Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Photo Post: Valença do Minho, Portugal

Valença do Minho, Portugal
Turret in the fortress-like old town
After snooping around the interesting cathedral in Tui last November, my friends and I hopped back in the car and crossed the Miño River, and in doing so also crossed into Portugal from Spain. On the other side of the river, the town of Valença do Minho sits on a commanding hilltop and is just as Portuguese as Tui is Spanish: houses are decorated with pretty azulejos or colorful tiles, the locals speak indecipherable European Portuguese, and small parish churches show off their jaunty Baroque domes and whitewashed walls.

Valença do Minho, Portugal
Spaniards with bags of linens
For Spaniards, especially those living in Galicia, the main draw of Valença is shopping. Portuguese-made linens, like sheets, towels, and blankets are both affordable and of high quality, so Spanish people dash south of the border, load up their car trunks and bus holds with bags of linens in Valença, and then head back home. It’s not uncommon for espanhóis (as they’re called in Portuguese) to pick up a bottle of vinho verde wine or a kilo of not-burnt natural, non-torrefacto coffee before returning to Spain.

Valença do Minho, Portugal
The main shopping drag
Apart from shopping, Valença do Minho didn’t really have that much to offer except for the novelty of feeling like you were in another country. (Although I’ve been told it’s a great place to try Portuguese bacalhau or cod). Northern Portugal has so much more to offer: Porto’s crumbling riverside, Braga’s stunning Baroque churches, and Guimarães’ medieval castle. But it makes a nice pitstop on your way from Galicia south into Portugal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tui, a Cathedral Town on the Spanish-Portuguese Border

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Granite + greenery = Galicia
When I began my second year teaching in Galicia, I knew I wanted to go the completionist route and hit up all five of Galicia’s cathedrals and all seven of the region’s historical provincial capitals. Some of them, like Pontevedra, were only a quick train ride south from Santiago, but there were others, like Mondoñedo, that ended up being in distant valleys far from home and required a car to get there. So naturally I jumped at the chance to explore the border town of Tui when two Spanish friends invited me to ride with them down there for a traditional autumn dinner in their village.

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Gothic façade
Outside of Tui’s city center (mere minutes from Portugal) we settled down at the Ribadelouro community center, where they were selling 10€ tickets for an all-you-can-eat cookout supper. My housemate and I were the only two non-Spaniards in attendance that evening; everyone else had probably grown up in the countryside or was married to someone who did. It was sometimes difficult to follow along with the conversations as there were a good hundred or so people eating in a loud communal dining hall, but we made it work in some mixture of Galician and Spanish.

Tui Cathedral, Spain
Gothic sculpted portico
The dinner itself was out of control. We started off with plates of chewy chorizo and the most tender orellas (pig ear) I’ve ever had, lightly seasoned with olive oil and smoked paprika. The main course was carne ao caldeiro, enormous hunks of beef boiled in a pot (a caldeiro) along with potatoes and a little bit of lard for flavor. And then came the desserts. And the café de pota (drip coffee). And then the sobremesa: that conversation you have when you’re too stuffed to get up from the table so you just sit and chat until things digest.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Time-Traveling to the Dark Ages in Oviedo, Spain

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Church of Santa María del Naranco
Out of all the places we had on the hitlist for our Roommate Road Trip across Spain’s northern coast, I was most looking forward to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. This city’s pleasant old town, nestled between green mountains and full of restaurants that serve hearty traditional dishes like fabada bean stew, reminded me a lot of Santiago de Compostela’s.

Oviedo kept showing up on my travel radar because of its impressive collection of monuments that date back to the 800s CE—yes, you read that correctly; not 1800 but 800. My inner history geek couldn’t wait to check out three well-preserved pre-Romanesque churches, built in a style that blossomed in this part of Spain during the otherwise gloomy Dark Ages.

What does it mean to be “pre-Romanesque”?

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Carved capital on an engaged column
Also know as Asturian art, this architectural style was born in the earliest days of Spanish history, when the tiny Kingdom of Asturias ruled far-northern Spain. After Muslims from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, Christian nobles from the routed Visigothic kingdom fled the capital, Toledo, and regrouped in the hard-to-conquer northern mountains. What we now call the pre-Romanesque style flourished between their victory over the Moors at a skirmish in Covadonga in 722 and the departure of the royal court south to more-accessible León in 910.

Pre-romanesque churches of Oviedo, Spain
Stairs leading up to the Church of Santa María del Naranco
But enough history. What makes this so special? As the name would suggest, it was a precursor to the Romanesque, the first architectural style to be used across Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. But just as it looks forward to the movement that would create soaring cathedrals like the one in Santiago, it also looks back to the legacy of Rome. After all, in the 700s and 800s there was still plenty to see leftover from Roman times in Asturias—temples, houses, baths, you name it.

Abandoning the distinctive horseshoe arches from Visigothic times, Asturian architects reached further back and drew on the simple, semicircular Roman arch and threw it in everywhere it could fit: vaulted ceilings, windows, doors, and halls. They also were inspired to resurrect the basilica plan for their churches; this simply means having a long central nave or hall bounded by an aisle on either side, capped with three slanted roofs.

The few churches that remain from this two-century-long movement have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and for me I think the fact that they’ve lasted 1,200 years more or less intact, despite wars and bad weather, is just as fascinating as their unique architectural style.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tapas Crawl in the Spanish Capital with Madrid Food Tour

It can often be really intimidating to visit a new country, especially if you don’t speak the language, aren’t acquainted with cultural habits and customs, or aren’t familiar with the local cuisine apart from one or two famous dishes. Even the simple act of walking into a restaurant can be an anxiety-inducing feat: how are you supposed to greet the servers, when is it appropriate to eat lunch or dinner, and what exactly should I order?

Madrid Food Tour
Grilled mushrooms
This is exactly what happened to me when I was in Germany for a few days last week and Portugal last year; I didn’t do my research and was forever frustrated when it came time to eat.

I can only imagine that many tourists have similar experiences when they come to Spain for the first time. The three years I’ve got under my belt have made me feel so very comfortable in this country: I know the polite set phrases you’re supposed to say when entering a restaurant, asking for more food, or going up to pay; plus picture-less menus and unlabeled trays of food at the bar don’t scare me at all. But not everyone has the luxury to live abroad in Spain, and apart from the stereotypical sangría + paella combo, lots of times people simply just don’t know where to start with Spanish cooking.

A different kind of guided tour

Madrid Food Tour
Translucent sliced cured ham
Enter Madrid Food Tours. Founded a few years ago by language assistant-turned-entrepreneur Lauren Aloise, this company offers visitors a chance to get an authentic taste of Spanish food by recreating the tapas bar hopping and market shopping that madrileños do every day. English-speaking tour guides lead small groups of no more than ten from place to place around Madrid’s historic center, eschewing the touristy restaurants that advertise defrosted paellas in favor of small, decades-old joints frequented mostly by locals.

Madrid Food Tours offers a handful of options to get to know the city with your stomach, but I chose to join in on their evening “Tapas, Taverns, & History” tour while I was in town for Holy Week vacation this March. Debbie, a gregarious Londoner who’s called Madrid home for five years, took our group under her wings and introduced us to some of the best restaurants in the city.
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