Monday, December 5, 2016

Photo Post: Ons Island, Galicia’s Isolated Beach Getaway

Ons Island, Spain
Icy-cold water
I’ve raved and raved about the Cíes Islands on this blog, an archipelago of pristine islands that form part of a broader national park on the western coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain. They’re one of the region’s true natural wonders, boasting everything from white sands beaches and impossibly cold clear water to rugged hiking trails and cliffside panoramas.

But I’ve been holding back a secret from: the Cíes have a little sister called Ons Island. This slender island is situated just to the north of the Cíes and is a natural breakwater that protects the ría or estuary from the worst blows of the Atlantic.

Ons Island, Spain
The whole beach to ourselves
When a few of my friends and I visited Ons during the shoulder season, we shared a beach that was a 10-minute walk south of the docks with only two or three other people. There’s something so very refreshing about having an entire white-sands beach essentially all to yourself while also looking back out toward the mainland where all the noise, traffic, and stresses of daily life are literally kept at bay. Although this brief little excursion was only for the day, we welcomed this escape from real life.

It was the end of May, and because we were all fellow language assistants teaching English in Spain, our teaching contracts for the school year were drawing to a close. We celebrated (and mourned) the end of the year with a picnic feast of empanada de bacalao con pasas (cod-and-raisin meat pie) and intensely-flavorful picota cherries harvested from the Jerte Valley in south-central Spain.

Ons Island, Spain
Colorful countryside hórreo
After we had gotten our fill of sunbathing in the chilly breeze and dashing in and out of the icy ocean, we strolled along the country roads, checking out traditional island architecture and Ons’ lone lighthouse before it was time to head back to the docks to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to Spend 24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

During the two years I spent living and working in Santiago de Compostela, I hosted around half a dozen or so friends in this rainy northwest corner of Spain and showed them around the comfortable, lively place I had grown to call home.

Santiago is a wonderful city, but I’ll be totally honest with y’all—you can see the city in a single day. I usually took friends who visited me on daytrips to A Coruña or the hot springs in Ourense after we had gotten our fill of Santi-town. But that fill was almost always overflowing with endless tapas, walks through parks, and ancient granite churches.

24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Rainy streets in the old town
I don’t live in Santiago anymore, having traded cathedrals for cactuses and tapas for tacos in Phoenix. But even though I can’t personally lead you on a jam-packed itinerary through the Galician capital, I’ve put together a guide you can follow to make sure you have a visit that leaves you dazzled, relaxed, and—most importantly—full.

Before we start our day, make sure you’ve got a good pair of comfortable walking shoes, as days like this in hilly Santiago can easily surpass 10,000 steps, a sturdy umbrella, and lots of cash so you can quickly pay for your coffee without having to wait for your credit card to get charged.

8am

There’s a lot of ways you can get to Santiago: by bus, train, or airplane. Whichever method you use to arrive, catch a bright orange airport bus that connects the bus station, train station, and airport and get off at Praza de Galicia, a busy square at the center of the city.

9am

24 Hours in Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Latte art at Café Venecia
It’s time for breakfast, and you’re gonna need some serious caffeination to get you through this itinerary that stops 6 hours short of actually being 24 hours long. From Praza de Galicia, take the north-south Rúa do Hórreo street until you get to Café Venecia, about one block down the hill on the left side at Nº 27. Although head barista Óscar de Toro serves up the finest coffee in town, this café isn’t overrun by hipsters but instead attracts everyone from blue-collar workers to men in suits and always has a stack of newspapers to flip through and a good wifi connection. You can’t go wrong with the standard café con leche here as they don’t use torrefacto coffee (i.e., it doesn’t taste burnt as coffee usually does in Spain), but if you’re feeling ~third wave~ you can even request a Chemex!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Memories from Jaén, Spain: Andalucía’s Most Underrated City

Of the eight provincial capitals in Spain’s southernmost region of Andalucía, Jaén too often gets short shrift in favor of historic cities that overwhelm you with their monuments—Sevilla with its gigantic Gothic cathedral, Córdoba with what remains of the Great Mosque, and Granada with the country’s crown jewel, the Alhambra palace—or in favor of coastal cities that entice you with their beaches and fresh seafood—Málaga, which needs no introduction, Cádiz, Europe’s oldest city, Almería, secluded away behind deserts and mountain ranges, and Huelva, where Columbus set off for the Americas.

Jaén, Spain
Flickr link
I ponder this as I grow more and more impatient with the intercity bus I’m on…and more and more nauseated. The air coming from the A/C vents smells like a dirty bathroom, the advertised on-board WiFi has ground to a halt, and that hot summer sun is really bearing down on the windows.

I’m reminded of the bad first experience I had with Jaén (pronounced “khah-EN” [xaˈen]) when I moved to Spain and had to come to an ugly part of town to process my paperwork for residency. Having to deal with government bureaucracy would make anybody hate a city, and I initially wrote off Jaén for months until I returned as a tourist rather than a hapless foreigner. But by the time I warmed to Jaén, my sojourn in southern Spain had come to an end and it felt as if a budding friendship were cut short by a move.

So here I am in Andalucía again, making a “farewell tour” of my old haunts before I move back to Texas after teaching English in Spain for three years. I’ve already gone out for snails and shandies with my friend Cat in Sevilla and caught up with my former English teacher colleague in Úbeda (my adopted pueblo in Spain), so now it’s time for the finale: Jaén.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fisterra, Muxía, and a Sunset at the End of the World

If you happen to find yourself in Santiago de Compostela and have run out of things to do, I’d recommend going on day trips to check out more of Galicia’s beautiful cities and natural wonders, from the “Glass City” of A Coruña and Roman-walled Lugo to the pristine beaches of the Cíes Islands and the natural hot springs of Ourense. You can reach some really exciting places on a one-hour train ride, but if you know how to drive stick shift, it’s best to rent a car and head out west to hug the coastline until you reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Muxía, Spain
Lighthouses at Muxía

The historic fishing villages of Noia and Muros will whet your appetite for Gothic architecture and seafood tapas, whereas coastal Carnota has kept an entire beach reserved just for you. Just around the corner, the Ézaro waterfall is the only point in mainland Europe where a river empties into the sea via a waterfall.

The cherry on top (the shrimp on the paella?) is without a doubt Fisterra, also called Finisterre, from the name the Romans used to describe this area, finis terrae—“Lands End.”

Fisterra: The true ending point for the Camino de Santiago

Fisterra, Spain
The shell marks the way
The Camino de Santiago proper ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the supposed remains of the Apostle St. James are buried. Medieval Christians would go on pilgrimage across northern Spain to reach the Christian world’s third-holiest site. Afterward, many would proceed on to Galicia’s Atlantic coast—which is, after all, only 89km (55 miles) from Santiago. In Roman times, you could find an ara solis or “altar to the sun” where the lighthouse stands today, so this rocky outcropping has likely had a spiritual pull on humans since time immemorial.

A handful of pilgrims today continue to make the extension from Santiago to Fisterra, motivated by a desire to collect more stamps in their pilgrim passport…or perhaps drawn by the inexplicable allure of the sea. Barely a tenth of all pilgrims who reach Santiago keep walking to Fisterra, so this lonely, three-day hike offers an introspective escape from the hordes on the camino francés. When I hiked this route three years ago, I enjoyed passing through thick, fragrant eucalyptus groves, over old, eroded ridges, and next to rural family farms and ranches.

Fisterra, Spain
The lighthouse
The 0,0 km marker is posted at a whitewashed granite lighthouse that towers over the cliffs below. It serves as a beacon for the fleet of fishing boats that moors here every day as well as for the dozens of pilgrims searching for the Way. Plodding wearily in between the throngs who have parachuted here on charter buses from Santiago, they’re overcome with joy, having finally reached their goal. Many have walked here on foot from the Pyrenees Mountains back in France—with the blisters to prove it.

Traditionally pilgrims would burn their stinky clothes and bathe in the ocean, and you can often find some sun-bleached t-shirts tied to crosses or tattered hiking boots with sentimental quotes plastered nearby. Whether they walked 3 or 30 days to get here (or rode on a 3-hour bus tour), everyone ends up hanging out on the cliffs to watch the sun pass beneath the horizon in the evening.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

All Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela

The Camino de Santiago phenomenon has completely taken Spain by storm over the past decade or so. This pilgrimage route originated in the early Middle Ages, fell out of popularity, and only recently has enjoyed newfound popularity with modern-day pilgrims, who are drawn to the trek by religious devotion as much as they are by adventure.

The Camino or “Way of St. James” terminates in Spain’s green northwestern corner, in the rainy city of Santiago de Compostela—the purported burial place of the Apostle St. James. While the most popular route—the French Way—trickles across north-central Spain from the Pyrenees toward the Atlantic coast, there are also around a dozen or so other trails that thread routes across the diverse quilt that is modern Spain.

Some are brief, requiring less than a week on foot—the English Way, for example—while others recall the great overland trips from Roman times—like the Vía de la Plata that starts in Sevilla.

During the three years I spent working in Spain, I managed to pass through every single region in the country except one (Murcia), and in the process I stumbled upon countless segments of the various Caminos (plural) de Santiago that link such far-flung cities as Huesca, Figueres, and Granada with Santiago de Compostela. Read on for a retrospective photo post of nearly every yellow arrow or shell I came across during my travels in Spain.

Camino francés — The French Way

Camino de Santiago
Pamplona
The most popular route by far starts in the Pyrenees on the French side of the border in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and crosses the mountain range, entering into Spain via the region of Navarra. The first major city along the “French Way” is Pamplona, famous for the Running of the Stupid People Bulls every July.

Camino de Santiago
Logroño
It continues on to Logroño, the capital of Spain’s most famous wine region and a hoppin’ center for pinchos (Basque-style tapas).

Camino de Santiago
Burgos
Moving west, pilgrims stop at Burgos, the region where the Castilian language was born and the home of the country’s most dazzling Gothic cathedral.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Photo Post: Watching the Ézaro Waterfall Empty Into the Ocean

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Ézaro waterfall
Northwest Spain continues to amaze me the more I learn about it. You’d think it’d be hard to top a region that happens to have coastal islands with pristine white-sands beaches, one of the most beautiful historic town centers in Europe, or the only city that is still completely enclosed by its original Roman walls. But Galicia’s got yet another stunning treasure: the only river in continental Europe that empties into the sea via a waterfall.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
On the boardwalk
The Xallas River pours down the glossy hillside of Mt. Pindo, having trickled out of a dam that’s been generating hydroelectric power since the ‘60s. When friends both Galician and expat alike raved to me about the Ézaro Waterfall—pronounced “EH-thah-row” [ˈe.θa.ɾo]—I always imagined a river rushing over something like the White Cliffs of Dover before dramatically crashing into the ocean. The real thing is a lot more subdued, as the river merely rolls down an eroded hillside into a tiny estuary before it reaches the open seas. But knowing that there’s nothing like this anywhere else in Europe makes the Ézaro a special place indeed.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Flowers above the falls
This waterfall is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the popular pilgrimage site of Fisterra (“the End of the World” on the Camino de Santiago), so it’s understandably mobbed by tourists daytripping from Santiago de Compostela in charter buses on their way to see the cliff-bound lighthouse. To escape the crowds, it’s best to drive up, up, and away from the parking lot to the miradoiro or lookout point within eyeshot of the dam. The lookout point gives you some perspective on the whole lay of the land as Galicia’s rugged granite terrain gives way to the infinite Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Photo Post: Deserted Beaches & Fresh Seafood in Carnota, Spain

Carnota, Spain
Mar de Lira beach
It’s not every day you come across a deserted beach that literally stretches for miles beneath a deep blue sky. Yet that’s exactly what happened to me one warm, sunny Saturday in April while exploring the far western reaches of Galicia in northwest Spain.

Carnota, Spain
Gorse-covered hillside
The town of Carnota (really just a collection of rural houses and small family farms) stretches across a flat tract of Galicia’s Atlantic coastline, tucked away in a bend of the Ría de Corcubión—one of many inlets of the sea that extend like fingers into the mainland. Five of these estuaries trickle down the region’s western coast, where steep hillsides contrast with white-sands beaches and where the economy depends on both fishing and white wine production.

Carnota, Spain
Longest hórreo in Galicia
But Carnota’s got more than just stunning, vast beaches and pretty rural scenery. This little coastal town is also home to one of the region’s longest hórreos or stone corncrib used to store corn and other crops after the harvest—a common sight across the region, but never as long as the one here. Called an hórreo comunal, this “communal granary” served multiple families when it was built in the late 1700s and is one of those “curiosities” you often find in rural Galicia.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Muros & Noia, Spain: Two Charming Galician Fishing Villages

Many folks visit Santiago de Compostela because they’re drawn to the medieval mystique of the Camino de Santiago, which ends in the city. A popular daytrip from Santiago involves heading out west to the tiny coastal town of Fisterra, the “Lands End” of Galicia, which many pilgrims consider the true ending point of this pilgrimage that runs across northern Spain. A mighty lighthouse guards craggy cliffs, what the Romans considered to be finis terrae, the ends of the earth.

Noia, Spain
Outside Noia
Sadly, many people hop on charter buses that make express runs between Santiago and the Atlantic coast, completely bypassing the intervening countryside. It’s a real shame because there’s so much to see and do in between those two points, from charming fishing villages to secluded beaches and even waterfalls.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend some time on the blog sharing with y’all the best places to see on your way from Santiago to the End of the World. Today, let’s visit our first two stops: Muros and Noia.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

5 City Parks to Picnic At in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I fell in love with the northwest Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela for several reasons when I lived there for two years, not least the glorious granite old town and delicious tradition of free tapas. One big reason I renewed to teach English in the area for a second year—despite two consecutive winter months of endless rain—was the city’s attractive system of public parks. There’s just so many different places you can go to hang out with friends, people-watch, and enjoy a slice of empanada or some fresh local strawberries.

1) The Alameda

Parque da Alameda, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
An abuelo goes on paseo
Santiago’s grandest and oldest city park might seem like an odd place to lay out a picnic blanket; after all, who wants to sit down in the way of all those joggers and fur-coat-wearing old ladies? Yes, most of the park is one big promenade that offers impressive views of the old town and a lovely curated garden. But there’s a small parcel on the far eastern side of the Alameda near a busy intersection with a flat, grassy lawn that’s the perfect spot for people-watching, guitar-playing, and doing handstands. It’s right in front of a high school so it definitely attracts a younger crowd, but every time the sun is out you’ll find folks here basking in the sunshine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Betanzos, Spain: My New Favorite Galician Village

As I headed back home to Santiago de Compostela after spending Good Friday 2015 in Ferrol, I took a cross between a pitstop and a daytrip in the coastal village of Betanzos, one of the hidden treasures of northwest Spain. Santiago will always be first in my heart, but Betanzos quickly won me over as my new favorite village in Galicia.

Betanzos, Spain
Old homes with galerías

Welcoming locals

Betanzos, Spain
In the old town
The single-car diesel clunker I rode to Betanzos on dropped me off at what was more a clearing in the woods than a proper train station. Seeing a backpack-clad boy scrutinizing his phone’s Google Maps app, a dad who had picked up his daughter there offered to drive me in to the old town and save me a hike. In retrospect it probably wasn’t the safest decision to hop into a complete stranger’s car (sorry Mom!) but I trusted my gut and hopped in.

My leap of faith paid off, as these two kind betanceiros dropped me off in the central plaza and were fun to chat with for a couple of minutes as we circled around what were once the old town walls. In short, a lovely introduction to a lovely town.

Monday, June 6, 2016

No Car in Dallas? But How?

A little over a month ago I finally gave in and bought my very first car, a brand-new Toyota Corolla. I first learned how to drive on a 2003-era Corolla, so I couldn’t pass up this familiar yet reliable model when I showed up at the dealership for the dreaded car hunt. But in between moving back home to Texas in July of last year and getting a car this past March, I had to make do without one. Fortunately my parents did have a car that they used for buying groceries and the like, but as far as getting to work, shopping, or having fun, I was basically on my own.

Carless in Dallas
My new car
Now, America isn’t a country known for its public transportation to begin with, and the sprawling nature of Sunbelt metropolitan areas like Dallas makes walking utterly impractical when it takes 20 minutes just to walk from your house in a subdivision to the nearest convenience store. So you can imagine I was a little terrified trying to figure out how to make things work in my initial re-entry period moving back to the States after being accustomed to walkable, transit-loving Spain for so long.

Taking the bus to work for the first time in America

Carless in Dallas
Hoping the bus arrives before the rains do
My lifeline this past half year or so was Dallas Area Rapid Transit, a.k.a., DART: the public transportation agency for Dallas and most of the suburbs that border the city to the west and the north. My hometown of Plano—a suburb half an hour to the north of downtown Dallas—has been a member of the organization since it was founded in the ‘80s, but I recognize that I am privileged to live in a city with any public transit at all, as other suburbs like Arlington—pop. 380,000—have a grand total of ZERO buses to speak of. I’m very grateful that Plano has made a commitment to DART by re-routing a substantial 1% sales tax to the agency, a sum that neighboring suburbs like Allen or Frisco have used to lure businesses and developments.

It was frustrating when I realized that what is normally a 15-minute drive from my parents’ house out to the office in northwest Plano would balloon to almost an hour, between the 20-minute bus ride and a 30-minute hike just to get to the closest bus stop. I’ll be completely honest, the summer sucked majorly, especially when I had to endure 90% humidity in the morning some days and 100º F or higher temperatures in the afternoon, all the while weaving my way around the foot and car traffic of an elementary and middle school.

But with suburban sprawl as bad as it is in places like Texas, I realize that I was lucky to even have the option of a bus route that dropped me off a five-minute walk from my office, and even more lucky to not have to transfer to another bus/train.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Big in Big D, Y’all: What to See, Eat, & Do in Dallas, Texas

When I moved back to Texas back in July after living in Spain for three years, I felt guilty that I could give people better food or sightseeing recommendations for cities like Madrid or Santiago de Compostela than I could for the city I claimed was my hometown, Dallas. Now, part of the problem was that I actually grew up in Plano, a suburb to the north of Dallas, but that didn’t excuse me from not knowing this place as well as I should.

Things to do in Dallas, Texas
Magnolia red Pegasus, the unofficial symbol of the city
So once I was settled in back home last summer, I made it my goal to see as much of the city as I could on weekends and the odd jaunt after work, relying on my own two feet and DART trains and buses to take me around this big, big city. I reconnected with a lot of folks from my high school days and did all the touristy things like going up top the Reunion Tower at sunset or hanging out at the State Fair of Texas with my dad. But I also got to know a whole slew of locally-owned cafés and restaurants (see below for recommendations), gained a deeper appreciation for Dallas history, and learned what makes each neighborhood tick.

Nine months of exploration later, I feel like I’m ready to share with y’all what I think the best things to see, eat, and do are in Dallas…along with a liberal sprinkling of history and cool architecture (as if you could expect anything else from me!).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ferrol, Spain: The Black Sheep of Galicia

#HouseGoals
Galicia, tucked away in Spain’s northwest corner, happens to be one of the most densely-populated regions in the country. Major cultural and political centers include Vigo, A Coruña, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela, and Pontevedra…and if we were to continue rattling off the region’s biggest cities, the coastal town of Ferrol would hold the spot for seventh-biggest, at 70,000 ferroláns.

Ferrol (pronounced “fair-ROLE” [feˈrol]) doesn’t have the best reputation among Galicians, as it’s kind of the black sheep of the region; many folks call this place “ugly” and say “it doesn’t have anything to see.” Of course, I was told the same thing about Almería on the Mediterranean coast and ended up really enjoying the city when I daytripped there three years ago.

Still, there’s a lot about Ferrol that makes it, uh, different from the rest of Galicia.

Military heritage

Military arsenal
Situated deep within one of Europe’s most strategic natural harbors, Ferrol’s economy has historically been linked to the sea—from trading and fishing to naval installations. Starting from the 1700s on, Ferrol has held some of the largest installations of the Spanish navy. A short drive from the city center is the Castillo de San Felipe, a defensive fort that, with its twin on the other side of the water, would cerrar or “lock” the narrow estuary out from enemy ships.

Dictator Francisco Franco’s birthplace

Casa Natal de Franco
I didn’t plan it this way, but in the span of a single week I managed to visit Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s final resting place (in the Valle de los Caídos mausoleum) as well as the house he was born in…right here in Ferrol. After Franco came to power in a military coup and subsequent civil war in the late 1930s, his hometown was renamed El Ferrol del Caudillo—“The Leader’s Ferrol.” Keep in mind that for fascist Spain, the term “El Caudillo” was the equivalent of Nazi Germany’s “Der Führer” or fascist Italy’s “Il Duce.”

Ironically enough, Ferrol also happens to be the birthplace of the 19th-century Spanish politician Pablo Iglesias, who belonged to the complete opposite side of the political spectrum; he founded the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party—PSOE—which endures today as the country’s major center-left party.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Photo Post: Holy Week Processions in Ferrol, Spain

When I lived in Spain and taught English, I always took full advantage of the annual Semana Santa vacation during the week leading up to Easter Sunday to go on a major international trip, since you use up half your time off just getting out of the country and flying back on weekend trips. For my first year, I rode a ferry across the Mediterranean and explored northern Morocco, while in my second school year abroad, I train-hopped from Santiago down into warm, sunny Portugal.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión de Jesús Nazareno (Cofradía de Dolores)
Although in 2015 I still planned on leaving Spain for a brief getaway to Germany, I wanted to be back in the country before Holy Week was over. After all, Spain throws one of its biggest, most unique celebrations for Semana Santa, and I would have regretted not experiencing this fascinating cultural tradition before moving back to Texas.

So I decided to check one off the ol’ bucket list and spend all of Good Friday chasing religious processions in the city of Ferrol on Galicia’s northern coast. Ferrol’s the oddball of northwest Spain for many reasons, not least of which is their enthusiasm for this holiday that seems more in line with their sober neighbors in Castilla or more exuberant compatriots in Andalucía. Galicians don’t really go over the top at all for Easter, so Ferrol is basically the only place you can see quality pasos or processions in the region.

Semana Santa in Ferrol, Spain
Procesión del Crucificado (Cofradía de la Merced)
These processions need a little explanation for foreigners. Many Spaniards—be they devout or cultural Catholics—belong to religious brotherhoods called cofradías or hermandades, some of which date back hundreds of years. Although they’re involved in other undertakings, their most visible activities are the religious processions that they put on during Holy Week every year. Members don glossy, colorful robes and transform into anonymous, pointy-hat-wearing nazarenos (“Nazarenes”) or penitentes (“penitents”) whose roles run the gamut from looking somber and carrying candles to blasting trumpets at three in the morning and carrying weighty wooden floats on their backs around town. These floats bear wooden sculptures that portray all the biblical events of Holy Week.

City streets teem with residents who show up for these processions during the eight-day period from Domingo de Ramos (“Palm Sunday”) through Viernes Santo (“Good Friday”) and onto Domingo de Pascua (“Easter Sunday”). Schools take the entire week off so it effectively functions as the Spanish spring break.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chasing Charlemagne in Aachen, Germany

As a history major, I’m not one to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. The way I see it, inventions, movements, religions, diseases, trade, and geography play a much more crucial role in human events than mere single characters do. And besides, there have been many Great Women! Nevertheless, some people are more influential than others: think Muhammad, Christopher Columbus, or whoever invented air conditioning.

Aachen, Germany
Aachener Dom
When it comes to European history specifically, Charlemagne stands as one of the most significant actors in shaping what we know today as Europe. Following the countless barbarian invasions that had left the western Roman Empire in disarray, Charlemagne (who was himself a “barbarian” Frank) brought the West back together under a single rule, promoted learning amid the ignorance of the Dark Ages, and conquered so much land that he became the father of both France and Germany.

During my weekend jaunt to western Germany last year, I made a daytrip from my home base in Cologne out west to Aachen, once the capital of Charlemagne’s short-lived empire and the final resting place of “Charles the Great” himself. Pronounced “AH-khun” [ˈaːxən], the city has been a spa/resort town since Roman times (thanks to its hot springs) and today borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

Aachen, Germany
Detail of the tiles in the cathedral

So who was Charlemagne? (and why care about a warlord from the Dark Ages?)

(Major #NerdAlert here: If you tend to get that glazed-over look whenever you start reading about history, you can skip down to the next section to get to the good stuff about Aachen, but I’ve tried to make this bio of Charlemagne as brief and as easy-to-read as possible!)

As King of the Franks from 768 to 814 CE, Charlemagne reigned over what now makes up modern France, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy, and northeastern Spain—a vast empire stitched together by endless military campaigns, forced baptisms, and blessings from the Pope. It was the first time these lands had been united politically since the Roman Empire.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Ups & Downs of Traveling to Cologne, Germany

For the longest time, Germany never showed up as a blip on my travel radar, even when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, whose Ryanair airport hub has connections all across mainland Europe. I was focused primarily on getting to know northern Spain, especially Galicia, or neighboring countries like France and Portugal before finally moving back to Texas. Germany seemed so foreign and distant, even though it’s as close to Spain as Chicago is to Dallas. While my fellow language assistants hopped from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Berlin, I focused on places like coastal Portugal, southeastern France, or central Italy—all southern European countries.

Cologne, Germany
Old town Cologne and the Rhine River, seen from the cathedral
It’s not that I had anything against Scandinavia, the British Isles, or central Europe…it’s just that I didn’t want to spend my limited savings and strategic vacation time going to places that I had almost no desire to visit. My true passions, the places that I longed to explore and made my heart ache with wanderlust, lay in the Mediterranean basin.

And yet I felt like I was wasting a huge opportunity in not making a weekend trip out of, say, Germany or the Netherlands, since I was already on that side of the Atlantic and only had to worry about resisting the siren song of budget airlines—instead of a wallet-emptying trans-Atlantic flight.

It was Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city, that would drag me out of my comfortable southern European routine and force me to re-acquaint myself with a little thing called Culture Shock. It would be a wild ride full of ups and downs, but I don’t regret it at all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Alcalá de Henares, Spain: The College-Town Birthplace of Cervantes

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Plaza de Cervantes
Something that’s always striking to me about Spain is that in one moment you can zip around beneath Madrid on the Metro, refresh your Twitter feed at a McDonald’s in between sips of espresso, and rub elbows with visitors from around the globe at some of the world’s leading art galleries…and in the next moment—a mere 40-minute train ride—you can emerge onto the sun-baked plains of Castilla where it seems as if a village hasn’t changed much since its most famous son, Miguel de Cervantes, was born here way back in 1547. Yes, that Cervantes, the author of Western literature’s first novel, Don Quixote. Some may call Alcalá de Henares a mere suburb of Madrid, but this “small town” of 200,000 is a world away from Spain’s cosmopolitan capital when it comes to architectural and cultural heritage.

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Café con leche & rosquilla de Alcalá
One warm spring morning last year I was excited to check out what made Alcalá deserve World Heritage status—but first, coffee. At the venerable Café de Libreros in the city’s old town, I briefly dipped in for one of the best-crafted café con leches I’ve had in the country, pairing it with a local specialty, a rosquilla (think of it as a mini cronut).

The former campus of Spain’s premier university

Invigorated with caffeine, I moseyed on down to Alcalá’s central Plaza de Cervantes—more grand promenade than town square—and checked in to the palatial College of San Ildefonso, which once served as the main hall of the Complutense University. You can think of the Complutense as the Spanish counterpart to Oxford: an extremely-prestigious university with medieval roots that has played a major role in educating many of the country’s pre-eminent authors, thinkers, and politicians.

Alcalá de Henares, Spain
Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso
Now, the Complutense began here in Alcalá as a medieval school of higher learning in the year 1293, gaining official university status from the Pope in 1499; the name complutense refers to the original Roman name for the city—Complutum—which was later replaced by the Arabic-influenced name Alcalá de Henares (lit. “Castle on the Henares River”). Anyway, by the 1830s the city of Madrid was in need of an illustrious university befitting a major European capital, so by royal decree in 1836 the university based in Alcalá was transferred to Madrid, where it remains to this day: the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

This move, however, left half a dozen or so monumental buildings abandoned and in danger of being sold off or demolished, so local alcalaínos formed the Sociedad de Condueños (“Joint-Ownership Association”) to pool their funds and purchase their town’s architectural heritage for the good of the community. Although the centuries-old institution that was the Complutense had left the buildings for good, in 1977 these exquisite late-Gothic and Renaissance gems gained a second lease on life when the University of Alcalá was founded: a brand-new school that would occupy the city’s historic campus.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mornings in Spain

Putting on my threadbare IKEA slippers, I shuffle into my apartment’s kitchen to figure out what I might have for breakfast. I open a cabinet and find no eggs left in the cardboard container, and it looks like the only tea I have is caffeine-free chamomile. Ugg. The kitchen window that looks out into the light well is ajar, and from it I can hear pigeons softly cooing, almost in derision that I have no food. I make a mental note of the things I need to go to the grocery store for and hop in the shower.


My hair still drying, I pull the house door shut behind me, in accordance with the handwritten “Mantén a porta pechada—Grazas” sign I see every day on the way out, and I quickly zip up my hoodie: it’s a little chillier out here than I was expecting. Four faint, almost-imperceptible dings trickle down the street from the Baroque-style convent that sits on the other side of Belvís Park, calling the nuns who live there to prayer. I look up to the cloudy, gloomy skies, and, noticing I didn’t bring an umbrella with me, offer up a prayer for no rain.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Spain’s Controversial Valley of the Fallen

It’s hard to believe but it’s already been almost four years since I first left the States to teach English in Spain. After a sleepless trans-Atlantic flight, I caught my first glimpse of España over the western coast of Galicia, in the northwest. Cities along the densely-populated Rías Baixas glittered in the soft baby blueness of dawn—beneath thick clouds; this is Galicia we’re talking about, now—and it wasn’t long before the plane had passed over rolling hills and entered the meseta central, the high plains of central Spain.

Valle de los Caídos, Madrid, Spain
The entrance
Ávila was next, still neatly enclosed by its medieval walls, but what caught my attention the most as we crossed over the Guadarrama mountain range was a striking monumental cross that seemed to emerge from a heap of granite boulders. This fleeting image would soon be replaced by the sprawl of metropolitan Madrid and the runways of the Barajas airport, but it was unmistakably the lightning rod of modern Spanish society: el Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen, a gargantuan, extremely-controversial monument to those who died in Spain’s brutal Civil War that raged during the late 1930s.

Let’s fast forward to last March, when I was hanging out in Madrid before my Easter break trip to Germany. While visiting El Escorial I decided to day-trip on my day-trip (Inception, much?) to the nearby Valley of the Fallen. I was the only non-Spaniard on the minibus that ran between San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the entrance to the complex, but this history nerd wasn’t surprised at all—the monument is hardly known outside of the country, and even within Spain it’s hugely polarizing.

Valle de los Caídos, Madrid, Spain
At the plaza
In the aftermath of the Civil War, which had torn the fabric of the country in two along social, political, and religious lines, victorious dictator Francisco Franco ordered a memorial to be built ostensibly to honor the dead on both Republican and Nationalist sides. There would be a mausoleum for thousands of fallen soldiers to be buried in, a great underground basilica for masses, as well as a monastery whose monks would pray for the souls of the dead. It began with good intentions, but it ended up a monument to the fascist regime that won the Civil War.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Photo Post: El Escorial, Monument to Golden-Age Spain

As far as monuments go, Madrid doesn’t have much to offer. Yes, the Spanish capital’s got a Baroque royal palace, a cathedral that was finished in 1993, and the opulent San Francisco el Grande domed basilica. But compared with other Spanish cities like Sevilla or Toledo, there’s not much for history nerds with a checklist to see in Madrid. That’s where daytrips to nearby World Heritage Sites come in, places like Alcalá de Henares, Aranjuez, and El Escorial.

El Escorial, Spain
Exterior view
To get your history fix, you’ve got to head northwest out of Madrid toward the Guadarrama mountain range to reach the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Conceived primarily as a royal mausoleum by King Felipe II, it was constructed between 1563 and 1584 and is one of the purest (and largest) examples of Renaissance architecture in Europe. But El Escorial isn’t merely the burial place of all Spanish monarchs since the 1500s; it also contains a still-active monastery, a soaring basilica, a library of old books, a small art museum, and a royal residence. And it’s one of the biggest buildings in the world.

El Escorial, Spain
Inside the basilica

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ordes, Spain: Galicia’s Street Art Mecca

You might get the impression from reading this blog that the region of Galicia happens to be one of the most beautiful in Spain. It’s true, this northwest corner of the country is blessed with white-sands beaches, dramatic coastline, Roman ruins, and charming medieval town centers. Modern architecture from both the turn of the century and the early aughts adorns cities like A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela. And you’re never too far from well-kept-up public parks and the green countryside.



But many of the rural areas that have quickly urbanized since the 1960s haven’t done so well when it comes to architectural design; in fact, many houses and apartment buildings look so terrible that a term has been coined to describe this subset of Galician architecture: feísmo, literally translated as “ugly-ism.” Feísmo embraces everything from a mish-mash of building materials, heights, and decorative styles from one house to the next, to exposed brick-and-concrete framing, and even simply unpainted walls left to decay in the moist, humid climate. When you compare villages like Ordes, an agricultural community halfway between Santiago and Coruña, with either of those two cities I just mentioned, the contrast is shocking…and “ugly-ism” begins to seem like it must have been the guiding architectural movement in such towns.

Street art, Ordes, Spain
Untitled by Sekone (2010)
Enter DesOrdes Creativas, an international urban art festival now in its eighth year running. Riffing off of the town’s name (which means “orders” in Galician), “Creative Disorders” brings together local Galician street artists and prominent international ones, too, commissioning murals to spruce up stark, blank walls and to breathe new life into abandoned houses and bleak cityscapes. I think for the most part their efforts have been a success, although I wouldn’t have found half of the pieces simply wandering around town on my own; I had to specifically look for each mural using the map on DesOrdes’ website. Still, I enjoyed dashing across Ordes on a street-art treasure hunt, the sole camera-toting tourist to pass through town that day (or month?).

Street art, Ordes, Spain
“Desordes no Paraíso” by Nada (2014)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Scenes from the Last Stage of the Camino de Santiago’s “Portuguese Way”

When I lived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and taught English, my bilingual coordinator, Fran, and I would carpool every day out to the small town of Boiro on the Atlantic coast. After leaving Santiago, we would exit onto a two-lane highway and pass through one farming community after another on our way to Padrón, where we would pick up the coastal expressway and blast through wooded hillsides to the school where we worked. That first leg of the commute never really sat right with me, as it involved a lot of stop-and-go traffic, steep hills, sharp curves, roundabouts, and low speed limits, and I was always eager for us to finally get out of Padrón and onto the autovía.

But these days I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to get to know this small slice of rural Galicia (albeit from the passenger window of a car) since the two-lane highway we would take each morning merged with sections of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. We would see pilgrims trudging along on the shoulder going the opposite direction—Santiago-bound—peppy on crisp, sunny October mornings…but weary and poncho-clad on January downpours. The camino portugués or “Portuguese Way” of the Camino de Santiago starts in Lisbon and heads north through Porto, crossing into Spain at Tui. The last stage before you reach Santiago begins in Padrón, 24 kilometers (15 miles) all uphill.

Camino Portugués
Morning in Padron
So as I approached the end of my two years as a language assistant in northwestern Spain, I decided I would take the bus down to Padrón and hike this last stage of the Camino back home to Santiago; after all, there were a lot of churches and roadside landmarks that had become really familiar to me after two years of commuting and I wanted to experience this stretch of the road with purpose, on foot.

One balmy April morning last year, I rolled out of bed and hurried down to the intercity bus stop, hopped on the bus, and gradually woke up as the fog slowly lifted from the river valleys. Once in Padrón, I rubbed elbows with the abuelos at a corner café and unconsciously mimicked their actions: sipping on coffee, munching on a croissant, grunting at the TV newscast, flipping through the newspaper. But the sun was rising fast, so I left two 1€ coins on the bar and headed out to find the yellow arrows.

Camino Portugués
Public laundry house
It wasn’t long before those directional arrows (and shells!) had led me out into the Galician countryside, which can be untamed and wooded in the inland districts around Lugo and Ourense, but here on the densely-populated coast it was almost all fenced-off and farmed. A common sight in rural areas is the lavadoiro, today basically a relic from a long-gone civilization. Decades ago, these public laundry houses were essential for Galicians who had little electricity or running water to speak of, but today they’ve been mostly abandoned in favor of modern washing machines.

Camino Portugués
The green Galician countryside
In contrast with the olive tree monoculture that you have down south in Jaén province, on Galician farms you can find everything from corn, onions, and potatoes to turnip greens, cabbage, and peppers. I enjoyed seeing this diversity of crops as I walked from one clumping of colorful houses to the next, greeting an abuela sitting on her porch with a morning bos días! as I strolled by.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Photo Post: The Pont du Gard, Europe’s Tallest Roman Aqueduct

It’s no secret on this blog that I’m a big fan of Roman ruins—see my posts on the aqueduct of Segovia, the lost city of Pompeii, and the amphitheater of Nîmes, just to name a few. So it was only natural for me and my traveling friend Melissa to make a daytrip last year from Avignon in southern France to one of the most emblematic of all French monuments: the Pont du Gard. This Roman site’s elegant name (pronounced “pon dew gahr” [pɔ̃ dy gaʁ]) belies the fact that it simply functioned as a bridge to carry spring-fed water over the Gardon River to the Roman city of Nemausus (modern Nîmes).

Pont du Gard, France
The Pont du Gard from the southeast
This feat of Roman engineering left Melissa and me astonished at just how huge it was: 48.8m high (160 feet) and 275m long (902 feet) on the upper deck. Dressed limestone blocks still hold the structure together without any mortar at all, almost two millennia after construction, while the aqueduct’s channel imperceptibly drops an inch in altitude from one end of the bridge to the other. The same gravity that drew water from upstream sources in Roman times still holds the arches together today.

Pont du Gard, France
Close-up of the footbridge

Monday, January 18, 2016

Exploring the University of Santiago de Compostela’s Historic Buildings

As I began my final year teaching English and living in Santiago de Compostela, I decided I had better get workin’ on my “Spain bucket list” before it came time to move back home to Texas. One of the items on this list involved going on a guided tour of the historical buildings that belong to the University of Santiago de Compostela, the major university in northwest Spain. Although most folks know of Santiago as simply the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route (and home to a pretty fine cathedral), the city also has a tradition of higher learning that dates back to the 1500s. This guided tour gave me a more complete look at buildings I walked past every day in the old town while giving me access to spaces normally off-limits to casual visitors.

College of Fonseca

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
The courtyard
The tour starts at the cradle of the city’s university, the Colexio de Fonseca. The college began as university founder Archbishop Alfonso de Fonseca’s family mansion but was converted into the first permanent meeting place for the nascent university. This Renaissance palace seems to recall the stately structures of the University of Salamanca, where the archbishop had studied theology, but it has a distinctly Galician twist: colorful hydrangea bushes add a touch of color to the grayscale granite courtyard.

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela
Biblioteca de América
You can freely enter the patio at any time, but you’ll need a tour guide to let you in to some of the college’s real treasures, like the Biblioteca de América. This “Library of the Americas” holds in its gilded green shelves over 30,000 volumes dedicated to Latin America-related topics, and was founded by a Santiago local who emigrated to Argentina, Gumersindo Busto. Some highlights of the library’s rare books include a first edition by Lord Byron and a Book of Hours that belonged to King Fernando I of León in the year 1055.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Nîmes, France: Can I Have a Raincheck, Si’l Vous Plaît?

I wanted to like Nîmes. I really did. The day before, my traveling buddy Melissa and I had made a daytrip from Avignon in southern France to the neighboring city of Arles, famous for its Roman monuments and twice-weekly market. Rain showers in the morning gave way to late-winter sunshine in the afternoon that illuminated the Roman arena and theater that once again host shows and performances, as they did 2,000 years ago.

Enter Nîmes, another mid-sized southern French city bestrewn with Roman ruins. Pronounced “neem” [nim], this city was high on my bucket list for its Maison Carrée, an exquisitely-preserved Roman temple, and its Arènes, or Roman amphitheater. But frustrating our daytrip plans were the relentless winter rains; we felt as if we had simply caught Nîmes on a bad day, when all it wanted was to hide in bed with a good book and a cup of tea.

Nevertheless, after our high-speed train pulled into a grand, two-story train station that dates back to the 1840s (!), we opened our umbrellas and set out along a wide, tree-lined boulevard toward the first stop of the day: the amphitheater.

Les Arènes de Nîmes: the Roman amphitheater

Nîmes, France
Outside the amphitheater
Like its counterpart in nearby Arles, the Roman amphitheater of Nîmes was originally constructed about two millennia ago to serve as a stadium of sorts for gladiator fights and other gruesome Roman spectacles. When the Empire fell apart, leaving Roman Nemausus vulnerable to Visigothic, Moorish, and later Frankish attacks, the amphitheater turned into a castle, which turned into a neighborhood, which turned into the bullfighting ring we see today, used during the annual Féria de Nîmes festival.

Nîmes, France
The restored bullring
One of the best preserved amphitheaters in the former Roman world, Nîmes’ arena (from the outside, at least) still looks very much the same as it would have in Roman times, with two levels of arched windows running around the entire perimeter. Inside, most of the original seating is gone, replaced with modern metal grandstands. The organization that runs visits here has an excellent audioguide that really brought the crumbling, blackened stones back to life…even if it annoyed me having to juggle an umbrella, a camera around my neck, and a handheld audioguide player.
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