Saturday, February 28, 2015

13 Maps That Explain Galicia

You may not know it, but I am a HUGE nerd when it comes to maps. On family road trips, I would pass the miles by browsing the jumbo-sized road atlas, and I even memorized the regions and provinces of Spain…for fun. So I thought I would combine my love of maps with my love for Galicia, this unique region in Spain’s northwestern corner. I hope you enjoy staring at these thirteen maps as much as I have!

1) Galicia from space

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Even in the satellite view you can tell how green and forested Galicia really is—a stark contrast from the Castilian meseta or flat plateau to the southeast that is mostly covered in rolling plains.

2) The Roman province of Gallaecia

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
By the 1st century BCE, all of the Iberian peninsula had come under Roman rule, and its northwestern corner belonged to the vast imperial province known as Tarraconensis. Years later, during the administrative reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), this region was cordoned off into a province of its own called Gallaecia, the name that became today’s Galicia. This province spanned all of modern Galicia as well as the Spanish provinces of Asturias and León and northern Portugal down to the city of Porto.

3) The medieval kingdom of Galicia in the 11th century

Map of Galicia
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Before the medieval kingdom of Galicia joined forces with León (and later Castilla), it once stretched halfway down the western coast of the peninsula, encompassing much of modern-day Portugal. But in 1143 the County of Portugal broke off from the Kingdom of León, forging the political border between Spain and Portugal that has endured to this day.

What this map shows is that, a thousand years ago, Galicia and Portugal were once the same country and spoke the same language. Nothing happened overnight when a border was drawn just north of Braga, but over the centuries the two dialects began to diverge. The Galician one drifted into the Castilian sphere of influence so much so that today Galician and Portuguese are two separate languages.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Photo Post: Cangas de Onís, Gateway to the Picos de Europa

Cangas de Onís, Spain
The so-called “Roman” bridge
On the road trip that my roommates and I took across Spain’s northern coast this past fall, we divided up our sightseeing into four manageable chunks: one day we would focus on Cantabria, the next on the Picos de Europa National Park, the following day on the region of Asturias, and on the way back home we would stop off in Oviedo for half a day. We aren’t normally this organized at home, but since our days off from work and holidays miraculously aligned, giving us all the same four-day weekend, we decided to aprovechar or make the most of this fortuitous turn of events and strategically sight-see in Asturias and Cantabria.

Cangas de Onís, Spain
Cangas de Onís was the first stop on our excursion into Spain’s most beautiful mountain range, the Picos de Europa. You can think of this small mountain town as the gateway into the national park, kind of like Jackson Hole is for Yellowstone or Estes Park for the Rocky Mountains. Although there wasn’t much to Cangas except for two or three major streets, it was the relaxing bakery-cafés, cozy shops selling Asturian specialties like beans and cheese, and the gorgeous fall scenery right outside that really impressed us.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Santillana del Mar: NOT Spain’s Prettiest Village

Santillana del Mar, Spain
The main drag through town
After killing an hour or so in the Cantabrian town of Comillas by seeing a house designed by Gaudí, we hopped back in the car to continue our Roommate Road Trip and drove a couple of minutes further east to Santillana del Mar, just inland from Spain’s northern coast. This village has a reputation of being el pueblo más bonito de España—“Spain’s the prettiest village”—so our hopes were high as we cruised around tree-lined country roads, passing among fields that smelled of manure and a few shuttered-up hamlets.

Unfortunately, Santillana didn’t live up to its fame.

Santillana del Mar, Spain
Afternoon shade
Before I continue, it’s basically required of me to repeat that stupid joke that everyone tells whenever this town’s name is mentioned in passing. Santillana is known as la villa de las tres mentiras (“the town of the three lies”) because it isn’t holy, flat, or on the sea. Ha ha ha, so funny, right? Wrong. I’ve never really got the joke because not only does the village claim to hold the remains of una santa, St. Juliana of Nicomedia, it’s actually fairly flat, and you can get to the beach in a little over an hour—on foot.

The name actually comes from said saint, who in Spanish is called Santa Juliana; her name evolved into Illana over the centuries and the del Mar was added because the village is, indeed, close to the sea.

Santillana del Mar, Spain
Typical Castilian balconied homes
Anyways, although I was underwhelmed by Santillana del Mar, that’s not to say it wasn’t pretty at all. Half-timbered houses stood side-by-side with noble mansions built out of warm, local stone, and the two streets the town had to speak of were paved in a pleasing cobblestone pattern. It’s clear this village lives on tourism, though; when we visited, nearly every other house had their doors opening into a restaurant offering an overpriced menú del día or a tiny shop selling traditional Cantabrian crafts or sweets.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Southern France

Arles, France
Colorful streets of Arles
A couple of days ago I made my way back to Santiago de Compostela after spending four nights in southern France over my school’s long weekend for the Carnaval festivities. My friend Melissa and I set up base camp in central Avignon (home of the popes in the 1300s) and took daytrips to the colorful, bustling Roman city of Arles, rained-out Roman Nîmes, and Europe’s tallest Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

We came to Provence ostensibly for two reasons—to see as many Roman ruins and eat as many French pastries as possible—and we left the region impressed at how kind and mannerly the French are.

Avignon skyline
Avignon, seen from the Papal Palace
Apart from the old walled city of Lugo or A Coruña’s refurbished lighthouse, Galicia isn’t a region known for its Roman heritage, so it was a real treat to encounter such monumental reminders of the Roman Empire in plain sight, from amphitheaters and theaters to temples and aqueducts. Since studying Latin in high school left me with, for better or for worse, a lifelong fascination for all things classical, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve focused on hunting down such ruins in my time in Europe instead of vineyard tours, soccer games, or WWII battlefields.

(But more power to you if those are your thing! It’s important to know what you yourself prefer to experience instead of feeling obligated to do or see this or that when traveling.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Photo Post: El Capricho de Gaudí in Comillas, Spain

El Capricho de Gaudí, Comillas, Spain
Rooftop view
Today I’m finally getting around to writing about the road trip my housemates and I went on along Spain’s northern coast…in October. Sorry, guys! I’m so far behind, but I’ve got a long backlog of posts to work through. Our first stop along this tour of Spain’s most beautiful cliffs, beaches, mountains, and countrysides was the seaside village of Comillas in tiny coastal Cantabria. After warming up with the last fall rays of sunshine over a short cortado coffee, we packed in to our rental car and headed out of our base in San Vicente de la Barquera to Comillas.

El Capricho de Gaudí, Comillas, Spain
Sunflower tiles
This town wouldn’t even have been on my radar had it not been home to one of the three buildings that architect Antoni Gaudí designed outside his native Catalunya. In fact, it was one of his first: El Capricho de Gaudí. Earlier in the year I had visited the other two commissions he took outside Catalunya, the Casa de los Botines in León and the Episcopal Palace in Astorga, and really enjoyed getting to experience some unique Modernista buildings in northwestern Spain. After the Gaudí pilgrimage I made around Barcelona in 2013, I further indulged my completionist tendencies in 2014.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Photo Post: Mondoñedo, a Galician Ghost Town

Mondoñedo, Spain
Mondoñedo Cathedral
On the way back from our daytrip to Praia das Catedrais, the “Cathedrals Beach” along Galicia’s northern coast, my friends and I stopped in the small village of Mondoñedo, hidden away in a mountain valley deep within Lugo province. By chance of history this tiny town has been home to a cathedral for a thousand years, although the one we can see today dates to the 1200s. The cathedral isn’t anything too exciting, just par for the course in Galician church architecture: a Romanesque foundation with a flowery façade added in the Baroque era.

Mondoñedo, Spain
Rose window inside the cathedral
A little interesting factoid: the cathedral guards the Virxe Inglesa, the “English Virgin,” a decorated Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary that was made in Tudor-era England. When the iconoclastic English Reformation blew through in the 1500s, this statue was saved from the destruction that befell similar religious artwork. It’s remained in Mondoñedo ever since 1555.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Praia das Catedrais: Galicia’s “Cathedrals Beach”

Praia das Catedrais, Spain
Weathered rock formations
Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia is known for its medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, its seafood, and its (often never-ending) rain. In contrast to other parts of the country mostly made up of endless fields of grain and olive groves, green Galicia is home to several natural wonders, including the Cíes Islands off the coast of Vigo, the Sil Canyon outside of Ourense, and, perhaps most famous of all, the Praia das Catedrais along the northern coast of Lugo province.

Praia das Catedrais, Spain
Exploring the beaches
In Galician, it’s literally called the “Cathedrals Beach” because of the weathered rock formations that happen to look like the flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral jutting out into the ocean. Going along with this theme, the official name for this beautiful beach is actually Praia das Augas Santas—the Holy Waters Beach. Whatever you want to call this wondrous stretch of coastline, the Praia das Catedrais makes a great daytrip from Roman-walled Lugo…as long as you can get here during low tide!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Traipsing Through Toro, Spain

On my way back up to Santiago de Compostela this fall after flying into Madrid, I took a pit stop in the gorgeous but anonymous northern city of Zamora for two nights. I spent one of these days I was in the province daytripping to the nearby village of Toro, home to barely 9,000 souls. Yep, I visited “Bull, Spain”—it doesn’t get more typical Spanish than that. However, this town turned out to buck tourist stereotypes and had a cultural offering that was much more impressive than its lowly population might suggest.

Toro, Spain
Calle Mayor
The area around Toro has actually been one of Spain’s most prestigious wine-producing regions for centuries. It gained an elite reputation in the Middle Ages (bottles of Toro were even stored onboard the Pinta ship when Columbus & co. sailed to the Americas), but for most non-Spaniards it often gets crowded out by Rioja or Ribera del Duero labels.

Fellow Spain blogger Kaley of Y Mucho Más has talked a lot about this quality but affordable variety on her blog a lot; I’ll hand the reins over to her so she can discuss the denominación de origen, recommended wineries, the town’s grape harvest festival, and the town’s wine festival. As she’s married to a local zamorano she’s had an amazing opportunity to get to know this underrated corner of Spain over the years.

The village itself is small, warm, and inviting, filled with charming parish churches. Although busy in the morning, Toro closes up shop for lunch and siesta before re-emerging in the streets for the afternoon paseo in true small-town fashion.
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