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)
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