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.
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