compostela to be one of the holiest cities in the Christian world, as its cathedral guarded the supposed relics of the Apostle St. James—a man who belonged to Jesus’ inner circle and whose remains happened to resurface at the same time Christian Spaniards were attempting to “re-conquer” Spain from the Muslims.

A pilgrimage route here quickly grew in popularity and drew millions of medieval European pilgrims to this lonely outpost in northwestern Iberia: the Camino de Santiago. To accommodate the huge crowds, a stunning cathedral was built in the early 1200s in the Romanesque style, replete with austere granite arches and intricate religious sculpture. During the Baroque era, gaudy new façades flowered up all around the church, reinvigorating the faith of pilgrims and locals alike.

World Heritage Sites of Galicia
A side-chapel in the cathedral
But Santiago isn’t just the cathedral. Around two dozen parish churches, monasteries, and convents pepper the historic core, offering you a journey back through time in which you can appreciate every major European architectural movement.

The old town’s centuries-old houses are all built from local granite, sometimes whitewashed save for the windows, sometimes letting the natural stone show, and often capped with glassed-in balconies called galerías. Two of the major streets in the southern half of the old town—Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova—are bounded on either side by soportales or arched, covered walkways that spring out from these homes and provide shelter from the rain.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Reminders of Rome in Macaron-Colored Arles, France

Bundling up in boots, skinny jeans, and scarves while spending Thanksgiving with family a couple weeks ago in Indiana reminded me of the last time the weather was that cold: late February, when my friend Melissa and I traveled around southern France from our home base in Avignon. We were so fed up with the miserable cold, rainy weather in Santiago de Compostela that we decided to hop on over to France’s Mediterranean coast—where you would think things would be warm and sunny—only to be greeted with more rain and cold weather. I guess you can’t have everything.

Arles, France
Place de la République
But it’s easy to beat the winter blues when you’re in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, rain or shine. Avignon welcomed us in for four nights and turned out to be a cozy city overflowing with history. We took advantage of Avignon’s central location and good rail connections to make daytrips to various towns around Provence, once of which was the Roman city of Arles, a mere 17-minute journey on the speedy TER train.

Ghosts from the Roman Empire

Arles, France
The amphitheater
In its heyday during the Roman Empire, Arelate was one of the premier cities of the Mediterranean, even eclipsing Marseilles as the major port city for southern Gaul. Marseilles has long since regained that status, while Arles remains a mid-sized town of 50,000. Fortunately for us, much of its Roman heritage still remains, and the old town’s most bustling city square sits on what would have been the Roman forum 2,000 years ago.

Arles, France
Inside the ampitheater arches
The most striking relic from Roman times has to be the amphitheater, a miniature Colosseum designed for gladiator fights and chariot races. It’s truly impressive how much of the original arena has lasted over two millennia—but let’s not forget that the Romans were never keen on making disposable buildings that could be torn down in 50 years; instead, their building projects were intended to awe, impress, and endure.

Arles, France
Fragments of decorative cornice
Most of these public works projects outlasted the empire itself, which collapsed in the mid-400s CE. Others, however, like the theater, were not so lucky. A setting for plays and other dramatic performances, Arles’ Roman theater simply dissolved over the centuries, with its gleaming white columns and stairstep seating being repurposed as building materials for houses.

Monday, October 26, 2015

10 Museums to See in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Santiago de Compostela isn’t exactly a city known for its museums. As it’s the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, once you’ve checked in at the cathedral, there really isn’t that much to see and do besides checking out tapas bars in the granite-paved old town, strolling through the myriad of green parks and trails nearby, and generally relaxing after walking six hours a day for a month. That saying “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” definitely applies to the Camino.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to check out in Santiago besides the purported resting place of the Apostle St. James. Although Santiago might not have museums on the grand scale of those in Lisbon, Madrid, or Barcelona, this city has several museums, exposition halls, and centers that will tell you more about the city’s past and how it influenced the Santiago we see today.

1) The cathedral museum

Museums in Santiago de Compostela
The reconstructed stone choir stalls
Like any Spanish cathedral’s treasury worth its salt, you’ll find the usual suspects in the Museo da Catedral: statues of saints, silver chalices, and impossibly-intricate hand-woven tapestries. What makes Santiago’s worth visiting is its recreation of the cathedral’s original stone-sculpted choir stalls. These granite choir stalls were lost for centuries but have since been excavated and reconstructed. A ticket to this museum lets you walk around the Gothic cloisters, which guard a large medieval fountain where stinky pilgrims would have bathed, and you can also hike up the stairs to peek out onto the main square from the upper-level balcony.

Address: Praza do Obradoiro, s/n

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Photo Post: Monte de Deus in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Monte de Deus, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Panoramic view of the city
Santiago de Compostela may be the capital of Galicia and a bustling university town just shy of 100,000, but locals still often affectionately refer to it as a pueblo, a small town. And not without reason: you can walk to most any place in Santiago in around half an hour, a series of parks and greenbelts circle the old town, and despite the constant influx of tourists it’s not uncommon to run into people you know in all corners of the city.

Monte de Deus, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Camellia in bloom
You’re also never too far from the green Galician countryside, as you only have to walk 15 minutes from the built-up parts of town to get into rural areas where pine forests and family farms take over from apartment blocks and supermarkets. Nowhere is this more visible than from the Monte de Deus lookout point, just north of central Santiago. Called the “Mountain of God” for reasons I’m not clear on, Monte de Deus offers a unique, south-facing perspective that complements the more panoramic vistas you can get from up top Monte Pedroso and Monte do Viso.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon & the Simple Pleasures of Southern France

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France
Ivy-covered house
When my friend Melissa and I took a bridge across the Rhône River into Villeneuve-lès-Avignon last February, the city reminded us a lot of what in Spain they call pueblos: villages in the countryside where traditional, slower ways of life continue, where cozy family homes line the streets, and where you can say buenos días to people you pass on the sidewalk. Replace buenos días” with “bonjour” and that’s exactly what Villenueve felt like.

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, France
Our friend the chat
We didn’t exactly go out of our way to check out this charming southern French town, as it’s simply on the other side of the Rhône from the tourist hotspot of Avignon. In French placenames, lès simply means “near,” so you might translate the name as “New Town Near Avignon.” After a jam-packed morning crawling around a gigantic papal palace and getting a French nursery rhyme stuck in our heads, we decided to cross the river into this tourist-free town to relax for a bit.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

My Guide to the 17 Regions of Spain

One of the most striking ideas that I came across during my college-level Hispanic Culture & Civilization course was this notion of España y las EspañasSpain and the Spains. It forced me to reconsider my preconceptions of Spain as a land of Don Quixote, paella, and sunshine and instead come face to face with the rich history and endless variety of this country that refuses to live up to its stereotypes.

During the three years I lived in Spain I was fortunate enough to visit 14 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions that the central government has granted varying degrees of home rule to. Many of these regions are considered nationalities within the larger Spanish nation-state, either because they speak a language other than Castilian Spanish or because they hold culture and history in common.

Getting beyond the standard Madrid-Barcelona-Sevilla itinerary gave me a more nuanced view of the country, told me the deeper truth of the country’s past, and (most importantly) introduced me to all the different leaves that make up the Spanish dinner table. And I think that’s what makes Spain such an interesting place: hardly homogenous, this country revels in its inherent diversity.

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in Spain, I highly encourage you to detour from the “road more traveled” and check out the 17 regions that compose the Kingdom of Spain. Hopefully the breakdown on today’s blog post will point you in the right direction!


Location of Andalucía in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Andalucía, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “an-dah-loo-THEE-ah” [an.da.luˈθi.a]

Population: 8,440,300

Size: 87,268 km² (33,694 sq mi), about the same as Maine or Serbia

Demonym: andaluz (m), andaluza (f), andaluces (pl)

Languages: Andalusian Spanish (andaluz): almost a language in its own right, this accent is spoken extremely fast and consonants like D, L, R, and S are dropped off at the ends of words

Major cities: Sevilla (capital), MálagaCórdoba, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera, Almería, Huelva, Cádiz, and Jaén

My take: Historically separated from the rest of the peninsula by the Sierra Morena mountains, Andalucía was dominated by the Moors longer than any other part of Spain, and it’s here that their legacy is most visible in monuments like Granada’s Alhambra palace or the Great Mosque of Córdoba. This isolation and other-ness contributed to the region’s inscrutable, fast-paced accent, but I’m sure the intense summer heat encouraged “lazy” speech patterns, too. Said sunshine paved the way for mass tourism to invade Andalucía’s Mediterranean beaches and today the south is one of the most heavily-visited regions in the country.

Córdoba, Spain
Córdoba, de fiesta
But Andalucía is also home to Spain’s liveliest culture: warm, loud, and extroverted. Throughout the spring and summer even the tiniest villages worth their salt will host weeklong town fairs dedicated to their patron saint, with Sevilla’s Feria de Abril being the most famous (and exclusive). Córdoba goes all out with their patio-decorating competition, and Granada finds itself festooned with crosses of flowers for the Cruces de Mayo festival. Unlike much of the north, bullfighting is still a big part of the culture. Tapas, or small plates of food that accompany your drink, are a universe all their own here, and come free with your drink order in the eastern half of the region.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Santiago de Compostela’s Rocha Forte Castle Ruins

Rocha Forte, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The ruins
It began as a passing blur, a brief break in between thick trees and rural farms as the train headed south out of Santiago. What did I just see? I wondered. Later, I would catch passing references to the crumbling foundations of a long-forgotten fortress, hiding in plain sight just outside of town. Then I came across banners advertising what was once “the largest castle in Galicia.” In a town known for its cathedral, its granite-paved old town, and its pilgrim heritage, I was intrigued that there was something more unique to explore than yet another over-the-top Baroque monastery. Completionist that I am, I added the ruins of the Rocha Forte to my Santiago bucket list and finally went hiking into the countryside one sunny May afternoon.

Rocha Forte, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Foxgloves nearby
Even after living in Europe for three years, this history major never lost the thrill of stumbling across a church whose doors had welcomed the faithful for a thousand years, walking over glass-covered excavations of Roman-era mosaics, or strolling past a house with “1678” carved onto the lintel. It still blows my mind that I could simply start walking from my front door for an hour and come across the ruins of a medieval castle, whereas back home in suburban Plano, Texas, it’s a sea of sprawl for miles around…and then endless farms from here on out to Canada.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Living Like Popes in Avignon, France

Y’all. I am SO behind in blog posts. I’m just now getting to travels from way back in February…so ashamed that I’ve let tumbleweeds roll all over this blog but I’m trying to get back up to speed, so stay tuned!

Avignon, France
The Papal Palace
It was mid-February and my friend Melissa and I were not amused with how the Galician winter had been treating us. Dark skies and rainy nights kept us indoors most of the time, and because of high humidity, the cold temperatures were particularly bitter despite never dropping below freezing. Simply put, we needed to get out, and sunny southern France seemed like a great place to escape from Santiago for a long weekend.

We took a similar path that the Roman Catholic popes did in the 1300s, who were also fleeing an unsavory (political) climate. They left chaotic Rome for the security of Avignon, a major city along the Rhône River not far from the Mediterranean coast. We scored (and later endured) super-cheap Ryanair flights to Marseille’s airport and looked forward to encountering not only papal history but also Roman ruins and endless French pastries.

Why we used Avignon as a home base for the region

Avignon, France
The city seen through the windows of the Papal Palace
So why Avignon and not, say, Marseille, or any of the fine provincial capitals scattered around Provence? Well, for one, it was centrally located between the airport and all the places we wanted to make daytrips to: Arles, Nîmes, and the Pont du Gard. But to be honest, the main reason we chose Avignon had to do with the existence of a hostel, which are far and few between in a region that isn’t necessarily on the backpacker trail. Call us cheapskates, but there’s no need to pay 40€ a night for crappy hotel rooms when 20€ bunkbeds work just fine. (Pop’ Hostel, by the way, is worth looking into if you’re planning a trip here!)

Avignon, France
Window murals
In the end, Avignon (pronounced “ah-vee-nyon” ​[ɲɔ̃]) turned out to be a great home base for exploring southern France. We were never more than an hour away from our daytrip destinations via efficient TER trains or intercity buses, and there were plenty of cafés, bakeries, mini-markets, and restaurants in the old town, giving us a plethora of options to choose from for our pre-train breakfasts and evening dinners once we were back in town.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Moving to Spain, 3 Years Later: My Spain-iversary

Now that I’m back home with my parents in Texas this summer, I’ve recently been leafing through all the old travel journals that I kept when I moved to Spain and traveled around Europe. They’ve put me in a real emotional mood remembering how excited I felt to be moving to a foreign country. At the same time, all my old anxieties came flooding back: what city would I live in, what apartment would I choose, how would I get to work, would I make any friends, and what the heck comes next after all of this is over.

moving to spain
The Acibecharía façade of the cathedral in Santiago
It’s now been three years since I landed on the tarmac at the Barajas airport in Madrid, giddy and jetlagged and naïve all at once. I thought it would only be appropriate to commemorate this anniversary—or Spain-iversary, in Cat’s words—with a retrospective blog post looking back on my first day in España, the journey I’ve taken since then, and some of the lessons I’ve learned while living abroad.

I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today I’m a much different, wiser person than the freshly-minted college graduate I was, the young man that would step off of that sleepless trans-Atlantic flight into a crisp, Castilian morning.

Reminiscing on my first 24 hours in Spain

As luck (or fate) would have it, my seatmate for the overnight flight between Philadelphia and Madrid happened to be an American named Annie, a fellow language assistant going to teach in Galicia. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our shared love of all things Spain…and our shared anxieties about dropping everything and moving across the ocean for nine months. I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging companion to begin this journey with, and while our paths diverged as we left the airport—she hopped on a bus north to Lugo while I had to catch the Cercanías train into town—we’ve stayed in touch ever since and have met up multiple times in Galicia.

The vastness that is the Atocha train station really threw me for a loop. Serving as the rail hub for the entire country, Atocha sends off high-speed trains to all corners of the country, not to mention medium-distance and commuter rail…oh, and there’s two metro stops. And the “old” train station is a huge garden foyer. I literally walked in circles before finally finding the ticket stands. Unfortunately it was already half past nine and I would have to wait until a little after 3pm for the next train south.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Bonaval Park

Bonaval Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
View of the cathedral
I know, I know, I’ve been on a big city-parks-of-Santiago kick lately on the blog. Last year I talked about the Alameda (the main public park) and Belvís (basically my backyard), and in the past few weeks I’ve highlighted the Sarela River Trail and Galeras Park. These green spaces amount to one of Santiago de Compostela’s greatest assets and give folks who live here a way to exercise, relax, and meet up with friends and family.

Bonaval Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Triple staircase in the Museo do Pobo Galego
Today I’d like to turn the spotlight on Bonaval Park, situated just outside the old town to the northeast. For centuries, the land here belonged to the monastic community of San Domingos de Bonaval, but in 1837 it was confiscated by the Spanish state during the anti-clerical desamortización de Mendizábal. The Baroque monastery then passed to the city government. Today, Bonaval is anchored by the Museo do Pobo Galego, which offers an ethnographic look into Galician culture and traditions. The museum’s star attraction is a bewildering spiral staircase in which three separate flights of stairs intertwine.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Trying Out Inkly, a Handwritten Postcard App

It’s never been easier to stay in touch with your friends and family back home while you’re traveling or living abroad. Instagram, Twitter, and all the rest help keep people updated on what you’re up to, while messaging apps and video chat are always there for meaningful, one-on-one conversations.

Inkly greeting cards

There’s honestly no way I would have survived longer than one school year in Spain so far away from home had I not had so many accessible and affordable ways to keep in close contact with my parents, the rest of my family, and my friends from college. I salute those all who have bravely gone before me with only snail mail or expensive calling cards as their sole means of communication. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here furiously updating my Instagram.

Still, there’s something about travel that brings out the old-fashioned side of me. I try to dress up for the occasion whenever I catch a flight; I prefer the romance of civilized train travel over slow, nauseating buses; and I enjoy sending handwritten postcards across the ocean to relatives and friends back home.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Galeras Park

Galeras Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cherry trees in blossom
Like I said on my earlier post about the Sarela River Trail, I think Santiago de Compostela is uniquely fortunate to have its older part of town surrounded by parks and green spaces rather than by sprawl, as happened to countless other European cities in the past century. Built on a bluff between two small rivers, Santiago only became the administrative capital of Galicia in the 1980s, so much of the World Heritage-declared historic core has been protected.

Galeras Park, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
A heron flying through the willows
With the Alameda Park to the southwest and Belvís Park running along the east, Santiago has plenty of places to go running, have a picnic, or just breathe some fresh air in. Joining these quality parks is Galeras Park, situated just to the northeast of Santiago’s old town. A tranquil meadow dotted with willows and fruit trees, Galeras straddles both banks of the Sarela River as it meanders southwards.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Crash Course in the Galician Language

Galicia, located in Spain’s northwestern corner, ranks as one of the country’s greatest regions. When I lived there from 2013 to 2015, I couldn’t get enough of the glorious, fresh food, the green, lush countryside, and the grand, granite architecture. But I could only take canned sardines with me back home, we’ve got enough humidity here in Texas, and sadly the oldest buildings in suburban Plano date back not to the 1070s but the 1970’s.

A primavera—Spring
But what has stuck with me the most has been galego, the Galician language that I quickly picked up on after being immersed in it from day one at the elementary school I worked at. Closely related to Spanish (and even closer to Portuguese), you can think of it as a de-nasalized Portuguese, pronounced like Spanish, and with an Italian intonation. Its endearing musical (some might say whiny) rhythm has infected my accent in Spanish, and I can rattle off more seafood and rain-related terms in Galician than I can in English.

So, what if you’re going to Galicia and are terrified that your Spanish will be of no use? Don’t worry—everyone in Galicia speaks Spanish as well as Galician. But learning a little of the language can only help you in making friends, understanding conversations, and (most importantly!) reading menus. I’ve put together this crash course in galego that I hope will help you keep your head above water, whether you’re just there for a visit or moving to the region for a longer stay.

Quick overview of this post

Part I: A bit of a background
Part II: Where Galician is spoken today
Part III: 6 Galician grammar points if you already know Spanish
Part IV: 10 tricks to figuring out what a Galician word means if you already know Spanish
Part V: How to pronounce Galician
Part VI: Some basic vocabulary
Part VII: Some useful expressions
Part VIII: 3 important irregular verbs, conjugated
Part IX: Online resources

Part I: A bit of a background

How to learn Galician
A bandeira galega—the Galician flag
The Galician language is a direct descendant of the Latin language that the Romans introduced to Spain’s northwest corner, just as today’s French developed from the Latin spoken in northern France and standard Italian grew out of the Tuscan dialects in central Italy. As the Roman Empire collapsed in the 400s CE and communications broke down, the everyday Latin in this isolated region naturally evolved into a separate language altogether.

Today known as Galician-Portuguese, the language was spoken during the Middle Ages from the northern Atlantic shores down to the Portuguese Algarve. As the ragtag Christian kingdoms of northern Spain carried the Reconquista south into the territory of Muslim al-Andalus, they also brought their respective Romance dialects with them. A narrow strip of Galician-Portuguese thus spread down the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Sarela River Trail

Sarela River Trail, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Old stone bridge
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the countless parks and green spaces that surround Santiago de Compostela make the city such a great place to call home. From the Alameda, where you can see and be seen (or just go jogging), to Belvís, where you can lay out on the hillside and have a picnic, Santiago is truly blessed with pleasant public spaces where you can escape the noise and demands of the city and breathe in some fresh air.

Sarela River Trail, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Spring flowers
No part of town gives you a better connection to the natural world than the footpaths that follow the course of the Sarela River. Trailblazed several years ago, the Paseo Fluvial do Río Sarela traces a tranquil creek as it trickles down the western edge of Santiago from the north to the southwest.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Where to Eat in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

This blog post has been literally years in the making. Although I’ve happily moved back home to Texas, the city of Santiago de Compostela in far northwestern Spain gave me two of the best years of my life. I spent much of that time drinking an expertly-pulled café con leche, indulging in a fresh butter croissant (or two), and going out for tapas with friends in the old town. I cooked most of my meals at my apartment, but that’s not to say I didn’t gain an intimate knowledge of the cafés, bars, and restaurants in the Galician capital.

Where to eat in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Churros and coffee at Churrería San Pedro Burguer
Whether you’re a freshly-arrived pilgrim weary of the Camino, or a visitor with limited time to spare, I hope these recommendations that I’ve curated below will help you avoid the tourist traps on Rúa do Franco south of the cathedral and instead get an authentic experience in one of Spain’s most alluring cities.


Alabama (Rúa do Hórreo, 21)
A clean, comfortable café south of Praza de Galicia with a large outside terrace for people-watching on the busy Hórreo street. Come here for good coffee and the morning paper. Their fresh-squeezed orange juice is the best in town.

Bicoca (Rúa de Entremuros, 4)
Tucked away in a side-plaza near the Porta do Camiño (where pilgrims first enter the old town on the Camino de Santiago), Bicoca serves a brunch every Sunday that is up to American standards. I love their Galician interpretation of eggs Benedict: a slice of toasted country bread with Spanish cured ham, plus the poached eggs & Hollandaise sauce.

Café Iacobus
With several locations around town, this local chain churns out quality pastries and fries their own churros in house, plus they have great coffee and loose-leaf teas. If you want tarta de Santiago, go here to try a slice.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

5 Advanced Spanish Pronunciation Tips

I’ve talked some about Spanish pronunciation on the blog before, from how to speak Spanish like a Spaniard to tips on learning how to roll your Rs; in fact, they’re two of my most popular posts! Today I’d like to share a little bit of what I learned when I took a Spanish linguistics course in college. Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure to explain everything in layman’s terms, but these subtle, rarely-discussed differences between English and Spanish were transformational in getting me to lose my American accent in Spanish and have made me sound much more native. I hope they help you as much as they helped me!

Spanish pronunciation tips
Plaza de San Nicolás, Madrid

1) B, D, G are soft, not hard consonants

This was one of the first things I picked up on in my linguistics class and it totally blew my mind. At the beginnings of word or phrases, the B, D, and G sounds are “full stops” or are pronounced strongly, just like they are in English: vinagre, día, and gamba begin with clean, firm Bs, Ds, and Gs.

However, whenever you see a B/D/G in between two vowels, that’s your key to smooth things out, since they are pronounced much softer in Spanish in this position. The technical linguistic term here is fricative vs. stop; but to make things simpler, whenever the letters B or V come between two vowels, they end up sounding more like a V than a B; the D becomes a voiced TH as in the English word “the”; and the soft G is the lazy cousin of the hard G that doesn’t want to get out of bed (think of the modern Greek pronunciation of gyro).

In all cases where B/D/G come between vowels, the sound they make is never as forced and enunciated as an English V, TH, or G, but instead something a little smoother and softer. Your lips and teeth don’t touch when you make the soft B sound, your tongue just kind of hangs out between your teeth for the soft D sound; and for the soft G sound, you want to push air at the back of your throat in the same way you would with the Spanish J sound, only with voice behind it.

Here’s a few examples with pronunciation guides:

* complicado “com-plee-KAH-tho” [kom.pliˈca.ðo]
* preguntaba “pray-ghoon-TAH-vah” [pre.ɣunˈta.βa]
* la bomba “lah VOM-bah” [la ˈβ]
* la garganta “la ghar-GHAN-tah” [la ɣarˈɣan.ta]
* digo yo “DEE-gho jo” [ˈdi.ɣo ʝo]
* te lo digo “tay lo THEE-gho” [te lo ˈði.ɣo]

Monday, July 27, 2015

Where to See Roman Ruins in Spain

The land that we call Spain today belonged to the Roman Empire for nearly 600 years, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can find countless relics dating from this time period across the country—not least the Castilian language itself, which derives from the Latin the Romans imposed on Hispania. Coming from a part of the U.S. where it’s a big deal to catch a glimpse of a truck that’s only half a century old, I naturally gravitated to places like ancient Roman ruins as I made my way from one region of Spain to another. This country has so much Roman heritage to offer—on par with Italy or France!—so read on to learn where to go in Spain for your ancient ruin fix.

1) City of Mérida

Roman theater
Today the capital of vast, lonely Extremadura in western Spain, Mérida was founded as a settlement of emeritus (veteran) soldiers along the Guadiana River. Emerita Augusta would become the capital of Lusitania province (which included modern-day Portugal and Extremadura) and was graced with an amphitheater, a theater, a circus “speedway” for chariot races, monumental arches, a forum, temples, a mile-long bridge, and, of course, an aqueduct, all of which you can still marvel at today, 2,000 years later. It may sound like I’m just listing things off, but there really is simply so much that has been preserved here!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The 7 Craziest Things I’ve Eaten in Spain

Despite what many Spaniards may tell you, the food here is not spicy at all. But that hardly means Spanish cuisine is boring! I’ve broadened my palate and tried so many new things since moving to Spain in 2012, picking up a taste for everything from sardines and anchovies to cured beef and cheese. During this culinary adventure I’ve had throughout the country, though, I’ve come across some pretty crazy stuff, most of which I actually enjoy eating now! Read on to see some of the exciting dishes you can try in Spain.

1) Octopus

Pulpo á feira
No, this isn’t like those little fried calamari you get as an appetizer sometimes; pulpo á feira is adult octopus, tentacles and all, slow-boiled under tender. After the octopus is finished cooking, apron-clad women (the pulpeiras) snip the purple tentacles into little medallions with scissors, discarding the mantle or “head.” Garnished with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pimentón (smoked paprika), the white tentacle cross-sections are often served with boiled potatoes.

2) Snails

Weird food in Spain
Caracoles a la andaluza
Not even Spaniards who live up north will touch these little guys, but they’re still hugely popular in the southern region of Andalucía in the spring and early summer months. They’re nothing like the saucy, high-brow French escargots you might be familiar with, though; Spanish snails are fun finger food slurped down by the cup-full. The little ones are slow boiled in a broth of garlic, fennel, cayenne pepper, spearmint, and bay leaves, and the bigger ones (cabrillas) tend to get cooked in thicker, tomato-based sauces. Both are usually served in glasses or bowls with their broth, which is uncharacteristically spicy by Spanish standards.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Photo Post: The Galician Resort Town of Sanxenxo, Spain

Sanxenxo, Spain
Silgar Beach
My weekend trip down south to Vigo back in January took me to a few new places I hadn’t explored before in the area: a legit Mexican restaurant in Vigo, the monumental old town of Pontevedra, and the granite-paved fishing village of Combarro.

Sanxenxo, Spain
Fishing boats
My last stop took me west of Combarro and Pontevedra. Hanging out on the north side of the Ría de Pontevedra estuary lies Sanxenxo, a resort town whose population (and rent) doubles in the summer as out-of-town folks flood the apartments that sprawl across the south-facing beaches.

Sanxenxo, Spain
Apartment ad
Pronounced “sahn-SHEN-show” [sanˈʃen.ʃo] (probably the funnest Galician place-name of them all to say), this town was unfortunately rather dull in the cold of winter, despite the unusual January sunshine. The friends I daytripped out here with and I all wished we could have just laid out on the beach, but instead we buttoned up our coats and tightened our scarves when we got out of the car.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Combarro, Spain: Galicia’s Most Beautiful Village?

Combarro, Spain
Two hórreos
Early on in my first year teaching English in northwest Spain, my bilingual coordinator told me there was one place I absolutely could not miss before returning back to the States: seaside Combarro, Galicia’s most beautiful fishing village. She’s never made such a recommendation before or since, so I took her local advice to heart and daytripped out here while I was in the Pontevedra area this January.

Combarro, Spain
The historic Rúa do Mar
I am all about that village life, and Combarro did not disappoint. This viliña mariñeira or “little mariner’s town” mainly draws folks to stroll down its historic, granite-paved streets that date back to the 1700s, where you can appreciate traditional Galician houses, their covered porches, wrap-around balconies, and tiny gardens and flower planters.

Combarro, Spain
Combarro’s also a great place to get to know two of the most emblematic structures you’ll run into in the Galician countryside (or on the coast). No fewer than eight cruceiros or monumental granite crosses dot this tiny town, and every other shorefront house will have a grand hórreo granary (or three) out back to use for drying corn or fish in.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The 5 Cathedrals of Galicia, Spain

As a major architecture nerd, there’s nothing I love exploring while traveling so much as a sprawling castle, a light-filled church, or a stately mansion. I really enjoy getting to see in person how western architectural styles evolved over the centuries, from the most primitive of pre-Romanesque to the fascinating contemporary stuff built today. And while I may not be a Roman Catholic, I nevertheless did grow up in the church, so cathedrals hold a special place in my heart.

Over the past two years it’s been exciting to check out all five cathedrals located in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern region, from Santiago de Compostela’s monumental masterpiece to the humble mountain sanctuary of Mondoñedo. Let me share with you the interesting churches that head up the five Galician dioceses.


Lugo Cathedral
West façade
Like all the rest of the cathedrals in Galicia, Lugo’s is at its core a Romanesque church, characterized by thick, heavy walls and columns with narrow slits for windows and lots of sculpture. But there’s quite a bit of Gothic going on here, too, especially in the apse behind the high altar and in the bell tower.

Lugo Cathedral
Interior transept
I’ll admit that Lugo’s cathedral is probably my least favorite in Galicia, and its uninspiring Neoclassical main façade seems pasted on to the rest of the church. Every time I go on a stroll at night on top of the city’s still-standing Roman walls, however, I find the cathedral all lit up…and I almost change my mind.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Photo Post: The Old Town of Pontevedra, Spain

Pontevedra, Spain
Bridge over the Lérez River
Out of Galicia’s four provincial capitals (A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, and Pontevedra), Pontevedra was my last to check off the list, despite being barely an hour south of Santiago. An almost-coastal town, it straddles the Lérez River right before it empties into the Ría de Pontevedra estuary on Galicia’s western coast.

Pontevedra, Spain
Virxe Peregrina Church
I spent the better part of a day in Pontevedra back in January when I went down south to Vigo to meet up with some friends from college who were now teaching English together there. Pontevedra surprised me: the town was one lively plaza after another where terrace cafés stretched out beneath soportales arches and children bothered pigeons with their impromptu soccer games.

Pontevedra, Spain
Weathered walls in Praza de Ourense
The old town reminded me a lot of Santiago de Compostela, as it was also built almost entirely out of local granite stone. Huge slabs paved the roads and sidewalks, and stately mansions and humble apartments alike were constructed with this igneous rock. The Virxe Peregrina Church welcomed me into the historic quarter, a tall Baroque church with a floorplan designed to resemble a scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago. Amazing, right?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Daytripping to Medieval-Walled Ávila, Spain

Ávila, Spain
The medieval walls
You need a good five to seven days to fully explore the Spanish capital of Madrid: its world-class art museums, neighborhoods, sprawling public parks, and historic bars and restaurants. But you’d arguably need another week just to check out the World Heritage Sites that circle the capital, all no more than an hourlong train ride away. Monumental cities like Segovia and Toledo guard Madrid’s northern and southern borders, while El Escorial and Alcalá de Henares attest to the region’s royal and educational heritage. West of Madrid on the other side of the Guadarrama Mountains lies a city that is still completely surrounded by its original medieval walls: Ávila.

Ávila, Spain
North side of the walls

Spain’s first Gothic cathedral

Ávila, Spain
Rugged granite construction
When I daytripped here on my way back home from Salamanca, I was so short on time that I unfortunately wasn’t able to walk around on top of the murallas, the old city walls. I did get to check out the cathedral, however. It was a really interesting church because it’s the oldest Gothic cathedral in Spain—and you can really tell, as double rows of stained glass windows take up almost the entire second “story” inside. I was not expecting the interior to be so bright and clean as all the pictures on Wikipedia made it out to be rather ugly.

Ávila, Spain
Gothic: filled with light
A really unique building material makes up much of the apse (the back-end) of the cathedral. Called piedra sangrante or “bleeding stone,” these stones are rich in dark red iron oxide that gives them a spotty or speckled look that is a fun surprise from the otherwise drab granite exterior.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Salamanca, Spain: A Warmth in Winter

Salamanca, Spain
Tormes River with the two cathedrals
Few cities were as high on my northern Spain hitlist as Salamanca. Yes, there was León, with its wall-to-wall stained-glass cathedral and free tapas action, or Oviedo, Santiago’s cousin out east in Asturias, or even Albarracín, the most beautiful village in Spain. But Salamanca always kept tugging me down there, even after I nearly booked a marathon train journey down there from Galicia and chickened out.

Salamanca, Spain
View of La Clerecía and the old town from the New Cathedral’s bell tower
The perfect opportunity to swing by this monumental university town presented itself to me this January, when I was dropping off my family at the Madrid airport after having shown them all around the capital, Segovia, and Santiago for a week. On my way back northwest to Santiago, I took advantage of being so far south to make the trek out to Salamanca before riding the trenhotel home.

A break from the Castilian cold

Salamanca, Spain
Casa de las Conchas: The Shells House
Contrary to any stereotypes you might have about Spain, it gets cold in the winter here—really cold. It isn’t hot and sunny year-round here unless you live in the Canaries or Málaga or something. In fact, (and I’m sure folks from Minnesota or Sweden will laugh at me for this) some of the coldest winters of my life have been in Spain, partly because so much of life is lived outdoors, mainly because my apartments haven’t had central heating…but I digress.

Salamanca, Spain
The out-of-control university façade
While I was showing my family around Segovia, just north of Madrid, it was so i c y—overcast skies with light rain, powerful winds careening down from the plains, and near-freezing temperatures. Fortunately by the time we got to Santiago in Spain’s far northwest corner, the sun had decided to come out for a change; there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky both days we were in Galicia! But in Segovia and Santiago you couldn’t leave the hotel without putting on scarves, gloves, and winter coats, and sometimes an extra pair of socks. In case you couldn’t tell, winter is my least favorite season.

Salamanca, Spain
Centuries of faded paint
So I welcomed the change of winds when I hopped off the MD train in Salamanca, a little under three hours west of Madrid beyond the granite boulder-strewn Guadarrama mountain range and the flat Castilian plains. The sun shined from a clear blue sky, making the sandstone old town glow in its afternoon rays. Everybody and their mom (literally) was out and about enjoying a paseo by walking the city’s grand avenues and nibbling on tapas like snails or tiny sandwiches of locally-made cured ham. As I walked across the “Roman” bridge to the other side of the Tormes River, I actually ended up working up a sweat! It was a refreshing change to take off my coat and soak up some sun on New Year’s Day.
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