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.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Saturday Morning Market of Arles, France

Arles holds a special place in my memory, not only because this southern French city guards a dazzling treasure trove of Roman monuments, but also because twice a week it puts on a huge show honoring local products and individual shopkeepers: Le Marché d’Arles. When my travel buddy, Melissa, and I visited Arles in February, we made sure to time our visit on a Saturday so as to coincide with the city’s huge market, which combines what we would call flea markets and farmers markets in the States.

Saturday morning market, Arles, France
Kiwis, lemons, and oranges
Held every Wednesday and Saturday morning since 1584, the market of Arles takes place right outside the limits of the old town, alternating between the Boulevard Émile-Combes to the east on Wednesdays and the Boulevard des Lices to the south on Saturdays. Markets such as these make for one of the best ways to get to know a city’s culture and that of the surrounding region, and Arles’ was no different. We rubbed shoulders with longtime residents and recent immigrants, indulged hawking vendors and tasted their wares, and even learned some practical French food-related vocabulary.

Saturday morning market, Arles, France
Bell peppers

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Photo Post: Santiago de Compostela’s Palace of Archbishop Xelmírez

Pazo de Xelmírez, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The main hall
Come to Santiago de Compostela in rainy northwest Spain and you’ll inevitably be drawn to the city’s alluring, sprawling cathedral. After all, as the supposed resting place of the Apostle St. James, the towering church draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year who trek the Camino de Santiago on foot. But another fascinating site hides in plain sight, leaning up against the cathedral’s walls in the monumental Obradoiro square: the Pazo de Xelmírez. Although in the Galician language the word pazo historically refers to a nobleman’s luxurious country house, in this case it simply means “palace,” as it continues to function as the official residence of the archbishop of Santiago.

Pazo de Xelmírez, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
I cropped this photo so you can see it better in the bottom left

Monday, January 4, 2016

Prehistoric Cave Art Along Spain’s Northern Coast

Note: Today I’m re-publishing a guest post that I originally wrote for John Schellhase’s Venture Spain blog back in March of 2015. It’s a shame he’s shutting down his excellent website for good, but he invited me to keep this piece floating around the Internet here. Hope y’all enjoy it!

The northern coast of Spain stretching from Galicia to the Basque Country offers a welcome change from the bold landscapes of the country’s meseta or central plateau as rolling, sunbaked plains dotted by battle-tested castles and soaring Gothic cathedrals give way to lush forests, colorful fishing villages, dramatic mountains, and seaside cliffs. But there’s more to this region than the green, rainy coastline. The communities of Asturias, the Basque Country, and Cantabria are home to some of the best-preserved cave art that has come down to us from the Paleolithic era.

prehistoric cave art northern spain
(Source: Víctor Gómez)
Five times older than the pyramids of Giza, the rock art in northern Spain was painted by people who were just as human as you and I, but who belonged to an era so long gone it’s difficult to fathom the epochs that separates us from them. Behaviorally-modern humans emerged from East Africa around 100,000 years ago and soon began to spread across the globe, reaching the Iberian peninsula approximately 60,000 years later. During the last ice age, communities on either side of the Pyrenees Mountains covered cave walls with haunting handprints and striking depictions of wild animals.

When these caves, which most famously include Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, were discovered in the last century, the paintings they had protected for millennia affirmed the essential humanity of our prehistoric ancestors: that they shared the same impulses for art and expression (and perhaps religion and spirituality) that we do today in spite of the 30,000 years that stand between us. These priceless sites, now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, were opened to the public not long after they were stumbled upon. That decision, though, compromised their fragile environments; the carbon dioxide exhaled by countless tourists and the slow creep of mold forced authorities to close off the caves of Altamira and Lascaux for the foreseeable future to prevent any more damage.

While the originals remain off-limits in Altamira, with only life-sized replicas on display, at other sites in northern Spain it’s still possible to experience that eerie connection to the distant past that prehistoric cave art offers. Below, I’ll take you to two of these fascinating places: first, the cave of El Castillo, up on a mountain in central Cantabria, and second, the cave of Tito Bustillo, in coastal Asturias. Both sites still allow visitors to come face-to-face with the oldest art in the world.
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